Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best Films of 2010 -- and others I saw

Just before I bring in the new year, I’ve spontaneously decided to put together a list of films I watched in 2010; film is another passion of mine, and many of my readers are likely wholly unaware.

I’ve probably watched a great many more than I've listed below – I watched virtually all of them with my fiancé – but these are those that have come to mind as I wet my tongue with some champagne. The grading is: Loved, Really Enjoyed, Moderately Enjoyed, Didn’t Love or Eh and Ghastly, and starting with four stars – or, more accurately, asterisks – and finishing with a slash (/) for the trash Hollywood sold as film in 2010 . Make of the ratings what you will. And, please leave comments on your favorite films of 2010, suggestions for me to see, or any disagreement of my placement if you so wish.

You'll also probably notice that there are more I liked than didn't. This is because, a) I (we) typically only watch movies that I (we) really want to see, and b) I'm throwing this together very much at a moments notice. The garbage (and unmemorable) isn't really coming to mind.

Loved (****):
The Social Network
True Grit
The King’s Speech
Black Swan
Inception
The Town
All Good Things
Shutter Island
Toy Story 3
A Prophet
Please Give

Really Enjoyed (***): I Am Love; Winter’s Bone; The Kids Are Alright; Chloe; Mother; Catfish; Cyrus; The Crazies; 127 Hours

Moderately Enjoyed (**): The Ghost Writer; Greenberg; How to Train your Dragon;

Didn’t Love or Eh (*): The American; Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps; Kick-Ass;

Ghastly (/): Grown Ups, The Other Guys

Missed, but want to see: Hereafter; Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1; Conviction; Somewhere; Never Let Me Go; Blue Valentine; Rabbit Hole; The Fighter; Made in Dagenham; Buried; I love you Phillip Morris; Tangled; Animal Kingdom; Red Hill; The Secret in Their Eyes; Waiting for ‘Superman’; Get Low

Movies not from 2010, but that I watched this year and enjoyed: King of Kong, A Fistful of Quarters (****, documentary); Red Riding Trilogy (****); Exit through the Gift Shop (***1/2, documentary); Flame and Citron (***1/2); The White Ribbon (****); Cache (***1/2); Funny Games (***1/2); Dear Zachary (****, documentary); The Cove (****, documentary)
I also watched Season 1 through Season 5 of Dexter, and loved each episode; I even read the novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, afterwards, which is the origin of the show.

Have a happy and safe New Years Eve – I’ll be back to writing about baseball in Twenty-eleven! …with maybe a departure or two like this.

* * *

I may follow this with a post on books in the some vain, but then again I may not. If I don't read Room.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Pablo Sandoval: '10 just a sophomore slump?

The Giants remarkably won the World Series in 2010 despite the horrific season of their young star, Pablo "Panda" Sandoval. Panda finished off his stellar 2009 season with a mammoth, 448-foot, slightly opposite-field blast at spacey Petco Park in San Diego. It seemed to put an exclamation point on his arrival as one of the games future stars, to solidify his spot among Hanley Ramirez and Evan Longoria. Unfortunatley, despite the echoing success of the Giants' season, Pablo's was one to forget.

No, Pablo didn't win Rookie of the Year honors in 2009, but that's only because he narrowly eclipsed the cutoff in his 2008 cup of coffee. He also didn't even make the All-star team, but that was only thanks to a snub by Charlie Manuel. Come to think of it, that opposite-field double in the NLCS must have felt oh-so-good.

Despite the success, the Giants sent him off to the widely covered "Camp Panda" after the 2009 season. The goal: learn to eat better, work out, and maintain a healthy playing weight to sustain him through 162 games - the number he's striving to play, and not a game less. It seemed to be going well, and the reports were that he'd lost approximately 15-20 pounds. But after his camp, he headed to Venezuela for Winter Ball and returned huskier than at his departure. But, let's face it, he was hugely successful in 2009 despite not having the prototypical, lean and powerful body that many ballplayers have. Did it really matter?

In March and April of 2010, he was the same old Pablo. He hit .368 with an 1.008 OPS, and people began to wonder if he could not only win a batting title, which seemed obvious after coming in second in 2009, but also take MVP honors. AT&T Park was littered with Panda hats, the HD screens blinding with "Pandamonium" signs. He wasn't yet a star on a national stage, but that day was rapidly approaching while in San Francisco it had long ago arrived. He was an unstoppable force, a meteor with unlimited propellant. Then May arrived.

Pablo finished May with a .617 OPS. But that was likely just a blip on the radar, an anomaly. Then June came. He finished June with a .645 OPS. Then July came. He finished July with a .597 OPS. In August he rebounded to post a .907 OPS but again plummeted in September and October with a dreadful, career-worst month while hitting to a .587 OPS. Soon after, he was benched in the playoffs for a combination of shoddy defense and offensive ineptitude. His fate as either a flash in the pan or sophomore slumper was sealed. Let's hope it was the latter.

So what happened? On the one hand, Brian Sabean was quick to point out that it was wrong to market Sandoval the way they had. Perhaps he was right. Sandoval was coming off of an outstanding season, he seemed to have all of the baseball ability a kid growing up in Venezuela could dream for. But he was also just 23, a pup. Also, he was going through a divorce. I won't venture a guess on exactly how that might affect an athlete, but I'll submit it probably doesn't help much. For ordinary people, working desk jobs and not under the bright lights of stardom and celebrity, the fracturing of a husband and wife can be devastating. Draw your own conclusions. And then there was the weight.

In aggregate, it simply became too much. But there's hope. With the arrival of catching prodigy, Buster Posey, as well as the early success of Madison Bumgarner and the likely promotion of Brandon Belt, Pablo can likely sit back, relax, and let it all happen naturally. Instead of being expected to be the only difference-maker in an otherwise mediocre lineup, as was pretty much the expectation in early 2010, he can work his way back to being a middle-of-the-order run producer in 2011. And here is a sample of other ballplayers who have slumped in season two, only to rebound mightily.

Here is what Geovany Soto did in his first three full seasons:



Another example, this from Carlton Fisk:



And finally, we have Willie Mays and his sophomore slump, also known as the Korean War:



Let's pay particular attention to Soto and Fisk, both catchers as Sandoval once was, because Mays' sophomore season was rough, but also a small sample and most notably, interrupted by the war. Both Soto and Fisk had outstanding rookie seasons, taking home Rookie of the Year honors, only to tumble in their sophomore seasons. Then, in year three, they returned to their ways of being outstanding players.

Let's take a look at what Sandoval has done so far:



Will his year three look like that of Fisk and Soto? I can't really say. But it might. Bill James projects him to post a weighted on base average (wOBA) of .372, well above league average and much closer to the .396 he had in 2009 and far away and above the .314 of his 2010 season.

Pablo isn't going to suddenly start walking 10% of the time, so if you're hoping for such an event, don't hold your breath. His success literally weighs on his ability to put the ball in play often, spraying the field with hard contact. He's shown an ability to do that. In 2008, he posted a .384 average on balls in play (BABiP) in High-A ball. He then posted a .345 in AA, and finally a .356 over 154 plate appeances in San Francisco. In 2009, he continued to do that and finished with a .350 BABiP. But in 2009, his season ended with just a .291 BABiP. If he can get back to something near .350, all will fall back into place.

