Saturday, July 28, 2012

It's All In Your Head

Do the dates July 24th - July 31st mean anything to you?  They may signify a long needed vacation, an upcoming heat wave, or an important business trip to a foreign destination.  For those in Major League Baseball, this is the week leading up to the trade deadline.  July 31st marks the official non-waiver trade deadline in Major League baseball.  Once August begins, 2 months remain in the regular season, thus the league decides to restrict the trading of players at a specific point in the second half of the season.  This deadline allows teams to improve prior to the deadline and focus on playing instead or wondering if they may lose of gain a teammate.

During this frenzy of rumors, proposals, and deals, pundits, commentators, and especially fans forget about the affects trades have on the players.  During this part of the summer, front offices play the part of CIA analysts dissecting mountains of information, scouts perform necessary reconnaissance of prospects, and general managers play the role of, well, general.  If these groups execute their jobs properly trades are made, teams looking for playoff berths make improvements, and those wistfully far from the post-season build for the future.

In my opinion, the most recent successful and crafty teams have been the Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, and Texas Rangers.  These teams usually find themselves as serious buyers and sellers around the trade deadline as opposed to the off-season when free-agency is the main focus.  Mid-level or poorer teams usually relinquish players to free-agency, but during the week leading up to the trade deadline, they make more noise due to their ability to afford players received in trades even if they cannot pony up enough money to sign them to long-term contracts.  To put it a better way, the week leading up to July 31st is a free-for-all.

Instead of focusing on who may be dealt and which prospect will be moved, I want to discuss a less touched upon but vital issue embedded within the cacophony of chatter.  How do trades affect players? Physically nothing changes but their uniforms, but mentally and strategically, everything changes.

Michael Bourn
Strategically, a player traded usually moves from a bad team to a good team.  Take Michael Bourn as an example from 2011.  Bourn played most of the 2011 season with the Houston Astros, but as the deadline approached the pathetic Astros traded their speedy center fielder to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for some major league ready young players and other prospects.  Bourn's preparation for every game shouldn't change too much, except that he will face more National League East pitching instead of Central division pitching.  Instead of the meager 2011 Pirates, Cubs, and Reds pitching staffs, Bourn needed to get ready for the likes of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Jordan Zimmerman, and Anibal Sanchez.  This represents a minor strategic shift.

C.C. Sabathia
An example of a greater change in strategy due to trade is typified in a trade made between the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers in 2008.  The Indians, in no way bound for the playoffs, traded ace lefty C.C. Sabathia to the Brewers in exchange for Matt LaPorta and other prospects.  Sabathia went from the AL Central to the NL Central.  He would now prepare for many hitters he had never faced in his career, in addition to needing to prepare to hit with no designated hitter rule in the NL.  Sabathia, like Bourn in 2011, both showed their professionalism and talent by producing very well after switching teams.

Stolen Bases

So, the strategic differences involved in trades do not affect players performance to a significant extent.  That leaves the psychological challenges involved in the switching of teams.  A player's team is an affiliation.  Each player has a contract that states that in exchange for services of playing baseball the player is given an annual salary.  This contract goes beyond a piece of paper, and provides a player with camaraderie and allegiance.  Each player's fellow teammates represent their second family.  According to two sports psychology studies,

The effects of changing teams on the performance of major league baseball players
Nicholson, Craig; McTeer, William;White, Philip
Journal of Sport Behavior; Mar 1998; 21, 1; ProQuest  


Pers Soc Psychol Bull 1988 14: 46
Jeffrey M. Jackson, Stephen A. Buglione and David S. Glenwick
A Drive Theory Analysis
Major League Baseball Performance as a Function of Being Traded

players traded mid-season find it difficult to cope with the idea that their former team did not want them anymore.  Often times players who feel this loss will compare themselves to the bounty corralled by their former team, a mistake because often these players are prospects who are unknown commodities.  

While some players find it difficult to leave their former teams, others find psychological issues in attempting to meet or exceed the expectations placed on them by their new squad.  Fans often see a new acquisition as the key to winning and thus place lots of pressure on these new members of their team. In doing so, player will find it difficult in acclimating to their new team.  According to these articles, this is usually not the case.  More often than not players use the stress or expectations placed upon them as a challenge.  Increases in batting average and slugging percentage were seen amongst hitters after switching teams mid-season, while pitchers saw a slight decrease in productivity, but not a to a significant extent.  

