7 Days Till Opening Day: Pagan’s Palliative Production

Angel Pagan

There’s one thing about Angel Pagan we can state with confidence, based on the past two seasons: when he’s on the field, he’s still a good hitter. He just isn’t on the field much anymore. Leg issues in 2013, back issues in 2014, who knows what in 2015. The biggest predictor for whether a player will be injured in a given season is prior injury history, and because of that, we can predict Angel Pagan will almost certainly miss time—perhaps significant time—in 2015.

That’s really all there is to it. There isn’t anything with Pagan to analyze, no splits to look at, no trends to tease from the data. It’s simply a matter of sitting back and hoping he doesn’t pull up lame while trying to beat out a grounder.

One thing that would help keep him on the field would be a move to a corner outfield position. Center field is more physically demanding, especially for older players like Pagan, and he’d have a better chance staying healthy in left. And besides, he isn’t a good defender in center anymore—far from it. His defensive ineptitude in ’13/’14 alone erased nearly half his total value. There is only one playable center fielder on the roster, Gregor Blanco, and the Giants are committed to him as a 4th outfielder. Nevertheless, Blanco will definitely see time in center this year once Pagan inevitably goes down.

Let’s hope that when he does go down it isn’t for long, because he’s still a nice player to have when he can play.

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8 Days Till Opening Day: Assessing Aoki, Appreciating Blanco

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Norichika Aoki is one of those non-star players you see on opposing teams and quietly covet. You know he’ll never be the difference between your team contending or not, but you just appreciate his game; how solid his at-bats always are, how he seems to make great defensive plays regularly. Add to that his distinctly Japanese style, and how in the game’s highest strikeout era he never strikes out, and Aoki is a player you’re glad to see in your favorite team’s colors. When the Giants signed him this offseason, no one rushed out to buy an Aoki jersey. No one bought a round of drinks for the bar, no one hurriedly texted their mom or sister to discuss the implications. Aoki’s signing came with a smart, solemn nod.

There’s a broader narrative at work though, which is that in so, so many other parallel universes or timelines or whatever, Nori Aoki is forever a hero in Kansas City thanks to his game-winning RBI double in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. We just happen to live in the universe where Juan Perez was positioned—on his own or by dint of the savvy Ron Wotus—in the perfect spot to deny Aoki his glory. Instead, Aoki’s new teammate Madison Bumgarner is Sportsman of the Year and a baseball legend for all time. So it goes.

Aoki is going to provide similar overall value to Michael Morse a year ago but in a completely opposite way. Instead of occasionally running into one and striking out the rest of the time, like Morse, Aoki’s instead going to battle in every at-bat, foul off a ridiculous number of two-strike pitches, and either work a walk or slap a single the other way. Rather than being as mobile as Fisherman’s Wharf in the outfield, Aoki’s going to provide value on defense, even if his routes make Pagan’s look like the height of parsimony.

The Giants in recent years haven’t been a very fast unit, and even individual guys with speed haven’t run a lot. Stealing bases doesn’t seem like something Bochy or the front office values much, and for good reason. But this year there’s going to be a serious lack of power in the lineup and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Bochy force the issue on the bases, with the Aoki signing evidence of that plan. Aoki was terrible stealing bases last year, swiping 17 while being thrown out 8 times. That shouldn’t be allowed to happen again. Aoki’s instincts and speed can add value on the bases as long as they’re leveraged to take an extra base, go 1st to 3rd, tag up, etc. If he’s running in 2015 I hope it’s for those reasons, and not because he’s trying to steal.

Aoki has a career reverse split, being better against lefties than righties. For almost any other player that would be an aberration, and not something you can count on, but Aoki’s skillset explains it. His game against lefties is to go the other way, so pitches on the outer half get slashed into left field automatically. A look at his career spray charts bears this out: the majority of his base hits against lefties have been to left field. That tendency nearly victimized Bumgarner and won Aoki a ring. Look for it to benefit the Giants this year. Assuming Pagan is healthy (and I’ll get to that unlikely scenario in my next post), an Aoki/Blanco platoon in left field is conceivable, even though they’re both lefties.

