Cactus League Game 27, Mariners at Padres

marc w · March 29, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

JA Happ vs. Andrew Cashner again, 1:05pm, Root TV

These two faced off five days ago, and while neither was sharp, Happ was concerningly bad. Earlier this spring, I said he needed to focus much more on his four-seamer and throw a lot fewer of the sinkers that righties have enjoyed since Happ learned the pitch in 2010. Well, he tried that last game and it didn’t go terribly well. It’s a truism that the same approach in Arizona may not produce the same results as it would in Seattle, but I’m sure it’d help Happ’s confidence to have a solid game today. Seth Smith was a late scratch today, and that’ll afford us the chance to get a look at Alex Jackson, the M’s #1 or #2 prospect, who gets the start in Smith’s place. Jackson even gets Smith’s line-up slot.

1: Ruggiano, CF
2: Jackson, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Weeks, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Ascanio, SS
SP: Happ

The M’s optioned lefty Roenis Elias to Tacoma today, formally ending the battle for the 5th spot in the rotation (a battle that seemed all but over a few weeks ago). By sending him to AAA, they can keep Elias stretched out; keeping him around as another situational lefty or swingman always seemed like a waste, and I’m glad the M’s agreed. Bob Dutton speculates that they could use Elias as a kind of sixth starter to manage innings for Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, both of whom had injury issues in 2014.

As many of you know, M’s pitching prospect Victor Sanchez died last night in Venezuela, roughly a month after he suffered a head injury while swimming in Carupano. The 20-year old suffered skull fractures and brain injuries, but early reports were – given the context here – somewhat positive. Perhaps it was his age, perhaps it was just optimism, but I somehow thought he’d survive this. My thoughts are with his family, including his new wife. The M’s statement mentioned that he was quiet, but popular amongst his teammates. It’s been amazing to see all of the comments from those teammates on Twitter. Sanchez famously threw a no-hitter for Clinton the day his mother arrived from Venezuela to see him pitch professionally for the first time. His size (6′ or a bit less, 260-280 lbs.) made him something of an anomaly, and many ranked hurlers with “projectable” frames above Sanchez, but he’d fought AA to a draw last year at the age of 19. But beyond the stats or age-relative-to-league, Sanchez seemed to make the organization a bit better simply by being a part of it. RIP.

Cactus League Game 22, Cubs at Mariners

marc w · March 25, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Travis Wood, 7:05pm Root TV

Travis Wood is a lefty with a rising fastball and an assortment of breaking pitches behind it – the cutter gets the most use, but he makes several stops along the cutter-to-curve route: a slider about 6mph slower than the cutter, and then a curve another 8mph slower than the slider. He’s got a change-up, as he’s faced right-handed line-ups frequently, and while it’s not a plus pitch, it’s not a disaster, either. As an extreme fly-ball guy, Wood’s been up and down depending on his control (last year’s poor results stem in large part from his nearly 10% walk rate) and how many of those fly balls leave the yard. When both of those factors align, he’s a solidly above-average pitcher; he put up nearly 3 fWAR in 200 innings in 2013, for example. The problem is that it’s apparently quite difficult for him to maintain that alignment. His HR/FB ratio crept up last year, and combined with poor control and a BABIP spike, and Wood became a replacement-level hurler by fielding-dependent metrics (his ERA started with a 5), and only so-so by FIP/xFIP. So is he an intriguing 4th starter with upside, or someone you simply can’t count on in the rotation if you want to compete for a divisional title?

Probably both, but despite so-so velocity, there’s enough raw stuff here that I wouldn’t be comfortable writing off his 2013 as a fluke. The extreme vertical rise on his fastball generates quite a few infield pop-ups, and that should – SHOULD – help him beat his FIP. It hasn’t for a few reasons. One is probably some bad luck, including the bad luck to play in a division that includes two very homer-friendly parks (MIL and CIN). The other has to do with his pitch mix. Like a lot of pitchers we’ve talked about recently, from JA Happ to Jered Weaver, Wood’s picked up a sinker to complement his four-seam fastball. Unfortunately, it’s atrocious, and he’s exacerbated that by throwing it mostly to opposite-handed hitters. Righties have feasted on the offering, batting .339 with a .535 SLG% over the course of 300+ at-bats. Meanwhile, they’re struggling against his four-seamer, which makes sense given all of that platoon-split-killing rise. He’s throwing a worse pitch more often.

When the Cubs acquired him from the Reds, he was coming off a sub-par season, and he placed some of the blame for that on an over-reliance on his cutter. The Cubs evidently didn’t agree with that assessment, as Wood has gone from throwing it a bit less than 1/5th of his pitches to over 1/3 in 2012 and 2013. Wood’s results haven’t been outstanding with it, though it’s a pitch he uses more frequently when behind in the count, so that’s to be expected. His results aren’t altogether bad with it, and he’s never quite got the hang of his slider. With his solid four-seamer and passable cutter and change-up, it might help to simplify things a bit. Some guys can throw five pitches for strikes, and some guys put up 10% walk rates.