A lot is riding on Pablo. If he doesn't rebound in 2011, the Giants' left side of the infield could be a disaster. Miguel Tejada is a comparable player to Juan Uribe, but he's getting extremely old for the position and his range will be limited. And Pablo was well below average at the hot corner in 2010, so in order for the left side to be just adequate, he'll need to improve his defensive range as well. Among the many things to keep an eye on in the coming season -- Can Huff continue to be an impact player? Will Lincecum return to Cy Young form? Can Madison Bumgarner be an impact starter? -- this will perhaps be the most important. The Red Sox signed Carl Crawford, the Nationals Jayson Werth. But if Sandoval returns to form, he'll have been the best acquisition of all. He's still owed roughly league minimum, and no draft pick was forfeited for his services. And this is especially important considering the deep draft pool scouts expect this June.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What does Lee do for the Phillies?

The Phillies won 97 games in 2010. They’ve let Jayson Werth go and signed Cliff Lee to assemble the best rotation in Baseball, no question. Let’s take a look at a few scenarios.
 
If we consider nothing else, I guess the three spots on the roster that have been most affected have been two rotation spots and right field.
 
I looked at Werth’s Baseball-reference and Fangraphs WAR for 2010 and gave each a 50% weight. His average WAR was 5.1. I did the same for Kyle Kendrick (.2), Joe Blanton (.6) and Cliff Lee (5.7). Dominic Brown’s I didn’t bother with because he was a late season call up and thus won’t tell us anything.
 
I then looked at the projections for them for next season by the fans and Bill James at Fangraphs. Werth is expected to put up a 4.4 WAR and Lee a 6.7. For neither Kendrick nor Blanton are there official “WAR” projections, but looking at their statistics I inferred about a .5 WAR for Kendrick and a 2 WAR for Blanton. I’ll use those as their projected WAR.
 
Finally, I averaged those with the 2010 50/50 split of B-R and FG and got this: Werth (4.75), Kendrick (.35) Blanton (1.3) and Lee (6.2). For Dominic Brown, I took a look at Bill James’ projection and hypothesized a reason WAR of 2.5 for 2011. That’s what we’re going with. Also, keep in mind I am considering all else is holding equal – meaning the remainder of the roster will perform on par with their 2010.
 
If they’d have brought back Werth and kept the rotation the same, I’d project about a 6.4 WAR between Werth, Kendrick and Blanton.
 
What about if they didn’t sign Lee, but Werth walked? That’s pretty much what we THOUGHT was going to happen. If we do that, I get a WAR of 4.15 for Brown, Kendrick and Blanton.
 
Finally, what actually happened. They now look to have Cliff Lee, Dominic Brown and Kyle Kendrick. This is important. The Phillies appear destined to move Joe Blanton, so it’s important to realize that, if this happens, Lee is essentially replacing Blanton, not the five-starter Kendrick. With that, we have a 9.05 WAR for 2011.
 
So, their improvement from the scenario where they didn’t sign Lee is about 5 wins. That’s a pretty significant change – but then you’d expect that when you sign a player like Lee. But the difference between this year and last year isn’t as significant – we’re talking about 2.5 or 3 wins – because you’ve both lost Werth and then moved out your number four starter (not the five starter) with Cliff Lee. If they are able to or decide to keep Blanton, the gain in value is more significant.
 
They won 97 games last season, so with the 3 win upgrade they can probably get to 100 in 2011. Perhaps not the huge difference some may have expected. But there are other things to consider here, too. The Phillies lineup is aging, and Ryan Howard isn’t the player he once was. He’s regressing a lot faster than people expected if 2010 was any indication. Also, I see them having significant struggles versus left-handed pitching next season.

But - and a huge but is coming - if Lee makes them better and they get into the playoffs, which he almost certainly will, this move becomes more significant. Come October, Kendrick takes a seat and they go with Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels, and we Giants fans certainly know how far a dominant rotation can take you in October.

Project Prospect and Paapfly talk Brandon Belt

In case you have not noticed, the Giants haven’t given me much to write about lately. And that’s fine, by the way, because the World Series championship is doing a pretty great job keeping me content. A while back, I wrote a post advocating my wish for the Giants to allow Huff to walk, to give Belt the opening at first base, and to use the money saved to upgrade in left field. The Giants didn’t take my advice and for the record, I’m fine with it. But what the Giants did do was openly admit they have high-hopes for the kid and see him as an impact player. They even went as far as to say that he’ll be given the opportunity, in the spring, to earn an opening day spot in the lineup. If he can’t justify an everyday job, he’ll head to Fresno. So it figures that Mr. Belt will either be playing first or left field in 2011 on Opening Day, or in Triple-A. Let’s explore that a bit here.
 
I recently emailed Adam Foster over at Project Prospect who had a chance to see Belt play – and play well – in the Arizona Fall League. Adam recently came out with a list of their Top 25 Prospects. Much to my delight, Brandon Belt landed sixth on this list, which would have been unimaginable when he was drafted in the fifth round in 2009. I asked Adam his thoughts on whether or not Belt would have a pronounced platoon split – i.e. would he struggle versus left-handed pitching (LHP) – as well as if he’s ready to step in now, if his defense is plus at first, and whether or not he can handle left field. This is what he had to say:
 
“I think Belt will make some progress against quality lefties, but he'll do most of his damage against righties. He looked like an above-average defensive first baseman to me at the AFL; he moves around a lot better than you'd expect based on his body type. Strong arm. Good feel for the position. I wouldn't want him as my left fielder. He could play passable defense … but he probably wouldn't be an average defensive outfielder, due to his lack of speed…”
 
“I'd give Belt at least another half season of experience in the minors. He made a lot of swing mechanics adjustments last season and he may be able to learn even more in the right environment. I love his patience, strong wrists and opposite-field approach...” “Belt has more holes in his swing than Posey. Good fastballs inside can beat him, and like any hitter -- especially given that he's a lot more open than he used to be -- quality breaking balls on the outer half of the plate are going to be an area where he'll need to get comfortable.”
 
There are a couple of things in there that we’ll want to pay close attention to, stuff I have thoughts on. First of which would be his performance against LHP. This has to be a huge factor in his overall ceiling – or as Adam puts it, his Overall Future Potential (OFP). Those left-handed hitters who handle lefties are simply more valuable. If you look at a player like Chase Utley, he can play everyday and have an impact whether or not he’s facing C.C. Sabathia or Matt Cain. That’s important. While there are far fewer lefties and thus fewer plate appearances against them, a left-handed batter can really hurt his value by not hitting them well – see Curtis Granderson. If it’s to the point where they need to be benched against lefties – again, see Curtis Granderson – it’s obviously a problem. But also, it can be a huge factor in attacking that player’s weakness in high-leveraged, late-inning situations. I probably don’t have to explain to you why Ryan Howard’s growing gap between his skills versus lefties and righties is a concern, and how that had an impact on the 2010 NLCS. Simply put, if Belt can keep his platoon split to a minimum, he’ll be that much more valuable.
 
When he does crack the 25-man roster, where should he play? Adam has pretty much solidified my stance on this subject – Belt should play first. Look, I know that Huff looked pretty decent at first in 2010. I know that the Giants praised his defense there, and also that the defensive metrics available to us were complimentary to him. But we have about ten years worth of defensive metrics and scout opinions prior to that, and the consensus is far from flattering. Neither is going to be Carl Crawford in left, so you can forget that. And it seems clear that Belt has the chance to be a plus first baseman, or at least an above average one, whereas Huff stands to be about average at best there. I think this should be an easy choice, especially considering that’s where Belt’s future is almost certain to be. Then you live with Huff in left and hope he continues to hit.
 
