May 7, 2013
Evaluating Early-Season Experiments
Four teams asked five players to do things this season that they’d never done prior to 2013. This article is about how well those things have worked for the first six weeks, and whether they can continue.
1. Shin-Soo Choo: start in center field
Naturally, there’s been some luck involved, or at least some unsustainable performance. Choo has always been a high-BABIP guy, but he’s running about 40 points above his career average despite (for him) a below-average line-drive rate. And while he’s also always been a guy who gets hit by plenty of pitches, he’s never been plunked at this rate. (Choo has been hit 11 times, nearly twice as often as any other player. His career high is 17, and he doesn’t appear to have changed his stance or approach at the plate in a way that would promote hit by pitches.) Both the BABIP and the HBP have helped drive up Choo’s major-league leading .467 on-base percentage.
The stats tell a somewhat confusing story about Choo’s performance in center. (A lot of defensive stats tell a confusing story after six weeks).* FRAA says he’s been a couple runs below average. That figure prorated over a full season would be an acceptable loss, in light of how well Choo hits. On the other hand(s), DRS has him at -7 and UZR has him at -5.6. Those figures prorated over a full season would seriously eat into his offensive value, once his offensive value regresses somewhat
*According to our batted-ball statistics from MLBAM, Reds pitchers have allowed the highest line-drive rate in baseball. According to BIS’ batted-ball stats at FanGraphs, they’ve allowed the fourth-lowest. The two sources come close to agreeing on the Reds’ roughly average groundball rate, but they can’t agree on whether the non-grounders were flies or line drives.
Over the winter, no one would have scoffed at the suggestion that Choo would be the worst center fielder in baseball, but it’s sort of hard to square the raw stats with what the more pessimistic advanced stats are saying. Choo’s 70 putouts rank 10th among big-league center fielders. He’s caught 8.75 percent of the Reds’ balls in play allowed; last season, Cincinnati’s Drew Stubbs, who’s generally acknowledged to be an excellent center fielder, caught 8.59 percent. With Stubbs in center, Reds pitchers allowed a .379 SLG on balls in play and allowed opposing batters to reach base at a .302 clip. With Choo in center, Reds pitchers have allowed a .365 SLGBIP and a .291 reach-base rate. And the Reds’ defensive efficiency has improved from .712 to .720.
I’m just throwing circumstantial stats at the wall. None of this is to suggest that Choo has been better than Stubbs, or even that Choo has been average. It’s not at all valid to compare the current Reds to last season’s Reds and attribute the difference to Choo. The team has different pitchers, and other different defenders, and has evidently started shifting much more often. But what those stats do suggest is that Choo’s defensive inadequacies, such as they are, haven’t been crippling. He hasn’t routinely tripped over his own feet or let balls roll to the wall. He’s taken indirect routes, and he hasn’t looked like a natural, but the Reds have seen him in center for six weeks, and they’re still starting him there. He’s not so bad that Cincinnati can’t win with him where he is.
There was this,
but those plays took place in the first week of the season, and on most plays, you wouldn’t necessarily know that Choo is a novice at the position. Chris Heisey isn’t hitting, and the Reds would be better off with a good defensive center fielder, Choo in a corner, and Heisey on the bench, but it still seems feasible—maybe more feasible than it seemed six weeks ago—that they can make do with what they have. Remember, the Reds had a .254 OBP out of the leadoff slot last season. The .471 they’ve enjoyed thus far this year out of the same slot forgives a few misplayed flies.
2. J.P. Arencibia: catch R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball
Arencibia’s hard work earned him an Opening Day start, and he caught Dickey for six innings. This was the first pitch of the season:
Uh oh. Many more like it followed:
Of the 104 pitches Dickey threw, nine went to the backstop (as in the wall behind home plate, not Arencibia). Arencibia hasn’t caught a single pitch thrown by Dickey since. The 41-year-old Blanco, who caught Dickey in 2010, has become his personal catcher in Toronto, and while the ancient battery has worked pretty well, yielding only three passed balls—as many as Arencibia was charged with in one start—in the six starts since, Blanco has hit .174/.211/.256 in 90 PA over the past two seasons. Josh Thole, who had 18 passed balls last season, is hitting .360/.442/.547 in Triple-A, so Blanco might not be long for the majors.