Meanwhile, Taijuan Walker’s march to the opening day rotation continues. Today, he’ll miss uber-prospect Kris Bryant and get to face Mike Olt instead. He *will* face six lefty-hitting Cubs to start with, though.

1: Weeks, DH
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Ruggiano, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Walker

The story of the day may be word about an investigation into gambling by former Astro current Marlin righty Jarred Cosart. Cosart DM’ed a sports handicapper on twitter, and then the handicapper posted (edited) screenshots of the conversation. Twitter, ladies and gentlemen. I should say that the screenshots at the center of this do not indicate or imply that he bet on baseball; as a product of Texas high schooling, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to assume he was betting on football, for example. But then, a pro athlete tweeting at an internet betting tipster does not earn one a whole lot of benefit-of-the-doubt points when it comes to doing something as stupid and career-threatening as betting on baseball while being employed by baseball.

Cactus League Game 21, Mariners at Padres

marc w · March 24, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

JA Happ vs. Andrew Cashner, 1:05pm

We’ve now settled into that period of the Cactus League where the novelty that people are actually playing baseball has worn off, and the routine has set in. JA Happ has made the rotation, and has been fairly solid thus far. We’ve already seen Andrew Cashner as well; if you like, you can brush up on the fireballing pitch-to-contact enigma here. So if we can’t talk about Happ/Cashner, what can we talk about? I’d *like* to talk about the improbability of yesteday’s opponent, Matt Shoemaker, but we’ll have plenty of opportunities to go into the black arts that led a PCL journeyman, sub-AAAA player to post a well-above average season last year and shut down the M’s again on Monday.

Instead, let’s focus on essentially the only remaining question involving the Mariners opening day line-up – who’s in the Bullpen? I know McClendon has said that he’s not really looking at the numbers when deciding between Roenis Elias and Taijuan Walker for the fifth starter job, but there’s essentially no argument here that I can see – not even Kris Bryant-style service time shenanigans. Keeping Elias as a swingman, sort of like the A’s are considering with Barry Zito, could work, but it would deprive him of regular work and would also make it much harder for the M’s to keep LHP David Rollins. Rollins was the M’s Rule 5 pick from Houston, and has opened some eyes this spring, as we’ve said. Rollins’ velocity has been better than Elias, Tyler Olson, and some of the righties like Danny Farquhar – it’s essentially matched Wilhelmsen and Leone’s this spring. He’s walked no one in 8 IP, and while he’s a bit less of a pure lefty specialist than Olson, Furbush or even Elias could be, he’s got to be kept on the M’s 25 man roster or be returned to the Astros organization.

Losing a Rule 5 pick is not the end of the world. Losing Jose Flores in the spring or Kanekoa Teixeira didn’t much matter to the M’s. Still, Elias would seem to have more value to the M’s as starting pitching depth than as a long man out of the pen. And while Tyler Olson’s impressed in the spring, it wouldn’t hurt to have him start in Tacoma or make the move to the bullpen once and for all in the PCL and see how he handles the new role. With Rollins, the team doesn’t really have options. And while the M’s try and figure out how many lefties is enough, they need to take some steps to bolster a bullpen that was brilliant in 2014 but may be in line for some regression. Farquhar’s velocity is down substantially this spring, and while he’s typically been a slow starter (he averaged 92-93 in mid-March games last year), his four-seam velocity is down 3-4mph from 2013, and his fastball and cutter are down 2-3mph from last season. I’m not suggesting that Rollins is in line for a bullpen spot ahead of the M’s 2014 set-up man, but I am suggesting that the M’s need to keep as much talent within the organization as possible. They need to be able to shuffle people in and out as needed, and they need contributions from guys who won’t be on the opening day roster. It’s in that context that Rollins’ roster situation becomes more of a thumb on the scale, even just to see what they have for a month or two (as the M’s did with Teixeira).

1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Ackley, LF
9: Miller, SS
SP: Happ

Cactus League Game 19, Rangers at Mariners

marc w · March 22, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Yovani Gallardo, 1:05

I felt bad about missing yesterday’s Felix day until I saw the box score. Hopefully Paxton has an easier time of things today against the Rangers. He’ll face righty Yovani Gallardo who came over from Milwaukee in a trade for prospects. In one sense, the move was a curious one for Texas; they’re in a rebuild despite the presence of well compensated vets like Shin-Soo Choo (struggling with a forearm injury) and Prince Fielder (recovering from season-ending surgery last year). In another, he’s a desperately needed mid-rotation bridge between Yu Darvish at the top and a continually churning sea of AAA arms the Rangers will sort through in 2015.

