Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dave Duncan's Magic Formula (and Kyle Lohse's Ridiculous April)

One of the hardest things for more statistically minded baseball fans like myself is attempting to determine the influence of a coaching staff. Sure, we can make guesses, see which team’s players outperformed expectations, look at who did the best job of optimizing lineups and using their best relievers at the most critical points in a game, but in the end, it’s very difficult to come to many conclusions about which coaches are truly the best of the best, and how their influence affects a team. However, we don’t have it down to a science, in the way that we do for evaluating pitchers and hitters.

However, I think it would be tough to say Dave Duncan hasn’t been as influential as any other non-manager on any coaching staff in the last two decades. The former Oakland and current (as of 1995) St. Louis pitching coach has spent the better part of the last quarter of a century turning low-cost and low-expectation starters into productive quasi-aces, King Midas armed with a bullpen phone.

Duncan’s record is staggering. A quick look through the résumés of pitchers under Duncan’s tutelage in the last decade or so shows that a huge percentage have experienced complete turnarounds after moving from other staffs to work with Duncan and the Cardinals. In recent years, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook, and Brad Penny have experienced resurgences under Duncan. Going back a little further reveals others who have benefited from Duncan’s influence, including Darryl Kile, Woody Williams, Jason Marquis and current Cardinals’ ace Chris Carpenter. Duncan was working his magic even before the turn of the century, coaxing the four best seasons of Dave Stewart’s career out of the starter from 1987-1990 in Oakland.

Duncan’s latest reclamation projects have all followed a similar formula for success. Lohse (98 FIP- in the season before joining the Cardinals, 93 in his first season in St. Louis), Westbrook (113/91), and Penny (99/88) all found new life under Duncan. As you might have guessed, Lohse’s early season returns from 2011 are the impetus for this article. Thus far, Lohse has registered a 2.53 FIP, 31% better than a league average pitcher this year.

Duncan tweaked each of these pitchers’ approaches in different ways, but in each case was effective in making the most of that pitcher’s repertoire. Penny dropped his walk rate under Duncan, from a 2009 2.65 BB/9 and career 2.88 to a 2010 1.46 mark with the Cardinals. Penny also increased his groundball rate from 43.7% in 2009 to a 2010 52.8%, the first time he had been above 50% GB after 10 years ranging between 42-48%. The changes were successful, as Penny put up a 3.40 FIP and 3.23 ERA in his year with the Cards, both more than a full point below his 2009 mark. Duncan’s largest influence, especially in the increase in groundball rate, was a huge increase in the number of splitters Penny threw. Penny began throwing his splitter in 2008, using the pitch 10.1% of the time over the course of that campaign. In 2009, he pulled his use of the pitch back slightly, throwing it only 6.5% of the time. Then after moving to St. Louis, Penny’s use of the pitch more than quadrupled, as he used it 28.4% of the time in 2010. Penny’s dropped the frequency with which he throws his straight fastball and replaced a large portion of these fastballs with splitters. At 47.2% fastballs, he used the pitch 20% less than he had in any season since 2003 last season, and early this year has continued to throw his splitter more than 23% of the time and his fastball only on 56.5% of offerings. After not putting up a season below 60% fastballs until last year, this represents a huge philosophical change in Penny’s pitching, and the strategy certainly seemed to work last year.

Though Jake Westbrook made a different change in his repertoire after moving to St. Louis from Cleveland in the middle of the 2010 season, this change brought about a very similar result. After his midseason trade that sent Westbrook to the Cards, Ryan Ludwick to San Diego and prospect Corey Kluber to Cleveland, Westbrook increased his fastball frequency more than 10%, from 57.4% in Cleveland to 67.6% under Duncan. To compensate, Westbrook decreased his use of his cutter from 12.9% to 4.7%. The change worked similarly to Penny’s, increasing his groundball rate from 53.3% to 62% once he reached St. Louis. This increase coincided with a 2.9% drop in line drive rate, allowing Westbrook to drop his FIP from 4.64 to 3.52 after the trade. It seems as though Duncan’s main goal is to increase his pitchers’ rates of inducing groundballs, changing their repertoires as necessary to achieve that end.

