Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Phillies and The Worst Players in the League

Particularly savvy baseball fans may be aware that the Phillies are terrible this year.  That same sample of people don’t need to be told any stats or anything to confirm this, and people who were not previously aware of this can probably just take my word for it.  In fact, the Phillies have been pretty bad for a few years now.  OK, some of you might argue that they were at least average the last two seasons, but consider that while the team finished a non-terrible 81-81 and 73-89 in the last two seasons, they did so with the 2nd and 3rd highest payrolls in the league in those seasons.  And this year, they’re on pace for about 70 wins with again the 3rd highest payroll in the league.  That’s about $2.3 million per win since ’12, and when you consider that the five teams worse than the Phillies this season have an average salary $85 million less than them, it’s pretty tough to watch.

The poster boy for this burgeoning era of ineptitude has been Ryan Howard, whose 5-year, $125 million contract started in 2012.  I was reading an article by Jeff Sullivan about how bad Howard has been in that time, and the most impactful point was that Howard has accrued -0.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in the last three years.  That’s right, he has been on par with that AAA guy you just bring up from the minors when your starter tweaks a hammy.  But this got me thinking – how bad is that really?  Are there other players that have been this useless in that span of time?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Chase Utley as a Non-Phillie

Now don't get too dramatic here, this isn't about the possibility of Chase Utley getting traded away from the Phillies in the coming weeks.  Not to say that I'm not considering it, but that's something that I'm not quite mentally prepared for, so I will not cross that bridge until we come to it.

No, this post is more of a hypothetical spawned from a frequently occurring but rarely acted upon thought that I have had during Utley's career in Philly.  I'm not alone in thinking to myself, "Man, he sure does hit a lot of home runs into short right / right-center field," and I've heard it referred to as "Utley's Corner" at times.  What isn't really discussed as much is how well-suited that stroke is to the ballpark that Utley plays half his games in, Citizens Bank Park.  That scoreboard wall that extends from the right field foul pole nearly to center field is awfully easy to get to at times, and Utley certainly knows how to make that happen.  That and the fact that he almost exclusively pulls the ball when he gets a good piece of one.

Here's a cursory Photoshop effort in overlaying images of his home runs since 2006 (they weren't all at Citizens Bank Park, but I threw on the dimensions just to give an idea):

Friday, July 18, 2014

Playing the Stock Market in the Second Half

I'm no Mad Money guy, but I am sufficiently well versed in fantasy sports to know the concept behind buying low and selling high.  The way to success in any series of investments is to acquire undervalued assets at below-market prices and sell off overvalued ones at above-market prices.  Or something like that.  The problem with all that is how to figure out which items with high value really deserve that, and which ones are a mirage, and vice versa.
Since it's the MLB All-Star Break, it's high time to take a look at the upcoming "second-half" and see which players might be in a position to fall off their current torrid pace, and which ones might have a little bit of a renaissance after a down few months.  Let's take a look at four players who might see their quality-of-play shift for the rest of the season.

George Springer
In just about half a season since he got called up for the Astros, Springer has put up some nice counting stats, as another copy of that half-year would give him 38 homers, 88 runs, 100 RBI, and 10 steals for a full season.  That actually compares kind of favorably to the 2013 versions of Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre, and Edwin Encarnacion.  Sounds good, right?
Here's the problem: Springer's striking out about 1/3 of the time, and that rate has risen to about 37% in July, while his walk rate has fallen.  Since 2007 (why yes, that IS a random year I picked in a dropdown), players who have a similar strikeout and walk profile usually post about a .225 average.  Even more concerning is that over the last three months, his line drive rate has fallen (21% to 15% to 9%) and his ground ball rate has risen (33% to 41% to 68%).  Combine all that with a likely-unsustainable 27% rate of conversion of fly balls into homers and it all seems to add up to a plummeting batting average.  Considering he's already as low as .238 for the season, we could be looking at something closer to .210 or .220 for the rest of the year, and I would imagine it's pretty hard to support those counting stats with that average.

Brian McCann
OK, full disclosure, I drafted and still own McCann in both of my fantasy leagues.  His .239 average and career-lows in both on-base and slugging percentage are not appreciated.  He is suffering a low .245 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), but increased defensive shifts put a much lower ceiling on that number to begin with.  
McCann's preseason supporters (hi there) argued that his pull-heavy swing would allow him to hit a lot of homers to the short porch in right field in Yankee Stadium, but if anything he's seen a downturn in homer production.  However, I was surprised to discover that while his homer rate at home looks pretty close to his career marks (which are therefore somewhat low since he played somewhere else in every other year), he has turned a ridiculously-low 4% of his fly balls on the road into homers.  If that misfortune balances out a bit in the second half, he could see just enough of an uptick in power output to get his full-season results to approximate his usual performance.

Anibal Sanchez
Last year’s ERA leader is still putting up a similarly impressive 3.04 ERA and 1.04 WHIP, with a paltry .207 batting average against him.  However, I’m not bullish on his success continuing, as he’s inducing swinging strikes (a strong indicator of pitcher skill) 1/3 less frequently this season, and that drop perfectly matches with a decline in strikeout rate that puts him about a strikeout per inning below his career average.
More alarming than that are degradations in the stats that sabermetricians often use to assess a player’s luck (or lack thereof).  He has allowed the lowest rate of home runs per fly ball allowed among qualified starters, and considering he has allowed more fly balls this year, if that regresses, it could mean serious trouble.  He has also allowed the seventh-lowest BABIP among starters, which is about 50 points below his career average, but while he should probably have some of that luck go the other way, if he maintains his uncharacteristically high weak-contact rate (about 1/3 more this year than in the past), he won’t give up too much in that regard.

Phil Hughes
Really Phil Hughes?  Anyone who’s paid any attention to the Yankees in recent seasons knows that this isn’t really a guy anyone expects much of, but this year he’s really turned some kind of corner.  Despite a pedestrian 3.92 ERA, he’s actually 7th in the league in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), a stat that’s scaled like ERA but focuses mostly on the things that the pitcher has the most control of, like strikeouts, walks, and home runs.  That’s above guys like Cliff Lee, Stephen Strasburg, and Yu Darvish.  So if he’s pitching that well, why isn’t the ERA better? 

Well, a lot of the difference between his actual results and his defense-independent stats comes from a BABIP that is 40 points above his career norm.  However, behind that batted-ball misfortune, there’s a lot to like: a walk rate that is the best in the league, a career-low home run rate (which was a bit of a bugaboo in the past), and a career-high ground ball rate.  It seems like he’s gotten some of this done by switching from using a slider about 1/5 of the time to using a cutter, which he seems to be able to command well enough that he’s throwing the highest rate of pitches in the strike zone of his career.  That’s the kind of change that is a little more solid and predictive, so I feel pretty good endorsing a player that I would have felt pretty bad about complimenting in years past.