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May 2, 2014

Painting the Black

A Trip Through the NL West

by R.J. Anderson

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A lot happens in baseball every night, and neither man nor Daniel Rathman can keep up with it all. So every few weeks we'll look at some stories within a division that would have otherwise slipped through the cracks. Let's start with the National League West.

Colorado Rockies
Walt Weiss might be the most unknown manager in baseball. The second-year skipper has more tenure than some of his peers, including rookies Matt Williams, Brad Ausmus, Bryan Price, and Rick Renteria, but Williams and Ausmus enjoyed longer, more distinguished careers, Renteria benefits from a larger media contingency, and Price is known as the guy who replaced Dusty Baker. Mike Redmond, also in his sophomore season on the bench, deserves consideration for most unconsidered, though Miami's tendency to change manager is a reasonable explanation for his anonymity. Weiss has no such defense.

In fact, the Rockies have fared well when hiring skippers. As Chris Jaffe wrote in Weiss' Baseball Prospectus 2014 comment, four of the five Colorado managers have won the Manager of the Year award during their careers, and the other finished in second. Giving the Rockies all the credit for their former skippers' success would be unfair; after all, Jim Leyland spent one season in Colorado, while Buddy Bell and Jim Tracy had previous managerial experience. The Rockies did launch the careers of Don Baylor and Clint Hurdle, however.

If you need proof of Weiss' obscurity, consider that the rest of Jaffe's comment focused on Colorado's improvements with double plays. When the man who wrote the book on managers can't find something compelling about a skipper, then what hope do the rest of us have? Let's try anyway by focusing on the fact that Weiss' second-place Rockies lead the NL in sacrifice bunts by position players.

The thought of a Coors Field-based team leading the league in bunts was unfathomable 15 years ago. Back in 1999, games played there averaged about 15 runs per pop. These days, the rate has declined and steadied at around 10 runs per game; still above the non-Coors average, but not by as much. (The exception being in 2012, when Colorado pitched poorly and experimented with a four-man rotation.) Asking any big-league hitter to bunt at Coors Field would appear a waste. To Weiss' credit, just three of the 10 bunts have happened at Coors Field, and it would appear that he has, for the most part, tasked the right players with bunting at the right times.

Four of those bunts were delivered by Brandon Barnes, while another four were split by Charlie Culberson and Charlie Blackmon; Drew Stubbs and Josh Rutledge dropped down the other two. Here are those hitters' credentials:

  • Barnes is trying to shake his no-hit reputation. In 550 plate appearances with the Astros, his strikeout rate exceeded 28 percent while he walked less than five percent of the time. Barnes has more than doubled his walk rate thus far this season, and has decreased his strikeout rate to below 20 percent. He still hasn't shown the bat-to-ball skills or approach to suggest the improvements are genuine, but he runs fast and tends to get the bunt down, which makes him the ideal sacrifice candidate.
  • Culberson, on the other hand, has stayed true to his no-hit reputation. He's reached base three times in 27 plate appearances.
  • Blackmon has been among the league leaders in average since the get go, and seems like an unusual candidate to bunt given his strong contact skills. He has attempted 10 sacrifice bunts throughout his career, according to Baseball-Reference, and has reached base four times thanks to his left-handedness and speed.
  • Stubbs and Rutledge are bench players coming off poor offensive seasons.

Now onto when the Rockies bunted:

Player

Date

Run Diff

Inning

Bases

Outs

Barnes

4/27

1

5

_2_

0

Barnes

4/13

-1

8

_2_

0

Barnes

4/12

1

5

_2_

0

Barnes

4/2

2

8

1__

0

Blackmon

4/30

0

10

_2_

0

Blackmon

4/28

0

3

1__

1

Culberson

4/23

-1

8

1__

0

Culberson

4/9

0

8

12_

0

Rutledge

4/20

-1

9

1__

0

Stubbs

4/30

3

3

_2_

0

Sabermetric wisdom suggests teams should bunt only in situations where one run is necessary, such as late in a close game. Weiss has stayed true to that thought, with eight of the 10 bunts coming in tied or one-run games, and six of the 10 happening after the sixth inning.

Weiss has strayed from the straight path a few times, including a few bunts in the fifth inning, and he seems to have a fondness for setting up the sacrifice fly that might stem from his playing days. Accusing a skipper of managing like he played is a common charge, but during Weiss' era (1987-2000), he tied for fifth in sac hits and ranked ninth in sac flies among shortstops. Whether that's at play or something else is anyone's guess, yet the Rockies finished highly in bunts by position players last season (fourth in the NL) as well.

