Hot Sports Take: Puig Won’t Mess With Someone Bigger

Yasiel Puig showed us something today, showed all of us something. The Dodgers and the Giants squared off for control of the division now that the last week of the season has begun. After being struck by pitcher Peavy yesterday, Puig was plunked in the first inning of today’s game by the domineering San Francisco ace Madison Bumgarner.

Sure, the benches cleared, and the bullpens made a show of trotting across the grass—but that’s all it was: a show. Puig put on a show, and it was all bark, no bite. Pray imagine why Puig sat on the ground for 4.5 seconds (it’s okay, I timed it) before finally getting up—not to charge the mound, but to yap yap yap with his mouth. He was practically yelling “Hold me back!” Lucky for him, the home plate umpire obliged. Because otherwise, we would have had to tango with Bumgarner, a real country sonbitch, a burly confederate colonel who is as big as he is mean.

Bumgarner tossed his glove to the side and yelled, “Let’s go!”

Yasiel Puig replied, “Yeah, let’s go… to first base!” as he let Don Mattingly guide him tenderly toward the bag.

Puig knew he was doomed from the start. Bumgarner is one of the few major leaguers as competitive as Puig is, and he’s one of fewer who’s actually bigger than him as well. But a man as fiery as Puig purports to be shouldn’t care about the odds. His passion turned out to be for show. Bumgarner, who cranked a home run on an 0-2 curveball later in the game, actually does have that inner flame, and he could spot a craven from 60 feet away. Enough with Puig, already.

How could a guy who doesn’t even respect himself truly respect the game? #nocaptainmycaptain

Shades of Blue: Comparing the Dodgers with the Best of the National League

In the West, Los Angeles leads San Francisco by 4.5 games; in the East, Washington has opened up a six-game lead on Atlanta; in the Central, Milwaukee sits three games above its closest competitor. It is likely that all three of the current division leaders will make the playoffs, most of all the Nationals, who have the weakest competition in their division. (The Brewers, on the other hand, are in a four-team race for the Central, so a bad stretch could send them tumbling all the way out of even the wild card spots. Even so, ESPN gives the Brewers an 89% chance to advance.) Given the likelihood of October baseball for these clubs, I wanted to give myself a quick primer on their relative strengths and weaknesses. The Nationals have the best record, the Dodgers the most star power and the Brewers the most balanced lineup. Only one can represent the National League in the World Series, but which is best prepared?

I like to start by comparing team statistics before looking at individual players. Let’s start with hitting. All stats hereafter are through Friday.

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I’ve tried to pare it down the essentials: runs, the triple-slash stuff, home runs, stolen bases and weighted Runs Created Plus, which neutralizes for park and league factors before spitting out a normalized rate statistic where 100 is average and every point above or below is one percentage point removed from average. So we see here that wRC+ rates only the Dodgers as an above-average offensive ballclub–the Brewers have scored more runs, but Miller Park has been conducive to more home runs than the average NL park over the years (18% more, by one calculation). The Brewers’ big advantage here is their slugging, and while Miller Park shouldn’t be credited for all the difference, its effect must be noted.

Los Angeles has a huge lead in stolen bases over Washington and Milwaukee, a lead for which Dee Gordon could be held entirely accountable. Gordon has 56 steals and with just 10 more the rest of the way he will match his career total. He has more steals than seven teams. No one else on the Dodgers has swiped more than 20 bags. The Nats and Brewers each have one player with more than 20 steals: respectively, Denard Span (25) and Carlos Gomez (27). Gordon is on pace for the most steals since Juan Pierre’s 68 in 2010. The last person to get to 70 was Jacoby Ellsbury in 2009. Gordon’s rare season has been a great boon to the Dodgers, settling the matter of who will be the everyday second baseman (which might have been Cuban rookie Alex Guerrero if he had fielded better in spring training) in such a way as to turn a weakness into a strength.

The Dodgers just plop Gordon atop the lineup and let him do his thing; he leads the team in plate appearances. He does not compare favorably to the PA leaders in Washington or Milwaukee. Below I’ve arranged a listing of the nine players with the most plate appearances on these three teams. They are listed from most PAs down to ninth-most, though to keep it simple I’ve omitted the actual number of PAs each player has. Instead, I’ve provided that player’s Wins Above Replacement figure with the intent of showing each team’s depth. Below the ninth player is a cumulative bench WAR. For that I added the WARs of each remaining player who had at least 50 plate appearances.

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The Nationals don’t have any bums in their top nine, but beyond that they are faced with a precarious lack of talent. Danny Espinosa stopped being a good hitter two years ago, but his fielding is slick enough to make him a passable option. Every team has a weak link, many worse than Espinosa. Even so, Washington recently addressed the issue by trading for Asdrubal Cabrera, who in ~50 plate appearances has an OBP higher than Espinosa’s slugging percentage.

