6/5/13 – How Bad is the Cubs Bullpen?

After Tuesday night’s bullpen loss for the Cubs, I looked for a way to put in into perspective just how bad the Cubs bullpen is this year.  But first, I wanted to talk about how great the starting pitching has been, to show just how much the bullpen has taken away. The starters are tied for 8th in the majors with 34 quality starts (at least 6 innings and no more than 3 earned runs). The starters have given up 211 earned runs this year, 9th best in the league. The only teams that have given up fewer are the Cardinals, Braves, Reds, Pirates, Nationals, Royals, Rangers, and Tigers. Of those eight teams, four of them are in first place and two more lead in the wild card standings.

Now, lets look at the bullpen. Here is each statistic and the Cubs’ rank in each category amongst the entire major leagues.

Statistic Value Rank
Decisions 16 11th
Winning Percentage 0.438 21st
ERA 4.32 24th
Holds 18 26th
Walks/9 innings 3.9 22nd

But, I think the stat that best sums up the inability of the Cubs bullpen is WPA or Win Probability Added. Win Probability Added measures how each play that a player made affected the outcome of a game. The Cubs bullpen WPA is -4.12, dead last in the league, with only 12 teams having a WPA less than zero. To put this in perspective, a “+1” WPA equates to one win added. So, a -4.12 means that the Cubs bullpen has taken over four wins away from the team. Unfortunately for the Cubs, this only looks to get worse if Kevin Gregg and his 1.31 WPA gets traded at the deadline.

4/22/13 – What are the Errors Costing the Cubs?

If you have watched the Cubs at all this past week, you wouldn’t have to watch long to see some pretty sloppy defense. As of today, April 22, the Cubs have committed 17 errors in 17 games, resulting in a league-leading 14 unearned runs. In fact, 18.9% of the runs scores against the Cubs this year have been unearned. Only the Washington Nationals have committed more errors so far this season with 18. This got me wondering if there was a way to quantify or estimate how many wins the Cubs lost due to these unearned runs. I decided to use Pythagorean expectation to try and quantify wins that were lost.

 First, if you need it, here is a little background about Pythagorean expectation. Bill James was the inventor of the original formula used to predict winning percentage, which was

Bill James

Recently, Baseball Reference, changed the exponent to 1.83 to make the formula more accurate. So, I am using the Baseball Reference formula

Baseball Reference

 Currently, the Cubs’ record is 5-12. Using Pythagorean expectancy, 57 runs scored, and 74 runs allowed, their Pythagorean record is 7-10. Without even talking about earned runs, this already tells us that the Cubs should have a better record than they do, given the runs the have scored and allowed. Now, if we take away the 14 unearned runs the Cubs allowed, their Pythagorean record is 8-9, nearly 0.500. So, the 14 unearned runs have hypothetically cost the Cubs 3 wins.  Another way to think about this, each unearned run has costs the Cubs 0.21 wins.

 An important thing to remember with all of this is that it is totally hypothetical. Last year, the Cubs’ final record was 61-101, but their Pythagorean record was 65-97. So, although it was close, it wasn’t exactly correct. As the season progresses, the Pythagorean record may become more accurate. For the sake of Cub fans, hopefully their defense will as well.

Around the Minors – 4/15/13

The Cubs’ major league team may be struggling mightily, but what about prospects in the minors? Here is a quick analysis of the Cubs’ top prospects so far, as ranked by Baseball America, around the country.

First, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler are both playing for the A+ Daytona Cubs. Baez has 12 strikeouts and only 2 walks in 10 games. Baez is slugging 0.429 with 2 singles, 3 doubles, 2 triples and a home run. From what I have read, Baez is trying to crush the ball every at bat and it is causing him to strike out often.  So, I would say Baez needs to learn some plate discipline before he gets moved up.

Jorge Soler, on the other hand, has only 4 strikeouts and 4 walks, with 10 singles. He seemed to be doing well before he lost his mind and went after an opposing player with a bat, earning a five-game suspension.  Theo Epstein said the Cubs are working with Soler to help him channel his emotions more appropriately. Hopefully, they work with someone other than the sports psychologist that could never help out Carlos Zambrano.

