Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Curious Case of Tim Lincecum

Strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) and left-on-base percentage (LOB%) are often closely correlated. According to FanGraphs.com, "Most pitchers have LOB%s around league average (which is approximately 70-72%, depending upon the season), and pitchers that deviate from that average tend to see their numbers regress towards average in the future." The MLB average LOB% from 2008-present is 72.4%. 

However, if a pitcher has a high strikeout rate, it's reasonable to expect he'll also have a high LOB%. Also according to FanGraphs.com, this is because "Pitchers that record a high numbers [sic] of strikeouts can pitch their way out of jams more easily than pitchers that rely upon their team’s defense, so they are able to maintain LOB%s higher than league average." 

Take a look at the correlation for yourself over the last seven-plus seasons:


























As K/9 rises, LOB% rises. As K/9 falls, LOB% falls. 

From 2008-11, Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum struck out 9.96 batters per nine innings and stranded 77.2% of baserunners. The National League averages during that time were 7.19 K/9 and 72.4 LOB%. So Lincecum had both averages beat handily, and that was perfectly explainable.

Moving to the present, Lincecum’s K/9 has decreased each of the last four seasons, from 9.19 in 2012 to 7.00 in 2015 (even after striking out eight Marlins in six innings in his last start). As Lincecum’s K/9 has decreased, so has his LOB%—that is, until this season.

Indeed, Lincecum’s LOB% fell from 78.5% in ‘11 to 67.8% in ‘12, and he couldn’t manage to reach even 70% in ’13 or ’14.

This year, however, Lincecum’s LOB% is 81.7%, despite having the lowest K/9 (7.00) of his career. Here's a closer look:


























The most likely explanation is luck. Even in last night’s start there were three or four times Lincecum was bailed out by outstanding outfield defense. Additionally, the Marlins hit a few balls that looked like home runs off the bat that died and found gloves (or the wall) in the cold and expansive AT&T Park.

Another factor to Lincecum’s success is his HR/FB ratio. From 2012-14, 13.5% of fly balls allowed by Lincecum were home runs. Even from 2008-2011, Lincecum’s dominant years, his HR/FB ratio was 7.25%. This year, it's a microscopic (and unsustainable) 3.6%.

But one of the more curious and intriguing facts about Lincecum’s 2015 season is his ground ball rate. For Lincecum’s entire career before this season, he induced ground balls at a rate of 46.7%. He's never had a season in which it was higher than 48.9%.

So far this year, it’s 54.0%. The N.L. average GB% from 2008-present is 45.2%. Tim Hudson, who throws a sinker, has a career GB% of 58.1%. 

So Lincecum’s high GB% and low HR/FB rate make sense taken together. And they suggest that we could be looking at something more than just luck.

Lincecum has always had tremendous downward movement on his pitches. If he’s learned to harness his movement and pitch toward the bottom of the strike zone, the high ground ball rate could be sustainable. (This could, of course, cause a sustainable dip in his home run rate.) And the Giants infield boasts some top defensive talent in Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, and Bradon Belt. So more ground balls would help Lincecum in a number of ways and could revitalize his career.

But inducing more grounders should be a matter of control if it’s intentional, and Lincecum’s 3.49 BB/9 this season is almost identical to his career average of 3.50. So it might be unrealistic to think that Lincecum suddenly has newfound command of his pitches.

Only one thing is certain. Lincecum is a very different pitcher now than he was when he took the league by storm from 2008-11.

With the new Tim Lincecum, we should absolutely expect his LOB% to regress toward league average (~72%) because of his below average strikeout rate.

A sustained high ground ball rate, then, seems like Lincecum's only hope of becoming highly effective at this point in his career. With ever decreasing velocity and strikeout rates, Lincecum’s must continue to induce lots of ground balls and limit home runs. We don't know if this will happen, but the numbers indicate that it just might.

--

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Beautifully Managed (by Bochy, at least) National League Baseball Game

Tonight’s Giants/Angels game—San Francisco’s first interleague game of the year—was a striking example of the beauty of National League baseball. It was an also an example of manager Bruce Bochy’s mastery of N.L. technique.

In this low-scoring, nine-inning game, the Giants used all but one of their active position players, and that 'one' was their third string catcher.

