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June 14, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

Brett Cecil

by Brian Oakchunas

Every year when the PECOTA projections come out, I like to sort through some of the statistical leader boards to see which players PECOTA likes for the upcoming year. One of my favorite categories is ERA because it gives me an idea of how well certain pitchers may do within the context of their teams. I am also on a sort of Easter egg hunt. I figure that PECOTA has data on hundreds of starting pitchers from professional baseball, and when it projects ERA (or anything else), it will find the usual CCs or Johans, but it might also like a rookie or another player that I'm not expecting as much.

This year I found someone who was not only projected to be the best rookie, but also, one of the more successful pitchers at any level of experience. This was neither Tommy Hanson nor David Price. It wasn't the Brett Anderson or Trevor Cahill that people might expect either. Rather, it was a far less famous Toronto prospect: Brett Cecil. PECOTA has him at 3.97 and even that is probably understating the case. PECOTA doesn't exactly give away ERAs under four like they're government bailouts. That is the 29th best ERA for a starting pitcher and it gets even better when you consider that some guys ahead of him-like Sheets and Smoltz-aren't even around.

Scouts don't tend to share PECOTA's enthusiasm. He isn't even ranked as the 29th best prospect. He lands at 72 in Baseball America's top 100 and 90 in BP's. These sources peg him as a "no. 3" or a "middle-of-the-rotation starter." I should mention that I'm not interested in starting a scouts vs. stats argument here. I could cherry-pick hundreds of players that make one or the other look good. Furthermore, the scouts are basing their estimation of him on a lot more than this year's possible ERA in Toronto, and PECOTA is accounting for a lot more in its projection than his raw ability. However, there is still enough of a disconnect here that it is valuable to explore who the real Brett Cecil is.

Brett Cecil played at the University of Maryland before being drafted, and even while in college, his "body, arm action and stuff improved significantly" according to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2008. This praise is even more impressive when you realize that it was for a kid who couldn't even legally order a drink in a bar at the time. The most important thing to remember about his collegiate career-and it may still affect him today in many ways-is that he mostly performed as a closer in college. Toronto drafted him as a supplemental first round pick in 2007 and quickly converted him to a starter as they've done with Shaun Marcum and Dave Bush.

Cecil had two plus pitches, a good slider and a sinking fastball, which he used to get plenty of groundballs, but once he was a pro, he learned that he could better compete by adding a change-up to his arsenal. As he told BP's David Laurila earlier this year, "I worked on about 15 different grips, and this past year I finally found one that I've been able to strike guys out with." This is perhaps the very reason he was able to strike out 56 batters in 49.2 innings playing Low-A ball in 2007, elevating his status as a prospect.

In 2008, he continued to K guys at a rate that translates to a major league 6 or 7 strikeouts per nine, which explains PECOTA's projection of 6.5 K/9 for 2009. Similarly, he had good walk rates that translated to about 3, again leading to a comparable PECOTA projection.

It's great that he can strikeout his share of batters and isn't hurting himself with the free passes, but this is an average pitcher's skill set. As Kevin Goldstein noted, "While he has a deep arsenal, he doesn't have a true wipeout offering, and he'll always need a good defense behind him." We'll get to that defense in a moment, but first let's talk more about his arsenal and what it is that PECOTA sees differently.

Scouts view him as a less than dominant pitcher, which is absolutely true, but what he does while not dominating still leads to some very successful results. Cecil keeps the ball on the ground. Well, great, we've heard that groundballs are good before, but let's examine exactly how valuable they are. Cecil has had groundball rates between 60 and 70% throughout the minors. Based on this, PECOTA projected a 55% rate for the majors. Typically, a 55% success rate will lead to a rate of about 0.8 home runs per nine innings. PECOTA likes his potential even better than that and gives him 0.6 HR/9 but let's err on the side of conservatism and go with the 0.8 for now.

