Here’s What to Do with Neil Walker

“What to do with Neil Walker?”

That was the question posed by Bob Smizik on his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette blog this morning. I wanted to respond on his site, but, once I started doing some research, I realized that there was plenty of information for a full SABERBUCS article.

Neil Walker has been very good – and even more popular player – with the Pirates. He hit for an .809 OPS last year, third best among MLB second-baseman, with a 3.7 WAR. He has helped the Pirates reach the post-season in both of the last two years – after 20 consecutive seasons of sub-.500 baseball. And he is a hometown boy.

What’s not to like, right?

Well, Walker is a 29-year-old Super 2 player, who is in his third year of arbitration, has had significant problems with his back, and his fielding fell to a -8.4 UZR/150 last year (26th of 31 2B, who played at least 500 innings). He will make either $8 million or $9 million through the arbitration process this year and probably something around $11 million through the same process next year..

Those figures are actually a bargain for the Pirates. I put Walker’s current WAR-based free agent value at $15 million per season. But the question for the Pirates is not what Walker is worth now, but, rather, what he will be worth from ages 31 through 34.

So, I set out on a little search to find players who were most comparable to Walker – from ages 26 through Walker’s 2014 season age of 28 – in the key predictive areas of BB rate, K rate, and power.

And I struck gold! A former Pirate is near the top of the list of Walker’s comparables and he was in much the same situation with the Pirates that Walker is in now.

In the last three seasons, from ages 26 through 28, Walker posted an 8.6% BB rate, a 16.8% K rate, and a .170 Isolated Power (“ISO”; slugging percentage minus batting average).

From 1975 through 1977, at ages 26 through 28,  former Pirate Richie Zisk had a 9.8% BB rate (1.2 points better than Walker), the same K rate as Walker at 16.8%, and a slightly higher ISO of .180.

Zisk was 94.1% comparable to Walker in those 3 key, predictive hitting statistics.

Richie Zisk was arguable the Pirates best player in 1976, at the age of 27. He led the team with a 4.6 WAR, ahead of Al Oliver, who produced the second most wins above replacement with 3.9. Zisk’s 21 HR tied for the team lead with Bill Robinson. And he had a batting line of .289/.343/.465 — .808 OPS. He had one more HR than Willie Stargell and his OPS was 12 points higher than Stargell’s.

But Zisk was one year away from free agency and the Pirates traded him after his superb 4.6 WAR 1976 season. And he never again produced a WAR better than 2.5. He continued to hit well, but his fielding declined greatly – something which is a great concern with Walker, given his -8.4 UZR/150 at 2B last season and history of back trouble.

The Pirates won 96 games – without Zisk – in 1977, but they finished second in the National League East to the Phillies who won 101. Zisk would not have made the difference. He posted a 2.5 WAR with the White Sox that season, The relief pitchers whom the Pirates acquired from the White Sox in exchange for Zisk – Rich Gossage and Terry Forster – gave the Pirates a total of 5.1 Wins Above Replacement that season.

The Pirates became a better team in 1977 for having traded their best player after the 1976 season.

The current team would be wise to attempt to trade Neil Walker after the 2015 season, just as Harding Petersen traded Richie Zisk after the 1976 season. But they should look for upper level prospects who will be under team control for 6 years, rather than a couple of relievers like Gossage and Forster, who left the Pirates as free agents after one season.

In Defense of the Patriots

Is this not the common logic?

“The NFL says that the footballs the New England Patriots were using in the AFC Championship Game were inflated to less than the mandatory league minimum of 12.5 pounds per square inch (PSI), therefore, the Patriots intentionally deflated the footballs and must be severely punished by the league.”

Case closed! Right?

Wrong.

This case provides a whole lot of raw material for a defense lawyer to construct reasonable doubt.

First, let’s give the boys from Foxboro the time-honored American tradition of the presumption of innocence. If an accused axe murderer is innocent until proven guilty, should not that same right extend to a football team accused of the less than heinous crime of deflating footballs?

