Will Ian Kennedy Be The Odd Man Out In Arizona?Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Ian Kennedy cut his finger recently while washing dishes. As a result, Tyler Skaggs got the start in the early game of Monday’s Memorial Day twinbill against the Rangers, and he acquitted himself quite well. The start threw into sharp relief just how necessary Kennedy is to the Dbacks plans, both current and future. As we move further away from his breakout season, it is fair to wonder — is Kennedy about to be the odd man out in the Arizona rotation?
First, let’s take a look from a performance perspective. Pick your metric of choice, chances are Kennedy has been among the worst, or the worst, among Dbacks starting pitchers. The rotation has performed splendidly so far — its 90 FIP- ranks fifth in all of baseball, and second in the National League. But in the early going, Kennedy has not helped the cause all that much. He’s tied for the team lead in walk percentage with Trevor Cahill. He’s generating fewer ground balls than the rest of his teammates by a wide margin, which isn’t necessarily a big deal in a vacuum since the Dbacks sport a great outfield defense. However, the more fly balls one allows, the more likely one will be hit in the direction of Jason Kubel and his balky quad, and the ending to that story is probably not a happy one for Dbacks watchers. Of course, not all of the fly balls that he allows land in the field of play. Kennedy has also allowed homers at a rate higher than that of his fellow rotation mates, and is the only member of the rotation whose HR/FB is not better than average.
Kennedy hasn’t shown poorly just in relation to his teammates, but to himself as well. One of the big reasons for his breakout in 2011 was that he upped his strikeout rate just enough and lowered his walk rate just enough to have some pretty fantastic margins. His strikeout percentage was 24th that year among qualified pitchers, and his walk rate was 26th, but his K%-BB% clocked in at 19th-best. Still, the lack of domination with either rate meant that Kennedy’s margins were thin, and they remain that way today. As Kennedy’s K%-BB% has backslid — to 14.7% last year and 10.2% this year — so has his effectiveness. His 10.2% this year actually ranks ahead of Cahill and Wade Miley, but they have been better at keeping runs off the board than has Kennedy, likely thanks to their ability to generate ground balls more frequently.
When we’re looking at a team’s makeup, there are other factors at play as well, and payroll concerns are a big one. The Dbacks had no hesitation about trading for Cahill and his beefy contract, nor in signing McCarthy to a similar deal in free agency. But Kennedy, who is represented by the Boras Corporation, came up for arbitration last year, and he did not sign a long-term deal. He was open to one in March of 2012, so the team changed its mind, he changed his mind, or he was simply being polite. No matter the reasoning, he is progressing year to year, as many of Scott Boras’ clients are wont to do. And thanks to his large arbitration award the first time through, he stands to get a nice raise each time through, provided he stays healthy and in the rotation. A conservative estimate would put his salary for 2014 at $6 million, but there’s a good chance he does better than that.
A $6 million salary isn’t prohibitive of course, but for a team which is unlikely to raise the salary bar very much past where it already is, the team may need to re-evaluate how much they spend on their soft-tossing righty. Especially since Corbin, Miley, Skaggs, Daniel Hudson and Archie Bradley are all still in the “dirt cheap” bin. Hudson may become eligible for arbitration this winter, but thanks to his year spent on the disabled list, it’s unlikely that he’ll net a raise anywhere near what Kennedy received. It’d be one thing if Kennedy was still the dominating force in the Dbacks rotation, but that is no longer the case. Furthermore, it’s about more than the money. More and more, teams are trying to lock up players early. The fact that the Dbacks did not look to lock up Kennedy is as much a statement as locking him up would have been.
Now, admittedly, it’s still early. Kennedy could run off a three-four start streak and get back to where he should be, and Corbin probably isn’t as good as he has pitched thus far. Still, push is going to eventually come to shove in the Arizona rotation. Skaggs is going to be knocking on the door, and Hudson is also going to need a spot when he returns from injury. At the outset of the season, you would have pegged Corbin to lose his spot, but that’s not happening now. Cahill has his friendly long-term deal keeping him in the fold, and while McCarthy may be a trade candidate given the short commitment on the books to him, his injury and performance history taken in tandem make it unlikely that the team will get a good return on him.
There is only so long that the team will be able to keep Bradley and Skaggs on the farm, and that still hasn’t taken Hudson into account. Kennedy has started the last two opening days for Arizona, but there are about to be more starting pitchers than starting rotation slots, and if Kennedy keeps pitching the way he may find himself elsewhere.