The average pitcher gives up around 1.06 or just over one HR/9. According to our projection, Cecil will allow 0.26 HR/9 less than an average pitcher. To know how valuable this is, we first need to know what a home run is worth. This is not as simple as seeing how many men are on base when the typical home run is hit because some of those runners would have scored anyway. In The Hidden Game of Baseball, Palmer and Thorn found that home runs in the modern era are worth about 1.42 runs. Their study only ran through the 1977 season, though, so the more recent emphasis on OBP probably leads to a higher figure. However, because we are concerned with the impact on ERA, some runs won't count due to errors so the figure isn't going to be too much higher.

Comparing starting pitchers over the last 8 years and using methodology similar to that which I used here, I found that each HR/9 affects a pitcher's ERA by 1.44 runs. In the case of Cecil, the 0.26 HR/9 better than average we found earlier would drop his ERA by 0.37. In recent history, pitchers who have been good enough to pitch at least 150 innings have averaged walk and strikeout rates very similar to what we projected for Cecil and the typical home run rate of 1.06, while managing a mean ERA of 4.17. Subtracting the 37 points, Cecil's projected ERA comes down to 3.80.

That is just looking at Cecil's raw ability. Scouts also look at a player's long term potential and durability. We'll get to those a bit later. Meanwhile, our initial PECOTA projection looked at Cecil through the lens of context. Therefore, it's important to look at Cecil's ballpark and his defense. According to The Bill James Handbook 2009, the Roger's Centre increases home runs by 13%. When we increase his home run rate by 6.5% (cutting the 13% in half due to Toronto's away games), it comes up to 0.85 and the corresponding ERA stands at 3.87.

At the same time, the Toronto defense should help Cecil. Last year they finished third in the majors at .704 and John Dewan's +/- system had their infield at a +50 while the outfield broke even at 0. Remembering that Cecil is a groundball machine and that Toronto is bringing back that same infield, projecting their defense to be at .710 in his 2009 games seems very reasonable (their team rate is .707 at the moment). Applying my defense to ERA conversion, which I outlined in my first article, it improves his ERA by another 0.17. Using these methods, we get an even better projection than PECOTA: Cecil's Toronto ERA projection for 2009 pulls up at a handsome 3.70.

After looking at these numbers, we should assume that Cecil went out there and provided a terrific performance for the Jays in 2009, right? Well, not quite. Cecil has run into some problems so far this year. After being named a candidate for the Jays rotation and then pitching exceptionally well in the Grapefruit League, Cecil wasn't chosen for the rotation. I'll resist the urge to go on my rant about spring training 'competitions' that some of the 'candidates' have no chance to win, but in the case of Cecil, it may have been the right decision; his early season numbers from Triple-A were less than desirable, including a 9:8 K:BB ratio. Nevertheless, the Jays rotation had been decimated by injuries by the end of April, and they called up Cecil. After a six day layoff, he made his major league debut on May 5th.

Cecil came bursting out of the gate just as our previous analysis might have suggested. In his first two appearances, he logged 14 innings and only gave up one run without any jacks. The next start might have been chalked up to just not having his stuff. He gave up two homers and had an unimpressive K:BB ratio of 3:2.

His fourth start was against the Red Sox. He pitched relatively well for the first four innings, but then he was nailed in his non-pitching arm by a come-backer in the fourth. The fifth inning, if not historic, was at least something Cecil will never forget. His big skill was supposed to be killing gophers, but Jason Varitek led off the inning with a long ball. Four batters later, after a walk and a double, Ortiz hit a shot to deep center-his first homer of the year. The fun didn't stop there. Bay and Lowell also hit homers before Cecil was taken out of his misery.

After the game, Cecil was sent back to the minors. My initial reaction was that his arm injury caused the problems, but further analysis demonstrates a bigger problem that scouts have always had with Cecil: a lack of stamina. Looking at his PITCHf/x data, while his cupcakes that led to the jacks were up in the zone, he had the same movement on his pitches as he did in the other innings. The bigger problem seemed to be that his velocity had steadily decreased throughout the game. This holds true for all of his major league starts. The following chart, courtesy of brooksbaseball.net, shows Cecil's velocity throughout his first start against Cleveland:

graph

You can see that while Cecil's fastball reaches as high as 95 mph to start the game, it slows down by 4-5 mph over the course of the start. That is not the only way Cecil shows fatigue. Will Carroll spoke to me about how he often throws slower in the second inning of consecutive starts (using the second inning to "remove 'nerves' and adrenaline from the equation as much as possible"). Indeed, Cecil regularly threw 93 in the first few innings here (after the six-day layoff), but he was only topping out at 92 in the following start, and he never again threw as fast as 95 during any of his other starts in the majors.

