17 December 2014

O's Sign Wesley Wright, a Potential Replacement for Brian Matusz

On Tuesday night, the Orioles reached an agreement with left-handed reliever Wesley Wright on a one-year deal. Wright, who turns 30 in January, was a seventh-round draft pick by the Dodgers in 2003 and a Rule 5 selection by the Astros in 2007. He has pitched in parts of seven major league seasons with the Astros, Rays, and Cubs.

Entering his final arbitration year with a projected salary of around $2 million (he made about $1.4 million in 2014), Wright was non-tendered by the Cubs earlier this month.

Year Age Tm Lg SV IP ERA+ FIP BB9 SO9
2008 23 HOU NL 1 55.2 85 5.00 5.5 9.2
2009 24 HOU NL 0 44.2 76 5.29 5.0 9.5
2010 25 HOU NL 0 33.0 70 5.14 3.5 7.9
2011 26 HOU NL 0 12.0 261 3.52 3.8 8.3
2012 27 HOU NL 1 52.1 124 3.34 2.9 9.3
2013 28 TOT AL 0 53.2 110 3.92 3.2 9.2
2013 28 HOU AL 0 41.1 104 4.06 3.5 8.7
2013 28 TBR AL 0 12.1 136 3.45 2.2 10.9
2014 29 CHC NL 0 48.1 121 3.44 3.5 6.9
7 Yrs 2 299.2 97 4.27 4.0 8.7
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/16/2014.

Unlike Brian Matusz, who made 68 career starts at the major league level before being moved to the bullpen, Wright has almost exclusively been used as a reliever (only four major league starts, all in 2010). Throwing out the starter innings, here's how they compare:

Matusz: 116.0 IP, 9.47 K/9, 2.79 BB/9, 3.28 FIP, 3.61 xFIP, 37.6 GB%, 7.9% HR/FB
Wright: 280.2 IP, 8.79 K/9, 3.98 BB/9, 4.23 FIP, 3.78 xFIP, 48.4 GB%, 14.2% HR/FB

Wright's sample size is much larger than Matusz's -- by more than 164 innings. But Matusz does have superior numbers, almost across the board. Wright has a nearly 11% advantage in groundball rate, but he's also extremely susceptible to the long ball.

Using career innings splits, though, Wright is similar to Matusz in terms of retiring left-handed batters.

Matusz: 150.2 IP, .273 wOBA against, 10.69 K/9, 2.21 BB/9
Wright: 138.0 IP, .292 wOBA against, 10.24 K/9, 3.20 BB/9

Again, Wright walks more batters, but those numbers are pretty close.

Wright relies on five different pitches, which is a bit odd for a reliever. Many only need two or three. Or some, like Zach Britton, basically rely on one phenomenal pitch. But over the last couple seasons, he's thrown five different pitches more than 8% of the time. Those pitches would be a four-seam fastball, sinker, curveball, and change-up. Wright rarely throws change-ups to lefties and generally sticks to four-seamers, sinkers, and sliders, but he mixes in more curveballs and change-ups to right-handers.

Unlike Wright, Matusz can't become a free agent until 2017 since he's eligible for four arbitration years as a Super Two player. He's also a little younger (he turns 28 in February) and better. But he's also a bit more expensive, and the Orioles do at least appear open to using Matusz as a trade chip to improve another part of the team.

With Andrew Miller gone, the left-handed options in the bullpen are currently Zach Britton and T.J. McFarland, along with Matusz and Wright. Britton will likely resume his role as closer, and McFarland could find himself back in Norfolk, especially if the Orioles end up keeping all six of their current starting pitching options -- Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Miguel Gonzalez. So there could conceivably be a role for both Wright and Matusz in the same bullpen, depending on its construction. But since both are pretty awful against right-handed batters, it would be difficult, and it would also limit Buck Showalter's options in late-game situations. Also, like Matusz, Wright is out of minor league options.

If the O's do end up parting ways with Matusz, Wright should at least do a decent job of replacing him. His walk and HR/FB rates are concerning, though perhaps the O's see value in his high groundball rate with a strong infield defense working behind him. And if anyone knows how to get the most out of various relief options, it's Showalter.

16 December 2014

Can Colby Rasmus Be the New Nelson Cruz?

Entering the 2013 offseason, the Baltimore Orioles needed an outfielder. After waiting, and waiting, and waiting, they finally struck, signing Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal. That obviously worked out very well, as he accrued 3.9 WAR and played a key role in their division title. Although they couldn't re-sign him, the deal was a success.

