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Evaluating Mauer’s new contract

Now that Mauer has signed his contract extension, paying him $23M per season from 2011-2018, let’s take a look at how the contract values Mauer as a player, and also how much the Twins paid per win.

It’s tough to pin down exactly what Mauer’s true talent level is — he just posted an 8.1 WAR (partial) season, which is incredible, and also has two 6 WAR seasons and two ~3 WAR seasons under his belt. Meanwhile, those values do not account for how good he is behind the plate.

At Fangraphs, both CHONE and the FANS project him to 7.3 WAR for 2010, which seems reasonable; I think it’ll be helpful to look at this contract in a few different scenarios: 7.0 WAR (in case his talent lies lower than the CHONE projection), 7.3 WAR (the projection is accurate), and 8.0 WAR (either the power wasn’t an illusion and he can keep this up, or we take his excellent defense into account and add a win).

I’ll assume that he stays at this value through age 30, and then starts to decline at 5% per year* after that.

* In a previous analysis I had assumed a 0.5 WAR per year decline, which seemed like a really fast decline. I’ve seen 5% per year used at Fangraphs.

Here are the annual win values the Twins can expect to get from Mauer based on our three options for his current true talent level:

True talent level: 7.0 WAR
7.0, 7.0, 7.0, 6.65, 6.3, 6.0, 5.7, 5.4
Total: 51.1 WAR

True talent level: 7.3 WAR
7.3, 7.3, 7.3, 6.9, 6.6, 6.3, 5.9, 5.6
Total: 53.3 WAR

True talent level: 8.0 WAR
8.0, 8.0, 8.0, 7.6, 7.2, 6.9, 6.5, 6.2
Total: 58.4 WAR

Note: I rounded to one decimal point for display, but not in the calculations. So if these numbers don’t appear to add up exactly right, that’s why.

Obviously, that’s a lot of wins that the Twins are getting, regardless of which one is “true.” But at the same time, they’re paying a lot of money for it. This is the fourth largest contract in MLB history, behind ARod, ARod,* and Jeter.

* What people never seem to point out about ARod’s first mega-deal, the $252M one, is that he opted out with three years left on it, eschewing like $80M in salary. So the amount he actually got PAID from that contract is less than Mauer’s new deal. Just saying.

So what rate are the Twins paying, given that they’re handing over $184M?

In scenario 1, where Mauer’s a 7 WAR player, they’re paying $3.6M/win. In scenario 2, where Mauer’s a 7.3 WAR player, they’re paying $3.45M/win. In scenario 3, where Mauer’s an 8 WAR player, they’re paying just $3.15M/win.

Basically, the Twins just inked a deal locking in today’s depressed market rates for nine years into the future. We then have to balance that against the fact that he’ll be the highest-paid catcher in the league for the entire life of the deal, and he’ll be 35 years old in the final year — of course, if we look at Jorge Posada’s aging process, maybe that won’t be a huge problem.

And in case you were wondering, if the Twins had had to sign this contract in the economic environment of two years ago, when wins cost $4.5M apiece on the market, this same contract would have been worth either $230M, $240M, or $262M. Wow.

My dad thinks it was pointless for Mauer to have wasted a few years in the minor leagues — he’s a once-in-a-generation talent, who was one of the best defensive catchers in the majors at age 18, and so overmatched his minor league opposition at every level that they simply pitched around him. In hindsight, we’ve learned that his swing didn’t change at all since high school, and in fact nothing about his game (or his sideburns, for that matter) has changed. I don’t think it’s crazy to think Mauer would have found success at age 19, rather than waiting until he was 21 to make his debut (and 22 until his first full season). Might he even have another batting title (or two) under his belt right now?

Of course we’ll never know what would have happened, and what his career might have looked like. But if it had been exactly the same, and the only difference was that he signed this extension two years ago, the Twins would have had to pay a much higher rate per win. And because they delayed bringing him up, they potentially saved $50-80M over 8 years. From the team’s perspective, I sure wouldn’t call that pointless.

So is the deal, in the end, a good one? It’s practically impossible to call any 8 year, $184M contract a “team-friendly” one, so I won’t. But I will say that the Twins’ front office has shown itself to be eager to take advantage of the current market rate to lock in long-term deals, and thus deserves some credit for “astuteness” rather than simply “luck” in taking the opportunity to lock in perhaps the most valuable player in the game for the lion’s share of his career.

And it’s been a while since anyone could realistically call the Twins’ front office “astute” with a straight face.


Span’s Baserunning

If you feel like I’ve been posting about Denard Span a lot, you’re right! That’s what you get for having a CF-playing leadoff hitter who keeps doing interesting things like running his own Twitter account and signing team-friendly extensions and such. So deal with it.

This time around, it’s Span’s speed and baserunning ability that step to the foreground. Buster Olney passes along some quick bits from Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information (insider only):

“Span stole only 23 bases last season (tied for 32nd in MLB), but that statistic really doesn’t give a complete picture of his baserunning ability. According to, Span accumulated 29 Bases Taken (includes bases advanced on fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks and defensive indifference), the second-highest total in the majors last season. Here’s the list of the highest from last season:

David Wright – 31
Denard Span – 29
Troy Tulowitzki – 27
Dexter Fowler – 27

Here’s another impressive stat for the speedy Span: He had a .667 batting average on bunts (10 hits, 15 at-bats), which is nearly double the major league average of .376.

