Stats & Info: MLB Contributors

BTF: Projecting the Futures Gamers

July, 10, 2010
With baseball's All-Star Game only a few days away, the hype machine is in full gear. While "This Time it Counts" is firmly entrenched in my addled Gen-Xer brain -- along with other slogans such as "Where's the Beef?" -- the actual All-Star Game is no longer the game that I look forward to the most in mid-July. For my money, the All-Star Futures Game is the must-watch game of the week.

Conceived by MLB executive Jimmie Lee Solomon, the Futures Game gives the average fan the opportunity to see some of baseball's future stars for the very first time. Many of today's top young stars, like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Miguel Cabrera and Evan Longoria, were first seen there by a national audience. So naturally, when people watch the 2010 Futures Game, there will be a lot of speculation as to which players on the field will become baseball's future stars.

Picking which prospects will become future MVPs and Cy Young winners has always been one of the most difficult tasks that any organization faces. Teams devote a large amount of resources to evaluating minor-league players, but even the best run organizations in baseball will have a large number of prospects never pan out. In the 1990s, Gary Huckabay of Baseball Prospectus coined the term "There is No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect" or TINSTAAPP, as it's commonly known in acronym form. While a bit of hyperbole, there's a strong underlying truth -- most prospects, especially pitching prospects, are unlikely to match the most favorable predictions.

Even given all the caveats, some of the best players of the 2010s will be stepping onto the field Sunday for the Futures Game. Using BTF's resident projection system, ZiPS, which has a database of minor league performance going back to the 1970s, let's see who looks the best in the crystal ball.

For each player I'll give a ZiPS "best guess" for how they are likely to do in the majors if called up in 2011, and for what their peak season could look like, assuming that they play for their current parent team. Projection systems tend to be fairly conservative given the uncertainty of events years down the road, but they also present a dose of reality for much-hyped players such as Cameron Maybin of the Florida Marlins. The chart below features the top 15 pitchers in the Futures Game, as ranked by projected 2011 ERA.

On the pitching side, Jeremy Hellickson looks to be the most MLB-ready pitcher. Tampa Bay's 4th-round pick in 2005 has an 11-2 record, a 2.21 ERA, and a strikeout an inning for Durham. Generally overshadowed by the flashier Wade Davis, Hellickson should be joining Davis in the rotation in the near future and helping make some of the team's off-season payroll-cutting decisions a bit less painful.

Tanner Scheppers fell to the 2nd-round in the 2008 draft due to concerns about the health of his shoulder. Scheppers didn't sign with the Pirates and ended up playing for the St. Paul Saints. Signed by the Rangers with the 44th pick in last year's draft, Scheppers has been dominating the Pacific Coast League. Texas's scouts are on a roll in that sense, as he's one of several talented arms in their deep prospect pool.

Brave prospect Julio Teheran is the pitcher I'm most looking forward to seeing this weekend. Teheran was one of Keith Law's sleeper picks going into this season and the numbers love Teheran's performance this season as much as the scouts love his fastball. I unfortunately just missed going to Teheran's 14-strikeout game against the Frederick Keys back in May, so I'm traitorously hoping to get to see Teheran strike out several Americans.

Now let's move to the hitters. The chart below features the top 15 hitters in the Futures Game, as ranked by projected 2011 OPS.

The Marlins suddenly find themselves with a surplus at first base, a good thing considering the organization's attitude toward the term "arbitration-eligible." Gaby Sanchez is hitting .301/.367/.467 which has allowed Logan Morrison to get time for Triple-A New Orleans. Morrison's hit .324/.434/.511 and looks to be the new version of Nick Johnson, both for the high OBP and the injury history. Florida's trying to get Morrison to the point at which he's adequate defensively in left as Sanchez and his minor-league .906 fielding percentage at 3rd will not be manning the hot corner anytime soon.

In order for the Phillies to land Roy Hallday from the Jays last season, they had to decide which of their top prospect outfielders -- Domonic Brown or Michael Taylor -- they would hang onto. They chose to keep Brown and so far, with Taylor only putting up a .707 OPS for Sacramento, it's looking like they made the right decision. Brown's extremely important to the Phils given that Raul Ibanez has aged very fast and Jayson Werth is currently unsigned. With Brown hitting .331/.396/.617 with 19 home runs combined in the minors this season, it looks like he won't be a "futures" for long.

While I still disagree with many of Royals General Manager Dayton Moore's decisions, two formerly disappointing prospects, Mike Moustakas (.718 OPS for Wilmington in 2009) and Eric Hosmer (.695 OPS for Wilmington and NW Arkansas in 2009), have both turned things around and have earned their places in the Futures Game. Moustakas has to be one of the more improbable turnarounds in recent years and has already hit 21 home runs (.705 slugging percentage!) for Northwest Arkansas. Hosmer, after a disappointing full-season debut last year, is hitting .353/.429/.546 for single-A Wilmington.

No doubt some of these players will fail to meet their potential, whether due to injuries, flaws in their game or the inability to handle more difficult competition as they climb the organizational ladder. But I guarantee that quite a few of them will be appearing in regular All-Star games. Don't believe me? Let's turn the clock back 10 years and see how the best of the 2000 Futures alumni have fared.

