Stats & Info: Dan Szymborski

BTF: C.J. Wilson's attempt at history

May, 23, 2010
As of Sunday morning, the Rangers hold a three-game lead in the American League West. Perhaps the biggest reason is starter C.J. Wilson, who is 3-1 with a 2.55 ERA in eight starts. What makes Wilson's performance most surprising is he's a converted reliever. Before Wilson's seven scoreless innings against the Blue Jays on April 8, he hadn't started a game since August 2005. As a rookie, he went 0-5 with a 12.05 ERA as a starter and 1-2, 2.73 as a reliever, which resulted in what seemed to be a permanent move to the bullpen.

The move from the bullpen to the rotation is rarer than you think. The opposite path is far more common. Even in an age in which relief pitchers are highly valued and players such as Huston Street and Drew Storen are groomed as closers from the time they sign a professional contract, six of the 10 closers with the most saves in 2009 were converted starters.

So, exactly how rare is the move back to the bullpen?

To answer this question, I looked at all full-time relievers in baseball history. I defined a full-time reliever simply as any pitcher who pitched 90 percent of his games in relief for two seasons of at least 40 innings pitched. After narrowing history down to these players, I looked to see how many became full-time starters in the following season. Setting a fairly low bar of two-thirds of games as a starter and 80 innings pitched, only 49 pitchers made the move. After restricting it to a higher standard of 80 percent of games started, the number of pitchers dropped to 30. If Wilson can last a season in the rotation, he'll be in elite company.

Overall, the numbers for these relievers turned starters are very good. As relievers, this group of 30 had an ERA of 3.41 in the 'pen, and it rose to 3.61 in the rotation. Their K/9 went from 7.0 to 5.6, and their BB/9 dropped from 3.6 to 2.7 while starting. However, these numbers can be misleading because these conversion experiments tend to end quickly if the guy struggles in the rotation. Therefore, guys who stunk it up in the rotation never got enough innings to qualify for this study.

That said, let's check out some of the success stories.

Before the 1967 season, Wood became a full-time knuckleballer. Within four years in the White Sox's bullpen, he became the league's biggest workhorse reliever, leading the AL in games pitched for three consecutive seasons (1968 to 1970). Wood was moved to the rotation during spring training in '71, and in the next five years until a Ron LeFlore liner shattered his knee, he won 110 games and threw 1,738 innings.

As a prospect, Finley never started a game in the minors and broke into the majors solely as a reliever. In September 1987, with the Angels having just traded John Candelaria to the Mets and Kirk McCaskill shut down for the year thanks to injuries, Finley started three games with unimpressive results. The Angels lost Don Sutton and Jerry Reuss after the year and Finley stayed in the rotation with mixed results in 1988. Finley had a breakout year in 1989, going 16-9 with a 2.57 ERA, making his first All-Star Game. He never pitched another game in relief and won 195 games as a starter.

Lowe led the league in saves as the Red Sox's closer in 2000 but lost his job in 2001 when Boston acquired fireman Ugueth Urbina from the Montreal Expos. With Lowe under contract through ther 2003 season, the team decided to try him in the rotation rather than employ him as a very expensive setup man. Lowe went 21-8, 2.58 for the Sox in 2002 and finished third in the Cy Young award voting. He has won 126 games since the conversion.

People were skeptical when the Cubs decided to move Dempster to the rotation in 2008. Given that Dempster had been one of the worst closers in the league in 2006 and 2007 and had previously become a reliever in 2004 after several years of control problems as a starter, most pundits (myself included, sadly) were predicting disaster. Dempster won 17 games and finished fourth in the NL in ERA, and he has been a steady presence in the Cubs' rotation since.

So, what can we expect from C.J. Wilson going forward?

It should surprise nobody that Wilson is extremely unlikely to finish the year with an ERA anywhere near 2.55. He's pitched very well, but he got lit up by the Angels in his last start, allowing seven runs in 4 1/3 innings while allowing his first two homers of the season.

FIP (fielding independent pitching), which measures expected ERA from peripheral statistics, has Wilson's performance in 2010 as 3.53, while xFIP, which is a version of FIP that normalizes home runs as a percentage of fly balls, has Wilson's expected ERA as 4.25. It's perhaps a little disappointing, but a full-time starter with an ERA of 4.26 is extremely valuable in Arlington. The Rangers should be pleased with how their experiment has worked out so far, but it still remains to be seen how durable Wilson will turn out to be as a starter.

Dan Szymborski is editor in chief of Baseball Think Factory.

BTF: Projecting Ryan Howard’s career

April, 26, 2010
Earlier this afternoon, word came out of Philadelphia that the Phillies have come to terms with first baseman Ryan Howard on a five-year, $125 million contract, keeping the slugger on the team through at least the 2016 season.