As I understand it, Fangraphs’ WAR does not include baserunning, which means these Bases Taken increases Span’s actual value significantly, and I didn’t take it into account when determining whether his contract was a good one.

The aggressive base-taking skills combined with the excellent speed that it takes to go 10/15 on bunts should mean that Span has the ability to steal considerably more than 23 bases in a season; of course, base stealing is a skill that Denard may not have developed yet, but I’d be curious to see what he can do once he does.

While it’s generally considered a bad idea to try to steal bases with your best hitters at the plate (because you don’t want to take the bat out of their hands), it seems to me that the fact that Orlando Hudson and Joe Mauer both ground into a ton of double plays should encourage the Twins to work with Span-the-speedy-onbase-machine to take the next step in becoming the ultimate leadoff hitter, and start stealing second base to take the GIDP off the list of possibilities for Hudson’s and Mauer’s plate appearances.

So what do you think? Should Span be trying to steal more? How many bases do you think he’s capable of stealing in a season? 30? 40? Let me know in the comments.


An improved defense may mean more than you think

I’ve thought for a while that a pitcher can help out his defense by working quickly and throwing strikes. When I was young and still played, I found that being in the field was a whole lot more fun when the pitcher was putting the ball over the plate (and, in turn, the batters were putting the ball in play). If you can reasonably expect a ball to be hit at you at any time, you’re engaged the entire time — and if you’re not, the manager notices your crappy defense and attitude sticking out from the rest of the team who are engaged.

On the other hand, when the pitcher couldn’t find the zone, was stalling between pitches, and was walking guys, I wasn’t alone among the fielders in getting bored. And when you’re bored, you’re less ready to leap into action on the off-chance the ball actually does come into play.

So one area in which I think defensive metrics have plenty of room to improve is in figuring out just how much this interplay between a pitcher and his fielders exists and (more importantly) how much it matters to run prevention. Does the efficacy of the defense change depending on anything the pitcher does? When Scott Baker or Mark Buehrle work quickly, does their defense play better than when another pitcher wastes as much time as he can out there? Does Kevin Slowey’s propensity to pound the strike zone encourage his defenders to stay more alert than, say, Clayton Kershaw or AJ Burnett?

I don’t know. Nobody has any numbers for that yet.

But there’s also the possibility that this interplay works in the opposite direction. From an interview with CJ Wilson:

The moral of the story is that a guy like me or Feldman or whatever, who was a reliever, that wants to be a starter for Texas, that should be just an overall positive thing that the organization has come a long way (from years ago) when we had such a stigma attached to being a pitcher in Texas. Now, it’s like people are really excited to play here, to pitch with Elvis Andrus at shortstop, and Mike Young at third base, and Kinsler at second and Chris Davis at first. For me, that’s a big thing for us, is that our defense is so much better that people are excited to be pitchers now for us.

And that’s definitely interesting. For the longest time, pitchers didn’t want to pitch in Arlington, and free agents wouldn’t sign with the Rangers for that very reason. At the time, everyone blamed that on the “bandbox” nature of the stadium; after all, pitchers don’t want to pitch in an environment virtually guaranteed to induce more home runs.

But maybe, just maybe, it was never the stadium after all? If pitchers don’t like giving up home runs, maybe the reason is that they just don’t like giving up runs in the first place. And there’s no doubt that for many years, the Rangers were an offensively-oriented team, with sluggers and run producers throughout the lineup but nary a defensive whiz to be found.

And that’s changing now; they have a strong defensive infield and a small outfield that minimizes the impact of their outfielders’ range. And suddenly the pitchers are a lot happier.

David Pinto writes: “Better defense means less frustration for the pitcher and less work as he doesn’t need to get four outs in an inning.”

One of the reasons Twins fans are excited about 2010 is the drastically improved middle infield — JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson figure to combine for some good-to-excellent defense, and third base is Punto’s best position (ie, the one at which he plays the best defense).

I don’t think it’s possible to guess how many runs the Twins’ new infield will save over 2009; but we can take a look at some UZR numbers and compare them.

2009 Twins infield

Actual 2009 UZR/150, sorted by playing time (decreasing)

  • 2B: Nick Punto: 9.4 UZR/150, Alexi Casilla: -20.9 UZR/150, Matt Tolbert: -12.7 UZR/150
  • 3B: Joe Crede: 23.4 UZR/150, Brendan Harris: -26.3 UZR/150, Brian Buscher: -12.2 UZR/150, Matt Tolbert: 10.6 UZR/150
  • SS: Orlando Cabrera: -14.8 UZR/150, Nick Punto: 4.7 UZR/150, Brendan Harris: -14.8 UZR/150

2010 Twins infield

Career UZR/150

  • 2B: Orlando Hudson: 2.6 UZR/150
  • 3B: Nick Punto: 19.9 UZR/150
  • SS: JJ Hardy: 11.2 UZR/150

Hudson is getting older and his defense probably won’t be as good as everyone thinks it is — but there’s little chance he’s as bad at it as Casilla and Tolbert were in 2009. Meanwhile, 3B stays close to constant with Punto manning it most of the time, and SS takes a huge jump up.

Now, I don’t think these numbers can tell us how much the Twins’ run prevention will improve in 2010.* But I think it’s fair to say that the improved infield defense will help with preventing runs — though less than it might given the staff’s propensity for giving up fly balls.