Gallardo was supposed to be the ace of the Brewers rotation for years, but freak injuries and an inability to move from “promising” to “star” allowed the Rangers to acquire him for middling prospects. Gallardo’s strikeout rate has declined every year since peaking in 2009, and he’s now a below-average K guy…and that was in the NL. He throws a rising four-seamer at about 92, and also throws a sinker, a curveball and slider. He had a change-up that he’d use to lefties occasionally, but he essentially shelved that last year.

Gallardo’s straight-over-the-top delivery is noteworthy, and as many have noted, seems to be something that the Brewers consciously select for and/or teach. One of the presumed benefits of the over-the-the-top delivery is minimal platoon splits, and while Gallardo’s have bounced around, his career numbers bear this out – he’s got splits, but they’re on the low end of normal. That’ll be important as he moves from the division that plays match-ups the *least* (the NL Central) to the one that figures to do so the most. Gallardo has had the platoon advantage for the majority of his batters faced in each year since 2010. Yu Darvish faced lefties over 63% of the time last year. It’s going to be an adjustment for Gallardo.

The rising fastball should produce more fly balls (hopefully lowering BABIP), and Gallardo (and the other Brewers hurlers) have had problems with homers off and on. Oddly, though, Gallardo’s GB% has risen steadily as his K% dropped, and he’s now an above average grounder guy. Developing the sinker certainly helped (he was strictly a four-seam guy early on), but it’s also a testament to the fact that batters tend to put his breaking balls in play on the ground. At one point, they were swing-and-miss pitches, but that day’s long gone; when he’s on, Gallardo can minimize damage by getting batters to top curve balls to the infielders.

Line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Paxton

Six lefties. Welcome to the AL West, Yovani.

Cactus League Game 17, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · March 20, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Roenis Elias vs. Derek Holland, 1:05pm, 710am Radio, no TV

Welp, Roenis, I suppose you could make the case that the league needs to get back to having a good old fashioned long reliever, and that all this specialization is less effective in the AL West, where every team has the depth to mix and match pinch hitters to LOOGYs and ROOGYs. I don’t think it’ll work, but hey, Tacoma’s not so bad. Hit me up for bar and restaurant recommendations, or just ask Curto. Last night, Taijuan Walker seemingly wrapped up the #5 starter job with another scoreless outing, and he did so by working through some very early command issues. He’s now gone 12 innings with 13 Ks and just 3 BBs, and has yet to give up a run. Spring stats themselves don’t matter, but Walker has earned these stats not just through a high-octane fastball, but because his split-change is much improved from last season. There was so much talk about his cutter/slider transition, but the mechanical changes he’s made seem to have given him much better control. If he can throw the split for strikes as he did last night, then he’s less liable to have serious platoon split issues, and that was a bit of a concern if he was more of a FB/SL/CU pitcher (a BIT of a concern, not a huge one). Some times you just have to tip your cap, Roenis.

Derek Holland’s appearance today is good news/bad news for the Rangers. Holland came down with the always-good-to-hear shoulder soreness as camp opened, so the fact that he’s getting some game action in is a good sign that it wasn’t so severe that he’d need a DL stint or worse to correct it. On the other hand, it’s March 20th and Holland is pitching his first game, and is a couple weeks off of recuperation from *shoulder soreness*. It’s doubtful he can make the opening day start at this time, and while he’ll be ready in early April, the Rangers rotation which looked good at the top (Darvish, Holland, Gallardo) now looks extremely shaky. Holland’s been plagued by injuries throughout his career, and the Rangers desperately need someone behind Gallardo if they’re going to put up a respectably bad season instead of one of those 2013-Astros-style disasters.

Holland seemed to put everything together in 2013, topping 200 IP for the first time, and developing his change-up to the point where it wasn’t just an afterthought. As a FB/SL/CU pitcher, he had some platoon split issues earlier, and given that he can expect to face righties about 3/4 of the time, that limited his upside. The fact that he’s a fly ball pitcher in Arlington didn’t help either, but as a lefty with a fastball at 94-95 and a good slider that he can throw to righties and lefties, he always seemed like a breakout candidate. The change-up helped him control righties and the home run, at least in 2013. Unfortunately for the Rangers, he missed nearly all of 2014 with injuries, along with basically every other good Rangers player. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s still working on the change, or if he tries to keep things simple today and throw fastballs and sliders. This is also a good game for the M’s righties to show what they can do against a lefty with above-average stuff. Go, Justin Ruggiano.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Bloomquist, 1B
3: Ruggiano, LF
4: Cruz, RF
5: Zunino, DH
6: Romero, 3B
7: Tyler Smith, SS
8: Sucre, C
9: O’Malley, 2B
SP: Elias

I checked this like three times, but it’s the RANGERS who are playing split squad games today, not the M’s. Hmmm. Well, good for Smith, O’Malley and Bloomquist. It’s no Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, but it’ll do for today.