That last subject I’d like to broach is his readiness. I’m on board with Adam here, more so than I was prior to this exchange. Adam makes a couple of points that I think stand worth repeating. 1) Belt has more holes in his swing than Posey, good fastballs on the inner-half can beat him, and he needs to work on soft-away stuff. And 2) he made a lot of swing mechanics adjustments in 2010 and may be able to learn more in the right environment. Boom goes the dynamite.
 
Both of these points go hand in hand. In order to truly blossom as a hitter, Belt needs to make those holes – and every hitter has them, it’s the size (and prevalence) that matters – as small and difficult to hit as possible. The smaller and fewer the holes, the more difficult it is for a pitcher to spork* that location. That’s the main difference between an A-ball pitcher, a Double-A pitcher, a Triple-A pitcher, a Big League pitcher, and an All-star pitcher. Sure, some of it has to do with stuff, but most of it has to do with the ability to command multiple quality pitches. Those that can only command one or two, even if  they have great stuff, are usually relievers. Those that can command three – with good stuff – crack the rotation. Those that can command four become All-stars. As Belt graduates, the pitcher’s he faces will become more and more adept at exploiting his weaknesses – his holes. That’s why, when Belt went from A-advanced to AA, his strikeout rate went from 18.5% to 19.4%, and why it ballooned to 31.3% in AAA. And the 61 plate appearances he received in AAA – as well as around that many in the AFL, largely a hitter’s league – probably just aren’t enough for him to have already adjusted to the advancing skills of the pitcher’s he’s facing.
 
*Meaning: pinpoint, nail, and hammer-down. When you spork something, you knock it out of the park. I mean, you just really hit the bullseye. I think it works here, because it’s also a utensil that combines fork and spoon, an awesome invention that presents the best of both worlds. You can really dominate a lunch, if in a hurry, with a spork by getting both food and sauce in one bite, never missing a beat.
 
Here’s the thing, by all accounts Belt stands to be an outstanding hitter. But he’s a very young hitter. He spent most of his college career as a pitcher. He has one season as a professional hitter. And perhaps most importantly, he has just one season of at-bats with a completely re-built swing. I think the Giants would probably be wise to give him every chance to succeed, and the best way to do that is probably to be cautious with him. I don’t think it would ruin him to bring him to the big leagues right away, but I think there’s a decent chance it might stunt his development. I don’t know if he needs two weeks in Triple-A. I don’t know if he needs two months in Triple-A, or a full season for that matter. But I do feel comfortable in saying this: the best place for him to learn his swing, to learn to repeat it and make adjustments, is probably Triple-A; it’s probably not the National League where pitcher’s are so adept at attacking a hitter’s weakness, and where Ubaldo Jimenez and Mat Latos would love nothing more than to crush a young hitter’s confidence.
 
If I’ve somehow quashed your unbridled crush on Belt, here’s something that might shed a little more light on the subject – pun very much intended – from Adam:
 
Belt is “…one of the best hitters I saw this year…” and “… every scout I’ve talked to about him also sees him as being the real deal.” He’s “… going to be fun to watch.”
 
***
 
And quickly, if you’re wondering what my thoughts are on the Phillies’ projected rotation for 2011, and whether or not I think it’s now better than the Giants’, I think it should be pretty obvious. If not, here you go: the Phillies rotation is better. And before you lose it, and again remind me that the Giants beat basically all of them in their march to their World Series rings, stop. My stance has everything to do with an admiration of the rotation Ruben Amaro has amassed, and nothing to do with my thoughts on what the Giants have. Old jacket – AKA Otis Anderson, or vice versa – said it about right at Bay City Ball. Both are great rotations, but for 2011 and if in a pinch, I’d go with the one that has Halladay and Lee headlining.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Is the Phillies’ rotation the best ever? Part II

So, in good fun and with respect, Geoff and I have continued to disagree on this subject. For the record, I enjoy Geoff’s blog and have been having a wildly good time of it. I suppose I even got a beat writer to read my blog, which can’t hurt.

I’ll start by saying that, while FIP is an excellent predictor of future performance and future ERA, it doesn’t exactly tell us what happened. Now if we take the FIP’s Geoff gave us on Twitter, i.e. the ’10 FIP’s of the Phillies 2011 top-4 and the top-4 of the ’97 Braves, we get the following: Braves – Greg Maddux (2.43), John Smoltz (3.04) Denny Neagle (3.34) and Tom Glavine (3.96), and the Phillies – Cliff Lee (2.58), Roy Halladay (3.01) Roy Oswalt (3.13) and Cole Hamels (3.67). If we average them, the hypothetical 2011 Phillies rotation has them beat by just .095 or close to a wash. Please note, however, that Tom Glavine beat his FIP sizably in basically each of his peak years. Because of this, despite pitching several seasons in which his skills eroded at the end of his career, his career ERA is still 41 points lower than his FIP.

Why don’t we attack this question in another way, using Wins Above Replacement (WAR) this time? It’s very difficult to know exactly how much better the AL is than the NL now, though it’s probably significant. It’s going to be next to impossible to know how much more difficult it is to pitch in the current AL than the NL of the 90s. So comparing the two rotations in a variety of ways is probably our best bet.

In 1997, the rotation of Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Neagle posted WAR of 7.3, 5, 4.5 and 4.1 for a total WAR of 20.9. If we take the WAR of the 2011 Phillies, and use their 2010 WAR for Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt, we get 6.9, 4.3, 4.7 and 5.3 for a total of 21.2, a surplus of .3 wins – or a wash.

Let’s try it another way; let’s compare each pitcher’s very best seasons and add those up. Halladay’s best season came in 2003 when he posted a 7.3 and won the Cy Young. Lee’s came in 2008 when he threw down a 7.3 and won the Cy Young. Oswalt’s came in 2002 and his best WAR was 6.2. Finally, Hamels’ WAR of 4.7 in 2010 was his career best. In 2011, Hamels will be one year removed from his best WAR, Oswalt (9), Halladay (8) and Lee (3). That’s twenty one (21) total years removed. Also, Hamels will be the only pitcher still in his prime at 27, while Oswalt (33), Lee (32) and Halladay (34) will not be.

In 1997, Maddux was two years removed from his best season by WAR (8.8), which came in 1995. Glavine was six years removed from his 1991 Cy Young season with a 7.4 WAR. Neagle was just one year removed from his 1996 best WAR of 5.1, and so was Smoltz with his 6.1 1996 WAR. All totaled, the 1997 Braves’ rotation was a total of ten (10) years removed from their very best seasons, i.e. their peaks, and likely three of the four men will someday enter Cooperstown. Age-wise, Maddux and Glavine were each 31, and Smoltz was 30 while Neagle was 28.

If we add their career best WAR, we find that the Braves’ rotation has the edge here with a 27.4, the 2011 Phillies rotation with an excellent 25.7. The Braves’ rotation was also 1.5 years younger.

What many people believe is that Lee’s numbers might jump when he’s given a full season in the National League. Will they? It’s tough to say. But we do know this: in 2009, Cliff Lee threw 80 innings in the NL for the Phillies and his ERA+ was 124. Over the rest of his season in Cleveland, his ERA+ was 135. While Lee was pitching in Cleveland, he was in the AL, but not the AL East where the greatest teams reside.

Roy Halladay, on the other hand, had pitched his entire career in the AL East. One would expect a large increase given all that thump and then going to the lowly NL, right? His ERA+ in the AL East in 2009 was 159. When he went to the NL and won his unanimous Cy Young award, it was 165, or an increase of just under 4%.