Toronto has tried to combat his stamina issues with hard pitch limits, but Carroll suggested they use a different approach: "Cecil would be the perfect type of pitcher to use a logical progression development on, adding pitches slowly to his pitch limits as he shows that he can pitch successfully and recover. At some point, he'll max out-that may be at 120 [pitches] or 50, but they'll know."

Baseball America has praised Brett Cecil for his work ethic and his "bulldog mentality", but he may have his back up against a "genetic maximum" that likely exists, according to Will Carroll. The Blue Jays could easily make him into an excellent relief pitcher/closer, but he probably has more value as a starting pitcher. What may be in order is some creative usage, like pushing him back whenever the team has an off day. However they do it, if the Jays can get him in the rotation without the stamina issues, he has the skills to become one of the premiere pitchers in baseball.

Related Content:  A's,  The Who,  Layoff,  Year-long Layoff,  Year Of The Injury

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

BP Comment Quick Links

JayhawkBill

Brian, you surprised me. This topic challenged many of the remaining Idol finalists, and you wrote a piece that flowed smoothly from various statistical metrics through game-by-game descriptions to a final discussion of "genetic maximum" and how an MLB team could best use a player such as Cecil.

This was, by far, your best work contrasted to the performance of your peers on that same week's topic. Thumbs up.

Jun 14, 2009 12:30 PM
rating: 3
 
PJ

Very interesting article, but a bit difficult to follow with all the 'we'll get to that later' parts. Subtitles or other devices to facilitate the reading of the article would probably have helped. That said, a big thumb up!

Jun 14, 2009 13:31 PM
rating: 0
 
evo34

This is really good. I think Cecil is definitely a player PECOTA users were wondering about heading into the season. I liked the analysis employed. The only thing missing was more context for the velocity numbers. How hard did scouts say he was throwing in the minors? What exactly are his offerings, the pct. he throws them, and the avg. velo of each? I think that this kind of info. is needed in the introductory paragraphs -- well before any statistical analysis begins. I am guessing his abnormally high velo in the first few innings of his first MLB start was more due to adrenaline than due to injury or lack of stamina.

Jun 14, 2009 15:02 PM
rating: 0
 
Charles

I have a lot of thoughts about this article, but none worth sharing. I just wanted to say that this was my favorite piece of the week. Great job.

Jun 14, 2009 15:35 PM
rating: 0
 
jtrichey

Going with a pitcher can be considered outside the box in this week of amazingly similar pieces. Still I didn't think it was as well written as others I've read this week. The competition is definitely getting harder as the weakest writers are no longer here. This one pulls in just shy of the other pieces.

Jun 14, 2009 16:51 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom
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I liked the idea of using PECOTA to identify sleepers. I can see this as a solid fantasy piece. However it seemed a lot of space was wasted with the "I'll get to it later" lines. Also it seemed he went back and forth on whether scouting information was relevant or not and yet didn't use much data external to BP. I guess I would've liked a more assertive, persuasive tone on why I should me interested in reading about this player without all the caveats and stilted arguments.

Jun 14, 2009 17:23 PM
rating: -5
 
blanck28

Great article. It sounds like the BP editors were a bit disappointd, which surprises me. The graph clearly showed a consistent downward trend, and though a single average line might've clarified things, that's a very very minor quibble.

The bigger point is, this guy took Brett Cecil and *analyzed* him very deeply. What works, why he sometimes fails, and an accurate prognosis of what the future might hold. Very useful for fantasy folks and general fans alike.

Nicely done.