So, overall, the psychological effects of mid-season trades are positive, not negative.  Players tend to outperform their statistics from the first half of the season in an attempt to exceed the expectations placed on them and sometimes because they needed a change of scenery.  Sometimes a player's family plays a part in trades.  Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster, who has the right to reject any trade in which he is involved, recently rejected a trade to the Atlanta Braves.  He did so not because he wishes to remain in Chicago, but due to his desire to be traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers because Los Angeles is closer to his family's home in Vancouver, Canada.  Most players do not have no-trade clauses in their contracts, and thus teams freely trade them to which ever team offers the best package in return.  

Ichiro, Playing Against His Former Team
Trading is risky business, not only for the organizations involved, but for the players psyches and performance.  For team's giving up solid prospects to attain a player they think will propel their squad to the playoffs, it is important to make the transition as smooth as possible.  For example, Ichiro Suzuki recently left Seattle for the Yankees after 11 and a half season with the Mariners.  This transition is not easy, but I'm sure the Yankees made sure to have all of the necessary accommodations to make the transition as easy as a spicy tuna roll (or is it pie?).  Overall, make sure, as a fan, to remember that MLB players are people, and just like being transferred from one part of a company to another affects your life, so do trades affect Major Leaguers.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Marlin or the Trout

In the 2010 movie The Social Network, Sean Parker proclaims some sage advice on the future of Facebook.   He said, in the words of Aaron Sorkin's award winning script, "When you go fishing you can catch a lot of fish, or you can catch a big fish. You ever walk into a guy's den and see a picture of him standing next to fourteen trout?" Apart from the obvious aquamarine references, this vignette perfectly depicts the current mindset of the Miami Marlins.  

Last night, while watching MLB Network's coverage of the two latest major trades, Ken Rosenthal claimed that the Marlins are looking to sell a number of their talented players in order to build a core if different and younger players.  The Marlins hopes for making the playoffs continue to dwindle as they find themselves 10 games back of the Washington Nationals in the National League East and 7.5 games back in the wild card hunt.  The Marlins, like every team want to catch the big fish, a world series trophy.  This franchise knows how to accomplish this goal, as the have won the same number of world series in the 19 years of the franchise has existed, as the Philadelphia Phillies have won in their 122 years of existence.  

In the past, the Marlins have built a winning team by cultivating young, talented, and most importantly, cheap players through the draft and trades.  They bring these youngster up to the Major Leagues, allowing them to "get their feet (or fins) wet" and gain some experience.  Then, as if struck by lightning, management decides that "this year" is the year to win.  Next, the front office makes a few brilliant and strategic trades to bring in some veteran players to fill the gaps.  Between the young talent and experienced veterans, the Marlins manage to win the wild card, and bing, bang, boom they win the World Series.  This series of events has already occurred twice in less than 20 years, and still the Marlins find it difficult to fill their stadium on a nightly basis.  Oh, and don't forget that after winning the World Series, Marlins management proceeds to trade off all of their talent in order to, once again, plant their farm system with seeds of young prospects.

After years of radio silence in the off season free-agent market, the Marlins finally made a splash.  An organization notorious for never spending a dime, put it's money to good use by snatching up free-agent shortstop Jose Reyes, righty closer Heath Bell, and lefty Mark Buehrle (whose last name I would continuously mispel if not for spell check).  These additions, and a beautiful new retractable roof stadium, were supposed to attract hoards of fans to come roaring through the ticket gates and bring in much needed revenue.  The fish even made a trade for veteran Carlos Lee in the hopes he could help them to the promised land, but El Caballo could not right this forlorn team.  Unfortunately, possibly by not sticking to the old yet proven method of winning, the Marlins find themselves below .500, and barely clinging to the hope that they will turn it around.  

In lieu of this disappointing season, the Marlins seem to be taking, not the road less traveled nor the road most frequented, but a middle path.  A number of, still young, and highly talented players remain on the Marlins squad.  Many of these players came up through their farm system or were traded to Miami just as their Major League careers began.  Yesterday, the Marlins traded right-handed pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante to the Detroit Tigers for a package of prospects including coveted righty Jacob Turner.  This move, in addition to rumors currently swirling, show that the Marlins are not shopping for veteran talent to complement young stars, but instead searching for young talent to partner with their newly acquired veteran free-agents.  

Anibal Sanchez, Hanely Ramirez, Josh Johnson, and Ricky Nolasco are all considered prize assets on the open market, and it seems as though the Marlins are willing to sell.  If the combination of Sanchez and Omar Infante could fetch a package deal including Jacob Turner and Rob Brantly, I can only imagine what the Marlins could get by dangling Ramirez and Johnson as bait.  Nolasco is an interesting prize as well, due to his consistency and proven ability to keep right handed batters from reaching base (.296 OBP against vs righties in his career).  Nolasco is under club control for 2013, which means any team trading for him would be trading for at least a year and a half of service, a more valuable commodity than a half-year rental.   

