24 April 2015

Microtrends: Caleb Joseph's Plate Discipline

Continuing my series from last week (would we call this a microtrend?), I've decided to look into another interesting facet of Baltimore's season. Although the year is still quite young, the changes we note may last for its duration — and that may occur with Caleb Joseph's offensive performance.

Joseph posted an altogether successful rookie campaign in 2014, mainly because of his strong defense: He threw out 23 of 57 attempted base stealers, and acquired 84 extra strikes via framing. Sadly, hardships at the plate accompanied his excellence behind it, as he posted an offensive line 28% worse than the major-league average. A low average on balls in play had a hand in his struggles, but plate discipline bears most of the blame for them; he struck out in 25.1% of his plate appearances, while only walking in 6.2%.

While the ability to hit the ball can come and go, the ability to see it generally doesn't change. In other words, players will see some BABIP and ISO fluctuation from year to year, but their BB% and K% will remain pretty stable. Thus, we should probably look at Caleb Joseph's 14.9% walk rate and 19.1% strikeout rate for 2015 with a bit of skepticism. Nevertheless, they may not decline to the degree that we'd expect, if we can believe his peripherals.

One thing we can say about Joseph, with some amount of certainty: He swings less now. Swing rate stabilizes at 50 plate appearances, and Joseph's 47 trips to the dish comes pretty close to fulfilling that requirement. In that span, he's offered at 38.9% of the pitches he's seen, much lower than last year's 46.8% mark. That patience hasn't come equally — his O-Swing% has plummeted from 21.2% to 30.6%, while his Z-Swing% hasn't dropped much at all (62.6% to 60.5%). The early nature of the season notwithstanding, Joseph, appears to have adopted a more disciplined approach.

It's worth noting that Joseph hasn't done more with the cuts he's taken. At 78.6%, his contact rate hasn't shifted much from 2014's 79.5% figure. With that said, his newfound composure means he's decreased his swinging strikes; whereas last year, he whiffed at 9.6% of the pitches he saw, this year pitchers have fooled him 8.3% of the time. Additionally, he's seen fewer pitches in the strike zone, which doubly compounds his aforementioned composure: He takes fewer looking strikes, and more balls. So far in 2015, 17.8% of the pitches he's taken have (theoretically*) been looking strikes, down from 18.9% last year; additionally, 43.3% of them haven't (theoretically*) been strikes, a notable decline from 34.4% prior.

*If we had robot umps already, we wouldn't have to deal with theory.

To go down on strikes, a batter must have at least one of the looking or swinging variety, and Joseph has made it so that he doesn't do those as often. To take a free pass, a batter must take four pitches out of the strike zone, and Joseph has made it so that he does those much more often. Put it together, and you get an all-around better approach at the plate, and one that might bring Joseph sustained playing time at the major-league level.

For Joseph, a lot of this year's offensive improvements will probably dissipate when the sample size grows. (If he owns a .414 BABIP by season's end, I'll quit baseball writing forever.) As his average goes down, pitchers will pound the zone more against him; he'll begin to press, and in doing so will sacrifice some of the gains he's made so far. But expecting him to regress to 2014's level, when he's done all of this so far, may prove foolish if he keeps it up.

Review of MLB Manager 2015 for Android

Camden Depot founder and Baseball Prospectus writer Jon Shepherd provides reviews of baseball related media from time to time.

MLB Manager 2015 for Android
Device: Samsung S5
Cost: $4.99

Prior to kids, yard work, and mile high loads of laundry, I used to pass time occasionally with the Outside of the Park Baseball series.  That series is noteworthy first and foremost for its embracement of data science and other advances in the field of baseball analysis.  They do an impressive job working with folks around the game (including Baseball Prospectus) to make as realistic a game as possible.  In that game, you have complete control over an organization down to micromanaging how your short season minor league clubs fill out their batting lineups and substitute players.  It is a game that takes a good week or two to get the hang of and to enjoy.

MLB Manager 2015 is the mobile game that complements the standard bearing OOTP.  As one would expect, the mobile game requires a more minimalistic approach and cleaves major sections of the OOTP game in order for it to be more manageable on the smaller format.  Draft last five rounds, the minors are now a holding pen with no games played, the engine that simulates the games appears to be more simplistic, and player movement rules are more minimal.  I think all of that was handled quite reasonably and the gameplay (whether letting a week go by or entering into a text based pitch by pitch mode) passes the sniff test.

My only qualm with it is that I find the interface to be non-intuitive.  The touch input does not always overlap the entirety of the visual graphic buttons or drop down menus.  Although, it may only irritates you for a couple seconds, jamming your finger five times before a button responds can be annoying.  Even more annoying, is when the phone recognizes your fourth or fifth tap as a sweep that requires the software to take a few more additional seconds to compile a player listing that I had no interest in seeing.  Forty seasons in, I think the software has trained me.  I rarely have issues with unrecognized finger strikes.  When it happens, it is frustrating enough that I sometimes move on to something else. 

