25 October 2014

The Inconsistent Norfolk Career of Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson in 2014. Photo courtesy of Norfolk Tides/Christopher McCain
While the Orioles were enjoying their postseason, and everyone's attention was focused on the present, it seemed unlikely to me that anyone would want to read about their past or their future. My interest and expertise - their farm system in general and their AAA affiliate at Norfolk is particular - necessarily focuses on the Orioles' future (and past.) But now that their 2014 run has ended, perhaps fans will now look forward to the future and you may be interested in what I saw at Norfolk.

Going back to 2012, the first year of the Orioles' recent run of success, one of the unsung contributors was right-handed pitcher Steve Johnson. Johnson was called up in July for a brief period after somewhat unexpectedly pitching well at Norfolk, was optioned back, and then recalled for good after the September roster expansion. Johnson pitched in twelve games (four starts, eight relief appearances) for 38 1/3 innings. In those innings, he was credited with four wins and blamed for no losses, with a 2.11 ERA. While the Orioles may very well have earned a wild-card berth even without his contributions, Johnson and Joe Saunders supported the fast-fading Orioles rotation in the final month.

Johnson was considered for an important role on the 2013 Orioles' staff. Unfortunately both for him and for the Orioles, he started the season on the disabled list with a lat strain. He spent 2013 shuttling between Baltimore, Norfolk, and the Disabled List. He was ineffective (7.47 ERA in 16 innings) with the Orioles; moderately effective (4.11 ERA in 46 innings) with the Tides; and presumably successful during his time on the DL.

The Orioles solidified their pitching staff for 2014, and Johnson was no longer considered a contender for a key role. Instead, there was a feeling that if he could recover his 2012 form, he would be a nice bonus and/or insurance policy. Instead, Johnson again spent much of the season on the Disabled List and the rest of the season recovering from his time on the Disabled List. He had a 7.11 ERA in thirteen Norfolk starts and an innings-pitched total more in keeping with a high-school draftee in the Gulf Coast League - 13 starts, 38 innings pitched.

2012 wasn't Johnson's first stint with Norfolk. In 2011, he was pitching very well at AA Bowie when Norfolk needed some more starting pitchers. Johnson got the promotion and made seventeen starts at Norfolk. He wasn't very effective, with a 5.56 ERA in 87 innings. So I've seen Johnson in four different seasons at Norfolk; two in which he was poor (2011 and 2014); one in which he was so-so (2013); and one in which he was excellent (2012). That got me wondering - what were the differences between good Steve Johnson and bad Steve Johnson? Was it just good fortune? Even if he was recovering from injury in 2014, did he regress to his 2011 form or was he bad in a different way?

The table below shows, for each season, the number of total plate appearances I saw and recorded in each of the past four seasons, and the outcomes (on a percentage basis) of those plate appearances. The batted-ball outcomes combine hits, outs, and errors; I arbitrarily included hit batsmen in with the walks. A ground ball is any low-trajectory batted ball that was not or would not have been caught in the air by an infielder (had one been in the right position.) Finally, the distinction between a fly ball and line drive reflects my judgement; for what it's worth, Baseball Info Solutions has not questioned my decisions in the games I've recorded for them.

Plate Appearances
Ground Balls
Fly Balls
Line Drives

Observation #1 - Johnson is not a ground-ball pitcher. 35.6% of the batted balls he allows are ground balls. For every ground ball hit off him, almost two fly balls/line drives are hit.

Observation #2 - Johnson's 2012 success can be attributed to two things. First, his 2012 walk rate was by far the lowest of his four Norfolk season. Second, he had a low line drive rate (for him) and a high ground ball rate (also for him.) It's admittedly speculation, but it's possible that his decreased walk rate reflected improved control, and consequently he wasn't working behind in the count as much and didn't have to make as many easily-hittable pitches. I do have the raw data to explore that hypothesis, and so perhaps I will do so later in the offseason.

Observation #3 - Johnson was ineffective in 2011 and 2014 for different reasons. In 2011, Johnson simply surrendered too many line drives. While not every line drive is the prototypical "screaming liner", and some line drives are soft line drives, all of them are low-trajectory balls that wouldn't hit the ground before passing the infielders. It's been established that line drives turn into base hits more than fly balls or ground balls. So if, like Johnson, you're giving up line drives to nearly 20% of the batters you face, you're giving up a lot of base hits.

In 2014, perhaps because he was recovering from two years of injury and consequent low usage, Johnson walked too many batters. In the games I saw, Johnson walked 21% of the batters he faced; over the entire season, he walked 16%. In a more common measurement, that's 7.1 walks per nine innings.

Johnson has been outrighted off the Orioles' 40-man roster and will most likely become a free agent. The Orioles may try to re-sign him to a minor league contract and hope he recovers. We'll know what to look for to determine the degree of his recovery.