This is another reason why there aren’t more knuckleballers in the majors. It can be a pain to make sure you have someone capable of catching them.
3. Edward Mujica: become a closer
But that’s how it’s happened. Motte was sidelined by elbow issues that will force him to have Tommy John surgery next week. Boggs got the first shot at replacing him but blew two of his first four save opportunities and walked 12 batters in 10 2/3 innings before being mercifully sent down. Rosenthal blew a couple early-season leads himself and allowed a two-run homer to Ryan Braun in the same game as Boggs’ second blown save, giving him a superficially inflated ERA. So Mike Matheny turned to Mujica to solidify St. Louis’ pen, and so far he has.
Despite his lack of closing experience and his low-90s fastball, Mujica is a perfect 8-for-8 in save situations. He’s shown his usual superb control and his usual tendency to allow solo home runs, which hasn’t yet come back to bite him. He’s also shown an ability to miss more bats, which probably isn’t just a small-sample fluke. Since his trade to the Cardinals, Mujica has relied more heavily on his splitter (which he calls a split-change) at the urging of Yadier Molina and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist. With the Marlins last April-July, Mujica threw the pitch 39 percent of the time. With the Cardinals in August and September, he threw it 57 percent of the time. This season, it’s up to 64 percent, and he’s retired his slider and cutter. Since 2008, the pitch has been extremely effective, combining the low ball rate of his fastball with a much higher whiff rate and lower home run rate.
Obviously, Mujica won’t sustain a sub-.200 BABIP all season, and he’ll never be more than a few bad outings away from being replaced by Rosenthal, who has better stuff and a richer future ahead of him. But he’s another nail in the coffin of the notion that an effective setup guy needs ninth-inning experience or overpowering stuff to succeed as a closer for a first-place team.
4. Matt Carpenter: start at second base
*Incidentally, the average batting average on grounders in the NL is down from .238 in 2012 to .230 in 2013, while the average in the AL is up from .238 to .240. Overall defensive efficiency shows the same sort of pattern. I don’t know whether that’s noise or something pertaining to shifts.
With Rafael Furcal out for the season and Pete Kozma locked in at short, Carpenter solidifying second and pushing Daniel Descalso into a utility role has saved St. Louis from the fate of starting two light-hitting middle infielders. Carpenter has been one of the NL’s top five offensive second basemen, and his minor-league stats suggest that he can keep it up. Plugging that hole with a hitter has served St. Louis well.
5. Luke Hochevar: pitch out of the bullpen
Before this season, the Royals lined up some capable starters to make a push for the playoffs, so Hochevar lost what had looked like a lifetime rotation spot and moved to the bullpen, where R.J. Anderson predicted he’d have success with a simplified approach. R.J.'s prediction looks prescient. Although it hasn’t yielded more whiffs—most of his added swings and misses have come on the curveball and the sinker, which has been getting fewer grounders—Hochevar’s fastball velo has ticked up from 93.4 last season to 95.1 now, typical of a pitcher who’s transitioned to throwing in short bursts. But he hasn’t let go of any of his wide array of complementary pitches. Last September, Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said, “He’s got fix or six different pitches. There are not many starting pitchers in this game, ever in this game, who have been successful for a long time who tried to throw that many pitches.” There are even fewer relievers who have had that kind of arsenal, but Hochevar hasn’t altered his approach as much as one would think. He’s throwing more four-seamers, sinkers, and curves, but he’s still mixing in cutters, changeups, and sliders a combined 16 percent of the time.
One area in which Hochevar has simplified things is his delivery. Doug Thorburn wrote last week that “the modern windup is borderline useless,” concluding that “a pitcher who focused all of his efforts on a single motion could reap huge rewards with respect to pitch repetition and command.” After alternating between the windup and the stretch last season,
Hochevar, like many relievers, has pitched exclusively out of the stretch in 2013.
He’s historically had a large bases empty/runners on split, which may have been mechanical in origin. In a tiny sample this season, Hochevar has had better results with runners on.
It’s too soon to say whether Hochevar will be setup man material—he still has a miniscule BABIP and a spotless strand rate—but it looks like he’ll be useful, which is more than he’s been able to say in most seasons. If Hochevar can go from being one of the worst starters to being a useful arm out of the pen, many relievers’ self-esteem will suffer.
Thanks to Ryan Lind for research assistance.