Lohse followed a similar pattern after signing with the Cardinals in 2008. As was the case with Penny, Lohse’s walk rate fell from 2.66 BB/9 in 2007 (and 2.74 career) to 2.21 in his first year in St. Louis. Like both Penny and Westbrook, Lohse began to induce worm-burners at a rate higher than at any other point in his career. Lohse averaged a 40.8% groundball rate over the first six years of his career, including a career-worst 36.9% in 2007. After moving to St. Louis and beginning to work under Duncan, Lohse put up a 45.8% GB rate, the highest of his career so far, and during his time in St. Louis has averaged a 45.1% rate over four seasons. As a result, Lohse logged a career-best 3.78 ERA and 3.89 FIP in 2008, after managing only a 4.62 ERA and 4.53 FIP the year before.

Duncan’s successes are not limited to these recent starters. In 2002, Chris Carpenter was shut down early with a torn labrum, finishing the season with a 5.28 ERA and 4.95 FIP. Carpenter missed the 2003 season rehabilitating, and expectations were fairly low when he signed with the Cardinals. Though Carpenter had been a highly regarded prospect when he was promoted by the Blue Jays in 1997, he had spent six years with the team logging unimpressive stats including a 4.83 ERA and 4.42 FIP. Upon returning from injury, Carpenter was a different pitcher, dropping his walk rate from 3.31 BB/9 in 2002 to 1.88 in 2004, increasing his K/9 by two per nine innings, and dropping his ERA and FIP to career-bests. As is becoming something of a pattern here, his groundball rate also increased from 41.6% in 2002 to a post-injury 52.2%. Since moving to the Cards, Carpenter has won a Cy Young and been an All-Star three times. Working under Duncan, Carpenter evolved from post-hype prospect to a yearly contender for the title of the best pitcher in the NL.

This formula has worked for others as well. When Jason Marquis moved to the Cardinals in 2004, he increased his groundball and strikeout rate and decreased his walk rate, resulting in career-best numbers in ERA and xFIP. The late Darryl Kile halved his walk rate and added two strikeouts per nine, turning his career around after arriving in St. Louis in 2000. Woody Williams came to St. Louis in the middle of the 2001 season, and dropped his ERA and FIP from 4.97 and 5.02 in San Diego to 2.28 and 3.76 after the trade. Williams continued to perform at a high level in the several seasons following his move, his 3.59 and 3.72 FIPs in 2002 and 2003 representing the two top seasons of his career. Even Dave Stewart, who moved from the Phillies to Duncan’s staff on the A’s early in the 1986 season, immediately put up career years in the next four seasons at ages 30-34. One would expect Stewart to begin a decline after age 30, but uniting him with Duncan turned him into a staff ace on an A’s team that would lead the AL in ERA in 1988, 1989, and 1990 and lead the club to a World Series championship in ’89. Though Fangraphs doesn’t show data on batted ball types before 2002, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to learn that these earlier pitchers benefited from increases in groundball rate similar to the ones that have become a pattern for the more recent starters.

It’s unclear whether this is all Duncan’s influence. Maybe it’s more of an organizational philosophy, and maybe some of these pitchers’ moves to working under Duncan simply coincided with them reaching the best years of their career by chance. However, it seems as though Duncan has developed a method to turn ordinary pitchers into gold, and his employers have benefited immensely because of it. Duncan isolates the best weapon each pitcher has for inducing ground balls and helps tweak that pitcher’s repertoire to maximize the rate at which these pitchers get hitters to put the ball on the ground. His pitchers reduce their walk rates, allowing fewer free passes and forcing hitters to earn their place at first base. The formula works, and Duncan has turned many a pitcher’s career around as a result.

As for Lohse, he’s not going to keep this up, at least at the level he has up to this point. His BABIP of .202 is sure to regress, as is his nearly 80% strand rate and 3.1% HR/FB. However, he does have the underlying stats that suggest this could be another career year under Duncan. Lohse’s 1.17 BB/9 would represent a career low, and his 48.6% groundball rate would be a career high mark. Following the Duncan formula, Lohse is once again finding success, as he and so many others have over the past quarter of a century.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Hands Off The Panic Button: An Appeal to Beantown

After a 2-9 start, Sawx Nation is going berserk. Trust me, I’ve heard the calls into WEEI, I’ve seen the talk shows, and though people aren’t putting the fork in them yet, they’re not happy with the early returns from the team that outspent the rest of the league at $172 million this offseason, nearly $50 million more than the next team (Washington). Their 40 runs scored are 11th in the AL, and their 72 runs allowed are dead last in all of baseball. Clearly, Boston’s playing some bad baseball.

