Around the Web: Research, the Hall, and the PanTanakapticon
It’s been a while since we’ve discussed research and musings from the baseballing web, so let’s discuss and muse.
1: Andrew Koo of Baseball Prospectus wrote a very interesting post on the success the A’s have had by apparently targeting fly-ball hitters (the post was republished by Deadspin here, so you don’t need a BP account to read it). This is counterintuitive given Oakland’s homer-suppressing park – why would they target pitchers who benefit from the pitcher-friendly O.co Coliseum and then pick up just the hitters you’d expect to be destroyed by the same home park? Well, flyball hitters – as a group – are slightly better than neutral batters. But that advantage is magnified when they face ground-ballers, whose sinkers drop invitingly onto the barrels of uppercutting fly-ball hitters. It’s probably not a fluke that the A’s hit .272/.338/.439 off GB-pitchers, for a sOPS+ of 113 (where 100 is league average), and they hit into the 2nd fewest double plays in the league from 2012-13.
It’s kind of funny looking at the FB% leaderboards and seeing the M’s so high. Reminds me of reviewing Bojan Koprivica’s work on platoons at THT and seeing the M’s rank so high in percentage of ABs with the platoon advantage. The problem isn’t the theory, it’s the execution. The M’s had de jure platoon advantages when they needed de facto ones – Justin Smoak and Nick Franklin “had the advantage” standing at the plate right-handed, but their own horrific platoon splits made the assumed advantage moot. Similarly, the M’s had the second lowest GB/FB ratio in baseball last year, but it didn’t help them hit groundball pitchers, flyball pitchers, or much of anyone. Their big fly-ball hitters include Kyle Seager (not bad), Justin Smoak (eh), Nick Franklin, Mikes Zunino and Morse, and, comically, Brendan Ryan. Add it up, and the M’s posted an sOPS+ against groundballers of just 91 (and an sOPS+ against flyballers of 90).
2: Ballots for the Hall of Fame’s class of 2014 are due today. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Edgar Martinez is not going to be elected. Jack Morris – the guy who was maybe the 4th-5th best player on some good Tigers teams – might get in, and none of it makes any sense.* No-doubt cases won’t be admitted due to whispers about steroids, great players will be looked over for reasons that simply don’t make any sense (Jack Morris had more opening day starts than Mike Mussina, so….), and we’ll all question why people who haven’t been beat-writers in years get to vote while [fill in your favorite baseball writer here] can’t. I don’t understand what this system is for, and what it’s doing, other than generating a lot of vituperative “dialog” and “buzz” or some other marketing cliche. At this point, I basically dread the whole thing – the sub-talk radio level of discourse, the aggravation, the sanctimony, all of it.
I wouldn’t mind caring about the Hall a little more, and I think I might once I go and visit the museum. But I just don’t have it in me to get worked up over it, and I say this as someone who’s devoted thousands of words to Garrett Richards, Carlos Peguero, Jordan Lyles and various AAAA guys who’ve played for or against the Rainiers. The system appears broken, and the weighting of various qualities seems arbitrary. But the Hall seems to have anticipated this and created the Veterans’ Committee as a side door to the Monument room. It’s funny that the VC, long the target of sabermetric jokes and scorn, is now something of the last best hope of people like me, who think Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Mike Mussina and, yes, Edgar Martinez should be in a place where the best ballplayers are remembered. The Hall seems to judge more recent players much more harshly, and while I understand why, I’m fairly certain that a future VC will rectify at least part of the damage.
3: Masahiro Tanaka, wooooo! There’ve been several great articles on Tanaka just within the past 24 hours. Our fearless leader posted a poll on what Tanaka’s contract might be, and the results were about what I’d expect – 6 years at $20m or so per annum. Ex-M’s analyst Tony Blengino weighed in on Tanaka’s stuff, how his stats may translate, and what some of the red flags for teams may be as the 25-year old heads to MLB. Doug Thorburn took a look at Tanaka’s mechanics in a gif-heavy post at BP. On the face of it, it looks odd – a guy with great numbers but without true ace stuff, a guy who’ll be adjusting to starting every 5th day instead of every 7th, and a guy who never showed an ability to avoid good contact in Japan, is going to get paid like an upper-tier free agent. There are a number of things that follow from this collection of facts/assumptions.
