Sifting Through the Catching Situation

Made the mistake of listening to WEEI for an hour this afternoon driving down to Portland. One of the subjects of the day was the signing of Kelly Shoppach for short money – a million and change. Besides questioning the wisdom of signing a player with a career line of .224/.315/.417, Ordway and company took the opportunity to indict the incumbent, Jason Saltalamacchia. The silver lining was that the noise about Varitek’s inevitable departure was relatively minimal, aside from concerns about the impact to the pitching staff.

Because the radio guys apparently can’t be bothered to consider this more than superficially, some quick thoughts on the signing and the state of our catching corps.

Salty’s Not as Bad as You Think He Is

Granted, the kid isn’t the second coming of Fisk. But here’s the thing: no one else in the league is either. The average catcher in MLB in 2011 put up an OPS of .704. Salty? .737, good for 7th best in the AL amongst catchers with at least a hundred plate appearances. WAR has him as the sixth best catcher in the AL, in fact; fielding metrics liked him last year. So even before getting to the splits, we can conclude that according to the metrics we have, Salty is at a minimum better than average.

If you look at his splits, however, it’s possible to dream a little. His OPS by month: .547, .756, .945, .893, .749, .542. He bookended a solid season, in other words, with two months of absolute futility. If you’re optimisticly inclined, you might frame the narrative something like this: handed a starting job by a front office obviously committed to him, he pressed and was consequently terrible. The 2-10 start probably didn’t help. Given a chance to settle down, he warmed up, with an above average May giving way to a torrid June/July stretch. Beginning to wear down in August, he was finally out of gas in September and collapsed.

As I said, that’s the optimistic take. And, no, you don’t get to pick and choose the months you want to count towards your baseball card and discard the rest. The point is, however, that he had more good months than bad, and at worst is an average to above average catcher. Does that make him an offensive asset? Hardly. His strikeout rate is through the roof and virtually all of his value is in his power, because he doesn’t walk much. But in a league in which the average catcher is essentially a gray spot, he’s well above replacement value.

Not that I expect the talk show brethren to grasp that concept.

Heard of Platoons?

Maybe the most surprising thing I heard today was what I didn’t hear: the possibility that Shoppach is intended as a platoon partner for Salty. This was an actual line: “he hit .115 against right handers – .115! and who’s he going to face the most in this league?”

A few numbers (OBP/SLG/OPS):

Player A vs RHP: .304/.481/.786
Player B vs LHP: .344/.444/.788

Who are these mystery men? Our current catchers: Salty plays against right handed pitching, Shoppach against left. The result: a .787 OPS. Which is almost ninety points better than your average major league catcher. Even if you discount heavily because platoons are never that strict, that’s still a solid combination. Particularly if Shoppach can throw half as well as he did last year.

My question: how is that professional sports radio personnel don’t know all of the above? How is “platoon” not their first assumption to be checked? How do they not look any further than his career batting average?

All I can say is: thank the great spirit for Brian Kenny.

Larvarnway

The pride of Yale is WEEI’s preferred 2012 backstop, apparently. Does that make sense? Keith Law, for one, is convinced that he can’t catch, and even his defenders would characterize his defense as a work in progress. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that he sticks: can he hit? His minor league numbers suggest that, should he be able to catch, he’d be well above average for the position. In 43 at bats last year he put up a .231/.302/.436 line, which actually meant he was above average for the position. Scary, isn’t it? But what about the projections? Bill James loves him: .275/.351/.527. I’ll go on record right now as saying that he puts up anything close to that, he ends up the starter even if they have to play Pedroia behind him. ZIPS, however, forecasts a much more reasonable .243/.316/.405 line, which would make him a worse offensive option – assuming a platoon – than what we already have, with worse defense.

I like Lavarnway, and I’m rooting for the kid because how often do you see an Ivy league kid make the bigs. But I wouldn’t bet much that he’s the starter next year, and from the signing of Shoppach it would seem that the front office isn’t either.

The good news for Lavarnway fans, however? Shoppach’s not getting paid enough to keep the kid down if he forces their hand.

The Net

I wish Varitek nothing but the best; he’s taking flak from his inability to right the ship in September, but anyone who studies that understands that it was hundreds of individual things going wrong. Tough to blame the guy. My lasting memory of him instead will be his mitt in A-Rod’s face, much as he might hate to hear it.

In the meantime, I think this is a good move on Cherington’s part. Shoppach’s not a star and has many limitations, but deployed properly, can be useful. Here’s hoping that Valentine knows more about platoons than Ordway.

Postscript

It’s funny, but I had exactly the same thought that Chad Finn did when I heard the Shoppach news in the car:

If You Don't Read This, We're Not Friends Anymore

“By the time Pedro Martinez stormed into the Bronx and struck out 17 New York Yankees on Friday, September 10, 1999 he was putting the finishing touches on a season of pitching that resembled Sherman’s March to the Sea. He’d already struck out ten or more batters in game 15 times, and 15 or more six times. The first batter to step in was Chuck Knoblauch; Pedro threw him a first-pitch strike and then hit him with the second pitch, an act so matter-of-fact in its aggression it seemed vaguely psychotic. In the bottom of the second inning Chili Davis touched him for a solo home run. Norman Mailer famously wrote of Muhammad Ali that he “worked apparently on the premise that there was something obscene about being hit,” and the home run appeared to have this effect on Pedro—it was a sham, an affront. He struck out the next batter, and two more after that.