Look, the 2011 Phillies have a wonderful shot at dethroning the 1997 Braves, the rotation that landed on Bill James’ list of the best 32 rotations of all time. But it won’t be easy, and it’s far from a forgone conclusion. The question really is, will they or won’t they (exceed the ’97 Braves in brilliance, which is our standard). It’s a wonderful question to ask, ponder and try to answer. Unfortunately, we can’t answer it; that’s up to the players. But when I hear people speculate that this is the most likely outcome, it sort of makes me cringe. I sort of think the incumbent deserves the edge, seeing as how, you know, they’ve already done it. Just a little more respect, that’s all. Call me when the Phillies trade for Zack Greinke.

Stats come from Baseball-reference

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is the Phillies’ rotation the best ever?

Last night as everyone caught their collective breath and gathered themselves, as if a boxer pulling himself up by the ropes, following the Phillies’ – AKA the “Mystery Team” – signing of Cliff Lee, wild statements on Twitter began to be strewn about. One such statement was made by the brilliant Mariners blogger of the Seattle Times, Geoff Baker. Geoff simply said: “For those comparing the Phils to the 1990s Braves rotation-wise: Halladay and Lee have both won Cy Young’s in the AL. Tougher hitters faced.” Somehow, my next post was born.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and much of what he quipped is right. I mean, sure, the AL is the better of the two leagues. That’s obvious. I directly replied to him saying: “Except the AL dominance doesn’t date back to when THAT Braves rotation existed.” Why? Because, what I think he was trying to say, is that the combo of Lee and Halladay was – in his mind – somehow automatically superior to Maddux and Glavine, to Maddux and Smoltz, and to the Braves’ rotations of the mid-90s without even so much as a single pitch thrown. He then replied to my statement about the NL’s inferiority not dating back to the Braves’ hay-day, saying: “Sure it does. From 1992-2000, [the] AL won 6 of 8 WS [World Series’]. Just before, you had LaRussa’s A’s. Halladay and Lee don’t rely on K’s a foot off [the] plate.” And a couple hours later he was posting on it here, confirming what I believed to be his stance.

I don’t know how we really got here, or even that we were arguing – or agreeing to disagree – about the same thing. But anyway, I’ll use this space to disagree with him because I not only think he’s wrong, but that it’s so premature to anoint a rotation the “Greatest Ever,” that it’s preposterous. As great as the Halladay-Lee-Oswalt-Hamels rotation looks to be in 2011, the Gold Standard is still the Braves of the mid-90s and it won’t be easy for any rotation to ever equal it, let alone exceed it.

He did as much to provide two links to support his argument within his blog. One from the hardball times, which he hyperlinked with the words: “by the 1990s, the AL was clearly the better league.” Unfortunately, if you read it carefully you’ll find that it completely contradicts his statement. It says, within it: “The salient theme of 1993-2003 is that if it weren't for the DH* -- a major caveat, to be sure -- there would be no significant points of difference between the American and National Leagues. They present products of similar style and quality in similar venues, and are similarly popular.” It does appear Steve agrees with me, despite Geoff’s attempts to use it in order to prove the contrary – which, by the way, I don’t mean to say he was posting in directly reply to me. In all likelihood, he was not.


*It’s true that the AL has the DH, and both Halladay and Lee should get credit for that. That alone accounts for a decent portion of the difference in ERA between leagues.

That’s my first piece of evidence to dispute the claim that the AL was superior in the mid-90s. Also, there’s this. Between 1992 and 2003, the NL won 889 games versus 871 for the AL, and this includes both interleague play and the World Series. If you don’t wish to include the 2000’s, you’ll find that from 1992-2000, the NL won 482 games to the 478 the AL won, again including interleague and the World Series. True American League dominance didn’t begin until 2004, when, over the last seven seasons the AL has dominated in interleague play. I think these are much more representative samples of the quality of each league.

Geoff also said: “If you don’t like the WS samples…” – and I don’t – “…check out ASG [All-star Game] results or ERA inflation for crossover pitchers.” Ok. The AL has dominated the ASG for a number of years, to be sure. They went 12-0-1 from 1997 to 2009. But the NL won in each of 1994, 1995 and 1996, while the AL won the two prior. So, my point was never that the AL isn’t dominant now, it is; it was that it wasn’t dominant then. Moreover, the All-star teams are selected by the fans, rendering it a ridiculous popularity contest. And, the All-star games of the mid-90s simply don’t support his notion. How about in terms of the ERA inflation of crossover pitchers? I won’t dispute that. I alluded earlier to the fact that the presence of the DH automatically adds to this phenomenon, and that it’s happened more so in recent years is irrelevant. The AL is more dominant now, a point on which most everyone can agree.

If you have a good feeling that the AL dominance does not date back to the mid-90s, you’re ready to move on.

But, there’s good news. There’s a nifty little statistic called ERA+ that might help us settle this regardless of whether or not you believe the AL was a force in 1995. It does this: ERA+ adjusts a pitcher’s earned run average (ERA) according to the pitcher’s ballpark, and the ERA of the pitcher’s league. Average ERA+ is set at 100. Anything above that is obviously above average, and everything below that is obviously below average. So what does this mean? Well, it allows us to compare pitchers more easily by determining how much better they were than their peers in a given season. It even gives us a decent way to compare pitchers from varying decades. It does this regardless of whether or not they played in a great pitcher’s park or a terrible one, a weaker league or the more talented one.

Let’s start with Cliff Lee. Over his last three seasons, in which he was 29-31 and in his prime, his ERA+ stands at 142. That’s roughly 42% better than the other starters, and plenty good enough to land you in the Hall of Fame if you do it for a sustained period of time. Over that same period, Roy Halladay has a 158 ERA+. Again, absolutely fantastic, elite stuff. Those were his age 31-33 seasons, very much in his prime and possibly at the tail end of it. Roy Oswalt, another vaunted arm in the Phillies’ rotation, has a 119 over that period. He’ll be 33 next season and, like Halladay and Lee, is no spring chicken. Finally, the Phillies' starter with the best chance to improve is Cole Hamels. He has a 122 over his past three campaigns but has room to improve in 2011, his 27 year old season. If we take a crude average, and assume these four studs have seasons in 2011 that are on par with their previous three – this is probably optimistic – their combined ERA+ will be 135. That is indeed excellent.

How does that compare to some of the Braves rotations? Let’s find out. In 1993, a very young rotation of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery posted an ERA+ of 137. Again, I used a crude average by not weighting their innings. In strike-shortened 1994, a group of the very same men posted a 146. It certainly helped being anchored by Greg Maddux who finished with a remarkable 271. In 1995, they posted a 157, again behind the ballast that was Maddux – he had a 262 in that season. He sure was good. After all, he won four consecutive Cy Young awards starting in 1992 with the Cubs before winning three more with Atlanta.

We can also take a look at 1996-1998. Those same gentleman who pitched so brilliantly in ’93, ’94 and ‘95 threw down a 139 in 1996. In ’97, Denny Neagle slipped in in place of Avery; they had a 152 ERA+. And finally, in 1998, pulling the ERA+’s of their top-five, which included Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Neagle and now a young Kevin Millwood, the Braves’ ERA+ was a robust 144. Smoltz and Glavine were pretty good, too. Smoltz won the Cy Young in 1996 and Glavine in 1998.

That’s six consecutive seasons with a combined ERA+ better than that of our projected, and probably generous, 2011 Philadelphia Phillies rotation. Their rotation stands to be phenomenal. It will probably be the very best in either league, even surpassing the brilliant rotation the Giants enjoy. Heck, it might even be historical.

