Friday, June 25, 2010

On Andrew Cashner

When John Grabow gets the win, and Tom Gorzelanny gets the save, you know your season is upside-down.

But what about when your top pitching prospect gets moved to the Major League pen? Well, as it turns out, this is not so uncommon and it's certainly not the mark of an upside-down season. However, that doesn't make it smart, either.

Andrew Cashner, the 23 year-old right hander, is not only our most prized pitching possession, but also a bucket of fun trivia. For instance, he was drafted four times by MLB teams from 2005 to 2008 (the Cubs drafted him twice), and he was born on the most auspicious date of September 11th.

Another fun fact:

His 2010 xFIP is an impressive 3.82, to go along with a godly 1.62 tERA. In short, these stats simply tell us what we already expected: Andrew Cashner is really good. In over 10 innings thus far, Cashner has only surrendered 1 measly run, striking out 7 and walking only 2. (Granted, his LOB% is ridiculously high, but I think he'll still do well when that stabilizes.)

However, controversy surrounds the young pitcher because, until earlier this season, Cashner was starting, not relieving. But with the Cubs rotation performing so well (it has been one of the lone pleasantries of an otherwise abysmal season), Cashner could only fit into the ML roster via the bullpen. Many prognosticators ask: "Um, why does he need to fit into the ML roster?"

Well, he was certainly pitching well in Iowa -- earning a shiny FIP to the tune of 3.29. That tends to be a good reason to bring up your top young guy: when the competition no longer matches the skill set. Joe Pawlikowski of Fangraphs actually took a look at this matter of moving future stars to the pen today, with respect to Aroldis Chapman. As he notes:
There are two advantages of using young pitchers in the bullpen. First is the obvious, that they gain experience facing major league hitters. Many young pitchers are just too good for the minors and need to test their mettle against elite hitters. Why not, then, put them in the major league rotation? That brings us to the second point. By pitching in the bullpen they receive constant feedback. Relievers pitch in games more often than starters, which means more opportunities to gain feedback on their performances.
However, Joe also notes:
The one place where I get hung up on this issue relates to innings. Young pitchers need to build up their innings from year to year, just like runners must ramp up their distances when training for a marathon. No one goes from the couch to a 26.2 mile run, just like no one goes from high school to 200 innings.
Which brings us to our greatest and most damning concern: Innings.

As mb21 of Another Cubs Blog is wont to note, Cashner was not a starter in college and has yet to build the endurance to pitch 200 innings in a single season. By moving him to the pen and thereby limiting his total innings, the Cubs are effectively delaying Andrew Cashner's greatest value, possibly eschewing his best peak years in favor of shoring up a bullpen on a team that can't score runs.

In other words, the Cubs would be quite wise to put Cashner back where he belongs: starting in the minors. Then, we can fill his vacancy with Joe Schmoe right-hander -- because this season is all but lost anyway. This way, Cashner will be able to start for us by 2012 at the latest, not 2015, when his best years are already in progress and fading fast. Anything otherwise would be, let's just say, upside-down.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Base Running Blunders

One of the things my cohort Will often stresses is the necessity of good base running -- speed on the bases (which has the added bonus of range on the field) and awareness on the paths. We don't get to see a lot of that as Cubs fans -- except, apparently, when the Mets come to town. The following graphic Justin Bopp made over at Beyond the Boxscore really tells us how little we take the extra base -- or take it successfully:

The chart is according to EqBRR Equivalent Base Running Runs, which Baseball Prospectus defines as:
...the number of runs contributed by a player's advancement on the bases, above what would be expected based on the number and quality of the baserunning opportunities with which the player is presented, park-adjusted and based on a multi-year run expectancy table.
Apparently even the often overly-critical Bob Brenly sees this base running problem, chalking it up to a holistic lack of fundamentals.

That being said, I think the Cubs offensive woes are coming from much more than base running gaffs, but these lost runs seem to be needlessly lost runs, which hurts more. If the Cubs could just keep their heads on a tighter swivel, or the coaches run a few extra drills, maybe we can eek out that extra run or 4.6 or so. Then, when the unlucky (or low BABIP) side of our offense comes around, we'll already be in a better position (i.e. standing in the NL Central) to take advantage of it.

Of course, right now everything feels like too little too late.

Cubs Hire Stats Guy

And so begins my heart palpitations! I have previously discussed my high hopes for Tom Ricketts -- in many ways, he reminds me of Stu Sternberg, who bought the (Devil) Rays in 2005 and filled the organization with financial sector stat-heads. The rest is history and current events (i.e. the Rays are really, really good).

However, since then, it has started to feel that Ricketts is either uninvolved, or involved and unwise (he apparently approved moving Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen, or Zambrano-Gate). That is why I'm so, so glad to see an article such as this on ESPN Chicago:
Cubs owner Tom Ricketts made his first hire in the baseball operations department, naming Ari Kaplan as the team's statistical analyst manager...

Kaplan has created statistical profiles of players and organizations for the past 20 years. The 40-year-old Chicago native has blended scouting with statistical analysis for 21 major league teams.
The question, of course, is how will he blend with Jim Hendry? The answer to that question will decide Jim Hendry's fate and the Cubs' fate.