Aoki will hit .285/.350/.370, because while AT&T Park crushes lefty power, he’s less susceptible to that than most due to his opposite field approach. He’ll match last year’s 6 triples thanks to Triples Alley and will make astute fans of other teams quietly covet his subtle value.

Since he isn’t penciled in as a starter but will certainly see plenty of playing time, I want to briefly discuss Gregor Blanco.

Since 2012, when the Giants signed Gregor Blanco as a minor league free agent, he’s been worth about 6 WAR per Baseball-Reference.com, while earning $4.4m. In the same time frame, Angel Pagan has been worth about 6 WAR while earning $23.3m. Blanco has been the bargain of the last few years, a scrap heap signing who got playing time due to injury and shined. I’m only being slightly sentimental when I say that Blanco is as responsible for the Giants’ recent success as nearly anyone. The Giants simply had no business getting as much out of Blanco as they have when they signed him in 2012.

Talking about Blanco dovetails nicely with mentioning Bill James’ recent comments on the limitations of WAR. It’s true that Pagan has been disappointing the last two seasons due to missing so many games from injury, and as I did above, it’s easy to talk about his WAR total relative to his salary. But Pagan’s contributions shouldn’t be measured against what a hypothetical replacement player would do, because there was never a replacement-level player waiting in the wings—there was Gregor Blanco. And as we’ve seen, Blanco is a solid big leaguer in his own right. The depth he’s provided has won two rings for the Giants, and I hope fans appreciate that.

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9 Days Till Opening Day: Believe in B-Craw

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Here’s a nice palate cleanser: Brandon Crawford. Oh, Brandon, you are the only shortstop in baseball whose fielding is as attractive as his face.

Which is no small feat, considering how attractive his fielding is. Yes, the Giants shortstop since 2012 is one of the best defenders in the game, which is how he’s mainly earned his living. It used to be that Crawford just couldn’t hit, not even a little, but he’s improved each of the last two years and actually was very slightly above-average in 2014. If you had told me that was possible in 2011 I wouldn’t have believed you, but I’m just skeptical like that.

Crawford strikes out a lot, that’s just who he is, and so a high batting average will never be in the cards. In the last three years he’s hit .248, .248, and .246. I predict this year he’ll hit somewhere around .248. The good news is he’s become more patient, with a walk rate that’s increased each year since he became an everyday player: .304, .311, and last year’s .324. Yes, this is inflated by hitting 8th in the order, as he was intentionally walked 7 times in front of the pitcher last year, but in this era and for a player with his defensive ability, a .320 OBP is something you’ll take every time.
The big surprise in 2014 was Crawford’s power. He only bested his career-best home run total by 1, hitting 10, and actually hit fewer doubles than ever, just 20. But he legged out a career-high 10 triples, second best in all of baseball. You could consider that number a bit fluky, as Crawford isn’t very speedy, so don’t expect as many triple baggers in 2015.

He’s still fairly young, only 28 this year, so while it’s hardly reasonable to expect decline, we’re also past the point where we can expect much improvement. If he can hit .250/.320/.380 and play his usual stellar defense, he’ll be a valuable player and tons of fun to watch, if not quite an All-Star.

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10 Days Till Opening Day: Casey McGeheeee Grounded Into Another Double Play

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Now’s the time for me to write about the Giants’ fat third baseman, only it isn’t the fat third baseman I wish I were writing about. Despite his whiplash-inducing turn from fan favorite to heel, I really, really wish I were writing about Pablo Sandoval’s 2015 with the Giants, because I really, really don’t want to write about Casey McGehee.

Casey McGehee sucks.