24 October 2014

Why Alejandro De Aza Will Be More Valuable Than Nelson Cruz in 2015

Photo by Keith Allison

Nelson Cruz had a great 2014 season for the Orioles. He brought stability to a lineup that never once saw Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, and Chris Davis all on the same lineup card. It's fair to say that the signing worked out better than anyone expected. Cruz was the 17th most productive hitter in MLB with a wRC+ of 137. Despite being a pretty awful fielder, Cruz's 3.9 fWAR was good for 39th among all non-pitchers. While projections suggest, unsurprisingly, that Cruz is due to regress in 2015, it's certainly a real possibility that he could again be one of the better hitters in the league.

As a pending free agent, Nelson Cruz is going to be looking for a payday. The Orioles will almost certainly extend him a qualifying offer of $15.3 million and he will almost certainly decline it. I'd be fine if Cruz came back by accepting his qualifying offer, but the chance of that is remote. Jon Shepherd, he of Baseball Prospectus fame, recently tweeted about what a Cruz extension may look like. And it's been rumored Cruz is seeking an even longer deal.

I suppose I could live with Jon's suggested numbers, but I side with him in that I'd shy away from this type of deal. Cruz is a nice addition to the middle of any lineup and seemed to fit in well in the clubhouse. But the Orioles are a team that thrives off of finding good values, as opposed to paying market value for a top-flight free agent. This strategy is how Cruz ended up here in 2014 for an $8 million bargain. I don't think it makes sense for a team with a mid-level budget, with a lot of arbitration cases this off-season and important contract decisions looming next off-season, to sign a 34-year-old due for regression to a big, multi-year deal. It would make much more sense for the Orioles to look for the next Cruz (or the next Delmon Young) than to pay the money it will take to retain him.

So, how will the Orioles replace Cruz's production? Well, there isn't a simple answer to that. I would imagine LF/DH will be covered by Alejandro De Aza, Steve Pearce (who will also see some time at 1B), and likely a player brought in that fits the Duquette mold of Cruz, Young, Nate McLouth etc. Orioles fans worried that these names won't replace the production of the reigning MVO should also bear in mind the benefit of having Wieters and Machado healthy, as well as Davis likely having a bounce back year, at least to some degree.

But, the real value for the Orioles will be replacing Cruz's innings in LF with De Aza. Please note the word value. In other words, the most bang for their buck. Let's just focus on next year, assuming Cruz will make around $15 million. In doing this, I'm not bringing up the future years and dollars it will take to retain an aging Cruz, which would only further support my claim that De Aza is a better value than Cruz. De Aza is due for salary arbitration this off-season, his third year. MLB Trade Rumors releases very accurate arbitration figures each off-season, but the figures for this year aren't out yet. This past season, De Aza made $4.2 million. While admitting I'm well out of my area of knowledge, let's estimate De Aza gets a 50% bump to $6.3 million. To instead employ Cruz, and his $15 million salary, as your everyday LF, Nelson would have to be worth just over a win more than De Aza.

Last season, Cruz (3.9 fWAR) was worth 2.5 more wins than De Aza (1.4). This was in a year when Cruz, at age 34, had his best season since 2010, and De Aza had his worst year in the Majors. So, while a repeat of last season would make the additional money for Cruz well worth it to the Orioles, are we really ready to bank on such an extreme happening again? Taking a look at Steamers 2015 projections would be helpful here.

‘15 Steamer Projection
De Aza

De Aza is not only projected to be more valuable in 2015, but more productive, too. While Cruz is projected to be the more productive hitter, De Aza's above-average offense, combined with his defense that is far superior to Cruz's, projects him to be worth 0.3 fWAR more than Cruz. 

Some may then suggest that Cruz should be brought back to DH, which is something I'd balk at paying Cruz big, multi-year bucks for. With De Aza in LF on a regular basis (although probably not vs. lefties), the Orioles have the option of playing Pearce or Davis at DH, both cheaper alternatives. Here's how the production projections looks for the DH options.    
‘15 Steamer Projection

While Cruz will be a productive hitter in 2015, the Orioles cheaper options at DH are projected to be even more productive. And this doesn't even address their salaries (which are further reason to use Pearce/Davis) or the fact that Duquette is all but certain to bring in cheaper options off the scrap heap with something to prove. 

Nelson Cruz is a very good baseball player. His production in 2014 was vital to the Orioles. He will be an asset to whatever team he plays for in 2015. But the Orioles are a team that thrives on contracts that are of good value to the club. With Cruz looking to be paid for his 2014 production, his 2015 (and beyond) contract will not be as good of a value as it was in 2014. And that's okay, the Orioles will be fine without him. While there's certain to be more roster shuffling in the off-season ahead, the Orioles already have De Aza, who will be a better value in 2015 than Cruz. 