However, all is not lost. In an 11-game sample size, there’s a lot of room for luck, and the Red Sox have been victimized by across-the-board bad luck. At the plate and on the mound, the Sox have been playing much better baseball than their record suggests, and their record will likely come to reflect the true level of talent on this highly paid (and highly skilled) club has.

On offense, every stat suggests they’ll be back to chasing the top spot in the AL East in the very near future. Their BABIP of .266 is 11th in the AL. Although their groundball rate of 47.3% is certainly handicapping the team’s ability to get on base, Chris Dutton’s xBABIP calculator gives them an expected BABIP of .314, so they can expect to get on base at a much higher rate than they have been up to this point. They have also put up a miniscule 6.7% HR/FB rate, a rate which will surely climb over a larger portion of the season. Don’t expect Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis, or JD Drew to remain homerless for much longer.

Boston’s pitching has been subject to worse gopherball issues, as their 18.9% HR/FB rate currently leads the AL. The Sox have allowed 21 home runs, 5 more than Royals pitchers have allowed to stand second worst in the category. Their ERA of 6.77 far outpaces their 5.90 FIP and 4.38 xFIP, further suggesting that Sox pitchers have allowed more than their fair share of opposing players to cross the plate. Sox starters have gotten the worst of it, allowing 20% of fly balls to leave the park. 1 in 5 fly balls going for dingers is simply an unsustainable rate. The Sox talented pitching staff will soon show its’ true colors. They should be able to improve their run prevention and pitch deeper into games, which has been an issue so far this season. Boston’s rotation’s 58 innings pitched is currently third to last in all of baseball. That’s a trend that is highly unlikely to continue.

The Red Sox are obviously a talented team. Don’t let a short patch of poorly played and unlucky baseball change your image of them, as come September, they’ll be in the hunt for a playoff position and World Champion barring a complete meltdown. The Sox are still one of the best teams in baseball, and they won’t let 2 weeks in April affect the rest of their season.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Injury Rundown

Today we’re going to be looking at some major injuries in the early going and how they will effect their respective teams both from the standpoint of on-field performance, and in the team’s wallets. We’ll be using the player’s WAR per game from 2010 to make our best guess at the amount of on-field production lost due to injury, as well as taking a look at the monetary value lost using the player’s prorated 2011 salary (salary numbers provided by Cot's Contracts).

AL East
Evan Longoria
Injury Update: Longoria was sidelined with a strained left oblique.
Injury Duration: Expected to miss 3-6 weeks (roughly 30 games)
Performance Impact: 1.4 WAR
Financial Impact: $370,000.
Analysis: Longoria’s ridiculously cheap contract keeps the dollar figure manageable, but losing a 6.9 WAR player for a fifth of the season (Longoria played 151 games in 2010) will present a huge challenge for a team that figures to struggle to keep up with the big guns in the AL East.

Brian Matusz
Injury Update: Matusz suffered an intercostal strain.
Injury Duration: Expected to miss up to a month (roughly 6 starts)
Performance Impact: 0.5 WAR
Financial Impact: $103,125
Analysis: That WAR figure may be a little small, as Matusz is expected to easily outpace his 2.7 WAR from the 2010 campaign this season. In August, September, and October of last year, Matusz had a stellar FIP of 3.33, and he’ll be looking to carry that success into 2011 when he returns from the shelf.

AL Central
Jake Peavy
Injury Update: Peavy’s recovery from shoulder surgery was slowed by a series of setbacks, forcing him to begin the season on the DL.
Injury Duration: Expected to miss about a month (roughly 6 starts)
Performance Impact: 0.6 WAR
Financial Impact: $3,000,000
Analysis: Again, that WAR figure may be deceptive, as fans of the South Siders have much larger expectations for Peavy than 2010’s 1.8 WAR in 17 starts.

AL West
David Aardsma
Injury Update: Aardsma’s recovery from hip surgery has sidelined him for the start of the season.
Injury Duration: Expected to miss about a month (roughly 9 appearances)
Performance Impact: 0.03 WAR
Financial Impact: $777,000
Analysis: The WAR figure is very low, since it’s based off of last year’s 0.2 WAR. If we assume a performance level more like 2008’s 1.9 WAR, the performance impact would be estimated at a more impactful 0.3 WAR.

Andrew Bailey
Injury Update: Bailey strained his right forearm muscle in a Spring Training appearance.
Injury Duration: Expected to miss two weeks (roughly 4 appearances)
Performance Impact: 0.08 WAR.
Financial Impact: $34,907
Analysis: Again, using his 2009 WAR makes this injury seem like a much bigger problem for the A’s, as the estimated WAR impact would be 0.2 WAR.

