Early Season Outliers

All the teams in Major League Baseball crossed the 40-game mark last weekend.  The team I follow, the Cubs, seems to be committing a second season to not trying to compete and instead “evaluating” the talent of prospects and players existing in the liminal space between being a prospect and starting a career after baseball.  Some of those players continue to tantalize fans with the hope that they might be able to be regular contributors despite the issues that caused their prospect shine to tarnish.  This means I’ve spent too much time this season thinking about how productive a player can be while having a major hole in their game, or while having only one true strength. Now that one quarter of the season is complete, I decided to take a deeper look at some of the players around baseball who are succeeding or failing in unusual ways. 

I focused my attention on three basic aspects of offensive performance which are typically central to why batters succeed or fail: hitting the ball, hitting the ball hard, and passing on bad pitches, which can be measured by the rate stats K%ISO (Isolated Power), and BB%.   DISCLAIMER: I am absolutely a nerd, and my fascination with looking differently at the numbers of baseball was kindled by the Bill James Baseball Abstracts of the 1980s, which I would devour to the detriment of all my high school coursework every spring.  However, I cannot swim in the depths of modern statistical analysis and therefore cannot rightly call myself a stat analyst in the modern sense.  We will be wading in the shallows here.  I was curious to see how good a batter can be if they strike out at a high rate, or walk at a low rate, or don’t hit for much power; also, how bad can a batter be if they limit strikeouts, excel at drawing walks, or hit for a lot of power?

The parameters I’m using here are largely borrowed from the stat glossary at FanGraphs, and I’m also using their measurements of all these stats.  I’m using WAR (Wins Above Replacement) to classify players as doing well or not; specifically, since a seasonal WAR total of 2 is considered average for a starting position player, I’m using 0.5 WAR through the first quarter of the season as the line for success or the lack thereof.  

Best Players with a Bad K%

In 2021, when all who are not pitchers agreed that strikeouts were out of control, MLB batters struck out in 23.2% of all plate appearances.  In 2017 that rate was 21.6%, and so far in 2022 the rate is 22.5%.  For that reason, I’ve decided to label 30% or higher to be a high K rate, and 15% or lower to be a low K rate.  So, which batters have been average or above while striking out at least 30% of the time this season?

PlayerK%WAR
Patrick Wisdom40.3%0.6
Chris Taylor34.9%0.6
Dansby Swanson34.4%1.4
Eugenio Suarez33.1%1.3
Brandon Marsh32.4%0.7
Kyle Schwarber32.4%0.7
Cody Bellinger31.9%0.8
Julio Rodriguez31.4%1.0
Seiya Suzuki31.1%0.8
Pavin Smith30.6%0.5

And here we immediately see why I was drawn into this exercise, as the Cubs leading reclamation candidate (Wisdom) and newest hope for the future (Suzuki) are both on the list.  Seiya Suzuki’s K rate in Japan was only 16%, so there is reason to hope that this high K rate is a product of him learning the league.  I’m amused that the list has two Cubs (and one former Cub in Schwarber), two Dodgers and two Mariners.  Half of the players on this list are bringing positive defensive value to their WAR, with Dansby Swanson being the only player who may be bringing most of their value with defense, but even without his defense he would be above the 0.5 WAR threshold.  

I am surprised that there are this many players on the list; however, another way of looking at it is that there are 115 offensive players with at least 0.5 WAR so far this year (with at least 120 plate appearances, which was my cutoff), so it’s clearly the less likely way to succeed.  

For what it’s worth, there are only 4 players to date who are striking out more than 30% of the time and notproducing enough to justify starting: Franmil Reyes (-0.6 WAR), Adam Duvall (-0.1), Tyler O’Neill (-0.3), and Jesus Sanchez (0.3).  Two vets whose teams are counting on turnarounds (Duvall and Sanchez) and two young-ish players who are underperforming their previous levels (one of whom, O’Neill, has been put on the IL).  

Good K%, Bad Results

What happens when we flip the chart on its head?  Who are the players who are keeping their K rate low but not producing good value?

