Archive for June, 2006

Fix the Braves

OK, the Braves have needed fixing for some time, but after last night’s complete meltdown, I think it’s time to address what I would do to fix the team, mainly through trades. Don’t look for all of these guys to be traded, nor should they—you can’t trade away the whole team. I view these potential deals as independent of other deals.

The following people should be traded immediately.

Adam LaRoche: He’s probably about as popular with Atlanta fans as Raul Mondesi, but Adam is having a nice year. He gets on base and hits for power. He’s not a good fielder and runs like a catcher, a slow catcher. In fact, if I was to bet on who would be the next left-hander to play catcher in MLB, I’d bet on LaRoche. He’s got a monster arm, and while he’s a below average first baseman as a hitter, he’s be a good-hitting catcher. Don’t look for it to happen, I’m just saying. The Braves should trade him because he might actually generate something quality in return. Even if he’s just pinch-hitting, he can be valuable addition to a team. Plus, he’s cheap and still reserved for the next three season. He’s the type of bat contenders try to add to their bench for the stretch run, so I suspect he’ll be the first to go. Plus, Chipper has to play first base. Wilson Betemit has to get in the lineup and Chipper’s defense, while never as bad as advertised, is better suited for first these days. He will be at first next year, so it’s better that he start learning now.

John Thomson: Poor John Thomson. Has there been a player in Atlanta Braves history, whom the front office hated this badly? In his three years in Atlanta, he’s had one rough stretch as a pitcher, and it just happens to be right now. The guys upstairs won’t even be discreet about their desire to rid themselves of one of their best free agent acquisitions, yet that can’t stop making excuses for Horacio Ramirez—the concussion will be excuse #236. Because of Thomson’s low salary, I think there will be several teams willing to give up some quality for him. He’s a slightly above-average major league starting pitcher. Maybe all he needs is for an organization to show a little confidence in him. We sure don’t know if it helps, because the Braves never tried it. Unfortunately, Thomson’s blister problem makes a near-term trade unlikely. Regardless of how he does when he comes back, I expect the Braves to move him as soon as he shows he’s healthy. And while I like Thomson, it’s good for the Braves to unload his contract and go with the youngsters. Because he’ll be a free agent after this year, he has to go to a contender.


Chris Reitsma:
I’ll put him here, but he’s just been so bad that I doubt he’s going to bring much of anything. I don’t think Chris’s career is over, and I think he will be a middle-relief team-jumper from here on out. Such guys can be valuable, but Chris has just been too bad this year to prove that he can even do that. He still has two years of arbitration left, so some team might be willing to take a chance on him. Maybe there’s a team who plans to be in the mix in the near term, who will take him, sign a three-year $3 million deal and hope for the best. Maybe he could return to work with Leo Mazzone.

Here are the guys the Braves should consider trading.

Edgar Renteria: His value couldn’t be any higher. And given the market for shortstops, that’s good news for the Braves. Renteria’s defense is not good, but his bat is. While PrOPS says he’s overperforming, it’s not by much. I think his offense won’t stay where it is for the duration of his contract. I know Tony Pena is capable of striking out in only two swings, but he’s an acceptable defensive shortstop until some of the younger kids are ready. Before the season is over, someone is going to be willing to take much of Renteria’s contract off of the Braves hands. I don’t necessarily think that he’s overpaid, but the Braves don’t have the luxury of paying the market price for shortstops right now.

Marcus Giles: Giles has one year of arbitration left, which makes him somewhat attractive despite his horrendous 2006 campaign. Giles will certainly play better, but he’s not going to be that .900 OPS player that I once thought he would be. He’s a good defender, so that minimizes some risk as to how far down his offense will stay. I suspect many GMs would be willing to take him.

John Smoltz: Oh boy, I’d hate to see this guy go, but it’s nearly time. He’s still one of the league’s best starting pitchers and is worth what he’s being paid. But like Edgar Renteria, the Braves need some payroll flexibility beyond paying players what they are worth. They can trade him for some good young players, without eating any of his contract. Last night, ESPN interviewed him about being traded, and I felt like I was watching Kevin Nealon doing Mr. Subliminal, “Well, I understand I might be traded, and Detroit would be an obvious possibility (please, trade me to Detroit).” He doesn’t want to end his career losing.

Who the Braves should not trade.