Only the criminally insane think Bryce Harper is really as bad as this chart suggests. He will snap out of this funk soon, whatever the cause might have been.

Perhaps it is cosmic justice that the three Dodgers outfielders who get paid the most have been the three worst outfielders on the team. Yasiel Puig (7 years, $42 million) is a star and the only everyday player of the bunch. Scott Van Slyke (league minimum) is a big reason that bench WAR is so impressive. Dude straight crushes left-handed pitching (.627 slugging percentage against, and seven of his nine home runs this year). That’s good for LA because neither Andre Ethier (5 y, $85 mil) nor Carl Crawford (7 y, $142 mil) are any good versus southpaws. So Van Slyke has forced his way into the lineup whenever the Dodgers face a lefty, and in those games the outfield poses a formidable threat; right-handed Matt Kemp (8 y, $160 mil) is once again hitting like a champ, but his defense–never something to write home about–is now such a liability that the team has flirted with Puig in center. Neither has the range to cover the hardest outfield position, and Van Slyke is probably the best option defensively. But you saw the salaries, so you know why that can’t be the case every day.

Two years ago A.J. Ellis hit 13 home runs with an OBP of .373. Quietly he was one of the most productive catchers in the game, a right-handed John Jaso with a little more power. His OBP is still above-average (.322), but his batting average this season is below the Mendoza Line, causing him to lose more and more time to Drew Butera, who can’t really hit either. Ellis has seen his batting average on balls in play dip from .329 in 2012 to .269 last year, cratering this year at .230. It won’t last!, you say, but those BABIPs have fallen in tandem with his line-drive rate (22.9 to 18.7 to 16.3%), so don’t write it off as a fluke.

As noted earlier, the Brewers have demonstrated the most balance throughout the lineup. Jean Segura has a pathetic OBP and slugging, but he’s the only regular to be hitting poorly. By this point Lyle Overbay has lost all chance at an equitable platoon with Mark Reynolds at first. If you aren’t yet acquainted with Scooter Gennett, get on the bandwagon now before it ceases to be cool. This second-year second baseman has vaulted himself near the top of the league in offensive productivity at his position. He has only 600 plate appearances in his career, but his peripherals remained consistent from last year into this year, and he’s only 24 years old. Along with Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy, Gennett is a key part of the Brewers’ future. With three such talents up the middle of the diamond, Milwaukee fans are rather spoiled.

***

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Here we have the fielding portion of the article. It will be brief because without extensive scouting it’s hard to distinguish these teams. You can see errors and unearned runs (UER) are nearly identical. No clues there. Defensive Runs Saved, same story. The Dodgers have turns a shitload more double plays, but the huge discrepancy doesn’t seem to help them by any metric. Ultimate Zone Rating (normalized to 150 games) pegs the Nats and Brewers as above-average and the Dodgers below. Fielding data miners InsideEdge classify all balls in play by their likelihood of being converted into an out. One such classification is 40-60%–i.e., balls that are basically a coin flip. The row I’ve titled Borderline% signifies the percentage of those coin-flip balls each team turned into outs. For some reason the average for National League teams is above 50% by several points, but whatever, we’ll only use these figures in comparison with each other. In such a comparison, the Dodgers flounder. No other metric is as harsh on them.

I’ve gone over the problems in the outfield: Los Angeles has no true center fielder. You move Puig to center and you lose a killer arm in right. Crawford in left is unspectacular, his arm a floppy fish. Dee Gordon is out of position at second base and Hanley Ramirez at short was never known for his range. Juan Uribe has a cannon at third but how well can he move around out there when he’s 35 years old and has an ass like an overstuffed piñata? At least Adrian Gonzalez knows how to pick it at first base, with an all-around smoothness that allows the right fielder to play off the line a bit.

***

pitchingcomp

We come to pitching, what many consider the key to postseason success. I’ve split up runs allowed between each teams’ starters and relievers. Washington is blessed with both; the Dodgers have at least a rotation to match; the Brewers are seriously lagging. Washington’s figures for walks and home runs allowed are truly outstanding, the latter even more so considering they don’t keep the ball on the ground as much as the average team does. (Milwaukee’s groundball percentage is right in line with league average.) Let’s check their starters individually.

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All three teams have outsourced 10 or so starts to pitchers outside their typical rotation. For the Nats, that means five good starts frmo Blake Treinen and some not so good starts from Taylor Jordan. They are irrelevant to the playoffs, however, so let’s talk about the top guys.