Entering the 2014 offseason, the Orioles once again needed an outfielder. After waiting, and waiting (albeit not as long as last year), they may soon strike:
Would this pay off? Let's look into it.

Last week, Matt Kremnitzer scrutinized Rasmus as a possible outfield option. I don't want to analyze it from that angle — I want to find the probability of a Cruz-like breakout.

It's important to establish that Rasmus is a very different type of player than Cruz, in many regards: While the latter predicates most of his performance on hitting ability, the former takes a more balanced approach. Rasmus is also much younger (28, to Cruz's 34) and has a more recent history of excellence — a year ago, he accumulated 4.8 WAR in only 458 plate appearances.

With that said, they do share one trait: volatility. Their performance could reasonably vacillate from star- to replacement-level, depending on several factors. Basically, I'd like to make the case for the first extreme out of Rasmus in 2015. It's not as unrealistic as you might think.

OFFENSE

Offensive production generally boils down to three things: walk rate, strikeout rate, batting average on balls in play, and isolated power. In 2013, Rasmus smacked a 129 wRC+ on the power of the latter two, as his .225 ISO and .356 BABIP made up for a 8.1% BB% and 29.5% K%. This year, the clout and free passes stayed the same, but the fans and hits on balls in play took turns for the worse, resulting in offense a mere 3% better than average.

For 2015, Steamer projects an analogous base on balls clip, with which I can't argue; its modest BABIP projection also seems logical, seeing as how Rasmus hits a lot of fly balls (and popups). The strikeout rate should come down to earth as well, mainly because of regression to the mean. But Steamer sees a significant drop in ISO, to .185, meaning his wRC+ will remain at 2014 levels. And I don't really see why this will happen.

Rasmus had a lot of power coming up in the minors — as a 20-year-old, he abused AA pitchers for a .275 ISO in 556 trips to the dish — so the past two seasons weren't unprecedented for him. Moreover, his batted balls support such a rise. According to Baseball Heat Maps, he's hit fly balls an average of 289.4 feet since 2013 began. For comparison, Edwin Encarnacion and Anthony Rizzo had 288-foot marks this year. So, yeah, that's pretty powerful.

If he does keep up the brawn, his wRC+ will stay in the 110-120 range, which represents a 5- to 10-run upgrade over Steamer's projections. Even that. though, won't make him a breakout. No, for that to happen, he'll need improvement on the other side of the ball.

DEFENSE

Fielding is where things get weird. For his career, Rasmus has put up mediocre defense: His career UZR/150 sits at an uninspired -0.6. However, that number comes as the result of a lot of uneven outputs. His UZR/150 has ranged from the very good (13.7 in 2009, 15.2 in 2013), to the average (exactly 0 in 2012), to the very bad (-8.3 in 2010, -10.4 in 2011, and -15.3 in 2014). Indeed, the tale of Rasmus's work in the field deftly illustrates the problem with contemporary defensive metrics.

So what'll happen in 2015? Nothing noteworthy, according to Steamer: It projects him for -5.7 defensive runs per 600 plate appearances. We're not here to focus on that, though — we want to see if he could explode, as he did in 2013.

Let's again look at 2013 and 2014, in which his defense matched his offense (for better or for worse). In that glorious campaign, he made plays on 227 of the 237 balls in his zone, for a revised zone rating of .958. That didn't decrease that much in 2014; at .944, it still easily beat the MLB-wide average of .919 for center fielders.

The routine plays didn't drive the 30-run discrepancy between the campaigns. Rather, he simply had many fewer out-of-zone plays made — 81 in 2013, 48 in 2014. If he receives more opportunities, which can always happen in the crazy world of baseball, he would have more chances to provide value, pumping up his UZR and his WAR.

This comes down to true talent level, and Rasmus's consistently high RZR leads me to believe that he has the ability to field well. That he hasn't done so particularly often probably testifies to his injury woes; assuming they disappear in 2015 (as happened to Cruz, albeit to a lesser extent, in 2014), his defense could take a turn for the better.

Realistically, this could happen. Probably, it won't (hence the projection). Regardless, as a team without much payroll and with a shrinking window for contention, the Orioles need to take risks, and Rasmus certainly has the upside to make a one-year deal pay off.

Baltimore will need some incredible performances in 2015 if it wants to replicate its 2014 division crown. Cruz can't do what he did in 2014, so maybe Rasmus can step in. It's unlikely, but so was Cruz's breakout. You never know.

