Saturday, May 29, 2010

Wild Game, This Baseball

What a night on the diamond!  For the second time this year, a pitcher threw a perfect game - something that had only been done 18 times prior to this season.  Somehow, Roy Halladay gets the honor of being linked to Dallas Braden.  Go figure.

Then there's the amazing walk-off grand slam of Kendry Morales, who somehow managed to break his leg when he crossed home plate.  Seriously!  The video is here.

Of course, Beyond the Upper Deck those are just footnotes.  Because out here, the only thing that matters is that the Reds crushed the Astros again, 12-2, opening up a two-game lead on the Cardinals in the process.  (I guess I should add that the news that Ryan Hanigan broke his thumb and will be out a few weeks also matters, but lets focus on the positive.)  Jay Bruce and Ramon Hernandez each hit two homers and Miguel Cairo (seriously!) and Drew Stubbs added one apiece.  Aaron Harang pitched seven strong innings for the win.  The Reds offense continues to destroy bad teams, and the starting pitchers continue to turn in solid outings.  It's been a long time since a Reds team has looked this good.  One more game against the Astros before the Reds get another shot at the Cardinals.  A win tomorrow would be a great springboard into an important series for the Reds division title hopes.

News from the Minors

There have been a number of transactions in the last week, and I thought it might be worth highlighting some that caught my eye.

We all know that the Reds put Homer Bailey on the DL.  I mention that because that seems to been one of the main causes of all the activity.  First, Enerio Del Rosario was brought up from Louisville.  He had a rather bizarre debut, in which he struck out the only batter he faced, yet failed to retire a batter because the batter advanced to first on a passed ball.  Del Rosario was just a short-term call-up though, as the Reds sent him back down to make room for 26-year-old Sam LeCure who had a very successful debut last night, earning the win against the Astros.  Also at the major league level, Paul Janish was placed on the bereavement list, leading to the call-up of Drew Sutton.  Sutton hit his first major league grand slam last night.

At the AAA level, it was announced that Justin Lehr was expected to undergo Tommy John surgery.  Lehr has been a journeyman pitcher the last few years, giving the Reds a few good starts last year.  He was in the discussion for the fifth starter spot in spring training, but quickly pitched his way out of that discussion.  In a loaded Louisville rotation that includes Aroldis Chapman (who apparently hit 103 on the gun in his last start), Travis Wood, and Matt Maloney, Lehr never looked good this season.  With Lehr out and LeCure called up, Matt Klinker (25) was promoted from AA Carolina to the Bats.  Klinker has been excellent this season, striking out 53 and walking 11 in 55 1/3 innings.  His ERA of 1.63 was good for second in the Southern League.  Like LeCure, Klinker is often overlooked as a starting pitching prospect because he's a bit older now and the system has many other good pitching prospects.

At AA Carolina, Matt Fairel (22) was called up from Lynchburg.  I haven't seen Fairel given a lot of love in the scouting reports I've seen, but he's put together some nice stretches of performance the last couple of years.  He's only struck out 36 in 56 innings at Lynchburg, but he's 5-1 with a 3.04 ERA and he's walked just 13 batters.  He struck out 137 and walked 56 last year in 160 innings between Dayton and Sarasota. 

At Lynchburg, Donnie Joseph (22) was called up from Dayton.   Joseph had struck out 40 in just 23 innings while recording six saves for Dayton.  He was the Reds 3rd round selection in last year's draft.  Also, Byron Wiley was apparently released from Lynchburg, which I don't understand.  He has had a rough start to the season, but I think he has showed some promise despite being old for the leagues he's played in.  Redlegs Baseball suspects there's more to the decision than on-field performance.

There were other moves too, but those were the ones that caught my eye.

May Offense Brings September Baseball?