The NFL has the burden of proving that the Patriots deliberately deflated their footballs to a PSI lower than the minimum allowed by the league’s rules. The Patriots do not have to prove their innocence.

So, as the Patriots self-appointed defense attorney, I have some questions for the NFL.

1. What was the exact PSI of each of the footballs when they were checked by the official before the game?

If the NFL can’t answer that question, the case is over and my client is not guilty. If the NFL doesn’t know exactly what the PSI of each ball was prior to the game, then it doesn’t matter what the PSI was when the balls were checked the second time. If they don’t know what the PSI was before the game, then the officials might have approved balls that were already under-inflated.

2. How do you know that the gauges which were used to check the balls gave an accurate reading?

I would want to see those gauges and have them tested by an expert.

3. Were the same gauges used when the balls were checked prior to the game and when they were checked the second time?

Different gauges could give different readings.

4. Is there any video evidence of anybody employed by the Patriots deflating the footballs after they were approved by the officials?

5. Is there any eyewitness testimony that somebody employed by the Patriots deflated the footballs?

6. What affect did the change in temperature between the room in which the balls were checked and the temperature on the field have on the PSI of the footballs?

7. What was the temperature on the field? Not the temperature in Boston or Foxboro. What was the exact temperature on the field where the game was actually played?

8. What was the temperature in the room where the officials checked the balls prior to the game?

9. How much does the PSI of a football commonly change during the course of an NFL game?

I doubt that the NFL has any information on this subject. And that, itself, would cast doubt on the accusation that the Patriots deflated the ball. If the NFL can’t answer this question, then it may be that throwing and kicking the ball; and having groups of men weighing 250 to 350 pounds landing on them, diving on them, fighting for them, and spiking them may have deflated the balls.

10. What was the exact PSI of the Colts footballs prior to the game?

The claim has been made that the Colts footballs weren’t deflated by weather and the wear of the game, therefore, the Patriots footballs could not have deflated from those causes. But we don’t know that the Colts footballs did not deflate during the game. All we have been told is that when they were checked the second time they were within the mandated PSI range. But it is possible that they were at the very top of that range prior to the game and did deflate, but were still at or above the minimum of the range after deflating.

11. What was the exact PSI of the Colts footballs the second time they were checked?

12. How many of the Patriots footballs were handled by the Colts during the course of the game?

We know that at least one of the Patriots footballs was handled by the Colts equipment manager because it was given to him by a Colt defender after that defender intercepted one of Tom Brady’s passes.

Why does this question matter? Because we don’t know how the balls became under-inflated. Therefore, anybody who came into possession of them for the brief time necessary to deflate them could have deflated them. And that includes people on the Colts sideline.

13. What was the condition of the leather and the seams of the ball, prior to the game and when they were checked the second time? What changes were their in the condition of the balls between the first and second checking?

If there were torn seams or cuts in the leather, then the balls could have leaked air – especially when groups of very large men were landing on them, diving on them, and fighting for them.

14. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said that he likes to inflate his footballs as much as possible – even OVER-inflate them – and hope that the official does not take air out of them prior to the game. That suggests that there are times when officials negligently allow improperly inflated footballs into the game. So, how often do officials allow improperly inflated footballs into the game? How do we know that the officials did not approve under-inflated footballs in this instance?

15. The NFL has recently set a precedent for the penalty for improperly tampering with footballs. The Vikings and Panthers were found to have heated their footballs during their November 30th game, in violation of NFL rules. The NFL warned the teams not to do it again and issued no penalties or fines to the teams.

Therefore, if the Patriots are found to have improperly deflated footballs, the NFL should follow the precedent it has set and issue the Patriots a warning; and take no further action against them.

16. Some will say that the Patriots should be punished more harshly than the Panthers and Vikings because they are repeat offenders. But Spygate happened 8 years ago and the Patriots have not been penalized for any rules violations since that time.