23 October 2014

On Nick Markakis and Why the Orioles Should Pick Up His Option

The World Series is still being played, but teams have started to put their offseason plans in motion.  In fact, just earlier this week, the Philadelphia Phillies decided to jump the market and aggressively sign Jerome Williams (cue the “final piece of a championship team” joke).  The Orioles are no different.  They didn’t even wait for their season to end before signing J.J. Hardy to a contract extension, and that’s just the first item on the team’s offseason “to-do list.” They have a number of decisions to make regarding arbitration cases, free agents, potential free agents in 2016, and contract options.  One of the contract options deals with long-time right fielder Nick Markakis.
Nick Markakis (photo via Keith Allison)

Following Baltimore’s ALCS loss to the Kansas City Royals, Markakis finished the guaranteed portion of the six-year, $66 million contract he signed prior to the 2009 season.  The Orioles hold a club option on him for $17.5 million in 2015, or they can buy him out for $2 million*.  If the Orioles decide to decline the option, they’ll need to determine whether to give him a qualifying offer.  Because of the buyout (Markakis gets that $2 million regardless of what the team decides), Baltimore essentially has to determine if they are willing to pay Markakis $15.5 million next year.  Coincidentally, the value of the qualifying offer in 2015 is $15.3 million.

*Technically it’s a mutual option.  According to Cot’s Contracts, Markakis has the opportunity to void the club option and forfeit his buyout.

Recently, the popular opinion regarding the Markakis option is that the team will decline it.  It’s been reported by Jon Heyman of CBS Sports and Roch Kubatko of MASN.  If that’s the case, whether the team decides to give Markakis a qualifying offer remains less certain.  A qualifying offer makes sense, as it gives Baltimore a draft pick should Markakis sign elsewhere.  However, I’m not sure that’s the route they’d want to take considering his standing within the organization.  So while the Internet thinks that Markakis’ option is likely to be declined, I believe that the Orioles should exercise it.

When deciding whether or not to pick up his option, the Orioles must estimate what kind of production they expect from Markakis in 2015, and if that production will be worth $15.5 million.  Jon wrote about this back in June and presented what he believed to be acceptable contract scenarios for different versions of Markakis going forward.  Deciding which version of Markakis you get as Jon explains, isn’t an easy task considering the peaks and valleys he’s experienced during his career.  For example, offensively Markakis’ has ranged from 138 wRC+ to 88 wRC+, while defensively (according to UZR/150), he’s been as high as 11.0 and as low as -13.2.  However, it’s important to remember that both his best offensive and defensive performance occurred in 2008 and he hasn’t been more than a 2.5 win player (according to Fangraphs) in any year since then.

Looking back at 2014, Markakis graded out as a 2.5 win player according to Fangraphs and a 2.1 win player according to Baseball-Reference.  Based on the relative agreement between those two statistics, I think it’s safe to say that Markakis was worth anywhere between 2 and 2.5 wins.  Considering major league teams paid roughly $6 million per win during the offseason, and the fact that Markakis earned $15 million, he was paid almost exactly what he was “worth” in 2014.  Given that the cost of a win generally increases by 5% a year, we can estimate that a win will cost about $6.3 million in 2015 (though it could be higher).  Another 2-2.5 win season puts Markakis’ value on the free agent market in the $12.6 - $15.75 range, with his $15.5 million option (less the buyout) sitting comfortably on the high end of the range.

While I don’t think Markakis is going to be worth that much money in 2015 (nor should the team necessarily pay him that much), the Orioles don’t have much of a choice to not retain Markakis.  Not only will Nelson Cruz and Delmon Young be free agents as well, but Baltimore doesn’t have any outfielders in the minor league system that will be ready to replace Markakis should he leave (please don’t suggest Henry Urrutia or Dariel Alvarez).  If all three outfielders sign somewhere else, Baltimore’s looking at a 2015 starting outfield of Adam Jones, David Lough, and Alejandro De Aza (if he’s even tendered a contract), provided they don’t sign any free agents.

And that’s the other problem.  The list of available outfield free agents is…how do I put this…not very inspiring.  Here they are (not all of them, just “the best”):

Out of the potential free agent outfielders (as of right now), there appear to be two potential upgrades in Baltimore’s own Nelson Cruz and Toronto’s Melky Cabrera.  Baltimore will not only be competing with other teams for these player’s services, but they may not be willing to spend what Cruz and Cabrera will command on the open market (nor should they).  Additionally, several other teams have been rumored to have interest in Markakis, so it’s not a given he’d resign with Baltimore after testing the free agent waters, which could leave Baltimore with a depleted outfield and not many options to improve it.

While Nick Markakis certainly has his flaws (such as the potential need for a platoon partner), he’s a decent player whose team option (if exercised) would pay him slightly more than he’ll likely be worth in 2015.  However, considering the lack of upgrades both inside and outside the organization, the Orioles would be wise to pick up the option, if for nothing else than to prevent themselves from ending up without a viable right field option at the end of the offseason, especially with the expected return of Matt Wieters, Manny Machado, and Chris Davis in 2015.  However, if the Orioles are working with Markakis this offseason to sign a reasonable extension (maybe two-three years, for $20-36 million), then this all becomes moot.