By my count, that's 28 All-Star appearances and a lot of the players are still in their prime. Other players that played in the 2000 Futures Game and went on to be significant contributors in the majors include Jack Cust, Tomo Ohka, Miguel Olivo, Ramon Ortiz, Corey Patterson, Carlos Silva and Brad Wilkerson.

So, when watching the All-Star festivities over the next several days, make sure to set aside some time for the Futures Game (6 p.m. ET Sunday, ESPN2) and get a rare peek at the future of MLB.

Dan Szymborski is the editor in chief of Baseball Think Factory.

FanGraphs: The meaning of age

July, 7, 2010
The Cleveland Indians got beat real hard Wednesday night in Texas, losing 12-1 to a Ranger club that has its eyes on a division championship.

Normally, a blowout loss like this wouldn't be interesting enough to make these pages. But this game is unique in its own right.

Towards the end of said game, three notable writers shared an exchange on Twitter: KenTremendous (a.k.a. Michael Schur, of The Office and Parks and Recreation fame), Jonah Keri (late of Baseball Prospectus, among other places), and Steve Buffum (keeper of The B-List Indians Blog, part of ESPN's own SweetSpot Network).

The conversation in question went as follows:

KenTremendous The Red Sox' CF, 1B, LF, C, starter, and final reliever were not on the team a month ago.

jonahkeri Yet active payroll's still huge RT @KenTremendous The Red Sox' CF, 1B, LF, C, starter, and final reliever were not on the team a month ago.

stevebuffum @jonahkeri Well, no other team has had injuries. Cleveland's 3B and SP were in their roles opening day (no one else was).

Schur's point is well taken: with Kevin Youkilis' ankle injury during Boston's 3-2 loss at Tampa, the Red Sox have definitely suffered their share of roster turnover -- and have remained competitive in the AL East while doing so. That's pretty incredible.

Keri's is, too: one could make the claim -- fairly so -- that, with their resources, the Red Sox should be able to deal with injuries as they come.

But Buffum really holds the trump card in this discussion, as the Cleveland Indians he's watching now are almost an entirely different team than the one that greeted him back in the beginning of April.

By way of illustration, here's that Opening Day lineup:

Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B
Grady Sizemore, CF
Shin-Soo Choo, RF
Travis Hafner, DH
Jhonny Peralta, 3B
Matt LaPorta, 1B
Mark Grudzielanek, 2B
Lou Marson, C
Michael Brantley, LF

Now here's Cleveland's lineup for July 6 at Texas:

Michael Brantley, CF
Jayson Nix, 2B
Carlos Santana, C
Austin Kearns, RF
Jhonny Peralta, 3B
Shelley Duncan, DH
Andy Marte, 1B
Trevor Crowe, LF
Jason Donald, SS

It should be noted that there's a little bit of cheating here: Hafner was sitting against Ranger lefty C.J. Wilson in the latter game, and LaPorta got whacked in the head the other night, otherwise he'd be playing, too.

The other changes, though: they're legit. Cabrera, Sizemore, and Choo are all out with injuries. Grudzielanek was released by the club a month ago. Lou Marson was optioned to Triple-A around the same time. The only holdovers from the original lineup are Peralta and Brantley -- which isn't even to mention that Brantley has spent most of the season in Triple-A!

Question: Why is any of this important?
Anwswer: Because we can learn about a team, and its intents, by looking at how it solves its injuries problems.

Of particular interest is to look at the relative ages of the pre-injury and post-injury lineups. If we assume that, generally speaking, younger players have the chance to improve while older players have reached their developmental ceilings, then we can guess at a team's motivations for employing one or the other.

The Red Sox have been one of the oldest teams in the league this year, with an average batter age (weighted by at-bats, per Baseball Reference) of 31.4. Last night's lineup at Tampa -- even with several players who weren't present at the beginning of year -- wasn't actually much lower than that: just 31.1 years old. Players like Kevin Cash (32) and Bill Hall (30), though not terribly exciting, are known quantities, and they're helpful to a team trying to hold its ground during a bad run of injuries.

The Indians have taken a different approach. Their average batter age this season is 28.3 years old. Against Texas on July 6, however, that number dipped to 26.6 among the starting lineup -- almost a full two years younger. While the Indians gave plenty of playing time to older players like the 40-year-old Grudzielanek and 34-year-old Russell Branyan earlier this season, the front office has definitely sought to get younger this past month, in an attempt to give extended trials to younger players. The 26-year-old Trevor Crowe, 25-year-old Jason Donald, and 24-year-old Carlos Santana have all benefited from this tack.

Though it's by no means infallible, looking at the starting age of a starting lineup relative to the team's average batting age for a season, can give clues as to the direction a team has opted to take its season. For Boston, post-season baseball is a priority; for Cleveland, it's developing players for the future.

Carson Cistulli is a writer for FanGraphs.

BTSB: Explaining Pujols' "struggles"

July, 2, 2010
As it stands now, Albert Pujols ranks 15th among position players in Wins Above Replacement (WAR). That's great for most guys, but Pujols has finished at the top of that list in three of the last five years, so something seems wrong. Pujols' Weighted On Base Average (wOBA) is .412, which is 23 points lower than his career average. And after examining some Pitch F/X data, we can see why Pujols is "struggling."