Tim Hudson: Hudson’s name has been thrown out there quite a bit, but I think the Braves need to hold onto him unless they get some ridiculous offer. Hudson is worth what he makes, and he’s locked up for at least the next three seasons. Despite the fact that the Braves get all sorts of praise for farming pitchers, they haven’t really produced much quality in recent years. The next crop of youngsters might make it though, but some security is needed. Davies, James, and maybe even Anthony Lerew could be be part of rotation for the next Braves run, but I’m not convinced. Horacio Ramirez and Jorge Sosa are breathing their last gasps as starting pitchers. Don’t be fooled by the occasional bright spot here and there, these guys are mediocre. And Mike Hampton, please don’t remind me how much the Braves are paying him to pitch for the next two years.

And on the non-trade front.

Jeff Francoeur should be ordered that he will finish the season with more walks than home runs. I don’t care if it’s through some sort of bonus or punishment, but the natural out machine needs to stop it if he’s going to develop. Let’s stop the nonsense that he can develop in his current mold into anything other than an everyday outfielder. That’s a worthy human achievement, but a waste of talent, and isn’t worth the hype that the Braves PR machine has put in place. Even with an isolated power of .250, he’s going to have to bat .300 to get to an OPS of close to .900. So far, he’s not shown the ability to hit for average. The home runs are distracting him from all of the outs he’s causing. The euphoria of home runs is like eating candy; it’s good, but you can’t live on it. This is the type of thing he should have learned in the minors last year. I’ve said it many times before, he was rushed. You can’t learn in the big leagues when you’re trying to get to the playoffs. However, that doesn’t seem to be an issue any more. So, the team should use this time as an opportunity to let him learn.

Of course there are many other things the Braves could and could not do, but these are just my thoughts for now. I don’t think there’s much hope for this year. It’s possible, but very unlikely given the way the team is playing. Even if Chipper and Andruw go on to have monster seasons, the rest of the team is too weak to allow the Braves to recover.

TP Is At It Again

Last night, after watching the Braves blow a late lead in spectacular fashion, I left the television on for the post-game show. It turns out that they had a feature with Terry Pendleton on how to be a hitting coach. And during the course of the interview, TP discussed how Andruw Jones needs to hit the ball “the other way.” Fortunately, Andruw continues to ignore this terrible advice, but TP just doesn’t get it. As I’ve demonstrated before, when AJ goes the other way, he makes outs. When he pulls the ball he gets hits. And his slumps are a product of plate discipline, not where he hits the ball. The same is true in 2006—the hit-chart is for Turner Field only. The red g and f markers are groundouts and flyouts. The black s, d, and t are singles, doubles, and triples, with the blue h representing home runs.


Andruw Jones, 2006

It boggles my mind that Pendleton tries to get Andruw to hit like he did, as I wrote earlier.

TP was a hacker, a good hacker, who never really liked to walk. TP had to hit to all fields because if he didn’t he wasn’t going to get on base swinging at every pitch. Jones has the makings of a patient power-hitter, and needs to be trained as such. Yes, he shouldn’t try to pull outside sliders. But, don’t give in and slap it to right. Foul it off and wait for your pitch. If it stays over the plate crush it to left, right, or center…I don’t care. Risk taking a strike if you have less than two strikes.

I really hate this “other way” crap that color commentators always try to pull-over on the viewer. It’s a device they sometimes use to say, “I’m smarter than you, because while power is fun to watch, it’s the Fundamentals that make a good player.” So, I guess Ted Williams was just some streaky power hitter who would never hit for average. TP ought to know better. He’s not getting paid to talk fluff.

Interestingly, I recently received some advance material relating to Jeff Angus’s new book, Management by Baseball. In it he tells the following story.

Jeff Burroughs, a massively muscled, barely motile Mariner slugger, was on first base. He took off, trying to steal. What happened next unfolded like an auto accident you’re involved in—in slow motion so you get to savor every ugly detail. Burroughs started lugging. Then, at the speed of a tectonic plate, the lug went into the least graceful slide I’d seen since Little League. Finally, to add injury to insult, he crashed into the infielder tagging him out. He had to be scraped off the field like some ignominious road-kill—existential humor at its most unsightly. Burroughs missed a big chunk of the season, thereby weakening an already anemic offense.

Was the slug-like Burroughs afflicted with a sudden dementia? Nope. After the game, Mariner manager Maury Wills explained that the signal to steal had come from the skipper himself. Wills had once been the premier basestealer in the majors, a compact, efficient speed merchant with an unerring ability to read pitchers and their moves, an exceptional talent that made him famous. Like most people, he came to believe that the talent most important to his career was the talent most important for winning ballgames. It’s a classic management blunder.

Andruw and TP seem to be friends, and I know they are neighbors. But TP has to realize that if this is his advice for Andruw, and it’s the same advice he’s giving to all hitters, it has to stop. While many hitters are successful hitting the ball to all fields, some of the games very best players are pure pull hitters. And it’s these hitters that Andruw ought to emulate, not slap-hitting speedsters.