It isn't often we see underachieving, yet talented, teams such as the 2012 Marlins looking to trade some of their better assets in order to put together a team that could win over a longer stretch of time.  Usually such teams put all of their efforts into righting the ship by buying and not selling at the deadline.  Teams like the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, and St. Louis Cardinals fall into that category in 2012, but those three squads have been linked to buying, not selling.  I commend the Marlins for their strategy, although it must be easier to pursue such a game plan when the team only ranks 18th in attendance after building a totally new stadium (See for more information)  

Nolasco is a nice trade piece, as is Heath Bell, and the talented yet enigmatic Hanley Ramirez, but the true prize is Josh Johnson.  Johnson has a year left on his current contract, and despite recent injuries and struggles, has bounced back this season.  Baseball Prospectus predicts he will finish the year with a 2.8 WARP.  More importantly, according to BP's 10 year predictor metrics, the team that possesses Johnson can expect a >3.0 WARP pitcher through the 2018 season.  His upside is undeniable and with Rangers, Angels, and Red Sox scouts reported to be at his most recent strong start, there exists proof to back up the rumors that the Marlins will trade him by the July 31st trade deadline.  

With a wealth of abundant talent on their current MLB squad, the Marlins can expect the equivalent of stock options in return for the rare jewels in their tank.  These prospects may not become the players the Marlins hope them to be, but some of them will be the fish of the future, a future the Marlins hope will be bright and full of wins.  So, does this spectacle deserve the name fire sale, or is it merely a mirage?  Hanley Ramirez, although a stellar talent, has had attitude problems, and while Josh Johnson has extreme talent, he has been oft injured.  The Marlins have twice outsmarted every other Major League team by sneaking into the playoffs and winning the World Series as a franchise sans money.  Is this the beginning of another shadowy run at a title?  Maybe not this season, but I wouldn't say 2014 is out of the question.  

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Middle Management

A Game of Skill:
Professional football coaches, analysts, scouts, and players often use the term "skill players."  Skill positions include the quarterback, running back, wide receiver, corner back, and safety.   Players at these positions are generally leaner and faster than linemen, and must provide skills such as throwing and catching that their more bulky teammates need not showcase.  What does the term "skill position" or "skill player" have to do with America's summer pastime?  Baseball, like its cousin football, can classify certain positions as needing more adroitness than others.  For argument's sake, no doubt every position in baseball needs skills, talent, and athleticism.Yet, the architects of an MLB roster must place greater emphasis and analytic energy into filling the positions of catcher, shortstop, second base, and centerfield.  One might place pitcher into a similar category, but for the sake of brevity let's reserve that for a separate discussion.  

Looking up the Middle:
Dr. Egon Spengler

To quote Dr. Egon Spengler from the movie Ghostbusters, "What are we talking about here?" Well, doctor, that's a great question.  I, not we, mention skill positions because I argue that they truly matter when forming a winning team.  I mentioned that baseball's skill positions are those that reside up-the-middle.  If one were to stand at home plate and look directly toward centerfield the positions in direct view are classified as the up-the-middle positions.  

No one who has ever played or followed baseball would disagree with the statement "Catchers are uniquely different from any other player on a baseball field."  Catchers have the onerous duty of protecting the most coveted spot on the baseball field, home plate.  They must know everything the pitcher knows, be able to throw out runners attempting to steal a base, perform their role as receiver, and hit at least well enough to remain in the line up on a nightly basis.  

While no position is as multifaceted or has as much responsibility as the catcher, shortstops play an important role as well.  Shortstops must simultaneously cover the most ground and deal with the most plays in the infield.  More righties play baseball than lefties; thus more ground balls are hit to the left side of the field than the right.  In addition, the shortstop must have a stronger and more accurate arm than the second baseman, while also playing an important role in all attempts to steal second base.  Often overlooked but no less important, the shortstop also plays a crucial role in directing and executing cut-offs from the outfield.  This list of responsibilities only covers the defensive tasks required of an MLB shortstop; the offensive duties are vast, but vary from player to player.  Overall, the shortstop is the captain of the infield, and usually constitutes either the top defensive talent or vocal leader on the team.  

