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March 13, 2008
"It's designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything is new again..."
For baseball fans, it almost goes without saying that the first game seen each season is a special event. Having not been able to catch the smattering of games on cable or the now indispensable MLB.tv because of other commitments, that pleasure for me had to wait until shortly after touching down in Phoenix last weekend for my annual rite of spring. But amidst sunny skies and fair temps far removed from the snow in Colorado, that first game, and all the games and workouts over the five days, were entertaining as usual, interesting, and ultimately just the right stimulant as we move into the 2008 campaign.
And so, as I did last season, this week we'll highlight the sights and sounds of four of the camps I visited over the long weekend.
For the defending National League champs, there is little debate over the most contested battle going on in camp. In part that's because the largely home-grown Rockies are going with a reprise of their 2007 squad with changes only at the margins. By signing Mark Redman to a one-year incentive-laden $1 million contract, Josh Towers to a one-year $400,000 deal (which goes to $1.8 million if he makes the 25-man roster), and Kip Wells for $3.1 million with performance bonuses, the Rox are clearly hoping one of the three can deliver in the fifth starter spot (assuming Franklin Morales begins the season at Colorado Springs, and Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Jason Hirsh fill the front four spots, as expected). Both Towers and Wells will be 31 this season, while Redmond will be 34. It would prove to be a bad weekend for the trio.
Wells has a history of injuries, including elbow problems in 2004, as well as an early 2006 surgery to remove a blood clot. The Rockies are nevertheless hopeful that his second year after surgery will prove better than his 2007 stint with the Cardinals. Wells started against the Royals on Friday afternoon in Surprise after Aaron Cook was scratched with a sore right shoulder (Hirsh has already been scratched from two starts with the same symptom). It was Wells' second start of the spring, and although it started badly, it finished on an high note. Wells walked or hit four of the first eleven batters he faced, and was unable to locate his fastball, which he was throwing from 89-91 with pretty good tailing action. He seemed to right the ship, and he retired six of the last seven Royals following an Alex Gordon double, with only an infield single breaking it up. However, for the spring he's walked seven and hit two batters in just nine innings of work with nary a strikeout. Control has always been an issue for Wells, and so far he hasn't seemed to conquer it.
Things went even worse for Redman on Thursday afternoon in Peoria against the Padres. After having started the spring with five scoreless innings, the soft-tossing lefty was knocked around for 10 hits and six runs in just three innings. As Redman said after the game, he wasn't able to locate his cut fastball; on the positive side, he uncharacteristically struck out four, and so far this spring has yet to walk a batter or give up a home run.
Finally, in the same game, Josh Towers worked the final three innings, giving up eight hits and four earned runs, with the big blow a two-run home run off the bat of non-roster invitee Will Venable. Towers has had his fair share of trouble avoiding the home run ball in 2006 and 2007, and one wonders whether Colorado's thin air is a good fit for him. But still, he performed adequately as a starter in 2007, and of the three, PECOTA likes him best. It was the third outing of the spring for Towers, and he'd had good results in his previous two appearances.
Add this all up, and Franklin Morales may not end up starting the season at Triple-A. While both Cook and Hirsh have missed starts, Morales has thrown well, most recently Sunday's four-inning stint where he gave up one run after replacing Hirsch.
Other Notes: The second base job is also open, but all indications are that Jayson Nix has the upper hand because of his defense. SFR has him at +29 runs from 2005-2007, and although he's gotten off to a slow start with the bat, he slugged his first spring home run against the Royals on Friday. At the same time, other candidates Jeff Baker and Marcus Giles are both swinging the bat well.
We've done studies on this. It's not just that we come up one day and say, 'You know, Jason Kendall's gonna hit ninth.' You've had a lot of smart people looking at it and crunching numbers and seeing if, numbers-wise, it made sense.
Those familiar with this discussion will no doubt know that the authors of The Book found that by batting the pitcher eighth, teams could realize an increase of around two runs, and by totally optimizing their lineups a maximum of 15 runs--equivalent to a win and a half--over the course of a season. At first that former result may seem counterintuitive. However, the reason for the small improvement is that although inferior-hitting pitchers will be given more plate appearances in the eighth slot, this will be offset by the fact that a regular hitter in the ninth hole will result in more RBI opportunities for the top of the lineup, especially the third-place hitter.