The game started off at a torrid pace. Both starters—C.J. Wilson and Chris Heston—sailed into the seventh. The Giants led 1-0 on a first inning sac fly.

But in the top of the seventh, Kole Calhoun led off with a bloop single. Then David Freese grounded into what should have been a double play to Casey McGehee, but he booted the ball to Brandon Crawford who threw to second for a force out. The play was reviewed and upheld.

C.J. Cron singled to right and Matt Joyce singled to center, tying the game and putting runners on the corners. Bochy came out and Jean Machi replaced Heston. Machi struck out Chris Iannetta, then Angels manager Mike Scioscia made his first mistake. He let his starting pitcher hit with two outs and runners on the corners in the seventh inning of a tie game. Unsurprisingly, Wilson popped out and the threat was over.

The Giants took the lead once again in the bottom of the seventh on a two-out Andrew Susac single up the middle that scored Angel Pagan.

In the top of the eighth, Sergio Romo took over for Machi, whose spot didn’t come up in the seventh.

Erick Aybar reached to lead off the inning on an error by second baseman Matt Duffy. Then Johnny Giavotella singled on a soft liner to center.

With none out and the tying run on third, Romo struck out Mike Trout with a slider.

With Calhoun—a lefty—coming up, Bochy replaced Romo with Jeremy Affeldt. With runners on the corners and one out, Affeldt hit Calhoun on an 0-2 fastball.

This loaded the bases for David Freese, a righty, so Bochy brought in his closer, Santiago Casilla. What’s more, with the pitcher’s spot due to lead off the bottom of the eighth for the Giants, Bochy brought in Casilla on a double switch, putting Joaquin Arias at third base in place of McGehee.

Casilla got Freese to his a shallow fly ball to center, but Angel Pagan triple-clutched on the throw and Aybar scored from third.

So the game was tied again, 2-2, and Casilla got Cron to pop out to Buster Posey at first base to end the inning.

Scioscia removed Wilson from the game, and Fernando Salas pitched a scoreless eighth.

Casilla followed suit with a scoreless ninth.

Then in the bottom of the ninth, Scioscia brought in side-winding right-hander Joe Smith.

Buster Posey legged out an infield single to lead off the inning. Bochy sent out Gregor Blanco to pinch run.

Justin Maxwell sacrificed Blanco to second.

Susac walked and Blanco advanced to third on a passed ball that hit home plate umpire Bill Miller on the left knee. Miller collapsed in pain and remained on the ground for some time and was attended to by trainers. Miller remained in the game.

With runners on first and third and one out, Brandon Belt pinch hit for Santiago Casilla, who had been placed into McGehee’s spot in the lineup.

The Angels deployed a five-man infield and a two-man outfield, but Belt struck out looking.

Brandon Crawford came up with runners on the corners and two outs, a righty in Smith on the mound and Arias on deck.

Crawford was 0 for 3 but had hit the ball hard all night. Scioscia elected not to let Smith face Crawford and had him walked intentionally.

Bochy had lefty Joe Panik pinch-hit for Arias. Scioscia had nobody up in his bullpen.

He had to know Panik was on the bench, so he essentially chose to have Panik at the plate with the bases loaded instead of Crawford with runners on the corners. Panik is a career .299 hitter with a .339 OBP and Crawford is a career .242 hitter with a .312 OBP.

What’s more, both hitters are left handed and Scioscia didn’t even have one of his two lefties warming up.

Panik promptly lined a single up the middle and the ballgame was over.

It was a fascinating game. It was National League baseball at its finest. Bochy demonstrated his genius. Scioscia did not.

On a related note, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright is out for the season after he tore his Achilles running to first base on a popup. Since the injury, many have been calling for the DH in the National League (although Wainwright himself said the DH has no place in the N.L.).

Baseball purists rightly denounce this effort. The National League game offers so much more in the way of strategy and bench management from having a pitcher in the lineup. Tonight was the perfect example. 

It was a beautiful. It was eventful. It was exceptionally managed (at least by the N.L. guy). It was a National League baseball game. May it never, ever change.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Who Are The 2014 Giants?

The 2014 season has been weird for the San Francisco Giants. They began the year an MLB-best 42-21 (.667) and have gone 27-41 (.397) since. They led the N.L. West by 9.5 games on Jun. 8, but currently trail the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers by five games.