Cactus League Game 16, Indians at Mariners

marc w · March 19, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Carlos Carrasco, 7:05pm, Root TV, 710am Radio

The M’s play their first night game of the spring, and for those of you who can tear yourself away from March Madness, the game’s on TV. C’mon, Kentucky against the 16-seed can’t be more entertaining than the match-up we’ve got here – the M’s Taijuan Walker against the Tribe’s Carlos Carrasco. No one in baseball was better down the stretch in 2014 than Carrasco, whose final 10 starts were Kershaw-esque. Carrasco’s teammate, Corey Kluber, produced the most fWAR in the second half of anyone in the majors, and his 4.1 was higher than anyone since Randy Johnson in 2004, but once Carrasco moved in from the pen, he was essentially matching Kluber start for start. Carrasco had always been a high GB%, high velocity guy, but without the secondary stuff to keep in the rotation full time.

This wasn’t just a BABIP fluke – Carrasco’s K rate was up over 10 percentage points from where it was in 2011, and doubled from his mediocre bullpen season in 2013. His walk rate fell. His velocity was up significantly, and suddenly, no one could touch his slider or his change-up. In 171+ innings in 2011 and 2013, Carrasco gave up 8 HRs on his slider/change. Lefties feasted on his sub-par cambio, slugging .490 off of it. Righties struggled overall against his slider, but a FB/SL guy without a true weapon is going to be vulnerable to opposite-handed hitters, and that was Carrasco’s problem in a nutshell. It’s why he kept getting sent to the pen, and it’s why his stints in the rotation weren’t much to write home about. Suddenly, in 2014, his change-up was a devastating pitch – batters knocked one XBH, a double, on it. His whiff rate jumped, and when anyone did hit it, they beat it into the ground over 70% of the time. It’s important to note that it moves in essentially the exact same fashion – this isn’t a new or different pitch, and he uses it broadly the same way. He’s better at keeping the ball down, which is another example of his improved command (his walk rate is another). It’s all so simple, that it starts to seem implausible.

Carrasco’s stretch run brings to mind the 2012 finish from the Braves’ Kris Medlen. Medlen had been a perfectly serviceable swing man for a couple of seasons before closing 2012 by going 9-0 in 83 IP, riding an unhittable splitter to stardom. He was solid in 2013 before succumbing to TJ surgery, though he couldnt’ quite recapture the form he had in late 2012. The Indians know well that stretch runs aren’t always predictive, even when the core metrics rule out flukes. In 2013, the pitcher who racked up the most 2nd-half WAR was the Tribe’s Ubaldo Jimenez. A little ways back was his teammate, Scott Kazmir. The Indians let both leave in free agency, and while Kazmir impressed with Oakland, he wasn’t quite the dominant force he had been late in 2013. Jimenez was a mess for the Orioles last year, as his control left him again and he struggled to keep his ERA/FIP under 5. This isn’t to say that it’s *always* a fluke – Clayton Kershaw shifted into overdrive at the end of 2012 and he hasn’t stopped since. Still, Carrasco’s amazing results and extremely short track record of achieving them is a key reason no one really knows what to expect from the Indians rotation, and thus from the Indians.

Line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Walker

Substitute Zunino for Miller and that’s essentially your opening day line-up. This is pretty much how the M’s are going to look against righties.

Was going to wait until the M’s faced the A’s again, but this piece by Jason Wojciechowski about Oakland’s crazy offseason is worth your time. Every time people think they’ve figured out the A’s strategy (OBP! Fly ball hitters! Short pitchers!), they’ve moved on.

Cactus League Game 15, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · March 18, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Drew Pomeranz, 1:05pm

Drew Pomeranz was once the 5th pick in the draft, a consensus top prospect, and the centerpiece of a trade for an ace (Ubaldo Jimenez). It was one of those trades that everyone thinks is going to be gigantic, a trade that can transform the fortunes of both clubs – sort of like the Pineda/Montero swap the M’s and Yankees made. And, like that trade, I think it ended up looking a lot more important than it actually was. Jimenez struggled down the stretch in 2011 and spent 2012 as a replacement-level pitcher. He bounced back in 2013, sort of like Pineda in 2014, but that just earned him a contract somewhere else. Meanwhile, Pomeranz struggled to find a third pitch behind his fastball and curve. The two pitches had been enough in the minors, but his attempts at developing a change-up hadn’t produced another MLB-level pitch. Ultimately, the Rockies sent him out – as a complementary piece this time – for Brett Anderson.