In the case of the Brewers--where Kendall has a PECOTA projected OBP of .324 but a slugging percentage of just .321--there is little doubt that the strategy makes sense. A quick run through the lineup analysis tool provided by BP alum David Pinto (based on work by Cyril Morong, Ken Arneson, and Ryan Armbrust) shows that all of the top 30 suggested lineups using both the 1998-2002 and 1959-2004 models place Kendall in the ninth spot. Using the latter model, a reasonable lineup using their PECOTA projections (Weeks, Cameron, Fielder, Braun, Hart, Hardy, Hall, Kendall, pitcher's spot) would be projected to score 5.385 runs per game, whereas switching the pitcher and Kendall would result in 5.388 runs per game, for a gain of almost five runs in a season. With the 1998-2004 model, the difference is a whopping 18 runs over the course the season. This also considers all hitters who batted in the ninth spot in the order for the Brewers in 2007 (where they put up a collective .233 OBP and .282 SLG, and assuming they would replicate that performance in 2008), so pinch-hitters are included. As you might imagine, the better the pinch-hitters, the less of an effect the strategy would have.
What makes it work in this case is that Kendall's combination of an adequate OBP and a woeful slugging percentage is not that different from the typical ninth spot hitter in the order. This means that when batting eighth he won't be driving in many of the four-through-seventh place hitters who reach base, but when hitting ninth he gets on base enough to allow Fielder and Braun opportunities to drive him in, resulting in a net offensive gain. It appears the break-even for this strategy as far as the Brewers go is somewhere around Kendall delivering a .360 SLG. That is, if Kendall's slugging percentage were .360 or higher (while delivering the same OBP), it would essentially be a wash as to whether to bat him eighth or ninth.
Readers interested in this topic should also check out this article by James Click and some interesting analysis done by John Beamer after Tony La Russa employed the same tactic in the second half of 2007.
In other Brewers news, Bill Hall continues to play third, and made a nice play on a bunt by Joey Gathright in the fifth inning on Saturday to nab him at first. SFR has always viewed Hall as a merely adequate third baseman; with 202 balls in his area of responsibility from 2003-2007 he graded out at -1.5 runs. He came out at -14 runs in center field, however, in 2007 and so when combined with Ryan Braun's -28 runs--as pointed out in the Brewers essay in BP2K8--the team could see an improvement of around 30 runs as Braun moves to left and Cameron takes over in center (Cameron scored at just -9 in SFR for 2007, but was at +11 in 2006 and so I would expect him to be more like league average in 2008).
Other Notes: At the morning workouts on the minor league side of the Maryvale complex, the power of Brad Nelson and Matt LaPorta were in evidence. While the 24-year-old Nelson is the previous version of the Brewers "next big power prospect," the 23-year-old LaPorta is the current incarnation. Being blocked at first base, LaPorta was shifted to left in 2007, and scored a respectable +1.2 in SFR there while fielding 107 balls. Nelson is working to become a four corners guy, with his work at the outfield corners in 2007 resulting in a -1.5, while in the infield he did better at third (+0) than at first (-4). Also, in the game against the Royals on Saturday, 20-year-old slick-fielding shortstop Alcides Escobar made an appearance; SFR has had mixed reviews with his glove work in 2005 rating a +6, his 2006 at -12 (21 errors in 80 games and seemingly reduced range didn't help), and his 2007 at +1.
As far as sabermetric circles are concerned, there is no more interesting pitcher this spring than the Brian Bannister. That's because Bannister has now become something of a posterboy for players using the ideas and techniques of performance analysis to find and exploit any and every advantage open to them. In Bannister's case, his three-part interview on MLB Trade Rumors and his use of PITCHf/x data in particular has analysts (present company included) all a flutter as we ponder just what a major league-caliber arm with a mind to match can do when further armed with these sorts of analytical tools.
In short, the question on the table is whether Bannister can repeat his 2007 .264 BABIP going forward, or whether regression to the mean will take hold, making it difficult for a pitcher who relies on contact (his EqSO9 was just 3.9 last season) to be as effective as his 3.36 PERA and 1.21 WHIP would suggest. In a fascinating series of articles by Mike Fast (linked above) we discover that most of Bannister's difference from the league average in terms of BABIP comes from balls hit into play by right-handed hitters off of his 89 mph fastball (the average of his 609 fastballs tracked by PITCHf/x in 2007). In 71 balls put into play, we would have expected 22 hits, while Bannister gave up just 12. Almost half of the reason for the discrepancy is that Bannister induced more fly balls (which are more easily turned into outs) and fewer ground balls and line drives than would have been expected based solely on batted ball type. Of the remaining difference, it turns out that opposing right-handed hitters went 0-for-17 on groundballs, with 12 of those fielded by the shortstop. This is an incredibly small sample on which to base any conclusions, but it could be that Bannister's use of his repertoire against right-handers creates a favorable batted-ball distribution, and that it's a truly repeatable skill, as it is to some degree for ground-ball pitchers. However, I'm more skeptical of a repeat of the success on groundballs (even with Tony Pena Jr. at short), so I imagine we'll see that .264 BABIP rise.