Looking through Pujols’ offensive history, a couple of statistics jump out immediately.

For starters, his power is down. He's slugging .569 after putting up a .658 mark in 2009.

Traditionally, Pujols has been better than the league average in chasing balls out of the zone, and making contact on balls in the zone. So far this season he has slipped to league average in both statistics. He's swinging at 28.3 percent of pitches out of the zone, and making contact on 88.9 percent of strikes. For his career, those numbers are 19.8 and 92.1, respectively.

Pujols also has a reputation for crushing left-handed pitchers, with a career wOBA of .453 against southpaws. This year it's .414. That's great for mortals, but not for Prince Albert.

These three observations all contribute to the overarching problem, a lower wOBA. But the investigation does not have to stop there. Additional data exists, specifically MLBAM’s Pitch f/x data, which can be analyzed to look for an explanation for these problems. The following graph plots Pujols’ wOBA on pitches that he makes contact with (wOBAc) for various pitch heights.

This graph shows Pujols being much less productive on pitches near the top of the zone when compared to 2009. However, on pitches near the bottom of the zone, there is little difference. And on pitches roughly two feet high, Pujols is actually performing better than he did last season. When we look closer at the pitches at the top of the zone, we can see where Albert is going wrong.

On pitches that are three to three-and-a-half feet high, Pujols is hitting a lot more pop-ups and a lot fewer outfield fly balls. However, as you'll notice, his ground ball and line drive rates are almost identical on pitches in that range. Does this suggest an overarching problem? Probably not. It's likely that Pujols is "just missing" these high pitches, and some of these pop-ups will become fly balls and those flies will become home runs and Cardinal fans won't have to "worry" about Pujols for much longer. Until then, infielders playing against St. Louis will be seeing a lot more infield flies.

Steve Sommer is a writer for Beyond the Box Score.

FanGraphs: Full-year all-stars

July, 2, 2010
It's no secret which guys are having the best seasons so far in 2010 -- Robinson Cano, Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Morneau are among those who are off to the races and will certainly be at the All-Star Game in two weeks. But that's the thing about the Midsummer Classic -- the choices are mostly based on who has had the best first half. What if we went back a full year? Here are the best players over the last calendar year, dating back to July 1, 2009? Think of them as the full-year All-Stars.

To choose this team, I took the players at each position with the highest weighted on-base percentage (wOBA) who had enough plate appearances (3.3 per team game) to qualify for a batting title. For pitchers, I used FIP.

Catcher: Joe Mauer, Twins -- .330/.410/.491, .390 wOBA
No big surprise here, as Mauer's the best-hitting catcher in the game. However, it should be noted that Arizona's Miguel Montero has slightly better rate statistics, but doesn't have enough plate appearances to qualify. He's one to keep an eye on now that he's healthy again.

First base: Albert Pujols, Cardinals -- .319/.429/.585, .424 wOBA
Pujols takes the top spot, but you should feel bad for Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto and Kevin Youkilis -- they are the three of the best hitters in baseball over the last 365 days, but because they play the same position as Prince Albert, they can't crack the top spot.

Second base: Robinson Cano, Yankees -- 347/.386/.567, .407 wOBA
Cano's burst to begin this season has carried his numbers to the top, surpassing both Dustin Pedroia and Chase Utley. Not a bad trio of offensive middle infielders.

Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies -- .318/.389/.564, .412 wOBA
Move over, Hanley; the Rockies star has taken over as the best-hitting shortstop in the game over the past year. Tulowitzki's recent wrist injury is going to be a huge problem for Colorado. He is much more than just a slick fielder.

Third base: Alex Rodriguez, New York - .297/.381/.522, .392 wOBA
Rumors of A-Rod's demise have been greatly exaggerated, as the Yankees third baseman has outhit all other third basemen over the last year. He might not be as good as he was a few years ago, but the guy can still rake.

Left field: Matt Holliday, Cardinals -- .326/.395/.547, .404 wOBA
Yeah, I think St. Louis is pleased with how that trade with Oakland has worked out. Holliday's slow start with the A's last year is nothing more than a blip on the radar at this point, as he's gone right back to being the best-hitting left fielder in the game.

Center field: Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies -- .299/.346/.523, .375 wOBA
Kudos if you guessed this one correctly. He gets overshadowed by some of his teammates, but the slugging center fielder has put up huge numbers for the Rockies over the last year and is one of the reasons they felt comfortable giving Dexter Fowler more time in Triple-A.

Right field: Magglio Ordonez, Tigers -- .334/.402/.506, .397 wOBA
Ordonez has certainly rewarded the Tigers for their decision to let his $18 million option vest; he has produced at an elite level even as he advances in age, just edging out Jayson Werth for the top spot on this list.

Designated hitter: Vladimir Guerrero, Rangers -- .324/.370/.550, .393 wOBA
If the Angels weren't already regretting their decision to let Guerrero leave and replace him with Hideki Matsui, they certainly are after he hit two more home runs against them Wednesday night. Finally healthy again, Guerrero is once again hitting like the "Impaler" that Anaheim knew and loved for so many years.