Kendrys Morales
Injury Update: Morales is continuing to recover from a broken leg that cost him most of 2010 after it snapped when he jumped on home plate after a walk-off grand slam. His rehab has been slowed by a separate foot injury.
Injury Duration: Expected to miss 3 or more weeks (roughly 20 games)
Performance Impact: 0.5 WAR
Financial Impact: $367,284
Analysis: The Angels’ offense looks a lot more potent with Morales in the heart of the lineup. It’ll be quite a relief when he returns after nearly a year out of commission.

NL East
Jair Jurrjens
Injury Update: Jurrjens strained his right oblique in a Spring Training start.
Injury Duration: Expected to miss two weeks (roughly 3 starts)
Performance Impact: 0.2 WAR
Financial Impact: $304,687
Analysis: Jurrjens should be back soon (they’re targeting April 16 against the Mets for his return), but it remains to be seen whether the injury will effect his performance on the mound.

NL Central
Jason Castro
Injury Update: Torn ACL.
Injury Duration: Will miss all of 2011 rehabbing after surgery.
Performance Impact: 1 WAR
Financial Impact: $421,500
Analysis: Castro, a promising youngster selected in the first round of the 2008 MLB draft, was a bright spot in what will likely be a very difficult 2011 for a rebuilding club. Astros fans will miss this potential future stud.

Zach Greinke
Injury Update: Greinke cracked his rib playing pickup basketball.
Injury Duration: Expected to miss at least a month (roughly 6 starts)
Performance Impact: 1 WAR
Financial Impact: $2,450,000
Analysis: When the Brewers traded for their new ace, they expected him to start opening day on the mound, not the disabled list. Greinke’s battled his demons throughout his career, but when he’s on, he’s undeniably one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Brad Lidge
Injury Update: Lidge partially tore his rotator cuff.
Injury Duration: Expected to return around the All-Star Break (roughly 25 appearances)
Performance Impact: 0.2 WAR
Financial Impact: $5,750,000
Analysis: Lidge's injury puts even more pressure on the Phillies' starting staff, already expected to live up to their preseason billing as one of the greatest rotations of all time. The 0.2 WAR is based off his meager total of 0.4 last season, and the 25 appearances come from his 50 in 2010. The Phillies were definitely expecting more production from Lidge than 0.2 WAR over half of the season. With this year's stronger squad, they will also expect to produce more save opportunities in the first half than the 25 last year's stats would suggest. For these reasons, losing Lidge almost certainly hurts the Phillies more than just a fifth of a win.

Adam Wainwright
Injury Update: Tommy John surgery took place on February 28.
Injury Duration: Wainwright will miss all of 2011.
Performance Impact: 6.1 WAR
Financial Impact: $6,500,000
Analysis: Obviously, this is the biggest injury on the list. With Albert Pujols likely testing free agency after this year, 2011 was the Cardinals’ best chance to win a World Series title before they’ll have to regroup from losing the best hitter in baseball in 2012. Even if Pujols remains, major cuts to the payroll will be necessary to make room for what could be the biggest contract in MLB history. Losing Wainwright is a devastating blow for St. Louis.

NL West
Brian Wilson
Injury Update: Wilson is on the DL with a left oblique strain.
Injury Duration: Expected to miss two weeks (roughly 5 appearances)
Performance Impact: 0.1 WAR
Financial Impact: $557,143
Analysis: No better way to close it out than with the best closer in baseball. Wilson seems to be fast-tracking his return. Asked how the oblique felt, Wilson replied “It’s attached. It’s well. It says hi.” Strange guy. Anyway, whatever’s going on in his head, his arm is certainly one that will decide whether the Giants have a chance to repeat in 2011, so it should be a relief to fans of the World Champs to hear Wilson in high spirits and expecting to return shortly.

Finally, some things are bigger than baseball. On Opening Day, Giants fan Bryan Stow, a paramedic from Santa Cruz, CA, was savagely beaten outside Dodger Stadium by a group of Dodger fans. Stow remains in a coma, having suffered massive brain damage. Support for Stow has been widespread, including large donations from both the Giants' and Dodgers' organizations, but more assistance is needed. If you're financially capable, please consider donating to Stow's support fund. The Giants-Dodgers rivalry has been heated since the teams resided in New York City, and many intriguing and intense chapters have been written. Help the franchises move past this episode by supporting Stow and keeping the conflict between the white lines.