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September 27, 2013

Pebble Hunting

The Hypotheses That Require Revisiting

by Sam Miller

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One option would be to just stay quiet for six months, wait until the season is over, and dump 9,000 articles on you all at once. But the other option is to write things with incomplete data, acknowledge the incompleteness, note that that data are interesting, compelling, suggestive or freaky, and revisit it later when you remember.

We try to do the latter. Here are a few things to revisit from the first few weeks of the season or just before the season.

Piece: Stolen bases are missing! Where are the stolen bases? Somebody find the stolen bases!

Gist: After years of stolen base rates rising, seemingly correlated to the drop in league-wide offense, leaguewide stolen base attempts plummeted in April. Various explanations were tested and found wanting. An honest-to-goodness mystery.

Since then: At the time, the league was attempting to steal .69 times per game; since then, teams have averaged .83 steals per game. That’s still down a bit from the previous two seasons (.89 and .93 attempts per game), which is still a little interesting considering the direction the league seemed to be going, but it’s right in line with 2006-2010. Shoot, if Billy Hamilton had been up the entire season and stolen 276 bases, like I assume he would have, then the average would be a perfect match for 2012! The likelihood that this was just a small sample size fluke seemed to be (statistically) low, until every other explanation failed, at which point the likelihood that this was just a small sample size fluke seemed to be very high. And that’s just what it probably was.

Piece: First basemen are missing! Where are the first basement? Somebody find the first basemen!

Gist: First-base production hit a record low in 2012, by like a huge margin, and the league’s first basemen were better only than the league’s second basemen. SMH, 1B.

Since then: First basemen recovered some of their status, topping second basemen, shortstops, left fielders and designated hitters in WARP and crushing all contenders with a .258/.334/.447 line. (Next-best position: center fielders, who hit .263/.326/.413.) As a group they remain near the low end of their historical levels, but nothing really noteworthy. After a stretch in which veteran stars simply got old and young comers didn’t make it, the league saw a number of young comers turn into stars: Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Davis, Freddie Freeman, Brandon Belt, second-half Eric Hosmer. There’s still that mysterious lack of first base power prospects in the minors, but if there’s a position to steal lunch money from, it’s second base.

Piece: Strikes thrown to Giancarlo Stanton are missing! Where are the strikes thrown to Giancarlo Stanton? Somebody find the strikes thrown to Giancarlo Stanton!

Gist: Giancarlo Stanton’s lineup protection was Placido Polanco and Greg Dobbs. Surely this would lead to absurd levels of pitching around; perhaps it would lead to Stanton expanding his strike zone, either out of boredom or because he was his lineup’s only hope. Indications were that he was seeing very, very few strikes (“Only 36.2 percent of pitches to Stanton have been inside the strike zone, a decline of about 19 percent from 2012. Among hitters who’ve seen at least 100 pitches, Stanton’s rate of pitches inside the zone ranks third lowest.”) but he was actually swinging less often at them than he usually did: “ In the very small window that we have into Stanton this year—and it’s very small, don’t forget; very small—he has transformed from Mark Trumbo to Carlos Santana on pitches in the zone. In no 150-pitch stretch from 2012 was Stanton's in-zone swing rate within five percentage points of where it stands this season.”

Since then: Stanton’s overall zone rate for the season turned out to be 41.3 percent, which is a) the second-lowest rate in baseball, ahead of only notable farce Pablo Sandoval but b) not any sort of reinvention of the sport or anything. It represents a seven percent drop from Stanton’s zone rate in 2011-2012. It’s about the same rate of strikes that Chris Davis saw.

As for Stanton’s response: He stayed patient. Maybe he was just growing as a hitter. Maybe he had thought through the game theory. But Stanton swung at just 60.5 percent of pitches in the zone this year, down from about 65 percent over the previous two seasons. (He also swung at 28 percent of pitches out of the zone, down from about 33 percent.) If you want to walk Stanton to face Placido Polanco, he’ll let you.

Of course, the Polanco-as-cleanup hitter idea was the one thing that was sure to change, and it did. Stanton ended up spending most of the season batting in front of Logan Morrison (97 OPS+), Justin Ruggiano (92 OPS+), or Marcell Ozuna (89 OPS+). None of those guys offers much of an incentive to challenge Stanton, but each is a credible major league hitter in a way that Polanco and Greg Dobbs really aren’t. We probably should have recognized that crazy things happen in small samples, like Polanco hitting cleanup.

Piece: It’s better to have a great farm system than a terrible one.

Gist: A pair of articles looking at the best farm system from 2004 (the Brewers) and the worst (the Astros) to see how long it takes before the effect wears off. The Astros’ group had produced 12 WARP for $39 million; the Brewers’ group had produced 75 WARP for $136 million, and had so many remaining pieces or second-generation assets that “they could actually still get more value out of their 2004 farm system from 2013 on than the Astros got in total.” Not really a hypothesis, but an incomplete story that is at least a little closer to completion now.

Since then: Carlos Gomez, acquired for 2004 prospect J.J. Hardy, signed a four-year extension with the Brewers and promptly turned into a superstar. Even with Corey Hart missing the entire season and Rickie Weeks playing below replacement level, the Brewers added 4 WARP—though at a significant cost, as Hart and Weeks are at the expensive end of deals. Hart won’t merit a qualifying offer, so his prospect tree ends here. Weeks is still signed for another year, but Gomez should keep producing value for three more years; if he is worth a qualifying offer after 2016, and the Brewers end up with a draft pick, this story could go on for almost ever.

The Astros, meanwhile, got a heartbeat. Mike Foltynewicz (compensation pick for losing Jose Valverde) pushed his way into legit prospect status, ranking 49th on Jason Parks’ mid-season top 50: “Some of the best arm strength in the minors; questions about long term role because of secondary development; no. 2/3 starter ceiling or closer.” So, theoretically, the Astros could still win this race, if Foltynewicz can just turn into a Hall of Famer.

Piece: Mike Trout Predictions!

Gist: Some things Mike Trout might do, and how likely he might be to might do them. Including:

70 percent confident that: Mike Trout won't have a reverse platoon split again.

Since then: Trout his .327/.425/.570 against righties this year, and .313/.447/.520 against lefties. It’s still too early; it’s still probably going to go back to normal; but Trout’s got more than 1,000 plate appearances against righties and more than 400 against lefties, with a 70-point OPS edge against same-handers. Trout might just turn out to be one of baseball’s rarest creatures, the reverse-platoon hitter. If you want something trivial to root for, here you go.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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