Can You Spot the Up-The-Middle Positions?
Second base, while not requiring as many tools as shortstop, has many obligations.  The second baseman combines with the shortstop on double plays, cut-off throws, covering second on stolen base attempts, and most importantly, patroling the right side of the infield.  This last responsibility can become more difficult when the first baseman must cover first base in case of a pick-off attempt.  Speed, quickness, and range, constitute only a few of the necessary tools needed to play second base.

Finally, let's talk center field.  Defensively, the center fielder covers the most ground in the outfield, and must have a good arm in order to throw out runners attempting to reach second or third base.  Communication becomes paramount when playing centerfield as the centerfielder must range towards his counterparts in right and left field often, doing so while hoping to avoid a collision.  Some of the most athletic and talented players ever have roamed centerfield including Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Ty Cobb.  

As in the construction of a skyscraper, a solid foundation is vital.  While every position makes up 1/9 of the starting line up for an MLB team, these 4 position players are less replaceable than the other 4 (recall we have exempted the pitcher).  We speak often of wins above replacement or the value of a replacement player, but rarely, amidst all of this talk of replacement, do we remark that certain positions are not as replaceable as others.  Skill positions require specifically skilled or multi-skilled athletes that are not often found in left field, right field, third base, and first base.  

Often times, when I analyze a team the first thing I look at is the play and statistics of the skill position players.  Think about the best teams in baseball right now.  The Rangers, Angels, Yankees, and Braves all have very good up-the-middle combinations. (For a list of every team's fWAR up-the-middle positions click HERE)  The Rangers have the highest combined fWAR of any catcher, shortstop, second base, center field composite in baseball at 11.1 fWAR.  Josh Hamilton, Elvis Andrus, and Ian Kinsler are all indevidually having solid seasons.  The amalgam of Kinsler and Andrus provide above average to stellar defense up the middle for the Rangers.  Last season Kinsler and Andrus each had a UZR (a defensive metric incorporating a player’s range ) above 7.0, and this season both have been adequate up-the-middle.  While catcher Mike Napoli is experiencing a dip in every offensive category this season, Josh Hamilton's scorching start to the year has statistically made up for the regression of the Texas catcher.  

This chart shows the mean, median, range, and standard deviation of every 2012 up-the-middle position in Major League Baseball using fWAR as the evaluating statistic.

Standard Deviation
Turning the Double Play

Using UZR as our defensive metric of choice, the best defensive shortstop in MLB is Brendan Ryan of the Seattle Mariners, and the best second baseman is Robinson Cano of the Yankees.  You may have never heard of Ryan but Cano is a household name. He will compete for American League MVP this year.  Ryan adds little offensively, but due to his defense, he has saved about 14 runs from scoring this year.  That's about twice as many as the second best defensive shortstop in the majors, Starlin Castro of the Chicago Cubs.  Ryan's value comes almost completely from his defense.  Despite being far and away the best defensive shortstop, Ryan has only a 1.7 fWAR which is just above average for all MLB shortstops.  

Center fielders have it all.  They can run, jump, hit for average, hit for power, and play a highly valued skill position.  The best players in MLB in 2012 thus far have been center fielders.  Four out of the top 10 players according to fWAR this year play centerfield.  They are Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates, the Braves Michael Bourn, the Tigers’ Austin Jackson, and Angels rookie sensation Mike Trout.  Ever heard of these guys? If you haven't, I would advise learning about them, because all 4 are now and will be the best overall players in Major League Baseball for years to come.  

Eight years, $160 million dollars.  That is the contract recently signed by Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp. Orioles center fielder Adam Jones recently signed a 6-year $85.5 million contract and others like B.J. Upton (Rays) and Michael Bourn (Braves) will soon be far wealthier men. Why will these players be paid so much money? Production.  Center fielders not only hit for average and power, but they also play great defense, and steal bases.  These deliverables, performed at a high level, usually lead to large contracts and, occasionally, world domination.  

Two of the best defensive catchers in the majors are Yadier Molina and Carlos Ruiz.  Include Joe Mauer and Buster Posey, and you have just identified a pair of players who have already signed huge contracts, Mauer and Molina, and a pair who will soon demand large sums of money, Ruiz and Posey.  Oftentimes, teams care less about offensive production from their catchers because of the value placed on a catcher's defense.  The four aforementioned catchers all hit well in addition to playing above average defense, and thus, like the center fielders mentioned above, represent some of the most complete players in all of Major League Baseball. 

Making the Big Money

What can we conclude from all of these data? Up-the-middle positions represent the keystone of a baseball team.  The 2012 Arizona Diamondbacks, Philadelphia Phillies, Minnesota Twins, and St. Louis Cardinals all have up-the-middle combined fWARs of 8.2 or above -- at least one standard deviation above the mean -- which proves that these squads will most likely remain competitive this season and have strong foundations on which to build for years to come.  