The A’s haven’t figured out how to turn Pomeranz’s change into a good pitch either. In fact, the best thing they’ve done with it is convince him to stop throwing it. Instead, they built confidence in his sinker, a pitch he threw sparingly in Colorado, but which became a key part of his arsenal last season. While it actually didn’t improve his GB% overall, it’s given him a GB pitch to throw to righties. Lefties get a steady diet of four-seamers, while righties get the sinker. This means that he’s got sharply different batted ball results depending on the handedness of the hitter, but in a park like Oakland, fly balls don’t matter. Filling in for injured starters, Pomeranz put together a surprisingly effective 2014, throwing 69 innings of solid, league-average-to-better baseball. Sure, an 80%+ strand rate made the ERA even better than that, but Pomeranz improved his K% while lowering his walk rate all while facing lefties the majority of the time. The A’s constant rotation churn means he still doesn’t have a spot lined up, but he’s a key part of the A’s enviable pitching depth.

1: Weeks, DH
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Ruggiano, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Erasmooooo

Weeks starts at DH so he can get to a dentist’s appointment (he’ll get 3 ABs quicker this way).

Today’s the day the M’s 2015 commercials come out. They should be up at Mariners.com or twitter – I’d link ‘em, but I’m writing this before release. Good? Bad? Better than last years?

Good article from Bob Dutton on David Rollins, the hard-throwing Rule 5 LOOGY candidate. Tyler Olson’s spring has opened a lot of eyes, but Rollins’ pure stuff (including a FB that sits 94-94) looks impressive. Olson’s frisbee slider looks perfect for the LOOGY role, while Rollins admits his slider hasn’t been “on” this spring. That said, Rollins rising FB can be effective even when facing a righty pinch hitter. The second lefty in the pen is not going to decide the AL West, and the M’s look like they have several solid candidates. But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s Rollins job to lose.

On cFIP

marc w · March 15, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

I’ll start out with a warning. This is a post about posts about math. If that’s not your cup of tea, that’s great – you sound well adjusted. If trying to figure out what new pitching metrics are trying to tell us in baseball terms, read on.

On Wednesday, Jonathan Judge released a new public pitching measure, Context-FIP or cFIP for short. There’ve been many run estimators over the years, including the mostly descriptive ERA, RA/9 and FIP, and a series that regress past results in order to capture a pitcher’s elusive “True talent” and thus help predict his future results. For a number of reasons, ERA is exceptionally poor as a predictive measure. It conflates what a pitcher does with the contributions of his team, it ignores parks and opponents, and its attempt to strip errors out causes some odd effects that make it even less predictive than plain old RA/9. More predictive metrics like xFIP strip out defense, and then heavily regress actual HRs allowed. It’s generally pretty close to FIP, but it’s generally more stable from year to year. Importantly, the fact that it’s more stable than FIP is either a feature or a bug, depending on what you’re using it for. What Judge’s statistic attempts to do is bridge the gap between predictive models and descriptive ones. It’s not necessarily the best at predicting future runs allowed, but given the noise involved in *that*, Judge argues that we need to evaluate not only how well it predicts runs out of sample, but how well it predicts *itself* in future years.

One of the tantalizing aspects of cFIP is Judge’s use of “mixed models” to calculate cFIP. Instead of ignoring everything from batter handedness to ballpark to umpire, the model incorporates them, while keeping them segregated from the fixed effects (things with only a set number of possibilities; no matter how many observations you make, pitchers will throw with either their left or right hands). The model can then examine the “random effects” to see how they effect runs, adding certainty as you add more and more observations/data. So while FIP treats all HRs the same, and xFIP strips out all actual HRs, cFIP is an early example of a cool hybrid. A HR to Troy Tulowtizski in Colorado is *different* than a HR to Brendan Ryan in Safeco, and it’d be cool to incorporate that information into a FIP-like statistic. Judge is a great writer, and the explanation of the approach is surprisingly readable – he outlined mixed models in this great post on catcher framing, and his description of their application to cFIP is surprisingly lucid to a non-gory math person like me.