15 December 2014

Expanding on the Orioles' Rule 5 Acquisitions

In the major league phase of the December 11 Rule 5 draft, the Orioles acquired two players. They purchased pitcher Jason Garcia from the Astros after Houston had selected him from the Red Sox, and with their own selection they drafted pitched Logan Verrett from the Mets. You may decide that I'm a baseball freak in many senses of the term because I've actually seen both Verrett and Garcia pitch live in minor-league games. On June 7, 2013, after a rainy afternoon at the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, I saw Logan Verrett pitch for the Binghamton Mets against the Altoona Curve at People's Natural Gas Field in Altoona, PA. And on August 7, 2014, on my way to Atlanta, I saw Jason Garcia pitch three innings of relief for the Greenville Drive against the Augusta Greenjackets at Fluor Field in Greenville, SC.

I admit I don't remember Verrett or Garcia. However, as I have done at almost every baseball game I've attended since I was eight years old, I kept score and kept the scoresheets. So, I'll look back at those games to learn about the new Orioles.

Logan Verrett


The Altoona Curve didn't score many runs against Logan Verrett, and he was credited with Binghamton's 3-2 win. But it really wasn't because of how Logan Verrett pitched that Altoona didn't score:

IP
H
R
ER
BB
K
Game Score
6
9
2
2
2
3
51

Four Altoona runners were retired on the bases - one doubled off first base on a soft line drive; another picked off second by the catcher; a third thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double; and a fourth caught stealing. In an alternate universe with no baserunning errors and unchanged batter results, Altoona would have scored two more runs and won the game.

The Altoona batters consistently hit the ball in the air against Logan Verrett:

Ground Ball
6
Fly Ball
8
Line Drive
6
Walk
2
Strikeout
3

And Verrett wasn't missing bats. I can't state it as a fact, but I don't recall a starting pitcher having such a high percentage of pitches fouled off:

Ball
28
Called Strike
13
Swinging Strike
5
Foul Ball
27
In Play
20

Based on this game, I don't see what Logan Verrett brings to the Orioles. He looks like a generic minor-league starting pitcher, and even though he only cost $50,000 to acquire, I don't think he's worth a spot on the forty-man roster. Nor do I see what role he would perform on the Orioles better than other available pitchers. It's certainly possible that Verrett pitched better overall than in this one game, and it's also possible that he's improved over the past season. But it seems to me that Verrett is just starting pitching depth for Norfolk. For Verrett to fill that role, the Mets would have to not reclaim him when he's offered back; and it wouldn't be a surprise if the Mets didn't reclaim him.

Jason Garcia


If the Orioles' selection of Logan Verrett is puzzling, the Orioles' acquisition of Jason Garcia (via trade with Houston) is understandable although unlikely to pan out. The major reason the move is unlikely to pan out is that the 22-year-old Garcia has only reached Class A and has pitched only about eighty innings in the past two seasons. But it's easy to see him succeeding as a power arm in the bullpen.

While Garcia's pitching line isn't all that impressive, there are extenuating circumstances:

IP
H
R
ER
BB
K
Game Score
3
5
3
3
1
4
40

Again, this was as a relief pitcher. Garcia didn't allow a run in his first two innings; Greenville had a 5-0 lead going into the top of the ninth. In the ninth, the probably-tiring Garcia allowed three runs. Facing the potential tying run, he ended the game with a strikeout to get credit for a save. His apparent future is in the bullpen, so his tiring in his third inning isn't much of a problem.

But he's even more interesting. Of the thirteen batters he faced, one hit the ball in the air (a double off the left-field wall by the second-to-last batter he faced) and seven hit the ball on the ground. If Garcia can consistently get both ground balls and strikeouts, he can be a very effective relief pitcher.

The Orioles will have to offer Garcia back to the Red Sox if he isn't able to stick on the active roster all season. Garcia is simply not ready for the major leagues. Some teams will carry a promising young pitcher who's far from being ready, hoping to keep him and using him in mop-up roles. But those teams are usually not contenders (although Milwaukee did carry an inexperienced Wei-Chung Wang in 2014, getting him 17 major-league innings and 23 minor-league rehab innings around stints on the disabled list.) The Orioles are contenders and rely on every player on the roster. It doesn't seem likely that the Orioles will waste a roster spot on a pitcher like Garcia, limited to mop-up duty; and it doesn't seem likely that Boston wouldn't reclaim him if the Orioles offer him back. So while Garcia is worth selecting, it's doubtful that the Orioles will benefit.

These observations are generally confirmed by the published scouting reports. While Dan Duquette has had some solid but unspectacular success with the Rule 5 draft with Ryan Flaherty and T.J. McFarland, I don't think it's likely that he'll repeat his success with Logan Verrett or Jason Garcia.