While up-the-middle position players represent the most complete athletes in baseball, corner outfielders, third baseman, and 1st basemen get much of the publicity and money.  The top 15 largest contracts ever signed in baseball history have been as follows: 

Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez 
3B (Contract #2)
Albert Pujols
Joey Votto
Prince Fielder
Derek Jeter
Joe Mauer
Mark Texiara
C.C. Sabathia
Manny Ramirez
Matt Kemp
Troy Tulowitzki
Adrian Gonzalez
Miguel Cabrera
Carl Crawford

Nine of the 14 non-pitchers on the list play a corner outfield, 1st or 3rd base.  Interestingly enough, the positions getting the largest contracts are not the same as those with the highest valued players.

In the End:
Whether you are at the ballpark, watching on television, listening on the radio, or checking the scores on the internet, next time you want to evaluate a team about which you know very little, check the players at catcher, 2nd base, shortstop, and centerfield.  If those players are solid, the team may be more formidable on a game-to-game basis than perceived by the general public.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Slowing It Down

Pitching, Yes Pitching
The pitcher's mound is 10 inches from the ground, 18 feet in diameter, and 60 feet 6 inches away from home plate.  No game can begin without the man standing 10 inches higher than the rest of the players winding up (that's a fitting phrase), and propelling himself forward towards the other half of the battery squatting behind home plate.  What happens next is too variable to predict, but provides every anticipatory spectator a fleeting moment of excitement.  Poetic rhetoric aside, the pitcher's mound, often dubbed the bump, matters little in comparison to the men who stand atop it.  I've written about pitching and pitchers before, but it fascinates me more than any other topic in sports, thus prepare yourselves for another round of "let's talk pitching".  

All Shapes and Sizes, The Young and the Old
Angels RHP Jered Weaver
One man stands 6 foot and weighs approximately 197 pounds, while the other measures 6 foot 7 inches tall with a slender frame of 205 pounds.  One has 4 Cy Young Awards and the other a Twitter account.  If one were to look at Greg Maddux and Jered Weaver side-by-side, it might be difficult to comprehend that these two men not only both play(ed) professional baseball, but represent two of the best pitchers to do so.  Weaver looks like a typical California kid.  With long dirty blonde hair, a wiry frame, and an odd delivery that looks like he is attempted to fold himself into two, the righty looks like the perfect fit for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. 
In comparison, Greg Maddux, one of baseball's all-time greatest pitchers, does not compare physically to Jered Weaver.  Maddux, a Texan, looks simultaneously bullish and boyish, a combination perfect for a star pitcher in the Major Leagues.   

The Great Greg Maddux
If appearance constitutes only one of the numerous contrasts between Maddux and Weaver, the second is that Maddux retired from Major League Baseball in 2008 while Weaver began his career in 2006.  Third, Maddux and Weaver never played for the same organization, and neither pitcher has ever been linked to one another in any professional manner.  This is where the dissimilarities between the two pitchers stops.  In fact, to underline the similarities, both even have brother's, Jeff Weaver and Mike Maddux, who have previously been or are currently involved in Major League Baseball.  

Nonetheless, why have I chosen, what seems like two random pitchers, to compare and contrast.  While watching a recent performance by Jered Weaver, I noticed a significant difference in his velocity from his first few seasons in the Majors.  Weaver came up in 2006 throwing consistently in the low 90's, often touching 94 mph.  Check out Weaver's career velocity chart, courtesy of
As you can see, Weaver's fastball could never be considered blazing, but the recent trend shows a true dip in his velocity.  In 2011 and thus far in 2012, Weaver rarely heaves his fastball at speeds above 90 mph, let alone the consistent 91-93mph clip he displayed in 2007 and 2008.  What caused Weaver's drop in velocity, and more importantly, how has he remained so dominant despite less zip on his most used pitch?  

The answer is simple, Weaver has adjusted his style and simultaneously matured as a pitcher.  Weaver's change in pitching style reminded me of the other subject of this piece, Greg Maddux.  Maddux, known by most as a control pitcher.  He never utilized high velocities to overpower hitters, but instead used deception, creativity, and pinpoint control to make hitters' lives miserable.  While other legends like Roger Clemens, Steve Carlton, and Randy Johnson went the more conventional rout of getting hitters out with mid to high 90's fastballs, Maddux learned early on that, in order to not become an average pitcher, he had to do something else to compensate for his lack of speed.  It seems as though Jered Weaver may be following in the footsteps of the great Greg Maddux.  