Further, since Spygate, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been penalized twice by the NFL for violating league rules and they were not punished more harshly the second time for being a “repeat offender.”

In the first instance, Steeler wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was found to have faked an injury to save a timeout in an October 2012 game. Sanders was fined and the Steelers were fined $35,000.

In the second instance, just over one year later, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was found to have left the sideline, during a play, to obstruct a Baltimore Ravens ball-carrier who was on his way to a touchdown. Tomlin was fined $100,000, but the league made no mention of having increased his fine because it was the Steelers second violation within 13 months.

The NFL has a lot of questions to answer before it can find the Patriots guilty of improperly tampering with footballs. And if they answer those questions in a manner that leads them to find the Patriots guilty, then the NFL should follow the precedent it set with the Vikings and Panthers and give the Patriots a warning and no fine, loss of draft choices, or any other penalty.

Sean Rodriguez is a Big Upgrade to the Pirates Bench

In 481 plate appearances over the last two seasons, Sean Rodriguez hit 17 home runs. His wRC+ was 100, making him an exactly league average producer.

His career UZR/150 at 2B is 6.4 runs above average. At 3B, he is +3.9. In LF, he is +4.5. At 1B, he is +17.1. And at SS, he has been just below average at -0.5.

By acquiring Rodriguez, the Pirates upgraded their bench with a “super-utility” player who was good enough to start 162 games for the Rays over the past two seasons.

Pedro is Not Pablo; He’s Pete

There are some who believe that Pedro Alvarez is a similar player to Pablo Sandoval, who just signed a 5-year, $95 million free agent contract with the Boston Red Sox. I don’t see it that way.

Pedro Alvarez was 27 years old during the 2014 season and he has been in the major leagues since his age-23 season of 2010. Here are the respective numbers for Alvarez and Pablo Sandoval from ages 23 through age 27:

Alvarez    :     Sandoval

BB Rate:   9.2%   :   7.5%

K Rate:     29.6%   :   13.4%

Isolated Power:  .201   :    .159

wRC+:   104   :   116

Batting Average:  .235   :   .283

On-Base Percentage: .307   :   .336

Slugging Percentage:  .435  :   .442

OPS:  .742  :   .778

In the key predictive areas of BB%, K%, and Isolated Power, Sandoval is just 68.6% comparable to Alvarez from ages 23 through 27.

The fielding numbers of the two players are also vastly different. Fangraphs rates Alvarez defense at 22.2 runs below average from ages 23-27. Sandoval is rated as 18.3 runs above average. Alvarez’s Defensive Runs Total is -17.0. Sandoval’s Defensive Runs Total is +10.0.

From ages 23 through 27, Sandoval was 14.8 Wins Above Replacement. Alvarez’s WAR was just 5.9.

Now, let’s take a look at the player who is most comparable to Alvarez, from ages 23 through 27, in the key areas of BB rate, K rate, and Isolated Power.

Alvarez   :    Player C

BB Rate:   9.2%   :   8.0%

K Rate:  29.6%   :   27.9%

Isolated Power:  .201   :   .200

wRC+:  104   :   104

BABIP:  .295   :   .300

Batting Average:  .235   :   .242

On-Base Percentage:  .307   :   .309

Slugging Percentage:  .435   :   .443

OPS:   .742   :   .752

In the key predictive areas of BB rate, K rate, and Isolated Power, Player C was 93.6% comparable to Pedro Alvarez from ages 23 through 27.

Alvarez’s fielding is also more similar to that of Player C than it is to that of Pablo Sandoval:

Fangraphs:  Alvarez -22.2  :   Player C  -36.4

Defensive Runs Total:  Alvarez -17.0  :  Player C  -7.0

From ages 23 through 27, Player C’s WAR was 5.5. Alvarez’s was 5.9.

And who is Player C?

Pete Incaviglia.

 

 

Do MLB Teams Get What They Pay For?

The Boston Red Sox spent about $47 million more than the league average on their payroll last year. Their 2014 won-loss record, however, was 20 games below average at 71-91.