PlayerK %WAR
Jose Iglesias10.3%0.2
Alex Verdugo10.5%-0.5
Miguel Rojas10.5%0.2
Amed Rosario12.4%0.2
Gio Urshela12.5%0.1
Abraham Toro12.6%0.2
Wilmer Flores13.2%0.2
Jesse Winker13.4%-0.3
Nicky Lopez13.6%0.3
Tony Kemp14.1%0.1
Whit Merrifield14.2%0.1
Yuli Gurriel14.3%0.1
Dylan Carlson14.6%0.3
Charlie Blackmon14.9%-0.2

There are 37 players with a K rate below 15%, and 14 of them are still not producing up to the standard of an average starter.  That surprised me, and my assumption was that these players were undermined by severely bad defense.  I was completely shocked to find that 13 of these 14 players had negative Offensive WAR numbers – only Wilmer Flores was dragged below the average line by his defense! 

Most of the players on this list have either an ISO or their BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) way below their established norms, which suggests that their teams are giving them this much room to fail because they believe that their numbers (and therefore their value) will return to normal and acceptable levels.  Jesse Winker is a great example: he has a career ISO over .200, but so far this year it is at .080.  Seattle certainly didn’t trade for a corner outfielder from the Deadball Era, so they are obviously going to give him time to figure things out.  His new teammate Abraham Toro is another example.  The Mariners are hoping he will be a useful piece for them, and he has a very short track record in the majors (not quite 700 ML plate appearances), so he’s going to still get time to figure things out.  

The most intriguing cases to watch from this list are players on teams that have serious postseason aspirations.  If Yuli Gurriel continues to be the less valuable version of himself will the Astros feel pressured to find a stouter First Baseman?  Will Dylan Carlson be moved to the bench if the Cardinals see an opportunity to catch the Brewers, or need to cement their Wild Card status?  

Provide Value and Carry a Weak Stick

Chicks dig the long ball.  And by “chicks,” I mean General Managers, and marketing executives, and pretty much everybody except pitchers.  So who are the players who managed to climb Major League Mountain despite possessing a gentler offensive profile?

PlayerISOWAR
Geraldo Perdomo.0490.5
Cesar Hernandez.0650.5
Luis Arraez.0680.7
Alejandro Kirk.0710.6
Myles Straw.0731.1
Gavin Lux.0740.9
Ke’Bryan Hayes.0750.9
Trey Mancini.0880.6
Adam Frazier.0971.0
Andrew Benintendi.0981.2
Andrew Velazquez.0990.6

There are 40 players with at least 120 PAs and an ISO below .100, but these are the only 11 who are providing starter-level value.  Most of them do it the same way, exemplified by three guys in the middle of the chart: Myles Straw, Gavin Lux, and Ke’Bryan Hayes.  All three take their walks at positive rates and play plus defense, with Straw and Lux also adding meaningful baserunning value.  Most of the rest of the list follow this script, with slightly less success.  Only a couple guys find enough success with a high average but minus defensive value, with Luis Arraez and Andrew Benintendi being the exemplars.  

The Weirdest Ones

There is a reason all manner of Chicks dig the long ball, though.  It’s almost impossible to hit for power and not be valuable.  Here is the entire list of players with more than 120 PAs and an ISO over .200 who have not accounted for at least 0.5 WAR through a quarter of the season:

PlayerISOWAR
Daniel Vogelbach.2160.2
Gary Sanchez.2080.2

That’s it. 

You can hit below .200, but if you do it with power you can still accumulate value (Christian Walker and Kyle Schwarber).  

You can strike out 40% of the time, but if you generate power in enough of the other 60% of at bats you can still accumulate value (Patrick Wisdom). 

You can walk 4% of the time, but still accumulate value if you hit for power (Rafael Devers). 

You can be truly atrocious on defense and overcome it by hitting for power (surprisingly, former Gold Glovers Anthony Rizzo and Paul Goldschmidt). 

However, if you hit for a low average and strike out a lot and play “defense” and create mayhem on the bases for your own team, your power will not save you.  

This is the lesson. 

Don’t Walk, Produce Runs

Finally, we come to the extremes of walk rate.  In 2022 the league walk rate is 8.5%, and in 2021 it was 8.6%, so we will use 8.5% as our baseline.  So, how many players are walking less than 4.5% of the time and creating value?