* But if you believe UZR is an accurate statistic, we’re talking in the range of 3-5 wins. As in, the Twins got 5 wins better simply by improving the infield defense, without taking into account the offensive production of either Hardy or Hudson. Like I said, maybe UZR can’t be trusted. Either way, this sounds like a whole lot of improvement. More than I would have guessed … and it sure paints the projections of the Twins struggling to reach 85 wins in a different light.

So this summer, when all the Twins’ pitchers seem happier than usual, will it be because of their lower ERAs? Or will both the happiness and the lower ERAs be because of the improved defense?


Let’s take a look at Span’s new contract!

This weekend, the Twins signed Denard Span to a five year extension for $16.5M guaranteed — it covers two pre-arbitration years and all three of his arbitration years, plus an extension for his first year of free agency in 2015.

The terms of his deal are as follows:

  1. $0.75M (second pre-arbitration year, age 26)
  2. $1M (final pre-arbitration year, age 27)
  3. 3M (first arbitration year, age 28)
  4. $4.75M (second arbitration year, age 29)
  5. $6.5M (third arbitration year, age 30)
  6. $9M (team option for first free agent year, age 31)

I’ve always read on Fangraphs that the arbitration years are typically set at 40%/60%/80% of a player’s market value; but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. If the option is his full market value, this contract gives him 33%/52%/72% … but if the option represents a 10% discount (which would not be unusual at all), his arbitration years are paying him just 30%/47%/65%. At first blush, this contract seems like a highly team-friendly deal even before considering how Span is being valued.

But that raises the interesting question: How is Span being valued? We’re all familiar with his story by now: a minor league track record that looked a lot like a first-round bust, a fourth-outfielder; shows up in the majors and has a breakout rookie campaign, compiling 2.6 WAR in a partial season; establishes himself as a star-caliber player with 3.9 WAR in his first full season. It’s possible that 2009 was a career year, and he can’t keep up that pace … but he was 25 years old and it’s also possible that he hasn’t even reaching his peak yet.

CHONE projects him at 3.3 WAR, which would peg the market value of a win in this contract at $3M/win. If CHONE is being optimistic and he’s actually, say, a 3 WAR player, the Twins are paying $3.3M/win. If CHONE is being way too conservative and Span’s true talent level is actually 4 WAR, then the Twins are paying just $2.5M/win (which is way too low, I think, implying that Span is being paid as a 3.3 WAR player at most).

I’ve seen mixed reactions to this contract since it first hit Twitter yesterday. Many people are thrilled that the Twins have “locked up” Span for the next 5 years, ignoring that he was already under team control for all five of those years. I saw one opinion, from Thrylos98, claiming that the Twins are paying him too much (I can’t understand how he could back that claim up, though). And I’ve seen others who seem to think this deal is pointless except for the option year covering his first free agent year, giving the Twins none extra year of control over Span’s career.

But let’s take a look at it from the perspective of risk — risk is the reason players sign extensions like these, and it’s also what teams have to worry about when offering them. Span could have simply declined to sign this extension and go year-to-year through his arbitration years, trying to maximize the amount he gets paid,* though by doing so he’d risk a career-ending injury or a collapse of his skills. So he gives up some money in return for the security of the long-term contract — but typically not that much.

* And given the low percentages of his value he’s being paid, it’s a good assumption that he’d make quite a bit more year-to-year even if you don’t think that either he’s going to continue producing star-level 4 WAR seasons OR the economy will recover even a little bit over the next five years.

From the team’s perspective, there are more risks involved. If they didn’t offer the extension and were going to go year-to-year, they’d still have Span on the team for the next five years, but would be risking the following:

  • 2009 was not Span’s peak, and he continues to improve in his age 26 and 27 years
  • The economic environment in baseball improves, driving up the cost of wins so they’d have to pay him more even if he stops playing as well
  • He successfully adapts to CF, driving up his value (a CF is a lot more valuable than a corner OF)

On the other hand, by offering this contract they open themselves up to these risks:

  • 2009 was Span’s peak, and his 4+ WAR upside is an illusion
  • He gets injured and can’t play (or can’t play at his normal level)
  • He can’t handle CF and has to move back to a corner, causing personnel problems or at least reducing his actual value

Obviously the downside here is bad — you don’t want to be stuck paying a guy millions of dollars not to produce. But I think it’s fair to say that the Twins determined that the upside outweighs the downside. The Twins get cost certainty, they ensure that Span will be affordable for the next six years, through his age 31 season. If they want to cut payroll in the future, it’s very likely that this contract will be extremely tradeable — teams would love to snap up a CF in-or-near his prime on a team-friendly contract.

Instead of looking at this as the Twins having locked Span up, it’s better to see it as having him locked in. But how much money did they just save, over what would have happened if they’d gone year to year?

Assuming Span is a 3.3 WAR player and standard 40%/60%/80% arbitration and $3.5M/win, his arbitration years and first year of free agency would have looked like this:

  • $4.6M
  • $6.9M
  • $9.2M
  • $11.5M

Or, if he keeps putting up 4 WAR seasons:

  • $5.6M
  • $8.4M
  • $11.2M
  • $14M

So the Twins saved themselves somewhere between $9M and $16M over 2012-2015, not taking economic recovery or salary inflation into account. Whether you think that amount of money is worth taking on the risk of the longterm contract is a judgement call, and obviously the Twins’ front office thought it was worth it.