Jun 14, 2009 17:53 PM
rating: 3
 
Ben Solow

Not really a fan of this piece. The writing was extremely choppy for me, and a pet peeve of mine is when writers refer to people by last name without introducing them by full name first, e.g. "Ortiz hit a shot to deep center—his first homer of the year. The fun didn't stop there. Bay and Lowell..." or in his reference to "Palmer and Thorn". It's just a convention, since most people who read BP are surely familiar with Pete Palmer, John Thorn, David Ortiz, Jason Bay, and Mike Lowell, but when you don't follow conventions it can make people wonder if there's a previous reference to them in the piece that was missed.

Aside from that, not really a fan of the analysis. From this piece I have no idea if Cecil's HR/9 rate is actually at all similar to the expected 0.8 based on his groundball rate. The discussion of Cecil's actual performance is largely missing, making me wonder if the theoretical relationships between GB% and HR/9 hold for him, or if it's just a general rule of thumb. In fact, I'd say I learned more about quick and dirty pitching projection than anything about Brett Cecil in this piece -- not that it isn't valuable, just that it's not a very good player profile.

Jun 14, 2009 19:25 PM
rating: -1
 
Brian Oakchunas

PECOTA thinks he should outperform the GB rate. Of course, in the majors, it is a very small sample in which he gave up four homers in an inning to the Red Sockers so his rate was sky high. We wouldn't expect that rate to continue and based on his first few starts, I think he can definitely keep the homers down as long as the stamina is not getting in the way like it did the first time around.

Jun 14, 2009 21:16 PM
rating: 0
 
jlefty

I read "From this piece I have no idea if Cecil's HR/9 rate is actually at all similar to the expected 0.8 based on his groundball rate." and wondered if there was a previous reference to Brett Cecil in your comment that I missed.

Jun 15, 2009 06:38 AM
rating: 6
 
Ben Solow

Well, considering there was an entire article written about Brett Cecil that the comment was responding to, the context should be fairly clear. Snark is no replacement for poor writing.

Jun 15, 2009 20:47 PM
rating: -1
 
dcarroll

I liked this article. Brian took a player who is interesting in a number of respects (limited major league experience, the gap between scouts and PECOTA, very uneven performance) and presented a coherent story. I could quibble a bit about the stamina argument--why did he struggle so badly at the beginning of the year in AAA, for example--but overall I think this is one of the best articles this week. I think the concerns about the chart are exaggerated.

Jun 14, 2009 20:33 PM
rating: 0
 
Brian Oakchunas

I think the stamina was probably catching up with him at Trip-A and then the layoff got him back to normal. That was a casualty of the word count. I came in at 1,999.

Jun 14, 2009 21:18 PM
rating: 2
 
Richard Bergstrom
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I thought "around 2000 words" meant a soft word count limit, not a hard one.

Besides, I don't think any of the voters have complained about writers going over the word count yet.

Jun 14, 2009 21:29 PM
rating: -5
 
Brian Oakchunas

This week's prompt said, "as long as 2000 words," which I took to mean no longer than 2000 words. I definitely cut stuff to keep it under. We were warned at some point about long stuff getting sent back to us. I was concerned about BP's limitations more than upsetting the audience.

Jun 14, 2009 21:48 PM
rating: 3
 
Richard Bergstrom
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Hmm... not sure what to say there... if it gets sent back then you'd have to do some quick editing and that might be hard to do.

They should really just set the word count as a guideline at this stage of the game.

Jun 14, 2009 21:51 PM
rating: -5
 
dcarroll

Well, he started the year with three disastrous starts at AAA, after an off season of rest, then pitched better. I don't think stamina is the entire answer here.

Jun 14, 2009 21:43 PM
rating: 0
 
Brian Oakchunas

My comment was in reference to the fact that he pitched very well in spring training before Triple-A. It is also possible he was discouraged by the demotion or just on a bad streak, but I see a pattern emerging that leads me to believe it's stamina.

Jun 14, 2009 21:53 PM
rating: 0
 
dcarroll

We may have to agree to disagree here. He pitched all of 11 innings in the spring. Even I have more stamina than that.

