The only rule is you have to listen

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You don’t have to if you don’t want to, of course, but if you would like to hear me on the latest episode of the Banished to the Pen Podcast, listening is required. Baseball discussion topics include my recent research on switch hitters and the defensive shift, as well as the new book from Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, The Only Rule Is It Has To Work.

The podcast episode is available for downloading or streaming here.

Catching Fire: Heading for the exit velocity

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Thanks to MLB Advanced Media’s new Statcast technology, fans can learn more than ever about the activity taking place on the field (and off it) during a baseball game. One such aspect into which Statcast offers insight is exit velocity, which refers to the speed with which a batted ball leaves a hitter’s bat. These velocities can communicate something meaningful about batter success. (Very generally, and possibly very obviously, higher exit velocity is better.)

Statcast came on-line last season, but there were significant flaws in its batted-ball data gathering in 2015. The shortcomings in the 2015 data will affect any analysis that relies on Statcast information from that season, and while Statcast seems to be doing a better job of gathering a more complete set of batted-ball data this year, some imperfections remain. Fortunately, it appears that those imperfections– apparently due in part to differences in hardware installations at each park– can be accounted for. Baseball Prospectus now publishes something called adjusted exit velocity, which aims to control for various influences on Statcast-measured exit velocity that are outside batters’ control. (None of those adjustments can recapture the data the system failed to collect in 2015, of course.)

Early in the season, I went to the Statcast well to compare home runs by Anthony Gose and Giancarlo Stanton. The purpose of this post is not to undermine lazy media narratives but to present a simple comparison between various Detroit Tigers’ adjusted exit velocities in 2015 and so far in 2016.

Keeping in mind the imperfections in the source data, here are the 2015 and to-date 2016 adjusted exit velocities (in miles per hour) of the Tigers’ primary hitters who played for the team in both seasons:

adjev15-16det

While recalling that we still are dealing with small sample sizes for 2016, particularly for James McCann, who’s spent much of the young season injured, and Anthony Gose, who now is down in the minors, I’d guess that the differences in adjusted exit velocity roughly comport with how well fans think each hitter is performing this year: Miguel Cabrera hasn’t heated up yet; J.D. Martinez has been struggling since moving to the second spot in the lineup after a hot start batting deeper in the order; Nick Castellanos has been breaking out; Victor Martinez is healthy again and showing it; Ian Kinsler seems to be in fine form yet again (credit those Jack White-designed bats?); and Jose Iglesias is continuing to rely on weak contact.

Cabrera was second overall in adjusted exit velocity last season, so his drop-off seems like a possible source of concern. Sluggers like Cabrera can take a while to warm up, though, so it’s not unreasonable to think that his adjusted exit velocity will climb as the current season progresses. (Cf. Giancarlo Stanton, 2015’s adjusted exit velocity champ, who, so far in 2016, is down 9.4 MPH.)

The elder Martinez has the largest change of any of the highlighted batters in either direction, but his 2015 doesn’t offer much of a baseline because he was playing through obvious injury. It therefore is reasonable to assume that some portion of that +3.0 MPH of adjusted exit velocity is due to a return to health.

Not only do these changes in adjusted exit velocity correlate with anecdotal observations of these players this season, but they also– loosely but consistently across this sample– track changes in raw power (measured as isolated power, or ISO):   Continue reading

Catching Fire: Boy, the starters need to carry that weight a longer time

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The Detroit Tigers’ new starting pitcher, Jordan Zimmermann, has been excellent in 2016. He’s only allowed two earned runs in five starts, all Detroit wins,  and he didn’t allow a single run of any variety through his first three games. He’s been the number-one starter the Tigers needed, especially with Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez offering good-but-not-great performances as they settle into the season. Ostensible fourth starter Mike Pelfry has not been good at all, posting career-worst numbers virtually across the board. Shane Greene started strong, as he did last season, but a blister has temporarily sidelined him, which allowed the team’s top prospect, Michael Fulmer, to snag a big-league start in Greene’s absence. Daniel Norris showed promise as a starter last season and this spring, but he’s currently on a rehab assignment recovering from a back injury.