Starting pitcher: Adam Wainwright, Cardinals -- 2.11 ERA, 2.73 FIP, 3.10 xFIP
He generally doesn't get mentioned in the conversations about the best pitcher in baseball, but over the last year, he's outpitched everyone, including Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum.

Relief pitcher: Luke Gregerson, Padres -- 2.48 ERA, 1.81 FIP, 2.32 xFIP
The Padres have a great bullpen, but no one has been better than Gregerson, who is simply blowing hitters away on a nightly basis. The Cardinals have done a lot of things right over the last few years, but trading him to San Diego for Khalil Greene was not one of their finer moments.

Dave Cameron is a writer for FanGraphs.

FanGraphs: Five major disappointments

June, 30, 2010
While everyone is talking about who's going to make the All-Star team, here are five players we can be sure won't be spending July 12-14 in Anaheim, unless they're paying their own way. Starting with Matt Kemp, here are 2010's biggest disappointments.

Matt Kemp, Dodgers
After signing a two-year extension in the offseason and hobnobbing with a Hollywood hottie, Kemp has put together a poor 2010. After hitting close to .300 last year, Kemp is hitting just .258 with a .316 on-base percentage. And his fielding has been even worse. While UZR may not be the most reliable in small samples, his mark of minus-16.5 is by far the worst of any center fielder in baseball, and it's not even close.

Chone Figgins, Mariners
Figgins reached base nearly 40 percent of the time last season, but his OBP has dropped down to .337 this year. Some of this may stem from losing his line-drive stroke, but he's also striking out far too often. Figgins has taken the walk of shame 17.5 percent of the time over his entire career but is striking out five percent more often this season. For a player who doesn't have power and relies heavily on speed, he needs to put the ball in play a lot more often.

Adam Lind, Blue Jays
Lind made huge strides in 2009 but has regressed to his previous levels of performances. After swinging at about 25 percent of pitches outside of the zone in 2009, Lind is chasing pitches at a 32 percent rate. He is even swinging at more pitches inside the zone and is making far less contact overall. This has led to his strikeout rate rising almost 9 percent compared to last year, and he's hitting just .204/.265/.344 on the year.

Randy Wolf, Brewers
The Brewers were counting on Wolf to anchor their rotation when they signed him to a three-year, $29.75 million contract this offseason, and he hasn't performed up to expectations. Wolf is throwing 6 percent more balls compared to last season and is walking batters at nearly twice the rate. The result? A 4.92 ERA.

Trevor Hoffman, Brewers
The fact that the Brewers have two players on this list should partially explain their .447 winning percentage. During Hoffman's historic career, he has been known for two things: "Hells Bells," and his changeup. The music still plays whenever he comes in for a save, but the changeup doesn't trot in with him. Since 2008, Hoffman has lost nearly 4 inches of downward movement on his change. When you can no longer keep hitters off balance with your fastball, losing movement on your most important pitch is a death sentence. The 42-year-old has allowed seven homers in 24 innings, and his days as a closer appear to be finished.

Zach Sanders is a writer for FanGraphs.

BIS: The defensive all-stars

June, 30, 2010
The All-Star Game is right around the corner, and while it's usually the big hitters that get the majority of bids to the Midsummer Classic, that doesn't mean the slick fielders should be ignored. With that in mind, here are the top defensive players at each position thus far in 2010, using Defensive Runs Saved, a stat we've developed at Baseball Info Solutions that measures how each player fares relative to the average fielder at their position.

  • Pitcher -- Mark Buehrle, White Sox, +6 runs: Remember that between-the-legs flip on Opening Day? Well, Buehrle's defensive prowess is nothing new, and his greatest skill is controlling the running game. Since 2006, 60 percent (26 out of 43) of potential base stealers have failed against him, and 20 of those were erased via the pickoff.
  • Honorable mention: Ricky Romero, Blue Jays, +6

  • Catcher -- Miguel Olivo, Rockies, +9: He has thrown out 52 percent (17 of 33) of attempted base stealers this year, easily a career high for the nine-year veteran.
  • Honorable mention: Yadier Molina, Cardinals, +6

  • First Base -- Daric Barton, Athletics, +12: He’s played fewer than 300 games at first base in the majors but has 23 Runs Saved to his credit. Finally in the lineup everyday, Barton is comfortably pacing the league.
  • Honorable mention: Justin Morneau, Twins, and Russell Branyan, Mariners, +8

  • Second Base -- Chase Utley, Phillies, +15: Is there a more underrated superstar than Utley? He's been the best player on the Phillies for the past four years, and yet two of his teammates have won NL MVP awards. Utley has put up double-digit Runs Saved for the sixth straight season at a premium defensive position and leads all of baseball in Total Runs since 2005, his first full season.
  • Honorable mention: Robinson Cano, Yankees, +12

  • Third Base -- Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals, +12: Last season’s Fielding Bible Award winner and Web Gem champion is no surprise here. Interestingly, converted third basemen Chase Headley and Jose Lopez are more than holding their own at the position, saving at least 10 runs each with their glove.
  • Honorable mention: Jose Lopez, Mariners, +11, and Chase Headley, Padres, +10