In the spirit of embracing context instead of ignoring it, Judge’s tests of various metrics isn’t how well it predicts future runs, but rather RE24. This is a win-expectancy-based stat, that calculates changes in run expectancy (runners on base and outs) as well as actual runs scored. A 2-out bases loaded hit is more damaging to a pitcher’s RE24 than it is to his FIP, which is uninterested in the base-out state, and uninterested in the hit itself. That’s an interesting change, though it’s something to keep in mind when you look at Judge’s table of correlations – he compares in-season correlations to RE24/PA of a bunch of run estimators, like FIP, xFIP, SIERA, ERA, RA, etc. Correlating to runs is hard enough, but adding context makes it even tougher – cFIP isn’t particularly good at the task, though it squeaks past SIERA, xFIP and the like. That said, a contextual measure being better correlated with another contextual measure than those that explicitly and intentionally *ignore* context isn’t all that impressive. cFIP moves to last place when he runs a weighted correlation on all pitchers, not just those who meet a batters-faced floor. Unsurprisingly, the ones that do well in this test are the *most* context-dependent, namely RA – a measure that lugs around a pitcher’s defense with him.

That said, cFIP shines when predicting RE24 in the following year. Shines may not be a particularly good term here; its three year average correlation is under .4, leaving it all but tied with SIERA, xFIP and kwERA (a Tom Tango metric that uses strikeouts and walks *only*). It’s really, really hard to predict a measure with as much noise as RE24, given that it RE24 is so dependent on sequencing. That’s not a knock on cFIP (or kwERA), but it’s worth noting that we’re talking about very small differences in what is ultimately not-so-hot predictive power. cFIP also ranks #1 in how well the measure correlates with itself from year to year, again finishing ahead of kwERA and SIERA.

So…is it, you know, good? It’s promising, but I’m not sure that *this version* gets us all that far. As we’ve seen, it’s quite close to kwERA, an extremely simple measure that does a bit better as a descriptor if a tiny bit worse as a predictor (of RE24, mind you). That it’s stable *could* be an indication that it’s homed in on true talent, but it could be an artifact of all the regression the model is doing. A measure will reduce big errors by squishing everyone towards the mean, but that can obscure or underestimate the gaps between great pitchers and their not-so-great colleagues. Adding more regression may give you more stability, but it does so by ignoring what actually happened; it may not be getting you closer to true talent, it may just be minimizing the importance of true talent. A number of much smarter-than-I analysts have already pointed these concerns out – here’s Neil Weinberg on the former, and Peter Jensen on the latter.

For me, I find it somewhat odd that it’s *so close* to measures like xFIP and kwERA that ignore HRs entirely. It’s utilizing actual results, but I’m not seeing much of an effect from that. Let’s turn to a Mariner-centric example. James Paxton had an injury-shortened 2014, but he was effective due to a high GB% (and thus very few HRs allowed) and due to batting average on balls in play. ERA loved him, FIP loved the few-HRs thing, but wasn’t blown away by his K:BB ratio, while xFIP liked the GB%, but thought he got a bit lucky. Taking all of that into account and regressing the real results, what does cFIP think? Hmm, a touch *below* league average. Not even xFIP was willing to go that far. One thing that it could indicate is that it’s putting a lot of weight on parks and the specific batters Paxton faced – maybe he didn’t give up a lot of HRs because he faced a disproportionate share of Eric Sogards and few Mike Trouts. Baseball Prospectus tracks the quality of opposing hitters AND a pitcher-specific park factor, so that can help us explain this. Paxton did indeed benefit from a great run environment thanks to pitching in Seattle and Anaheim, but the quality of opponent metric is extreme – in the opposite direction. Paxton faced an extremely difficult slate of hitters; facing Anaheim four times, and then adding in Baltimore, Toronto and Oakland will do that. No one except Carson Smith faced an average hitter with so high an OPS, and Paxton was in the top few starters by this metric (relievers typically face tougher hitters for obvious reasons).

Another example is ex-Angels reliever Ernesto Frieri. Judge notes that Frieri is the player with the largest gap between his cFIP and FIP-, both of which are park-adjusted. Last year, Frieri had a lovely K:BB ratio, and well over a strikeout per inning. However, a barrage of HRs and an abysmal strand rate got him shipped out of town. Frieri ended the year with an ERA well over 7, and a FIP of around 5.5 – giving up 11 HRs in just over 40 innings will do that to a guy. His xFIP was better, but with such an extreme fly ball ratio, it’s still not great (it’s lower than Paxton’s, for example). cFIP sees past all that, giving him a 90, or 10% better than league average. Paxton’s slightly worse than average, Frieri – who faced a slightly *worse* set of hitters, and also enjoyed HR-suppressing park environments – was better. Batter handedness? Nah, Paxton faced *five times* as many righties as he did lefties. This is a very anecdotal way to analyze a statistic, but whatever the model is doing with actual HRs allowed an actual hitters, it can’t be much. If some set of circumstances completely outweigh the actual results, that’s fine, but then the complexity in adding in all of those actual results to the model doesn’t seem to have been worth it.

