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May 6, 2015

The Lineup Card

Eight Things We Learned in April

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Maybe Ruben Amaro Jr. was right to hold on to Cole Hamels for now
Cole Hamels getting traded out of Philadelphia was and is fait accompli. The when of it all is the interesting part. Or was the interesting part until the internet ground it into a fine dust, snorted it, and then didn't shut up about the high for the past six or so months. Still, much fun has been had at Ruben Amaro, Jr.'s expense, mostly because he's a PR disaster in progress. His actual moves haven't been as bad as him talking about the reasons for him making a decision or, more commonly, not making a decision.

That said, we're here to commend RAJ. He held on to Cole Hamels through months of criticism, as his trade of Jimmy Rollins signaled the much-needed rebuild in Philadelphia. If you're going to trade one foundation piece, the reasoning went, the next is not far behind. Things got worse when Cliff Lee got injured after the Phillies decided to wait to move him, too, and speculation abounded about what would happen if Hamels got dinged up, too. It's a valid question/fear, but, without knowing the offers that Philly received in the offseason and without knowing what he's gotten now, it's fair to assume that RAJ is in a better position to get more in the present.

This is because several prominent teams have suffered significant losses in their rotations. The Dodgers are down McCarthy for the year, and Ryu is on the 60-day DL. The Cardinals lost Wainwright and moved Shelby Miller in the offseason. Masahiro Tanaka's health has gone Dan LeBatard on us. Everything but an injury has struck the Boston rotation. Up north, Marcus Stroman tore his ACL, and things went badly enough for Daniel Norris that he got optioned to Buffalo. Out west, Hisashi Iwakuma is dinged up, and a free agent at season's end. While there are certainly teams out of the race that might have anticipated being in it - [nods in Milwaukee's general direction]—it's worth noting that presumably, the teams that are either in the lead see more value in keeping it, or the teams on the periphery get a bigger marginal bump from adding someone like a Hamels.

It's still too early to really determine who is in and who is out of these divisional races, but it's easy to understand how and why a team might offer more for Hamels today (or in a month) than they would have in the offseason, when everything looked good on paper. Good on you, RAJ. —Craig Goldstein

2. Safeco Field hasn't tempered Nelson Cruz's boomstick
Before the season began, PECOTA pegged Nelson Cruz for 27 home runs in 2015, in 606 plate appearances. That’s somewhat surprising, since in Cruz’s six full seasons in the big leagues, he’s averaged roughly 32 homers for every 600 plate appearances. He also led MLB with 40 dingers last year in Baltimore.

Of course, Safeco Field isn’t Camden Yards. Nor is it The Ballpark in Arlington, where Cruz did his damage for most of his career. PECOTA deflated Cruz’s expected home-run projection because Safeco Field depresses home-run totals. Park factors are an important contributing factor to player statistics, even if they rarely change a player’s real value, and no one should ignore the impact of a player’s home park.

Funny thing, though: Nelson Cruz has 14 home runs through 26 Mariners games. Now, only three of those have come at home. He’s done most of his monstrous mashing in 14 road games. Still, it’s stunning to see him so easily clearing some of the league’s most famously homer-proof fences. He homered twice when the Mariners visited Oakland. He homered Monday, in his first game of the season at Angel Stadium.

This is just what Cruz does, though. He’s batted between .260 and .271 in five of his first six full seasons. He’s struck out between 20.7 percent and 23.9 percent of the time in five of six. He’s walked in between 7.5 percent and 9.5 percent of his plate appearances in five of six. He’s posted isolated power figures between .240 and .264 in five of six. In an era that has seen wild, uncontrolled, unimaginable changes to the run environment—not just the number of runs that score, but the manner in which they score—Cruz is an unlikely metronome. He’s impossibly consistent, and moving to a pitcher-friendly home park appears not to have dented that reliability, any more than a league turning fast against hitters has done. —Matthew Trueblood

3. Not nearly as much as we think
It's that time of year. We've reached the point in the season where we've reached a reliable enough sample size to conclude that a lot of people don't understand what a reliable sample size is and how it should be used. A few years ago, I wrote an article which gets cited a lot in May. The articles that cite it all follow a nice and easy pattern. Look at Smith's shiny new strikeout rate. He's had 60 PA and that's enough to get a reliable read on K rate. We thought it was just an early season fluke, but Smith is now officially amazing!