However, the game is a godsend.  For 42 minutes in the morning and another 42 minutes in the evening, I am stuck in the DC Metro system with intermittent internet connection.  This renders most sports games inoperable these days as they constantly wish to send information back and forth to the mothership.  This game does not do that.  I can be stuck in the middle of a tunnel for 45 minutes while they figure out how to remove a broken down train in front of me and be content playing this game.

Yes, there is room for improvement.  Yes, this game suffers from some residual connection to the PC-based platform.  Yes, it is by far the best baseball game I have played on my mobile phone.

Android:
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.ootpdevelopments.mlbm2015
iOS App Store:
https://itunes.apple.com/app/id907405084
OOTP Developments site:
http://www.ootpdevelopments.com/mlb-manager/

22 April 2015

An Early Look at Chris Davis

Chris Davis’ offensive results this year (as of all games prior to 4/21/15) seem to be filled with anomalies so far. He does have acceptable numbers with a .239/.300/.457 line good for a wRC+ of 110 which is an improvement from last year when he had a wRC+ of 94. However, he’s also been hit by two pitches already which has boosted his OBP by about .04. He has a very high BABIP of .391 which is unlikely to continue.  In 2012 and 2013, Davis had a BABIP of .335 so one probably wouldn’t expect him to end the season with a BABIP of .391. Finally, he has 21 strikeouts and only 2 walks good for a 42% strikeout rate and a 4% walk rate. I would expect Davis to have fewer strikeouts, more walks, fewer HBPs and fewer hits. It seems that he is experiencing a number of anomalies that have ultimately averaged out into acceptable results.

One potential answer to my findings is to say that Davis has had 50 plate appearances (roughly a twelfth of a season) so far and therefore none of this is particularly relevant. Weird things most definitely happen over a small sample and we certainly wouldn’t focus on a random 50 PA sample in the middle of a season. However, as Dave Cameron recently explained, small sample sizes do tell us some information about players and there are certainly some statistics like strikeout rate and walk rate that become statistically reliable even after a minimal amount of plate appearances.  It makes sense to look deeper at Chris Davis’ plate discipline statistics and see if there is anything that we can learn. It’s worth noting that the good folks at Camden Chat had a similar idea about Adam Jones on Monday.

Chris Davis has a swinging strike rate of 18.6% which is one of the worst in the majors and therefore it isn’t surprising that he has a high percentage of strikeouts and low percentage of walks. In addition, teams are throwing him more strikes in 2015 than they have in previous years while he’s swinging at a similar percentage of balls as he has in the past. Basically, these statistics indicate that Chris Davis’ plate discipline has regressed over his first 50 PAs and help explain why he is struggling.

This makes me wonder whether Chris Davis is struggling to hit any specific pitch. Brooks Baseball uses Pitch f/x data to determine how hitters perform against each pitch. Here is how Chris Davis performed when facing a given pitch in 2012 and 2013 combined and this shows how he did in 2014. This is how Chris Davis has performed so far this year.


Pitch Type Count Ball Strike Swing Foul Whiffs BIP BIP/Swing
Fourseam 77 33.77% 33.77% 48.05% 24.68% 19.48% 5.19% 10.80%
Sinker 25 28.00% 36.00% 56.00% 12.00% 20.00% 24.00% 42.86%
Change 29 41.38% 24.14% 55.17% 17.24% 20.69% 17.24% 31.25%
Slider 37 32.43% 32.43% 54.05% 24.32% 18.92% 10.81% 20.00%
Curve 19 42.11% 31.58% 47.37% 21.05% 21.05% 5.26% 11.10%
Cutter 9 44.44% 11.11% 55.56% 0.00% 11.11% 44.44% 79.99%
Split 7 28.57% 57.14% 71.43% 0.00% 57.14% 14.29% 20.01%

The charts show that Chris Davis is having a huge problem with four-seam fastballs compared to previous years.  He’s faced 77 of them and has only put the ball fair into play 4 times (in 37 swings). Even worse, in previous years about 42% of the four-seamers that he faced were balls, but this year only 31% have been. Pitchers are throwing him four-seamers for strikes, but he’s still been unable to put them into play. His whiff rate has jumped from 14% to 20% and his foul rate has increased significantly also. All in all, based on his numbers from 2012-2014, I’d expect him to put 10 four-seam fastballs into play instead of just 4. Since this is the most common pitch that batters face it is probably a bad sign that Chris Davis is struggling to put them into play and helps explain the increase in his strikeout rate. I do find this worrisome even if it’s only a limited sample. 

There isn’t any other pitch type that really stands out to me.  It is interesting to note that Chris has faced more changeups and sliders this year than sinkers (Brooks Baseball includes 2-seam fastballs in the sinker category) in direct contrast to 2012 through 2014. This possibly could be because Chris has had success hitting sinkers this year. He’s struck out only once on a sinker and has put 6 of the 25 sinkers that he’s faced into play with excellent results (2 singles, 1 double and 1 home run). In comparison, out of the 61 combined changeups and sliders that he’s faced, he’s been struck out 6 times and has only put eight into play with decent results (1 single and 2 doubles). So far in the season, he’s had the best results against sinkers and it could be why pitchers won’t throw it as frequently until he shows he can hit something else successfully.