PlayerBB%WAR
Travis d’Arnaud2.5%1.0
Starling Marte2.9%0.5
Tim Anderson3.7%2.0
Jorge Mateo4.0%0.5
Wander Franco4.1%1.2
Luis Robert4.2%1.3
Rafael Devers4.3%2.5
Bobby Witt, Jr.4.3%0.9
   

Through the first quarter of the season 8 of the 22 qualifying players with low walk rates were achieving starter-quality value, which is a worse ratio than the high K rate players (10 of 17) but better than the low ISO batters (11 of 40).  If there is a point to be taken from this it is the affirmation that Babe Ruth was on to something with his decision to strive for power.  I suppose we already knew that by now.  

These 8 non-walkers gain their value in the full range of manners – hitting for high average (Tim Anderson and Rafael Devers), hitting for impressive power (Devers again, and Bobby Witt, Jr.), and playing great defense (Travis d’Arnaud, Jorge Mateo and Witt) – or just doing everything other than walking better than average (Wander Franco and Luis Robert).  I think this list has more exciting players – like Franco, Robert, Devers and Anderson – than any of the others.  

Okay, He Can Walk.  What Else Can He Do?

Finally, we come to the last group of outliers.  Surely a high walk rate is desirable, but who are the least valuable walkers?

PlayerBB%WAR
Max Muncy20.2%0.3
Carlos Santana16.4%0.0
Aaron Hicks15.7%-0.1
Darin Ruf15.7%0.2
Joey Gallo13.9%-0.2
Brandon Belt13.3%0.2
Yoshi Tsutsugo13.3%-0.6
Rafael Ortega13.1%-0.1
Jesse Winker12.8%-0.2
Robbie Grossman12.7%-0.8
Steven Kwan12.7%0.4

The story is the same for just about everyone on this list: power and batting average have tanked for these guys early in the season, and they play positions which which do not provide defensive value (think corner OF, DH and 1B).  Hicks and Ortega are primarily centerfielders, but they aren’t playing the position well enough to help.  Most of these players are established and their teams are waiting for them to return to their previous batting form; Steven Kwan is a rookie who Cleveland hopes can tap into a little more of the power he showed in the upper minor leagues; Tsutsugo and Ortega are here because someone has to take the field for the Pirates and Cubs.  

The other takeaway from this group is the observation that there are twice as many high-walk-rate batters who are producing value as there are players on this unfortunate list.  Again, since most of these players have track records of success, it can be expected that they will be given every chance to move off this list and into the value category.  

2021 Media Journal: Books

In 2021 I attempted to keep a detailed journal of all the new (or at least new-to-me) books, movies, tv shows, music and podcasts I experienced during the year.

I made it through May. After that, it gets a little dicey.

Looking back at the accounting of it has been eye-opening. There’s so much more of it than I realized. Reviewing the year has really helped me get a sense of what has stuck with me and what has turned out to be forgettable. So, I thought I’d share it here, starting with books (since I’m the kind of guy who likes to believe that I’m a book-first person). Rather than take up a lot of your time with mini-reviews I’ve decided to describe every work in 20 words or less. The rest is up to you.

Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player (Jeremy Beer). Maybe the first great Black baseball player, a generation before the guys you know. He’s worth your attention.

The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife (Brad Balukjian). What if you met all the guys in a pack of baseball cards? Great idea, disappointing execution.

Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy (Margaret Sullivan). Local Journalism is in trouble. So is America. These truths are related. Short, clear, direct. Worthwhile.

The Conquest of the Illinois (George Rogers Clark). First-person account from the general who secured the Illinois River Valley during the Revolutionary War. Short, fascinating.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Kristin Kobes Du Mez). The timeline of hyper-masculinity poisoning American Evangelicalism. Clearly documented and explained, damning evidence of the state we’re in.

Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask (Jon Pessah). A fascinating man, but the writing style grated. Like 500 pages of ESPN The Magazine pieces. Wish I liked it better.

Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art (James Nestor). Fascinating, easy to follow, not jargon-laden. Practical techniques well explained. I’ve found it helpful and healthful.

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Fleming Rutledge). Profound examination of the event of the Crucifixion and the Biblical motifs related to it. Important contribution to never-ending topic.