Austin Wilson Is Not Only All About Tools.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Watch Austin Wilson do anything on the field and you’re struck by his athleticism. Six-foot-five, 244 pounds of muscle, he glides across center field in the Sunken Diamond on defense. During batting practice, no bat makes a more satisfying sound than his.
But with parents that hold multiple degrees from MIT, Harvard and Stanford, obviously the Stanford center fielder is more than a collection of high-end body parts. In fact, his makeup could go a long way toward smoothing out the wrinkles in his game as he proceeds to the professional leagues. It has already helped.
There’s the inevitable question from anyone that takes a long look at Wilson’s statistics. Where are the home runs? He’s hit five this year, which seems like a small number from such a big man.
“I don’t care about that crap,” said Wilson to me when I brought it up.
When pushed, he thought it was just the number of at-bats. Because of a stress reaction in his elbow, Wilson was limited to 118 at-bats this year for Stanford, which ranked ninth on the team. And, considering he’s more worried about winning games, the fact that his .475 slugging percentage was third on the team should prove he’s no weakling.
Power is down around college baseball, of course. Kris Bryant notwithstanding, the new BBCOR bats have taken some of the sting out of the ball. On purpose, but the fact remains. And yet Wilson just came off a summer season in the Cape Cod League that saw him use a wooden bat to hit .312 with a .623 slugging percentage and six home runs in 77 at-bats. Is the college bat worse than wood? Others have said it before. Wilson says maybe, but there’s more nuance to it — “With the BBCOR bats, you can kind of get jammed and get a hit, as opposed to wood where the bat breaks off at the handle. But when you screw up a ball with wood I think it goes farther then the BBCORs do.”
Every hitter has their own battles as they try to get the most production out of their inherent skills. Usually, for a hitter, that’s about working on your swing and your ability to recognize pitches. But ask Wilson about the coaching he’s received on his game, and he might surprise you with his answers. He credits Matt LaCour at Harvard Westlake for much of his approach, and LaCour’s former assistant Junior Brignac for helping him play better defense in the outfield.
College has mostly been about facing great pitching, and finding consistency: “I wouldn’t say it helped me in terms of mechanics, but just in terms of competition.” Contacted at Harvard Westlake, LaCour agreed that facing more pitching will be huge for Wilson as he heads to the pros. LaCour pointed out that Wilson played less than most kids his age, since he didn’t do travel ball, but that “he obviously takes studying the game seriously” and all those at-bats in the pros will do him wonders.
So it sounds like Wilson’s swing is a personal thing that he’s always working on refining. What sort of things does he think about when he stands into the box? “Simplify it, using my hands. I’m a big strong guy, so if I can use my hands consistently, that helps put good a good trajectory on the ball, with backspin. I’m working on a downward plane so the ball just jumps.”
One anecdote might put this all into focus. After his first effort at Stanford, there was a bit of concern about Wilson’s ability to lay off breaking pitches on the outside part of the plate. A 27.7% strikeout rate was too high for the college game, even for a power hitter. Wilson worked hard to better that part of his game on a day-to-day basis, shrinking his strikeout rate to 16.7% last year. But then his elbow injury was a blessing in disguise: When Wilson couldn’t swing, he took the initiative to stand in on bullpen sessions and watch Stanford’s staff spin what they had.
It’s a page out of The Book of Hitting by Manny Ramirez — the slugger used to take pitches in batting practice, even — but it was a great piece of practice for Wilson, and it was a no-brainer for him. “I knew I had to somehow keep my baseball skills up, so I stood in on bullpens,” he said with what was almost a shrug. It was “about the eye, and see the spinning on pitches, and obviously breaking balls are a component of that. That helped me read pitches better.” Wilson’s strikeout rate shrunk down all the way to 13.1% this year.
Makeup is not only about a player taking the initiative to improve on their own. Some component is how the player deals with the ups and downs of baseball. Ask Wilson about why he was so good on the Cape his second time around, and you hear that he didn’t get too excited about it: “I didn’t know what to expect the first time — it was my first time swinging wood consistently, but it felt pretty good the second time around.” Ditto when you ask him about the hubub that surrounds him as the draft approaches: “In high school I had to go through that process already and that was more nerve-wracking back then because I was 17 and a lot of people were coming to watch me play. Now I’m just used to it. And I’ve accepted failure because in baseball you fail seven out of ten times.”