Before we delve further into the velocity discussion, let's compare the two pitchers a bit more.  First, since Weaver has only been pitching for 7 seasons, I only looked at Maddux's first 7 full seasons(1987-1993) as well.  Over his first 7 seasons, Jered Weaver has compiled a 29.4 fWAR, 30.1 rWAR, and 21 WARP (I mention all three types of calculating WAR because each one is a bit different).  From 1987-1993 Greg Maddux spotted a 37.1 fWAR, 30.1 rWAR, and 21.7 WARP.  If we look at WAR/season we see that Maddux, probably due to his outstanding defense, as well as his greater propensity for obtaining ground balls, has an edge.  As a fly-ball pitcher, Weaver benefits from a steller trio of defensive outfielders, Mike Trout, Torii Hunter, and Peter Bourjos.  
For the record, in order to perform these calculations, I doubled Weaver's current WAR numbers from 2012 (the league is at the midpoint of the season and I'm assuming Weaver will remain consistent).  Here are some other numbers to consider: 
Maddux's ability to keep the ball on the ground keeps his HR/9 numbers low.  Weaver does not use the ground ball as well, but keeps batters from reaching base by compiling more strikeouts and fewer walks per 9 innings.  In addition, Maddux' average batting average against vs. left-handed batters from 87' to 93' was .264, while Weaver has put up a .238 average vs. left-handed hitters.  Weaver and Maddux produce outs in different ways because their style of pitching is different, but both yield ace-like results.

When first examining the data, I began to hypothesize that Jered Weaver, pending health status, could end up with a similar career to Maddux.  Now, after some serious thought my prediction has changed.  I now see Weaver as a pitcher who will most-likely come close but not match the iconic level attained by Maddux. Nonethless, both pitchers figured something out about velocity that few other pitcher have done.  Often times, it is control, pitch selection, and dedication to one's craft that exceed the value of a 95 MPH fastball.  

Circle Change Up Grip
When Greg Maddux began his career in the Major Leagues, his fastball was consistently clocked between 90-92 MPH, but over the next 7 seasons his fastball would more readily be clocked between 88-90 mph.  While the speed of his fastball changed, so did his use of two other pitches.  First, Maddux mastered the circle changeup.  The ball is held against the palm of the hand, thus creating a drop in speed.  Due to the circular grip applied with the thumb and pointer finger, the pitch tends to move inside to righty's and away from lefty's (if the changeup is thrown by a lefty pitcher the movements are the exact opposite).  The most important part of a change up is to have similar arm speed to a fastball, in order to use the difference in velocity to trick the hitter.  Check out this pitch f/x data from an April 7th, 2008 start by Maddux.

The fastballs and change ups all show similar vertical and horizontal movement.  By keeping the movement similar, Maddux continued to fool hitters with a change up despite the fact that neither pitch topped 85 MPH.  It is worth noting that as Maddux's career progressed he threw the straighter four-seam fastball far less, in favor of fastballs that had increase vertical and horizontal movement.

Weaver, like Maddux, may not throw more than 90 MPH, but he has found other ways to keep runners off base.  Weaver's average curveball velocity in 2012 has been 71.5 MPH, slower than many Major League curves.  He throws the hook with incredible 12-6 action creating a huge looping motion that a hitter has extreme difficulty timing.  In addition, Weaver has increased, yes I said increased, the velocity of his slider.  The slider, unlike the curveball, has greater velocity and a harsher break.  With the increase in speed, Weaver keeps hitters even more off balanced than before.  Finally, to complete the pitching comparison between Maddux and Weaver, both pitchers developed a sneaky pitch called a tailing fastball.

Tailing Fastball Grip
Often called a come-back fastball, the tailing fastball, when thrown by a right-handed pitcher, moves from left to right.  Greg Maddux made this pitch famous.  In fact his most famous influence on pitching may be concentrated in this area.  Maddux used the tailing fastball to freeze left-handed hitters who usually feast on fastballs thrown in the mid to high 80's.  He did so by starting the pitch as a ball on the inside and having it move laterally to catch the inside corner as the ball crossed the plate.  Currently, numerous right-handed pitchers, who do not throw overpowering fastballs, utilize the tailing fastball to jam or often strike out left-handed hitters.  According to pitch f/x, Weaver did not throw a tailing fastball for the first 4 seasons of his career.  In 2010 he began throwing the pitch 17.4 percent of the time, which became 19.1% in 2011, and finally in 2012 Weaver's tailing fastball made up 29.0% of his pitches.  