I don’t mean he’s a bad baseball player; he’s fine. Last year he was a league average hitter and somehow didn’t murder his team defensively, but Casey McGehee still sucks. He isn’t fun to watch play baseball, and while that is normally just a venial sin, considering who he has replaced, it’s mortal. There is no conceivable Casey McGehee season that would make me glad to be watching him play baseball instead of Pablo Sandoval. If you could determine Casey McGehee’s single most thrilling career highlight, it wouldn’t even be as fun to watch as Sandoval’s top-10 Dugout High Five Moments.

Casey McGehee is replacing one of the most joyous players to watch, and the hell of it is that not only will he look less good, he’ll be much less good.

Casey McGehee doesn’t make any sense, except in all the ways he makes perfect sense. He’s fat, so his defense is bad. He hits a ton of ground balls, and he’s fat so they turn into double plays. He led all of baseball in GIDP last year with 31. He will kill so many rallies for the Giants in 2015.

He’s big and fat and strong, yet he hits for less power than Gregor Blanco, which doesn’t make any sense. I thought hey, maybe he was unlucky last year on his home runs per fly ball, so I looked up his average fly ball distance: 261 feet. Gregor Blanco’s average fly ball distance? 261 feet.

This sucks, and Casey McGehee sucks. He’s going to be such a bummer out there, just wait.

He hit .287/.355/.357 last year, which is 2/3rds of a really good slash line. In 2015, for the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants, their new 3rd baseman Casey McGehee will hit .275/.335/.345, hurt all of his pitchers’ ERAs and ground into like 20 double plays.

It will be such a bummer.

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11 Days Till Opening Day: Projecting Joe Panik

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Pun headlines are beneath me, only because I don’t get paid to write them, and so there’s a nice, straight Joe Panik headline for you. The rest of this post will be just as nice and straight, so don’t Panik.

You probably expected that, and if not, you should’ve. But what we can’t expect is for Joe Panik to be as good in 2015 as he was, briefly, in 2014. In the second half last year, once he became the everyday 2nd baseman, he hit .327/.360/.396—for an overall rookie season line of .305/.343/.368, which in that ballpark and in this era makes him a solid player. That was the projected best-case-scenario for Marco Scutaro when the Giants signed him, and if Panik can produce like that while earning the league minimum, the Giants would love it.

I’m just not convinced he can do it.

Here’s what I like about Panik: good strike zone control. He didn’t swing at pitches out of the zone very often last year (as often as David Ortiz and Troy Tulowitzki, which is the only time you’ll see Panik mentioned alongside those two), and generally looked more comfortable at the plate than you’d expect a rookie to be. Still, he struggled against lefties (ignore the slash line, it was great, but fueled by an absurdly high BABIP—he was lucky), walking just once in 84 PA.

There just isn’t a whole lot to glean from last year’s results. The sample sizes are too small to be meaningful. Just looking at the overall package, it isn’t very impressive. He has no power to speak of, but also no speed. He is patient at the plate, but pitchers won’t be afraid to challenge him so he won’t walk a ton. He hits a lot of grounders but lacks the speed to turn them into hits. I think his performance last year is the ceiling for Panik, absent a fluky season where a few extra fly balls drift over the fence. Enough of his soft line drives fall in and grounders find holes that his batting average is decent; he can battle pitchers until they make a mistake and walk him; and he can slice a few balls into the gap and hit 25 doubles. Add to that his adequate (but nothing more) defense and you have an OK player at the keystone.

If he can manage a .330 OBP while hitting second, which I think is very optimistic, and Nori Aoki can run the same, those two hitters will be an adequately productive, pesky as hell 1-2 in the lineup. It’s easy to imagine first innings where the opposing pitcher has thrown 15 pitches to the two combined and they’re both on base, with Posey and Belt coming up. It could be fun.

Panik will hit .280/.320/.360, play adequate defense, and add a little bit of value on the bases with instincts, not speed. He’ll produce basically what a 39-year-old Scutaro would’ve done in the final year of his contract, had Marco’s body not ended his career for him. Young, cost-controlled, average second basemen aren’t sexy. But they’re no reason to Panik.