  • Shortstop -- Yunel Escobar, Braves, and Alexei Ramirez, White Sox, +11: Escobar isn’t really a surprise here, finishing with double digit Runs Saved in each of the past two seasons. Ramirez’s recent defense play has been a pleasant surprise for White Sox fans after saving just two runs last year in his first season at the position.
  • Honorable mention: Alex Gonzalez, Blue Jays, +14

  • Left field -- Carl Crawford, Rays, +10: This three-time Fielding Bible Award winner recently leapfrogged Colorado’s Seth Smith for the positional Runs Saved lead, and don't expect him to relinquish the spot. With defense comprising a large portion of his overall value, Crawford will be an interesting free agent to follow this winter.
  • Center field -- Austin Jackson, Tigers, +14: Lost in the ninth inning of Armando Galarraga’s near-perfecto was Jackson's over-the-shoulder catch in the ninth inning. Those types of plays are par for the course for this rookie.
  • Honorable mention: Marlon Byrd, Cubs, +12

  • Right field -- Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners, +14: While his arm isn’t what it once was, Ichiro is still the best defensive right fielder in the game.
  • Honorable mention: Ryan Ludwick, Cardinals, +8

    Ben Jedlovec is a researcher for Baseball Info Solutions.

    FanGraphs: Liriano's meltdown

    June, 29, 2010
    AM ET
    On April 12, the Minnesota Twins claimed possession of first place in the AL Central with a 5-2 win against the Boston Red Sox. Since then, the Twins have been in sole possession of first for 76 days and tied for one. For the first time since then, Minnesota is no longer atop the Central after losing to the Detroit Tigers, 7-5, on Monday night. Although the Twins battled back to within a run in the eighth inning, Twins ace Francisco Liriano's four-run, first-inning meltdown was simply too much for the Twins to recover from.

    Liriano started the inning by hitting Austin Jackson with a pitch. It was downhill from there, as the game log shows.

    It certainly doesn't appear that Liriano was getting burned by dribblers through the infield. Three of the five hits in the inning were classified as line drives by Baseball Info Solutions; another, Miguel Cabrera's double, was a deep fly ball. It also doesn't appear that Liriano's velocity was down in the first inning, either. He threw 13 fastballs in the inning, averaging 93.8 mph. That's almost exactly in line with his fastball velocity on the year.

    Liriano put himself in a very bad situation with the hit batsman and then a bunt hit by Ramon Santiago. Then, as happens to even the best pitchers, he was burned by good hitters and poor location. After a single by Ryan Raburn loaded the bases, Cabrera hit a slider which was down out of the strike zone for a double. In the next at-bat, Liriano's second pitch to Brennan Boesch was simply asking to be hit for extra bases.

    Allowing cheap baserunners is particularly problematic for Liriano, as he struggles from the stretch relative to the rest of the league. The average pitcher has allowed batters to slug .396 with the bases empty this year, and .415 with runners on. Against Liriano this season, the opposition is slugging .313 with no one on base and .374 with men on. So even though the lefty is better than the league with runners on, the gap between his performance with the bases empty versus men on is larger than most.

    This four-run inning by the Tigers raised their win expectancy to 78.8 percent before the Twins even got to the plate. Liriano managed to throw five strong innings despite his poor opener, but it simply wasn't enough. The Tigers scored enough early and managed to hang on. As a reward, Detroit is now in first, and the race is on.

    Jack Moore is a writer for FanGraphs.

    FanGraphs: Strasburg not an All-Star

    June, 28, 2010
    AM ET
    Though Stephen Strasburg has made just four major league starts, there is already some buzz that he deserves to make the All-Star team. It seems likely that he'll end up getting picked by Charlie Manuel, the manager of the NL team, but if the All-Star Game is a representation of the season's best players, especially when it comes to the pitchers, who aren't voted on by the fans, Strasburg should not be considered this year. Other pitchers –- those who have been with the big club since Opening Day -- have done more for their teams this season.

    Strasburg should have six starts in the majors by the time the rosters are announced July 6. Even though his stats are at historical levels for someone who has made four starts, it has been just four games, and those starts have been against the Pirates, Indians, White Sox and Royals, the 30th-, 24th-, 20th- and 17th-ranked offenses in baseball. When the Royals are the best offense you have seen this season, your stats should be taken with a grain of salt.

    With 34 players on the All-Star roster, there will probably be 12-14 pitchers selected, and three or four of them will be relievers. That means there are roughly 8-10 spots for starting pitchers. Using WAR, we can pinpoint 11 NL starting pitchers who easily surpass Strasburg in terms of value.

    The main reason Strasburg's WAR is below that of these pitchers is his lack of starts (about one-third fewer than the rest of the league's starters when the rosters are set), yet even if he continues to pitch at his current level in his next two starts, it will still be hard for him to pass most of the pitchers listed above in seasonal value. He has the quality, but not the quantity, and if we’re just going by the numbers, he’s not an All-Star. Not this year.

    Jeff Zimmerman is a writer for FanGraphs.

    FanGraphs: Best rookie class ever?