Once October rolls around I imagine Doug Fister will be the one sent to the bullpen. Generally managers prefer veterans to youngsters, but Fister’s rival for the fourth spot, Tanner Roark, has simply pitched too well. After shutting their best pitcher down two years ago, expect the Nats to compensate this year by selecting for talent over experience. That means Gio Gonzalez probably gets the start over Fister, despite his bloated ERA. Gonzalez is a strikeout-per-inning guy and starters like that are hard to come by.

Stephen Strasburg, the aforementioned best pitcher, is underperforming his talent a little but could match up with anyone else in the league. Jordan Zimmermann has been one of the steadiest starters of the last few years. Top-to-bottom they are as well-equipped as any team in the NL.

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Well, except maybe these guys. Having Clayton Kershaw compared to any other top pitcher is like having an ace of the highest suit: nominally similar to other aces, but it trumps them anyway. Look at his stats again before you read the next sentence. The Kershaw Bump is not enough to combat all of Washington’s depth, however. For that, the Dodgers have Zack Greinke, pitching again like the Greinke of ol’ Kansas City (his strikeout-to-walk ratio is actually better than it was when he won the AL Cy Young in 2009). And not only Greinke, but two-time World Series champion Josh Beckett–who before the season inked a contract with the Devil–and Korean stud Hyun-Jin Ryu, the most under-appreciated starter in the game. Here‘s Ryu sandwiched between Cliff Lee and Jordan Zimmermann on the ERA leaderboard covering the last two seasons (Ryu’s only seasons in the majors). Ryu is overshadowed by his teammates, and the language barrier certainly doesn’t help him gain national recognition, so here’s a quick primer. His cheeks are among the chunkiest in the modern era, and his ass cheeks just landed him on the DL for a few weeks. He’ll be back for the playoffs.

Poor Paul Maholm got stuck right beneath Kershaw, making his bad stats look so so much worse. He might prove useful in long relief, but he’ll have to earn it, because the Dodgers just got what’s-his-name from the Phillies.

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Milwaukee clearly lacks the talent of the other two teams, though they’ve filled out their rotation quite nicely with free agents Lohse and Garza. No one is a strikeout-per-inning guy, no one has an ERA under 3.00. Wily Peralta combines elite velocity with a great groundball rate, but he walks a lot of dudes. They all walk a lot of dudes, and they all (except Garza) give up home runs more than you’d like, even accounting for the disadvantage of Miller Park. Three of the 10 pitchers who have given up the most home runs in the NL play for Milwaukee, and Yovani Gallardo is 20th on that list. Marco Estrada leads the league, but at least he would be cut from the playoff rotation.

It would take far too long to talk about all the bullpen pitchers, so let me cram that into one paragraph here before giving you all the stats below. I still believe LA’s Kenley Jansen is up there with Chapman and Kimbrel as one of the best relievers today, but Tyler Clippard on the Nationals isn’t far behind. The problem for Kenley and the Dodgers is that the guys before him can’t be trusted. Their bullpen has five guys with at least 20 walks, whereas Washington’s have zero, all with a comparable number of innings pitched. Washington is moreover stacked with flamethrowers–or, at least, no one pussyfoots around at 89 mph. However, the Nats seem to be bucking the trend toward groundball guys, which is interesting if nothing else. Milwaukee’s bullpen has three guys on whom you can rely, and they are the guys with the most appearances on the season, which makes them better than the Dodgers. Enjoy the stats, everyone. I think after all this I remain convinced the Nationals are the best team in the National League. Their biggest advantage over the Dodgers is in the bullpen.

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Robinson Cano Powers Mariners Without Power (July Player of the Month)

Cano in July: 24 G, 108 PA, 34 H, 1 HR, 8 R, 11 RBI, 11 BB, 11 K, 3 SB, .354/.426/.490

Robinson Cano lost out on a lot of home runs when he moved from Yankee Stadium to Safeco. He has only nine so far in 2014, and the ZIPS projection system has him on pace for 14, which would be tied for the lowest season total of his career. Nevertheless, he remains as productive as ever. Already he has more steals than ever before, with nine! And his on-base percentage has found a new peak as well: .398 as of this writing (previous high: .383 last year). Cano has more plate appearances and talent than any other Mariners hitter, to the point that Seattle would not be in the playoff picture without him. In other words, he is doing just what they paid him $24 million to do. (Worry about the final nine years of his contract some other time, will you?)

In July, his best month as a Mariner, Cano scored 8 runs and drove in 11–credit him for 18 runs as a result, since when he hit that one home run, Cano himself counted as both a run and an RBI. The Mariners as a team scored 73 runs in July, by far the fewest in the American League. Cano’s 18 runs account for 24.7 percent of the Mariners’ total, which is right in line with the other top players in the sport. Last year, using the same crude method [(Runs – Home Runs + Runs Batted In)/Team Runs], Miguel Cabrera and Andrew McCutchen both accounted for about one-fourth of their teams’ respective run-scoring totals.