Jun 14, 2009 22:21 PM
rating: 0
 
Brian Oakchunas

Definitely. I don't mean to imply that my explanation is the only one at all. However, I do think that it's possible. Consider that he was reassigned to minor league camp on March 15th. I don't have a record of what kind of workload he had there, but there are two situations that could lead to fatigue: 1. He pitched a good number of innings that interfered with his stamina. 2. He didn't pitch enough innings and wasn't stretched out properly to start the season. Either way, I see stamina as a plausible explanation for his poor start to the season.

Jun 14, 2009 23:24 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom
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Or he either lacks the talent to throw well without using maximum effort, or lacks stamina in general (when compared to other major league pitchers).

Jun 15, 2009 05:37 AM
rating: -4
 
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

Yes, but what else was he doing besides pitching in games. Drills, side sessions, etc all count, even if we don't get a tidy totalling.

Jun 15, 2009 07:25 AM
 
John Carter

Right. All of that may have worn him down if he was a bit out of shape from the winter.

Jun 15, 2009 19:21 PM
rating: 0
 
BurrRutledge

Liked the subject choice and the analysis. Thumbs up from me.

A suggestion on the graph - use a graph format that supports the conclusion you want people to take away from it:

a) If you want to show how he varies pitch speed pitch to pitch, you picked the right graph. A line graph connecting each pitch to the next gives emphasis to all the ups and downs.

b) If you want people to see the declining pitch speed over the course of the game, a scatter plot that eliminates all the ups and downs of the line graph would serve you better.

If you had a way to distinguish fastballs from other pitches, that's better stilll. Was pitch number 95 a fastball at 86 MPH, or was that a slider?

And, adding in a line to show "average velocity" of that fastball over the course of the game would be even better.

Please take this as constructive criticism for this week's submission and beyond. Overall a fine piece of work.

Jun 15, 2009 08:13 AM
rating: 1
 
sandriola

I liked the graph. Of course, I'm a frequent visitor to the source site of that graph, so I have seen a number of them.

I think the biggest thing to take away from the graph is the steep decline of the high points from beginning to end. That shows the decreasing pitch speed on his fastball very well.

Could a different graph have been better? Probably. However, I don't know Brian's knowledge with Excel or how much time he had to devote to creating a different graph with the existing data.

Thumbs up.

Jun 16, 2009 11:53 AM
rating: 0
 
gjhardy

Interesting article on an interesting player. Oddball note on Cecil's 4-HR start against the Red Sox: His groundout to flyout ratio was 10-0. So he still got a lot of groundballs, but everything hit in the air was not caught? I did not watch the game, but this stat jumped out at me when looking over the summary.

Jun 15, 2009 08:15 AM
rating: 1
 
Karl Barth

Thumbs up from me.

But that ending. "...he has the skills to be one of the premiere pitchers in baseball."

You just finished writing 2000 words demonstrating that he doesn't have the skills to be a premier guy. You quote KG, "...no wipeout offering...he'll always need a good defense..." You mention the scouting reports saying that he's got three OK pitches. His major skill is his exceptional ground ball rate.

I think you did a good job of showing that his ground ball stuff makes him an asset on a MLB staff. If that's your definition of premier, OK. But your little ending suggested, "Move over, Doc Halladay," and that just isn't there based on the article you wrote.

I really liked your article, so I'm picking nits. One last nit: it's "premier." The word you used means "opening night." :-)

Jun 15, 2009 08:49 AM
rating: 1
 
jlefty

He also spent a lot of words explaining how Cecil's expected era sh/w/c/ould be in the upper 3's.

Jun 15, 2009 09:47 AM
rating: 0
 
Brian Oakchunas

If he fulfills PECOTA's forecast of being one of the top 30 pitchers in baseball, I'd call that an ace.

Jun 15, 2009 09:59 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

He doesn't need to be an ace to be valuable to a team either, whether in fantasy baseball or in real life.

Jun 15, 2009 10:18 AM
rating: -3
 
Eric1G
(459)

There are some good things here, but the writing is inelegant. If you find yourself typing "we'll get to that later," you're probably doing something wrong.

