Mattingly Offers Minor Clues to Australia Roster

guerrero_fields_spring

Who will be on the Dodger flight to Australia on Sunday? Don Mattingly said this morning that “we’ve pretty much made that decision,” but isn’t prepared to divulge it yet, and likely won’t until the end of the weekend. Paul Maholm will, along with fellow starters Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-jin Ryu, but whether Dan Haren will remains to be seen.

We can say with good confidence that Josh Beckett, who injured his thumb earlier this week, is not going to go to Australia. But you will see him today, because he’s expected to throw 4 innings and/65 pitches against the Cubs. He may be restricted to fastballs and changeups, since the breaking pitch is still causing him some trouble. As for the other not-going certainty, Zack Greinke, he was throwing a bullpen session this morning and looked as though he did not have restrictions.

Dodgers
Cubs
1:05pm PT
Mesa, Ariz.
2B
Gordon
CF
Bonifacio
LF
Crawford
DH
Sweeney
RF
Puig
RF
Schierholtz
1B
Gonzalez
1B
Rizzo
CF
Ethier
LF
Ruggiano
3B
Turner
3B
Valbuena
C
Ellis
SS
Murphy
SS
Rojas
C
Kottaras
P
Beckett
2B
Barney

Yet another uncertainty about Australia is Carl Crawford, who expecting a baby as soon as this weekend. If Crawford doesn’t go, Mattingly indicated they could take another outfielder, which is probably good news for Mike Baxter — but no, don’t expect to see Joc Pederson.

On Justin Turner, who seems all but assured of a roster spot, Mattingly said that he “seems comfortable all around the diamond, his hands seem to work easy, he’s had quality at-bats.” Fellow infielder Erisbel Arruebarrena, who arrived in camp yesterday, has no timetable to appear in a game yet — as Mattingly said, “I’ve met him, but I haven’t even seen him swing a bat yet.”

As for Brandon League, he is expected to pitch in a minor league game today, and hopes to get into a major league game tomorrow, but Mattingly considers it a “wait and see,” on that, indicating that League has been doing video work to fix his mechanics, which he’ll work on in today’s minor league game today.

League was asked whether he thinks he’s competing for a job with the team, and replied, “isn’t everyone competing in ST for a job, or a role? It’s a good problem to have for the Dodgers,” continuing to say that “I haven’t thought about it since I had options.”

My guess? If he’s on the flight to Australia — a big if — he’s not going to be on the active roster.

Maholm Hit Hard, Billingsley Looks Great, Pitching Staff Still Unsettled

He exists!

GLENDALE, Ariz. — It’s a good thing these games don’t count, because this one was one to forget. Paul Maholm gave up two long homers — one absolutely crushed by Todd Frazier — and allowed eight baserunners in 2.2 innings. Though already-cut Red Patterson looked good in allowing a single hit over 3.1, our new favorite toy Seth Rosin had his first tough outing, allowing six baserunners in three innings.

After the game, Maholm said “you learn from it, and you try to forget about it pretty quickly.”

Tim Wallach added “he got a couple balls up, and obviously that’s not his game. If he gets a ball up, that’s when he gets in trouble. I thought he did a really good job with Billy Hamilton when he was on first base, but what happens with guys like them, and that’s what’s why Dee is so important for us, is that he gets on base, and it causes you to take your focus some place else.”

As for Rosin, Dustin and I happened upon his father on the concourse. That’s right, Island Noodles isn’t just your home for something vaguely resembling vegetables at a baseball game. No inside info there, because honestly I don’t believe Rosin knows his future yet, but safe to say, the entire Rosin family badly want him to make the club (obviously), and are well aware of Rosin’s rising reputation among fans — though today’s performance didn’t help.

And so the prevailing topic of conversation around the park today was, “what is this pitching staff going to look like on Opening Day? I still think they’ll work out a deal to keep Rosin and send him to the minors — what the hell, might as well send Javy Guerra, who is likely to be lost since he’s out of options — and while Brandon League won’t be cut, I’m leaning more heavily than ever to thinking there’s a magic injury coming that keeps him off the roster, at least to start. He hasn’t pitched since Monday, isn’t scheduled to go visit the Cubs tomorrow, and has appeared only three times in March.

