Monday, February 09, 2015

Losing Ground

OSU baseball enters 2015 coming off of one its worst seasons in decades. The Buckeyes went 10-14 in the Big Ten, their worst record since 1987, a record fueled by a seven-game Big Ten losing streak (longest since 1987). Their 5-12 road record was the worst since 1972. In 1988, Bob Todd took over as Buckeye head coach and wasted little time in turning the program around, turning 1987’s 19-27 overall, 4-12 B10 record into a 32-28, 16-12 team. Todd would go on to reign over the program for 22 more seasons which served as the second golden age of OSU hardball (13 NCAA appearances, 13 seasons with either a Big Ten regular season or tournament title).

Unlike 1988, 2015 will not follow a dismal showing with a new regime. Todd’s replacement, Greg Beals, enters his fifth season at the helm and needs to turn things around in order to secure his long-term status as OSU coach. He will attempt to do so with a team that has elicited a wide range of preseason prognostications, one from which a sheer performance and player development track record does not appear to be impressive but which some observers insist has a surfeit of potential.

Beals has been fond of catcher platoons and has never given senior Aaron Gretz the job on a full-time basis despite him appearing to be the best option. Gretz will once again share time behind the plate with fellow senior Conor Sabanosh, a JUCO transfer in his second season as a Buck. Both hit fairly well last season and may get at bats at DH as well. Sophomore Jalen Washington and freshman Jordan McDonough will serve as depth.

First base is an open position and may see three juniors rotate through the spot: Zach Ratcliff, Mark Leffel, and Jacob Bosiokovic. Ratcliff is limited to first defensively, but Leffel also is capable of playing third and Bosiokovic will be an option in all four corners. Each has shown flashes of being productive hitters (Leffel more as a hitter for average, the other two for power potential), but none has clearly emerged to grab the spot.

Second base will go to junior Nick Sergakis. Sergakis transferred from Coastal Carolina prior to 2014 and started the season on the bench before an injury to shortstop Craig Nennig pushed him into the lineup. Sergakis was a revelation as one of the team’s most productive hitters (and lead off despite the team’s lowest walk rate). Nennig, a junior, should be back and will play short, but while his fielding draws rave reviews he has yet to demonstrate any ability to hit (.201/.295/.225 in about 190 career PA). Nennig’s offense will make sliding Sergakis back to short a tempting option for Beals.

At third base, junior Troy Kuhn will start. He spent most of 2014 as the second baseman before being displaced for Sergakis upon Nennig’s return. Kuhn was among the team’s most productive hitters and paced OSU with six longballs, so he will be a key part of the lineup again and could move back to second if Nennig struggles. In that case, Bosiokovic and Leffel could play third. The infield backups will include the aforementioned Washington (that rare catcher/second baseman) as well as sophomore L Grant Davis (a transfer from Arizona State) and freshman Nate Romans.

The outfield should be one of Ohio’s strengths. Sophomore left fielder Ronnie Dawson was as fun of a hitter to watch as OSU has had in years and was the team’s best hitter in 2014 (.337/.385/.454). Sophomore center fielder Troy Montgomery was highly touted but did not impress in his debut (.235/.297/.353). Senior right fielder Pat Porter (obligatory mention that he hails from my hometown) had a very disappointing season, but rebounded to have a strong summer campaign and will likely be penciled in as the #3 hitter. Bosiokovic can play either corner and junior Jake Brobst has served mostly as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement. A pair of freshman, Tre’ Gantt (a speedster from Indiana in the mold of Montgomery) and Ridge Winand will complete the depth chart. The DH spot will most likely be filled by the odd men out at catcher and first base.

OSU’s #1 starter, at least to open the season, will be sophomore Tanner Tully, the Big Ten freshman of the year in 2014. Tully’s smoke and mirrors act featured a vanishingly low walk rate (.7 W/9) and low K rate (5.3 K/9) which scream regression even in northern college baseball. Senior lefty Ryan Riga will look to bounce back from an injury-riddled campaign--he and Tully are fairly similar stylistically so it would not surprise to see them split up with Travis Lakins taking the #2 rotation spot. Lakins is a sophomore who should be the easy favorite to be the ace at the end of the season; his talents were wasted somewhat in the bullpen in 2014, fanning 9.0 per nine and leading the pitchers with +12 RAA. Lakins is draft-eligible and barring injury this should be his last season in Columbus.