There is a better way to determine how many runs a player creates: Bill James created Runs Created for that very reason. Wikipedia has the mathematical details, so I’ll spare you those. All you need to know is that Cano’s box score stats suggest he was really responsible for 19.58 runs, or 26.8 percent of Seattle’s 73. By this method of calculation, individuals almost never account for more than 20 percent of a team’s run production. That Cano did for a month basically means he put the team on his back, which is rather popular in Seattle. Don’t blame him that of the 14 Mariners to bat at least 100 times this season, only three (Cano, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders) have been any good.

***

More things made possible by taking only a month’s worth of data: crazy batted ball statistics. Cano hit 78 balls in play in July. Of those, 27 were line drives–35 percent! Most of those line drives went the other way: 12 to opposite field, eight up the middle, seven to the pull side. Cano also hit 41 ground balls, seven fly balls and three pop-ups. Cano hit 40 balls to the outfield and 28 fell in safely for a hit.

Mike Trout Across Junes (Mike Trout is June’s Player of the Month)

Trout in June: 23 G, 102 PA, 30 H, 7 HR, 20 R, 21 RBI, 18 BB, 17 K, .361/.471/.759

So Mike Trout finally wins one of these meaningless honors, and he receives it a month late at that. And while Trout’s July was by his standards underwhelming, his June was special enough to merit discussion long after the fact. For kicks, we’ll frame this discussion as a study of all three months of June in Mike Trouts nascent career. It has been his favorite month, offensively.

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Here you see every month of Trout’s career since his April 2012 call-up, with vertical bars representing the number of plate appearances he had that month and the line tracking his on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). You can see for yourself that Trout comes to about 120 plate appearances in a typical month, and his OPS hovers around 1.000, fluctuating, as stats are wont to do, by approximately .200 from that baseline. Twice Trout has exceeded an OPS of 1.200: June 2012 and June of this year.

I like looking at OPS by month because it’s a useful fantasy tool, once a player has enough months to constitute a suitable sample. This way we can visualize good months and bad months, hot streaks and slumps, all very concretely. Some players will maintain consistent production and some won’t; here’s a way to tell who is who. I present in contrast Pablo Sandoval since 2010.

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Not only does Pablo tend toward more monthly variation (standard deviation of .254 compared to .210 for Trout), but most months he sits below his monthly average OPS of .801. It is only by the superstrength of a handful of months that he comes out to above-average production; plagued by frequent injury, he is a poor hitter surprisingly often. Trout, on the other hand, is usually chilling above his monthly average OPS of .947, and a month below .900 is rare, and almost surely not to be followed by another.

So Trout is consistently good, but he is in the process of changing his game around. A glimpse at his three Junes will clarify. Here are your basic box score stats from each month. Click to engorge.

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First, a note on the extrapolated data (extrapolated to 700 plate appearances, which Trout should reach or exceed for the next 10 years). The counting stats are in line with Trout’s real season statistics, but the rate stats are something else. There have only been 30 player-seasons in the last 55 years in which a batter slashed at least .350/.400/.550, with a walk rate better than 10 percent: a combination of supreme contact skills, a strong batting eye, and slugging galore. Most of the guys who put up those numbers did it in the steroid era, and Trout plays in a much depressed offensive environment in comparison.

This June, Trout smacked more homers than he did in the previous two Junes combined. Power is becoming a bigger part of his game, as speed declines in turn (13 steals one June, down to 8 down to 5; reverse Fibonacci suggests he’ll have 3 steals in June 2015). Between 2012 and 2013, Trout bulked up considerably, and while that hasn’t affected his agility in the outfield, it does reflect an increased commitment to strength. He’s playing for power now whereas most ballplayers don’t grow into home-run power until they are 26 and 27. Trout is 22 years old and will only get slower. These are the years he should be going for 50 steals, but it’s hard to tell a guy with otherworldly talent what to do with all the talent he has. Perhaps one year soon he will find the delicate balance necessary for a 40 home run, 40 steal season. He is the only player today who could realistically do it, unless Andrew McCutchen is suddenly traded to Houston.

Perhaps you remain unconvinced that Trout is “playing for” power, perhaps he just lucked into a few more homers this time around. That might be so, but there are changes to Trout’s game beyond simple home runs. Thanks to Brooks Baseball, I was able to find a spray chart of Trout’s batted balls for each of the last three Junes. Then I used some ad-hoc geometry to separate the field into three segments and counted all the batted balls in each segment. Below you’ll see Brooks Baseball’s June 2013 data as an example.

2013spraytrout

The blue lines separate the field into left, center and right–since Trout is a righty, such batted balls would thus be classified as pulled, up the middle, or opposite field. I’ve included two tables: one reflecting those three segments and another reflecting a field that is simply split in half. The trend is clear in both.