At 69-62 (.527), San Francisco leads the second wild card by one game over the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Marty Lurie, a host on the Giants’ flagship radio station, KNBR 680, says that a baseball season is like a mosaic: you can’t judge it by its individual parts, its moments, games, and plate appearances. Only when you step back and look at the big picture do things come into focus and make sense.

So, now that we’re about to enter the season’s final month (can you believe it’s September already?), it’s appropriate to look back on the season that has been and see how all the moments add up. That’s what baseball is all about.

It’s interesting (and fun) to look at a team’s overall numbers in some key areas, then find individual players whose career or single season statistics are comparable. Let’s get right to it:

2014 San Francisco Giants wRC+: 98

Notable hitters with a career 98 wRC+:

Rich Aurilia: .275/.328/.433, 7.2 BB%, 13.7 K%, .158 ISO, 23 SB, 6,278 PA

Delmon Young: .283/.317/.425, 4.2 BB%, 18.0 K%, .141 ISO, 35 SB, 4,143 PA

2014 San Francisco Giants starting pitcher FIP: 3.66

Notable starting pitcher(s) with a career 3.66 FIP:

Ben Sheets: 3.78 ERA, 7.47 K/9, 2.08 BB/9, 1.04 HR/9, .295 BABIP

Mike Krukow: 3.90 ERA, 6.07 K/9, 3.15 BB/9, 0.81 HR/9, .288 BABIP

Notable starting pitcher(s) with ~ 3.66 FIP in 2014:

Ryan Vogelsong: 3.68 FIP, 3.78 ERA 7.26 K/9, 2.58 BB/9, 0.78 HR/9, .299 BABIP

2014 San Francisco Giants relief pitcher FIP: 3.24

Notable relief pitcher(s) with a career 3.24 FIP:

John Smoltz: 7.99 K/9, 2.62 BB/9, 0.75 HR/9, .283 BABIP

2014 San Francisco Giants UZR/150: 0.0

Notable player(s) with ~ 0.0 UZR/150 in career:

Matt Holliday (0.0 UZR/150 spanning ~ 13K innings in LF)

Edgar Renteria: (0.2 UZR/150 spanning ~ 11K innings at SS)

As you can see, the Giants’ lineup this season (including the pitcher's spot) has essentially been nine Rich Aurilias or Delmon Youngs, or any combination of the two. Having nine Delmon Youngs in your lineup (disregarding defense) is not the worst thing in the world, but it’s also far from the best. The potential for damage is there, but he’s going to let you down more often than not. If this sounds just about right for the Giants, that’s because the comps are accurate.

Next, the Giants’ starting rotation has been five Mike Krukows or Ben Sheets, or any combination of the two. Or it's been five 2014 Ryan Vogelsongs. This means that Vogelsong is the typical Giants starter this year—he’s right in the middle of an up-and-down rotation.

The bullpen has been good. John Smoltz (in his career) is a pretty good comp to have for your bullpen as a whole in a season.

Lastly, the Giants defense as a whole in 2014 has been equivalent to how Matt Holliday plays left field or how Edgar Renteria plays shortstop. It’s possible to do worse, but it’s also possible to do a whole lot better. 

Delving deeper into the Giants' defensive issues, Michael Morse has an atrocious (and I mean atrocious) -24.6 UZR/150 in 577 innings in LF this season. His deplorable defense almost completely offsets his terrific 135 wRC+, as he’s been worth just 1.0 WAR this season.

Let’s take the comps a step further by looking at two elite teams in the N.L.:

The Dodgers’ 105 wRC+ this season means they’ve essentially had nine Ray Durhams in the lineup every night.

Durham’s career stats: 105 wRC+, .277/.352/.436, 9.7 BB%, 14.3 K%, .158 ISO, 273 SB, 8,423 PA

And the Dodgers’ 3.50 team FIP in 2014 means that their entire pitching staff has been Garrett Richards.

Richards’ career stats: 3.66 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 7.25 K/9, 3.07 BB/9, 0.63 HR/9, .288 BABIP

Even scarier, the Nationals’ 3.23 team FIP this season means they have been a staff of Curt Schillings.

Schilling’s career stats: 3.46 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 8.60 K/9, 1.96 BB/9, 0.96 HR/9, .293 BABIP

And Washington’s 1.5 UZR/150 team defense means they’ve collectively played as well as Justin Upton plays right field and Erick Aybar plays shortstop.