When asked after the game if League was scheduled to pitch anywhere soon, Wallach would only say that “I don’t know when that is. I’m sure he is, but I don’t know when that is.”

***

On the back fields, I skipped batting practice in order to watch an intra-squad game featuring Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, and Corey Seager, also known as “a much more interesting lineup than the one the real team had today.” Kemp went 0-6, while Puig had a stand-up triple and a homer. On the triple, I can say this: it was a laser to left-center field, and Puig didn’t even break hard out of the box. That’s not to bring up any sort of effort questions — it was an intra-squad game against minor leaguers, so come on — but to point out that it very well could have been a homer had he been going all the way.

Among those pitching against Kemp and Puig was Matt Magill, who looked free and easy while hitting 94, and Stephen Fife, who looked completely bizarre to me wearing #33.

***

Among the sights today: Chad Billingsley and Brian Wilson throwing bullpen sessions. If you didn’t know Billingsley had been injured, you wouldn’t have guessed it — he looked fantastic. That’s not the same as being “game ready,” of course, because the control needs work and the last think you want to do is allow him to re-injure himself by pushing too hard, too soon. Still, the way he looked in the session (and the way he bounced around during a spirited game of clubhouse table tennis) makes me think he might be back on the low end of the estimate.

***

As learned by an unnamed member of the media: Chone Figgins‘ first name does not rhyme with phone, but “Shawn.” Relevant information if you are attempting to speak to him.

 

Brandon League Isn’t Making Any New Friends

It’s probably not fair to just talk about Brandon League. But it sure is fun. Not as much fun, I imagine, as Josh Donaldson had when he saw this fat pitch:


GIF Link

League entered today’s game having allowed 6 of 12 previous spring batters to reach, and then he immediately walked old friend Nick Punto. That was followed by the Donaldson blast and… well, look, I say all the time that spring numbers don’t matter, so I’m not going to quote ERA or batting average against or anything here. But you can still apply some context to what you see. For example, I wrote at FanGraphs this morning about how Sergio Romo‘s awful spring isn’t a big deal, because he’s holding off on his trademark slider specifically in order to work on his changeup. He’s not trying to get outs. He’s trying to improve something lesser against live competition.

But League, as far as we know, isn’t trying that. And unlike Romo, who has a solid reputation and a spot locked up, League can’t go through an entire spring looking terrible. I mean, maybe he can, because of that contract, but so far this spring he’s not done much to show that he’s past his 2013 collapse.

I still don’t think the team will simply cut him, nor is it likely there’s a trade partner, so I don’t know how or if there’s a way out of this. But again, it’s worth remembering how many bullpen options there are. It’s worth noting that Kenley Jansen and J.P. Howell and Brian Wilson (who left the game early today, though it didn’t appear to be anything serious) and Jamey Wright and Chris Perez and Paco Rodriguez and Chris Withrow and Paul Maholm and Jose Dominguez and Seth Rosin all exist, and all with various cases to be on the roster.

They won’t all be on the roster, because they can’t. Some will be in Triple-A, and Rosin probably gets offered back to the Phillies. But the more I see of League, the more it seems that whatever bullpen composition the team leaves Arizona with won’t necessarily be the best possible collection they could have.

***

Fine, other things that happened today: Andre Ethier crushed his first dinger of the spring, and Juan Uribe went deep too, while Hyun-jin Ryu threw five effective innings, and even Miguel Olivo showed some life by driving in three with a double, and actually stole third base (!).

On the other hand, Dee Gordon went 0-for-3 with an error,  his second of the spring. He is now hitting .185/.242/.300, and again, his hits have come off of Blake Beavan, Andrew CarrawayKevin Shackelford (bunt), Kevin Quackenbush, and A.J. Griffin. No, his line doesn’t really matter much either, but the point is: it’s not impressive.

