Monthly Archives: March 2009

Cubs breakout candidates

Everyone except sportswriters knows that spring training statistics are pretty useless. Breaking balls don’t break in Arizona, games are basically played in swamps in Florida. Pitchers don’t throw all their pitches. Half the players are career minor leaguers.

But really, those stats are only mostly useless. John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions has been quoted as saying that about three quarters of players who slug one hundred (or two hundred) points above their career averages in spring training do significantly better than their career averages. It’s not a very strong statement, but it’s what we have.

At this point, with all the hitters on the Cubs roster finally set today, who are the players (with more than 30 ABs) who are slugging more than 200 points above their career averages? There are three. The biggest difference belongs to Milton Bradley, who owns a .457 career slugging, but has a .929 spring SLG. I don’t know if I’d call him a breakout candidate, exactly, but I’d happily believe Bradley will have one of his better seasons as a Cub.

The next biggest difference belongs to Jake Fox, who is also not a breakout candidate in part because he won’t play for the Cubs until September. His .633 spring SLG is nice, but his major league career consists of a handful of ABs where he slugged .286. 

There’s one more on the list – Koyie Hill, the Cubs’ new backup catcher. Hill has, in his career, been a terrible batter. He’s got a career .190/.257/.281 line in 230 major-league ABs, and a .279/.346/.411 line in the minors, which isn’t exactly amazing either. But this spring he’s slugging .543, better than most of the Cubs regulars. I wouldn’t count on a “breakout” season from him either, but I’d assume in a season where he figures to get a couple hundred PAs he might actually get on base close to 30% of the time, so I guess that would be improvement.

I will say an honorable mention here goes to Ryan Theriot. He’s not over the 200-point mark, but he’s slugging .536, putting him at .169 over. As someone over at Another Cubs Blog pointed out, he’s changed his stance at the plate this year. I don’t know whether to believe he’ll actually get a little more power out of it, but I might have to stop complaining about him if he can edge up his regular-season slugging a little bit. No idea if he will, but it’s nice to think there’s a chance.

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This is pretty ridiculous

Absolutely inexcusable from SI:

picture-11

I can understand how a writer or artist at SI could be unfamiliar with the Michigan State basketball program. It’s only been in the Final Four 45% of the time in the last eleven years. I mean, that’s not even half! And I’m pretty sure they play in a conference that’s slightly worse than most of the mid-majors, no matter what their conference RPI was.

Nobody expected them to beat USC, led by coaching genius Tim Floyd. Or Kansas, a team they had destroyed when they played ten weeks ago. Digger Phelps, who has forgotten more about basketball than Digger Phelps ever knew, has been picking them to lose probably since the first round. While they were a number two seed, and very likely would have been a number one had they won their conference tournament, it was pretty improbable that they’d make a Final Four.

So it’s totally understandable how you could completely blow the last name of one of the star players on the team, and the Big Ten player of the year. After all, for some reason the narrative the media decided on this year was that it would be crazy for the 8th-ranked team in the country to make the Final Four. Odds are you never figured you’d need to go check the spelling of the MSU players’ names, and weren’t even aware that colleges located west of the Appalachians had web sites for their basketball teams that listed their rosters.

But to the artist who made that mistake and the editor who didn’t catch it, this is one of the regional covers to your own magazine from last week. Happy to help:

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Visualizing Projections

I’ve taken the four projections Fangraphs offers for pitchers (they offer five for hitters) and charted the Cubs pitchers’ projected Fielding Independent Pitching. I’ll do the same for relievers as soon as the bullpen gets firmed up, and I’m also going to do hitters’ projected wOBA numbers. But today, if you want to see how the pitchers stack up – or how the projection systems stack up in assessing Cubs pitching – here’s what they look like:

fip-projections1

As you can see, they’ve got more in common than separating them. All of them would rank the Cubs’ pitchers from best to worst, Harden-Dempster-Zambrano-Lilly-Marshall. I think most of us would put Zambrano ahead of Dempster, but I don’t have much issue with that. Of particular note, to me, is the ZiPS projection for Harden. If that’s right, he’s going to win a Cy Young if he plays enough. None of them are especially bullish on Marshall, either. I think he’s going to do better than the projections think he will, although a 4.6-ish FIP isn’t bad at all – last year that’s right around where Jason Marquis was, and if Marshall could put up Marquis-level numbers for twenty times less salary, I’d happily take that.

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“It’s nice to put up that big number”

Rich Harden pitched yesterday for the first time after his recent bout of food poisoning. Unsurprisingly, he was able to get minor-league hitters out. His velocity was only in the low-90s, but he was unconcerned, saying he was happy with it where it was now, and that velocity wasn’t the most important thing. If he were the Mark DeRosa or Ryan Theriot of pitchers, he’d have used the “pitching, not throwing,” cliche. 

He’s right, of course. Just throwing hard doesn’t make you a good pitcher. (See Farnsworth, Kyle). And even without a lot of heat on your fastball you can still get batters out. (See Maddux, Greg) Velocity definitely doesn’t hurt, in general, though:

velocity-fip

There’s not a strong correlation between velocity and performance (measured in fielding independent pitching), although all other things being equal, throwing faster is probably better than throwing slower – but not enough that you should sacrifice command or anything else for it. 