This contract is an extension of his current contract, which pays him $19 million this season and $20 million for 2011. The Phillies also have a club option worth $23 million for the 2017 season with a buyout of $10 million if they choose not to exercise it. To figure out how good of a deal this is, let's check out a long-term projection of Howard's career using ZiPS, a computer projection system I created.

This deal appears risky for the Phils. The home runs numbers look pretty good, as do the RBIs. But the latter is mostly a function of Howard's hitting in the middle of a great lineup. And those on-base percentage and slugging numbers begin declining steadily in 2013. Paying more than $20 million per season for a first baseman with a sub-.350 OBP just isn't good business. Large, hulking sluggers aren't known for aging particularly well, and Howard will be 32 before the new contract even goes into effect. And let's say Howard hadn't signed this deal and hit the market after the 2011 season. It's hard to imagine he would get a contract worth $125 million.

Some years ago, Bill James described players as having "young player skills" or "old player skills." Players with old player skills were said to be those who had a lot of power and got on base frequently but also tended to have little speed or defensive value. This describes Howard's profile quite well, and unfortunately for the Phillies, it also describes Mo Vaughn and David Ortiz, two players who did not age gracefully.

Even with a payroll of $141 million, general manager Ruben Amaro is taking an enormous risk.

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

BTF: What if the Pujols-Howard trade happened?

March, 24, 2010
Last week, the hottest rumor making the rounds was the possibility of the Phillies offering Ryan Howard to the Cardinals for Albert Pujols. It doesn't appear that the trade is going to happen, as both teams have loudly denied Buster Olney's report, but that doesn't mean we can't have some fun with the idea of it. So why not try and project the consequences of this blockbuster?

First off, it would be one of the absolute biggest trades in baseball history and probably the most sensational since the Blue Jays traded Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff to the Padres for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter in 1990. The only thing keeping Pujols out of the Hall of Fame at this point is a career-ending injury in the next week, leaving him with only nine seasons (you need 10 for the Hall). Howard doesn't have the same résumé, but with 198 home runs the past four years, he's one of the premier sluggers in baseball in his own right.

The tightness of the MVP voting in recent years makes the difference between Pujols and Howard seem smaller than it actually is. Howard usually out-homers Pujols, but a few home runs can't make up for the fact Pujols usually has a batting average 60-70 points higher and is a significantly better defensive player. Overall, Fangraphs has Pujols with a large edge in wins above replacement over the past four years, with Pujols' 33 wins being well above the 20 that Howard has put up.

The ZiPS Projection System has Pujols being about three wins better than Howard in 2010, a conclusion held by the other widely used projection systems. To test the win totals further, I simulated 100 years of the 2010 season in Diamond Mind 9.0, the engine behind Rob Neyer Baseball, to see just how the Cardinals and Phillies would fare after their swap.

Yes, you read that right, with Howard instead of Pujols, the Cardinals go from making the playoffs more than 50 percent of the time, to less than 25 percent of the time. The Phillies, on the other hand, go from heavy favorites to reach the postseason, to a virtual lock. Philly averaged 31 more runs per season with Pujols in its lineup, while St. Louis' average run total dropped by 33. The only way in which the Cardinals would consider this type of offer is money, but they still have Pujols under control for two more seasons, and they're in no rush to unload him.

The fact of the matter is that Pujols is simply that much better than Howard, and that's why this rumor was denied so vehemently. A "challenge trade" of Howard for Pujols would be lopsided, and even the Phillies know it.

Dan Szymborski is the editor in chief of Baseball Think Factory.
When the Chicago Cubs inked Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year, $136 million contract in November 2006, many people were concerned that Chicago was paying a lot for a player who was already 30 years old. Not many, GM Jim Hendry presumably among them, expected Soriano's numbers to nosedive halfway through the deal. But that's what happened, with Soriano hitting .241/.303/.423 with 20 homers for the Cubs last season. To help salvage their big investment (as well as the rest of the Cubs' offense), the club hired former Texas Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. But how much can one coach do?

To figure it out, let's first calculate what we can expect realistically expect from Soriano in 2010. According to ZiPS, the computer projection system I created, the 34-year-old will hit .268/.327/.494 with 25 homers. That's a far cry from the 46 homers he clubbed for the Nationals in 2006, but it's still a lot better than his 2009 line.

Why does ZiPS see such a bounce-back? From 2006-2008, Soriano had an OPS of .897. In 2009, his OPS was .726, a drop of 171 points. Looking at other players between 30 and 35 years old throughout baseball history, there have been 78 instances of full-time players losing 150-200 points of OPS from their 3-year averages. On average, these players gained back 76 points of OPS back the following season. Even without Jaramillo, there's reason for optimism with Soriano.
And an examination of Jaramillo's career gives us even more reason to be bullish on the Cubs' leftfielder in 2010.