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More pulled balls after an almost perfect distribution suggests a play for more power. Baseball Fact #1: Home runs are easier to come by in the pull section of the field, unless you’re some lunatic strongman like Vladimir Guerrero. Baseball Fact #2: Home runs cannot result from ground balls.

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A sharp reduction in ground balls is further evidence of a more power-oriented approach. Trout is on pace for more home runs than he has hit before but his increase in slugging is paired with a slight decrease in OBP and a sharp decrease in batting average. Trout is a different kind of great now, and he might not ever again be the way he was before.

Tyson Ross and Measuring Whiffs

Right now, if you want good news about the San Diego Padres, you look at their pitching staff. San Diego sits 9.5 games out of first place in the NL West but has allowed the third-fewest runs in the National League. Huston Street remains one of the most reliable closers in the game, and one of these years the Padres will probably flip him for a prospect or two. Andrew Cashner–the fireballing, Texas-sized Texan and logical ace of the future–is progressing well in his shoulder rehab: crisis averted, for now. Back on the field, Ian Kennedy blossoms into a starter with more strikeouts than innings pitched, although almost anything will blossom if you move it from Arizona to San Diego. Jesse Hahn was called up in June and has won four of his five starts, and four out of five pitching coaches would recommend his curveball (h/t FanGraphs). The bullpen behind Street is no joke, even though it includes a guy named Kevin Quackenbush.

Good pitchers, all, but no one has pitched more innings for San Diego this season than the titular Tyson Ross (he has seven-plus innings on Kennedy in the same number of starts). And no one has pitched better, either.

The Padres acquired Ross after the 2012 season in a trade with Oakland. San Diego sent away Andy Parrino, who has turned into nothing more than a utility infielder, and Andrew Werner, a pitcher who has yet to pitch for the A’s, and received Ross in return, as well as a minor-league first baseman by the name of A.J. Kirby-Jones. Without a doubt, this is the best trade the Padres have made in the last half-decade; it is in fact their only good trade in that time frame. Ironic indeed that it came at the expense of what is commonly regarded as the savviest front office in the game.

Since moving south, Ross has gone from volatile prospect to steady starter to something more. His whiffs in particular are outstanding. Let me show you.

There are 158 pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings this season. Of them, Tyson Ross has the sixth-best Swinging Strike% (a measure of total pitches that induce a swing and a miss), at 12.4 percent. Multiply that figure by his total pitches thrown and we can figure out just how many whiffs that is: 224, third in all of baseball behind Masahiro Tanaka (239) and King Felix Hernandez (227). We can also easily figure out just how many swings have been taken against Ross: 783. Now we may construct a new statistic: Whiff/Swing, or the percentage of swings that miss the ball. In our dataset of 158 pitchers, Whiff/Swing ranges from Francisco Liriano at the top (31.4 percent) to Kevin Correia at the bottom (10.4 percent), with an average of 19 percent and a median of 18.7. By this statistic, Ross (28.6 percent) is tied for third in the league with Clayton Kershaw, behind Liriano and Jose Fernandez.

Whiff/Strike measures something slightly different: the percentage of a pitcher’s strikes that come from whiffs. Here the range goes from Liriano (22.5 percent) to Doug Fister (7.4), with an average of 13.6 and a median of 13.4. Ross comes in fifth with 19.9 percent. The usual suspects (Kershaw, Fernandez, Tanaka) are above him.

With all this elite and well-renowned company, Ross ought to be a bigger name in his own right. He’s only 27 and he’s never pitched more than 125 innings in a season, but whiffs are the sexiest part of a pitcher’s game. Alas, San Diego is not a star-making city, and no one operating a national broadcast is wise to linger on Padres highlights for very long. Moreover, Ross will have to demonstrate his extraordinary ability for a bit longer before we the fans let our guards down; too many times has a promising pitcher flamed out on us.

But nothing, other than the long list of arms that have fallen into disrepair, bodes ill for Ross. Not only is he among the best at inducing whiffs, he is fourth (of 158) in groundball percentage as well, behind Dallas Keuchel, Kershaw and Justin Masterson. When you gets whiffs AND groundballs at such extraordinary rates, you don’t need to pitch in one of the best pitcher’s parks to be successful. Ross does, and he’s not eligible to leave until 2018.

A Superficial Look at Arizona’s Superficial Home/Road Split

We wouldn’t expect the Arizona Diamondbacks to be good anywhere; even so, their futility at home is something of anomaly. Through 40 home games, the Dbacks are 13-27, whereas on the road they are a .500 ballclub at 18-18. What gives?

