Friday, February 13, 2015

Determining the Value of Three True Outcome Players


How Much are Home Runs Worth?

Russel "the Muscle"...
Every once in a while, and perhaps increasingly more so in this decade where runs scored are on the decline, a guy makes a career out of just one traditional tool: power.  These players are more accurately known as the three true outcome players.  It’s not a very long list of guys that make a career out of this, either; trust me, I checked.  You can count on one hand the number of guys that have made a (relatively) substantial living over the past fifteen years off of just hitting the long ball and taking walks.  So I figured it might be fun to see how much the home run is worth, at least from 2000-2014, in terms of a dollar/dinger ratio.

I’m going to preface the rest of this blog post with two points.  First, take this article with a grain of salt.  It’s supposed to be fun.  I think it would be interesting to see how much home runs were worth to front offices by digging into free agent contracts and extensions of players whose value hinges mostly on putting the ball in the seats, but this method ain’t it.  Second, this whole thing was inspired by seeing Russel Branyan’s face pop up on my Twitter feed.  So that’s usually a good indicator of a half-brained idea.

Half Brained Idea

First I decided to narrow down the field to the past 15 seasons, for a few reasons.  One was because I wanted player’s salaries to all be relatively similar.  Another was that, even though the early 2000s were still a booming time for giant men with power strokes, the later part of the decade and a half in which I’m focusing on would feature a lot of the guys that made their debuts in the early part of the century.  Therefore, their peak years were a bit closer the present and recent past. 

My other two criterion were that they had to truly be one tool players that hit below league average for those years (.262/.330/.415 being the average slash line from '00-'14) and that they needed to have at least 150 home runs over the past 15 seasons.  That would mean that they’d need to average at least 10 homers per season if they were to play all of those years (math!).

Of these five 3TO players, Dunn, Pena, and Branyan are the trifecta of one tool goodness.  Not only have they graded poorly defensively at first, which is generally considered an easy position to play (not by me, but by people much more athletically gifted than me) but they've never consistently hit for a decent average.  Burnitz had the benefit of playing the outfield for his entire career, and so his bat had a lot more value in that he wasn't clogging up first or DH.  He also didn't strike out anywhere near as much as the other sluggers on this list, so putting him on here may be a bit of a stretch.  But he definitely wasn't paid for his defense or ability to hit for average.  Reynolds, meanwhile,  has at least graded as league average at first in his past two seasons.

"You ain't seen Dallas Buyers Club!?"
These are all guys that front offices spent varying amounts of millions in USD to put the ball in the seats, take a walk, or strikeout.  The average value per HR among them?  $152,527.286.  Granted, it's a small sample size, but that's a lot of money to do three things.  I mean, it's one of the hardest things on the planet to do, but still.

Determining Value

So what's the key difference between the two outliers in this group?  Adam Dunn made a killing over the course of his career by consistently hitting home runs, while Branyan's blasts netted him a relatively modest sum.  It's nothing earth shattering to say that health and consistency were two of the main factors when it came time for these guys to put pen to paper and sign.

After his rookie season, Dunn never missed more than 122 games in a year, and that didn't come until his 11th season.  Leading up to his big free agent contract following the 2010 campaign, Dunn had averaged 35 home runs a season.  By comparison, Branyan's career high in games played came in '02 when he played in 134 (he wouldn't crack 100 games played again until the '09 season).  This was a guy that could hurt himself trying to open the curtains in his hotel room.

Of course, 3TO players also get paid for their on base skills, and I think that comes through from the data above.  They're all in the same general ballpark in terms of OBP other than Dunn, and he clearly separated himself from the pack in terms of pay-scale.

The Future of 3TO Players

Power swing of the future.
Mark Reynolds and Carlos Pena will keep getting opportunities to stick on rosters just because of their sheer power and strong HR/FB rates.  It's kind of like catching lighting in a bottle, if the front office can stomach the strikeouts.  But the next wave of three true outcome players are already on the rise; look no further than what's going on in baseball's western divisions.  Mark Trumbo has already knocked out over 100 HR in his first four seasons while striking out over 27% of the time.  His walks appear to be on the rise, taking free passes 54 times in '13 and 28 last season over just 88 games.  Over in Houston, Chris Carter has put up seasons of 29 and 37 home runs in '13 and '14, respectively.  He's taking his walks (126 over his last 1157 PA) and striking out a ton (38.9% of his ABs) since arriving with the Astros.  It will be interesting to see what teams are willing to pay 3TO players for their services through extensions and free agency in an offensively starved era.

With that, here's Dunn doin' his thang via a Vine courtesy of the guys at Cespedes Family BBQ:

Sound off in the comments below if you think I missed any three true outcome players of the past 15 years!