    June, 22, 2010
    AM ET
    While Rookie of the Year is usually a humble award relative to the MVP and Cy Young, the race for this year’s title may be just as exciting as those for the other major awards around baseball. Mike Fitzpatrick recently called the rise of 2010’s young crop of big league players a "Rookie Revolution," but do the numbers match the hype? Indeed they do.

    Compared to past seasons, MLB has seen an upshot in production from first-year players that is relatively unprecedented. First-year batters have amassed 9.0 wins above replacement thus far this season, and if they attain as many plate appearances as they’ve averaged since 2002, are on pace for 35 WAR for the season, which would beat the 2008 record of 27.6 by a significant margin. If rookie pitchers reach their same inning pitched total as last year, they’ll put up 37 WAR, tops since 2002.

    While you've no doubt heard about the two big names in this class, it's not just Stephen Strasburg and Jason Heyward making waves. Detroit’s Brennan Boesch is slugging an absurd .617 on the season, best among all rookies in baseball. His teammate, Austin Jackson, is hitting .308 with ten stolen bases in eleven tries and playing quality defense in center field. Third baseman David Freese of the Cardinals and first baseman Gaby Sanchez of the Marlins may be older rookies, but their numbers are not very amateurish. Freese is hitting .306/.370/.425 and Sanchez has an .819 OPS. Mets first baseman Ike Davis has impressed New York with his glove, but his eight homers have also helped an offense that has needed power. Like Davis, Rangers first baseman Justin Smoak hails from the 2008 draft class, and like Ike has hit eight dingers on the year. Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro has been solid in his forty games in Chicago, hitting .266 with very good defense.

    Rookie pitchers are even threatening their bat-wielding counterparts on the mound. Besides Strasburg, Reds starting pitcher Mike Leake was the first player since Xavier Nady to go directly to the major leagues from college, but his 3.02 ERA and 4.06 FIP have certainly proved his worth thus far. Leake has competition within the NL Central, as Jamie Garcia of the Cardinals has put up 1.8 WAR and a 3.19 FIP while striking out 7.50 per nine innings. Meanwhile, Neftali Feliz of the Rangers has lit up radar guns around baseball with his 100 MPH fastball, but his 2.90 FIP and 2.87 ERA are just as exciting.

    Incredibly, all of the players listed have a bunch of competition on the way. The Giants recently called up star catcher Buster Posey, who has hit .303 in twenty games so far, and the Indians called up catcher Carlos Santana, who has serious power behind the plate. The Pirates called up third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the second overall pick of the 2008 draft. Marlins outfielder Mike Stanton was on pace for sixty homers in the minors this year, and the nineteen-year-old hit a grand slam for his first big league homer in Miami after being called up last week.

    While we don’t know if this is the best year for rookies of all time, it certainly is on pace to be the greatest in recent memory. Luckily for us, we don’t just get one year of these guys either. Baseball will be blessed with these players for a long time.

    Pat Andriola is a writer for FanGraphs.

    BIS: The deterioration of defense

    June, 21, 2010
    PM ET
    Defense was all the rage during the 2009-10 off-season, and from Mark Buehrle’s Opening Day between-the-legs flip to Austin Jackson’s perfect-game-saving sprint after a warning-track fly ball, we haven’t been disappointed.

    But as the season wears on, legs get tired and the sun shines brighter, so logic would dictate that defense would suffer as the dog days drag on. But does it? Let's find out.

    On average, 73.9 percent of ground balls are converted to outs; in other words, the league has batted .261 on ground balls. Let’s take a look at the percentage of ground balls that are converted for outs over the past several seasons:

    As you can see, the worst ground ball out ratio in April (.745) is still much higher than the best out ratio in September (.737). Here are the results by month:

    April: .749
    May: .743
    June: .744
    July: .740
    August: .739
    September: .734

    The average season finishes the season about 1.5 percentage points lower than it started. Though 1.5 percent might not seem like much, there are roughly 10,000 ground balls in a full month, roughly a 150-play difference between April and September.
    Looking at the day-by-day graph with a three-day moving average, the trend remains clear. While the graph tops the 75 percent mark in the first few weeks of the season, it dips below the 73 percent mark for most of the last two.

    We know that the length of the season is taking a toll on fielders (at least on ground balls), and so do long stretches without off days. Again applying a three-day moving average, we can see the gradual decline beginning after a week of consecutive games without a day off. The effect is small, but existent.

    As we approach the dog days of summer, keep an eye on which managers juggle their lineups to give their regular starters plenty of rest. Though the effect is seemingly small, playoff berths have been decided by much less!

    Ben Jedlovec is a researcher for Baseball Info Solutions.

    FanGraphs: Petco not helping Pads

    June, 17, 2010
    AM ET
    Anyone that has ever been to -- or even seen -- a game at Petco Park knows that it kills home runs. Opened in 2004, the home of the San Diego Padres consistently ranks as the toughest park in which to hit a home run. While some may see this as a disadvantage, an extreme park factor can be used to a team’s advantage if their front office keeps it in mind while building their roster. And while the Padres are a surprising success this year, it's not because they've built a team catered to their park.

