Archive for May, 2013

Bleacher Bums

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

I’m in the early stages of fighting off a cold, and so far I’m losing spectacularly. As a result I won’t have much to say today, but I’m counting on you guys to pick up the slack.

By now you have probably seen the highlight of Travis Wood’s homer this past Sunday. If so, then you probably also saw a woman pour most of a beer over a man’s head after his failed attempt to catch the ball on its way over the left field bleachers.

If not, you can see the video and read the story here.

Normally the inebriated antics of the Bleacher Bums wouldn’t interest me, but I’ve met these two. I don’t know them well, mind you–in fact, I’ve been struggling for the last couple days to remember their names. I do know they are both longtime Cubs fans and season ticket holders. And in the short time I spent with them, this little episode seems totally in-character for this husband and wife team.

I met them last year at the season ticket holder entrance in right field, and we started talking before the gates opened. I wound up sitting with them (same seats as you see in the video, which is apparently where they always sit) while I waited for a friend who never showed up. Instead, I was treated to a barrage of bleacher anecdotes, Cubs chatter, and friendly ribbing with the other season ticket holders and regulars in their section. These are the kind of people who have never met a stranger, and as a new Cubs season ticket holder, I was welcomed with open (metaphorical) arms.

The next day I had another friend in tow, and we arrived at the game just before the first pitch. There weren’t many open seats in the bleachers by then, but my new friends had saved us a couple in case we showed up. And while I usually prefer to sit closer to the field, these two do have a pretty good spot if you’re looking to catch a homer. I wound up misplaying one that second day in the stands. At the time I was a little embarrassed for missing what should have been an easy catch. Now I’m just glad she didn’t dump a beer on me.

Let’s hear about the memorable characters you’ve met at Wrigley. Ronnie Woo-Woo does not count.

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Deconstructing the Development of Starlin Castro

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

This year has been a lot of the same old-same old for Starlin Castro and Cubs fans are quick to defend him with a plethora of excuses; while many are justifiable, he’s now accumulated nearly 2100 plate appearances and logged over 4200 innings at shortstop. At this point there should be some substantial improvements on the field but is he developing the way we all hope?

In this article I am going to re-evaluate Castro’s tools and potential using the standard 20-80 scouting scale alongside Castro’s previous potential.

 

Hit for Contact

Castro’s best tool has been his ability to make contact with nearly any pitch. A career .295 hitter, he’s always been able to carry a high batting average. His quick hands and short swing allow him to put the bat on the ball at an extremely proficient clip… and he uses that swing often.

For his career, Castro swings at nearly half the pitches he sees and he makes contact at a whopping 84.1% of the pitches he does swing at. He’s always hacked too much at pitches outside of the zone, but a scary trend has developed over his career – he’s starting to swing more and more at pitches out of the zone while making less contact overall at the pitches he’s seeing. As this trend developed his batting average has fallen and is currently sitting in the low .270s but his K% has remained relatively the same around the 14% area.


Castro showing his sweet swing on a 2-1 count to blast a walk off double.

This trend is especially worrisome with a hitter like Castro who’s success at the plate has been completely dependent on his batting average. Right now he’s still an above average contact hitter, but if this trend continues, his offensive ceiling would take a huge hit if his contact skills cannot carry him to a high batting average due to his complete lack of plate discipline.

I used to peg Castro as a .300-.330 hitter over his career, depending on the year, but now I’ve downgraded him to a .280-.310 hitter, a notch below where I originally projected him. Right now I’m definitely worried about these trends but I’m still leaning toward the optimistic side that a player with that much ability will figure it out.

Hit for Power

This is the one area that Castro has developed at a nice pace. His Isolated Power (ISO%) per year has increased along with his HR totals. While his doubles did drop last year compared to the previous season, I think that was an outlier more than anything substantial, and this season he already has 10 doubles only a fourth of the way through the season. It’s too early right now to worry about the dip in SLG & ISO you can chalk that up to a number of uncontrollable factors, like the bad weather all of baseball has had to contend with.

As long as Castro’s contact abilities do not decline, there’s no reason not to think Castro is going to be a 20-homer guy every year, possibly starting this year.