Photos courtesy of Keith Allison (Branyan, Dunn) and Not That Bob James (Trumbo)

Friday, January 16, 2015

San Diego Could Tinker Their Way to a Passable Defense

How the San Diego Padres Could Make their Outfield Defense Passable

The Padres have a new look outfield, but as many have already written, its defense may make you want to look away, or at the very least cringe on nearly every ball hit into the air.  In fantasy baseball, the trio of Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and Matt Kemp might seem decent on paper (unless of course you play in some league that keeps track of defensive statistics, in which case, you’re weird and need help).  But it’s a trio that is going to keep Bud Black’s hands full, and he may be the manager most willing to undertake such an exercise.  I mean, just check out this gem of a game on SB Nation if you want an idea of Bud Black's level of tinkering.

Wil Myers has a full no haircuts clause.

As Dave Cameron pointed out back in December, the Padres’ outfield has the potential to post some very nice home run totals, while also posting a very bad UZR.  Justin Upton was serviceable in leftfield for the Braves last season, posting just a hair under “average” with a -.09 (per Fangraphs).  Wil Myers was slightly above average in rightfield for the Rays with a 1.3 UZR over 674.1 innings.  Unfortunately for Myers, he’ll be tasked with patrolling a very large centerfield, at least for his home games, and so his numbers will almost certainly take a big dip.  It’s saying something that his defense is the least of San Diego’s worries, though, as Matt Kemp, who figures to start in rightfield for the Friars, posted a cumulative -22.4 UZR between CF, LF, and RF (although he did manage a -3.0 UZR in right, where he spent just over 40% of his 1195.2 innings last year).

Rather than pile another article onto the heap that have already done a good job of explaining how this outfield could go incredibly wrong, I’d like to take a shot at figuring out ways that could keep the Padres’ offense strong without letting their outfield defense become the laughing stock of the National League.  Here are a few ideas:

Proactive Rest

This is probably the most obvious idea, but all three starting outfielders are going to need rest to varying degrees.  That rest will allow Bud Black to slot Cameron Maybin or Abraham Almonte into centerfield, where they posted UZRs of 1.1 and 9.7, respectively (Will Venable also posted a decent 4.4 UZR in ’14 over the course of 443.1 innings in rightfield, but I can’t imagine benching two of the three star outfielders, unless it’s late in the game with a lead).  With rest doled out early and often, the Padres would only have to write a lineup with two of their three starting outfielders once or twice a week, at the very most.

Justin Upton got a boomstick.

Justin Upton should be the least worrisome of the trio, as he’s played 130 or more games in every season since ’09 and he only recently turned 27.  Steamer currently projects him to play in 138 games, which seems in line with both his career norm and the fact that the Padres have a deep outfield.  Any days he’s given off will allow Myers and Kemp to take the corners, with Maybin or Almonte slotting in at center.

Wil Myers is coming off a nasty wrist injury, so it will be interesting to see how strong he is going into the season and how hard the Padres want to test that wrist throughout the season.  Steamer has Myers projected to play 130 games, which I think he can pull off if San Diego is proactive about giving him rest here and there throughout the season.  He’s also only 24, so unless he’s completely broken already, he should be able to recover just fine.

Kemp's injury history hangs a big shadow.

The guy that Bud Black and the training staff are going to have an eye on the most is Matt Kemp.  I think it was a best case scenario that Kemp was able to play in 150 games last season, given his arduous ’12 and ’13 seasons in which he only played 106 and 73 games, respectively.  Steamer projects Kemp to play 128 games, which seems reasonable given that he just turned 30 and, hopefully, Bud Black looking to keep him fresh throughout the season anyways.  Any days off given to Kemp are going to bolster the outfield defense significantly (at the cost of offense, of course), with Myers being able to slide back over to his natural position in right and having Almonte or Maybin manning center.  But it’s easy to say that the Padres should give their star outfielders rest to keep them playing all season.  What’s more interesting is figuring out when they should do it.  But more on that in a bit.


The less the ball is put in the air to the Padres’ starting outfield, the better they’ll look.  Fortunately, San Diego has one of the very best starting pitchers when it comes to producing groundballs: Tyson Ross.  Ross was so good at inducing grounders last season, he managed to post the fourth best GB/FB ratio (2.58) among starting pitchers with a minimum of 90 innings pitched.  That’s incredibly impressive when you consider that he tossed 195.2 innings last season.  If you’re wondering whether last season’s numbers are an anomaly, Ross has compiled a 2.06 GB/FB career mark in 469.1 innings of major league work; that’s even more impressive when you compare those numbers to the league average GB/FB ratio of 1.29 over the past four seasons.