Me? I think this is an even better deal than the Blackburn contract, and I’m glad to see the Twins locking in their players at affordable salaries for years to come. This is yet another sign that the team expects to contend for the foreseeable future; they’re using their assurance of steadier revenue for good rather than simply lining their pockets; they’re taking advantage of the economic climate to get good deals and lock in a lower cost per win than normal.

But perhaps most of all, Denard Span will be a Twin for at least 5 more years. I think it’s time to make my “Span Fan” t-shirts that I’ve been thinking about for a while.


A look at Nick Blackburn’s new contract

Apparently all this talk of a Mauer contract has got Bill Smith’s negotiative juices flowing.

According to a tweet from Joe C:

The #Twins have signed Nick Blackburn to a four-year, $14 million contract. The deal includes an $8 mil club option for 2014.

At the moment, that’s all the details I have on his deal. But let’s take a look at it, shall we?

He has two years of service time, which means he’s currently entering his third and final pre-arbitration year. Thus, this 4-year deal buys him out through all three arbitration years, plus an option for his first year in free agency.

Normally, arbitration salaries are set at 40%/60%/80% of your free agent value in each year. Blackburn produced 2.5 WAR in 2008, and 3.0 WAR in 2009 (and is currently projected for 2.5 WAR in 2010). If we set his true talent level at 2.5 WAR, this four year contract should look something like this:

  1. $1M (typical value for final pre-arbitration year, this could go up or down by a few hundred K)
  2. $3.5M (2.5 WAR x 40% == 1 WAR … free agent salaries are $3.5M/win this winter)
  3. $5.25M (2.5 WAR x 60% == 1.5 WAR at $3.5M/win)
  4. $7M (2.5 WAR x 80% == 2 WAR at $3.5M/win)
  5. $8M team option (2.5 WAR at $3.5M/win is $8.75M)

As you probably noticed, these values add up to more than $14M. Normally, players give a discount for the security of a long-term contract. This deal is about 83% of what Blackburn could have expected if he’d gone year-to-year (and performed as well as he has the last two years every single time). That seems like a larger-than-normal discount, which means the Twins did a good job at the negotiating table (even the option is discounted from his expected value).

It’s possible that the Twins have managed to value wins at an even lower rate than this discounted winter shows … the value of this contract makes sense at about $3.2M/win.

So the Twins negotiated themselves a good, team-friendly contract here. Maybe all that practice trying to deal with Mauer has been good for them. But is the value of the contract really the most important consideration here?

For starters, they’ve now locked up perhaps their most consistent starting pitcher for four seasons; Blackburn has also shown himself capable of stepping up in big games (which can’t be measured, but teams and teammates and managers and fans all love those guys). Blackburn is the team’s only groundball pitcher, during an offseason in which they’ve re-upped on infield defense with the addition of Hardy & Hudson. If they expect to make a commitment to Hardy, it makes sense to lock up Blackburn. Plus, this will lend some consistency to the starting rotation. They’ve got a solid, consistent starter for his age 28-31 seasons, which are often a pitcher’s best.

Of course, there are downsides — Blackburn could get hurt or be ineffective. He hasn’t shown much risk of injury, but that could happen at any time for a pitcher. Plus, it blocks the pipeline of pitching talent. With both Baker and Blackburn signed to long-term deals, the space in the rotation for younger (perhaps more talented) pitchers is pretty thin; especially until Baker and Blackburn are considered “veteran presences,” thus removing the need to sign a guy like Pavano (or Livan Hernandez, or Ramon Ortiz, or whatever other guy they feel will give them a 5.95 ERA every 5 days).

I think you can’t be too worried about injuries in this situation. They could happen, but if you go by that logic you’d never sign anyone. And if a group of young pitchers starts knocking hard on the door and Blackburn seems like he should be the odd man out, plenty of teams are looking for consistent workhorses who are groundball machines, excel in big moments, and are signed to team-friendly deals — it shouldn’t be hard to find a taker in a trade and get something back for Blackburn. Especially if he pitches well, besting his 2.5 WAR valuation.

I didn’t really expect to like a long-term deal for Nick Blackburn, but I do. This was a good move for the Twins, and hopefully is an indication of the kind of successful negotiations they can execute, when it comes to the Mauer deal.


Killebrew: Cuddyer is capable of hitting a lot more homers

Harmon Killebrew has remained interested and somewhat active with the Twins over the years,* and recently John Shipley asked him about young power hitters in baseball.

* And that seems to be increasing in recent years, though part of that could just be due to more reporting during the winter and spring thanks in large part to the internet, and also to the ever-increasing demand for Twins-related information by the team’s excellent fanbase.

He showed his age, I think, by bringing up Michael Cuddyer — who’s not young — but his thoughts were interesting.

“Now,” Killebrew continued, “the real secret in this game, with hitting, is to be consistent. Can you come back and have a better year than you did the year before? That’s the tough part of the game. I hope Michael is still healthy. I know he can. Physically, he’s capable of hitting a lot more than he did last year.”

As everybody knows, Cuddyer put together a great season in 2009, putting up a career high 32 home runs. If anything, Cuddyer has seemingly shown himself not to be particularly consistent, as the perception is that he put together a pair of disappointing seasons in between his two great ones,* but Killebrew’s theory that Cuddyer is “capable” of hitting a lot more homers than he did last year warrants further investigation.