But, instead of paring back our exuberance over the Braves’ behemoth, we should actually do so with these Phillies. Take a moment to take a closer look at what the Braves were able to accomplish between the sixty feet, six inches from the rubber to the plate over that period - this is something that has already happened, the dust has settled, the stats are written - and pay especially close attention to "Mad Dog," or "The Professor" if you prefer. For he's the primary reason it’s premature to give the edge – over a historically great staff – to a rotation that’s yet to throw a single pitch together.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Jed Hoyer steers the Padres’ ship in the right direction

In just his second offseason since becoming GM of the Padres, and following an incredibly successful, encouraging campaign in 2010 – though it was also thoroughly disappointing – Jed Hoyer has been anything but stagnant.  While Jed was trained in the midst of Theo Epstein’s growing empire, the Boston Red Sox – of which Bill James is also under the employ – where each offseason is a battle between the richest and most dominant franchises for each league’s elite talent, the Sox of Beantown – not Oakland – and Evil Empire of Gotham specifically, he now finds himself sifting through the bargain bin in sunny San Diego.

In mid-November, just a couple of weeks after the Giants put the finishing touches on their first World Series championship in San Francisco, Hoyer kicked off the winter by trading Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica for Cameron Maybin. Maybin was once thought to be a future star, so much so that he was the real get in the Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis trade.  But not one of the haul of prospects in that trade panned out for the Fish, not even in the form of an average regular, and so many wondered if Florida’s eagerness to launch Maybin to one team or another was for little other reason than to obtain: out of sight, out of mind.

In roughly a full season of at bats, split between a 2009 and 2010 audition in Florida, Maybin has a weighted on base average (wOBA) of .310, or around 30 points below average. He’s also failed to make contact in about a third of his plate appearances, troubling for obvious reasons. But in nearly a full season of at bats in Triple-A, also split between ’09 and ’10, Maybin has a .325 average to go along with a .401 on base percentage (OBP) and .477 slugging percentage (SLG). And defensively, he’s proven to be a quality center fielder if not a plus one with plenty of speed and athleticism, his instincts the only question mark to become the latter, an absolute must for a team playing in Petco Park.

Webb is a right-handed reliever with a hard fastball and lots of sink. He’s a very solid option in the bullpen but certainly not a future closer. He’s never had incredible strikeout rates in either the minor leagues or in San Diego in 2009 or 2010 and his walk rate is solid but nothing special. His greatest skill is to induce the ground ball as his career rate of 60.7% is outstanding, but also a skill far more valuable if you’re pitching half your games in say Colorado rather than San Diego, and thus was something Jed probably saw as expendable given the return he hopes to get. Webb also gave up just .15 home runs per nine innings in 2010, a huge delta from the 1.05 he relented in 2009, a sign his baseball card might not reflect another sub-3 ERA in 2011.

Mujica is another interesting righty who struck out more than a batter per inning for the Padres in 2010 and produced a Cliff Lee like 12:1 strikeout to walk ratio. Unfortunately, he basically gave all that value back by giving so many souvenirs to the folks in the bleachers, or sand boxes, or whatever they have in San Diego. His 1.81 home runs per nine is truly flabbergasting given his home ballpark, and it really doesn’t look to improve much with a 1.43 mark over his career of 233.1 innings. He’s a rare case in which his pitching coach – and his manager Bud Black, who used to be one too – probably wished he’d mix in a few more walks, if only to reduce the gopher balls. He became, like Webber, expendable.

San Diego has quality bullpen arms falling out of their pockets, and Hoyer kicked off the hot stove by taking what seemed like a worthwhile risk. I think Rob Neyer said it best: “If you’re not willing to trade two relievers for a young every-day player with potential, you might as well get out of the business and find a real job.” Bill James seems to share Hoyer’s optimism, projecting a .344 wOBA for Maybin in 2011, roughly between his Triple-A line and disappointing major league numbers, or something that’s hardly difficult to expect for a 23 year old with excellent tools.

In a subsequent and expected move, the Padres non-tendered Scott Hairston and Tony Gwynn Jr., despite his bloodline, because he didn’t project to ever hit and the former, though powerful and versatile, wasn’t all that much with the bat either.

He then did the unthinkable, trading franchise player Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox for prospects. Instead of going for major league ready players already on Boston’s roster, Hoyer targeted future value, prompting many to say the Padres were punting 2011. While this undoubtedly weakens their team going into 2011, it far from eliminates them as contenders in 2011 and positions them nicely for 2012 and 2013. Everyone knows what they gave up*, so let’s focus on the return.

*This is actually a bit misleading. People know what they gave up, but probably fail to realize what they REALLY gave up. Gonzalez is a free agent at the end of 2011, and the odds of him signing long-term in San Diego were about as good as the odds it might snow there this Christmas. He’s an excellent player and has every right to be – no, would be stupid not to be – paid handsomely for his on-field contributions. The Padres’ 2010 payroll was around $38 million and neither their market nor their uninspiring attendance during their completely unexpected season atop the division is indicative of a substantial increase in payroll. You have to expect Adrian’s salary bidding to start around $23-$25 million per season, or if you’re not a math whiz, more than half of their payroll. Such an investment in one player would be so irresponsible for the franchise, it would render Alex Rodriguez’s original contract in Texas prudent. They gave up one season of his services, as well as the first-round pick in 2012 from the team which he would have signed with. Unless, an overzealous team such as the Orioles offered him the most dollar signs and years and scooped him up. Given their almost certainty to once again reside in the cellar of the mine-field which is the American League East, a nightmare that has become theirs and the Jays’ reality, their first rounder would become protected and the Padres would have gotten just their second round pick instead. So, you see, this is not the type of risk a small-market, sane-brain General Manager can take.

The Padres picked up three of the BoSox’s top six prospects, according to Baseball America. They got their number one prospect, Casey Kelly, who had the best curveball in their system. They got their number three, Anthony Rizzo, the best power hitter in their system. And they got their sixth best prospect, Reymond Fuentes, who was the best athlete in Boston’s system.

Kelly received a substantial $3 million bonus to pull him away from a quarterback scholarship at Tennessee in the 2008 draft. He’s expected to have plus command and sit in the low-nineties when he makes it all the way up, which could be as soon as 2012. Keith Law had a nice write-up [Requires EPSN Insider] on each player. He called Kelly's curveball “…sharp…with excellent depth…” and went on to say he’s “… an outstanding defensive pitcher to the point that it’s like having an extra infielder…” The Sox let him play shortstop for half a season in 2009 at his request before he became a full-time pitcher in 2010, giving further evidence to the type of athlete he is. He struggled in 2010 but was a 21 year old in Double-A hampered by a fingernail issue. A similar fate fell upon the Giants’ Zack Wheeler this season, yet the long-term outlook for both remains promising.

Rizzo is a left-handed hitting first baseman and the natural replacement for Gonzalez, at least eventually. Again, deferring to a more capable evaluator, Keith Law said of Rizzo: “In 2002, Gonzalez played in Portland at age 20, which was a Marlins affiliate at the time, and hit .266/.344/.437 with 34 doubles and 17 home runs in 573 PA. Rizzo played most of 2010 in Portland, also at age 20, and hit .263/.334/.481 with 30 doubles and 20 home runs in 467 PA…given the overall similarity and the fact that Rizzo lost a year of development while he fought cancer*, it’s more evidence for optimism in San Diego.”

*That’s right, the kid fought off cancer. And if John Lester, also from the Sox’s system, is a good litmus test for the type of competitor and person one has to be to overcome such adversity, well, the Padres may have plucked a good one in Rizzo.