In 19 seasons as a hitting coach (four with the Astros, 15 with the Rangers), Jaramillo has worked with scores of hitters. So I went back in time, projected every player for his first full-time season (400 PA+) with Jaramillo to see how much of an effect the coach had in his first year.

In total, I projected 58 players for their first seasons with Jaramillo. On average, the 58 players exceeded their OPS projections by 18 points, with more than a quarter of the players (16 of 58) beating the computer by at least 50 points. It's difficult to use statistics to evaluate a coach, but given that Jaramillo's charges have a solid history of matching or beating expectations and the Rangers have had solid offenses for most of the past 15 years, there's at least some indication that he knows what he's doing.

We are already projecting Soriano to post an .821 OPS. If we add 18 points on to that, it's .839. That might not be what the Cubs were expecting when they signed Soriano, but considering his performance last year, folks on the North Side would surely be thrilled.

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

BTF: No Crawford, no problem for Rays

March, 11, 2010
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg recently announced that the team's payroll would drop in 2011, and that even shelling out $60 million is probably out of the question. With Tampa Bay's payroll above $70 million this upcoming season, it's clear that there are going to be significant changes to the roster. With Carl Crawford set to be a free agent after this season, he's as good as gone. And in looking at his potential replacement, the Rays won't miss him for long.

A fixture in left field for the better part of a decade in Tampa Bay, Crawford is one of the most dynamic players in baseball. However, the emergence of outfield prospect Desmond Jennings makes it all the more likely that Crawford will be stealing bases elsewhere in 2011.

A year ago, the primary question people asked of Jennings was whether his surgically repaired shoulder would hold up. This year, the question is just how fast the Rays need to clear a spot for him. Jennings hit a combined .318/.401/.487 and stole 52 bases for Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham last year, and Baseball America recently ranked him as the No. 6 best prospect in all of baseball.

Looking at ZiPS Projections for the next several years, it appears the Rays are not going to lose much with Jennings taking Crawford's place.

Carl Crawford is still going to be an excellent player for a few years, but given the payroll constraints, this seems like one of the best places for the club to cut costs. Crawford will likely earn $10 million per season on his next contract, while Jennings will be making the league minimum in 2011 (roughly $400,000), and his cost will be under control for six seasons. Looking at the projections, even in 2011 the Rays will be getting 90 percent of Crawford's production at five percent of the price. That will give the team more flexibility to perhaps hang onto Carlos Pena, a player who has no obvious replacement on the farm, or to keep Jason Bartlett around until Tim Beckham (their top shortstop prospect) proves himself.

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

What if Nomar never got hurt?

March, 10, 2010
With Nomar Garciaparra announcing his retirement this morning, one can't help but wonder what might have been had the former Red Sox star not been riddled with injuries.

One of the "Holy Trinity" shortstops of the '90s, Nomar was expected to eventually give an acceptance speech in Cooperstown, and the only question was whether he, Jeter or A-Rod would get there first. At the end of the 2003 season, Nomar had a .323 lifetime batting average, 173 home runs, five All-Star appearances, and was a fixture on MVP ballots. Still just 30 years old, Nomar had already bounced back from the first serious setback of his career, a wrist injury that cost him the 2001 season.

However, in spring training 2004, Nomar's Achilles' heel turned out to be, well, his Achilles' heel. An Achilles tendon strain ended up dogging him throughout the 2004 season. While he played well, it wasn't up to his usual standards (his 113 OPS+ was the lowest of his career to that point) and he ended up being traded to the Cubs that July in a huge four-way deal. After spending his entire career in Boston, Nomar then had to watch the Sox sweep the Cardinals in the World Series.

So, why not pretend that 2004 never happened? Let's says Nomar never got hurt, stayed in Boston, cemented his status as one of the premier players of his era, and had a graceful final decade to his career.

Using ZiPS, a computer projection system that I developed, I decided to take a stab at speculating on what could have been. Taking Nomar's stats through the 2003 season, I projected a career trajectory for him, based on how other similar players have aged throughout baseball history.

For a shortstop, that's an easy Hall of Famer. Even taking into consideration that most players don't age as gracefully as Jeter has, we clearly missed a lot of great baseball from Nomar.

It's also not outside the realm of possibility that Garciaparra one day makes the Hall of Fame anyway. Garciaparra wouldn't be the first player to eventually make the Hall with a tremendous peak and an injury-shortened career (think Ralph Kiner). Hitting .313/.361/.521 in more than 6,000 plate appearances while mostly playing shortstop isn't anything to sneeze at.

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