* He broke out in 2006 with a 3.1 WAR season, and 2009 was highly regarded but worth just 2.0 WAR. His 2007 was actually better, worth 2.1 WAR, though a big part of that was probably positional; in 2009, he filled in for Morneau at 1B for a month, which brought down his positional adjustment and counteracted some of the awesome work he did with the bat. He produced a career high 23.2 batting runs in 2009, vs 22.6 in 2006 and 10.5 in 2007. His 2008 was mostly a throwaway year, lost to injury.

Of Cuddyer’s 32 homers in 2009, 13 of them were “no doubt,” according to Hit Tracker — tied for 3th in the AL, behind Mark Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera, and Carlos Pena. And that was my impression as well: when Cuddyer connected with a ball, it went a mile. 11 of his homers were “plenty,” which means he got enough of them to get it out of basically any park; these are the standard home runs. Just 8 of his homers were “just enough,”* or balls that barely cleared the fence.

* Compare that to Mauer, whose 11 “just enough” shots were good for 5th in the AL.

But hitting “just enough” homers is not a criticism — you basically need to hit a bunch of them in order to rack up a big HR total. Prince Fielder had 16 of them, Albert Pujols and Mark Reynolds had 14, Kevin Youkilis had 13, Kendry Morales had 12, Alex Rodriguez had 11 … these are all pretty big home run hitters.

What Cuddyer needs to do is put more balls in the air, to give himself a better chance of a handful or two of them carrying just over the fence. If he can do that, while continuing to make the good solid contact he made in 2009, Killebrew could very well be right about his ability to hit more homers. I just don’t know what he means by “a lot more.” It could be similar to what he means by “young,” which apparently includes guys who are 31 years old.

Plus, with the addition of Jim Thome and JJ Hardy to the lineup as well as the potential for an emergence by Delmon Young, Cuddyer could see even more protection than he’s been accustomed to. That can only help.

One final note

in his first time in the cage, Cuddyer laid his bunts down, then immediately drilled a hard liner to center. Thome, with 564 homers in a 19-year major league career, looked up and said, “How do you do that?”

Dear Jim Thome: you don’t care! If Gardy’s plan for you as a pinch hitter involves any bunting whatsoever, that’s his fault. Not yours. Just focus on what’s made you a potential (probable?) hall of famer: smashing the crap out of the ball.

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The Luck of the Liriano

In the comments on yesterday’s post about Liriano, we had a pretty good discussion that’s worth reading through. There were a couple posts, by semi-frequent commenter Ragstoriches, that stuck out from the flow of the conversation and raise an issue that I don’t think I can do justice to in a comment. So I’m promoting it to a full-blown post, is what I’m doing.

He opened with this:

Liriano’s stuff may be better this winter, but Frankie’s biggest problem of late isn’t his stuff, it’s that he’s a friggin head case. He absolutely cannot deal with adversity – he can throw 6 innings of no-hit ball but a walk and a blooper later he’s in complete meltdown mode, and before you can blink he’s given up 5 or 6 runs.

And after the rest of the conversation had taken place, he closed with this:

So you don’t think Frankie had a tough time getting out of jams last year? Even your stats would prove that. Why did ‘09 Frankie fail to resemble even the 2nd half of ‘08 Frankie – he had another year to recover from surgery, right?

I’m sure games like that happened, but that happens to a lot of pitchers; also, I’ve found that memory is a funny thing, and that it sometimes plays tricks on you. So, without further ado, it’s time to peel back some layers of Liriano’s statistical onion and see just how quickly it can make us cry.

Ready? I sure am.

First, a baseline “this is not a jam” situation (leading off an inning). The first batter of the game had an .863 OPS with a .389 BABIP; the first batter of the inning overall had an .897 OPS with a .337 BABIP. So … not good, but also very unlucky.

His performance was worse than that in every base/out situation except “men on first and second” (when he had a .773 OPS with a .308 BABIP), and “a man on third and 2 outs” (when he had an .830 OPS and a .429 BABIP).

Some notable “in a jam” situations:

  • RISP: .922 OPS, .347 BABIP
  • Men on: .945 OPS, .369 BABIP
  • Man on third: 1.117 OPS, .455 BABIP
  • First & third: .908 OPS, .286 BABIP
  • 2nd & 3rd: 1.198 OPS, .500 BABIP
  • 3rd, under 2 outs: 1.221 OPS, .370 BABIP
  • 3rd, 2 outs: .830 OPS, .429 BABIP

Look at those BABIP numbers, please. For the most part, those are ludicrously high, unsustainable for any pitcher. Furthermore, in only three cases are his BABIP numbers in a “reasonable” or “predictive” range; .288 with the bases empty, .286 with men on first and third, and .308 with men on first and second. Meanwhile, in all other cases, his BABIP ranged from .321 up to an absurd .500.

Okay, so base/out situations give us one window into Liriano’s failure when he got into a jam, but there’s more to this story.

Let’s take a look at his “clutch stats,” to see if those shed any more light on what’s going on here.

  • 2 outs, RISP: .892 OPS, .359 BABIP
  • Late & Close: 1.277 OPS, .545 BABIP
  • Tie game: .800 OPS, .303 BABIP
  • Within 1 R: .879 OPS, .324 BABIP
  • Within 2 R: .866 OPS, .329 BABIP
  • Within 3 R: .875 OPS, .333 BABIP
  • Within 4 R: .856 OPS, .328 BABIP
  • > 4 R: .474 OPS, .259 BABIP

Or we could just break it down by the leverage index, and see how he did in situations of various “game-on-the-line”-itude.