Plate Discipline

Obviously, this is Starlin’s biggest weakness and he has made zero progress in this regard. You could make a legitimate argument that he’s actually regressed in this department. This season it has looked like he’s making a conscious to take pitches (and that shows in his pitches per plate appearance) but in that effort, Castro goes up to the plate and just takes a pitch to take a pitch. I never expect him to be an on-base machine, but he does need to lay off pitches that will almost certainly will produce an easy out.

At this point, he still has little-to-no idea how to work the count in his favor and his ability to make contact on nearly any pitch has led to his over-aggressiveness at the plate increasing his K% to a career high while dropping his BB% and OBP% to a career lows.


An all too familiar sight recently, Starlin Castro going well out of the zone to get himself out.

You can live with a guy who only walks 5% of the time if he’s hitting around .300, but if he’s hitting in the .270s and only walking 5%, that’s a below .320 OBP over the course of a season- a serious problem for any starter.

Baserunning Ability

Castro, like all homegrown Cubs talent in recent years, lacks the basic baserunning knowledge that most teams instill in their young players. At the moment, he has enough speed to swipe 25-30 stolen bases a year, but he’s also caught stealing nearly 40% of the time negating most of that benefit. His poor decisions and mind lapses on the bases also outweigh his above average speed.

Two new metrics I included are Stolen Bases and Caught Stealing runs above average (wSB) which compares him to an average runner (0.0) and Ultimate Base Running (UBR) in runs above average which only monitors his baserunning in non-steal situations against average runners. Both stats back up what my eye test tells me, he’s an average at best baserunner and a below average base stealer. I expect as he continues to fill out he’ll lose some of those stolen bases, but hopefully with better coaching and more experience he will cut down on the blunders as well.

Defense

Defensively, Castro is improving even though you can’t tell by the error numbers. He still has above average range, a solid glove and a strong arm, plus all the work on his throwing mechanics seems to be paying off with his throwing errors being cut in half last year (working with another excellent defensive first baseman in Anthony Rizzo helps too). Like his baserunning, where Castro gets in trouble is when he loses focus or tries to do too much.


Castro flashing his amazing range and hand eye coordination to snare a would-be bloop single. Plays like this show Castro’s potential at Shortstop, his range is matched by only a handful of players in all of baseball right now.

While his excellent range, makes up for a lot of the errors, he’s still a fringy fielder right now, and if he slows down and doesn’t keep his head in the game, he could be moving to 2B in the future. I’m still willing to bet experience and maturity will help him defensively but the Cubs are going to need to make a decision on his position in the next year or two so they know where their holes are going to be in the free agent and trade markets.

Conclusion

I think we have a good idea what Castro is going to be in the future, and that’s not the superstar we all hoped for and even expected. The alarming trends with his plate discipline, cause his offensive potential to be downgraded from his previous ceiling when he was coming up as a prospect. I never expect him to lead the league in walks but working the count into his favor, and laying off pitcher’s pitches , are two skills he still hasn’t developed. He’s been labeled a bad ball hitter, and while that is a nice skill to have, he’s not going to realize his potential without developing a strike zone and adhering to it. He’s still going to be a valuable position player at a premium position who will have a couple of great years due to his raw talent but without a significant overhaul in his approach at the plate he’s going to be more average than superstar.

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Closers – Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Monday, May 20th, 2013

As I was racking my brain as to what to write about this week, I heard a discussion on sports radio regarding closers and it gave me the inspiration for my rant. We live in a time where the culture of baseball has changed dramatically from how it was just 10-15 years ago. Gone are the days where scouts opinions are the be all, end all evaluators on baseball talent and ability. They no longer are the sole gatekeepers as to who is considered a legit prospect and who is considered an organizational filler. Instead we now rely on multiple evaluations, including those provided by evaluating numbers. As a result, we’ve seen a pretty severe schisim come about between “statheads” and “traditionalists”. The former will claim that their way is the best way to evalate performance whereas the latter will claim that you have to trust your eyes. As a result, there are frequent arguments as to what stats are meaningless and worthless and which are not. Stats that have been traditionally been relied on for decades are not being challenged and subsequently disgarded as rubbish, which has in tern infuruated the traditionalists. Norms widely accepted by the baseball community as long standing truths are no being questioned and teams are beginning to try new things, which leads to my soap box rant today on the opinion of the closer role in baseball today.

The sabermetric standpoint would argue that the save stat is meaningless and that there is no difference in the outs that are required in the 9th inning as compared with those in the 7th and 8th. Managers and players alike become ill at this statement and have argued accordingly. My question is, why can’t they both be right? Let me explain.