Jack Moore wrote about the value of the bunt earlier this week, referencing Bill James' essay in his Guide to Baseball Managers. In the end, Moore excerpted James' conclusion, in which he wrote, "Maybe each of them had the right answer for his own team. The rest of us need to keep an open mind." Luckily for Weiss, he and his bunts are seldom on anyone's mind—even if they ought to be.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Dee Gordon has been a pleasant early-season surprise for the Dodgers, hitting .344 with a league-leading 13 stolen bases. The spindly second baseman has always been known more for his speed than his power, and he's stayed true to his nature by recording more stolen bases than extra-base hits. Should he continue that pace through 300 plate appearances, it would be the second time Gordon has done so. How rare is that? Not especially for the Dodgers.

Since the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1958, no team has seen more players accomplish the feat than the Dodgers (47 times)*. Gordon would need another seven seasons to match Maury Wills' franchise record, but if he set his sights lower he could pull even with Steve Sax (six), Davey Lopes (five), or Brett Butler (four). Juan Pierre and Delino DeShields, by the way, had three each.

*The Athletics (40), Royals (38), Cardinals (37), and Astros (35) round out the top five, while the Diamondbacks (four) have the fewest among franchises.

San Francisco Giants
How long has Tim Hudson been around? It's one thing to describe his longevity by discussing his active ranks in wins (first) and innings pitched (second), it's another to point out how he's outlasted all the pitchers he once teamed with in Oakland's rotation.

Hudson led the A's in games started during his stay there, from 1999 to 2004, with Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Gil Heredia, and Cory Lidle finishing second through fifth. None of those four pitchers is expected to throw a pitch this season. Zito is sitting the year out, Mulder suffered an injury that delayed his comeback attempt, Heredia is retired, and Lidle is deceased. After those four there's Rich Harden, who hasn't thrown a regular-season pitch in the majors or minors since 2011; Kevin Appier, a 2006 retiree; and Ted Lilly, a 2013 retiree. Mark Redman hasn't appeared in the majors since July 2008, and Omar Olivares hasn't since September 2001. Jimmy Haynes is the last pitcher with more than 25 starts during those years, and he hasn't toed a big-league rubber in about a decade.

Skip Mike Oquist and you reach the only active pitcher besides Hudson: Aaron Harang. There are 14 other pitchers who started a game in the green and gold, and none of them will appear in the majors barring unforeseen circumstances. Not even youngsters like Kirk Saarloos, Justin Duchscherer, Brett Laxton, Mike Wood, Marcus James, or Blake Stein. How long has Hudson been around? He's probably going to be the last starter standing from the A's Moneyball days.

San Diego Padres
Hudson's opposite on Wednesday night, Robbie Erlin, suffered his fourth consecutive loss and exited with a 5.83 ERA on the season. The smallish southpaw hasn't pitched as poorly as those facts suggest. For one thing, most of the earned-run damage came in his previous start, when he yielded 13 hits and eight runs in five-plus innings versus the Nationals. For another, Erlin, whose delivery will remind you of Cliff Lee a bit, at least with how he angles his front shoulder, has about three times as many strikeouts as walks. While he lacks Andrew Cashner's stuff, his low-90s fastball and array of secondary pitches give him more room for error than fellow San Diego lefty Eric Stults. Add in Erlin's know-how on the mound, and he should pitch at the back end of a rotation for a long time.

Arizona Diamondbacks
Trevor Cahill has had a rough season. He started four games to begin the season, and allowed five or more runs in four of them. Cahill has since moved to the bullpen where, save for an ugly outing last weekend against the Phillies, he's found more success. In his other four relief appearances, the pudgy righty has notched eight innings, 10 strikeouts, and allowed zero runs.

Cahill is missing more bats and generating more groundballs in the bullpen while throwing the same rate of strikes. Those gains have come despite his velocity remaining steady. His pitch selection has altered a little, particularly in two-strike counts, where he's sacrificed some changeups for curveballs. There's seemingly little reason Cahill could not take his new approach back to the rotation, but Arizona's plans for him are unclear.

Kevin Towers fancies himself a sludge merchant and Cahill, who is due $12 million next season, could be one of his next projects.