The Reds won again tonight, maintaining a one game lead over the Cardinals.  They crushed the Astros 15-6 in another blowout.  Sam LeCure made his major league debut tonight and pitched quite well, allowing two runs on six hits with five strikeouts and four walks in six innings.  He threw 98 pitches in picking up his first big league win.  Johnny Gomes was 4 for 4, finishing a double shy of the cycle.  (He had two singles.)  Drew Sutton hit his first major league grand slam (pinch hitting for LeCure in the 6th).  The Reds once again put the game away early and didn't look back.
With the Reds recent blowouts a couple of things have really come to my attention.  First, the Reds are taking advantage of playing some really bad teams.  They've owned the Pirates the last couple of times the two teams have played, going 6-1 with three shutouts.  Even the one loss was a 2-1 game that the Pirates pulled out with a ninth-inning homer.  The Reds have now beaten Houston all four games they've played this season, with none of the games being closer than two runs.  The Reds swept Milwaukee in the two game series that was the only time the two teams have met this year.  They've gone 2-1 against Cleveland and 4-2 against the Cubs (2-1 this month).  Since April 25, the Reds are 22-9.  They're 6-6 in that span against teams above .500 (the Padres, Cardinals, Mets, and Braves).  That means they're 16-3 against teams under .500 (Astros, Cubs, Pirates, Brewers, and Indians).  That four of the teams the Reds are beating up on are in their division certainly doesn't hurt.  If the Reds end up winning a Wild Card spot this season, the unbalanced schedule may well be a major contributing factor.

The second thing that caught my attention is that the Reds are actually really good.  I know, they're in first place; I should know they're good.  The thing is, I've never really thought of the Reds as having a legitimate chance of beating the Cardinals for the division.  I was hoping that maybe they'd get lucky and back into a Wild Card spot, but now, I'm starting to think they're for real.  In May, they've been outstanding at the plate.  According to fangraphs, they've got the highest-ranked wOBA of any team in the league in May at .371.  That's been aided by a .333 BABIP, which is also highest in the league, so they've been a bit lucky.  That's helped lift their OBP in May to .360, up from .322 in April.  On the other hand, they've also really been clobbering the ball.  Their ISO in May is .200, second only to the Blue Jays in all of baseball.  That's considerably higher than their mediocre .146 ISO in April.  They've basically gone from being an average to slightly below average hitting team in April to being one of the best hitting teams in baseball in May (and those stats don't even include tonight's game).

The funny thing is, I've looked at the Reds turnaround as being driven by their pitching.  It has felt that way, but that's largely because the rotation had such an ugly start to the season.  The starters are pitching much better now (3.90 FIP in May down from 4.69 in April), and the bullpen has gotten a bit better too (3.76 in May down from 4.18 in April).  Still, this is an average to slightly above average team on the mound, and I suspect this month's performance is more what we should expect from them.  (I should also point out that by "this month's performance" I mean the team FIP of 3.90 not the team ERA of 3.08.  They're not that good.)

So, what should we expect going forward?  I think we should expect the Reds to play somewhere between the way they played in May and the way they played in April.  I think they'll fail to play to that May level because the batters have been pretty lucky in May, the starting rotation hasn't really performed as well as their ERA suggests, and the schedule has been quite favorable.  On the other hand, the Reds were really bad in April, particularly in the early part of the month, and I don't think that was all that reflective of who this team is.  If you throw out the games prior to April 25 (when the Reds really turned things around), the Reds' runs scored and runs allowed suggests they should be a .686 team.  There's no way they're that good.  Prior to that though, their pythagorean win percentage of .349 suggested that they should lose more than 100 games.  They're not either of those teams.  They do appear to be pretty good though, and I'm starting to think that the Reds will be right in the thick of the division race when the calendar turns to September.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Response to Fangraphs Comments about Rick Porcello

In my post about Dusty Baker and Pitch Counts that was posted on the fangraphs community research blog, I noted that Tigers starters threw more than 110 pitches more often than any other team in 2009.  Then, without looking it up, I suggested,
"Maybe Rick Porcello isn’t striking anyone out because his arm is about to fall off.  :-)"
I stated this because (1) I had just read something (I don't recall where, but apparently it wasn't on fangraphs) that explained why Porcello's strikeouts were so low this year and (2) there's greater concern with overworking young pitchers, and Porcello was the prominent young Tiger pitcher who came to mind.