Got you.

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12 Days Till Opening Day: Ready Your #belted For 2015

This is going to be Brandon Belt’s breakout year—and since I know you’re wondering, yes, you are reading these words in 2015. It’s been said every year since 2011, and despite him having a pretty solid career so far (including a very good 2013), he’s seen as a bit of a disappointment. I wrote last year that that’s because of the insane expectations for prospects Giants fans were made to have after Bumgarner and Posey, and it’s still true, though I think Belt’s apparent “failure” and the team’s incredible success has softened things for young Joe Panik.

Anyway, Belt’s 2014 was a total lost season until his contributions in October, but none of it was his fault. He was hit by a pitch and broke his hand, and upon returning suffered one of the freakiest on-field injuries imaginable. The ghost of Marco Scutaro, haunting his old position at the keystone, used his dark magic to materialize a baseball and propel it at Belt’s head, concussing him. After April, he never played more than 11 games in a month. Just forget 2014 when projecting Belt forward.

Let’s talk about 2013, by far Belt’s best year as a big leaguer. He hit .289/.360/.481, making him one of the best first basemen in baseball. This was fueled in large part by an MVP-level second half of the season, after he made the final set of major tweaks to his swing that he’s made as a big leaguer. Tweaks that we saw early on in 2014 and that were producing impressive results, but which were scuppered by injury. Which is to say that I think his 2013 is the baseline we can expect out of a healthy season from Belt. Wildly, even stupidly, optimistic? Almost certainly. And yet:

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Yeah, it’s just a silly gif, and you could probably find a dozen lefty role players or minor league washouts or groundskeepers who swung like Bonds one time. Still, it’s something fun to hope on.

Prediction time: Belt plays a full season and plays so well that the Giants don’t mind resting Posey: .285/.385/.505, 25 homers, and a top-10 MVP finish. This is the year!

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13 Days Till Opening Day: Buster Posey’s 2015

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I feel like fully half the things I’ve ever written about baseball have been about Buster Posey, and I equally feel like that’s only half as many things as I’ve wanted to write about him (his name with hearts around it on my school binder doesn’t count.) He’s the best catcher in baseball and the best player on the Giants for five years running, and neither of those things will change this year. I don’t really expect the Giants to contend in 2015, not because of any odd-year bullshit but only because it isn’t a very talented roster, but I do expect Posey to perform at a near-MVP level and be an absolute joy to watch.

He gets compared to Jeter a lot, which isn’t entirely unfair, but which I think misses the point: Jeter was the face of the game’s most popular franchise and he collected plenty of rings, but the wholesomeness and flawless character was a media creation which only worked because he was so boring. He gave them nothing, so they created a hero ballplayer character they would’ve loved to read about as kids. In reality he was a conniving playboy who was always more about Jeter than about the Yankees.

Buster Posey isn’t a media creation. He really is as boring as he seems. He’s a handsome and articulate small-town Georgia boy who married his high school sweetheart and then had twins. It’s digusting. The only way he’d be comparable to Jeter would be if he were to cut the brakes on Andrew Susac’s car to keep him from taking over catcher and eventually moving Posey off the position.

Also straining the Posey/Jeter comparisons is the fact that Posey is a great defensive catcher and one of the best hitters in the game at any position, which means he’s one of the most valuable players in the game. It remains to be seen how much another deep postseason run will affect his power output (by the end of the World Series he could barely walk to the mound to celebrate), but he’ll still be good for at least 20 homers, and hopefully over 30 doubles, a mark he couldn’t manage last season (he hit 28.) It’s clear the power he showed in his MVP season—a ridiculous .549 slugging percentage—won’t be matched again.

The only potentially troubling sign from his otherwise stellar 2014 campaign was a much, much lower walk rate compared to years past: 11.3% in 2012, 10.1% in 2013, all the way down to 7.8% in 2014. This could be a statistical outlier, a concerted change in approach, or a sign of an aging Posey losing his great eye. The only problem with the latter theory is that walk rate is considered an “old player skill”, meaning it can improve with age, and he’s coupled that low walk rate with the lowest strikeout rate of his career, in a league that saw more strikeouts than ever before.