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

8 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

fawcettb

Suggesting that Wait Weiss had a more "obscure" career than Brad Ausmus ignores everything but longevity. Weiss was a fine defensive shortstop and a decent hitter. Ausmus may have been a bright guy and a decent defensive sub, but he was among the worst hitters of his era, and arguably the worst hitter to have had a career as long as he did, bad enough to have acquired the nickname "Bad Ausmus."

May 02, 2014 09:46 AM
rating: 1
 
Ogremace

Isn't it that badness that kept him from being obscure? You notice when someone that bad sticks around.

May 02, 2014 10:19 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member R.J. Anderson
BP staff

Fair objection. Let me explain why I disagree.

You are correct about Weiss out-hitting Ausmus. For their careers, Weiss hit .258/.351/.326 (a .246 TAv) while Ausmus hit .251/.325/.344 (.233). Weiss wins, no doubt. And Ausmus did accumulate about 1,600 more plate appearances. That additional playing time helps erase the offensive gap so far as value metrics are concerned. WARP gives the nod to Weiss, bWAR considers them even, and fWAR crowns Ausmus. If you go by wins-per-plate appearance Weiss is ahead. To illustrate that effect, I prorated his win rate (win/plate appearance) so that his playing time matched Ausmus. Here are those results:

WARP
Weiss without the adjustment: 17.2
Weiss with the adjustment: 22.1
Ausmus: 15.8

bWAR
Weiss without the adjustment: 16.5
Weiss with the adjustment: 21.2
Ausmus: 16.4

fWAR
Weiss without the adjustment: 14.8
Weiss with the adjustment: 19.1
Ausmus: 18.3

So the hitting and the rate statistics suggest Weiss was superior. But here's my argument for Ausmus:

1) I'm not sure we should dismiss longevity, and even if we do, I don't think the adjustment made above is the way to do it. We can probably agree that Weiss would not have played to his career win/PA rate had he stuck around for another three seasons. Maybe he would have, or maybe he would have dropped below replacement level and damaged his case here. Neither of us knows for sure.

2) This is the big one: I don't think Ausmus' defensive value is fully realized in these metrics. I realize there's no way to prove it one way or another, but the above metrics don't consider his receiving, game-calling, and staff-handling; aspects that he seemed to excel at. Teams continued to employ and play him despite his horrid offense for a reason. Perhaps they all bought into the hype, or maybe there was a Jose Molina-like aspect to his game. Again, we can't say for sure, but it wouldn't shock me if his true value exceeded the numbers listed above and, in the process, dwarfed Weiss' figures, too.

Of course I recognize those points (particularly no. 2) aren't for everyone, and I probably should've addressed the case in the piece. Rest assured, though, it wasn't a comment made without some thought.

May 02, 2014 10:32 AM
 
Ryan13636

Weiss loses a lot of anonymity points for the R.O.Y. award and All Star appearance.

May 02, 2014 16:12 PM
rating: 1
 
randolph3030

I don't know if the math on bunting wisdom supports the need for this extra info, but, I would have liked to see what hitters were due up following the bunt. I imagine that affects the strength of the decision.

May 02, 2014 11:01 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member R.J. Anderson
BP staff

Good idea. Here you go. I went ahead and included the two batters afterward as well, so you can get the whole picture:

Barnes 4/27: Gonzalez (then Tulowitzki and Morneau)
Barnes 4/13: Stubbs (then Cuddyer and Gonzalez)
Barnes 4/12: Gonzalez (then Tulowitzki and Rosario)
Barnes 4/2: Blackmon (then Cuddyer and Stubbs)
Blackmon 4/30: Stubbs (then Gonzalez and Tulowitzki)
Blackmon 4/28: Barnes (then Tulowitzki and Gonzalez)
Culberson 4/23: Blackmon (then Arenado and Tulowitzki)
Culberson 4/9: LeMahieu (then Rutledge and Blackmon)
Rutledge 4/20: Pacheco (then Rosario and Blackmon)
Stubbs 4/30: Gonzalez (then Tulowitzki and Morneau)

May 02, 2014 11:28 AM
 
therealn0d

With all due respect, that doesn't tell the story.

May 02, 2014 15:10 PM
rating: -1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Quite a few people in Denver were upset with Blackmon bunting considering he has such a low strikeout rate and has remained one of Colorado's hottest hitters. Bunting might make sense if the hitter's prone to striking out, but if you have a tendency to put the ball in play, you might get more than just the advancement of the runner.

May 03, 2014 23:14 PM
rating: -1
 
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