The Red Sox response?

Spend more.

In the last 24 hours, the Red Sox have agreed to sign free agents Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to contracts worth 5-years/$95 million and 4-years/$88 million, respectively.

And that gives me a perfect opportunity to present my statistical analysis of 2014 payrolls, won-loss records, and dollars spent per Win.

I took an interest in that analysis when I read the following statement, regarding MLB payroll, that was recently made by a commenter on Bob Smizik’s blog:

That old adage seems to make sense. People want to believe that they get what they pay for and that if they pay more for a product, they will get more out of the product. But I wasn’t willing to simply assume that MLB teams “get what they pay for very close to 100% of the time.” So, I took a close look at payrolls and wins.

The 30 major league teams spent a total of $3.45 Billion on payroll in 2014. And they played a total of 2,430 games; which, of course, means that there were 2,430 “wins” in 2014.

So, to determine the amount MLB teams spent per win, I divided $3.45 Billion by 2,430 wins and got the result of $1.42 million per win.

To determine the number of games a team should have been expected to win, based upon the theory that “they get what they pay for,” I divided their payroll by $1.42 million – the MLB average dollars spent per win.

For instance, the average amount that teams spent on payroll was $115 million per team. Therefore, if teams really do “get what they pay for,” a payroll of $115 million should result in a won-loss record of 81-81. (115 million divided by 1.42 million is 80.99)

But the research says that teams rarely got what they paid for in 2014.

Only 5 teams came within 5 wins of the number that would have been expected, based strictly upon their payrolls – if they do, indeed, “get what they pay for.” And the median average deviation from payroll win expectation was a whopping 20 wins!

At a median average deviation of 20 wins, a team with a league average payroll, which (based on the theory that get what they pay for) would be expected to go 81-81 – could actually end up being anywhere from a 101-win team to a 101-loss team. Therefore, the notion that “teams get what they pay for” simply wasn’t anything close to true in 2014 – unless it meant that a team with a league average payroll “got what it paid for” as long as it ended up being anything from the best team in the league to the worst team in the league. In other words, payroll told us almost nothing about how a team can be expected to perform.

Payroll as a predictor of winning percentage was a nearly complete failure in 2014.t

Here are the results for each of the 30 MLB teams, beginning with the 3 who won exactly the number of games that their payroll would suggest. The accuracy of payroll as a predictor of wins drops quickly from there.

Braves:  Payroll: $112 million;     Win Expectation: 79;     Wins: 79;      Deviation:  0

Rockies: Payroll: $94 million;     Win Expectation: 66;      Wins: 66;      Deviation: 0

Nationals: Payroll: $136 million;  Win Expectation: 96;     Wins: 96;      Deviation: 0

Twins:  Payroll: $92 million;        Win Expectation: 65;       Wins 70;      Deviation: 5

Reds:  Payroll:  $115 million;       Win Expectation: 81;      Wins 76;      Deviation: 5   

Cubs:  Payroll: $93 million;        Win Expectation: 65;        Wins 73;      Deviation: 8

Brewers:  Payroll:  $104 million;  Win Expectation: 73;      Wins: 82;    Deviation: 9

White Sox:  Payroll: $90 million;  Win Expectation: 63;      Wins: 73;    Deviation: 10

Angels:  Payroll: $158 million;  Win Expectation: 111;        Wins: 98;    Deviation: 13

Padres: Payroll: $91 million;     Win Expectation: 64;          Wins; 77;     Deviation: 13

Blue Jays: Payroll: $137 million;     Win Expectation: 96;   Wins 83;      Deviation 13

Cardinals: Payroll: $110 million;     Win Expectation: 77;    Wins: 90;     Deviation 13

Diamondbacks: Payroll: $112 million;    Win Expectation: 79;   Wins: 64;  Deviation: 15

Giants:  Payroll: $148 million;    Win Expectation: 104;       Wins: 88;     Deviation: 16