It’s a given, then, that the Padres starting outfield should try to be in the game for every one of Ross’ starts, as the ballclub will have the strongest offense on the field while mitigating their below average defense.  What of the rest of the pitching staff?

Name GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pitches
Tyson Ross 2.06 19.80% 54.00% 26.20% 9.00% 9.60% 7635
Odrisamer Despaigne 1.8 19.00% 52.10% 29.00% 9.50% 7.10% 1549
Andrew Cashner 1.71 19.40% 50.90% 29.70% 5.60% 9.30% 6371
Josh Johnson 1.45 21.80% 46.30% 31.90% 9.20% 8.20% 8543
Robbie Erlin 1.14 26.40% 39.20% 34.30% 10.30% 9.50% 1909
Brandon Morrow 0.97 20.00% 39.40% 40.60% 9.10% 9.60% 9133
Ian Kennedy 0.94 21.40% 38.20% 40.40% 10.50% 10.00% 16465

 2010-2014 Totals

San Diego needs a big season from Andrew Cashner, and if he stays healthy, he’s certainly capable of it.  For his career, he’s been well above average at keeping the ball on the ground, with a 1.71 GB/FB ratio since his major league debut in ’10.  Odrisamer Despaigne has also been very good at inducing ground balls, although he’s only tossed 96.1 innings in the bigs.  Still, his 1.80 GB/FB mark is promising, but his odd array of pitches make it hard to figure what the future holds (as Beyond the Box Score pointed out, he’s throwing a whole lot of Eephus pitches. What.).  Josh Johnson has always been slightly above average in terms of GB/FB, as evidenced by his 1.45 mark since ’10, but I think most would agree that cracking 120IP would be a success given his injury history.  Brandon Morrow is another guy looking to bounce back, but his 0.97 GB/FB ratio may have the Padres starting outfield looking to run and hide.
Andrew Cashner

Obviously Bud Black isn’t going to bench Kemp every time there’s a flyball pitcher on the mound, but judging by their staff there’s one guy that figures to compile a lot of innings and pose the biggest threat to their outfield.  The Padres are expecting Ian Kennedy to accrue between 180 and 210 innings, much as he’s done the past four seasons.  He’s generally compiled quality innings, especially with San Diego the past season and a half, but he tends to pitch to his spacious ballpark.  In 2014, Kennedy posted a GB/FB mark of 1.05, well below the MLB average of 1.30.  For his career, he’s been even worse, giving up 0.93 groundballs to every flyball.  It’s on Kennedy’s starts that San Diego should make a point to bench Kemp.  Not only would it keep Kemp fresh throughout the season by not having to start every five days, San Diego’s defense will be bolstered when it needs it the most.  It would also put Kemp in line with his projected starts, as Kennedy projects to start 30 games, per Steamer.  

Other Opportunities to Prioritize Defense

There are ten games in 2015 that the Padres will be able to make use of the designated hitter, which should give them the best possible lineup without sacrificing any defense.  Unfortunately, if the Padres are in the race coming down the stretch, they won’t have the DH luxury, as their last interleague away series is also their last series before the All-Star Break.  

Then of course are the late and close situations in which the Padres hold a lead, and particularly at a time when the hitter being replaced is not due up should San Diego relinquish the lead.  These last couple of points may seem fairly obvious, especially given that it’s what most teams tend to do already, but I think that coupled with proactive rest, particularly when extreme fly ball pitchers are on the mound, the Padres can come out ahead more often than not.  Or, at the very least, it won’t be their defensive setup in the outfield that causes them to miss out on October baseball.

I think San Diego was quite aware when they made the trades for their new outfielders that they’re not going to get 155+ games out of each of them.  If they have to give them rest anyways, why not be proactive about it and bolster the defense at the same time?

Photo's Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons: Thomson20192(Upton), Keith Allison(Kemp, Cashner)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Royals Need to Look No Further than Across the Dugout for Where to Go Next

The San Francisco Giants May Be the Best Club for the Royals to Emulate to Sustain Success

This World Series may seem like a David and Goliath type story, with Kansas City clearly the little boy with a sling.  But it wasn’t all that long ago that the same could have been said of the Giants.  Going into the 2010 season, the Giants were hardly the favorites to win it all (granted, the ones that are usually favored don’t seem to ever win, let alone make it to the WS).  But after taking the best of 5 series against the Braves in 4 (with the help of Brooks Conrad) and then taking down a heavily favored Phillies team in 6 games, the Giants found themselves on the biggest stage in baseball.
Fast forward four seasons later, and the Royals have streaked themselves into the same situation.  They took down favored team after favored team to earn a World Series appearance that was 29 years in the making.  And they did it by strongly outperforming their payroll, just like the Giants did in 2010.