Below I’ve provided some basic hitting and pitching splits for the Dbacks. At the team level, the differences between home stats and road stats are not so great.

dbackshomeroadsplits

Arizona hits better at home by all the typical measures–batting average, on-base percentage, slugging. Even so, they score more runs per game when they are on the road. The only way I can sensibly reconcile those two facts is to guess that the Dbacks have a poor record of hitting with runners on base when they are at home. They get more hits at home than they do on the road, but they don’t string them together well. Lately people have taken to calling this “cluster luck.” Since we are less than halfway through the season and it doesn’t make much sense for a team to hit relatively better but score relatively less, I’d say luck is probably a primary factor.

Even so, Arizona’s home offense is disappointing in their own right. Chase Field in Phoenix is consistently one of the best hitter’s parks in the majors. You see how Diamondback pitchers fare worse at home, but their hitters this year have not taken advantage. Gerardo Parra at home has a .292 OBP and a slugging of .327. Aaron Hill is another sub-.300 OBP fellow. Martin Prado and Miguel Montero can’t crack .400 slugging at home, and they occupy the heart of the lineup. Of Dbacks with more than 50 home plate appearances, only Paul Goldschmidt, the injured A.J. Pollock and Chris Owings are hitting the ball with any authority. And no one but the behemoth Goldschmidt has hit the ball well both at home and on the road. This is a team that relies pretty heavily on veteran production. Cody Ross, Prado, Hill and Montero are all 30 or older and constitute half of the everyday lineup. There are no obvious replacements in the farm system, so the hope is this is a bump in the road and not the start of inevitable decline.

On the pitching side, the most prominent disparity between home and road is found in slugging percentage. Both figures are high for any pitching staff, but .447 is just absurd, about equal to one Adam Dunn or Jay Bruce. It is likely Dbacks pitchers have suffered from some bad cluster luck in their own right, seeing how runners reach base less (.318 vs .335 OBP), but score more.

Let’s look at some individual pitchers. Bronson Arroyo has 37 innings pitched at home with a 4.86 ERA, compared to 49 and 3.49 on the road. One quick look at BABIP tells you that disparity probably isn’t his fault–.331 at home, .266 on the road. Another player similarly beaten down by batted-ball luck is Wade Miley: 56.2 IP, 5.40 ERA, .304 BABIP at home; 44.2 IP, 3.63 ERA, .267 BABIP on the road. These two starting pitchers are among the most durable in baseball, and they will probably pitch through the end of the season just fine, though their poor starts will keep their numbers inflated.

We can use the figures for runs scored and runs allowed to determine Arizona’s Pythagorean records both at home and away. At home, Arizona’s runs scored and runs allowed fit the profile of a 15-25 ballclub, only two wins better than they are presently. On the road, they ought to be 16-20, two wins worse. Not all stats carry hope.

A Piece of Evidence for the Offensive Supremacy of the Pacific Coast League

The Pacific Coast League inherited its name from an old independent minor league from the 1930s. Joe DiMaggio played some for the now-defunct San Francisco Seals, and remains probably the most famous PCL player of all time. It’s safe to say that the league will never reclaim its former relevance, nor boast a player as good as DiMaggio. As a 20-year-old in his final season with the Seals, Joltin’ Joe crushed 34 home runs and racked up 270 hits in 679 plate appearances, good for a batting average of .398 and a slugging percentage of .672. Anyone who hits that well in today’s PCL will be called up to the majors before his 300th at-bat.

Since Major League Baseball came into its own in the 1910s and ’20s, it has slowly choked the vigor out of almost all of the minor leagues through, basically, a series of business deals. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, MLB’s first commissioner and noted hard-ass, was surprisingly distraught regarding MLB’s growing control over the minor leagues. He recognized that any league in which true competition took a backseat to the whims of a parent ballclub could not sustain the affection of its fans. He was right about that. Today, attendance at minor league games is driven by the low prices, family-friendly atmosphere, and the fact that there is fuck else to do in most of the towns we’re talking about. A few dedicated fans will come to see their MLB team’s best prospects, but there are probably more people in Papillion, Nebraska (approx. 20,000) than there are people in the entire world who care that Papillion’s very own Storm Chasers* are the reigning PCL champions.

*Officially called the Omaha Storm Chasers, but I’m guessing few of you noticed.

That said, the Pacific Coast League remains remarkable in one aspect. More than once on this site I’ve said that the PCL is the best league for hitters in North America. (If I blogged more hardcore than I actually do, I would have tricked out that sentence with the relevant links.) It’s true. I tweeted proof to my skeptic buddy earlier today, replicated here:

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Despite regular and sizeable fluctuations, the PCL holds steady above the two major leagues in league-wide on-base-plus-slugging percentage. My aforementioned buddy suggested the Advanced-A California League as even friendlier to offense than the PCL. This graph demonstrates that, while the California League has gotten stronger over the years, it does not have the PCL’s pedigree for offense. I neglected all the other minor leagues for time’s sake, but given the PCL’s reputation that can wait for now. Here is another piece of evidence that players called up from the PCL, be they pitchers or hitters, need some sort of contextual correction on their statistics, especially when we mean to project how they will perform in the majors.

