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)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Who Has the Most "In the Park Power" in Baseball?

Measuring Player's "In the Park Power"
I began the idea for this post wondering if we can measure how hard balls are hit by guys with “under the radar” type power.  That is, the hitters that hit the ball hard a lot but don’t have the awesome home run totals to show for it.  For a good read, and very relevant to this post’s idea, I suggest checking out Ari Berkowitz’s Beyond the Box Score post asking “Can We Quantify Hitting the Ball Hard?”, in which he uses batted ball data to attempt to answer that question (since we don’t have easy to access hit f/x data that actually measures just that).

Initially, I attempted to figure a player's in the park power by calculating their slugging minus home runs and the at bats in which home runs were hit, but this produced too many players like Ben Revere posting high numbers, and I knew there wasn't any power in that bat.  I needed to take the singles hitters out of the equation. 

Most of you are probably familiar with the metric for hitters called ISO.  For those that aren’t, ISO, or isolated power, is simply a player’s slugging percentage minus their average.  This leaves you with a percentage showing only a batter’s extra base power.
Hint: Paul Goldschmidt is really good at baseball.

Most power hitters produce a high ISO with their ability to put the ball into the seats, and for good reason; if you can do that and do it often, you obviously have power and, at least somewhat frequently, hit the ball hard.  But what about guys that consistently hit the ball hard, but only into the outfield for doubles, triples, and in the park home runs?  Clearly they have some power too, albeit in a less noticeable way.  Just for fun, I came up with my own simplistic metric to measure this.  It’s called “IPISO”, or “in the park isolated power”, and it’s simply a player’s ISO without his home runs and the at bats in which he hit those home runs.

Looking at players from this season with at least 400 plate appearances, here are the top 10 hitters with the most “in the park power”.  I’ve also listed the percentage at which they hit the ball for a line drive or for a fly ball into the outfield, and also their UBR (all stats per fangraphs):
Player IPISO LD% (20.8 AVG OFFB% (24.8 Average) UBR (-0.1 Average)
Paul Goldschmidt 0.10594 22.4 29.7 3.1
Danny Santana 0.103015 26 18.3 2
Josh Harrison 0.10256 24 31.6 2.2
Yasiel Puig 0.10147 14.8 25.8 0.8
Andrew McCutchen 0.101 18.7 32.7 -0.2
Mike Trout 0.1007 18.9 39.8 3
Jonathan Lucroy 0.09965 22.3 28.6 0.4
Adam Lind 0.098591 20.7 22.5 1
Seth Smith 0.095128 21.1 30.8 -1.4
Adam Eaton 0.094845 20.2 16.4 0.6

Some of these guys are unsurprising, like Goldschmidt, Trout, and Puig, but others weren't the prototypical "amazing athlete" types that I was expecting to see (no offense to guys like Lucroy, but I never would have guessed him to hit 54 doubles this year).  Most of these hitters sport exceptional speed and/or made good base running decisions in 2014.  But after the top ten things started getting a little more surprising.

Player IPISO LD% (20.8 AVG) OFFB% (24.8 AVG) UBR (-0.1 AVG)
Michael Morse 0.094786 21.8 25.5 -4.8
Corey Dickerson 0.09466 26.7 28.4 -0.1
Alex Rios 0.094262 23.5 27.8 0.9
Miguel Cabrera 0.09215 24.8 29.6 1.1
Nolen Arenado 0.091787 20.6 26.6 0.1
Eduardo Escobar 0.091335 24 28.2 1
Denard Span 0.090909 23.9 18.6 2
Nori Aoki 0.089796 21 11.6 -9.8
Cole Gillaspie 0.08971 21.6 21.7 -1.4
Luis Valbuena 0.08874 20.4 38.3 1

For as down a year as Alex Rios had, he still managed to hit doubles and triples at the 14th most frequent rate out of all MLB (min 400 PA).  Nori Aoki is another that jumps off the page, particularly because his line drive rate is just 0.2% above the ’14 MLB average, his OFFB rate is 13.2% below average, and his UBR was the worst in all of baseball by a landslide.  I’d say it’s the BABIP gods at work, but Aoki only posted a .313 mark in that category compared to a .285 BA.  Let's just say that if you were playing in some bizarro fantasy league that didn't use home runs, this would be your dream lineup.  Or maybe if you were building a roster that played its home games at Petco Park?

How Do Guys with the Highest IPISO Produce Their Results?
I began to wonder which statistic best correlated with IPISO; was it the better base runners that stretch singles into doubles, and doubles into triples, that produced a higher mark?  Or was it the guys hitting more fly balls into the outfield, or line drives, which were able to drive their IPISO up?

The simple answer based on the hitters with the top 25 IPISO is that there is no simple answer.  Here is a look at some linear regression that my awesome girlfriend, despite being annoyed to death with statistics, helped me run:

R squared values- IPISO & LD: .0667, IPISO & OFFB: .0073, IPISO & UBR: .1071
From this set of data, and with R being as low as it is for each model, it appears that there is no direct correlation between hitting the ball in the park for extra bases and LD, OFFB, or UBR (although the latter seems to at least be the closest related, however slightly).  It's important to note that we're looking at an incredibly small sample size, as this is just of the top 25 players per our "new" little metric, but the take away from this may be that there is no hard and fast rule to producing a good IPISO.  The top performers are all known to have different skill sets, some more speed, others power, and still others solid contact.  It may also be that creating extra base hits is a product of a combination of multiple skills.

Next week we'll look at a larger body of data from players across the league, and see if we can't find some correlation between IPISO, batted ball data, and UBR.  We'll also look at whether there is a certain skill combination that produces higher IPISO more frequently than others.

Photo courtesy Not That Bob James per Flickr creative commons (Goldschmidt)