The Disabled God (Nancy Eisland). An early approach at theology of disability. An important voice in an essential conversation. Challenging, with important insights.

The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Beth Allison Barr). Clear, detailed history showing Complementarianism as veneer for non-Christian patriarchy. Also personally examines the cost to the whole Church.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (David Epstein). Explores the advantages for those who have had diverse experiences in work, training and development, contra the “Laser-Focused” approach.

A Study in Emerald (Neil Gaiman). Graphic novel imagining Sherlock Holmes in the Lovecraft Cthulu mythos. A blast if you like either or both of those.

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell). Amazing. Science-fiction, faith, religion, philosophy – all at once. Don’t read about it before you read it.

Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft (Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez). First book of a trippy graphic novel about a family, a house, and a wild set of keys. Fun read.

The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead). Beautiful and horrible, depicting life for boys on the edge in the Jim Crow South. I cried, and gasped. Actually.

What Is the Bible? (Rob Bell). I liked it. YMMV on his style, but his explanation of how to read the Bible is pretty solid. Worthwhile.

Ted Strong Jr.: The Untold Story of an Original Harlem Globetrotter and Negro Leagues All-Star (Sherman L. Jenkins). The inspiring life of a Negro League All-Star and Harlem Globetrotter which was almost lost to history. Joyous read.

The Prophetic Imagination (Walter Brueggemann). A reading of the Hebrew Scriptures which sees the prophets as divine agents of counter-culture. Brief but rich, must-read classic.

The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead). These both won the Pulitzer Prize for a reason. Again, beautiful and devastating. An alternate version of pre-Civil War America that casts new light on old horrors.

Four Lost Cities (Annalee Newitz). The author looks at current archeology to consider the forces that can make seemingly healthy cities and civilizations disappear.

A Burning In My Bones (Winn Collier). Authorized biography of beloved pastor/author/translator Eugene Peterson. Gave human scale to a larger-than-life figure, affectionately.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Bessel Van Der Kolk). Understanding trauma, how it affects body and mind, and the ways of healing that are restoring people. Profound and empowering.

From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (Brendan Purcell). Purcell considers human origins from the discipline of philosophy, a fresh angle which offers fresh insights. Friendly to science and religion.

Klara and the Sun (Kazuo Ishiguro). A meditation on what it means to be human and our need for belonging. Joyful, sad, beautiful.

Tear Down These Walls: Following Jesus into Deeper Unity (John H. Armstrong). John is a personal mentor and inspiration who has committed himself to Christian unity. This is his latest work exploring that vision, and it is a beautiful expression of his mission.

The Beginning of Hope For Cub Fans?

15-25

15-25

17-23

14-28

17-23

18-22

17-23

14-28

13-27

21-19

That is the win/loss record for the Chicago Cubs for each of the 10 quarter-seasons since Theo Epstein’s regime took over (I put the last two games of each season in the final quarter, which is why those groups have 42 games). Nine quarters of bad, with the last two of those producing the worst records, and then suddenly an over-.500 quarter. It’s taken a while for anyone to notice the improvement.

This is probably because a .500 record just means the team stopped sinking. Staying at 10-14 games under doesn’t feel like progress, and the difference between horrific and average is almost imperceptible at the micro level. Consider this: the team achieved their record in the first quarter-season by going 2-4 in every 6 games (basically); they achieved their second-quarter record by going 3-3 in every 6 games. Do we really feel one extra win a week? A recent hot streak (7-3 in their last 10 after today) starts to make people notice that this team isn’t the same team that was giving away wins in the late innings and finding a way to be on the short side of every one-run game. What’s more, this isn’t the hopeless squads the Cubs trotted out in 2012 and 2013. So now that we’ve noticed, how is this happening?

The least impressive-sounding reason is that they’ve gotten luckier. That’s not cynicism, it’s an observation. A team’s success derives from many specific skills, but there are other ways that all teams are subject to random variation. Team records in extra-inning games and one-run games tend in this direction. Good teams can perform badly in these areas, and terrible teams can do well. Having a good, or bad, bullpen can tilt things a little, but these types of games are not much more than coin flips.

A few current examples illustrate the point:

Tampa Bay has the second worst record in the American League, but the second best AL record in one-run games.