12 December 2014

Don't Trust a Reliever Farther Than You Can Throw Him

Relievers have been in high demand this offseason. Potential closer candidate Andrew Miller received a four-year deal for $36 million while David Robertson received four years and $46 million. Non-closers like Pat Neshek received two years and $12.5 million while Luke Gregerson got three years and $18.5 million. The value of a good bullpen was proven when the Royals rode their top guys to the World Series last season. But many believe that even the best relievers can be highly volatile and therefore teams should be skeptical of offering them large contracts. In order to see whether this is valid, I looked at all of the 301 relievers from 2010-2012 who threw at least 50 innings in relief during that stretch, and compared their performance for 2013 and 2014 to all 265 relievers who threw at least 40 innings in relief using ERA, WAR, and RA9_WAR.

The chart below shows how each of the top 50 relievers according to each of the statistics from 2010 to 2012 performed in 2013 and 2014. 


Only 31.5% of the top 20 relievers and 24.1% of relievers ranked 21-50 according to ERA in 2010-2012 were top 50 relievers in 2013 and 2014. The average top 50 reliever ended up being an asset to the bullpen but wasn’t the star reliever that the team signing him was hoping to receive. The average ERA of roughly 3.15 looks like it's acceptable. However, 100 out of the 265 relievers who threw at least 40 innings in relief from 2013 to 2014 had an ERA under 3.00. An ERA of 3.15 is slightly better than the median ERA of 3.35 for all qualified relievers.

45% of the top 20 relievers and 17.2% of relievers ranked 21-50 according to WAR in 2010-2012 were top 50 relievers in 2013 and 2014. The value of their contributions decreased dramatically from 2010-2012 to 2013 and 2014.

25% of the top 20 relievers and 36.7% of relievers ranked 21-50 according to RA9_WAR in 2010-2012 were top 50 relievers in 2013 and 2014. A number of top relievers according to RA9_WAR from 2010 to 2012 such as Sean Marshall, Jonny Venters, Jason Motte, Eric O’Flaherty, Jesse Crain, Rafael Betancourt, and Joel Hanrahan suffered injuries in 2013 or 2014 that significantly impacted their value. It is questionable whether the large amount of injuries for relievers ranked in the top 20 in this category is typical.

In addition, success rates weren’t impressive when using multiple measures to determine reliever quality. The five relievers ranked in the top 20 using each measure were Craig Kimbrel, Mariano Rivera, Sergio Romo, Mike Adams, and Darren Oliver. Kimbrel has remained excellent and is easily a top five reliever while Rivera retired after 2013, but Romo, Adams, and Oliver were all disappointments. Likewise, there were nine relievers ranked in the top 20 of two of the categories and in the top 50 in the other category. Four of those nine relievers ended up getting hurt and unsurprisingly only four of the relievers in that category were actually successful. Of the nine relievers who were ranked in the top 20 of two of the metrics without being ranked in the third, the only successful ones were Tyler Clippard and Joaquin Benoit.

The problem is that elite relievers have very little room for error. The top relievers had an ERA of about 2.00. If they throw 63 innings a season, then that means they can only allow 14 runs. If they end up allowing just eight more runs per season, then their ERA is closer to 3.14 and they are simply average. The difference between the best relievers and decent relievers is minuscule and can come down to a few good or bad breaks. At the same time those same extra seven runs are more important than the average run because elite relievers are usually used in the most crucial situations.

Some top relievers from 2010 to 2012 were still good in 2013 and 2014. But on the whole a top reliever from 2010-2012 was unlikely to be elite in 2013 and 2014. It doesn’t make sense to pay relievers for past performance because it isn’t likely that they will be able to repeat it. A team that has limited amounts of money should focus on either position players or starting pitching. Quality relief pitching is important, but there are so many variables involved that are outside the pitchers' control that even the best relievers can't consistently provide it.

11 December 2014

Should the O's Swap Brian Matusz for Travis Snider?


In their ongoing, meticulous pursuit of a corner outfielder, the Orioles recently discussed a trade with the Pirates involving outfielder Travis Snider and lefty Brian Matusz. Here's the latest, according to Roch Kubatko:
The teams aren't on the verge of consummating a trade, but the sides talked and could continue discussions at a later date.
The Orioles would like to leave the Winter Meetings with at least one outfielder. However, executive vice president Dan Duquette told reporters a free agent signing is the most likely path.
It's unclear if Snider and Matusz were the only players brought up in trade discussions. But if they were, the O's would be wise to part with Matusz.