Mets:  Payroll: $85 million;         Win Expectation: 60;         Wins: 79;     Deviation: 19

Orioles:  Payroll: $107 million;     Win Expectation: 75;       Wins: 96;    Deviation: 21

Mariners: Payroll: $92 million;     Win Expectation: 65;        Wins: 87;    Deviation: 22

Rays:  Payroll: $77 million;        Win Expectation: 54;        Wins: 77;      Deviation: 23

Indians:  Payroll: $85 million;     Win Expectation: 60;     Wins: 85;        Deviation: 25

Royals:  Payroll: $91 million;    Win Expectation: 64;      Wins: 89;         Deviation: 25

Tigers:  Payroll: $165 million;     Win Expectation: 116;   Wins: 90;        Deviation: 26

Rangers:  Payroll: $134 million;    Win Expectation: 94;    Wins: 67;      Deviation: 27

Athletics:  Payroll: $81 million;    Win Expectation: 57;     Wins: 88;      Deviation: 31

Astros: Payroll: $52 million;       Win Expectation: 37;      Wins: 70;       Deviation: 33

Pirates:  Payroll: $72 million;       Win Expectation: 51;     Wins: 88;      Deviation:  37

Red Sox:  Payroll: $162 million;   Win Expectation: 114;   Wins: 71;      Deviation: 43

Marlins:  Payroll: $44 million;       Win Expectation: 31;     Wins: 77;      Deviation: 46

Phillies: Payroll: $178 million;      Win Expectation: 125;    Wins: 73;      Deviation: 52

Yankees:  Payroll: $197 million;  Win Expectation: 139;      Wins 84;      Deviation: 55 

Dodgers:  Payroll: $236 million;   Win Expectation: 162;    Wins: 94;      Deviation: 68

The “mean” average deviation between payroll win expectation and actual wins was 22.4 wins. The median average (same “deviation” number above as below) was 20.

This does not mean that teams should seek to have the lowest payroll in the major league baseball. But the evidence does lead to the conclusion that spending according to revenues – whether they are large or small – is just as likely to lead to on-the-field success as spending abundantly.

Bitching About “Dumpster Diving”

The Pirates recent signings of SS Pedro Florimon and pitcher Radhames Liz has brought on the Spend-Crazies’boringly predictable “Dumpster Dive!” bitch.

One would think they might have learned, after moaning the same miserable moan about the Pirate acquisitions of Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Edinson Volquez, Vance Worley, John Holdzkom, Chris Stewart, and Gaby Sanchez . . . But we’re talking about the Spend-Crazies, who focus all of their energies on Bob Nutting’s finances. They feel that success is having a mid-tier payroll, rather than a top-tier organization.

And the Pirates have, indeed, re-built themselves into a top-tier organization. So, the Spend-Crazies must ignore the fact that the Pirates are one of only 6 MLB teams to have reached the playoffs in both 2013 and 2014; and that they consistently have had one of the top rated farm systems in baseball. In fact, they must resort to the lowly “Rule 5 Draft” in order to find some feeble way to criticize the Pirates minor league organization.

So, let’s take a look at what the Nutting-obsessed have called “Dumpster Dives.”

Jason Grilli was at AAA when the Pirates acquired him from the Phillies in 2011. He was 34 years old and had not pitched in the major leagues in two years. From 2011 – 2014, Grilli saved 47 games for the Pirates, while posting a 3.01 ERA and 2.94 xFIP in 161.2 innings pitched.

Mark Melancon had a 6.20 ERA when the Pirates traded Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to the Red Sox for him and Jerry Sands, Ivan DeJesus, and Stolmy Pimentel. In two seasons, Melancon has saved 49 games and pitched to a 1.65 ERA and an outstanding 2.26 xFIP in 142 innings.