San Diego is 9 games under .500, but at 8 over .500 in one-run games.

The worst extra inning records in the National League belong to the Dodgers and Nationals – both teams on pace to go to the playoffs.

During the first quarter of the season, the Cubs were 2-9 in one-run games. In the second quarter, they went 5-4. Did they get better? Well, the bullpen stabilized during that time, which might help, but it would also seem they reverted to the mean. Does that seem too simple? They also went 1-5 in extra-inning games in the first quarter, but 2-1 in the second quarter. These are all really small sample sizes, but that’s the point: given time, these numbers usually level out. The Cubs really weren’t as bad as their record in the first quarter – they just got few, if any, random breaks to go their way.

Another way to see this is in the team’s run differentials this season. A team’s job is to win games, and the way to win games is to score more runs than your opponent. During the first quarter the Cubs scored 159 runs, and allowed 167 runs. Pythagorean win calculators suggest that with those results the Cubs could have expected to have gone 19-21 during those games; they were actually 5 wins worse than that! So how did the next quarter go? 144 runs scored and150 runs allowed – which also produces an expected record of 19-21. Which is to say that the second-quarter Cubs were actually a little lucky, if not enough to compensate for their very unlucky first quarter. Even though the team’s win totals from one quarter to the next were very inconsistent, their actual performance at scoring runs and preventing runs was very consistent.  This is where luck, or random variation, shows up. And since their horrible start, the Cubs luck has been evening out.

Another place of improvement for this year’s team is the starting pitching.  Of course, since I starting writing this, the team traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for the top prospects in Oakland’s farm system.  For some Cub fans, this move will trigger an autonomic twitch and recollections of the last two seasons, when the pitching staff became completely uncompetitive after the most tradable starters were shipped off for prospects.  Maybe I’ll write another post after this one telling you why I think this year won’t be quite so bad. But for now, let’s talk about the starting pitching up to this point.

Through July 4 (the day the Samardzija Era ended), the Cub starters were second in the Major Leagues in WAR, to only the Detroit Tigers:

1. Tigers: 9.7

2. Cubs: 9.0

3. Nationals: 8.6

They were also 12th in ERA, 2nd in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), and 8th in xFIP.  If you prefer traditional stats, the starters have nearly posted a .500 record (28-31)!

When you look at the individual performances, it becomes evident that this wasn’t just Samardzija and Hammel carrying the others.  Again using WAR from fangraphs.com, the Cub starting pitchers are currently ranked as follows among all of their MLB peers:

18. Jake Arrieta: 2.4 WAR

23. Jeff Samardzija: 2.1

26. Jason Hammel: 2.1

Let me stop here for a moment.  Remember that there are 30 teams; even distribution of talent would put one pitcher from each team in the top 30.  Instead, the Cubs have 3 such pitchers, which no other team can say (well, now that two of those pitchers are on the A’s, the A’s have that claim instead of the Cubs, but you see the point).

73. Travis Wood: 1.0 WAR

76. Edwin Jackson: 1.0 WAR

So, if you were doing a pitcher draft, 76 picks would mean you had gone through the league just over two and a half times.  However, all 5 Cub starters – even Edwin Jackson, who drives most Cub fans crazy – are in the top 76 starters this year.  We have no way yet of knowing how the new pitchers in the rotation will do, but we know that the 3 pitchers who remain are not worse than what most teams throw out there.  They are, in fact, better.  While everyone was complaining that the Cubs haven’t been drafting stud pitchers, and that the Cubs keep trading away their pitchers for prospects, the Cubs have been quietly keeping pitchers who fit with their plans (again, a topic for another post).  For the first time since the Epstein regime began, there is depth in the AAA rotation, with both organizational soldiers and prospects.  So fear not, Cub fan.  This year probably won’t look like the last two.

The final reason I want to suggest to you for why this team is better than the teams that have been haunting your dreams in recent years is that the bullpen is better, deeper, and more flexible.  Of course, at the start of the year, the pen performed terribly, as pitchers like Jose Veras, James Russell, and Brian Schlitter looked like the same kind of dreck that the team trotted out last year.  But then, pitchers started arriving from Iowa and other parts unknown – 12 different pitchers threw relief innings just in the month of April, as the brain trust tried to figure out who they could trust and who they couldn’t.  5 of those pitchers put up negative WAR, and 3 more put up 0 WAR.  But in May, things got a little better: 11 pitchers again, but only one had negative WAR (James Russell, with -0.1), and 6 gave positive contributions.  And in June, only 8 pitchers, with only one negative (Justin Grimm, -0.3).