A couple of commenters called me out on this, and rightly so.  It turns out, Porcello has been handled quite well.  Here is the same chart that was used in the original post, but it is limited to the Tigers and gives each starting pitcher on the 2009 Tigers team given their own series.

The blue boxes are the series for the 2009 Tigers team as a whole.  There are some really interesting features in this chart.  For one, Rick Porcello is the series of pink boxes.  As the commenters pointed out, he almost never exceeded 100 pitches and was frequently limited to 80-90 pitches.  The second thing that jumps out at me is how heavy the workload was on Edwin Jackson and, especially, Justin Verlander.  Verlander threw more than 110 pitches an amazing 65% of his outings.  With Jackson struggling in Arizona, it makes me wonder if his heavy workload last year might be at least part of the cause.

How does 2010 look for the Tigers?  Here is the chart.

Obviously the points are a bit more sparse with only a quarter of the season in the books, but we're seeing a similar pattern to 2009.  Porcello is not being overused.  Verlander has thrown more than 115 pitches in all but three starts.  With no Edwin Jackson in the rotation, the Tigers' team profile is more in line with other teams.

My takeaways from this are two: (1) Research it before you type it (even if it isn't the point of your post) and (2) Looking at the general team profile to compare teams may not be sufficient, as some players on the same team may well be handled significantly differently.  (I guess I would also add that Justin Verlander is either an amazing workhorse in this day and age or he's probably overdue for a big injury.)  :-)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Random Thoughts as the Reds Pound the Pirates

Game Recap

The Reds seem to like their one game lead in the Central.  The exploded out of the gate tonight.  Johnny Cueto struck out the first two batters he faced on the way to a nine-strikeout, no run performance over 6 excellent innings.  Offensively, Scott Rolen snapped an 0 for 11 slump with a three-run homer in the first, and Jay Bruce followed with a homer of his own.  The Reds cruised from there to an 8-2 victory.

Transaction and Injury Notes

Drew Sutton was called up, taking the spot of Paul Janish who was placed on the bereavement list.  Sutton hasn't really done anything noteworthy in Louisville as far as I can tell, but this is just a temporary move. 

According to Mark Sheldon, Sam LeCure will get the start tomorrow in what would ordinarily be Homer Bailey's turn in the rotation.  LeCure has been excellent for Louisville so far this season.  On a staff that includes Aroldis Chapman, Travis Wood, and Matt Maloney, Lecure has been the Bats best pitcher so far this season.  That's really saying something.

In the majors, Joey Votto is sitting again due to the stiff neck that kept him out yesterday.  Also, Brandon Phillips left the game early tonight due to injury.  I wasn't really paying attention, but it didn't sound too serious from what I could tell.

On the Farm

Aroldis Chapman got the ball tonight for Louisville and pitched well.  Chapman fanned seven in five scoreless innings.  He only threw 90 pitches, which is better than he's been doing, but still a bit inefficient for my taste.  Still, it is exciting to think what Chapman can bring to the table when he's ready.

Devin Mesoraco is having another big night down in Lynchburg too.  He's 3 for 4 with a walk and hit his tenth home run on the season.  He hasn't shown much at the plate until this year.  Let's hope he keeps it up, because he's been excellent this season so far.  (It's a good thing too, because other than Mesoraco, it seems to me that the talent in the Reds system is either REALLY young or already in AAA - and other than the pitchers, the "top prospects" aren't showing me a whole lot this year.)

Beyond the Upper Deck - Not June 4!