As a group, the rotation has been decent, and there are indications that they’ll continue to improve, especially if Verlander can find his groove now that news of his preseason engagement to Kate Upton is public and healthy mixtures of Greene, Norris, and Fulmer can replace Pelfry before too long.

Overall, this is good news for Tigers fans, who also are enjoying a blissful period of strange and unusual– in light of the team’s recent history– bullpen success. After a month of play, this feels like a satisfyingly complete team.

One potential cause for concern (a Tigers fan always can locate at least one) in all of this good news is that the shiny new Detroit bullpen may have been on display a bit too much through this first month of the season. It’s lovely that they’ve been doing so well, but they need to last to October. I don’t think Brad Ausmus has done a poor job of allocating relief innings among his bullpen staff in 2016, but I think his starters’ collective failure to pitch late into games so far this year has forced him to make more calls to the pen than he’d have preferred at this point.

In fact, among American League teams, only the Orioles are getting less in the way of innings pitched from their rotation than the Tigers:

ip-g 5-2-16 (starters)

Viewed from back to front instead of front to back also finds Detroit essentially tied with Baltimore for the AL lead in relief innings pitched per game:

ip-g 5-2-16 (relievers)

The beginning of May finds the Tigers with a comfortable 14-10 springtime record. We knew the early part of their schedule would be difficult, so it isn’t surprising that the path to 14-10 was somewhat akin to that of a roller coaster. It also is not unreasonable to expect that better teams would chase starters earlier in games than usual.

Even if the heavy bullpen usage has been justified, or, at least, explainable, it isn’t a trend Detroit should try to continue, for obvious reasons, and if you weren’t certain how to interpret this information, a glance at the bad company the Tigers are keeping at each end of the above graphs should offer undeniable clarification of any lingering doubt.

The team has the opportunity to reverse this course tonight, when their once (and future) workhorse takes the hill in Cleveland and tries to reverse a losing trend of his own.

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Previously
Catching Fire: Who’s Number Two? – 5/2

Related
Statements both obvious and only slightly less obvious about the Detroit Tigers’ finances
Shift the shift: Victor Martinez and counter-strategies
Feel like they never tell you the story of the Gose?
Getting to know Jordan Zimmermann in context
Highlights from MLB Network’s visit to Detroit Tigers spring training
2016 Detroit Tigers Season Preview: They’re Not Dead Yet

Catching Fire: Who’s Number Two?

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The 2016 MLB season is about a month old, which means that this year’s Detroit Tigers series is off to a bit of a late start. The series title is a reference both to this post, which will examine the Tigers’ catcher options, and to what the team needs to do this season in order to earn a playoff spot in a beefed-up American League Central.   Continue reading

The fight in Claressa Shields (via ESPNW)

During the 2012 London Olympics, Claressa Shields stood in the ring, stone-faced and focused. Her opponent was tough, but was not nearly as tough as the obstacles Shields beat to get to this very moment. With every jab, every uppercut, every blow, Shields thought about why she needed to be triumphant. She needed to win for herself and her hometown of Flint, Michigan. Most importantly, she needed to win for her family.

It was a tall order for the then-17-year-old, but just as she was in the challenges before, Shields was tenacious in her quest for victory. The first American woman to win Olympic gold in boxing is a title anyone would be proud of, but the lack of attention — as well as endorsements — she received upon her return was disheartening. Unbowed, Shields remained hungry. With her insatiable appetite and support from friends and family, the 21-year-old will return to the ring at the 2016 Rio Olympics hoping to become the first female boxer to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals. From 2012 to 2016, photographer and filmmaker Zackary Canepari documented Shields’ Olympic journey. Here is how her story unfolded. … Read More

(via ESPNW)

Statements both obvious and only slightly less obvious about the Detroit Tigers’ finances