Not exactly.

Here's how to understand those stabilization points. Suppose I was doing research on Smith and other MLB players and I needed some estimate of what his true talent on K rate was during the last month. I certainly can't take a one-game sample. I need something a little bigger, but how much bigger? Well, the answer to that is it takes about 60 PA until the sample is "good enough" for the purposes of research. So, if I wanted to tell you what I thought Smith's abilities were back in April when he amassed those 60 PA, I'd say that I have a reliable enough sample to say something meaningful about what he was back then. This is not the same thing as saying that I expect him to maintain that same true talent level in May, plus or minus some noise. It's not a silly assumption to think that he will do the same in May, but it is an assumption. It's not even the same thing as saying "I now know what Smith's true talent level was in April." Even then, I'm only giving an estimate that meets certain statistical standards for "probably pretty close."

You can only use those stabilization points to look backwards. Baseball players are often growing and developing before our eyes, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. This is why teams employ coaches. You can't just assume that Smith will forever be what he was in April. Maybe he will, but the truth is that just citing those stats can be misleading. If there is a sin of baseball statistics, it's that we now have really good research on what players were in the past and very little understanding of how to tell whether they are in the middle of changing. —Russell A. Carleton


4. You can learn to throw strikes
Not easily, necessarily, but it can happen. A couple weeks ago, I made a joke about how the pitcher who took a wild swing in the Royals/White Sox brawl was probably Edinson Volquez; the word wild gave it away. Then I looked and discovered, hey, Volquez isn't wild anymore! The pitcher who led the league in walks in 2010, who had the second-highest walk rate in the league in the five-year stretch from 2009 to 2013, had issued only three walks in his first three starts, covering 23 excellent innings. The free passes have been slightly more frequent since--his past four starts actually start the Fibonacci sequence--but he's still walking fewer than half as many batters as he did just a few years ago. So, hey, how about that?

A few details about Volquez. One: He's not just walking fewer batters; he's throwing many more strikes. Tons more: 67 percent, which is where league-average pitchers turn into control pitchers, and which is way beyond the 61 percent career rate he entered the season with. Two: He cut his walks last year, too, and threw more strikes (64 percent) last year, too; but he did so without actually throwing more pitches in the strike zone. His zone rates, over the years:

  • 2011: 45 percent
  • 2012: 47 percent
  • 2013: 48 percent
  • 2014: 48 percent
  • 2015: 51 percent

Last year, besides pitching to one of the game's better framing catchers, he added a skill important to avoiding walks: Far more batters chased pitches outside the zone. This year, he has reproduced that skill (improved it, even) while adding another: Pounding the strike zone.

This sounds like a matter of will, especially to see the difference so starkly. Ned Yost, though, described his tendency to work around, instead of inside, the zone as a matter of mechanics. "I don't know if he nibbled," Yost told Andy McCullough this spring. "I just think that in his mechanics, he's got a tendency to drift a little bit. It's harder to get his arm out in front. It just creates more pitches up in the zone.

So then, to the gifs.

2013:

2014:

2015:

The differences are visible, though we'll turn to others to put them into words. Says R.J. Anderson:

At max leg lift, he looks more upright in 2015 than in the past, where he was leaning forward. At max leg lift, his glove is higher in 2015 than it was in any other year. It's face level, whereas it's knee level in the first two and chest level in 2014. That changes when he breaks his hands, which in turn might improve his arm rhythm. If you pause it at front foot strike, his arm in 2015 is upright ... the ball is above his shoulder, etc. The rest have some arm drag—which, if you think about it, affects command.