    San Diego's pitchers currently allow the third fewest fly balls of any pitching staff in the majors, at just 33.5 percent of the time. Instead, the Padres' pitching staff is right up there with Cleveland and St. Louis as one of the more ground ball-heavy staffs in the game. Ground balls, of course, are not subject to the dynamics of a particular stadium nearly as much as fly balls are.

    One reason a team might attempt to keep balls out of the air is poor outfield defense. If you don’t have great defenders in the outfield, it makes sense to keep the ball away from them as much as possible. However, according to the fielding metric UZR, the Padres have had the third best defensive outfield this year, posting a mark of plus-12.7 runs so far. While the sample size is small, the Padres are starting three outfielders (Will Venable, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Scott Hairston) with a history of above-average defense, all of whom run well.

    Telling a pitcher to induce fly balls is tricky, because you run the risk of giving up more home runs. But since fly balls typically produce the lowest batting average compared to line drives and grounders, and since Petco reduces the risk of homers, the Padres can feel more comfortable than a usual team when balls are flying through the air. Ground balls are good, but for the Padres they may not always be the best option. They may have the most wins in the National League, but it doesn’t mean San Diego is doing everything right. The Friars should try to utilize the vastness of Petco Park, as it could pay dividends in the near future.

    Zach Sanders is a writer for FanGraphs.

    BP: Ubaldo's inevitable regression

    June, 17, 2010
    AM ET
    Ubaldo Jimenez is a very talented pitcher. After all, the vast majority of the pitchers on the planet cannot throw 100 mph while mixing in a nasty changeup, curveball and slider. However, the Ubaldo Jimenez that has 12 wins a month before the All-Star break and carries a microscopic 1.16 ERA into his start for the Rockies against the Twins at Target Field this afternoon has not been very different than the regular front-of-the-rotation flamethrower that posted a 3.47 ERA while playing half his games in Coors Field last year.

    Looking at SIERA is an excellent starting point to get a sense of how well someone is truly pitching. No metric can be the beginning and ending statement in a player’s performance, but SIERA does a very good job at determining how well pitchers are doing -- particularly those who help themselves with extreme ground balls, like Jimenez. Last year, Jimenez posted a 3.60 SIERA, good for 20th among major league starters. That is fantastic. The majority of pitchers with 3.60 ERAs in any given year are probably a bit lucky and see their ERAs go up the season while pitchers with 3.60 SIERAs tend to have ERAs that stay low. In Jimenez’s case, his ERA has plummeted. However, his SIERA has improved to just 16th among major league starters at 3.43. That is a slight improvement but it also indicates that Jimenez has been a very lucky pitcher. As it stands, his home run, strikeout and walk rates are virtually identical to what they were last year.

    Sabermetrics has long backed off the claim that pitchers do not control their batting average on balls in play (BABIP), but what we have learned is that pitchers do not have very much control over it. Jimenez has a .235 BABIP, compared to the major league average of .298. There are great pitchers that are capable of dropping their BABIPs to .280 on a consistent basis, but none who can will weakly hit balls not to become bloop singles or 20-hop singles. And it is not possible for a pitcher to allow only hits on 23.5 percent of balls in play over a prolonged period of time. The pitchers that tend to hold their BABIPs down also do not play their games at Coors Field. Even with Colorado’s terrific defense, the rest of the Rockies pitchers have a .292 BABIP. Flamethrowers can certainly hold BABIP down a few extra points, but Jimenez has been fortunate to come in so far below his similar BABIP-preventing fastball wizards.

    Breaking down Jimenez's BABIP, we see that his line drive rate is 17 percent, just below the 18 percent number he had in both 2007 and 2008. Pitchers have extremely little ability to control their line drive rate, even if they do have a little bit more control over the actual BABIP on line drives (though not much). Jimenez's BABIP on line drives is .600, well below the major league average of .722. This is just not sustainable, especially in Coors Field where line drives fall in more than in the average park.

    It is tough to write an article predicting the fall of Jimenez, because the fall just is not going to be that bad. The 26-year-old Dominican is one of the 20 best pitchers in the major leagues, and could get better given his youth. There are very few pitchers who can strike batters out so easily, all while generating 55-56 percent ground balls, a feat Jimenez has accomplished three years in a row. Even if his 3.43 SIERA matches his ERA the rest of the way, he will still finish with an ERA around 2.60, and he’s a good bet to get 20 wins with 12 already in the bank. I think he wins the National League Cy Young award this season and is good enough to do it more than once in his career. However, most pitchers who win the Cy Young have some luck come their way, and Jimenez is no exception. In fact, he’s been fantastically lucky, which has finally drawn plenty of attention to the fact that he is a great pitcher. He is just not the best, at least not yet.

    Matt Swartz is an author of Baseball Prospectus.

    FanGraphs: Angels are getting lucky

    June, 14, 2010
    PM ET
    Despite the generally accepted wisdom, a team’s win-loss record is not always the best measurement for how well it has been performing during a season, especially early on. Statisticians prefer to do whatever they can to increase the sample sizes of their measurements, and while each game yields just one win and loss, it involves roughly 75 plate appearances and hundreds of pitches. Therefore, a team’s record is more prone to fluctuation than its overall hitting and pitching stats are. Evaluating teams based on the more numerous plate appearances provides a more sound measure of a team’s performance to date.