Notice the three ways I said the pen was improved:

Better: This year’s bullpen has accumulated 1.6 WAR so far, compared to -0.2 WAR for the bullpen in the first half of 2013.

Deeper: 7 different pitchers have made positive contributions this year, and only one pitcher has been given meaningful innings while posting negative WAR (Justin Grimm, -0.1). Last year in the first half, there were actually 8 pitchers who made positive contributions, but three of the 5 highest inning pitchers were significantly negative (Hector Rondon, Carlos Marmol, Shawn Camp); in fact, those three had -2.0 WAR, which wiped out the 2.0 WAR put up by the 8 positive pitchers.

More Flexible: The failures of Rondon, Marmol, and Camp last year overwhelmed the rest of the pen, and management kept sending them out for more abuse.  This year, Ricky Renteria has moved far more quickly to shuttle out those who are struggling and give opportunities to new players.  8 relievers have logged 20 IP or more, and only Justin Grimm among them hasn’t righted the ship in some measure.  Compare that to last year, when 5 relievers shouldered most of the load for the first half, including the three busts we’ve mentioned.  This year, Jose Veras was given an opportunity, DLed to work out his problems, and then given another chance.  When he couldn’t figure things out, he was cut loose.  This more rapid response to poor pitching, and willingness to give significant innings to newcomers, has been a strength of this year’s team.

I’ve not said anything about the offense, and that’s because this team is better this year in spite of the offense, not because of it.  It is true that Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro have returned to form and taken big steps forward, but only Luis Valbuena is helping them regularly.  The offense is still waiting for the cavalry to arrive from Iowa and West Tenn.  But the evidence of a real plan on the pitching side of the game is the earliest reason to start to hope that the team has started to turn the corner toward success.

Warming Up the Hot Stove

The most rewarding part of the baseball season for a Cub fan might be the offseason, when one can dream about what yet might be, instead of dwelling on what has already been.  Since my youth, winter has been a time to build hope for another season by scheming over what players the Cubs could acquire to fill their various holes, or anticipating which prospects will be ready to make the leap to valuable contributor to the next great Cubs team.  You may call me optimistic for this outlook, or merely delusional, but it is the means by which I enter a new season with anticipation rather than dread.

As I have grown older, this process has matured and become more realistic without losing hopefulness.  I do not suppose that every free agent stud really wants to play on the North Side, that every prospect will be an All-Star, or that every Cub squad has a realistic path to 90-plus wins.  Having an honest sense of the possible helps me look to the coming season with enthusiasm instead of dread.

In a baseball era of huge money (on all sides), constant coverage and voluminous (often misunderstood and misused) data, there is another route to Hot-Stove fandom that seems to dominate the conversation.  The current conversations happening in Chicago media (newspapers and radio, in particular) exemplify this approach.  The cry goes up, “Trade Starlin Castro! Get something for him while you can!”  The trade partner du jour is the Arizona Diamondbacks, possessors of Justin Upton.  However, this pairing seems to be less about infatuation with Upton, and more about dissatisfaction with Castro.  The primary charges against Castro are:

  1. He’s not the “control the strike zone, work the count, pile up walks” type of hitter Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer prefer.
  2. He’s not good enough defensively to play shortstop.
  3. Javier Baez is almost here anyway, and he’s going to be better than Starlin Castro.

Maybe Theo and Jed will trade Castro for Upton, or for something else, and Baez will begin his ascent to be the next great shortstop to lead the Cubs to the promised land (which would make him Joe Tinker 2.0, I suppose).  Whether that happens or not, though, these arguments are mostly nonsense, built on the slack observation skills and critical thinking for which most radio talk show hosts are famous.