First, this (presumed) contract looks bizarre because we’ve essentially never seen a fully-fledged, MLB-ready player drop into the league *as a free agent*. Blengino mentions it in his post, and Dave discusses the implications here, but think about it: Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka came over under the old posting process, so while the posting fee was something like a free market, the ultimate contract offered to the player certainly wasn’t. The player could negotiate with only one team, and if they didn’t like the deal, their option was simply to go back to Japan. So yes, it helps that Tanaka’s a bit younger than Darvish and Dice-K were, but that’s marginal stuff, really. Tanaka’s the first *actual* free agent from Japan, and he’s been deemed much more MLB-ready than the big Cuban emigres who’ve come over recently, Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes (both of whom exceeded expectations).
Second, Blengino’s post reiterates for me just how varied the perceptions of Tanaka’s value must be around baseball. With the posting fee of just $20m, every team should at least kick the tires a bit, but I’d anticipate huge gaps between what teams would offer him. Blengino points to certain skills that would be harbingers of success – most importantly, his ability to get whiffs or outs on pitches up in the zone. This is essentially a scouting exercise, and I’m not qualified to opine there – but think of everything a team might evaluate when considering Tanaka’s ability to pitch up without getting hammered. Should we limit the number of pitches he throws to really hone great arm action on the fastball and splitter? Can we sequence pitches to maximize deception? Do we have coaches who will notice the instant Tanaka starts to drop his arm angle or tilt his head at delivery? Should a team like the Dodgers bid more than the Yankees because of their home park, or would the Yankees just utilize him differently (fewer elevated FBs, more splitters at the knees)? Are we sure he can sustain his velocity on high fastballs pitching every 5th day instead of every 7th?
The fact that Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda have been so successful as GB%, sinker-splitter guys is telling. If Tanaka ultimately can’t pitch up without yielding a number of home runs, Iwakuma shows how to be extremely successful despite that flaw. Other teams may want to look at possible platoon splits and how to tweak his pitch mix to minimize them.** Some teams may view his BABIP success in 2013 as evidence that his command had taken a big step forward (and they could point to his miniscule walk rate as well), but it would certainly be helpful to know exactly what he did and why it resulted in poorer contact allowed if you wanted to pay him $140 million. Tanaka’s young enough, and baseball’s rich enough, that a team’s place on the win curve isn’t as important as it would usually be. How a team sees his arsenal and their own ability to deploy it effectively is perhaps *more* important than it is with a known entity like Garza or Jimenez.
* That sounds harsher than I mean it to. Morris was a pretty good pitcher who was extremely durable and fought off aging exceedingly well; he’s the type of player that voters often overlook and saber-folk rally around. The fact that this whole saga is the bizarre inversion of the Burt Blyleven thing is just another facet of this I don’t quite understand. I hate saying it, but so much of the HOF debate resembles trolling, and while I’m sure it was like this back in the pre-internet days, it sure doesn’t make me want to dive in to these “debates” more fully. Does Murray Chass deserve some of the vitriol aimed at him? Probably, but what could I possibly say that Joe Posnanski hasn’t said earlier and better?
** The M’s appear to have done this with Iwakuma, incidentally. Because he relies so much on his split, Iwakuma’s posted reverse splits in his career, and he changed his approach to righties from 2012-2013. Against lefties, Iwakuma’s a strong GB pitcher, who succeeds by allowing poor contact. Against righties, his GB% was 10 percentage points lower, and while he gives up plenty of homers to them, he also gets a lot of pop-ups. Iwakuma hasn’t been credited enough for his ability to adapt, and the M’s probably deserve some credit for this too.