I took a look at the leaders for saves so far this season and found the following. Currently 13 relievers have at least 10 saves on the season, with the leader (Jason Grilli) posting 17. I then took a look at the top 10 pitchers in terms of the average leverage index when they entered the game so far this season. Given that closers are typically reserved solely for the 9th inning save situation, we should see the top 15 list littered with closers. After all, the 9th inning is the most important inning according to traditional thinking. Of the top 15 players in terms of that metric, only six were closers. The other nine names in the top 15 were standard relievers. What that tells us is that the majority of pitchers who come into the game in high leverage situations are NOT closers. Seeing that a manager would not use a non-closer in a save situation unless he absolutely has to, we can reason that perhaps “closer” usage may need to be re-evaluated as the most critical inning of a game may not be in the 9th inning. Stat folks love this argument, and it makes perfect sense from a logical, numbers driven standpoint.

However, and it’s a really unfortunate however because I’m a very logical person, we’re factoring out the human eliment. What the stat folks forget to factor in is the human element. It’s easy to package the 9th inning in a nice box with a ribbon on it and say it’s exactly the same as every other inning in the game, but the fact is that until the game is played by emotionless robots, that will never be the case. Humans are riddled with emotion and cause the vaccuum tube to be burst wide open. It can’t be looked at that way. The fact is that players do feel more pressure based on the situation. The mind is a blessing and a curse. It can do wonderful things, but it can also psyche you out of a lot of things, so the argument that a guy needs to have the stomach for a 9th inning role, unfortunately, is true.

So who’s right? Is there a right answer? Not really, but for either side to argue that their right and the other side is wrong is completely irresponsible and ignorant. It’s time we get along on this and stop fighting as if either side is going to abandon their way of thinking. Ideally, every situation would be perfectly setup for the best reliever to pitch in the most critical situation with that situation being the 9th. Until that happens we need to all just shut up and let a manager manage his team the way he feels is best. When you get your shot, do it how you want.

(steps down from Soap Box)

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Game 43 – Wood Not Enough

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Box Score / Highlights

Star of the Game – Juan Lagares – .349 (WPA)


Travis Wood
You may have heard, Travis Wood has been really good in 2013 so far. I don’t care if peripheral stats tell you it won’t last (like there’s anything that can be done about it one way or the other anyway). On Sunday he pitched his 9th quality start to begin the season. Enjoy it! The Cubs haven’t had someone do that since Mordecai Brown in 1908. Not Greg Maddux. Not Fergie Jenkins. Not Rick Sutcliffe. Not Charlie Root. “The quality start is a meaningless stat” perhaps you’ll say. I would largely agree-it’s an arbitrary threshold-6 IP and 3 ER doesn’t exactly get me excited. But Wood is averaging 6.2 IPs and less than 2 earned runs allowed per start. THAT gets me excited. And of course it’s unlikely to last for 35 starts, but that’d be true of almost anyone not named Clayton Kershaw.

On Sunday, Wood was very good again. Wrigley wasn’t exactly a pitcher’s park in the series finale; evidenced by the fact that the Cubs’ southpaw deposited a home run onto Waveland against the Mets. He gave the Cubs 7 IP, surrendered 3 ERs, but also contributed a 2-run HR of his own. It was the rest of the lineup that had difficulty against the Mets.

Middle Of The Order
Castro & Rizzo were the void in the Cubs’ lineup. They were a combined 0-for-8 and 0-for-4 with RISP. Twice Castro hit a sacrifice fly with DeJesus standing on 2B, while Rizzo struck out 3 times. I’m not going to belabor the point, but the Cubs seem to have scattered success at the plate. With 4 doubles and 2 HRs the Cubs should’ve been able to cobble together a bit more than 3 runs.

Replay?
Part of the reason for that struggle to score was this play. Sweeney hit a sure double into the RF corner, former Cub Marlon Byrd horribly misplayed it at first and Sweeney understandably wanted to take advantage by turning it into a leadoff triple to start the 4th inning. Byrd recovered well, and the relay was on target, but even in real time it looked to be late.

Sweeney biggest problem was his awkward slide. But there’s a time-tested practice of umpiring that says if the player is going in headfirst and gets tagged on the shoulder, he’s probably safe. Third base umpire Manny Gonzalez would’ve done well trust 100+ years of umpiring. Instead he allowed his eyes to fool him. Whatever he thought he saw, he didn’t; Sweeney was safe and the Mets announcers even thought it was a bad call before seeing a replay.