Vance Worley had just posted a 7.21 ERA for the Twins in 2013, when the Pirates acquired him. He gave the Pirates 110.2 innings of 2.85 ERA and 3.54 pitching

Edinson Volquez had a 5.71 ERA for the Padres and Dodgers in 20134. The Spend-Crazies cried when the Pirates signed him for $5 million. He had a 3.04 ERA and 4.20 xFIP for them this past season, while pitching 192.2 innings.

“Chris Stewart?!” they moaned. “That’s our big off-season acquisition.” Stewart went on to hit .294 with a .693 OPS in 2014 (the MLB average for catchers was .687). And he played average to above-average defense, while providing pitch-framingthat was just as good as that of Russell Martin.

“Gaby Sanchez?! That’s the bum we get for the pennant race at the trade deadline?!” Since being acquired in 2012, Sanchez has hit for an .846 OPS against left-handed pitchers – the exact job he was acquired to perform.

“Now, their diving all the way down to the Independent Leagues for pitchers?! C’mon, man,” they say, a bit less than creatively, “John Holdzkom?! Really,” they echo the meaningless cliche.

And we hear the very same things now about two players about whom they heard for the first time when the Pirates signd them; Pedro Florimon and Radhames Liz.

“Woo-hoo!! The dumpster-dive season has started early this year. . . Well, it is what it is,” they whine-out another meaningless cliche. (When is “It” ever not what “It” is. I would think that “It” cannot ever be what “It” is not. But that’s just me. Probably a result of my graduate degree in existential psychology.)

Of course, the Spend-Crazies neglect to consider that Pedro Florimon is an excellent defensive SS. He had a +12 Defensive Runs Saved and +9.9 fangraphs defensive rating, when he played 134 games for the Twins in 2013. That’s Clint-Barmes-level fielding at a premium defensive position.

Florimon’s OPS was only .611 in his 134 games for the Twins in 2013. That’s not good. But it is quite good enough for an excellent-fielding, back-up SS.

The Spend-Crazies conveniently forget the Michael Martinez experience of 2014, which happened when Barmes and Neil Walker went down with injuries at the same time.

Radhames Liz was once an excellent prospect, but control problems washed him out of the Major Leagues. However, his fastball is now hitting 97-98 mph in the Dominican Winter League and he is throwing what one scout called a “vicious curve.” He has K’d 29 and BB’d only 5 in 23 innings in the Dominican. And it’s not as if the Pirates don’t have solid reports on him. Dean Treanor, who manages the Pirates AAA team, is Liz’s current manager in the Dominican.

Sure, there have been waiver claims and low-level acquisitions that did not work out for the Pirates: Jayson Nix, Michael Martinez, Chris Dickerson, Jonathan Sanchez.

But there is little to no risk involved with bringing these players into the fold . . . and they could become Jason Grilli . . . Mark Melancon . . . or John Holdzkom, Edinson Volquez, Vance Worley, Chris Stewart, or Gaby Sanchez, who all helped the Pirates succeed to the point of reaching the playoffs.

Keep on diving into that kind of dumpster, Neal. You’ll be doing the Nutting-obsessed a favor. They’re not happy unless they’re bitching.

Another Absurdity Revealed by the Russell Martin Free Agency

I just saw this quote from a Pirate “fan” regarding the team’s acquisition of catcher Francisco Cervelli from the Yankees.

“Nutting Regime followers have already been in a frenzy by painting GM Neal Huntington’s answer to Russell Martin (Franciso Cervelli) to be something he’s not.
Cervelli is and has been a back up catcher….Another Chris Stewart.
To anoint him as anything else is pure, Grade A propaganda at its worse.
“Could Cervelli turn out to be something special?….
Sure!….And the Steelers could win the Super Bowl in February too.”

 

Perhaps, the above quoted astute observer does not realize that, in four of the past six seasons, Russell Martin’s OPS has been lower than Francisco Cervelli’s career OPS; or that – when the Pirates out-bid the Yankees for Russell Martin, prior to the 2013 season – the Yankees chose to replace Martin with Cervelli and Chris Stewart. I guess New York was taking the cheap way out.