When I claim that they outperformed their payroll, I’m basing this off of their team’s value calculated by WAR of all player’s that were on the big league roster against what they spent on payroll.  For instance, Kansas City compiled 41.4 WAR this season; with 1 WAR currently being worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $5.5M, going by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, this Royals team would be worth $227.7M.  That’s a pretty high figure for a team that only spent $91.2M on its payroll this season.  The differential between what the front office spent and what they were able to field was a figure of $136.5M.  That’s a clear indicator that the Royals payroll has to go up if they’re hoping for sustained success, what with their cost controlled talent demanding bigger pay days in the very near future.

As I previously mentioned, the Giants were in a similar state as KC is now in terms of low payroll versus high value.  While sporting a $97M payroll in ’10, they fielded a club worth $179M.  That’s a differential of $82M, which is actually quite a bit lower than Kansas City’s 2014 ball club.
But that a team is able to break into the postseason for the first time after a rebuild sporting an incredibly talented team at a low cost is nothing new.  Generally, that’s the formula that a lot of clubs attempt.  You only need to look back to that very same 2010 season and look at the Texas Rangers, who despite only spending $58.5M(!) that year, they fielded a team worth $168.4M, good for a differential of $109.9M.  Of course, having a roster consisting of players in their prime years before they hit free agency is generally what every GM not named RubĂ©n Amaro Jr. tries to do.  Ideally your differential is always going to be high; it means that you won more negations with player’s agents than you lost.

What the Rangers and Giants did after that season differed slightly philosophically, but both have continued to sustain success by increasing payroll.  I don’t see the Royals taking the Rangers route after their AL Championship (and possible WS) winning season by becoming big players in the free agent market; KC will probably continue playing their “small market card” and look to be a lean and efficiently run club.  I can, however, see them attempting to emulate what the Giants did they ended their World Series drought.  Lock up the core that got them there and continue to use a deep farm system to acquire impact players at the Major League level.

Lock up the Core

The Giants front office has locked up just about every key player in their World Series run’s (and in some cases, to a fault), which has allowed them to continuously make runs into the postseason.  Locking up Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Madison Bumgarner, and to a much lesser extent, Angel Pagan, has set them up at many key positions in the future.  Of course, Kansas City has already done much of the same with some of their key cogs by guaranteeing Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, and Alcides Escobar all play together on modest salaries through at least 2016.  They’ll need to evaluate where Hosmer, Cain, Ventura, and others fit in soon if they hope to keep a relatively cheap core together.  Generally speaking though, this has been something that GM Dayton Moore has excelled at since his time in Kansas City, and is probably already better at than Sabean.

Acquire High Impact Players on the Trade Front

Hunter Pence, the Giant's Big '12 Trade Acquisition
The Giants have acquired a big piece at the deadline every year except ’13 since their first World Series title in the Bay.  In ’11 it was Carlos Beltran, who was on fire in the 44 games that he played with SF.  In 2012, Sabean brought over Hunter Pence, and despite his initial struggles, still promised another year of play before hitting free agency.  This year, Sabean traded for Jake Peavy, and since coming over to the Bay Peavy has excelled.  It’s a tactic that Dayton Moore has already proved the Royals can pull off when they acquired James Shields and Wade Davis leading up to the 2013 season.  For a team that will probably continue to be reluctant to spend big free agent money, this could figure to be the best way to get high impact players for a team with such a deep farm system.

Make Good Mid-Tier Free Agent Signings

The Giants signed Aubrey Huff to a $3M deal going into the 2010 season and it paid off wonderfully.  Their signing of Tim Hudson to a 2 yrs/$23M deal has so far looked to be pretty good as well.  Those are the types of signings that Dayton Moore will need to look for if he hopes to keep his team continuously in contention.  The 4 yrs/$32M deal that he signed Jason Vargas to indicates at least a willingness to go after the players that the Royals feel are a good fit, and that’s a trend that needs to continue with short term veteran players.

Avoid Sentimentality

The biggest knock against Brian Sabean for me is that he succumbs to sentimentality a lot.  You need look no further than the Marco Scutaro extension at 3 yrs/$20M (his age 37-39 seasons) or the two year deal he inked Tim Lincecum to for $35M.  And that was after two abysmal seasons.  If the Royals win the World Series (heck, even if they don’t), Moore will need to be careful not to give too large of paydays to the guys that got them there.  Specifically the ones with their best days behind them, as is probably the case with James Shields.  The annual salary for Shields is money that the Royals could probably use on 2-3 different solid pieces.

The Royals seem to be on the precipice of a large window of contention.  If they want to increase payroll, of course.

Photo's Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons: Rob Shenk (Pence)