As for Harden himself, Fangraphs has four years of velocity data for him. Last season was the lowest velocity season he’s had – he averaged 92 mph on his fastball, but put up his second-best FIP–2.95. His only better season was the season where he was throwing his hardest – at 94.4 mph, he put up a 2.90 FIP in 2005. So for Harden, it doesn’t seem to be much about velocity; he’s a good enough pitcher that he can get batters out down a couple of miles. The important thing for him is staying healthy, and I’d rather see him able to go out and throw 100 pitches at 90 mph than 50 at 95.

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Fukudome’s Head

Paul Sullivan wrote a column the other day on the nine things the Cubs need to worry about. Most of the things are things about which one could fairly worry, although none of them strikes me, alone, as a season-killer.

But one of those things is “Fukudome’s head.” What about it? Sullivan seems to be talking about how Fukudome got worse as the season went on, but why does that have anything to do with his head? The guy was an excellent player in Japan, but MLB is a harder league than NPB, and isn’t it possible that once the league adjusted to Fukudome, he wasn’t good enough to catch up? That he got a little lucky early in the season and it made him look better than he was?

If there’s one thing that drives me nuts about baseball writers – and there’s more than one – it’s the need to assign character faults to bad on-field performances. Why does it have to be anything more with Fukudome than that he’s just not as talented as we’d hoped? Isn’t it enough that he’s just not a great baseball player, does it have to mean there’s something actually wrong with him, too?

Apparently, for Paul Sullivan, yes.

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Compensatory Pick History

It was just announced that the Bears will get three compensatory picks in the coming draft for free agents who signed with other teams after the 2009 season. The highest, for Bernard Berrian, will be the 99th overall pick at the end of the third round. The 99th  pick is worth 104 points on the draft-value chart GMs use, or about two mid-to-late fourth round picks. In theory, if the Bears wanted to package the pick to move up in the first round, it would help them move up about two spots (assuming they could find a taker). Or they could package their original third-round pick (#83) and move up three spots in the first round while still having a third-round pick. Not that they’ll do any of this, but it gives you an idea of what #99 is worth – not a ton, but it’s not nothing, either.

Another way to look at it is, who was drafted 99th overall the last few years? Here’s what I came up with:

  • 2008: Oniel Cousins
  • 2007: Johnnie Lee Higgins
  • 2006: Max Jean-Gilles
  • 2005: Dustin Colquitt
  • 2004: Carlos Francis
  • 2003: Artos Pinner
  • 2002: Jonathan Wells
  • 2001: Roberto Garza
  • 2000: Gari Scott

Ok, so it’s not a list of luminaries who’ve come out of that 99th draft pick spot. But given that that’s where Garza was drafted, you can definitely find some value there. And if you look at picks nearby, several pro-bowlers have been picked in the neighborhood: Rudi Johnson at #100 in 2001, Brian Westbrook at #91 in 2002, Marion Barber III at #109 in 2005, and Owen Daniels at #98 in 2006. Jerry Angelo has had some success finding gems in the middle of the draft, hopefully he can take advantage of this extra pick.

Update: I had forgotten teams are not allowed to trade compensatory picks. So the Bears can’t trade the 99th overall pick. I’ll leave its trade value in there, though, as it gives an idea what that pick is worth.

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What does it take to win 300?

Over at Another Cubs Blog, there was a discussion in the comments over whether Mike Mussina would be the last 300-game winner. I said no, it’s not nearly that insurmountable, even if after Randy Johnson and then Mussina it doesn’t look like anyone is going to do it for a while. But what sort of pace to do you need to hit 300 wins, anyway? Well, let’s take a look at the three pitchers who’ve gotten to 300 since 2000, plus Randy Johnson, who will do it this year. I’ll leave Moose off, because he’s going to need at least another season after this one to do it. Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine all followed similar career trajectories in getting to 300, while Johnson started later than the others, and has had a little rockier time getting there:

300wins

Looking at the chart then, to reach 300 wins, you need a fairly steady pace and a long career. But look at what the actual cumulative wins for each player are, by age:

300chart1

Those aren’t that crazy at any given point – it’s the sustained production that kills you, and making a career of it past 40. In fact, several players currently playing could conceivably do it, just looking at their win totals. Three active players have seventy five wins and are ahead of the average pace of those four:

C.C. Sabathia currently has 117 wins, more than any pitcher on that list did after his Age 27 season, and well over the average of 90.75.

Jon Garland has 106 wins after his age 28 season, putting him just ahead of the average of 105.5 at that point.

Carlos Zambrano is also ahead of the average after his age 27 season – he has 96 wins against 90.75 for that group, ahead of both Johnson and Glavine for that age.

Obviously, Johnson’s numbers drag the group way down, but still, there are several pitchers today who are on pace to hit 300 wins ahead of that group’s average, if they can stay healthy and effective. The odds are against any of them doing it. Go back and look at Randy Johnson’s line on the chart, and tell me at what point it became a fait accompli that he’d hit 300 wins. I don’t think we can predict Randy Johnson-style career paths, and there are fair number of guys who fall between the average pace of those pitchers and Randy Johnson’s pace, Mussina included. It will probably be more than ten years from now, but I have no doubt whatsoever we’ll see another 300-game winner, and it’ll probably be someone playing today.

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