I purchased tickets tonight to see the Reds live on June 4 against the Nationals in DC.  There's a chance that it may also be Steven Strasburg's MLB debut, although I read something today suggesting that the Nats are going to wait till mid-June to call him up.  That's a real head-scratcher.  My seats are in the left field corner, so its not like I'll be right on top of the action if Strasburg is there anyway.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Reds Win Again

I didn't get to follow tonight's Reds vs. Pirates game.  (I was out a bit late with my son's tee ball game, and I didn't have the luxury of following the game on my iPod Touch while getting the kids to bed since my daughter threw it in her grandmothers drink today.  Hopefully it will be all dried out and ready to go tomorrow.)  I see that Bronson Arroyo threw a beauty, and the Reds won 4-0 behind home runs by Miguel Cairo and Chris Heisey. 

As should be obvious by now, I like to pay attention to how many pitches Reds starters are throwing.  Arroyo threw 113, which is still a bit higher than I'd like to see.  I can kind of understand at this particular time though.  Tonight was game 13 of 20 in a row without an off day for the Reds.  During this most recent trip through the rotation, both Cueto and Bailey had to make early exits because of injuries, leaving the bullpen to pick up some extra innings.  When the Reds put Bailey on the DL, they quickly called up Enerio Del Rosario to help alleviate some of the bullpen workload.  The bullpen workload was enough of a concern that Harang was probably left in an inning longer than he should have been on Monday night.  Mike Leake was excellent last night and worked into the eighth, so that helped.  But with Arthur Rhodes ailing, Dusty probably still needs to rely more heavily on his starters at this point in time.

For what it's worth, at the same time I've been urging not to overwork the starting staff, redreporter has been looking at how the Reds' best relievers may be being overworked as well.  What's left?!  Well, there's actually an answer to that.  The Reds probably need to be using their lesser relievers a bit more.  The commenters correctly cited the fact that the Reds have been in a large number of one-run games and need bigger leads in order to get the lesser relievers opportunities that suit their skills (or lack thereof, I guess).  I'd argue that the way to do this is to avoid waiting until your starting pitcher starts to struggle to take him out of the game. 

Take Harang on Monday night as an example.  After six innings, he'd thrown 101 pitches and the Reds were comfortably in front 7-2.  Harang was even due to lead off!  It made perfect sense to tell him to hit the showers and let someone else get some work in.  Instead, Dusty sent him out to start the seventh.  According to the fangraphs game log, the LI (leverage index) was 0.33 when Harang went out to start the seventh.  I don't know much about LI, but I get that you want your best pitchers pitching when the LI is high (greater than 1) and your lesser pitchers pitching when it is low (less than 1).  Clearly this was a time when one of the lesser guys could have tried to get an inning of work in (and the Reds could have used a pinch hitter the inning before to boot).  Instead, Harang started the inning out, tired, and gave way to Del Rosario who entered the game to a 7-4 game with a runner on second and just one out.  The LI was 1.23 when Del Rosario took the mound.  Wouldn't it have made a lot more sense to let Del Rosario try to avoid getting into trouble in the first place, instead of asking him to try to clean up the mess after Harang ran out of gas?  I certainly think so.


I'm excited to report that fangraphs has posted my blog post about Dusty Baker's handling of the pitch counts of Reds starting pitchers to their community research blog.  It's great to be able to get such good feedback so early in putting this blog together.  I hope to submit more of my work to the fangraphs community research blog in the future, so if you have ideas you'd like to see me pursue, please suggest them.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reds Waste a Good Outing by Leake

Mike Leake pitched a gem tonight, but he left with nothing to show for it. After seven shutout innings, he gave up a leadoff "triple" to start the eighth. It was really a routine fly ball to center, but Drew Stubbs lost the ball in the lights or clouds or something. One more double, and Leake exits trailing 1-0. A Brandon Phillips home run got Leake off the hook, but it wouldn't be enough, as the Pirates went on to win 2-1.