Wilson has no regrets when it comes to his past, either. “I’ve come to Stanford, and there’s no money value that can compensate for the Stanford degree,” he told me. And he used his time on the farm well, focusing on simplicity and consistency in his game. Even when his prodigious athleticism couldn’t shine due to injury, he spent his time learning and improving in any way that he could. Here’s a bet that approach will serve him well in the big leagues.
When Stars And Scrubs Doesn’t Work.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The Milwaukee Brewers have two of the top ten players in WAR, and neither of them is named Ryan Braun. Carlos Gomez (+3.2 WAR, #1) and Jean Segura (+2.5 WAR, #9) have been revelations for the Brewers, while Braun has been his usual dominant self, putting up +1.9 WAR with his usual brand of excellence. Toss in a strong performance from the underrated Norichika Aoki and 78 terrific plate appearances from the occasionally healthy Aramis Ramirez, and the top end of the Brewers line-up has been as good as any in baseball. For context, here is the total combined line for Gomes, Segura, Braun, Aoki, and Ramirez:
Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Fld BsR WAR
Big Five 875 0.323 0.384 0.532 0.393 153 6.2 -2.3 8.7
That’s a stellar performance. For comparison, here’s how that stacks up against the “Big Five” from the Cincinnati Reds, a team that has scored 245 runs, second in the NL only to the Colorado Rockies.
Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Fld BsR WAR
Reds Big Five 1110 0.287 0.381 0.485 0.371 136 2.2 1.2 8.3
Even with injuries limiting the amount of playing time that Ramirez (and Braun, to a lesser extent) have gotten, the Brewers top tier players have outperformed the Reds group overall, and have hit significantly better than Cincinatti’s quintet, even though both Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto have also been fantastic this year.
But, as we near the beginning of June, the Brewers have scored just 196 runs and their position players have just a 103 wRC+, 14th best in baseball. Because, here’s what the hitters on the Brewers beyond the Big Five have done.
Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Fld BsR WAR
Everyone Else 855 0.200 0.256 0.304 0.249 52 -10 -0.6 -3.3
There are 10 players in that group — including regulars Yuniesky Betancourt, Jonathan Lucroy, Rickie Weeks, and Alex Gonzalez, plus every reserve the team has used — and they’ve combined to hit almost exactly as often as the Brewers best hitters. The best offensive performance by anyone in that group belongs to Betancourt, who has a 78 wRC+. All 10 of the players in that group have either been exactly at replacement level or below.
A graph of the Brewers position players performance shows the distinctions.
Ramirez’s poor defense and lack of playing time have made him the team’s only position player with a WAR between +0 and +1.0. Every other player has either been excellent or terrible. There’s no middle ground here. This is the clearest example we’ve seen in some time of how a true stars and scrubs team would do. And the answer is not particularly well.
Granted, the Brewers scrubs have been worse than you could reasonably expect anyone’s scrubs to be, but their stars are also performing at an extraordinarily high level as well. Even if you regress the Brewers scrubs back towards replacement level, you have to do the same for guys on the high end, and then the adjustments mostly cancel out. No matter what we’ve been told, a few great players simply cannot carry a bunch of terrible ones to success. The great performance of a few just cannot overcome the brutal performance of the many.
I know it’s probably old hat for most FanGraphs readers by this point, but every roster spot matters. The down-roster role players count too. Major League Baseball is not a sport where star performance wins. It is a sport where even the best single player in the game doesn’t make that much of a difference. The Brewers, by 2013 performance, have had three of the very best hitters in baseball, and they still have an average offense and are headed for the top ten in next summer’s draft.
What separates a good team from a bad team is often not the quality at the top of the roster, but the quality at the bottom of the roster. The Brewers have some really good pieces, but they also have more dreck than just about anyone besides the Astros and Marlins. And that kind of roster construction just doesn’t really work in this sport.
De-Lucking Team Offenses.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
If you are similar to me, then you spend more than a trivial amount of time on the teams leaderboard page. I find myself sorting the wRC+ column for my daily Ottoneu, The Game, and game preview needs. But, like a suspicious man at a bus stop, BABIP lurks just a few columns away. It haunts my well-crafted insults hurtled brazenly towards the Miami Marlins from the comfortable solitude of my home office.
I have spent the past year or two studying BABIP, in part because it has shown the power to unlock a fielding independent hitting metric I so cleverly and regrettably titled ShH or Should Hit. But other than confusing friends during spoken conversation, Should Hit can also regress offensive production based on four simple factors: walks, strikeouts, home runs, and BABIP.
