Archive for May 2016

Better Living through Technology

May 30, 2016

A friend asked me what I thought about a recent article by Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle, by which I assume my friend wanted to know what I thought about the idea of taking the ball-strike calls away from the home plate umpire and using a computerized, electronic device of some kind to determine whether pitches do on do not break the three dimensional rectangle of the strike zone.

Jenkins’ main objection to home plate umpires continuing to make the ball/strike calls, as they have done for the last  150+ years, is that each umpire calls his own strike zone, which leads to inconsistency in application.  Also, of course, all umpires sometimes just miss pitches.

I think the main problem with replacing umpires with machines, is that I am uncertain whether machines would really be as infallible as some people think.  For example, one obvious problem with using a machine is that a batter’s stance in the box often changes between the moment the pitch is released and the moment it arrives at home plate.

Further, even assuming the right computer would fix the batter’s stance at the moment it arrives at the plate, there are other issues.  For example, Ricky Henderson batted out of a deep crouch.  If he wanted to swing at a pitch, he came up out of the crouch.  If he determined before the pitch reached home plate that it was not a pitch he would swing at, he sometimes stayed down in his crouch.  Umpires were instructed to judge Henderson’s strike zone based on his batting stance, not when he was in the deep crouch.  A machine would need a way to take these factors into account.

I also think it would be very difficult for a machine to determine the upper and lower limits of the strike zone, as opposed to the corners, which should be much easier to determine.  Specifically, it isn’t always easy to tell exactly where the top and bottom of the strike zone exist for every plate and every at-bat.

The current MLB definition of the strike zone is from the bottom of the knees up to “a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants.”  In either case, the actual determination of where a uniformed player’s knee bottom and midpoint between top of shoulder and the top of uniform pants is more subject to interpretation than you might think.

For a batter who stands upright in the box, it will be more difficult to determine exactly where the bottom of his knee, than a player who bends his knee.  A computer applying the upper limit rule as written would result in more hitters wearing their baseball trousers lower on their hips.  Bear in mind that if there are any exploitable flaws in an electronic ball/strike calling system, major league teams will quickly figure out how to exploit it to their advantage.

There is also the human element of umpires, rather than machines, calling balls and strikes.  Finally, the MLB umpires’ union might well strike if ball/strike calls were taken away from the home plate umpire, because it would be an obvious threat to their livelihoods.

All of that said, if a proposed electronic system could take the potential glitches into account and produce a more consistent strike zone, it would create a more level playing field for everyone.  It has long been the rule players and managers are not allowed to contest ball/strike calls, reflecting the fact that it is very difficult for a human to determine if a close pitch is a ball or a strike, leading to differences of opinion and occasional blown calls.  If an electronic system had buy-in from players, managers and coaches, it would eliminate a lot of the hurt feelings and issues arising from disputed ball strike calls.

It would change the game fairly dramatically, however.  Pitch framing by catchers would become a thing of the past, and veteran pitchers and hitters who command the strike zone from either side of the pitch and also know each human umpire’s tendencies, would not have the advantage they currently enjoy.  On the other hand, rookie hitters and pitchers wouldn’t get squeezed on the strike zone the way they often do now.

I would also expect that use of an electronic strike zone would result in more high and more inside strikes and fewer low and fewer outside strikes being called than are called now, which could result in changes in offensive output and more hit batsmen, since pitchers would aim for the inside corner more often.

The Best Place for a Young Pitcher Is Middle Relief

May 28, 2016

Earl Weaver said this at least 30 years ago, and it’s still true.  In hind-sight, the Dodgers would have been wiser not to start Julio Urias today, and instead put him at the bottom of the bullpen where his first major league appearance could be in garbage time when the pressure is a whole lot less.

I have to admit that I was caught up in the moment too, because Urias really is an exciting prospect.  He’s been on the radar of every serious prospect watcher since at least the end of his first professional season, when he had a 2.48 ERA in the full-season class A Midwest League with 67 Ks in 54.1 innings pitched at the age of 16.

He was so good in seven AAA Pacific Coast League starts this year, with a 1.10 ERA in 41 innings pitched that one could reasonably, or at least hopefully, think that the normal rules didn’t apply.

In fact, Weaver’s rule is probably more true for a prospect as strong as Urias.  With a prospect like him, the main thing is not to ruin his confidence by promoting him to soon, rather than letting the prospect’s own talent force a promotion to the next level.

Urias had forced a major league promotion by his pitching in the hitter-friendly PCL.  However, the Dodgers didn’t have to start him in his very first game.  Let him dominate major league hitters several times in two-to-four-inning stints in uneven games first.