(I got to watch a few innings of the game on my MLB At Bat 2010 app on my iPod Touch. It was the first game I've really watched, and I was very pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to watch on the small screen.  If you are considering the app, it is well worth the $15.)

As far as I could tell from the parts I saw, the pivotal play in the game was the Stubbs misplay. Stubbs has a reputation as an excellent center fielder. When his bat was struggling and Dusty Baker dropped him in the lineup, Baker defended him by saying that Stubbs had to stay in the lineup because his glove was needed in center. The fact is, however, Stubbs has not played well in the field this season, and tonight's gaffe doesn't exactly instill confidence that he is the long-term answer in center. According to fangraphs, his UZR for the season stands at -4.0, meaning he's cost the Reds a 4 runs (or a little under half a win) this season when compared to an average CF. In contrast, his UZR was 6.3 in just 42 games last season. I wonder which one is the real Drew Stubbs.  There have always been questions about his bat, especially because of his tendency to strikeout.  With a brutal 31.3% - even worse than Adam Dunn, who the Reds drove out of town because of all the strikeouts - Stubbs has the 8th highest K% in all of baseball.  If Stubbs continues to whiff at such prolific rates and continues to play such sloppy sloppy defense, we may be looking for a new center fielder soon.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Dusty at it Again

The Reds look like they'll win tonight and move into a tie with the Cardinals for first again. Of course, they were up 7-2 when Harang came off the mound to end the sixth. He had thrown 101 pitches and was due to lead off. Dusty has him hit anyway. Harang comes back out and gets knocked around a bit in the seventh before getting pulled. It makes me wonder how much better these guys' stats would be if they were taken out when their day was done.

Dusty Baker and Pitch Counts

(This post was also posted on the fangraphs community research blog.)

Over the first week of my new blog, I've made a number of posts about Dusty Baker's handling of Reds pitchers.  I suggested that I thought Baker has done a better job of managing the workload of his starting pitchers this year.  In that same post, I noted how Reds pitchers exceeded 110 pitches only five times at that point this season, and that after each such occurrence the starter was given an extra day of rest before his next start.  The next day, he left Johnny Cueto in to throw 113 pitches in the fourth game of a twenty-day stretch with no off days.  I then speculated that having Cueto throw so many pitches might cost the Reds before the stretch was over.  Cueto had to leave his next start early with a blister.  Then, of course, there is Homer Bailey.  Yesterday, Bailey left his start early, and I pointed out that Baker has not been as careful in his handling of Bailey -particularly last year - as he has been with the other two youngsters in the rotation: Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake.  Today, Bailey went on the DL with shoulder soreness.  So, is Dusty managing the starters' pitch counts better or not?

To help understand, I put together this chart (with data pulled from fangraphs).

The chart shows the percentage of team games in which the starter pitcher threw at least the number of pitches on the x-axis.  So, in 2009, Reds starters threw 80 or more pitches nearly 91% of the time. In 2010, the fewest pitcher a Reds starter had thrown in a game was 81 pitches.  (I pulled this data the day before Homer Bailey's injury forced him out early.)  This chart makes clear that the 2010 Reds are not having as many low pitch count outings as the 2009 team.  Low pitch count outings are driven by the injury bug and by ineffectiveness.  The 2010 Reds have been generally healthy, Bailey's injury notwithstanding.  Plus, the 2010 Reds are in contention and have been pitching relatively well of late, so it stands to reason that they've had relatively few ineffective outings.  It also doesn't hurt that it is still early in the season before arms wear down.

While the factors mentioned above explain the low pitch count disparity between the 2009 and 2010 Reds, the manager makes a move in those cases out of necessity.  What is more interesting are the high pitch count games, where the manager determines the pitcher has done his day's work.  Reds starters are being called on to throw between 103 and 113 pitches slightly less frequently than in 2009, but they are also throwing 118 pitches or more with greater regularity (albeit with a very small sample size).  So, is Dusty abusing his rotation?  It depends on where you draw the threshold for what constitutes overuse.