He’s the Wrong Type of Hitter

Lost in the complaint that Starlin Castro doesn’t walk and doesn’t control the strike zone is that he actually showed meaningful improvement in that area in 2012.  On June 12, the Cubs dismissed hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and put James Rowson into the job.  On the day Jaramillo was fired, this was Castro’s batting line:

Games PA BB K BA OBP SLG BABIP
59 255 6 42 .309 .322 .449 .348

And this was Castro’s batting line for the rest of the season:

Games PA BB K BA OBP SLG BABIP
102 432 30 57 .268 .324 .421 .294

(Obviously, I didn’t give you everything, but some categories that matter for this conversation)

Look at how Castro’s walk rate jumped – from 2.3% of his plate appearances to 6.9%.  Maybe this is due to random forces.  Maybe he just started walking more.  But look at the numbers in 25 game increments (nothing magical about 25 game increments, just an easy way to divide the games):

25-game block # Walk percentage
1 5.8%
2 6.5%
3 7.7%
4 (last 27 games) 7.7%

That looks to me like Castro was learning something throughout the year, and acting on it.   There is another line in those charts that looks like improved strike zone control – his strikeout rate dropped significantly in the Rowson Era – from 16.5% of his plate appearances to 13.2%.  Walking substantially more, and striking out less doesn’t make him the Dominican Dandy of Walks, but it’s improvement.  It suggests a new level of plate discipline, after two years of decline in that area.

Perhaps you are concerned, though, by that low batting average during the last 102 games of the season (.268, compared to .309 to begin the year, and a .304 mark over his first two seasons).  The last line on that chart I gave you was Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP).  That means what it says – what the batting average was when you take out strikeouts and home runs.  It tends to be a pretty stable number over time for batters, so when you see a big dip in their BABIP number, it tends to mean that they are either having bad luck, or they are hitting fewer line drives (see this for some explanation of that idea).  What does that mean for Castro’s BABIP decline in the last part of 2012?

Well, in July Starlin Castro’s line drive rate was about half of his historic average (11.9%, down from 20.1%) – that was also the worst month of his career, batting-wise.  The rest of the year, though, his line drive rate was normal, which suggests that he was a victim of bad luck.  And, in fact, during the last 27 games of the year, Castro’s BABIP was .340 (almost exactly his pre-2012 career average of .345).  So, what did he do during those 27 games?

PA 2B 3B HR BB K BA OBP SLG OPS
117 9 2 2 9 11 318 376 495 871

Raise your hand if you think Theo and Jed don’t want that kind of player.  Since this is the internet, I can’t see you raising your hand, but someone will be along to help you eventually.

He Can’t Play Shortstop

I’ll keep this one briefer.  It’s possible that you think Starlin Castro hasn’t improved as a Shortstop, particularly if you think the only defensive statistic that exists is Errors.

2010: 27

2011: 29

2012: 27

However, there are other defensive statistics.  Fielding Percentage, which is still a pretty limited statistic, shows us that Castro is committing errors on a smaller percentage of his Total Chances:

2010: .950

2011: .961

2012: .964

Now, the league fielding average for shortstops was .970 in 2012, which means that the average shortstop, fielding as many balls as Castro, would have only committed 23 errors.  He was 4 errors worse than average.

Except…Castro doesn’t get to an average amount of balls.  In fact, he led the league in Putouts and Assists in both 2011 and 2012.  He gets to a lot of ground balls.  Some of this is a product of him being very durable and playing almost every inning, but not all of it: he also led the league in Range Factor/G (Putouts and Assists per game) in 2012.  Castro created 4.51 outs in the field per game in 2012, while the average shortstop created 4.26, which means over the course of the whole season, he created 40.5 more outs at shortstop than average.  4 more errors, but 40 fewer hits allowed – seems like a pretty good trade-off  doesn’t it?

Of course, defense is even more complex than that. Maybe Castro gets more ground balls than other  shortstops because of the type of pitchers on the Cubs staff, or because of random luck.  Thankfully, there are now people who chart all of that sort of stuff, to give an even more precise picture of defensive contributions.  Without going into all of those details (you can find them places like Fan Graphs  or Baseball Reference), the consensus is that Castro was  mediocre defensively in 2010, below average in 2011, and average to slightly above average in 2012.  He has a lot of range, he gets his glove on a lot of balls, and he makes some errors that drive fans nuts.  But he’s been getting better, and isn’t a liability.