Also, you discuss how much PECOTA likes Cecil early on, point out what's gone wrong, and then fail to bring it back around to PECOTA. Maybe that's just me, but despite saying you don't want the debate, you proceed to discuss PECOTA's optimism, then the scouting concerns, but you don't really reconcile them.

Good info about the stamina stuff, though. Last line seems like an inaccurate throwaway: "...one of the premiere pitchers in baseball." Really?

Jun 15, 2009 09:15 AM
rating: 1
 
G. Guest

There are several places where Brian mention what Scouts think but without any citation. In the third paragraph he starts mixing scouts with BP and BA. Is KG a scout? Sure, he knows his prospects and I eat up his MLU, 10 Pack and prospect rankings, but does that qualify as what scouts think?

This happens at least two more times in the article without any sort of supporting information. Overall, I'm left questioning the validity of some of the information and sources.

Jun 15, 2009 11:02 AM
rating: -2
 
rofldude

After reading most of the experts' comments regarding this article,it seems there were three principal components of the piece measured here: the subject, the tools used to analyse in the article, and the construct of the piece itself. For me, as a fan, what drew me to the piece was the subject, Brett Cecil. Let's be honest, most of the people who read BP or BA do so either because they're in the baseball industry, or they're involved in Rotis baseball. When I was reading the 2009 BP cover to cover in two days earlier this year, one of the items that really jumped out at me was Brett Cecil's PECOTA. To have it explained in such detail was great. I won't quibble about an imperfect graph or get annoyed with some repeated phrase---I'm just a baseball fan.

Jun 15, 2009 13:07 PM
rating: 2
 
John Kearns

Ditto, kenraty. Excellent choice of a topic and one of my reasons (though far from the only one) that I voted a thumbs-up.

I also just looked back at previous weeks and Brian is the only person I've voted for every time (also the only one I've voted for more than once, as I tend to be a bit stingy). Keep up the good work, Brian.

Jun 15, 2009 20:36 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Overall, I liked this article, and have liked the work Mr. Oakchunas has brought to the contest so far. As a Jays fan, I have been analyzing Cecil's performance this year fairly closely, and this article lost a few points by failing to mention perhaps the biggest (and fairly obvious) factor in Cecil's minor league stats this year: Home/Away splits.
The Blue Jays AAA team is in notorious hitter's haven, Las Vegas. Hopefully, the format shows up here - from www.minorleaguebaseball.com:
Home Games 1 3 6.39 5 5 0 0 0 25.1 30 21 18 0 13 12 3.13 .297
Away Games 0 1 4.60 3 3 0 0 0 15.2 15 11 8 1 5 13 1.36 .238

Small sample sizes, yes, but look at the opponent average, K/BB. IP/GS is about the same in each. Maybe Cecil simply struggles in bandboxes?

Jun 15, 2009 16:49 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

W L ERA G GS CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO GO/AO AVG
1 3 6.39 5 5 0 0 0 25.1 30 21 18 0 13 12 3.13 .297
0 1 4.60 3 3 0 0 0 15.2 15 11 8 1 5 13 1.36 .238

Maybe this is clearer

Jun 15, 2009 16:50 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

Content A-
Writing A-

Strong performance from Brian O. this week, Bravo. I learned some things and was entertained - no heavy eyelids. The entire article flowed nicely.

Yes, using the appropriate name conventions would be better.

I had to project in my head that the prospect rankings of BP and BA as to some degree scout based.

Those are valid, but very small quibbles.

The chart did not bother me, though. I LIKED IT! I thought it was interesting to see how all the pitches compared and changed over the course of the game.

Jun 15, 2009 19:30 PM
rating: 0
 
hessshaun

I loved the piece and I am hitch hiking.

Lose the "more on that later".

Jun 16, 2009 13:53 PM
rating: 0
 
lbjay

Regarding the Red Sox game, I watched this game and I don't remember him getting struck by a comebacker. What I *do* remember is Cecil doing a pretty harsh bellyflop while diving for a pop-up to the 3rd base side of the mound. He was able to shake it off, but started giving up the bombs soon after.

Jun 24, 2009 10:51 AM
rating: 0
 
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