Snider, 26, is under team control through 2016; he has two arbitration-eligible years remaining. He made $1.2 million last year, and MLB Trade Rumors projects him to earn $2 million next season. Meanwhile, Matusz, who also has two arbitration years left -- four total, as a Super Two player -- earned $2.4 million last season and will likely be paid around $3 million in 2015.

We have written about Matusz a fair amount the past calendar year, and O's fans should have a good idea by now about what he is: a decent reliever who is much better against left-handed batters. But he is far from a dominant relief weapon, and the O's should be able to find a suitable replacement if he's traded away.

But what about Snider? As a former first-round draft pick (14th overall) by Toronto in 2006, he never seemed to develop to the Blue Jays' liking.

Year Age Tm G PA BA OBP SLG OPS+
2008 20 TOR 24 80 .301 .338 .466 114
2009 21 TOR 77 276 .241 .328 .419 95
2010 22 TOR 82 319 .255 .304 .463 105
2011 23 TOR 49 202 .225 .269 .348 65
2012 24 TOT 60 185 .250 .319 .378 92
2012 24 TOR 10 40 .250 .300 .556 126
2012 24 PIT 50 145 .250 .324 .328 82
2013 25 PIT 111 285 .215 .281 .333 74
2014 26 PIT 140 359 .264 .338 .438 118
7 Yrs 543 1706 .246 .310 .406 95
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/10/2014.

After debuting on Baseball America's top 100 prospects list at No. 53 in 2007, he moved all the way up to No. 11 in 2008. He rose again in 2009 to sixth overall. He played occasionally in 2009 and 2010 after a promising major league debut in 2008, but he was awful in 2011 and eventually, in 2012, the Blue Jays traded him to the Pirates in exchange for pitcher Brad Lincoln.

For the most part, Snider has managed to stay in the majors with the Pirates since the trade as a corner outfielder and bench bat. In 285 plate appearances in 2013, though, he again struggled mightily (71 wRC+). But he turned things around in 2014 by posting a 121 wRC+ in 359 plate appearances. Snider may not appear to have a drastic platoon split (96 wRC+ vs. right-handed pitching in 1,429 plate appearances; 90 wRC+ vs. left-handers in 277 plate appearances), but it's hard not to notice the much higher number of trips to the plate against right-handed pitching. Managers are clearly reluctant to give him more at-bats against southpaws. Snider's .355 BABIP against lefties (vs. .298 vs. righties) is also propping up those numbers a bit. So far, though, he has not proven to be a disaster against left-handed pitching, but he hasn't been great, career wise, against either.

Here's how the advanced stats rate Snider's defense:

Left field (1,709.2 innings): +16 DRS; 5.8 UZR
Right field (1,615.2 innings): -4 DRS; -5.9 UZR

That's strange. Left field is generally where a team's worst outfielder plays, but normally there's not a huge difference between the difficulty of playing either corner outfield position. Regardless, Snider seems like at least an average defensive outfielder, with decent range and an adequate arm.



Because of his overall lack of production, Snider has never received more than those 359 plate appearances in any season. So he probably should not be viewed as a full-time player, especially right away. Perhaps he could get to the point of a manager trusting him more against lefties. If his production last season was for real, then acquiring him for Matusz and paying him about $2 million could be a tremendous bargain. Maybe last year was the most any team could expect from him, but approaching his age 27 season, it's not unrealistic to expect that he could improve on it.

Picking up Snider would be a cheaper alternative than signing Colby Rasmus, Norichika Aoki, Michael Morse, and certainly Melky Cabrera. And he's somewhat similar to other outfielders the O's have been linked to, like Chris Denorfia, Marlon Byrd, Jonny Gomes, and Delmon Young (who played nearly 160 innings in the outfield for the O's last season). Matt Kemp and Justin Upton would be great options for the O's, but the Dodgers and Braves, respectively, are asking for an enormous amount in return.

Since Duquette and the O's seem focused on finding value in the free agent market, perhaps they would view a Snider trade as superior than simply signing Rasmus or Aoki. But it's clear that the O's do have money to spend after watching Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Andrew Miller ink lucrative contracts with other teams. Picking up Snider would leave even more money for some problem areas, such as designated hitter and the bullpen, but at some point the O's will stop talking about where they could spend that money and actually start using it.

Update: Last night, the Pirates acquired lefty Antonio Bastardo from the Phillies. So their interest in Brian Matusz has likely dissipated. Looks like the O's missed their chance.

Photo via Keith Allison