  • High leverage: .893 OPS, .371 BABIP
  • Medium leverage: 1.009 OPS, .367 BABIP
  • Low leverage: .567 OPS, .243 BABIP

Alright. Enough. I think we’re painting a pretty clear picture here.

Liriano had bad basic numbers overall in 2009, but these numbers show that for the most part what happened was that when he was “in a jam” or the game was “on the line,” he got ridiculously unlucky; when it didn’t matter, his luck reversed and he “mowed down the opposition” (ie, the ball found the defenders’ gloves).

Much has been made of Liriano’s strikeouts and walks, of his command of his fastball, of his confidence and his emotional state, of how he seemed to get tired after just a few innings, or that he couldn’t adjust to the adjustments the hitters made the second and third time through the order. A lot of these things are true; especially the ones about his command, and his K/BB ratio.

Check out his peripheral stats:

  • 2006: 10.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 6.6 H/9, 0.7 HR/9, 4.5 K/BB
  • 2008: 7.9 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 8.8 H/9, 0.8 HR/9, 2.09 K/BB
  • 2009: 8.0 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, 9.7 H/9, 1.4 HR/9, 1.88 K/BB

Obviously, every single one of those stats is trending in the wrong direction (and that’s why his ERA+ has gone from 207 to 107 to 75).

It stands to reason that eventually, his luck will change and his BABIP will drop back to normal levels; his H/9 should drop back down, perhaps not all the way to 6.6, but perhaps to the 7-8 range. A 1.4 HR/9 is totally unsustainable, and that’ll go back down to 1.0 or so (especially given Liriano’s propensity to generate ground balls).

So even if Liriano’s stuff hasn’t improved, and his K/9 and BB/9 rates stay the same, and the only thing that changes is that he’s not one of the unluckiest pitchers in the game, well, his numbers are going to improve quite a bit. If he doesn’t get better, just less-unlucky, Liriano is an above-average pitcher.

And if the reports about his improved command, velocity, and movement prove true? Well, if you combine that with improved luck, he’s still not back to 2006 but he’s getting close.* And close, really, is good enough.

* I closed yesterday’s post by saying that perhaps I was being wildly optimistic. After seeing just how bad his luck was in 2009, I think that was an overstatement. I’m optimistic, but there’s nothing “wild” about predicting that his BABIP will decrease from its cosmic heights and bring his numbers back into line with his talent.

So no, I don’t think the numbers show that Liriano had an especially tough time getting out of jams last year. I think the numbers show that he was unlucky, that any time someone made contact, the ball found a hole. I think that bad luck may, over time, have gotten into his head; have you ever gotten into a rut where you think that everything’s going to go wrong for you? I have, and when it happens your confidence is destroyed; you alternate between not trying enough and trying too hard, and neither is any good. Recovering from this is hard, and a lot of it is just taking some time off and rebuilding your confidence before you get back to it. It must be nice to have an offseason.

That’s why I put so much stock into quotes like this:

“[It was like], this is me,” Liriano said of the way he was throwing. “That’s the way I know how to pitch. Not worry about anything or any hitter. Just go out there and try to throw first pitch strikes and locate my fastball. I feel like I did in ‘06, I have my confidence back. My arm feels great. Physically and mentally I’m ready to go.”

and this:

“I’ve got my confidence back,” Liriano said. “This winter is the best I’ve felt.”

I don’t see Liriano as being any sort of spin-master, with the ability to concoct an elaborate web of lies for our benefit. I see him more as a simple man, perhaps not fully mature, who hadn’t had to face much hardship until after he’d been thrust into the public eye; and now he’s stuck having to grow up in front of our eyes.

Perhaps it’s naivete, but I trust that he can do it.


The Mauer Rumor Machine is Building Up Steam

The internet, my friends, is all atwitter with excitement after Mark Rosen of WCCO broke the news that the Twins are close to a 10 year deal with Mauer.

Meanwhile, Buster Olney is reporting that the report of a preliminary agreement is not accurate, and both Jon Heyman* and Joe Christensen agree.

* What, you think he has no place reporting on the negotiations of a non-Boras client? Well, you’re probably right.

“Dan Cook,” whoever that is, points out that Rosen is talking to Mauer’s people, while Olney and the rest are talking to Twins officials. We may not be quite as close as we all want to hope (though I’d take Cook’s report with a big, rock-shaped grain of salt given his lack of reporting history).

All that said, I think it’s about time to look at the Mauer situation in a little more depth, couched in what we know about free agency this offseason and the rumored frameworks of this deal.

With contracts of this length, it’s practically impossible to say whether it’s going to work out. It’s just so much time, and anything can happen. Mauer is 26 now, but he’ll be 37 when this contract ends. Will he be the best player in the game at age 37? Will he even be a catcher by then? It’s literally impossible to know the answer to these questions (but it’s not that difficult to guess that the answers go something like: “No,” and “Maybe”).

But let’s just try and project what Mauer would be worth over this time period.

According to FanGraphs, since his first full season (2005), Mauer has been worth* 3.5, 6.1, 3.0, 5.8, and 8.2 WAR; in dollars: $12M, $22.4M, $12.2M, $26.2M, $36.8M.