In conclusion, Jered Weaver is not a clone of Greg Maddux, in appearance or as a pitcher.  On the other hand, the two have some parallels, especially similar pitching styles that have made them great pitchers.  According to, Greg Maddux ranks as the 5th best pitcher in baseball history. These rankings are based on fan voting, but at the very least, they give you a decent perspective as to where Maddux might truly rank.  On the same list, Jered Weaver comes in at #284.  I will reiterate that while I do not think Jered Weaver will become the next Greg Maddux, but he has used similar philosophies of pitching, specific tweaks, to enhance his craft and keep him in the annual discussion of Cy Young candidates.  

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What a Relief

The Background

The Book...Enough Said
In Michael Lewis' famed book, Moneyball, he hammers home the point that the A's did not stumble upon the idea, that in order to build a winning team with very little money, a General Manager must find market inefficiencies to exploit.  The idea comes from economics.  Market inefficiencies arise when one agent within the market uses their power to block mutual gains from trade, leading to imperfect competition.  Essentially, if one entity within the market abuses their stature by obstructing the natural flow of a certain good, it can cause monopolies to arise.  To quote the book that opened so many people's minds to the statistical revolution that is still occurring in baseball, "The chief social consequence was to hammer into the minds of a generation of extremely ambitious people a new connection between "inefficiency" and "opportunity," and to reinforce an older one, between "brains" and "money."

Moneyball was written in 2003; a movie based on the book was released in 2011, and because of the book almost every major sports news channel on television includes statistics like on base percentage in its usual stat line.  This begs the question, why am I digging up an argument that most sports fans have heard of? The reason I mentioned market inefficiencies and more importantly Moneyball is that Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, continues to find market inefficiencies to exploit in order to keep his team relevant amidst a sea of fat cats, copycats, and monopolies (thought I had a third cat phrase didn't you?).

Back to our brief economics lesson, let's talk about externalities.  An externality is a transaction that does not occur through prices, and affects a party that had no say in the transaction that caused the issue.  Externalities can range from global climate change to taking too much time in the checkout line at your local grocery store.  How do externalities and market inefficiencies affect Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics? Beane's small-market team has little money to throw around in order to, simply put, win.  In order to combat this lackluster position, Beane and his front office team, scourer the baseball landscape for the numerous market inefficiencies that have occurred, most often due to externalities, to exploit in order to bring success and prosperity to the "other" city by the bay.

Beane's most recent revelation concerns relief pitching.  Starting pitchers usually pitch anywhere between 5-9 innings per game.  Starting pitchers who average more an 7 innings pitched per game are usually aces, while pitchers who average fewer than than 6 innings pitched per game rank closer to average/below average in performance.  No statistic is without outliers, and Stephen Strasburg represents a great outlier.  The Nationals purposefully limit his innings pitched despite his stellar ability, in order to protect his arm in the long-term.  Nonetheless, starting pitchers rarely throw complete games, which causes managers to utilize their bullpens often.

Combine the effect of fewer innings pitched by starting pitchers, with the new model of the modern bullpen and you change the market for pitchers.  Tony La Rusa, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame manager of the Oakland A's and St. Louis Cardinals, started the current bullpen paradigm of lefty specialists, set up men, and the worst of the bunch, the rigidly limited closer.  This shift in bullpen dynamics, combined with the invention and overvaluing of the "save" statistic, has led to a market inefficiency.  When specialization occurs, oftentimes the salaries of those filling these specialty roles rise.

Let's examine the most lucrative specialty, the closer.  The average salary for a closer in 2012, excluding closers still signed to a minor league deal, and including injured closers and their replacements, is about $6 million.  These are pitchers who generally pitch for an inning in which their team is ahead by no more than 3 runs.  Sometimes closers are put in in tie games, and when they haven't pitched in a while, the manager may choose them to pitch in order to stay sharp.  Supposedly these "rules" are placed on a closer's usage because the 9th inning involves so much added pressure, that only certain players can successfully get the last three outs of a game.  My argument here is not that closers are useless, (sort of) or that the system in which they are employed is inherently flawed (it is).  The point I'm trying to make is that Billy Beane and his cadre in Oakland discovered that because of system in which closers pitch, the market has overvalued them, and will most likely continue to do so.

Bailey, Street, and Cook

Heading into the 2011-2012 off-season, the Oakland A's were coming off of a losing season, but one on which the team could build.  The Athletics finished the 2011 season with a 74-88 win-loss record, a .457 winning percentage that left them 3rd out of 4 teams in the American League West.  Despite this record, the A's held a number of solid young players that, with some experience and help from veteran talent, might produce winning seasons in 2012 and beyond.