Panic Redux

Sometimes it’s just easier to repost something you’ve already written. I highlight the line I find most relevant. From Aprill 11, 2006.
———–
The Braves are in a state that I haven’t seen since I was in high school. I know it’s too early to draw much from the way the Braves have played this season, but that’s not what I’m worried about. What bothers me is the way the team is behaving. I think it’s clear that the front office is in panic mode. It started a year ago, when the Braves drafted Joey Devine from college. I think Devine was a fine choice, and he may become a very good major league pitcher. This is what I had to say about what Devine’s drafting tells me about the Braves last season.

Devine represents the state of panic that the Braves have not shown about their pitching in some time. No matter what anyone says, the drafting of Devine in the first round of this year’s draft was completely out of character for this organization. It may have been a good pick, and I like him, but that doesn’t mean we can’t read something into this. The situation was desperate. A little more than $5 million dollars paid Dan Kolb to be totally worthless and Tom Martin to pitch a week. Jim Brower and Jay Powell, both of whom were rebuffed by other major league teams, were legitimate options (shiver). …Even some of the good work the Braves got from Boyer, McBride, and Davies during the season is a negative, not a positive, in my mind. These guys were not ready. Sure, they had some success, but they struggled at times as well. They were up as desperate measures. I doubt this was the backup plan, but I don’t see what the other options were. This must have been it. And to their credit, these kids did do some very good things and deserve a lot of credit. But, I don’t know what to expect in the future. Relief pitching is hard to evaluate in small samples. I expect there will be some more minor league ball for all of these guys.

The point is, the Braves took pitching for granted, and they shouldn’t have.

So, how have things changed since last year? Well, the Braves acquired Oscar Villarreal (more hit batters than strikeouts, so far) and Lance Cormier (the hallmark of adequacy) for Johnny Estrada. They acquired Wes Obermueller (hi, I’m in triple-A) for Dan Kolb. And they brought in an obviously finished Mike Remlinger, who was actually able to win a job in spring training. That says more about the quality of the pitching staff than Remlinger. Schuerholz entertained several of the big-name pitchers on the market, but came up with nothing. And it seems that the negotiations with Farnsworth went very badly and that the Braves could have had him for not much more than they already had on the table.

The point is, the team didn’t do much of anything to help the pitching situation. In fact, the brass nearly traded away John Thomson. Devine impresses in spring training, but starts the year in Richmond, gets yanked back up, then sent back down after chalking up more wild pitches than strikeouts. Ken Ray, who wasn’t even a non-roster invitee pitched his way onto the club from minor league camp. Boyer and McBride have been hurt. Lerew was not ready, but it appears Chuck James is. None of the starters have pitched well, except for Thomson. And it’s hard to forget that the team replaced Leo Mazzone with Roger McDowell.

My point is that, if the Braves have a plan, it sure doesn’t look like one. I know there have been some injuries, but injuries are to be expected, along with inconsistency from young pitchers. The latest move, signing Peter Moylan and promoting him to Atlanta, is not typical either. Moylan impressed many by striking out four batters in under two innings of work in the WBC. He also walked five. The team is grasping for an answer, and I don’t like it.

With all of the problems the Braves had last year, and with a new pitching regime coming in, I think Schuerholz should have made sure he had at least one more quality veteran on the staff. I think the failure to sign Farnsworth was a big mistake. Now, we are going to just have to wait and see how everything plays out. The ship may right itself, but I don’t see any obvious reason to believe it will.
———–

And don’t forget this little guy.


Feeling sympathy for Charlie Brown

They Understand Sunk Costs in Arizona

It looks like the Diamondbacks understand sunk costs. Kudos to the ownership for allowing Josh Byrnes to relieve the team of a very bad decision.

“We’re like most clubs: every dollar counts. You want to spend them as effectively as possible,” Byrnes said at a Chase Field news conference. “That affected the decision, but we also were true to ourselves, and we want to put our best 25 on the field and try to win games. That led us to our decision.

“We have to spend all our dollars wisely, and obviously we owe Russ a lot of money going forward,” Byrnes said. “The flip side is we probably have more young talent than anyone in baseball, and that’s a good thing as managing the payroll.”

Thanks to Ballbug for the pointer. I absolutely love Ballbug.