In summation, the Giants are a decent/pretty good MLB team, but they are clearly not as good as some other teams in the N.L. (and the A.L. for that matter) in some key categories.

On any given day, Ryan Vogelsong might pitch a shutout, while Curt Schilling sometimes got rocked. Every now and then, Delmon Young goes 4 for 4 or hits a home run and a double, while Ray Durham surely took his share of 0 for 5s. These things happen sometimes. That’s baseball.

But when you step back and look at the big picture, more often than not Schilling dealt, Durham outplayed Delmon, and Justin Upton made a fine running catch and throw while Matt Holliday just couldn't quite get there in time.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Time for Giants to Part Ways with Hector Sanchez

San Francisco Giants backup catcher Hector Sanchez is a ball magnet.

Every single time he plays—and this is no exaggeration—he takes a savage beating behind home plate. Foul tips rock his hockey-style catcher’s mask at least three or four times a game. He also takes baseballs to the shoulders, fingers, feet and groin like you would not believe.

So to no one’s surprise, Sanchez finds himself on the disabled list with a concussion. And the Giants are taking their time bringing him back, as the team is all too familiar with concussions caused by multiple blows to the head (Mike Matheny’s playing career came to a screeching halt because of multiple concussions sustained when he strapped on the tools of ignorance for San Francisco back in 2006).

While it may seem cruel to add insult to injury, now is the perfect time for the Giants to part ways with Sanchez.

The trouble is that Sanchez’s bat is a ball magnet, too—and not in the good, solid contact kind of way. He simply can’t stop swinging at pitches in or out of the strike zone.

Simply put, Sanchez is not a good baseball player, while his replacement, Andrew Susac, is.

Sanchez has been one of the worst players in MLB this season. Take a look at how he’s fared in some key statistical categories, along with how those stats rank among fellow National Leaguers with a minimum of 170 plate appearances:

OBP
K%
wOBA
wRC+
O-Swing %
Swing %
.237 (2nd-worst)
31.1% (6th-worst)
.237 (2nd-worst)
52 (4th-worst)
47.1% (2nd-highest)
63.0% (highest)

This chart essentially shows that Giants fans have selected an appropriate nickname for Sanchez. They call him “Hack-tor”.

Susac, on the other hand, is known for his plate discipline. He’s never had a BB% lower than 12.9% in four minor league seasons (Sanchez’s career BB% is 4.0%). Susac’s slash line for AAA-Fresno this season was .268/.379/.451. Hopefully he never goes back.

In 26 plate appearances for the Giants this season, Susac has a .250 average and a .308 OBP. He’s swung at just 22% of pitches outside of the strike zone (compared to 47.1% for Sanchez) and he’s struck out only 19.2% of the time (31.1% for Sanchez). Perhaps most importantly, Susac has already been worth 0.1 WAR, meaning he’s added value to the team even though he’s played in only parts of 10 baseball games. Comparatively, Sanchez has been worth -0.2 WAR in 66 games, meaning that even an average minor league replacement player would have been more valuable.

And Susac is an average replacement level catcher at worst. In fact, it’s hard to argue that he is that bad. So there’s essentially no question that Susac is superior to Sanchez.

In a baseball era where it is increasingly accepted and known that getting on base--not making outs--is the most important baseball skill, Sanchez has proven himself to be a free-swinging out machine.

That’s why the era of Susac ought to be upon us. What’s more, backup catcher is an especially interesting position on this Giants team.

There is increasing sentiment within the organization that Buster Posey needs to be moved out from behind the dish. He’s arguably their most valuable offensive player, but as a catcher, he requires frequent days off, and the physical demands of catching already seem to be wearing Posey down.

Offensive skills deteriorate faster for catchers than for non-catchers, so as Posey ages and navigates the seven remaining years of his 9-year, $163 million contract, the Giants are absolutely right to seriously consider moving Posey to a less demanding and offensively crippling position.

Third baseman Pablo Sandoval will be a free agent after this season, and if he walks away, it will create a glaring hole at third base—a hole that could be filled by Posey. Posey played all over the diamond in college, including shortstop and pitcher, so it’s at least possible that he could man the hot corner next year and beyond. If Posey moves to third base, Brandon Belt could stay at first and Susac could settle in as the everyday catcher.