It’s probably nothing, and I expect the walks to return in 2015. Buster’s going to have a very solid year, something like his 2013 (where he likely felt the effects of 2012’s deep run), where he lost some power. I predict a .305/.380/.450 line, assuming the league’s offense doesn’t rebound because umpires stop calling the extremely low strike. I also hope that Buster only plays about 130 games this year, typical catcher stuff, because Belt has such a great season at first base that they won’t sit him against lefties and let Posey play instead. Probably unrealistic.

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14 Days Till Opening Day: Baseball is Boring

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Being an immigrant means taking on the role of full-time volunteer cultural liaison, wittingly or not. The most intentional way I perform this duty is by inviting people over to my flat to watch baseball during the summer. More than a few times my friends have obliged, come over and dutifully tried paying attention, maybe asking a question or two, but the end result is always the same: a palpable boredom. I always apologetically say something like Well, baseball is a game of rhythm, and you have to feel that rhythm to enjoy it, and that takes time. Or hey, it’s a lovely day anyway, right?

And so here comes the news about the league being concerned with the pace of play and the fact that baseball’s fan demographics are the oldest of the Big 4 sports leagues; to attract young kids, the thinking goes, the game needs to be quicker and more exciting.

It’s bullshit. Games have certainly gotten longer, maybe too long, but knocking an average of 10 minutes off the length of a baseball game with various clocks and timers is not how baseball is going to win over the hearts of teenage sports fans. The fact is this: baseball is supposed to be boring. Some would prefer to term “leisurely”, and that’s fine, but at its heart it’s a boring game. The premise of the game is “throw the ball and see if anything happens”, and everyone understands that the vast majority of the time, nothing much will. And that’s perfect.

When I sheepishly tell my Scottish friends about the rhythm of baseball, I mean that in the time between pitches, as the pitcher stares into space while applying rosin, or the batter does his absurd and overlong glove-tightening routine, you’re supposed to be doing something else: talking to a friend, or thinking about pitch selection and strategy, or having a sexual daydream that disgusts you. Take a bite of your hot dog, sip your beer, and empty your mind for a few seconds; even if the matchup is Price vs Ortiz, the inevitable thoughts of your mortality and eternal oblivion won’t be able to fully creep back in before the next pitch is delivered.

This is the point. Baseball isn’t an event, it’s a fixture. It can be exciting at times, like when you accidentally microwave a fork, but the point of the thing is to quietly and reliable do its job: pace lazy summer days and fill nice summer evenings. Other sports have their mid-season exhibitions of tedium between two hopeless teams, with vast, empty swathes of seats and poor television ratings, but in those other sports this is seen as deeply regrettable. In baseball, it’s as essential as a pennant race.

This is anathema to our society’s modern idea of entertainment. It needs to be loud, fast, and sexy, and it needs to be an event. And you just can’t make baseball any of those things without fundamentally changing it. There’s no doubt the league will contort the game into a grotesque, faint likeness of its former self if they think it will increase the chances a teenager asks for a Buster Posey jersey for Christmas, I just think it’ll be a shame.*

*These exact feelings were expressed when overhand pitching became legal, when the pitching box was moved back, when a foul began to count as a strike, when the Deadball era ended and home runs became a thing, when the color barrier was broken, when the mound was lowered, when the DH was implemented, when instant replay was implemented, on and on into the future until the last abandoned ballpark collapses in on itself.

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15 Days Till Opening Day: Effectively Wild

An essential part of my baseball life is the podcast from Baseball Prospectus, Effectively Wild. I started listening to it at the very beginning, when the hosts Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller said the idea was to do a daily, very short podcast, 15 minutes or so. This didn’t last long. Soon enough the episodes were regularly 20 minutes, even 30, and Sam would openly complain about the length creep while simultaneously being the largest source of the problem. Dude can talk and talk and talk, and that’s cool, because he’s really smart and funny. Shows are now on average 45 minutes, which is nearly long enough to take two dishwashing sessions, my primary listening time.