    One such method of evaluation along those lines is BaseRuns, which is a formula used to predict how many runs scored and allowed a team should incur based on the number of hits, walks, home runs, stolen bases and total bases. Those predicted run totals can then be put into another well-tested equation, called Pythagorean Record, to produce how may wins and losses a team should have based on those more stable predictors.

    We can compare that predicted record to a team’s actual record to find out which teams have been especially lucky or unlucky. Three teams stick out from these results as being especially lucky, Pittsburgh being one. It probably is surprising to hear Pittsburgh regarded as lucky, given its 23-40 record, but consider that the Pirates' run differential is minus-140 runs, by far the worst in baseball. The Pirates should hold MLB’s worst overall record, but instead, they sit six games ahead of the Orioles. The Astros have similar benefits, having MLB’s third worst run differential but a record about six games better than expected. Trumping all teams, however, the Los Angeles Angels sit as baseball’s luckiest team by this measure.

    It is not atypical to find the Angels considered a “lucky” team by analysts. Quite often, their difference in actual wins over predicted wins is chalked up to savvy baserunning, a reliable bullpen and steady guidance from manager Mike Scioscia. Skeptics of these write-offs have extra reason to scoff this season, as the Angels have been successful on just 40 of 61 stolen base attempts (66 percent) and their bullpen has a 4.79 ERA, which is third worst in the AL.

    Projected over a full 162-game season, the Angels are on pace to win a whopping 16 more games than BaseRuns indicates they deserve. As it stands now, they are 36-30 and own a .545 winning percentage, which would be good for about 88 wins. Yet they've scored exactly as many runs as they’ve allowed, and based on their overall profile, BaseRuns says the Angels would be lucky to even be .500 and that their record should be 29-37, which would give them 72 wins over a full season. Angels fans might be flying high right now with their team’s recent success, but they would do well to exercise cautious optimism for the rest of 2010.

    Matthew Carruth is a writer for FanGraphs.

    FanGraphs: Johan's slow decline

    June, 11, 2010
    AM ET
    Old Johan Santana, he ain’t what he used to be, ain’t what he used to be. Oh sure, it’s tempting to look at his 2.96 ERA and 1.20 WHIP and say he’s still the same old dominant Santana, maybe with a tiny bit missing off of his fastball. But that’s just not the case.

    At FanGraphs, we have a "dashboard" where you can select the stats you’d like to see for each player. Let’s recreate a dashboard for Santana here so his decline can come into stark focus. We’ll start in Minnesota in 2006, just because that was seemingly the beginning of the downward turn for him.

    FanGraphs: Joe Maddon gets creative

    June, 10, 2010
    PM ET
    Recently, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has employed an unorthodox strategy against pitchers with great change-ups. Ever since Dallas Braden and his nasty change threw a perfect game against the Rays, Maddon has stacked his lineups with players who bat with the same hand as the starting pitcher in order to neutralize that pitch. The change-up is a pitch that is typically used to neutralize opposite-handed hitters, and so Maddon is attempting to take away this advantage from pitchers with great change-ups by reducing the number of opposite-handed hitters in the lineup. So far, the strategy has worked pretty well.

    Most notably, on May 29, the Rays torched White Sox lefty John Danks for eight runs with a lineup that included four left-handed hitters. On Wednesday night, the Rays faced right handed change-up specialist Shaun Marcum of the Toronto Blue Jays, who had a 2.77 ERA entering the gme. The Rays lineup still included three left-handed hitters, as it's essentially impossible for the Rays to remove Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Reid Brignac from their line-up at this point. However, the Rays sent up switch-hitters Ben Zobrist and Dioner Navarro to bat right handed against Marcum, and even more telling was that they not only used right-handed catcher Kelly Shoppach as the DH, but they hit him clean-up.

    Did it work? Marcum's line -- four innings, 10 hits and seven earned runs -- certainly suggests it did. Shoppach, Navarro, and Zobrist were a combined 3-for-6 against Marcum, including a home run by Navarro.

    A look at the Pitch F/X data suggests that Marcum still threw his change-up as often as he normally does, so he didn't alter his game plan much. In his 12 previous starts, Marcum threw 21.1 percent change-ups, and 14 of his 67 pitches (20.9 percent) were change-ups on Wednesday night. It was still effective, as he threw 10 of the 14 (71.4 percent) for strikes and drew swinging strikes on three (21.4 percent) of them, both marks well above the league average. However, that swinging strike mark is five points below his average for the season, suggesting that hitters weren't fooled quite as often by the pitch.

    Despite the early success, Joe Maddon may not exactly be on solid ground with these decisions. In their careers, both Marcum and Danks aren't significantly better against opposite-handed battters. Instead, they have performed at roughly the same level against these hitters, showing no real platoon split. The “Danks Theory,” as some are calling the strategy, has worked, but it may take switch hitters out of their comfort zones, and it's possible that neutralizing the change-up may come at the cost of making a pitcher's fastball or curveball more effective. It will be interesting to see whether the Rays continue to trot this odd strategy out there even if they get shut down a few times.

    Jack Moore is a writer for FanGraphs.