Fuentes is the least of the prospects but no slouch. He, like Kelly, was a first round pick himself who Law says, “…has the potential to be Jacoby Ellsbury without all the injuries.”

The Padres needn’t be too gun-shy on this deal. For one, Hoyer knows these players about as well as Epstein as he was apart of the organization just one year ago. And two, he can feel confident that the Red Sox know what it is to keep a solid relationship by dealing value for value as they moved young superstar Hanley Ramirez to Florida for Josh Beckett and netted themselves a World Series championship in 2007 by doing so. Moving Gonzalez furthermore provides San Diego with a little more payroll flexibility to incrementally improve their 2011 roster in other ways.

With most of the heavy lifting done, Hoyer then targeted some starting pitching and scooped up Aaron Harang for just $3 million. Harang was as solid as they come just a few years ago, averaging 225 innings from 2005 through 2007 and pitching very effectively in a tough environment – Cincinnati’s ballpark – for fly ball pitchers. But a myriad of injuries – appendectomy, forearm and back – have somewhat derailed his career over the past few seasons. Jed pretty much struck gold with Jon Garland in 2010 and probably is hoping to do the same with Harang. While he’s no longer the slam-dunk, guaranteed 200+ inning horse that Garland is, he’s got more upside – and yes, more risk as you would expect – but he won’t necessarily have to be to earn the slight salary he’s owed. What’s more, it’s hard to imagine he won’t benefit going from one of the friendliest hitters parks in the National League to the without question worst hitters park in the Senior Circuit. If healthy, he’ll be a bargain.

He also added Dustin Moseley, which just became official, in order to add starting rotation depth and a pitcher capable of being a swingman.

And in another move, though one that is yet to be officially exacted, the Padres traded two more capable relief arms in Adam Russell, who has struck out well over a batter per inning, and Cesar Ramos, a young and projectable lefty, for Jason Bartlett. Adding Bartlett allows the Padres to go younger and more athletic than Miguel Tejada who departed to San Francisco, as well as with a bigger bat than the non-hitting, offensive-sinkhole that was Everth Cabrera. And if any team had the capability to subtract from the ‘pen to add to other areas, it was the Padres. Beyond that, Hoyer will look to add depth to the remainder of his roster and rotation.

Did the Padres reduce their win total in 2011 by trading Adrian Gonzalez? Probably, if not, absolutely. But you have to understand that even a player of his extraordinary talents is only worth around six wins per season, most of which could completely evaporate in the outside chance he went down with a freak injury such as being hit on the hand and breaking a finger or any other unfortunate malady that strikes each team, and almost every player, from time to time.

Many Giants fans were thrilled to see Gonzalez leave the division, thereby immediately improving San Francisco’s chances to repeat as division winners in 2011. I, however, was not. I see a franchise that’s being smartly run by a Red Sox trained, protégé of Theo Epstein, and which has likely significantly improved it’s positioning to contend on a yearly basis in the very near future. And within the haves and have-nots economics of baseball, of which there is no end in sight, this is the only way to conduct business. Otherwise, you become the Royals instead of the Rays.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Baseball Bloggers Alliance day

Well, it’s Baseball Bloggers Alliance day – the first ever, I should tell you – and I’m watching Tim Lincecum’s 31-swing-and-miss, 14-strikeout gem against the Braves in the first game of the 2010 NLDS. Thanks to Comcast, I get to listen to Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper this time. It’s brilliant, and my recent post on the prospect of the Freak winning the 2011 Cy Young will give you a decent idea of just how he stunned the Braves in this opener.

I joined the BBA only all of a week ago, so I’d be lying if I said how extraordinary it is, firsthand anyway. But I will tell you it’s been a very nice experience so far. It started just fifteen months ago, or about three months before I started my own blog, and has since ballooned to about 240 blogs.

Within the community, which is exactly what it is, you can converse via Twitter or always get another teams perspective. And if you’re looking for a fans scouting report on a player, what better way to do so? The fact of the matter is, if you have taken the time to write a blog on a team, you’re probably a) a fanatic b) watching a ton of their games and c) thoroughly qualified to give at least a decent scouting report on a player.

In particular, I’m looking forward to the BBA’s annual post-season awards. The community takes the time to vote on all of the major awards, and the fact that the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) requested (or mandated) the BBA to change the name of their awards from the status quo – I mean Rookie of the Year, MVP, etc – only legitimizes its prominence, earned in a very short period of time.

On that, I have two suggestions for the BBA, and we’ll call my eagerness newbie confidence. My first suggestion is that the awards names be changed to great players’ names, much in the vain of Cy Young. For example, the Greg Maddux award. I don’t expect this to be adopted – it’s unlikely that changing the names of awards already for a young organization is wise – but I thought I’d throw it out there anyway. And the second is that I think a Reliever of the Year award should be added, perhaps the Mariano Rivera award. If this already exists within the BBA, I apologize.

If you blog about baseball, and are interested in joining the BBA, e-mail your pertinent information to founder@baseballbloggersalliance.com. There are some new membership requirements going into effect in January, so be sure to check out the constitution and make sure you are able to handle those. Otherwise, the door's always open!

Update: They - or I suppose we - were already calling their BBA awards by players names! Also, I approve of the names they've chosen. It seems great minds think alike. I'm hoping they take to my Reliever of the Year award next.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Making sense of the Giants' offseason (thus far)

So what’s the Giants’ plan? To be honest, it’s not terribly clear.  One has to believe that the plan was largely to rebuild the roster that won them a World Series. That fact is perfectly obvious. They re-signed Aubrey Huff, their best player from 2010. They brought back Pat Burrell, one of their best midseason moves of 2010 and most critical contributors in the second half. They signed Miguel Tejada, who basically replaced Juan Uribe with an extremely similar – and significantly more ripened – skill set, but at a substantially cheaper price in terms of years, and slightly cheaper in annual value. Regardless of how you feel about these moves, be it they were brilliant or misguided, the intent was clear. After that, though, it’s gotten a bit confusing.
 
To make this simple, let’s eliminate Posey and Whiteside. That leaves 23 roster spots remaining. Let’s also eliminate the twelve man pitching staff, which let’s face it, is inevitable. My guess would be: Lincecum, Bumgarner, Cain, Sanchez, Zito as starters, and Wilson, Romo, Casilla, Affeldt, Lopez, Runzler and Ramirez as relievers. There is one wrinkle, though. The Giants have been said to be trying to convert Runzler into a starting pitcher. Why? I’m not exactly sure. I read Sabean said that Runzler’s best shot at making the bullpen is to stretch out and become a long reliever. Let’s ignore the fact that he’s younger, cheaper and has better peripherals than Jeremy Affeldt – thus may be a more serviceable non-LOOGY lefty out of the ‘pen than Jeremy, whom I still adore for his Game Six emergency innings against Philly, by the way. But anyway, that’s perhaps a discussion for another time.
 
That leaves us with 11 remaining roster spots. And this is where I can’t say with absolute certainty I know where the roster is headed. The starters will be Sandoval at third, Tejada at shortstop, Sanchez at second and Huff at first. That leaves 7. In the outfield, you have to expect it to be Torres in center, Ross in right and DeRosa in left. Each one of these players is under contract; each of them will be on the roster. That leaves 4. That leaves Ishikawa (league minimum or about), Mike Fontenot (re-signed for $1 million), Aaron Rowand (still here for 2 years and too much), Pat Burrell (re-signed for $1 million) and Nate Schierholtz (league minimum or about). If you’ve lost count, that’s already one too many.
 