I don’t understand why Sweeney and then Sveum (or even third base coach David Bell) had no argument. He’s leading off the 4th inning of a scoreless game – certainly it’s worth an argument? Instead no one protested and the Mets quickly retired the next two batters.

This is part of the game that’s becoming increasingly obnoxious to me. The camerawork and technology of 20-30 years ago wouldn’t have provided quick help in many situations. But today, a call such as this could’ve been overturned before Sweeney even got back to the dugout. MLB needs to find a way to expand and hasten the replay process.

And don’t take this a complaint that the Cubs were somehow screwed out of a win against the Mets. Nothing with the Cubs is nearly that cut & dry (zero confidence they would’ve driven Sweeney in from third – less than zero confidence the bullpen would’ve held a lead that might’ve been given to them). Besides I do believe these bad breaks tend to even out over the course of 162 games. It’s just an unnecessary detriment to the game; I don’t want to see a guy trot around the bases if the ball went foul; I don’t want to see a guy trot back to the dugout if he’s safely slid into a base. What’s your suggestion for instant replay changes in 2014?

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Game 42 – A Horselike Performance on Preakness Day

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

Box Score / Highlights

Star of the Game – Scott Feldman – .271 (WPA)


by Holden Clark

Scott Feldman earns this one with his work horse effort today. Although his peripheral stats suggest he is just getting lucky, when watching him pitch you can see a man that is doing a great job of making his pitches.  Stats in baseball are interesting; everyone assumes that you will regress back to the mean.  In Feldman’s case he is “due” for a regression.  Yet, as he showed again today, his stuff continues to keep his head above the proverbial waters.

A lot of stat heads will tell you that baseball is a game of cycles.  Yes a particular pitcher or batter is seemingly dominating, but wait; he’ll come back down to earth.  On the other side of the argument you have the fan boy (I am admittedly one) who watches the game through “holy crap” goggles.  With the two views seemingly at odds, we find Scott Feldman standing on the corner of the crossroads at an early point in the season.

Watching Feldman pitch today it was rare to see him labor through any batters.  He got in to a couple jams but never appeared to shake from his confidence or command.  Scattering seven hits in 6 1/3 innings, Feldman didn’t give up an earned run.  He struck out six and walked one in the game.  His current advanced statistics suggest he has been good but not great, with a FIP of 4.33 on a BABIP .218. Yet, to the untrained eye he has been dominant of late.

So, did Feldman just figure something out and become an excellent starter by simply flipping a switch?  Did he finally live up to the dominant pitcher that his ominous frame on the mound would suggest?  I’m not sure that he flipped a switch but he has been getting harder breaks on his breaking balls and more life on his fastball.  He has had more control and more confidence.  Simply stated, he has taken the ball with a chip on his shoulder to prove that he deserves a spot in a pretty darn good Chicago Cubs starting rotation.  He was not going to the pen for anybody, there was never even the suggestion he be booted.

So as I watched the game with my “holy crap” goggles on, I began to wonder if we were going to see this the rest of the season. I know the stats say he will come back to earth, but when you watch you can see it.  I am fairly confident I loathe the next word I am about to use to describe his presence more than anybody. He appears, on the mound (and at the plate as shown by him breaking down that back leg and digging a low pitch out and hammering it for a double), that the man has gone to the store and bought himself some “swag”.  I apologize to everyone for using that term.  I was going to go with mojo but I didn’t think that was an accurate description.

The confidence is coming from building on the last great start, using the same stuff, and having the respect and confidence of a team that assured him he wouldn’t be looking over his shoulder when it came to a spot in the staff.  So is that what built it up, Theo and Jed promising Scott that he was going to get his spot in the rotation if he signed with the Cubs?  After his first few “meh” starts and he continued to get the ball, did he settle into his role and pitch up to his ability?  Is he going to regress?

Who cares!  The guy is on fire.  The guy is pitching with confidence.  Regardless if the stats say one thing or the other, right now the holy crap meter says it’s time to celebrate another raising of the “W” flag.  He is building confidence across the board, just like Travis Wood whose peripherals say he has been more lucky than good.  Right now, those advance stats don’t matter because both are pitching great and winning ball games.

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