Junior Jake Post is a 6-2 righty with decent stuff who has yet to find consistent effectiveness but would my bet would be that he will displace Riga or Tully by mid-season. Other starting options are lefty John Havrid, a JUCO transfer from Mesa Community College and freshman Jacob Niggemeyer, a 28th-round pick of the Cubs.

The bullpen will be anchored by senior slinger Trace Dempsey, who may well become OSU’s all-time saves leader but had a rough 2014 (-7 RAA) after a brilliant 2013 (+13). Dempsey’s control abandoned him last year, drawing comparisons to another erstwhile Buckeye closer, Rory Meister. Past Dempsey the bullpen work is largely up for grabs--Lakins was the star last year and will be starting. It is possible that a pitcher like Post could be used as the setup man, foregoing some mid-week wins for conference bullpen depth.

Otherwise, redshirt freshman Adam Niemeyer looks like the key setup man--his true freshman campaign was limited to just three appearances due to injury. Otherwise, I won’t even hazard to guess who will emerge out of the following possibilities other than to note that Beals allows tries to cultivate at least one lefty specialist in his pen:

RHP: Curtiss Irving (SM), Seth Kinker (FM), Brennan Milby (R-FM), Shea Murray (SM), Kyle Michalik (R-FM), Yianni Pavlopoulos (SM)
LHP: Michael Horejsei (JR), Matt Panek (JR), Joe Stoll (SM)

Beals appears to have instituted a shift in scheduling philosophy, opting for more weekend series over multi-team “classics”/pseudo-tournaments. The Buckeyes’ only of the latter will be this weekend as they face George Mason, St. Louis, and Pitt in the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte. Subsequent weekends will include three game series at Florida Atlantic, UAB, and Western Kentucky before the home opener March 10 against Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne.

The following weekend the Buckeyes will host Evansville for a three game series, Rider for a two-game mid-week series, and open Big Ten play March 20 hosting Michigan State. Subsequent weekends will see OSU at Rutgers, home to Penn State and UNLV (the latter non-conference of course), at Nebraska and Northwestern, home to Illinois and Maryland, and at Indiana. The mid-week slate will include home games against Toledo, Akron, Ohio University, Dayton, Kent State, Louisville, and Morehead State and trips to Miami, Cincinnati, and Youngstown State.

There is wide variety of opinion regarding OSU’s 2015 outlook. Perfect Game tabbed them as the #35 team in the country while Collegiate Baseball picks them tenth out of thirteen (with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers) in the Big Ten, which would see OSU miss the eight-team field for the Big Ten Tournament, to be held at Target Field May 21-24.

I tend to side much more closely to Collegiate Baseball’s view than Perfect Game’s. Aside from a second-place Big Ten finish in 2013, Beals’ teams have yet to live up to the hype that his recruiting has generated. Beals’ players do not seem to have developed according to expectations--in early years many of the key players were transfers rather than high school recruits, and there have yet to been many high producers among his high school crops, especially at the plate. And I have written many times about the horrific baserunning and other tactics employs by Beals. There are teams of fifth-graders that consistently make better decisions than Beals’ crew.

What has been particularly disturbing to watch as a fan of the program is that while the rest of the Big Ten has improved (Baseball America predicts that Illinois, Maryland, M*ch*g*n and Nebraska will all qualify for the NCAA Tournament, which would be a record for the conference), OSU has slid into irrelevancy--even with in the northern baseball picture. While Todd’s program was slipping from its heights near the end, he still managed to qualify for the NCAAs every other year. Beals has yet to make a NCAA Tournament appearance, and a sixth straight season (fifth under Beals) on the outside looking in would only extend OSU’s longest drought since 1983-1990 (once Todd led his team to a first tournament in 1991, he never again fell short in consecutive seasons). If OSU does not play up to the level of the optimists, then the program change that I would have liked to see after 2014 may be a fait accompli.

Monday, February 02, 2015

2014 Statistical Meanderings

This is an abridged and belated version of one of my standard annual posts, in which I poke around the statistical reports I put together here and identify items of curiosity. Curiosity is the key, as opposed to those that encompass analytic insight--any insight to be found is an accident.

* Since 1961, the ten teams with the largest differential between home and road W%:

And the ten largest ratios of HW% to RW%:

* One chart I always run in this piece is a table of runs above average on offense and defense for each playoff team. These are calculated very simply as park-adjusted runs per game less the league average:

It has not been at all uncommon for the average playoff team to be better offensively than defensively and such was the case in 2014. Two playoff teams had below-average offenses while four had below-average defenses, and the world champions had the worst defensive showing of the ten.