In fact, because Urias will have his innings limited to a modest 110 or 120 innings this year, including the AAA innings already pitched (at least so has been reported), due to his tender age and super prospect status, there was no reason to rush Urias into the starting rotation before he had gotten his feet wet.

As a Giants fan, I always like see the Bums do something stupid, but as a baseball fan I’d like to see Urias developed into an ace, at least until he blows out his arm.  Putting Urias directly into the starting rotation right away has a faint scent of desperation, simply because the Giants had opened up a five-game lead on the Dodgers in late May.   Still too early in the season to put Urias into the starting rotation right away.

Somebody Should Sign Telvin Nash

May 27, 2016

Telvin Nash is a 25-year old slugger playing for the York Revolution of the Atlantic League, the best of the Independent-A leagues.  His 1.047 OPS leads the league by a bunch.  The next closest player with at least 100 plate appearances 34 games into the 2016 season is at an even .900.

Nash spent seven seasons in the Houston Astros organization, where he showed a lot of power.  He hit 29 home runs for the Lancaster JetHawks in the Class A+ California League at age 21, and he hit 22 HRs for the Corpus Christi Hooks of the AA Texas League in 2014 at age 23.

The problem is Nash didn’t hit for much of an average, and he strikes out an enormous amount, 198 times in 449 plate appearance in 2012 and 112 times in 321 plate appearances in 2014, the two years he hit all those home runs.  Still, his career minor league slash line of .241/.336/.479, suggests that Nash had some potential as a hitter.

Nash didn’t improve in 2015 back at Corpus Christi, batting .228, but with a .774 OPS, and the Astros cut him after he had played in 30 games.  Nash also appears either to have missed a lot of time with injury, or he was being platooned in several of his minor league seasons.  I also have to assume that his defense is not very good.

Nash hit well in 64 games for the Revolution last season after getting cut by the Astros.  However, he’s hitting a lot better this year more than 30 games into the 2016 season.

Nash is still young enough to have an MLB future, and his power is very real.  Somebody should sign him soon and give him another shot at AA ball, the sooner the better.

Jarrett Parker Back and Still Swinging for the Fences

May 25, 2016

The San Francisco Giants promoted Jarrett Parker again to replace the injured Angel Pagan, and Parker was quick to leave his mark, hitting a two-run homer to center in last night’s game against the Padres.  After Parker’s torrid September last season, a lot of people have been eager to see him get more opportunities at the highest level.

Parker got off to a slow start at AAA Sacramento this year after a fairly strong Spring Training, but he has been hitting more lately, now tied for the Pacific Coast League lead with 13 home runs and a slash line of .281/.366/.615.

After last night’s game, Parker’s major league slash line this season is .250/.400./.625 in ten plate appearances.  In my mind, this is pretty much exactly what the Giants can hope for if things go right for Parker.  He strikes out too much to be likely to maintain a batting average much above .250 in regular major league play, but he’ll take a walk, and his power is very real.

Parker was a tools draft pick, and it has taken him a long time to develop.  He’s now 27, but he runs well, and he’s got that power, so there is still a reasonable chance for him to have an MLB career if he can take advantage of his opportunities this season.  If he doesn’t, there’s a good chance he’ll end up in Asia in a couple of years.

The Golden Age of the Bean Ball

May 24, 2016

One of the tropes you commonly hear about major league baseball is how tough the players were back in the olden days and how quick pitchers once were to throw at hitters in a way they aren’t in these more civilized days.  I’m sure you’ve heard how Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, etc. would automatically throw at any hitter who had the temerity to dig in, crowd the plate, etc.

As any of this actually true?  Probably not.  Today I looked at all 232 seasons in which a pitcher hit at least 18 batters in a season.

The Golden Age of the Bean Ball was between 1884 and 1910, when the vast majority of these seasons occurred.  This was an era of dirty baseballs, late afternoon games, far more innings pitched by starters, and many rule changes regarding the manor in which the pitcher pitched and then threw the ball toward the plate.

Since 1920 and the advent of the live-ball era, the current generation (1998-2015) contains far and away the most pitchers to plunk at least 18 batters in a season.  Don’t take my word for it — here are the numbers by season:

1922:  Howard Ehmke 23

1923:  Howard Ehmke 20; Walter Johnson 20

1959:  Don Drysdale 18

1960: Frank Lary 19

1961: Don Drysdale 19

1962:  Jim Kaat 18

1966: Jim Bunning 19

1967: Jim Lonborg 19

1992: Randy Johnson 18

1998: Rolando Arroyo 19

2000: Jamie Wright 18

2001: Jamie Wright 20, Chan-ho Park 20, Randy Johnson 18, Tim Wakefield 18

2003:  Kerry Wood 21

2004: Bronson Arroyo 20, Carlos Zambrano 20

2005: Casey Fossum 18, Jeff Weaver 18

2006: Dontrelle Willis 19,Ramon Ortiz 18, Dave Bush 18

2007: Justin Verlander 18

2008: Daniel Cabrera 18

2010: A.J. Burnett 19

2011: John Lackey 19

2014: Charlie Morton 19

In short, there have been almost twice as many times that a pitcher has plunked at least 18 batters in a season in the last 18 full seasons (19 times) as there were in the previous 78 seasons (10 times).  There was an HBP surge in the 1960’s, led by Don Drysdale and Jim Bunning, two hard-throwers who are both in the top 20 all-time for career plunkings, which is probably where this era gets it reputation for toughness.

However, these numbers suggest that pitchers today are every bit as willing, if not more so, to pitch inside in order to control the strike zone and prevent hitters from feeling too comfortable at the dish.  In terms of career HBP totals, there isn’t much to suggest that pitchers were once willing to throw at or near hitters any more than they are today, at least once one takes into account the far fewer innings pitched that today’s starters throw than in years past.


Intentional Walks

May 22, 2016

Someone recently wrote a dumb article arguing that the intentional walks should be discouraged by advancing base runners even when there are bases open, essentially turning the intentional walk into a single.  The impetus for this article was the May 8 game in which the Cubs walked Bryce Harper six times and hit him with a pitch in seven plate appearances.  The Cubs won the game in 13 innings 4-3.

The basic argument of the article was that fans don’t want to see the game’s best hitters pitched around.  That makes a certain amount of sense.  However, there are a couple of obvious flaws with the argument.

First, it’s a little late in the day for this change.  Pitchers and teams have been pitching around the game’s best hitters at least since the days of Babe Ruth and the rise of home runs in 1920, and probably since the heavy hitting days of the 1890’s.

Second, baseball is supposed to be a team game.  An intentional walk is almost always a failed strategy if the next batter reaches base safely.  If a team has one great hitter in the heart of its line-up, but no one else that can hit, why shouldn’t the opposing team be able to take advantage of that fact by pitching around the team’s only strong hitter?

That’s exactly what the Cubs did in all four games of that series against the Nationals, which the Cubs swept.  The Cubs won all four games by no more than three runs, and Harper scored only three runs in spite of reaching base 14 times without hitting safely, so obviously the strategy worked.  Why shouldn’t the onus be on the Nats to find somebody who can hit behind Harper to make other teams pay for employing this tactic?

Finally, and most importantly, I don’t see any way to for the plate umpire to determine whether or not a pitcher is intentionally trying to walk a batter if the intentional walk is eliminated and pitchers simply elect to throw four pitches out of the strike zone without the catcher stepping out from behind the plate.  Presumably, in the early days of baseball, pitchers simply threw four pitches out of the strike zone when they didn’t want a certain hitter to have an opportunity to hit, and at some point, teams did away with the pretense of trying to look like the pitcher was pitching to the hitter in good faith but not throwing strikes.

Pitchers pitch to the game’s best hitters very carefully anyway.  Making the plate umpire decide whether or not a pitcher is missing the strike zone intentionally would lead to a lot of arbitrary decisions or would simply be ignored.

An analogous comparison is allowing umpires to deny the batter a base after the batter is hit by a pitch if the umpire thinks the batter didn’t try to get out of the way.  This rule is almost always ignored, even for batters who every one knows don’t try to get out of the way (Don Baylor) or who appear to be moving out of the way but are actually moving into the pitch (Ron Hunt).  As a result, the rare instances when the rule is enforced, for example during Don Drysdale‘s scoreless innings pitched streak when his plunking of Dick Dietz wasn’t called, allowing the streak to continue, always seem arbitrary and capricious.

MLB has only been keeping track of intentional walks since 1955.  What is interesting about the stats is except for when Barry Bonds was juicing hard between 2001 and 2004 and hitting like Babe Ruth‘s big brother, the record for intentional walks for a season is Willie McCovey‘s 45 in 1969.

Since the end of the Steroids Era, it’s not at all clear that intentional walks are much more common now than they were before the Steroids Era.  It’s also worth noting that the intentional walk appears to be much more of a National League strategy, perhaps because of the DH in the AL, with the top 17 single season intentional walks totals recorded in the Senior Circuit.  Further, walking Barry Bonds as much as teams did between 2001 and 2004 does not appear to have been particularly effective, as the Giants won more than 100 games more than they lost during those four seasons.

Good time for a trivia question — who holds the American League single season record for intentional walks?  Answer below.