And yet: Ken Gurnick notes that Alexander Guerrero was in an intrasquad game today while Gordon started at second, and that Gordon is on the list to travel tomorrow to play the Royals, while Guerrero is not. Gurnick thinks the competition is over, and to be honest, he’s probably right. If I were a betting man, I’d bet on Gordon starting in Australia, and Guerrero starting in Albuquerque, and as I’ve said many times, I have no problem with Guerrero kicking off his pro career in the minors. But please, let’s cool it on the “Dee Gordon is a new player” business. Yes, he can run. Yes, his defense has been better than I’ve expected. But what evidence is there that he can suddenly hit? Or that putting him at leadoff, which Don Mattingly has threatened to do, is in any way the right move?

Is It Possible To Trade Brandon League?

BrandonLeagueSadI was browsing over at River Ave. Blues a while back, and came across a post about whether the Yankees would be able to find a trade match for Ichiro Suzuki. And why not? Ichiro was once the best player in baseball, but he’s now 40, he’s got a .302 OBP over the last two years, and he’s still owed $6.25 million in 2014. The Yankees don’t want to cut him out of respect, but with Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brett Gardner, and Alfonso Soriano, they don’t really need him. Brandon League was brought up as a possibility, but I can’t really see the fit; The last thing the Dodgers need is yet another outfielder at this point.

Yet the mere thought of being rid of League is appealing, because as we’ve been over so many times, he’s been terrible for most of the last two years — save a well-timed run of six weeks in late 2012 — and the Dodgers signed every reliever and have young ones on the way. Were it not for his contract, he wouldn’t be here right now. And remember, someone has to not be here in a little over a month when the season starts, because if the Dodgers go with their usual seven-man bullpen…

1) Kenley Jansen
2) Brian Wilson
3) J.P. Howell
4) Jamey Wright
5) Chris Perez
6) Paco Rodriguez
7) Paul Maholm or League

…someone with a big-league contract has to go, and I haven’t even included the far more deserving Chris Withrow or Jose Dominguez or the intriguing Seth Rosin yet. Now sure, maybe Maholm’s sore elbow is a great way to get him onto the disabled list, or the team shockingly takes advantage of Rodriguez’ remaining minor-league options, or — most likely — someone either in this group or in the rotation gets hurt over the next few weeks, and the problem isn’t a problem. Maybe it’s League himself, if the team hires someone to keep poking him in his strained lat long enough to gin up a DL stint.

But until that happens, we’re going to wonder how the bottom of the bullpen shakes out.  So.. is it possible to trade League at all? Remember, the conditions here are specific. The goal of this is not to find value or a useful part, because his trade appeal right now is zero. It’s less than zero, really, since you couldn’t give that contract away for free. You’d have to take on someone else’s problem, with the appeal here being A) to get rid of League without the embarrassment of cutting him, B) to maybe save just a bit of money, or C) to hope that “someone else’s problem” just needs a change of scenery.

League has $15m coming to him over the next two years — you can forget that 2016 vesting option, there’s just no chance — so let’s start there. In reality, this probably means that a trade would be “League and $14.5m for two low-level Single-A space fillers,” but that’s no fun. Let’s have fun.

Busted expensive second basemen

Hey, have you heard that second base is a potential issue for the Dodgers? I feel like this is a thing you might have heard about. Alexander Guerrero is far from a sure thing, and there might even be a platoon! Except, you know, that doesn’t make any sense at all.

My position is the same as it’s been for months: Guerrero will be fine, but it’s not fair to him to expect that he’s 100 percent ready to go on Opening Day. Remember, he didn’t play last year, and he’s never been a second baseman before, so if he needs a few weeks or months in the minors to start the year, I have no problem with that. You’ve signed him for years to come, not just for 2014.

We’ve been over the Dee Gordon and Brendan Harris and Justin Turner-shaped solutions there, and if that’s not appealing, there’s two formerly-good second baseman who are now just terribly expensive (and terrible) second basemen: Dan Uggla (2/$26m) and Rickie Weeks (1/$11m). Both have young players behind them (Tommy La Stella in Atlanta, Scooter Gennett in Milwaukee); both are coming off brutally awful seasons (.209/.306/.357 and 86 wRC+ for Weeks; .179/.309/.362 and a 91 wRC+ for Uggla). Both are below-average defensive players, but both were three-win players as recently as 2011 (Weeks) and 2012 (Uggla).