All of this seems reasonable but the Oakland A's are not your average MLB team.  With so little money to utilize, the A's must constantly use a strategy employed by the Tampa Bay Rays as well as the financial sector.  The strategy is called arbitrage.  Arbitrage is the act of taking advantage of price differences between markets by making one or many deals in order to capitalize on the imbalance.  In his book The Extra 2%, Jonah Keri talks about how the Rays utilize the idea of arbitrage when making player based decisions.  Mr. Keri explains it simply as "acquiring an asset for less than it's worth, especially when coupled with selling an asset for more than it's worth."  The Athletics have recently used this approach to exploit the overvaluation of closers and other relief pitching slots in order to improve their team.

At first glance, Huston Street seems more like then name of a road rather than the name of a Major League Baseball player.  Street attended the University of Texas, and was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the 1st round of the 2004 MLB draft.  Street came out of the bullpen in college and the A's had no desire to change that approach.  He pitched for the A's from 2005-2008 at an average of $1,083,906.25 per season.  He was paid $3.3 million in his final season with the A's, one in which they traded him elsewhere.  Street came out of the bullpen as the Athletics closer.  His stats from his bay area years are depicted below.

After producing these fine numbers for the A's, they traded him, Carlos Gonzalez, and Greg Smith to the Colorado Rockies for Matt Holiday.  Holiday played for the A's and was then traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for prospects Clayton Mortensen, Shane Peterson, and Brett Wallace.  Wallace was then traded to the Blue Jays for outfield prospect Michael Taylor.  Confused yet?  Well if you aren't, let's move on.

Street was first, but Bailey came next.  The Athletics drafted pitcher Andrew Bailey in the 6th round of the 2006 MLB draft.  After spending a few years in the minor leagues, Bailey was brought up to the team to fill the vacant closer's spot left by Huston Street.  He immediately won rookie of the year and was selected to the All-star team, 
thus boosting his profile in Major League Baseball.  In addition, he compiled these statistics:

In 2012 Bailey was once again selected as the Athletics representative to the American League All-Star team.  Seeing that Bailey was a competent closer who, like Street before him, would be overvalued on the free agent and trade markets, Billy Beane traded his young commodity.  In this case he traded him to the Boston Red Sox for outfielder Josh Reddick, prospect Miles Head, and prospect Raul Alcantara.

Now that we have discussed Street and Bailey, let's move on to Ryan Cook.  Who is Ryan Cook?  If you guessed that he is an Oakland Athletics relief pitcher, you would be right.  Cook has recently been placed in the closer's role in the A's bullpen.  His statistics thus far can be seen below.


Okay, you got me; I may be throwing a whole bunch of statistics your way, but I neglected to tell you the sample size.  Cook has only thrown 36 innings out of the pen thus far this season.  The numbers Cook is putting up could easily normalize and become only average, but I don't think that will happen.  Oh, I think he may give up a home run eventually, but I have faith that by the end of the year, Ryan Cook will look like a solid choice as a closer.  He may be utilized in that role for the A's for the rest of this season as well as next season.  Interestingly, Cook was one piece the A's received when they traded SP Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks and the A's currently pay him $480,000 a year.
Ryan Cook

The Athletics play in a great pitcher's park, thus inflating their pitcher's stats and deflating those compiled by their offense.  With recent closer's being signed to deals like 4 years for $50 million (Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies) and 3 years for $27 million (Heath Bell to the Marlins), many teams may jump on the chance to trade for Ryan Cook and utilize his arbitration years (the first of which is in 2015) or even sign him to a more moderate contract.  The A's may not garner an incredible package of players for Cook, but with the advanced metrics they deploy, the scouts they trust, and the replaceability of Cook, anything the A's get in return may make such a deal true arbitrage.


In the end, I am predicting a situation based on lots of facts, a pattern, and some assumptions.  Teams devise new ways to improve themselves everyday, but Billy Beane has definitely found a market inefficiency to exploit in the production and selling of bullpen pitchers.  He uses them for his own team only while he pays them less than $1 million, then sells them for other players to teams who can, and will pay them more money.  The Athletics need all of the help they can get when it comes to winning, and Billy Beane is the man to keep them ahead of the curve.  Whether he uses simple economic principles like market inefficiencies, arbitrage, and positive gains from externalities, Beane continues to succeed.  Maybe, that's why he has been the Athletics General Manager for 15 seasons, the longest current streak in Major League Baseball.