And, says Doug Thorburn:

Using just the three clips, he is clearly more stable in the final GIF. The 2015 clip looks demonstrably different than the other two--he still has some late tilt and some drop-drive, but neither is as egregious in the 2015 clip as in the ones for 2013-2014. In simpler terms, he looks "soft" after foot strike in the 2013-14 GIFs, but in the 2015 GIF he maintains a more solid foundation. He is also more properly timed in the 2015 clip--he's doing a better job of staying closed with the upper half through foot strike, rather than opening up early (aka "front shoulder flying open").

Generally speaking, we tend to think of continuity in coaching as a positive. A pitcher who can trust his pitching coach, and a pitching coach who can really get to know his pitcher, seem like undeniably important parts of constructive coaching. But maybe there's something to be said for the alternative: Volquez got to spend a year working with one of the game's best pitching coaches, and he improved. Now he gets to spend a year working with another of the game's best pitching coaches, and he has improved. Maybe there's a case for sampling a lot of pitching coaches. Or maybe the Fibonacci sequence will keep moving upward, and I'll deny I ever wrote any of this. —Sam Miller


5. Joey Votto is back to being awesome
You were wondering who he is. Elite or oft-injured.

With games missed every year. His status wasn’t clear.

It’s not a secret he can be awesome when he’s on the field
His bat’s not human, his swing is boiling, his brain does not yield
But if you saw him, acting strangely, prior to 2015
He wasn’t bad he just needed some time, some time to heal.
To be 100%, keep him 100%.
One-hundred percent, keep him 100%

He’s not a robot who walks constantly — He also can swing
He helps the Reds out with their run scoring, so they can win games
He could be a hero, he could be a savior, forget the lost time
He’s just a man whose circumstances went beyond his control
Beyond his control – he needed control
He needs control – no Phillips in the four hole

He is the modern bat, who walks and takes a lot
So no one else can see, his great identity.

Domo arigato, Mr. Joey Votto, domo…domo
Domo arigato, Mr. Joey Votto, domo…domo
Domo arigato, Mr. Joey Votto, domo…domo
Thank you very much, Mr. Joey Votto
For re-emerging just when baseball needed you to
And thank you very much, Mr. Votto
For proving that your career wasn’t quite over.
Thank you-thank you, thank you
I want to thank you, please, thank you

The problem’s plain to see: not enough emphasis on OBP
Traditional stats ruin our lives. Batting average dehumanize.

The time has come at last
To leave those stats in the past
So everyone can see
My true identity

I’m Sab-er! Sab-er! Sab-er!
Mike Gianella


6. The Rangers are bad and hurt and bad
As I typed that lead sentence, Leonys Martin attempted a diving catch in center field during the May 4th game against the Astros, folding his wrist back underneath him and potentially adding to the horrific list of injuries for a team already limping along for the second year in a row.

They’ve lost pitchers to Tommy John, shoulder soreness, general inability to throw quality strikes, and everything else you can think of. They’ve lost hitters to bone spurs, shoulder surgery, sprained ankles, and back surgery. On top of all these injuries, we’ve learned that the lineup can’t be counted on to string one run on a cord, much less two together, and the Rangers were the last team in baseball to win two games in a row.

Their second baseman swings at nearly everything; the staff “ace” was projected as a decent no. 4 starter; their second best pitcher is 35 and on a surgically-repaired hip; the bullpen is an assortment of minor leaguers, charity cases, and unknowns (plus Neftali Feliz and Keone Kela); a very post-hype Kyle Blanks is the every-day major league first baseman right now; Carlos Peguero (and his 38.8% K-rate) has played in 18 of 25 games so far this season; and there don’t appear to be any saviors waiting in the wings.

Interjection from the game: Martin has left the game, replaced by Delino DeShields in center He is getting “precautionary” X-Rays.

It was assumed that the Rangers’ luck must turn around after their awful 2014, but April showed us that the gambler’s fallacy works both ways.