* Remember, FanGraphs WAR takes into account that he’s a catcher, but does not take into account how good he is at being a catcher. In fact, their glossary page says this about measuring catcher defense:

If you think Joe Mauer’s catching abilities and leadership are worth one win, just add one win to what we display as his win value here. Quantifying catching defense is something that we just haven’t figured out yet, and so we’re not pretending that we have. Consider it an opportunity to fill in the blanks.

And yes, I do think it’s telling that they specifically mention Mauer as being more valuable than their WAR values state. For the purposes of this column, however, I am not going to inflate Mauer’s value beyond what is stated on the FanGraphs page.

The problem is … those WAR numbers don’t actually tell us all that much. Is he a 3 win player like he was in 2005 and 2007? Or a 6 win player like 2006 and 2008? Or is he a legitimate superstar, 8+ win player like 2009? All these numbers come before his prime; great players tend to peak around 27-29, and the truly great players’ skills diminish slowly through their early thirties. (Plus, you can’t plan for good seasons and bad seasons throughout a contract; you have to value a player at his “true talent level,” pay for that, and then basically hope he meets or exceeds that level in as many years of the contract as possible.)

If we put Mauer’s “true talent level” at around 7 WAR, and assume that he maintains that talent through age 30 at which point he will start to decline at 0.5 WAR per season, his value would look like this over the next ten years:

7 7 7 7 6.5 6 5.5 5 4.5 4

for a total of 59.5 WAR over the life of the contract.

To translate that into dollars, though, there are a few things to consider. First is that for the last several years, 1 win above replacement has been right around $4.5M on the free agent market … but this winter that has plummeted to the point that teams are only paying $3-3.5M per win on the open market.

Additionally, Mauer is not currently on the open market; the Twins can expect to get a (small) discount for extending him a year early, a year during which he could very well get injured and lose a shit-ton of money (this is standard procedure for all contracts). Beyond that, players on long-term contracts like this sacrifice about 10% of their fair market value in return for the security of the guaranteed contract. And both of those adjustments come before the possibility of a hometown discount — I don’t expect there’ll be much of one, but it’s possible.

So if we’re paying $4.5M per win like teams have been doing for years, that 59.5 WAR over 10 years will cost $267.75M, minus the 10% for security and fudging downwards a bit for extending early … around $230M, making Mauer one of the highest paid players in the league and giving him the third largest contract in baseball history (after ARod and ARod).

On the other hand, if the Twins are using the 2009-2010 offseason as an opportunity to spend less per win on Mauer’s contract, say $3.5M per win, then the deal would cost just $208.25M, and adjusting downward for security and moving early, it’d get down to the $180-190M range.* If the Twins used the current free agent climate to negotiate this lower price, it’d be a remarkably savvy move from a front office that hasn’t been known for that for some time. (And has never been known for shrewd contracts as much as player acquisition.)

* It’s worth pointing out that there will presumably be deferred money in this deal, which further reduces the total value in “today’s dollars.” I don’t know enough about baseball economics to estimate how much of the contract will be deferred and how much it will effect the real value of the contract. So I’m ignoring it here. Just know that deferred money generally means that the contract is worth less than the number of dollars on the bottom line, so you should watch out for the word “deferred” anywhere in reports about his contract.

Of course, these are just the rumored details. Other reports insist that the Twins aren’t going as far as 10 years on a deal. If, as some reports say, it’s just a 7 year contract, we’re looking at just 46 WAR,* putting it in the range of $140-190M range (depending on whether we’re valuing wins at $3.5M or $4.5M).

* I lopped off the final three years on the above projection of Mauer’s value.

On one level, I want Mauer in a Twins uniform until his career ends. On another level, I felt the same way about Torii Hunter and Johan Santana and other players before them; those feelings went away shortly after they signed contracts that the Twins clearly couldn’t afford, which will be paying them top-dollar even after they’ve declined to the point where they’re not even close to worth the money any more. I certainly don’t want to be paying Joe Mauer $20M+ to be a 36 year old former-catcher with bad knees and a balky back.

Long contracts always carry a ton of risk for the team. In Mauer’s case, the Twins are essentially backed into a corner where they must take the risk; that dynamic did not exist in the Hunter & Santana negotiations. Mauer is the hometown hero, the Golden Child, the Baby Jesus of baseball in Minnesota. He, personally, is a big reason the Twins even have a new stadium to move into; if he’s not on the team in 2011, the fans are going to be furious enough that they may well stop coming to the stadium, and the team knows it.

And frankly, the fact that it’s Mauer’s people that are leaking the information about the contract tells me that the Twins just may have done enough this offseason to convince Mauer that they’re dedicated to building a team around him. Both Morneau and Nathan have recently come out and raved about the roster, saying they’ve never seen anything like this in their time with the Twins. Undoubtedly, Mauer has seen the same things.

Maybe I’m just getting swept up in the giddiness of tracking a rumor as it lives and breathes on the internet, but I’m getting more and more confident that we’ll see a deal before Spring Training, and we can all rest a little easier.