I made this point about Matt Shoemaker in a post not long ago. Shoemaker pitched for years in the PCL, with the Angels’ affiliate in Salt Lake City, and his statistics were never good. The strikeouts were there and the walks weren’t, but he gave up so many hits as to camouflage both of those strengths. His ERA ballooned to Marothian proportions, but consider that in 2012 the league ERA was 4.68 and the ERA for Salt Lake as a team was 5.18.

This map of the 16 teams in the now-bloated PCL shows you just how many clubs sit on the vast plateau created by the Rocky Mountains: six of 16. Only two of 30 MLB teams reside on the same plateau, and they (the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks) play in two of the best parks for hitters around. The elevation of these mountain towns results in thinner air and thinner air results in balls flying farther. I’ve collected the elevations of each PCL team’s home cities and sorted them in the following table.

pclsouthelevation

The purple designates the Pacific-South Division, the highest division around. I’ve been spending the day trying to figure out how the schedule is determined and I think members of the Pacific Conference (which includes, besides the purple teams, Colorado Springs and Reno) play each other 16 times or so, and they play teams from the American conference much less than that. So we should find a disparity between Pacific and American teams, and the Pacific should be the stronger-hitting conference of the two.

pacificamerican

Hypothesis: confirmed. Purple is Pacific; green, American. There aren’t many more ways for me to slice it. The elevation is probably the chief factor here, but credit whatever you want, the hits won’t stop coming.

Yasiel Puig is Great, Period. (And May’s Player of the Month.)

Here’s a graphic showing my players of the month so far this season:
playersofthemonthgraphic

Tulowitzki and Puig are two of the five or so most talented batters in the game (along with Trout, Cabrera, and uhh maybe Cutch or Edwin or Chris Davis). That said, their best months give us a good idea of what the upper limit is for monthly stats. Seven home runs puts a player on pace for a season of 50-plus; 20 RBI each month would make 120 for a season. No slugging percentage will stay above .700 for a whole season, but over a month it still counts as a lengthy hot streak. Puig has slugged over .700 in two of his six full months of major league experience. Tulowitzki has done so in three of his 41 months as a big leaguer.

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The intermittent Player of the Week awards I give are meant to highlight some lesser-known players as they go on good runs, which is why Mike Trout never wins though he could like half the time. On the other hand, the monthly awards typically go to the cream of the crop, as talent will win out over larger and larger samples. Even casual followers of the game will know Tulowitzki and Puig, so when I approach these I just try to find something new to say about a much-discussed player. Today, however, Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe gives you all the breakdown you need, and this brief post is just a formal recognition of Puig’s Player of the Month.

I’ll close with a Puig heatmap and a song that may describe how Puig carries himself on the field.

The following gif has two frames: the first shows Puig’s swing percentage from last year, the second from this year. The chief thing to notice is how Puig stopped chasing the pitch low and away, but he also cut down his hacks on balls way inside. It’s real progress from Puig, and any more out of him is a scary thought for this Giants fan.

puigdiscipline2014

Matt Shoemaker Gives the Angels 5 Good Starters

In the American League there are only two starting rotations in which all five players have an ERA under 4.00. The Oakland A’s have a 2.87 ERA from their starting rotation, and at present the starting five goes Drew Pomeranz (0.95 ERA as a starter, 1.38 overall), Tommy Milone (3.50), Jesse Chavez (2.78), Scott Kazmir (2.36) and Sonny Gray (2.31). That is the best rotation in the American League, but today I’m interested in the second best.

Let’s start with the basics. The Angels have the second-lowest ERA in the AL at 3.45, which is more shocking to me than the A’s residing in first. Veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson hum along like fine Swiss watches, no age-related decline in sight, and 26-year-old Garrett Richards has risen to their level, but with some of the hardest stuff of any starter in the league. Tyler Skaggs is a classic groundball pitcher operating in front of an improved Angels infield this season. A healthy Pujols at first is a savvy and fundamentally sound vacuum. Weaver is the only guy on the staff who isn’t a groundball pitcher; like Matt Cain in San Francisco, he has a penchant for inducing ever-so-weak flyballs.