PrOPS at Sports Illustrated

Jacob Luft at SI.com uses PrOPS to break down the luckiest and unluckiest players this season. If you’re unfamiliar with PrOPS you can read further here and here. Players who have been lucky, and putting up numbers better than they way they have hit the ball are likely to decline over the rest of the season, while unlucky players ought to improve. Luft explains:

Because breaks tend to even out as the sample size of data grows, PrOPS is a powerful tool in figuring out which players will benefit and which ones will suffer as their statistics regress to the mean. For example, Reds outfielder Austin Kearns posted a real OPS of .785 last season, but his PrOPS was .840, indicating that he was a better hitter than his statistics were giving him credit for. This season, Kearns’ real OPS is almost identical to his PrOPS from last season: .852. If you look back at the top 25 underperformers for 2005 as calculated by PrOPS, you’ll find others who have improved this season, including last year’s leader, Jason Giambi, and Mike Lowell.

Jacob indicated to me that PrOPS influenced him to pick up Austin Kearns for his fantasy team this year—thankfully that’s worked out well, so far. I’m not a fantasy player, but I’m curious how many people find PrOPS helpful or unhelpful. Drop me a line if you have a comment. Thanks to Jacob for furthering awareness of the statistic. Also, thanks the The Hardball Times for keeping track of it.

Sabernomics in The Baltimore Sun

In today’s Baltimore Sun, Rick Maese includes my input while discussing why steroids may not be the reason for post-1990 offensive boom.

“These jumps in home runs are not as odd as we think they are,” says J.C. Bradbury, an economics professor and author of the blog sabernomics.com. “People think steroids is the only possible way of explaining it. That’s just not the case. There’s something else going on during this same period that we need to remember: The expanding leagues have diluted the talent.”

Bradbury has a book due out next year that will take a Freakonomics approach to understanding baseball. He has studied numbers and charts and says that baseball has been affected more profoundly by expansion than steroids.

I elaborate on this theory here. But Rick presses a little further.

The counterargument suggests that the dilution of talent should have affected hitters as much as pitchers. It actually has, which is why pitchers are posting more strikeouts than ever before. What expansion did was invite lesser-quality players into the game – but the very best players are still around.

“We’re seeing some more extreme performances on both sides,” Bradbury says. “We’re seeing strikeouts go up as well as home runs going up. The thing is, most of us are only paying attention to home runs. The very best pitchers and the very best hitters are taking advantage of much worse competition on the other side of the plate.”

For further discussion, see here.

Additionally, Rick talks with Art De Vany about his interesting work on the non-normal distribution of home runs.

“The distribution of home runs is one of these very exotic distributions,” he says. “People need to quit thinking in terms of a normal distribution. That’s just wrong. Think of it like the distribution of geniuses. Mozart didn’t write one great concert every year of his life. He had some years when he wrote several and others when he wrote nothing. There are clusters.”

“In baseball, we just happen to have a handful of geniuses around right now, and they’re all swinging for the fences.”

I think Rick sums up the steroids-skeptic argument nicely.

And it’s time to widen our lens a bit and stop pretending that steroids are the sole explanation. There have surely been juiced-up numbers by juiced-up players, but if you want a statistic that tells the story of the past decade, then look at a major league roster and count how many pitchers would be minor leaguers had baseball decided against expansion.

Thanks to Rick for including me in the article. I enjoyed talking with him. And yes, we did talk some about Leo Mazzone. :-)

Missing Mazzone?

It’s no secret that the Braves pitching is awful right now, which is the main reason for the team’s recent woes. With the departure of Leo Mazzone, who has received much credit for the excellent Atlanta pitching staffs during the Braves division title streak, it’s a fair question if his absence is part of the explanation. While acknowledging that it’s somewhat unfair to look for any impact this early in the season, I’m going to do it anyway. When the O’s and Braves meet at the end of the month for an interleague series, it’s going to get talked about quite a bit anyway. The small size caveat applies, interpret at your own risk.

In my earlier analysis of Leo Mazzone for the Baseball Analysts, I acknowledged that one of the more difficult problems in assigning credit and blame to Mazzone is that he was not the only stable factor involved in the Braves’ pitching success. Leo came on board with the Cox-Schuerholz regime; therefore, it’s entirely possible that it was something in the organization other than the pitching coach that caused Atlanta pitchers to improve when they arrived and decline when they left. After much reading on the subject—since I published the study I’ve read nearly everything written on Mazzone’s method—I believe that there is something to his unique approach. Now that Mazzone has moved on, we have the opportunity to view the coach and organization separately.

Today, I want to look at a group of pitchers who pitched for Mazzone last year in Atlanta and are still pitching in Atlanta this year. This holds many things constant, since the main difference is the lack of Mazzone. Sure, the players are one year older—bad for older pitchers but good for younger ones—and other factors such as weather, personal matters, etc. may also have an effect; but, this should be fine for a rough, and admittedly premature, analysis. So, how have these pitchers performed this year versus last year? Here are the ERAs and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) ERAs for these pitchers.