Surplus Value

After the news that Boof has been traded to the Red Sox for a PTBNL or cash, we also learned that the Twins have been actively trying to trade Perkins, and that Casilla is also available. That raised a question in the comments around here, based loosely around this premise:

** If the Twins are unloading backups like this, why would Casilla be “available,” why not try to trade Punto, who is a better player than Casilla, in an attempt to get more in return?**

First, a quick check into their values:

  • Casilla peaked in 2008 with +1.2 WAR, but in 2007 & 2009 he was worth -0.9 and -1.4 WAR, respectively. In his career, he’s been worth a total of -1.0 WAR.
  • Punto peaked in 2006 with +3.1 WAR, and also had +2.6 in 2008. He was +1.3 WAR in 2009. He’s never been below replacement level with the Twins (he did produce -0.1 and -0.2 in 2002-2003 in extremely limited time with the Phillies). In his career, he’s been worth a total of +8.7 WAR.

In addition Punto is at least capable of offering a steady hand at any infield position; Casilla has offered no more than a flashy but subpar glove at second base. It seems to me that there’s little doubt that Punto is the more valuable baseball player. So the Twins would have better luck trying to trade Punto, rather than Casilla, right?

Well, no. Not really.

The first thing to look at is their respective ages: Casilla is 25, while Punto is 32. Casilla could possibly improve and become a useful player at his peak in a year or two. Punto is almost certainly past his peak. Teams will definitely consider that kind of thing.

But the second, and arguably more important, thing: surplus value.

Punto will probably produce somewhere between +1 and +2 WAR this year; it’s possible he has a 2006/2008-esque great year, and it’s also possible he falls off a cliff and reverts to pre-2006 shit-Punto, but neither are particularly likely. At the same time, Punto will be paid $4M, which is right around what a team would expect to pay for 1 win worth of production on the free agent market.

This is important: if a team wanted a player who would provide as much value as Punto does, they could sign someone on the market for the same amount that Punto is making.

Similarly, if the Twins were to trade him, that team would then be paying Punto the same amount that he’s worth. So what kind of prospects can the Twins expect in return? Virtually nothing. Punto’s contract has exactly zero surplus value.

But Casilla is making considerably less. He’s before his prime. You can’t sign athletic 25 year old infielders on the free agent market. It’s feasible to guess that Casilla could be a useful player in a year or two, possibly with more time in the minors. If a team wanted to take a mild risk, they could acquire Casilla and hope to get some good value out of him.

The Twins could probably trade Casilla for a Boof-like haul, ie close to nothing. That represents his value on the trade market right now — but even though he’s a worse player than Punto, he’s worth more in trade.

Something to think about when you’re hoping for a trade or analyzing who your team is getting/receiving. You’re not just looking at the players involved — you’re also looking at their contracts.


2009 AL MVP Ballot

My AL MVP ballot goes like this:

  1. Mauer
  2. Zobrist
  3. Jeter
  4. Greinke
  5. Longoria
  6. Pedroia
  7. Verlander
  8. Figgins
  9. Teixeira
  10. Youkilis

And that’s what it is right now. Frankly, if you ask me again in an hour, it’ll probably be different. (Ask me again in five minutes. It might be different then, too.) While I was trying to come up with this list, I had two conflicting wishes:

  1. That there were only 4 spots on an MVP ballot, as I feel there’s a huge gap in MVP-caliber-ness between Greinke and the next guy
  2. That there were 15-20 spots on an MVP ballot, because the gap between #5 and #15 is barely discernable, and the order you put these guys in really just falls down to your predetermined biases

Joe Mauer, obviously, takes the top spot (really, the only important one). Everyone’s rehashed this argument a thousand times. Suffice it to say that I think if you’re the best defensive catcher in the league and the best hitter of any position in the league, then you are the MVP of the league. It seems to me that it’d take a pretty convoluted (and “interesting”) definition of the word “valuable” to think otherwise.

After that, I thought Zobrist, Jeter, and Greinke were pretty close to each other. I leaned toward Zobrist because the defensive metrics say he was tremendous this year and I wasn’t about to just ignore that; the same metrics said that Jeter was pretty good in the field, but not great. At the same time, Zobrist was a few runs better offensively than Jeter; given those two things, I don’t see how you can make a case that Jeter was better without saying things like “But Jeter won the World Series in 2009!” or “But Jeter won the World Series in 1998!”* or some such non-individual things.

* People always complain that Jeter’s never won an MVP, therefore he should win the MVP this time around. It’s a cute thought, of course; it’s also one that would never be thought about anyone other than The Great Captain Derek Dreamy Eyes Jeter. You want to know the reason Jeter’s never won the MVP? Here’s a hint: it’s not because sportswriters went out of their way to screw him. It’s because he was never the most valuable player in the league. So … I don’t get the logic that says he should get an undeserved MVP trophy now because he never got an undeserved MVP trophy in the past. The “lifetime achievement award” is called the Hall of Fame, and he’ll get that later.

Anyway, I don’t really feel like arguing about the rest of these guys. Teixeira had a bunch of RBI, but it was only because people were on base in front of him. His actual numbers are basically indistinguishable from other good first basemen: Kevin Youkilis, Miguel Cabrera, Kendry Morales, Justin Morneau (sans fractured spine). Put any one of those guys in the #3 spot in the Yankee lineup, and they’ll get just as many RBI (give or take random fluctuation).

My only worry is that I’m penalizing Teixeira for the quality of this teammates, in an effort simply not to reward him. I don’t think I am. It was something I thought about a lot. And wanting to avoid penalizing him while also including Youkilis (which emphasizes that they’re basically the same) is the reason I didn’t get to put Franklin Gutierrez on my ballot, which I really wanted to be able to do.

Oh well. We’ll see how this thing goes.

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