The model’s promise is the ability to bridge the gap between descriptive and predictive, but it’s not immediately clear what all of the “actual results” are doing. Maybe the model regresses them away, as they don’t have the stability of good old strikeouts and walks. That’s fine, that’s interesting, but if so, it doesn’t seem to offer a lot beyond kwERA/kwFIP. Instead of building a bridge between the two classes of metrics, it certainly *looks* like cFIP is setting up camp with the predictive models. It appears to be more stable, but again, if it’s more stable solely because the spread is much lower than it is for FIP, xFIP, etc. (to say nothing of ERA), then that limits cFIP’s utility. What would be interesting is to show the correlation between cFIP and kwERA, or cFIP and SIERA. My guess is that they’re going to be very, very high.

At this point, we’ve seen two innovative approaches to integrating actual results to predictive models, SIERA and now cFIP. Just as an outside observer, those actual results seem to get regressed away pretty quickly. Both seem, on paper, to take some pretty important things into account – velocity for SIERA and umpire for cFIP. And despite that, or rather *because* of that, they end up looking like a souped up xFIP. ERA is clearly and increasingly widely seen as inadequate, but every new pitching metric seems to train its guns on FIP. If you’re looking to better describe *actual* results, RA/9′s place in the pantheon isn’t imperiled by cFIP. To the degree that we learn something new about the game of baseball, and every new metric should attempt to illuminate some aspect of the game, what we learn (or re-learn) is the central insight into DIPS – that strikeouts and walks matter so, so much more hits. We’ve added tons of data to FIP, or rather xFIP, and we’ve moved the needle, but by frustratingly little. That’s interesting in itself, if frustrating. At this point, it seems like we’re not going to get a noticeably more predictive/descriptive model by adding a bit more data. Multiple smart people have added tons, and the gains are marginal. If we’re going to break actual new ground, it seems like we might need to add tons more data. Don’t just incorporate umpire or velo, but incorporate pitch type, location, of every pitch, and what pitches precede and follow each pitch. These models are already frightfully complicated, and I hope/fear they’re going to get exponentially more complicated.

Ultimately, I think the mixed model approach has so much potential, and my skepticism (or confusion!) about cFIP isn’t based on a low ranking of Paxton, but on the fact that I can’t immediately see how the model uses actual results, especially HRs. FIP is *so* HR-dependent, and that leads it to underestimate guys like Hisashi Iwakuma. Other measures drop them entirely. We need something in between, but it may be that there’s simply too much variability in them to do this effectively or neutrally. As Neil Weinberg says, the star of the show may be kwERA – that knowing a pitcher’s Ks and BBs can give you as much information as you’re likely to get about future runs allowed as metrics that are light years more complex. Still, cFIP is something to watch. I’m excited to see what Judge does with it, and how analysts might utilize it – I’m even more excited to see what Judge does next.

Cactus League Game 13, Dodgers at Mariners

marc w · March 15, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Roenis Elias vs. Clayton Kershaw, 1:05pm, Root TV, 710 radio

While Taijuan Walker wasn’t all that sharp yesterday, he managed to put up more zeroes. Roenis Elias may be competing for a bullpen spot at this point, given McClendon’s preference to have multiple lefties in the pen. With Elias’ durability and decent results against righties, he could function as the long reliever as well. Of course, the M’s may want him working regularly in AAA, a level he’s still never played in.

Today, he’ll face something pretty close to the Dodgers opening day line-up, and he’ll be opposed by the Dodgers opening day pitcher, Clayton Kershaw. The Cy Young/MVP winner is a fascinating pitcher. He came up as almost a two-pitch guy, with a big fastball and a curve. He was wild, but had great raw stuff, and that was enough for a while. Over time, he added a change and slider, but his run of dominance started when he essentially started throwing the fastball and slider to both lefties and righties. The curve is a good change of pace, but Kershaw’s greatly improved command allows him to use location to attack opposite-handed hitters and not worry too much about the pitch type. Last year, he threw lefties 28% sliders. To righties, it was 29%. Curve ball? 13% and 15%, respectively. There’s essentially no difference in pitch mix, but he’s able to put all of his pitches in tough spots to hit. He moves his fastball all over the strikezone; he’ll get whiffs above the zone, and he’ll also throw them down and in to righties to get weak contact. The most interesting evolution for Kershaw has been his development into a ground ball pitcher. He almost never throws a sinker, and his four-seam has tons of vertical rise, but more than half of all balls in play on it have been ground balls. As I’ve talked about, pretty much the only other pitcher whose FB works this way is James Paxton, the guy who consciously modeled himself on Kershaw. It’s still something I’d like to understand better – how does a rising FB, even when it’s thrown up in the zone, generate ground ball contact?