My favorite thing about the show is how absurd it can get. Baseball is a deeply silly game, and Miller in particular has a keen sense of it, which is a total blast to listen to if you’re a huge fuckin’ nerd like me. A steady refrain on the show is the question “If baseball were different, how different would it be?” It’s a lot of interesting thought exercises, novel Play Index searches, and just a ton of fun. I highly recommend it.

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16 Days Till Opening Day: Back to BABIP

Way back at the start of this project I wrote a bit of a primer to some advanced pitching statistics, centered around BABIP and the discovery that pitchers have much, much less control over what happens to a ball in play than previously thought. After reading that the scales surely fell from your eyes, and like Saul, you were baptized into the Church of Sabermetrics. But just in case you need a little more convincing, let’s talk a bit more about why ERA is, if not useless, deeply flawed.

Things get instructive at the extremes. Imagine a pitcher starts the game by walking the first three batters of the first inning, then the fourth batter hits into a triple play. The pitcher then does the same for the next five innings (assuming the manager allows this), finishing the game with 6 innings pitched, 18 walks, no strikeouts, six triple-plays induced, and no runs allowed. His ERA is 0.00, and he’s credited with a win.

No one would say this pitcher did a good job, even if the outcome of his efforts was positive for his team. It’s simple to imagine the opposite extreme, where a dominant pitcher is blooped and bled to death, ultimately giving up a ton of runs despite not pitching poorly. It happens all the time. Most fans will allow for the vagaries of luck over the course of a game, maybe even two. But here’s the thing: these streaks of good luck and bad luck can extend for entire seasons, or even longer. Think Ryan Vogelsong in 2011 with good luck, or James Shields in 2010 with bad luck. There were major corrections for both pitchers the following years, as the luck evened out.

The way to more accurately evaluate a player’s talent is to strip luck out of the equation as best you can. Here’s what pitchers can mostly control: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Good pitchers do at least two of those three things well; great pitchers do all three. There’s an easy ERA analogue that more accurately represents a pitcher’s talent level, and that’s FIP. It stands for Fielding Independent Pitching and it takes into account strikeouts, walks, and home runs, then scales the number to resemble ERA, so a good FIP is 3.00, a bad one is 5.00, and we can all relate to it easily.

Fangraphs.com also shows xFIP, which is a park and league-adjusted version of FIP, but which also corrects for fluctuations in HR/FB rate. HR/FB is as it says, the rate at which the flyballs a pitcher surrenders turn into home runs. Pitchers can experience good or bad luck with that, and unless a pitcher (like Kershaw mentioned in the prior article) has demonstrated a long track record of suppressing home runs, xFIP assumes a pitcher’s HR/FB rate will regress to the league average, which is a little over 10%.

We can all recall times when a pitcher gives up a loud out to the warning track, or a long fly ball that just barely scrapes over the left field fence. Those different outcomes don’t demonstrate a difference in pitcher skill; Ian Kinsler’s miracle double in Game 2 of the 2010 World Series didn’t stay in the park because Matt Cain was six inches a better pitcher. I rarely use xFIP, because there really are pitchers who have true talent HR/FB rates significantly above or below the league average and I don’t think it’s accurately representing them. Also, it’s more of a “what should’ve happened” stat than a “what did happen” one, and I prefer the latter.

Still, if you sort 2014’s pitchers by xFIP, you really do get the best pitchers who had the best seasons at the top. It works.

Evaluating pitching is really tricky, and the best method is to be holistic. Look at strikeouts and walks, look at groundball rate, look at strand rate, home run rate, ballparks, left/right splits, PitchF/X data like swinging strike rate and velocity, etc. It’s much easier to evaluate offense, which I will do in a future post.

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