Another possibility is that Brandon Belt could make the club. Brian Sabean gushed about him yesterday – seriously, he talked about not only his defense and advanced hitting approach, but also about his base running – and said that he’d be given an opportunity to make the club as either a first baseman or left fielder. He’d essentially be displacing Aubrey Huff to whichever position he doesn’t end up. This seems a real possibility to me. If that happens, the Giants have two too many.
 
And in case that’s not enough for you, the Giants also have interest in returning Edgar Renteria. They don’t just have interest because they’ve actually already made him an offer. That’s now three too many. And if you wanted to make it four, you could, because Sabean has also made it clear he would like an additional left-handed bat.
 
And when you lay it all out this way you can only come to two conclusions: 1) the Giants don’t know what they want to do with the roster, and in some cases they can’t quite know because of players like Brandon Belt that they feel they need to see in the spring, and thus are collecting as many pieces as possible or 2) they are getting ready to move a player of two. That could simply mean optioning Ishikawa or Schierholtz or both to AAA, or that could mean a trade. But in any case, you have only 25 roster spots; I don’t think any of these guys have minor league options, and something has to give.
 
There’s also a good chance that Mark DeRosa won’t be right, again, or Freddy Sanchez’s shoulder will take longer than thought to heal. And if that’s the case, the Giants are clearly covered. But it’s probably safe to say the Giants again won’t have a set lineup in 2010, at least not at its outset, but believe it or not they might be getting closer to one – Torres, Sanchez, Huff, Posey, Sandoval, Ross, Belt, and Tejada. Believe it or not, that’s a perfectly balanced lineup that never has a righty and a lefty hitting back to back.
 
I think the safest conclusion is that you just need to wait and see. They don’t know how they all fit yet, so how can we? You can keep on trying, god knows it’s fun, but you’re just going to tie your brain into a knot.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Road to Lincecum's 3rd Cy Young

The Giants have the type of rotation that GM’s and managers dream about. They have Cain, Sanchez, now Bumgarner and Zito – a roughly a league average pitcher, which is so critical to a contender as was so poignantly pointed out recently by King Kaufman. Finally they have Tim Lincecum, easily the most talented arm in the rotation to say the least, despite being a pony in a stable of stallions. More accurately, Tim Lincecum is one of the most talented – not to mention absolutely exhilarating to watch – pitchers in baseball now, recently and perhaps ever.

So let us get on with this business of: Can he win his third Cy in 2011? But first, we must start at the beginning. Lincecum came into the league in 2007 after forging a swath in the minor leagues that would make Sherman blush. He was somewhat rudely greeted by the Phillies’ Shane Victorino and Ryan Howard, but then he got the most recent laugh. He made 24 starts and pitched extremely effectively, winning 7 games, throwing 146.1 innings and striking out greater than a batter per inning while walking four per nine. He was still just getting his feet on the ground, and yet he was worth 3.2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in roughly three-fourths of a season.

Over the next two seasons, he was a force to be reckoned with. He would combine to win 33 games in 66 starts in 452.1 innings, while walking around three per nine and striking out well over ten per nine. He was also relenting home runs at a rate of just .42 per nine innings. In 2008 he finished with a 2.62 ERA, an identical 2.62 FIP and 7.5 WAR. In 2009 he finished with a 2.48 ERA, a 2.34 FIP and 8.2 WAR. For his outstanding effort, he took home the ultimate hardware for a pitcher in each season, i.e. the Cy Young award.

In 2010, he struggled and people panicked, a lot. When all was said and done after the regular season, he’d won 16 games in 33 starts over 212.1 innings, hardly a disaster. He’d also, again, struck out well over a batter per inning while walking 3.22 (for a ratio of 3.04). His home run rate did increase to .76 per nine but it was far from poor. He finished with a 3.43 ERA, a 3.15 FIP and a still outstanding 5.1 WAR. He was far from broken, but so it goes when you win back-to-back Cy Young awards in your first two full seasons. So what happened?

In March and April he pitched brilliantly and everyone was sure he’d win another Cy Young. In May he inexplicably completely lost his control and walked nearly six batters per nine innings. In June he went back to doing what he does and pitched great. In July he stopped striking batters out in quite the droves but walked fewer and pitched great; he was doing what he does, mostly. In August the stuff hit the fan. He once again was striking batters out, but he just wasn’t getting the results. He walked nearly five per nine, which was up but certainly not alarming in a small sample. But something else happened. His home run per fly ball rate skyrocketed to 17.8% and he gave up nearly two home runs per nine. Exacerbating matters, the diminutive ace gave up nearly a .400 average on balls in play, an unusually high number not likely to recur given his .308 career mark. Talk radio lost it, the sky was falling and the Freak was ordinary, no bad. But in September and October, the decorated competitor returned and he again pitched as brilliantly as he had in April, no more brilliantly. He surged. He struck out greater than eleven per nine, walked 1.73 for a ratio or 6.50, his ERA was 1.94 and his FIP 2.17.

He’d rebounded in mesmerizing fashion, going 4-1 in the playoffs behind a few decent starts and two truly brilliant ones – his Game 1 NLDS, 14-strikeout, 31-swing-and-miss start in particular – and the Giants won the World Series. It’s safe to say a handful believed he was back, while others, if not outwardly, wondered: who is now the real Tim Lincecum?

Over his career, he’s won 56 games in 123 games and 811 innings. He’s had an ERA of 3.04 and a FIP of 2.86. With peripherals, he’s been brilliant; he has struck out 10.07 batters per nine while walking 3.25 (ratio of 3.1), and given up just .57 home runs per nine. He’s casting a career that ends in Cooperstown, racking up 24 Wins Above Replacement in fewer than four seasons.

So what happened in May and August of 2010? The simplest answer may be that these things just happen. And, it may be the correct one too. Oddly enough, in some ways he improved in 2010, giving fuel to the argument that he 1) struggled with control for whatever reason at times and 2) was simply unlucky other times. After all, his line drive rate (LD%) was right in line with his career (19%) at 19.5% in 2010, and in between the 20.8% and 19.2% he posted in his two Cy Young seasons. Even better, his ground ball rate (GB%) improved to a career high of 48.9%, up from 47.9 in ’09 and 43.9 in ’08. And finally, his fly ball rate (FB%) decreased, again, which it has in every season, from 37.5, to 35.3, to 33.3 to 31.6 in 2010. These are all indicators that would actually portend better results. His home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB) did increase to 9.9% but there’s no reason to conclude this is permanent given his resume.

And with all the evidence that Tim Lincecum is likely poised to rebound, there’s more. Much of the hullabaloo surrounding Lincecum in 2010 revolved around his diminished fastball velocity. While real, it’s not something that, in my mind, is going to either cripple or doom him. Furthermore, there’s reason to believe it will improve.


The above chart comes from Fangraphs’ Pitch F/X data. It’s clear to see that his fastball velocity has fallen from its peak in 2008. But if you look at around midseason in 2010 – this is the middle of the far right pink area – you’ll see that it peaked and then dropped precipitously over several starts. After which, you’ll see that it steadily and over time substantially increased over the rest of the season, creating a trough from midseason until seasons end. Many Giants fans will recall that Lincecum redoubled his conditioning efforts after a meeting with Bochy, as well as after a quote came out from Roy Oswalt about his own conditioning, and how pivotal it’s been to him to stabilize his plus velocity throughout his career, especially give his small stature. Lincecum was apparently listening, and I think the results were evident. You, the reader(s), can make your own determination.