The bottom line is that so far Chris Davis has been successful this year because he’s been crushing sinkers and has struggled due to an inability to put four-seam fastballs into play. Pitchers are possibly adjusting by throwing him fewer sinkers this year than in previous years. I suspect that it is a severe red flag (albeit early) that Davis has been unable to make contact against four-seam fastballs. It isn't early to be worried but it's definitely early to write him off. I think that if he doesn't show improvement by mid-May then there is almost definitely a big problem. In the meantime, that is definitely something for the team to monitor.

21 April 2015

Do the Orioles Have an Old AAA Team?


At the end of spring training, it became clear that Matt Wieters would have to start the season on the disabled list. Fans and pundits discussed possible candidates to back up Caleb Joseph while Wieters was unavailable. I was stunned to see the name Brian Ward mentioned even as a footnote. Ward was 29 years old and had 222 plate appearances at AAA. I assumed that Ward was perceived as being a younger players because he hadn't had a long career at AAA.

That a player like Brian Ward would even be considered for an Orioles' major-league job is another reminder that the upper levels of the Orioles farm system are pretty barren, and even more barren when it comes to young prospects. The Orioles typically populate their AAA team with former major leaguers and minor league veterans who can fill in on the major league bench if needed, as opposed to younger players who need development. But are the Orioles that different from other organizations? Is their AAA team older and, presumably, more experience than other AAA teams?

I looked at the active players on each AAA team's opening-day roster. I excluded players on the restricted, temporarily-inactive, and disabled lists and relied on the rosters as reflected on each team's website. These admittedly arbitrary decisions may have affected the results slightly; some teams had only 24 players on their active roster while others hadn't updated their web page with their final roster decisions. Some players on the disabled list will be activated quickly while other players on the active roster will be sent down as soon as another player joins the team. Nevertheless, this should be reasonably accurate.

I counted the percentage of players on each AAA team that I classify as "Young", in their "Prime", or "Old"; the data is displayed at the end of this post. Young players were born in 1990 or later; Prime players were born between 1985 and 1989; Old players were born before 1985. I chose to use this method rather than just calculating an average age because the average age would be subject to distortions if a very old player, like Brad Penny, Cody Ransom, or Randy Wolf happened to be on the roster. I also recognize that these classifications turn a continuum into a series of discrete data points; someone born on December 31, 1989 would be classified as "Prime" while a player born one day later would be classified as "Young". I also could have displayed this data by individual years; the problem was that there was too much data to be easily interpreted.

My first impression was verified. The Orioles do have a smaller percentage of young players on their AAA team, and a larger percentage of prime and old players on their AAA team, than average. But they didn't have the smallest percentage of Young players; that distinction belongs to their AL East rivals, the Toronto Blue Jays. I was surprised to find that the New York Yankees have the AAA team with the largest percentage of Young players.

A few general observations:
  • Many of the teams with a low percentage of Old players at AAA have been rebuilding for several seasons, and their farm systems are deep in Young players. The outliers are the Red Sox and Cardinals, who are known for their "sustainability" approach to player development; and the Tigers and Yankees, about whom I can only guess that all the Old players in their organizations are on the major-league team.
  • The Orioles' distribution is identical to the Milwaukee Brewers. While the Orioles have had more recent success at the major-league level than the Brewers, the two organizations do have casual similarities. Neither farm system is known for their depth, and both are trying to maintain a successful major-league team without obvious internal solutions to problems. 
  • At least for the Orioles, they have populated their AAA team with the type of players we would have expected - marginal players in their prime, as opposed to prospects or minor-league lifers. The Orioles frequently shuttle players, especially pitchers, between AAA and the majors; and they have a lot of players suitable for shuttling.
  • As far as what this means in the big picture, I can't say. There are a lot of speculative possibilities, and it would require a lot of studies to determine which are real and which are illusory. I find it interesting, but not necessarily important.

Young
Prime
Old
BAL
0.17
0.63
0.21
BOS
0.40
0.44
0.16
NYY
0.54
0.42
0.04
TAM
0.28
0.48
0.24
TOR
0.00
0.72
0.28




CHW
0.21
0.63
0.17
CLE
0.29
0.46
0.25
DET
0.38
0.54
0.08
KAN
0.28
0.60
0.12
MIN
0.20
0.72
0.08




HOU
0.50
0.46
0.04
LAA
0.28
0.60
0.12
OAK
0.12
0.60
0.28
SEA
0.20
0.60
0.20
TEX
0.23
0.58
0.19




ATL
0.35
0.54
0.12
MIA
0.20
0.68
0.12
NYM
0.46
0.50
0.04
PHI
0.32
0.56
0.12
WAS
0.07
0.66
0.28




CHC
0.36
0.56
0.08
CIN
0.25
0.57
0.18
MIL
0.17
0.63
0.21
PIT
0.20
0.72
0.08
STL
0.20
0.76
0.04




ARI
0.33
0.54
0.12
COL
0.20
0.72
0.08
LAD
0.24
0.44
0.32
SD
0.32
0.56
0.12
SF
0.19
0.48
0.33




AVG
0.26
0.58
0.16