ERA
Pitcher        		2006    2005    Difference
Horacio Ramirez    	5.06    4.63    0.43
John Smoltz    		3.73    3.06    0.67
Tim Hudson    		3.93    3.50   	0.43
Macay McBride    	4.08    5.79    -1.71
John Thomson    	4.84    4.47    0.37
Jorge Sosa    		5.58    2.55    3.03
Kyle Davies    		6.12    4.93    1.19
Chris Reitsma    	9.11    3.93    5.18
            
Mean                			1.20
Median                			0.55

FIP ERA
Pitcher        		2006    2005    Difference
Horacio Ramirez    	4.22    5.15    -0.93
John Smoltz    		3.39    3.14    0.25
Tim Hudson    		3.47    4.22    -0.75
Macay McBride    	3.93    1.34    2.59
John Thomson    	4.67    3.39    1.28
Jorge Sosa    		5.54    4.13    1.41
Kyle Davies    		6.01    4.29    1.72
Chris Reitsma    	6.76    2.82    3.94
            
Mean                			1.19
Median                			1.35

I wouldn’t put too much stock in the precise magnitude of these numbers, but it’s clear that the direction of the overall quantitative impact of this year versus last year has been negative. It’s exactly what we would expect if Mazzone was responsible for the improved pitching. The sample size is certainly too small to yield any statistical significance, but it’s still fun to observe. Even if the effect is real, I think it’s also unwise to say that this is the result of the differing methods of Roger McDowell and Mazzone. Even though Mazzone’s methods have brought results, McDowell may also have good methods that haven’t had time to bear fruit. I do think the pitching coach transition is part of the problem. Transitions to new work environments are always difficult. It could be that the Braves pitchers are still adjusting to a new advisor. Mazzone is not working any miracles in Baltimore, or at least it’s not obvious if he is, considering the they have the second worst ERA in the league. But, the Orioles don’t have the quality of arms that the Braves do—Smoltz and Hudson are far better than any pitcher on the O’s—and the organization is in much more flux.

As a Braves fan, I see the loss of Mazzone possibly affecting two pitchers: Reitsma and Sosa. Both seem to have lost none of their stuff, but consistently make placement errors with pitches. That’s something that Mazzone’s throwing program is designed to help. Thomson’s recent struggles also seem similar. But again, it’s too early in the season to say anything definitively. I would love for the O’s and the Braves work a trade involving some of these pitchers to see if Mazzone can work his magic. I don’t think either side has much to lose.

Addendum: Rick Maese of the Baltimore Sun has some more about this on his blog. He points to signs that the O’s pitching may be turning around. I guess we’ll see soon enough. I don’t think Mazzone just happened to be good for 15 seasons in Atlanta, so while some may be bailing on Mazzone, I wouldn’t bet against him.

Pitching and Steroids

From Maury Brown via Repoz:

If I say Juiced baseball player, what comes to mind?… Hmmm, head looks like a potato… Bulging arms… sudden surge in hits for power… probably performing past his prime. Bonds… McGwire… Giambi… Sosa… Canseco… Caminiti.

Now, here’s some reality: There have been as many pitchers as there have been power hitters involved in the steroid controversy.

So, the untold story is that it’s pitchers, and not sluggers, that may well define the Steroid Era in baseball. Watch the mound.

See Jason Grimsley.

The HoRam-Thomson Game

Who will have the lower ERA at the end of the regular season?

Horacio Ramirez or John Thomson.

Make your prediction in the comments. I’ll start: John Thomson.

Cowenomics

Congratulations to my former professor Tyler Cowen on his new book deal with Dutton/Penguin. Dutton seems to be cornering the market on famous people authors: Al Franken, Jenny McCarthy, Ron “Tater Salad” White, and yours truly ;-).

It looks to be a hodge-podge of things he likes to blog about on Marginal Revolution. You probably wouldn’t guess it from reading this site, but MR is what inspired me to start blogging. I can’t wait to read it. A blogger friend of mine recently asked me how on earth Tyler posts so much good content. The thing is, I didn’t even notice. I don’t know him very well, but I did take two classes from him and talked with him on occation. That’s just how Tyler is. He’s full of excellent ideas, and he’s always willing to talk about them with anyone. Blogging had to have been invented with him in mind.

He’s taking title suggestions, so if you have one pass it along. I suggest, “Lunch With Tyler,” because reading MR is a lot like having lunch with him.