There’s more. In a post just before the Game 1 NLCS matchup between Lincecum and Roy Halladay, I mentioned that he was taught a new slider grip by Matt Cain before a game against San Diego on September 12. Well, there’s substance to this rumor as well.


The above chart shows Lincecum’s slider velocity in his career. You’ll see that it has been pretty sporadic at times, and never was it more so than throughout 2010. More often than not, it was below 85 MPH if not well below, while at other times, it was above 85 and sometimes well above it. This is when it was not a refined or go-to-pitch for him, and when thrown particularly hard I believe it was behaving as a cutter. Take a look at the final four green dots in the far right pink area. You can see that he began throwing his slider in the 85-86 MPH range with consistency. The first of the four dots represents September 12, and the remaining three represent September 18, 24 and 29. Whatever Cain taught him, he was using – just ask the Braves who faced him in Game 1 of the NLDS.

In addition to the slider coming in harder, it was moving differently, too.

 Both of the above come from his September 24 start against the Rockies. During which, I myself was driving with friends to Big Sur for a glorious weekend of camping while listening to the game, and enjoying every decibel of it. You MUST go sometime. The left side shows both the vertical and horizontal movement of the pitch, and the right side shows the vertical movement and velocity. What we can see, is that he’s throwing the pitch about 86 MPH on average, while also getting both downward and right to left movement. This is devastating to a right handed hitter – please ask Aaron Rowand – and can also be effective in slipping a pitch under a lefties bat – please ask Nate Schierholtz, or perhaps every left-handed hitter who has emerged from the Giants’ farm system; I hope Brandon Belt doesn’t suffer the same fate. Lincecum threw eight innings, struck out nine and walked none in this masterful outing in Colorado.

Now here’s one from August 5, 2010, the month of the heart of his struggles and a game which he gave up two home runs, including a game winning one to Eric Hinske.

You should notice a few things. Most obvious is the fact that he’s throwing far fewer sliders. Also, you can see that the average velocity is closer to 82 MPH or less, and no slider approaches 85. Lastly and least obviously, you can see that his getting less vertical movement, which means the ball is going downward or falling less. This is one example, and I encourage you to numb your mind by looking at more of his games by going to his Fangraphs page > Pitch F/X > Game Charts. What I think you’ll discover is that his slider was more of an afterthought than a go-to pitch in his career. It was sometimes harder and more like a cutter. It was other times slower and perhaps more slurvy as opposed to having sharp bite. This is clearly not the same pitch it was in September.

Let’s look at another:

This one actually belongs to Matt Cain when on September 26, 2010, he threw a nine inning complete game and struck out nine while walking one. Like in Tim’s example, you’ll see he’s throwing the pitch with both horizontal (right to left) movement and vertical action (downward bite). Also, he’s throwing the pitch at about the same speed as Lincecum was, or around 86 MPH. This is an example of when Cain’s at his best. When he’s got that slider going, he strikes batters out and is very tough. But, if you look back up at Lincecum’s September 24th game, you’ll see that Tim is actually getting much more downward bite more often than not. Perhaps, the apprentice has exceeded his mentor.

Finally, for dramatic effect, let us view just one more:

This chart is neither from Lincecum nor Cain. This actually belongs to Zack Greinke, winner of the 2009 AL Cy Young award and possessor of a devastating slider. What you’ll see is that he’s throwing it at around the same velocity as both Cain and Lincecum, if not just a bit harder at times, as well as getting both vertical and horizontal movement. With that being said, if you really take a close look at both Greinke’s charts here, and Lincecum’s September 24 chart above, you’ll likely discover that Lincecum is actually getting more vertical movement. That movement is what made Rob Nen so nasty and what does the same for Brad Lidge when he’s right. Folks, let me tell you, this is a nightmare for a hitter. On this day, amidst his Cy Young campaign on August 25, 2009, Greinke went all of eight innings, struck out fifteen Indians and walked just one, a spectacular outing.

In conclusion: There’s quite a lot here that bodes well for the Freak in 2011. We’ve seen that he may well have ran into a bit of bad luck in 2010, when his batting average on balls in play (BABiP) went from a career mark of (and very normal) .308 to .324. And in addition to that, he had a month where he just couldn’t seem to keep the ball in the park for whatever reason, and in another just couldn’t throw strikes. We also may well have some empirical evidence, along with what we’ve heard with his conditioning, that his velocity is trending upwards again. While it’s probably very safe to say his mid-nineties heater probably won’t reemerge, a consistent 92-93 is attainable. And finally, it seems clear that Tim has added a quality pitch to his repertoire, if not a devilish one, to couple with his changeup that has so tormented the league. What he now has is two pitches to put away hitters. One designed to dispatch left-handed hitters – this is the changeup because it moves down and left to right. And the other designed to screw right-handed hitters into fits – this is the slider biting downward and right to left. Which is not to say they aren’t weapons regardless of the opposing hitters handedness. Good luck.

In any case, he’s my (very early) 2011 NL Cy Young pick because Tim Lincecum is still carrying the fire.

Stats and Pitch F/X data pulled from Fangraphs 12/8/10

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Free World Series DVD's, other stuff

Graham at Baseball: Past and Present spent a great deal of time putting together a post on the 50 greatest players not in the Hall of Fame. It is important to note that it’s not a list of 50 who necessarily belong, an important distinction, though I’ll submit a good number of them do. It turned out fantastic, and I myself contributed by casting a 50 player ballot. I can’t say who I voted for – or maybe I can – but I’ll just say I was not one of the 7 that omitted Bert Blyleven.

I am contributing a piece to that same space in the next day or so: Does he belong in the Hall of Fame: Ted Simmons. He landed on the top 50 list at #13, grabbing 44 of a possible 63 votes.

Congratulations to Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus and founder of FutilityInfielder.com for being voted into the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) today. The internet writers are slowly making progress.

Comcast (CSN Bay Area) will be re-airing six pivotal Giants playoff games as they marched to their first World Series in San Francisco history. You won’t have to listen to (and harshly ridicule) the Fox team of McCarver and Stockton this time, because they’ll essentially be dubbing it with Krukow, Kuiper, Flemming and Miller – this, a courtesy that wasn’t offered to us during the actual events. Watch them, DVR them, and relish in them, I personally can hardly wait.

12/09/2010, 8:00 PM – NLDS Game 1, SF (Lowe V Lincecum)
12/11/2010, 7:00 PM – NLCS Game 4, SF (Blanton V Bumgarner)
12/15/2010, 7:00 PM – NLCS Game 6, PHI (Sanchez V Oswalt)
12/17/2010, 7:00 PM – World Series Game 1, SF (Lee V Lincecum)
12/23/2010, 7:30 PM – World Series Game 4, TEX (Bumgarner V Hunter)
12/24/2010, 8:00 PM – World Series Game 5, TEX (Lee V Lincecum)

Finally, I received a couple free World Series DVD’s thanks to Shout! Factory, which was in addition to my invitation to attend the private viewing. I’d like to do some sort of trivia contest – it will likely be a non-Google-able question about the Giants, much like those done by Rob Neyer some late nights on Twitter – in order to give the DVD’s away. Please let me know if you’re interested by emailing me at http://www.blogger.com/PaapFly@gmail.com. If I do in fact get enough interest, I will come up with a question and post when exactly it’s to be asked. The first two who email me the correct answer will get the prize (World Series DVD).

I also recently joined the Baseball Bloggers Alliance. I just thought you should know.

--Paapfly