* You can’t turn around without reading about the continual rise in strikeouts. Unlike so many, I don’t consider the current strikeout rate to be aesthetically troublesome. But you can get a sense of how crazy strikeout rates have gotten by looking at the list of relievers who strike out ten or more batters per game (I define “game” in this case as a league average number of plate appearances, not innings pitched; eligible relievers are those with forty or more appearances and less than fifteen starts):

Al Alburquerque, Cody Allen, Aaron Barrett, Antonio Bastardo, Joaquin Benoit, Dellin Betances, Jerry Blevins, Brad Boxberger, Carlos Carrasco, Brett Cecil, Aroldis Chapman, Steve Cishek, Tyler Clippard, Wade Davis, Jake Diekman, Sean Doolittle, Zach Duke, Mike Dunn, Josh Edgin, Danny Farquhar, Josh Fields, Charlie Furbush, Ken Giles, Greg Holland, JJ Hoover, Kenley Jansen, Kevin Jepsen, Sean Kelley, Craig Kimbrel, Jack McGee, Andrew Miller, Pat Neshek, Darren O’Day, Joel Peralta, Oliver Perez, Yusmeiro Petit, Neil Ramirez, AJ Ramos, Addison Reed, David Robertson, Fernando Rodney, Francisco Rodriguez, Trevor Rosenthal, Tony Sipp, Will Smith, Joakin Soria, Pedro Strop, Koji Uehara, Nick Vincent, Jordan Walden, Tony Watson.

That’s 51 of the 189 eligible relievers (27%); lower the bar to nine strikeouts per game and it would be 82 (43%); at eight or more there are 110 for 58%.

The lowest-ranking NL reliever by RAR was Rex Brothers (-8), whose strikeout rate was 7.4. The second worst was JJ Hoover (-7), who struck out 10.4 per game. I am not a huge user of WPA metrics, but Hoover’s season was noteworthy for just how bad it was from that value perspective as he was involved in a few huge meltdowns. Per Fangraphs’ WPA figures, Hoover was second-to-last in the majors with -3.56 WPA; only Edwin Jackson at -4.11 was worse, and Jackson pitched 78 more innings. Even among position players, only Jackie Bradley (-4.00) and Matt Dominguez (-3.76 ranked lower). Brothers was the closest reliever to Hoover, but his WPA was -2.31, 1.35 wins better than Hoover.

The anti-Hoover was his teammate Aroldis Chapman, whose numbers over 54 innings are simply ridiculous, with a 19.3 strikeout rate. It’s difficult to fathom that a pitcher with a walk rate of 4.4 could have a RRA of 1.02, an eRA of 1.15, and a dRA of 1.32, but Chapman did and led narrowly missed leading major league relievers in eRA and dRA (Wade Davis had him by a more-than-insignificant 1.1466 to 1.1471 in the former).

* In 2010, the Giants won the World Series with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain combining to pitch 435 innings and compile 101 RAR. Over the last five years:

While the potential for starting pitcher ruin is well understood, if you’d told me in 2010 that the Giants would win the World Series in four years getting no contribution out of Lincecum and Cain, I would have thought that black magic was at work. It probably is.

* Speaking of bad starting pitchers, only two teams had multiple starters (who made fifteen or more starts) with negative RAR. The Cubs had two--Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson combined to start 58 games, pitch 314 innings, and compile -27 RAR. The Indians had three--Zach Allister, Josh Tomlin, and Justin Masterson combined to start 56 games, pitch 319 innings, and compile -25 RAR (figures do include Masterson’s time in St. Louis). Both of these teams may well be trendy picks to compete in the Central divisions, and this is a one reason that may make sense. The Cubs and Indians are taking different approaches to shore up the back end of their rotation, Chicago by bringing in an ace and a mid-rotation free agent and the Indians by counting on continued strong performances from young starters who stood out in the second half. Either approach figures to work out better than -25 RAR.

* Despite the poor CHN and CLE individual starters, there’ still nothing quite like Minnesota’s utter and complete starting pitcher futility. In 2012, they were last in starters’ eRA and second-to last in innings/start and QS%. In 2013, they completed the triple crown--last in IP/S (5.38), QS% (38%), and eRA (5.76). In 2014, they “improved” to their 2012 standings--second last in IP/S (5.64, COL starters weren’t far behind at 5.59), second last in QS% (41% to the Rangers’ 38%), and last in starter’s eRA (5.08, with Texas second at 4.95).