Javier Baez Will Make Us Forget Starlin Castro!

Finally, there is the assertion that Castro can be moved because the man behind him in the prospect pipeline, Javier Baez, will be pushing him off of shortstop eventually.  This based on Baez raking at low-A ball as a 19 year old in 2012, which Starlin Castro did not do.  Of course, the reason Castro did not do this is that he played his 19 year old season at high-A ball and AA.  Where he held his own.  Baez got 86 PAs at high-A at the end of the year, and his OPS was 87 points lower than Castro’s in the same age and league (not to mention that Castro moved to AA and raised his OPS).

Baez has more power than Castro had at that age, but he also has even less plate discipline, with a walk rate of 4.4% (to Castro’s 5.7% at the same age).  Baez did have a higher fielding percentage than Castro at that age (.950 to .937) but again, Castro’s range factor shines (4.86 outs per game to 4.31 for Baez).  It’s possible that Javier Baez will turn into Starlin Castro.  But what will Starlin Castro turn into?  One more graph:

Player PA 2B 3B HR BB BA OBP SLG OPS+
A 691 29 12 14 36 283 323 430 105
B 551 34 4 14 16 297 320 458 106

Player A is Starlin Castro in 2012.  Player B is Robinson Cano in 2005, as a 22 year old rookie.  So, is it possible that Castro turns into Robinson Cano?

Cub fans seem to forget how accomplished Castro is at such a young age, because he’s already been around for so long.  But suppose Javier Baez turns into Starlin Castro, and Castro turns into Robinson Cano.  I’d rather have two infielders who can hit like corner outfielders, and then go find another corner outfielder, or hope the pipeline develops one.

The Old Man and the (2012) Season

My favorite baseball player for 2012 is going to be Jamie Moyer.  In fact, for every remaining season of his career, Jamie Moyer is going to be my favorite player.  What can I say, I love my Cubs prospects!

Jamie Moyer is coming back from Tommy John surgery (reconstruction of one of the ligaments of the elbow); he missed all of the 2011 season, but he has made the Colorado Rockies Roster, and is in their starting rotation.

Jamie Moyer is 49 years old.  Jamie Moyer had elbow surgery to allow himself to continue pitching at the age of 48.  The list of pitchers in all of major league history who even pitched at age 48 or older is 4: Satchel Paige, Hoyt Wilhelm, Jack Quinn, and Phil Niekro.  That was Niekro’s final season, because he’s lazy, obviously.  Wilhelm and Quinn each pitched as 49 year olds (25.1 and 15.2 innings, respectively), so if Moyer can make 5 or 6 starts, he should pass both of them for innings pitched at that age.  Satchel Paige didn’t actually pitch between ages 47 and 57; he made a 3 inning comeback as a 58 year old.  So Jamie Moyer is trying to have the first legitimate season by a pitcher at this age.

The list of hilarious facts about Jamie Moyer’s career can go on and on (most of these from my friends at Baseball Think Factory):

He was drafted, and made his major league debut, during the Reagan administration.

Jamie Moyer was born before the Second Vatican Council happened (to connect back to another recent post).

When Jamie Moyer was born, the Beatles were in their second month of getting used to their new drummer, Ringo Starr.

When Jamie Moyer made his major league debut, there were only 26 major league teams (now there are 30).  Of those 26 teams, 20 of them have built new stadia during Moyer’s career.

Since the start of Jamie Moyer’s career, Roberto Alomar and Barry Larkin both made their debuts, played their entire careers, retired and were elected to the Hall of Fame.

Jamie Moyer made his major league debut on a Monday; the preceding weekend, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off opened in theaters.

One of Jamie Moyer’s first teammates was Chris Speier.  Chris Speier has a son, Justin Speier, who has had a 12-year major league career and retired three years ago.

Jamie Moyer is old.  But he is still a major league pitcher, and is 33 wins away from 300 for his career.  I want to see him get there.  That would make him the second of the Cubs 1984 draft picks to get to 300 wins (the first was this guy).  In fact, other than those two guys, all of the other Cubs draft picks from that year played in a total of 243 major league games.

In summary: Jamie Moyer is old, and he still loves baseball, and I love him for that.