Remember, you’re not trading League for something shiny. If you can trade him, it’s for someone else’s scuffed-up broken parts, and gaining back a bullpen roster spot.

Totally useless pitchers

Remember Ricky Romero (2/$15.6m)? From 2009-11, he was a productive young lefty, tossing 613 innings of 3.60 ERA ball in the AL East, so Toronto signed him to a five-year extension. In 2012, he completely lost his control; in 2013, he spent most of the year being awful in Triple-A, walking 5.0/9 with a 5.78 ERA. In October, he was outrighted off the 40-man roster. Is Albuquerque the right place for him to fix that? Uh… no. It is not. But still. League was a 2001 Toronto draftee and spent the first four years of his career there.

The money doesn’t match up quite so well with John Danks, who was a very good pitcher from 2008-11 and still has $42.6m coming over the next three years. Since then, he’s had two awful seasons while battling shoulder woes. There’s probably not a fit here, because it’s not like the Dodgers have anywhere to put him either, but you can bet Chicago would be happy to unload that contract.

***

…and that might be it. There’s guys who make way too much money to fit — your B.J. Uptons, your Albert Pujolses, etc. — and overpaid guys who still have too much value to match up, like Jonathan Papelbon. And so as disappointing as that might be, the end result here just might be: no, probably not. The Dodgers are stuck with League, at least until they decide the embarrassment of cutting him is worth swallowing.

Is There Any Hope For Chris Perez Or Brandon League?

Will he improve? (via)

Will he improve? (via)

The Dodgers have been relatively quiet this offseason, except in the bullpen. The most confusing signing of the bunch was that of Chris Perez, which doubled their number of “closers who lost their job last season because they were awful.” Brandon League also fits into that category, and probably isn’t going anywhere since he’s still owed 15 million dollars over the next two seasons.

Since both pitchers will be on the roster when the season starts (barring injury), the Dodgers are hoping that they can return to their previous level of performance. By digging deeper into last season’s numbers, it might be possible to see if either pitcher was particularly unlucky last year and the magnitude of a possible improvement next season.

The basic stats show that both Perez and League had very different ERA numbers, but both pitchers had similar FIPs:

  ERA ERA- IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP FIP- fWAR
League, 2013 5.30 149 54.1 4.64 2.48 1.33 4.93 137 -1.0
Perez, 2013 4.33 113 54 9.00 3.50 1.83 5.08 133 -0.9

ERA and ERA- are not great statistics to use for relief pitchers, since sequencing and batted ball luck are extremely prevalent in relief pitcher samples. When using FIP components (HR, K, BB, and HBP), League and Perez are nearly identical, with League a bit worse after adjusting the numbers for park and league. League’s strikeout rate was about half of Perez’ last season, but his lower walk rate and lower home run rate were more than enough to close the FIP gap. League’s 137 FIP- was second worst among relievers with at least 50 innings pitched last season, while Perez was the fourth worst.

Looking at batted ball data (and SIERA) is a useful way to see if either pitcher was particularly unlucky last season:

  GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFH% Balls in play SIERA
League, 2013 2.83 19.1% 59.8% 21.1% 14.3% 199 3.70
Perez, 2013 1.22 22.8% 42.4% 34.8% 1.5% 158 3.47

At first glance, this data appears to favor League. He did a better job keeping the ball on the ground and allowed a lower percentage of line drives. He also allowed 17 infield hits last season, which could be an indicator of bad luck. To put that into context, League gave up more infield hits than 45 starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title in 2013 (>162 IP).

However, League allowed more balls in play than Perez, since he couldn’t strike anybody out. As a result, League’s SIERA (an ERA estimator which uses batted ball data and other inputs) was a bit worse than Perez’ last season. Both pitchers had SIERAs that were better than their league average (3.85 for NL, 3.89 for AL), and both pitchers’ SIERA was significantly better than their corresponding ERA and FIP. This might point to bad luck last season, and might point to positive regression potential for both.