We have previously employed ShH and its stepchild, the De-Lucker X (DLX), to regress players according to their previous performances. But now, let us throw whole teams into the De-Lucker vat. It will be great opportunity to kick the already over-kicked Marlins — as well as offer uncommon accolades for the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres lineups.
One of the historical problems of the DLX has been that massive, hairy catchall, BABIP. Its only role in ShH is to cancel itself out, essentially. That’s why DLX uses xBABIP instead of BABIP. But xBABIPs, especially ones based on batted-ball data, are unreliable. My preference has long been to use career BABIPs instead of xBABIPs, but BABIP talent changes over a career (ask Ichiro Suzuki).
We need to make two major assumptions: (1) ballparks affect BABIP and (2) teams will maintain certain BABIP patterns over periods lasting multiple years.
The first assumption is easy, but still a forgettable concept. We know Coors Field increases homerun rates, but tend to forget it also has higher single and double rates too. Likewise, it easy to forget how Tropicana Field, with the second-largest foul territory in the league, suppresses singles and doubles.
Consider the BABIPs of teams home and away over the preceding three seasons:
With this graphic here, I think we are seeing multiple effects on BABIP. With Home BABIP, we are seeing mostly park effects. With the blue Away BABIP, we are seeing organizational preferences, as well as a little bit of divisional park factors.
For instance, the Seattle Mariners have low BABIPs both at home and on the road. This may be a component of playing a large amount of away games in Anaheim and Oakland, but they also play in Arlington, where BABIP is encouraged. I think we can attribute at least a good portion of that low away BABIP on their decisions to funnel significant playing to Justin Smoak (career .262 BABIP), Brendan Ryan (.283 BABIP), and Dustin Ackley (.285 BABIP). The Mariners have shown a lower threshold of acceptable BABIP levels than, say, the Brewers or Marlins.
Maybe the Mariners’ particularly BABIP lull is due to a Mariners-strength streak of terrible luck. But the Cubs — who also assembled some rough offenses during that period — clearly had an organizational predisposition towards high BABIPs. And though the franchise is in new hands, many of those same types of players remain from the previous regime.
If we solder these two major assumptions together with the DLX, we can create two fun regressed numbers — defined for the purposes of the coming visualization:
DLX: This is my De-Lucker X put to super overdrive. I am using the BB% and K% from 2013, but the HR% and BABIP are coming from 2010 through 2012. (Because home run rates can suffer from clustering effects not unlike BABIP fluctuations, I have included DLX as an alternative to the more basic DLX1.)
DLX1: This is the same as DLX, except using home run rates from 2013.
wRC+: Both DLX wRC+ and DLX1 wRC+ were made using some basic cross multiplication (as in: wRC+ / wOBA = x / DLX, solve for x). This is a quick and dirty method, but it saves me from having to attribute park factors and such. For my dark cross-multiplication purposes, I used the 2013 wRC+ and wOBA ratios.
Key: The black lines represent the team’s actual present wRC+. The green bars represent their DLX or DLX1, as noted.
Learn About TableauSome takeaways:
• The Marlins have hit beneath what we expect from their historical BABIPs, but they are also in a different stadium. Their team BABIP in 2012, their first year in the new stadium, was indeed lower than it was in ol’ Something Something Stadium, but their present .265 BABIP is far lower than what we should expect moving forward.
That said… Using both their historical home run rates (74 DLX) and their present home run rates (71 DLX1), the future looks grim for the Marlins, barring a major personnel or luck shift.
• According to historical home run rates, the Giants (110 DLX), the Padres (108 DLX), and the Rays (108 DLX) have the league’s best offenses. If we use present home run rates, the Tigers (108 DLX1), the Orioles (108 DLX1), and the Indians (107 DLX1) rank Tops Banane.
• The Indians receive the most abuse from DLX, dropping 12 points of offense. The Braves were second with 9 points lost. The Marlins gained the most, going up 9 points. The Royals gained 8.
• DLX1 added 7 points of offense to the White Sox. The next closest were the Marlins and Nationals with 6 points. The Indians (-6) and Red Sox (-6) were hurt the most.
• There’s almost no way the Nationals are as bad offensively as their 2013 offering, but their current BB% and K% suggests they need a new approach or new, more effective personnel if they hope to crack league average on offense.
• Concerning surprises, is anyone surprised the Rays (108 wRC+, 108 DLX, 105 DLX1) are among the best offenses in the league? I’m not. (WOODRUM OUT.)