But if the Giants re-sign Sandoval, there could be a logjam if the Giants indeed have intentions of getting Posey out of the squat.

Belt has good speed (he has 23 steals in 409 MLB games and he’s only 26 years old), so it’s possible he could play a decent left field, allowing Posey to play first base and Sandoval to stay at third. This is not ideal, and I understand that it’s possible Belt will not be a good defensive outfielder (but hey, he can’t be worse than Michael Morse, can he?).

Even if Posey remains behind the plate, he gets a lot of rest (as most catchers do), so it’s important to have a good backup catcher if at all possible. That’s why it’s time for the offensively skilled Susac to leapfrog the offensively challenged Sanchez on the organizational depth chart.

Sorry Sanchez, but Susac is the catcher of the future. It's time to let him play.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Quantifying the Giants' Season-Threatening Slump



If, like me, you found yourself thinking that the Giants offense has looked like the worst in baseball these last two weeks, it turns you were completely right.  

Let’s get right into the numbers:

Stat.
Last 14 Days
MLB Rank
BA
.200
30th
OBP
.258
30th
wOBA
.249
30th
SLG
.302
30th
wRC+
59
30th
BABIP
.241
30th
Runs
28
30th
RBI
27
30th
SB
2
T-29th

San Francisco’s 59 wRC+ in the last 14 days is three points lower than pitcher Adam Wainwright’s 62 wRC+ this season.

In other words, the Giants offense would have been better off these last two weeks with nine Wainwrights in the lineup instead of what they’ve been featuring on a daily basis. Wainwright is hitting .231/.268/.308 with zero home runs and zero stolen bases on the year.

That says it all, doesn’t it?

On the pitching end, the starters have actually been good lately. It’s the bullpen that’s been stinking up the joint.

Have a look for yourself:

  San Francisco Giants Pitching Last 14 Days (N.L. Rank in Parentheses)

 Personnel
ERA
FIP
WAR
K/9
HR/9
BABIP
LOB%
GB%
Starters
2.79 (4th)
2.84 (2nd)
1.7
(T-2nd)
7.14 (7th)
0.31 (1st)
.268 (4th)
73.5% (9th)
48.4% (2nd)
Bullpen
5.40 (13th)
4.02 (13th)
-0.2 (15th)
6.30 (15th)
0.90 (12th)
.347 (12th)
63.9% (13th)
37.0% (15th)

As you can see, the bullpen has been among the worst in the N.L. over the last two weeks. In that span, they’re the only bullpen in the league to have a negative WAR, and they’ve struck out the fewest batters per nine innings. They’ve also stranded 8.1% fewer base-runners than what’s considered normal.

The issue is that they’re not striking anybody out. San Francisco pitchers used to strike hitters out more than pretty much any other team. Nowadays, it’s just not happening. When pitchers aren’t striking people out, opposing teams are more likely to score runs because balls in play sometimes result in defensive mistakes and lucky hits.

The .347 bullpen BABIP over the last 14 days and 4.02 FIP compared to 5.40 ERA suggests that, indeed, the lack of strikeouts (an NL-worst 6.30 per 9 innings) has led to more chances for defensive miscues and lucky hits.

While we can expect some of these numbers to normalize (like the high BABIP and huge difference between FIP and ERA), the lack of strikeouts is seriously problematic.

So much of the Giants’ success in recent years was due to pitching dominance. So much of pitching dominance is about high strikeout rates.

The Giants no longer have a strikeout staff. Therefore the staff is no longer even close to dominant. That’s why the 2014 season is in serious jeopardy.

We can expect the offense to improve (they can’t be the worst offense in baseball with Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval, and Mike Morse in the lineup most nights).

However, Angel Pagan is on the D.L., Posey gets frequent days off, and Morse and Sandoval are injury prone. 

So the Giants’ bench has received (and should continue to receive) a lot of playing time. And they’ve been one of the worst (if not the worst) benches in the league.  

We knew the bench was thin at the beginning of the year. We didn’t know that the strikeouts would dwindle.

Regardless, if the Giants want to get back to their winning ways, they’ll need to trade for more strikeouts from their bullpen and a much better bench. That’s a tall order. If they can’t address these glaring weaknesses, they just might spell the end of a once-promising 2014 season for the Giants.