There is one stat that I left out of the previous tables that I feel deserves a bit more attention. League and Perez both had surprisingly okay xFIPs last season:

  FIP FIP- HR/FB xFIP xFIP-
League, 2013 4.93 137 19.0% 4.07 108
Perez, 2013 5.08 133 20.0% 3.83 97

xFIP uses the same components as FIP, but substitutes an expected home run total in place of the actual home run total. The expected home run total uses the number of fly balls a pitcher allows and the league average HR/FB ratio (10.5% last season). Since a pitcher’s HR/FB ratio is highly variable, using the expected home run total can potentially be more reflective of the pitcher’s actual skill.

The reason why League and Perez’ xFIPs are so much better than their FIPs is because both pitchers had very high HR/FB ratios last season. Even after normalizing the home run total, League’s xFIP- was 12th worst among relievers with at least 50 innings pitched. Perez saw a bigger benefit, ending up at 45th worst overall.

However, there is more data available that can help determine if a pitcher’s HR/FB ratio is a fluke. Baseballheatmaps.com tracks the average distance of fly balls (including home runs) that a pitcher allows. Below is a plot with Perez and League’s 2013 fly ball distance overlaid:

Perez_League_2013FlyballOverlay

On average, League’s fly balls traveled 285 feet and Perez’ fly balls traveled 301 feet.

While baseballheatmaps doesn’t make its pitcher fly ball distance data available in a leaderboard, it does have a leaderboard for hitters. Perez’ average fly ball distance was closest to David Ortiz, who was 16th among the 300 hitters on the leaderboard last season. League’s 285 feet would still be above the hitter median (280 feet, set by Juan Uribe), but it would have been 116th among hitters, between Victor Martinez and Eric Chavez.

Last year, FanGraphs took an extensive look into the correlation between fly ball distance and HR/FB ratio. Part 1 of the series examines the correlation between fly ball distance and HR/FB ratio for hitters, using fly ball distance as the only input. They used batted ball location to improve their correlation later in the series, but that input data is not fully available to the public.

In theory, the same correlation for hitters can also work for pitchers (most likely with more variance due to smaller sample sizes). Using the fit line equation from the linked article, I calculated League and Perez’ “expected” HR/FB ratio. Then I substituted the expected HR/FB ratio in place of the league average ratio in the xFIP equation. This calculation creates a modified version of xFIP using batted ball distances, which I am calling bxFIP.

Below are the bxFIP calculations for Perez and League, along with a comparison to their league averages (bxFIP-):

  Actual HR/FB Ratio Average FB Distance Expected HR/FB Ratio bxFIP bxFIP-
League, 2013 19.0% 285 ft 11.5% 4.16 110
Perez, 2013 20.0% 301 ft 16.4% 4.61 119

Using the HR/FB correlation, League’s numbers are a little bit better than Perez’. League’s bxFIP is closer to his xFIP, but Perez’ bxFIP is closer to his regular FIP.

This method isn’t perfect. Average fly ball distance does not account for park factors (though the Dodgers and Indians have similar HR factors). A sample of the average distance of approximately 30 fly balls is probably not very stable. More investigation would be needed to see if this method correlates better with actual performance than regular xFIP, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

Yet another way we can evaluate Perez and League’s potential to regress in 2014 is to use projection systems. The two main projection systems that are already available are Steamer and ZiPS. Here are the projections for League and Perez next season:

  IP ERA ERA- FIP FIP- WAR
League, Steamer 2014 32.0 3.58 - 3.62 - 0.0
League, ZiPS 2014 60.1 4.03 111 3.72 103 -0.1
Perez, Steamer 2014 40.0 3.29 - 3.60 - 0.0
Perez, ZiPS 2014 (Indians) 58.1 4.47 115 4.53 117 -0.3

There are some slight issues with these data. Steamer does not project ERA- and FIP-, so I had to leave those cells blank. Additionally, Perez’ projection assumes that he is still on the Indians, since the Dodgers had not signed when the Dodgers ZiPS post was written. In a later tweet, Dan Szymborski posted updated projections for Perez as a Dodger, but he did not include FIP. The tweet shows scaled ERA in terms of ERA+; a 92 ERA+ is equivalent to a 109 ERA-, so Perez is projected to do a little bit better in relation to league average in the National League than in the American League.