For comparison, let's see how other teams are handling their starting rotation.  First, here are curves for each MLB team in 2009.

A few features jump out here.  First, Astros starters (blue x) managed to get beyond 80 pitches only 77% of the time.  That was less than any other team.  Second, Nationals pitchers (pink triangles to the left) reached the magical 100 pitch mark only 24% of the time, while the Diamondbacks (royal blue to the right) reached it a league-high 59% of the time.  Finally, and most interesting of all, is that Tigers starters (maroon diamonds at the bottom right) were called on to throw more than 110 pitches with significantly greater frequency than any other team.  Maybe Rick Porcello isn't striking anyone out because his arm is about to fall off.  :-)

So, is 2010 any different?

Boy, is it!  Pirates starters (green diamonds) have made it to 90 pitches just 53% of the time.  I had to look it up to make sure there wasn't an error in my script.  It is, in fact, correct.  Other than Zack Duke and Paul Maholm, no one has been able to get to remotely deep into games with any consistency at all.  Also of note is that pitchers are generally having fewer low pitch count games in 2010 than in 2009.  This can be seen because the top half of the curve is generally to the right of the top half of the 2010 curve.  I assume this difference is because of the fatigue that shows up as a season wears on.  This trend even hold true in the high pitch count games, although it isn't as clear from this chart.  In 2009, just four teams had starters throw more than 115 pitches in 10% of their games.  They were the Tigers (17%), Giants (12%), Royals (12%), and Reds (12%).  In 2010, there are 13 teams whose starters have thrown 115 or more pitches 10% of the time.  That group is led by the Rockies (19%), and includes the Giants (17%), Angels (16%), Astros (14%), Tigers (14%), Phillies (14%), Rangers (14%), Red Sox (14%), Brewers (12%), Dodgers (12%), Reds (12%), Cubs (11%), and Diamondbacks (11%).

By this measure, Dusty Baker is still working his starting rotation pretty hard but not any more than he did last year.  Maintaining the status quo is still better than much of the rest of the league at this point in the season though, so maybe we should cut him some slack and see how the season plays out.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bailey Not Being Handled with Care

I posted last night and praised Dusty Baker for taking Johnny Cueto out of the game after 6 strong innings and just 93 pitches.  Not having access to anything more than game stats, I wasn't aware that Cueto was removed because of a blister.  I guess it may be too early to say that Dusty is handling him with care.

The criticism of Dusty in the past has been about his handling of young starting pitchers.  In Mike Leake, Cueto, and Homer Bailey, the Reds have three such pitchers in their rotation right now.  Baker has actually done a fairly good job limiting the workload of both Leake and Cueto, but Bailey has been something of a different story.  Other than one 118 pitch outing earlier this season, neither Cueto nor Leake has been asked to throw more than 113 pitches in a game in their short careers.  Bailey already has two games this year where he's exceeded 113, and that's in addition to the six he had last year.  Why isn't Dusty showing the same restraint with Bailey as he has with Cueto and Leake?  A quote from Mark Sheldon's blog gives some insight into Dusty's thinking about Bailey:
"That's why I left him in certain games, certain situations to help him get to this point of maturity to know the importance of this game, how to handle it and pitch accordingly," Baker said. "It's kind of felt like the making of an ace. That's what I told him. It's a big game for us and him. It's not do or die but it sure can take us a long ways and take his confidence over the top."
Dusty apparently feels like an "ace" needs to be able to work deep into games - even if that means throwing a lot of pitches.  Bailey may suffer for that mentality.  In fact, Bailey was removed from today's game a little while ago.  I don't know what the nature of the injury was, but it certainly didn't look like he was pulled for poor performance.  Hopefully this is a minor thing, but I wouldn't be surprised if this turns out to be serious.