Over the first four innings Pedro Martinez allowed two baserunners and struck out five; over the final five he retired every batter and fanned 12, including nine of the last ten. This bears repeating: over the final five innings of a baseball game, he struck out 80% of Yankee batters he faced, a rate comparable to that at which the Atlanta Hawks’ Joe Johnson shoots free throws.Pedro didn’t win the MVP that year; the trophy went to Pudge Rodriguez (the league’s most viscerally exciting positional player, incidentally) after two writers declined to even list Martinez on their ballots in some asinine protest.”

via The Classical – On Pitching, and the AL MVP in the Hour of Chaos.

So the Red Sox Should Just Hand the Cubs Their Savior…Why?

“CSN Chicago quotes a source saying, “Larry Lucchino is one of the most unreasonable people I have ever dealt with and because of his frayed relationship with Theo Epstein he is looking to make a point at the expense of Theos happiness and his desire to go to Chicago. I didnt believe that ownership group for one second when they said that they wouldnt stand in Theos way if he wanted out of Boston. They are furious that he wants out and they are trying to make a point.

Two things:

[…]

2. Business is business. Epstein has a year left on his deal and is walking. That means compensation. Epstein is considered one of the best GMs in the game and was signed to do his job through 2012. The Sox have every right to be compensated for his loss and to make it hurt if they want.The “Theo and Larry dont get along” narrative is an old one. Lucchinos job is to represent the interests of the Red Sox.As was written here yesterday, the Sox have all the cards. Ben Cherington is running the baseball operations department and appears to have the full confidence of ownership. They can let Epstein and the Cubs stew as long as they want.In the end, a deal gets made. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts would lose all credibility in Chicago if he cant get his franchise savior in place.

via Report: Sox-Cubs talks turn contentious – Extra Bases – Red Sox blog.

On The Curse of KFC and Bullshit Anonymous Sources

But as far as this particular blown September lead goes, blaming it on players eating fried chicken or Francona having marital issues is incredibly facile and incomplete. The pitching staff got ravaged by injuries, as did Kevin Youkilis. Even if you ignore the depleted roster, the schedule got tougher, with lots of games against the Yankees, Rays and Rangers and fewer against, say, the AL Central (though yes, the Orioles did kick their butts, too). The Rays happened to dominate the head-to-head matchups, taking a big bite out of Boston’s lead. They also caught a broader hot streak of their own at just the right time. Everything that could have gone wrong for the Red Sox went terribly, horribly wrong.

Replay the season 100 times under the exact same conditions, and even with jerks (allegedly) running the asylum and a tough schedule and injuries and The Curse Of KFC and everything else, the Sox probably hang on 99 times. Hell, Nate Silver thinks what happened can only happen once in 278 million tries.

via Boston, the Red Sox, and Anonymous Sources – The Triangle Blog.

It's Miller Time in the Pen

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Andrew Miller (30)

Both because he didn’t make it out of the second in his last outing and because our middle relief has effectively collapsed, it’s worth exploring what Andrew Miller might be able to offer out of the bullpen.

On the surface, the answer seems to be “not much.” It’s difficult to start when you’re walking 5.75 guys per nine. But it’s not much easier to relieve with those numbers. Essentially, until he stops walking people, Miller’s not going to be much good to us.

Or is he? A second look at the splits indicates that if he has a role, it might be as a power left hander out of the pen. The role that Hill had until he blew out his elbow, and the one that Doubront, Morales et al are now fighting over.

Consider that against lefties, Miller’s walking 3.86/9. Still high, but more manageable. And he’s striking out a lot of them: 11.57/9. For context, that’s better than two guys more per nine than flame throwing Daniel Bard. That might well play out of the pen. As would a FIP of 2.66 against lefties, which, if nothing else, is a substantial improvement on the 5.86 he’s put up against opposite handed batters.

Nor are there indications that he’s been especially lucky; quite the opposite actually. Lefties are batting .415 on balls in play against him; a hundred and twenty points or so higher than they should, in other words.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that should we make the playoffs, Miller’s not starting. Let’s further assume that they wouldn’t carry both Miller and Morales. They probably would, because who’s left? But let’s just assume. Their respective numbers against left handed batters.

Name FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP
Miller 2.66 11.57 3.86 0.64 .415
Morales 3.66 9.16 3.86 0.96 .302

I don’t know what you see when you look at that, but I see a pitcher who strikes out more guys while walking the same number, in spite of being more unlucky on balls in play. He may not throw as hard – Miller’s average fastball velocity this year has been 92.3, several ticks down from Morales’ 94.5 – but his results are better. And it’s certainly plausible that Miller would gain velocity in shorter stints.