Update: Here's a touch more info on Kaplan from his website:
Ari Kaplan is President of AriBall, a leading analyst and scouting firm to Major League Baseball teams and media. Educated at the elite California Institute of Technology, he is a recipient of their “Alumni of the Decade” award for the 1990’s. Kaplan is the President of AriBall and was President of the Independent Oracle Users Group for three years. Kaplan gained broad recognition in the IT marketplace as CEO of Expand Beyond Corp, a leader in the database and server management market,raising the largest first round of funding in Illinois for 2001 through its public acquisition. In 2001, he was included in Crain Communications’ "40 Under 40" profile of business leaders.
And apparently Bill James said this in the LA Times:
Our ability to generate stats has gotten way ahead of our ability to make any sense of it… it's going to take a lot of work by people like Mr. Kaplan before we understand what all this means

Monday, June 14, 2010

Geovany Soto: Man Among Boys

Image courtesy of

We wouldn't think it based on how Sweat Lou has been playing him, but Geovany Soto is quietly having a monstrous season. Of all MLB catchers with at least 150 PAs, or -- in other words -- among all other starting catchers, Geovany is second in wOBA with .386 and first in OBP with .407. In fact, the only qualifying catcher* above him is Miguel Olivio, who has a laughably and unsustainably high .400 BABIP. In fact, for good measure, let's laugh at it right now. Hahahaha!

*Qualifying according to my previously noted standard of 150 PAs.

Of course, this confirms my earlier portents. This off season, far too many Cubs fans bemoaned Soto's "collapse" in 2009, but the wise (i.e. me and mb21 at Another Cubs Blog) knew that Soto had fallen victim to the BABIP monster (i.e. bad luck). In other words, Soto got unlucky last season, the fans got angry, so he lost some weight -- got even better -- and is presently Joe Mauer-ing. Currently, Geovany Soto trails only Marlon Byrd and Tyler Colvin for the team lead in wOBA. Oh yeah, and he's a catcher -- the most pivotal defender on the field.

This bring me to the most pressing of my points: Geovany Soto cannot become friends with the pine. Dearest Lou Piniella cannot, must not, do what he is seemingly doing lately: sitting Soto because his batting average is .266. Yuck. Seriously, yuck.

There is only one good reason to sit Soto: injuries. For catchers, injuries are common, no doubt. But unless Soto is tired or hurt, he should be hitting. (Moreover, he shouldn't be hitting in front of pitchers, either, but that's a study for another day...)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Year of the Pitcher? A Holistic Analysis

The following is an article I wrote for the new Community Research section at Fangraphs. I've just only now submitted it for approval, so I will link it in an update if they select it for publication.

Thus far, the Year of our Sport 139 -- or the Year of our Lord 2000 and 10 -- curious whispers have grown to sly murmurs, and in unity they portend: the Year of the Pitcher. Already, fans have indulged in the sight of two perfect games and a third de facto perfect game. By contrast, this time last season, we fans were discussing Albert Pujols' interminable Power and Joe Mauer's surprising Pop, all the while swirling the snifter of Slugging; but this year, tales of a Resurgent Carlos Silva and the dazzling Kid Stephen Strasburg have seized our headlines. This, the media assures us, is the Year of the Pitcher.

But is it? Perhaps it is the year of the Pat Burrell -- the aging slugger -- or perhaps the year of the missing needle? One thing is certain: Our teams are scoring fewer runs. The 2010 MLB's runs per game has reached pre-Clinton lows:

Of course, taken with a tankard of greater perspective, this recent descent does not appear too outrageous. It in fact puts us closer in line with historical performances:

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Renaissance of Alfonso Soriano

Dear fans of sport and story, I present to you the reborn and redone Alfonso Soriano:

The good sir's weighted on base average (wOBA) is well on pace to break his previous high (.380 in his 2006 debut as a Cub). According to the ZiPS projection system, Soriano's hot BABIP (and likewise good fortune) will cool down -- leaving his rest-of-the-season wOBA around .371. Despite this inevitable cooling, Soriano -- according to ZiPS -- will finish with a career high .385 wOBA.

I can't express how phenomenal that would be. Before we go much further, let's consider how washed up and terrible Alfonso Soriano appeared last year. Visualize his 16 infield flies. Picture his career low 18.8% line drives. He looked old. He looked lost and frustrated. Yes, it actually hurts to think about it.

Now let's get back to the amazing present by comparing it with the less-recent past: In 2002, Soriano hit 39 home runs and sported a .378 wOBA. In 2006, he hit 46 taters and sported a .377 wOBA. The following year -- the aforementioned 2006 -- Alfy distributed 33 official MLB balls into the greasy palms of bleacher bums. This year, ZiPS anticipates a scant 26 dingers!

In other words: Alfonso Soriano won't even come close to his career high home run total, but will still have the best season of his life!

How is that possible? Patience.

He's hitting more line drives -- which means more hits -- and taking more walks. He's undergoing a career low in Swinging Strikes % and a career low in Swing % (which tends to mean more walks) coinciding with a career low in Zone %.

In laymen's terms: pitcher are throwing more outside of the zone, and Alfonso just takes a step back and smiles while it sails by. In the past, he tried to deposit those balls into beer cups. And he got away with it when he was younger, but now he's making the pitchers treat him like an adult.

It's a beautiful thing.

Images courtesy of Fangraphs.