Martin missed the May 5th game with a left wrist sprain. Kate Morrison


7. Jake Arrieta is here to stay
There were some who doubted Jake Arrieta after his amazing 2014; if you know me, I wasn't one of them. It wasn't because he had the ninth-best DRA_PWARP at 4.86 (despite missing the first month of the season) or that he tied for the league-lead in DRA with Clayton Kershaw at 2.18 (min. 150 innings pitched). No, those things didn't sway me, mainly because they didn't exist publicly until about a week ago. What got me was a long conversation I had with Arrieta late last June after he'd started to show signs that he may be more than just a former top prospect. Arrieta seemed like a very confident man, he'd figured out his mechanical issues and he seemed to have the perfect mental state. He was very aware of his body, something he admitted wasn't always the case, and could quickly remedy any issues that happened to pop up during the course of a game. As he told me then:

“I have a lot more clarity now,” a clearly confident Arrieta shared. “I feel very self aware of knowing where my body is in each phase of my delivery. I use the analogy of a golf swing a lot. There’s times in your swing where you get to the top of your backswing and you realize that your hips have already started to open up on you. At that point, what you have to do is quicken your upper body to catch up with your lower body. Same thing applies in a pitching deliver. If you feel your lower body has leaked out on you a little bit, what you have to do is quicken up your arm to catch up. And kind of vice versa. Those are things that have become easier for me now and just that self-awareness has made it a lot easier to recognize.”

The only question was whether Arrieta could stay healthy and carry his 2014 success into this season. Thus far, he's proven to be the Cubs best starter, delivering a 2.84 ERA, 24.4 percent strikeout rate, and 6.3 percent walk rate, all while keeping the ball on the ground over 50 percent of the time. Nearly every time he takes the mound, Arrieta ends the day with more believers in tow. Add it all up, along with a strong beard and a strong twitter game, and it's easy to see why Arrieta has emerged as one of the top arms in the game today. —Sahadev Sharma

8. How quickly a team can go from afterthought to villain
I used to be a Cardinals fan. It was for reasons only faintly geographic: I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, and as we didn't have the Nationals yet and the Orioles were at the peak of their post-Jeffrey Maier funk, I was looking for a team. I had an aunt and uncle in St. Louis, and since they were good enough at the time and Albert Pujols was establishing himself as a superstar, the Cardinals it was.

It was great, for about seven years. I grew up loving the Pujols-Rolen-Edmonds combination in the middle of the order and hating/begrudgingly respecting the Astros teams that featured Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Carlos Beltran and Craig Biggio. When the Cardinals won (or rather, were handed) the 2006 World Series over the Tigers, it was the happiest moment of my 13 years of life. During the summer, I would visit my uncle in St. Louis for a week and basically do nothing but go to Cardinals games. Busch Stadium, for me, was baseball heaven in the truest sense.

But I lost that love and excitement when I went to college. The simple reality of sports is that if you win enough, you become a villain, no matter how unthreatening your market size or how boring your city. After beating the Rangers in 2011, the Cardinals were no longer fun for me. Part of it was that they no longer satisfied my masochistic tendencies, and that I was paying increasingly more attention to college baseball, but the rise of things like @bestfansstlouis and St. Louis mayor Francis Slay's letter in the Wall Street Journal didn't help either. At the same time, I felt growing admiration for the Royals and their fanbase.

To still care about a franchise after an unprecedented run of futility like they were experiencing signaled to me that these people truly cared about baseball, more than just the concept of rooting for a team. When the Royals won the Wild Card over the A's last season, I was studying abroad in Spain, and I stayed up until 7 a.m. watching it. I hadn't been so excited over something MLB-related since, well, 2006.

Oh, how quickly things can change, though. The Royals are no longer the perpetual losers, and all it took were a few beanballs and Yordano Ventura being particularly young and impulsive to turn them into a gang of hooligans, with their fans crying foul at all those attacking them.

The Cardinals' heel turn took years, but the Royals did it in a matter of hours. Now we'll see if they can fulfill the prerequisite of being a winning team. —Ian Frazer

Related Content:  Major League Baseball,  MLB

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