* Clayton Kershaw had a great season, and was a reasonable choice as NL MVP. I’m not trying to run him down--but there is some notion out there that he had a transcendent season. I think this notion can be tempered by simply comparing his rate stats to those of Jake Arrieta:

Kershaw was better overall than Arrieta, and pitched 42 more innings. But no one should confuse Kershaw 2014 with Pedro 1999 or anything of the sort.

* One of these starting pitchers is now forever known as a clutch pitcher, a modern marvel who harkens back to the days of Gibson and Morris and whoever else has been chosen for lionization. The other is an underachieving
prima donna who Ron Darling thinks is "struggling" as a major league starter. Their regular season performances were hardly distinguishable:

Madison Bumgarner and Stephen Strasburg.

* Cole Hamels was fourth among NL starting pitchers with 55 RAR, but won just nine games. This has to be one of the better pitcher seasons in recent years with single digit wins. Through the last decade of my RAR figures, here is the highest-ranking starter in each league with single digit wins:

This is an interesting collection of names--a number of outstanding pitchers and some who I hadn’t thought about in years (John Patterson, the late Joe Kennedy and Geremi Gonzalez). Since this comparison is across league-seasons, in order to rank these seasons it is necessary to convert RAR to WAR. Using RPW = RPG, Hamels’ 2014 actually ranks highest with 7.0 WAR (Harvey 6.9, Schilling 6.7, Jennings 5.9) since the 2014 NL had the lowest RPG (7.9) of any league during the period. Given that the likelihood of a starter having an outstanding season with fewer than ten wins is greater now than at any point in major league history, it’s quite possible that Hamels’ 2014 is the best such season. Sounds like a good Play Index query if you’re looking for an article idea.

* The worst hitter in baseball with more than 400 plate appearances was Jackie Bradley (2.2 RG). The Red Sox have collected a large collection of outfielders and Bradley is unlikely to be in their plans. The second-worst hitter with more than 400 PA was Zack Cozart (2.5 RG). His team traded for a young shortstop who had 3.4 RG in 266 PA (granted, Eugenio Suarez does not appear to be the fielder that Cozart is), yet Walt Jocketty was quoted as saying "Cozart is our opening day shortstop and he’s one of the best in the league."

In addition to Cozart, the Reds featured three other hitters with 250+ who were essentially replacement-level: Chris Heisey (3.4 RG for a corner outfielder), Bryan Pena (3.3 for a first baseman), and Skip Schumaker (2.9 for a corner outfielder).

* San Diego liked Justin Upton (or Matt Kemp?) so much that they traded for two clones of the same player (in 2014 performance, at least):

* Many hands have been wrung regarding the apparent shift in Mike Trout’s game to old player skills rather than young player skills, particularly with the dropoff in his base stealing exploits (54 attempts in 2012 to 40 in 2013 to 18 in 2014). Yet it should still be noted that Trout ranked fifth in the AL with a 7.2 Speed Score (I use Bill James’ original formula but only consider stolen base frequency, stolen base percentage, triples rate, and runs scored per time on base). In fact, his Speed Score was up from 2013 (7.0) although down from 2012 (8.7). Here are Trout’s three-year figures in each of the four components of Speed Score:

Just to make clear what these numbers represent, Trout attempted a steal in 29.3% of his times on first base (singles plus walks) in 2012, had a 85.2% SB% when adding three steals and four caught stealings to his actual figures, hit a triple on 2.1% of his balls in play, and scored 45.2% of the time he reached base. (These are all estimated based on his basic stat line as opposed to counting actual times on first base or attempted steals of second, etc.)

While these categories certainly don’t capture the full picture of how speed manifests itself in on-field results, it is clear that Trout has been dialing back the most visible such part of his game, basestealing. And his 2014 SS rebound is due to two categories that are subject to more flukes (triples) and teammate influence (runs scored per time on base). Still, it may be a little early to sound the alarm bells on Trout as a one-dimensional slugger. Eventually, the sabermetric writers who have developed a cottage industry of Trout alarmism will be right about something, but there’s no need to prematurely indulge them.

Meanwhile, Bryce Harper’s Speed Scores for 2012-14 are 7.5, 4.9, 2.7.