Thus far this spring, Bannister has had a tough go of it, and surrendered five runs and six hits against the Rockies last Friday afternoon. Location of his fastball was clearly the major issue, as he threw it early and often, but consistently left it on the third-base side of the plate. The end result was some hard-hit balls, the hardest of which came off the bat of Brad Hawpe, who delivered a tremendous home run in the third. Bannister was able to just get through the inning, but then hit Clint Barmes and Jayson Nix to start the fourth before being lifted. He'd also struggled in his first spring outing against the Rangers. Here's hoping he gets himself straightened out, since I know that there's a whole community keenly interested in his performance.
Other Notes: It's often said at this time of the spring that the hitters are ahead of the pitchers (or is it vice versa?); given the performances of the pitchers in camp, the Royals certainly hope so. Of the 27 pitchers who had seen action through Monday, eleven had ERAs of 9.00 or higher, adding up to a team ERA of 6.75, worst in the American League after twelve spring training games. One of the offenders, Brett Tomko (who signed a one-year $3 million deal last January), got his second spring start on Sunday, against the Cubs. While the velocity on his fastball ranged from 92-94 mph, he simply couldn't locate his breaking pitches and was rocked for nine hits and five earned runs in two and a third innings. To be fair, a Mark Teahen dropped fly ball that was nonetheless scored a hit accounted for three of those earned runs.
In case that plan doesn't work out, the Royals are also looking at lefty John Bale for the rotation, who worked out of the bullpen in 2007. Bale got his third start of the spring versus the Brewers on Saturday, and gave up six hits in four innings, including a home run to Mike Cameron in the first. Although he's pitched well overall, one wonders whether his propensity for dropping down against lefties will be repeatable in a starting role. A scatter-plot of his release point versus both sides from 2007 is shown below, indicating that against lefties he releases the ball an average of six inches closer to first base and six inches lower than he does against righties:
For the Cubs, there are several unsettled positions as camp gets into full swing. Chief among those may be determining the back of the rotation, where after Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Rich Hill, the competitors include Ryan Dempster, Jon Lieber, Jason Marquis, and Sean Marshall. While both Marquis and manager Lou Piniella have backed down from their statements last week regarding Marquis' desire to be traded if he didn't get a rotation spot and Pinella's desire to slam the door behind him, Lieber and Dempster are doing their part to keep Marquis dissatisfied.
On Sunday against the Royals, Dempster threw four innings, giving up only one hit and one run while striking out and walking two. He was hitting all of his spots with his fastball running at 92-93 and his changeup effective at 83-84. The day before, Lieber threw four scoreless innings against the Diamondbacks, giving up only two hits and striking out four.
Also in Sunday's game, the closer audition was on display. Both Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol threw one perfect inning apiece, with Wood touching 98 mph on his fastball and throwing the slider at 84, and Marmol hitting 98 but consistently throwing at 91-93 to go with his 81 mph slider. With Bobby Howry--who's had less success thus far this spring--also in the mix, it remains to be seen who ends up with the spot. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter, as two or three effective pitchers at the back of the pen ensures that most of the highest leverage situations are in good hands.
Felix Pie got on track against the Royals on Sunday with a three-hit performance, including a double to raise his spring line to .321/.607/.406. Unfortunately, that progress is now on hold, as Pie will be out for three to five days after undergoing surgery to correct a testicular torsion. In the meantime, Sam Fuld will get a longer look, but it's no secret that Jim Hendry is still searching for a right-handed hitter who can play all three outfield spots, a la Marlon Byrd. While Byrd can certainly play all three spots, SFR sees him as a well below-average center fielder (-16 from 2005-2007) while above average in left (+10) and right (+3), while Pie was +12 in his limited time in center in 2007.
Other Notes: The well-publicized quest by Hendry to land a second baseman, notably Brian Roberts of the Orioles, continues. Meanwhile, Eric Patterson is still trying to make his case by collecting three hits and a walk in six trips, and also delivering his first spring home run against the Royals on Saturday. Patterson has shown surprising pop in his bat, racking up 52 extra-base hits in 2007 at Iowa and in his short stint in Chicago. On the defensive side, SFR has him at +12 from 2005-2007 in the minor leagues at second base, although -5.3 in 2007.
Just Getting Started
All of us know how the remainder of the Giamatti quote used to open this column goes: "...and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains comes, it stops, and leaves you to face the fall alone." Fortunately, that time is still a long ways off, and we can look forward to six months of warm weather and baseball-filled afternoons and evenings. Play ball!