Now granted, Morales doesn’t show the extreme splits that Miller does – his LHP/RHP FIPs are 3.66 and 4.42, so he’s more versatile than Miller at this point out of the pen. But if you wanted to get a tough lefty out in October, which would you pick?

I know who I’d choose. Give the Sox credit here: Miller or may not pay off as a starter, but he should have value for the club one way or another.

Conor Jackson: Rapid Reaction

Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t get the Conor Jackson trade. Granted, we’re not exactly giving up a ton in Jason Rice, a righthander originally out of the White Sox system. Rice has decent K rates – 9.39/9 and 89 in 85.1 IP this season in Pawtucket – but he walks too many (4.43/9) and 25 year old relievers who haven’t hit the majors yet aren’t in short supply.

That said, I’m not sure what the Sox see in Jackson. His career OPS numbers against LHP are better than McDonald’s – .825 to .789 – but Jackson’s having almost as tough a year as the bat he’ll presumably replace (or at least steal ABs from). His OPS against lefties this year is .686, while McDonald’s – his down year notwithstanding – is .768.

And then there’s defense. Fox’s Jon Morosi says the Red Sox envision Jackson playing a super utility role, bouncing between the outfield and infield. By reputation, Jackson’s not a stellar defender, having spent most of his career in left or at first base. The metrics bear this out, at least for this season. Though it’s foolish to place too much emphasis on single season defensive metrics, let alone partial season, McDonald grades out at 14.9 on UZR/150 this season, against Jackson’s 8.8.

As far as total value goes, WAR doesn’t love either player, though Jackson edges McDonald’s .3 with a .4.

We didn’t give up much, then, but it’s not clear that we got much in return. At his peak, Jackson was a useful 3 win player – a number McDonald won’t touch in his career. But that was three years ago and his decline hasn’t been gradual.

My guess is that the front office has identified something specific they like about the player – recent adjustments, a track record of success amongst possible playoff opponents (lifetime .714 OPS against the Yankees, .697 Texas, .932 Detroit) – something. It may be his versatility as Morosi claims, but I’m not quite sure I understand that; last I checked we’ve got three guys who can play first base, and five who can play the outfield (assuming Drew does come back). Or they know that Drew actually broke his finger and isn’t coming back.

And I’m sure that, as always, they weighed the cost and found it acceptable. Personally, I’m not for or against the transaction; I merely fail to understand it. Either way, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of playing time.

Is There a Home Run Derby Curse?

With all the discussion of Adrian Gonzalez’ power outage – one homer in 102 ABs since the All Star Break – it’s no surprise that we’re seeing discussion of the Home Run Derby curse. What I haven’t seen thus far, however, is a look at whether there is statistical evidence to support the assertion that the Home Run Derby has a provably negative impact on participants’ home run rates following the contest. So I decided to check.

To save time in data gathering, I picked a single season, 2005. I picked 2005 only because it is the most frequently cited as evidence for the Home Run Derby curse; the winner, Bobby Abreu, had 16 homers at the break but hit only 6 after. The single season means, obviously, that I have a smaller sample size to work from, so the usual caveats apply. I also have made no effort to control for other variables such as games played, so bear that in mind as well.

What I’ve done here is look up the participants from MLB, then compare the players’ career pre/post All Star break splits with their numbers from the 2005 season (all splits taken from Baseball Reference). Here are those numbers:

As you can see, the differences in first and second half home run rates of 2005 compared to their career numbers is slight. For their career, participants have hit 56% of their home runs before the derby; in 2005 that number was 57%. Rather than take for granted that the one percent delta isn’t statistically significant, I ran a simple two-sample proportion test in R. In simple terms, this compares two proportions and determines whether a given proportion is equal for two different groups. The test, the results of which are included below, tells us that there is no reason to suspect that there’s a larger Home Run Derby curse at work; the difference in the observed percentages for the group is not statistically significant.

It’s possible that it affected Abreu – the result if you run the test on his numbers is just this side of significant (P-value of 0.05181), and we can’t prove that it’s not affecting A-Gon. But we don’t have any evidence to say that, in general, there is a curse.

Due to the aforementioned sample size limitations, this study shouldn’t be considered representative. But if someone tells you that Bobby Abreu is proof that there’s a curse on derby participants, you might want to point out that the effects of the “curse,” that year, were around 1% fewer home runs.

Appendix A: Test Results

2-sample test for equality of proportions with continuity correction

data: home.run.derby
X-squared = 0.223, df = 1, p-value = 0.6367
alternative hypothesis: two.sided
95 percent confidence interval:
-0.08324864 0.04819810
sample estimates:
prop 1 prop 2
0.5561181 0.5736434

Appendix B: R Code for Two Sample Proportion Test

> home.run.derby rownames(home.run.derby) colnames(home.run.derby) home.run.derby
Before After
Career 1318 1052
2005 148 110
> prop.test(home.run.derby)