The ERAs (and other statistics) of the Angels’ staff are as such:
– Weaver (2.99, 72.1 IP, .225 BABIP)
– Wilson (3.05, 76.2 IP, .259 BABIP)
– Richards (3.00, 66.0 IP, .277 BABIP)
– Skaggs (3.97, 65.2 IP, .273 BABIP)
Hector Santiago (5.19, 34.2 IP, .307 BABIP)
– Matt Shoemaker (3.38, 21.1 IP, .267 BABIP)

The recent if abbreviated switch from Santiago to Shoemaker is clearly a great boon. Assuming the Angels settle on Shoemaker going forward, the weak spot from their rotation is gone. Some teams are forced to throw a replacement player every five days, basically forfeiting a large share of games over the season. Just ask Mariners fans about Brandon Maurer. Shoemaker is no slouch, and while his BABIP is low in a leaguewide context it is average for this team.

The Angels have fielded the ball well this season, resulting in a low BABIP for all their pitchers. Mike Trout is a great centerfielder, which is crucial, but he was great last year as well, so the change must be some combination of other factors: Pujols’ health, Freese replacing Callaspo at third, Collin Cowgill receiving more time in the outfield thanks to Josh Hamilton’s injury. Due to return imminently, Hamilton could throw off this precarious synergy. His bat is still lively but he’s not as good as Cowgill in the field. Still, he is a former centerfielder, and those guys can usually handle the corners pretty well into their mid-30s.

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laaout

You’ll see that Ultimate Zone Rating–the go-to advanced defensive statistic–mirrors Out Percentage pretty closely over the last three years in Anaheim. Out Percentage is basically not-BABIP; I calculated it as (1 – BABIP). It measures the percentage of balls in play that did not result in a hit. This year the Angels convert more balls into outs than they did in either of the previous two seasons, though whether they will continue to do so at this high of a rate is difficult to predict. I will say, however, that the Angels have the same groundball-to-flyball ratio as they did in 2012 and 2013, and that the biggest noticeable difference I can see is a sharp drop in line drives. Angels starters this year give up liners only 17.7% of the time (Line Drives/Total Balls in Play), down 4% from a year ago and 2.4% from two years ago. Last year, the spread of LD% for all teams was 23.4% at the upper end to 19.5% at the bottom. Regression will strike but the results may not suffer all that much.

All this talk about BABIP and outs recorded by the defense is especially pertinent to Shoemaker. Coming into the season he wasn’t a very valuable prospect. He had spent two whole years in Triple-A without much to show for it, his ERA was 5.65 one year and 4.64 the next. At 26, he was as old or older than his peers and opponents, and progress appeared unlikely: he’s made five starts for AAA Salt Lake this year with an ERA of 6.31. But I am a huge believer in the power of run-scoring environments, and Shoemaker’s case is illustrative of their importance. Salt Lake is a member of the Pacific Coast League, the most offense-friendly league in North America. (Probably. The Cuban National League is a mystery to most of us.) Not only that, but Salt Lake City is at elevation, with a considerable lack of humidity. Batters on the Salt Lake Bees with at least 100 PA had a line of .286/.359/.442 last, basically what Hunter Pence is doing now. It was a good place for hitters and as a result some of Shoemaker’s talent was obscured. Now that he’s got a little help in the field he may continue being a big help for the Angels.

In San Diego, The Jazz Clubs Play “The Jedd Gyorko Blues”

And it goes a little something like this…

*wah-wahhhh-wah-wah (aka blues harmonica)*
They pitch me low
wah-wah, wah-wah
Low and away
wah-wah, wah-wah
I can’t hit that
wah-wah, wah-wah
What can I say?
wah-wah, wah-wah

I prefer not to overtax my lyrical abilities. Those four lines took me 68 hours to compose. Let’s move on.

Like the links in the lyrics showed you, Gyorko gets pitched low and away, as most hitters do, particularly right-handers. (No one seems to know why, but lefties have a seemingly deserved reputation for being able to handle the low pitch better than righties.) This strategy has done wonders for the pitchers who have faced Gyorko so far this year: he has the lowest batting average in the National League (min. 150 PA).

gyorkoswingzone

Above is a simple gif comparing Gyorko’s swing zone to the part of the zone where he is best at making contact. You’ll see why pitchers throw him stuff down and away, because he has a clear tendency to hit anything middle-in. What should be concerning is Gyorko’s aggressiveness on pitches that border his happy zone. You’ll see that the zone in which he swings a lot is rather larger than the zone in which he makes good contact. Both zones are geared toward the inside of the plate, so it is natural to assume that Gyorko is a pull hitter.

But look at this pair of spray charts I’ve set up for you. On the right we have Gyorko’s ghastly 2014; on the left, 2013. This season there is a distinct lack of fly balls and line drives to left field. The patch of field between the left fielder and the foul line is virtually empty. So Gyorko is getting all these pitches inside but he isn’t driving them down the line like he used to. This smells like a mechanical error in his swing. There has been no news of injury but he could be gritting it out and compensating in the batter’s box, resulting in decreased batspeed. I think I am on to something here but I can’t know what exactly.