Anyway, what got me thinking about this issue again is that MLB is reportedly discussing a rule to make the intentional walk automatic, meaning that the defensive team could simply advise the umpire of its intent to issue an intentional walk without the need for four wide pitches.  Presumably, the purpose of the new rule, if formally approved, is to speed up the game.

MLB is also discussing reducing the strike zone from the bottom of the knees to the top of the knees.  If enacted and enforced by the umpires, this is anticipated to boost offense.  More offense means more intentional walks, as the cost of the intentional walk (a free base) is less when the league’s best hitters become more productive offensively.

The American League record for intentional walks in a season is 33, set my Ted Williams in 1957 and matched by John Olerud in 1993.

What Foreign Players Are Most Likely to Succeed in Japan’s NPB?

May 17, 2016

I’ve been following Japanese baseball for the last 20 years, and I still don’t have an extremely clear idea on which foreign players will succeed in NPB and which will not.  I have a few ideas on the subject, but I can name exceptions to just about all of them.

The single most important factor is talent level.  Players who should be MLB stars, based on their minor league performance, but for some reason weren’t able to establish themselves in MLB; and position players who can hit at the major league level but don’t have enough power for the positions at which they can provide adequate MLB defense, tend to do well in NPB.  So do late-bloomers who establish themselves as major league caliber hitters in AAA in their age 26 or 27 seasons.

However, NPB teams are extremely good at identifying and signing these players, but they don’t all succeed fast enough in NPB to stick around more than one season.  Meanwhile, Tony Blanco established himself as a major NPB star, despite not accomplishing all that much in many years in the MLB system (injuries appear to have played a role).

In my mind, the ideal age for a North American player to start his NPB career is his age 27 or 28 season, at least in terms of having a long NPB career.  Players younger than 27 usually either aren’t willing to give up their MLB dream just yet, and if they are, it is typically a reflection of the fact that their talent level isn’t quite high enough.

Even so, many players who are the right age don’t last in NPB, because they don’t perform at a high enough level immediately.  NPB wants its foreign players to be stars immediately and are rarely willing to develop highly paid foreigners who show promise but not enough actual production in their first NPB seasons.

Two good examples of this are Dan Johnson and Matt Clark.  Dan Johnson, a proven MLB hitter and high 4-A talent, hit only .215, but with 24 HRs and a .791 OPS, in his age 29 season for the 2009 Yokohama Bay Stars.  However, he had signed a roughly $1 million contract with the Bay Stars based on his MLB track record, and the Bay Stars weren’t willing to bring him back for a second season.

Matt Clark hit .238, but with 25 HRs and a .785 OPS, in his age 26 season for the 2013 Chunichi Dragons.  Given his age and fact that his reported deal only cost the team about $450,000, the Dragons’ decision not to bring him back in 2014 struck me as extremely short-sighted.

NPB teams often sign over age 30 players with proven MLB track records precisely in the hopes that they will get immediate performance.  These players tend to be expensive, and while they succeed often enough to keep NPB teams signing these types of players, most are on the downside of their careers and either can’t make the adjustments to Japanese baseball or can’t stay healthy.  This year, for example, Jonny Gomes has already washed out of NPB in less than two months, and Garrett Jones is now struggling (.224 batting average, .747 OPS) in spite of a fast start.

In the case of Jones and Gomes, I tend to think that former major leaguers who held their MLB roster spots because of their dramatic platoon differentials don’t tend to do well in NPB, where they are paid to play every day but typically find they can’t hit NPB pitchers when they don’t have the platoon advantage.  However, Dayan Viciedo, who had a big platoon differential in almost 1,800 career MLB plate appearances, is thumping the ball so far in his NPB rookie season (.314 batting average, 1.030 OPS).  Of course, Viciedo is still only 27 years old this season.

On the other hand, Brad Eldred, a 4-A player who didn’t join NPB until his age 31 season (he turned 32 in July of his rookie NPB year), has gradually and despite frequent injuries, established himself as a big NPB star.  He’s the second best hitter in NPB so far this year in terms of OPS (1.116) even though he turns 36 in a couple of months.

Among pitchers, guys with major league stuff but not quite major league command often have success.  Marc Kroon and Denis Sarfate are good examples. However, long-time project Erik Cordier (he has a 100 mph fastball), hasn’t shown adequate command at the NPB level this year either.

Also, guys who are bottom the bullpen MLB pitchers have recently had success moving on to a bigger role in NPB.  Randy Messenger, Logan Ondrusek and Marcos Mateo are examples.

Others, however, are fairly standard 4-A types who happened to make it in Japanese baseball, like Rick van den Hurk, Jason Standridge and Brandon Dickson.  van den Hurk used South Korea’s KBO to work his way up to NPB.