Overall, Steamer projects Perez and League to be very similar next season. Their FIPs are nearly identical, and Perez is projected to be slightly better by ERA-. Both pitchers are projected to be replacement level pitchers next season.

After using Perez’ NL ERA-, ZiPS also projects him to be slightly better than League by run prevention. However, it is extremely pessimistic about Perez’ FIP. Overall, ZiPS projects a slightly better WAR for League, but both pitchers are below replacement level.

An area of concern next season that isn’t directly captured in any of these numbers is fastball velocity. Both League (0.8 mph) and Perez (1.3 mph) lost velocity on their primary fast pitch last season. If either pitcher can re-gain that velocity, it could improve their overall results by allowing them to miss more bats. Perez’ velocity loss corresponded with an injury (shoulder tendinitis), but spending time on the DL did not immediately cause his velocity to rise. As a result, League is probably a bit more likely to recover his lost velocity, though it seems a bit unlikely for either pitcher.

Here’s a summary of the statistics cited in this article, along with career numbers.

  ERA ERA- FIP FIP- xFIP xFIP- bxFIP bxFIP- SIERA
League, 2013 5.30 149 4.93 137 4.07 108 4.16 110 3.70
League, Career 3.80 94 3.94 97 3.67 88 - - 3.67
Perez, 2013 4.33 113 5.08 133 3.83 97 4.61 119 3.47
Perez, Career 3.41 85 4.11 102 4.13 100 - - 3.58

The good news is that both pitchers have a pretty decent chance to improve next season. League’s ERA was mostly supported by his awful FIP, but xFIP, bxFIP, and SIERA all point to some bad luck on batted balls and are significantly below the ERA and FIP. Perez’ numbers are a bit more mixed (FIP and bxFIP higher than ERA), but his xFIP and SIERA also point to potential to improve. If their career numbers are used as a realistic target for regression, Perez is a little bit better, especially by ERA-. League has been better by FIP and xFIP, but neither pitcher has career numbers very far from average.

The bad news is that the numbers don’t point to either pitcher to be very good. Their career averages aren’t anything special, and projection systems don’t think they’ll recover much beyond replacement level. Both pitchers had concerning drops in fastball velocity last season, and Perez’ shoulder could still be a concern going forward. Neither pitcher has career numbers very far from league average. Their saves masked the actual numbers behind them.

However, at this point, the Dodgers will at least find solace in the potential for improvement (even if it means that Chris Withrow might start the season in the minors). There’s potential for a bit of added value between the two pitchers, even if the Perez signing is still a bit odd.

This post uses the following statistics:

  • ERA: Earned Run Average.
  • ERA-: ERA, park adjusted and compared to league average. 100 ERA- is a league average pitcher by ERA, 90 ERA- is 10% better ERA than league average, etc. Explanation here.
  • FIP: Fielding Independent Pitching. Attempts to create an ERA-like number using only plays that do not require defense to complete (K, BB, HR) by assuming the pitcher is playing in front of a league average defense. Explanation here.
  • FIP-: FIP, park adjusted and compared to league average. 100 is a league average pitcher by FIP, 90 is 10% better FIP than league average, etc. Explanation here.
  • HR/FB ratio: The number of home runs a pitcher allows divided by the total number of fly balls allowed.
  • xFIP: Expected FIP, which is the same as FIP but normalized with a league average HR/FB ratio. Explanation here.
  • xFIP-: xFIP, park and league neutralized and scaled to league average. 100 xFIP- is a league average pitcher by xFIP, 90 xFIP- is 10% better xFIP than league average, etc. Explanation here.
  • SIERA: Skill interactive ERA, an ERA estimator that uses batted ball data and other inputs. Explanation here.
  • bxFIP: Batted ball expected FIP, calculated using an “expected” HR/FB ratio using fly ball distances. Explanation in this post.
  • bxFIP-: bxFIP, park and league neutralized and scaled to league average. 100 bxFIP- is a league average pitcher by bxFIP, 90 bxFIP- is 10% better bxFIP than league average, etc.
  • Steamer, ZiPS: Systems used to project future player performance. Explanation here.