Good luck, M’s:

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ruggiano, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Weeks, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Peterson, 3B
9: Marte, SS
SP: Elias

Danny Hultzen was among the first cuts today, as 11 players were shipped to minor league camp. Not a surprise, frankly, though his progress is still very encouraging. Apparently, the M’s will start his season in a warm-weather climate, so don’t look for him in Tacoma to start. If everything goes well, we could see him in the PCL at some point.

Jim Henderson Decided the Shortstop Competition

Jeff Sullivan · March 14, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

From Greg Johns, on Friday afternoon:

PEORIA, Ariz. — Chris Taylor wasn’t about to let a fastball off the wrist slow his ongoing quest in the Mariners shortstop race Friday.

Officially, Chris Taylor has let a fastball off the wrist slow his ongoing quest in the Mariners shortstop race. From the press release:

Chris Taylor has been diagnosed with a fracture of the triquetrum bone in his right wrist.

At first I wasn’t sure what to think, but I just got off the phone with a doctor who confirmed that “triquetrum” is a real word, so this all seems legit, as opposed to being an elaborate prank being played by the team for some reason. Taylor’s going to be sidelined for some time, and while he thankfully won’t need any kind of surgical intervention, the shortstop competition is over, and it came down to Brewers reliever Jim Henderson, just like we all suspected. Based on the timeline of Taylor returning to baseball activities, the best-case scenario might be his becoming available around the beginning of May. More likely, it’ll be the middle or the end of the month.

And then, who knows, maybe we’ll have the shortstop competition revived. It’s not like this has been decided forever, irreversibly. But now we know Brad Miller will be the Mariners’ starting shortstop out of the gate, at least unless he also faces Jim Henderson. No one likes an injury, and we all have the right to be pissed off at Henderson for this:

taylor_1

On the other hand, maybe Henderson has served his punishment, because within literally seconds, Taylor tried to separate Henderson’s teeth from his mandible:

taylor_2

Often in the past, we’ve all been critical of players for trying to play through pain. Not only does performance tend to suffer — the injuries can get worse, as they aren’t given time to properly heal. What we have here, though, is Chris Taylor singling through the box a pitch after sustaining a fracture in his wrist. In other words, Taylor with a broken bone is batting 1.000. Market inefficiency? It’ll take some brave souls to find out.

Let’s assume Taylor’s fine in the long run. It’s not a given, since wrists are tricky, but he should be okay. We’ve had the biggest question of spring temporarily answered. Miller will be the shortstop. Willie Bloomquist, then, will be the backup, and Ketel Marte is around just to try to show off what he can do and prove he isn’t an offensive or defensive zero. Because Miller will be the guy, he’ll be that much more difficult to displace whenever Taylor is back in action. This spring, the two were locked in a fair and even fight. Once the season starts, it’ll be Miller’s job unless he loses it. Which he could do, but maybe this time he actually hits.

It’s possible things could become very complicated. Taylor is a shortstop. Marte is a shortstop. They can’t both be regular shortstops in Tacoma. Marc has written about this recently. Miller is the most versatile of the players, so in that sense it actually made more sense to have Taylor get the Mariners’ gig. Then Miller could move around at a bunch of positions in Tacoma, and Marte could play a lot of short and a little second. Now, I’m not sure. It won’t be hard for the season’s first few weeks, but then I don’t know what the course of action will be. If Miller’s doing well, there’ll be little urgency to move him. Maybe Willie Bloomquist could make this easier, by being really bad — then the Mariners could increasingly justify carrying both Miller and Taylor at the same time.

I still feel like Miller deserves a chance to be the Mariners’ next center fielder, after Austin Jackson. I think he has the skills, and there’s no one else in the system, unless you believe in James Jones, which you probably shouldn’t. Now, this news might make that ever so slightly less likely, with Miller locked in at short for a while. He might still be able to make a quick transition between 2015 – 2016, should it come to that, but you can see how there could be wide-ranging consequences of one fastball that seemingly got away from a Brewer. Maybe I’m taking this too far. The Mariners probably aren’t yet thinking about how they’re going to replace Austin Jackson. More importantly, they want to make sure Austin Jackson isn’t bad anymore.

One of the silver linings: the Mariners have lost a big-league-ready shortstop, and they still have a healthy big-league-ready shortstop. Not many teams would be able to say that. Another silver lining: between Miller and Taylor, I personally prefer Miller right now, so I like him more for a potential playoff season anyway. But I don’t know what’s going to happen in May. It’s hard to find room for so much up-the-middle depth when you want the guys playing every game.

Ultimately, in the long run, if Miller hits enough and if Taylor hits enough, they’ll both be starters somewhere. Yet, now Miller has won a competition by default, and Taylor has lost an opportunity to earn the distinction of being an Opening Day starter. So this isn’t the way anyone wanted this to go. Except for maybe Jim Henderson. Jim Henderson seems like a real son of a bitch.

Next Page »