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By now, everyone knows The Narrative governing all things Detroit Tigers baseball: the team needs to Win Now because they have lots of money locked up in a few long-term player contracts, and, as those players age, the team’s Window Is Closing. And it’s true: the team has some expensive contracts on the books. Here’s a rough visual, created from the data available on Baseball-Reference:

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(Click here for an expanded view.) Besides noticing that I have not recently viewed Anibal Sanchez’s player page, you can see that a number of today’s already-very-familiar Detroit baseball faces are likely to remain as such for a number of additional seasons, and at significant cost to the team. This is known and obvious. That this aggregated fact has real and, on balance, probably adverse consequences for the team’s future– the ability to re-sign J.D. Martinez comes to mind– also is, if less precisely quantifiable, known and obvious.   Continue reading

An Open Market Solution to Salary Arbitration (via The Hardball Times)

The arbitration process is intended to mimic the market value of players, but it falls short in several ways. Precedents based on outdated player evaluation methods mean that arbitration values can vary significantly from market values. The comparables-based system that relies heavily on past salaries has difficulty adjusting to economic changes, as well as adjusting for multi-year contracts and extensions to arrive at an equivalent valuation for a one-year contract.

The system has proven unable to keep up with rising revenues and market values, and the amount arbitration-eligible players receive relative to comparable free agents has been decreasing over the past couple decades.

An open-market system based on the restricted free agent model used in other sports addresses these issues, and can be modified to fit the peculiarities of MLB’s arbitration system if so desired. This might seem like a radical change to bring to a system so entrenched in the game, but MLB has used a similar open-market solution to address the problem with free agent compensation in the past. … Read More

(via The Hardball Times)

Shift the shift: Victor Martinez and counter-strategies

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The defensive shift– repositioning infielders from their conventional locations in response to a particular batter’s hitting tendencies– may be the most significant development in baseball defense since pitchers started actually trying to miss bats with their pitches. The basic idea is that defenses can take advantage of certain hitters who are known to possess extreme tendencies in terms of batted ball direction by loading up their infield defense in line with that batter’s tendencies.

David Ortiz is a decent example of a batter with a definite tendency to hit the ball in a particular direction. Here is a spray chart showing where he hit every ball during the 2012-2014 seasons:

dortizspray2012-14

Ortiz is a top-tier power hitter, so it isn’t surprising that he’s peppered the entire field. Focusing on his ground balls, though, reveals a pretty strong tendency to hit grounders to the right side of the infield. Opposing teams noticed and began to counter Ortiz defensively by shifting against him.

Probably the most common way to arrange a defensive shift is to move the second baseman into shallow right field, move the shortstop to the first-base side of second base, and shade the third baseman heavily toward second base. Teams also employ less and more extreme variations of this basic shift. Because a fielder needs to remain close to first base, teams almost exclusively shift to overload the right side of the infield. This, in turn, means that teams almost always shift, if at all, against left-handed hitters, who, as a population, generally hit the ball to the right. Ortiz is a lefty, and his spray chart evidences the expected pattern.

No player faced a full defensive shift more than Ortiz in 2015, when opposing defenses shifted on more than sixty-three-percent of his plate appearances. The most effective antidote for the shift is a bunt to the exposed third-base side, but Ortiz, now at forty years old and at least 6’3″ and 230 pounds, has not been the bunting sort of late or, really, ever. He’s a big, left-handed power hitter in the last year of his career, and, as concerns the defensive shift, he’s just going to have to take his lumps.

A little further down that list of 2015’s most-shifted appears Victor Martinez in the #22 spot. Martinez spent much of 2015 injured, so he only made 485 plate appearances, seeing a full shift on roughly forty-three percent of them. Like Ortiz, Martinez is heavier, slow, and hits from the left side, and his 2012-2014 spray chart shows similar batted-ball tendencies to Ortiz’s:

vmartspray2012-14lh

One way in which Martinez is unlike Ortiz, though, is that, while both bat left-handed, Martinez also bats right-handed. Continue reading