Baseball America’s fifth-rated Cubs prospect is Brett Jackson, who is currently playing for the AAA Iowa Cubs. Going into this season, the concern for Jackson was his strikeouts. After appearing in 10 games this season, Jackson has struck out 13 times with only 9 hits in 43 plate appearances. I am about to the point where I’m not going to call Jackson a prospect anymore, unless he can somehow gain some plate discipline.

Rounding out the Baseball America top 5 Cubs prospects are Albert Almora and Arodys Vizcaino, both currently on the disabled list. The Cubs look for Almora to be back in late May, playing with the Midwest League Kane County Cougars. Vizcaino, on the other hand, may return after the All-Star Break after rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He will probably be in the bullpen, whenever he does return.

Overall, I’m optimistic about Soler and Baez. I’m thinking that the season is young and they will make the proper adjustments. When it comes to Brett Jackson, however, I’m thinking what you see is what you get. Unfortunately for the Cubs, that isn’t much. The name that I didn’t mention at all was former prospect Josh Vitters, who only played in 1 game for Iowa before being placed on the disabled list with a sore back. I feel 90% confident that Cub fans will forget the name Josh Vitters when it comes to third base prospects and start thinking about Jeimer Candelario and Arismendy Alcantara.

Jeff Samardzija – What’s the Difference?

After two starts this season, Jeff Samardzija now has 22 strikeouts in 13.2 innings and looks to be the Cubs’ ace when the time to contend arrives.  During the 2010 and 2011 seasons when Zamardzija was pitching out of the bullpen, I wasn’t convinced that he was going to become the pitcher that Jim Hendry saw. Now that his performances are getting the attention of national writers, I wondered what Zamardzija is doing differently than he did before to look like a different pitcher. Looking at some of the information on Fangraphs, a few things have seemed to change.

First, according to Pitchf/x, Jeff Zamardzija is throwing about 20% fewer fastballs than he did in 2010 and 2011.  He is throwing his slider more often and has added a splitter to his arsenal, which he didn’t throw in 2010 and 2011. Also, he has all but eliminated a curveball and change up.

Second, possibly due the mentioned pitch changes, Zamardzija is getting swinging strikes at rate of more than double what it was when he was a reliever. Last year, among qualifying pitchers, only four pitchers had a higher swinging strike rate (SwStr%) than he did. In fact, 19 of his 22 strikeouts this season have been of the swinging variety.  Also, hitters are now swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone much more of the time, but making contact with those pitches out of the zone much less of the time than when he was a reliever.

Although the Cubs will not win more games than they lose this year, it will be a lot of fun to watch Zamardzija continue to progress. If you can think ahead Cub fans, imagine this guy starting Game One of a playoff series when the Cubs finally get there.

4/3/13 – Pirates 3, Cubs 0

Although the Cubs roster may look different than in years past, the story is still the same. In two games, the Cubs are 0-13 with runners in scoring position. They have left a total of 10 men on base. Tonight, the Cubs had the bases loaded with only 1 out and failed to get a run across. The probability of scoring a run in that situation is 67%. Eventually, one would think the odds would be in the Cubs’ favor.

A few points from tonight’s game:
1.) Edwin Jackson looked pretty good in his Cubs debut. He struck out 5 and induced 8 groundouts, telling me he was keeping the ball down.

2.) Anthony Rizzo was able to stay in the game after getting hit by a pitch, which looked much worse at first glance.

4/1/13 – Cubs 3, Pirates 1

The Cubs’ Opening Day win against the Pirates reinforced what we already knew about the Cubs from last year, good and bad. Here are a few of my points from Monday’s game:

1.) If you put any stock into one Jeff Samardzija performance, he is picking up right where he left off. Samardzija threw 8.0 innings of two-hit/one-walk baseball Monday, throwing 110 pitches, 71 of them for strikes. In my opinion, his most important stat is that he got 13 groundouts and 0 flyouts. If Samardzija gets good defense from his infield this year, this ratio will lead to another successful year.

2.) Anthony Rizzo crushed a three-run homerun to right-center in his first at-bat Monday, providing two of the Cubs’ three runs. In my preview for Rizzo this year, I projected Rizzo having a great year and many believe he will have a breakout year. Hopefully Rizzo heats up as the weather does this season. Defensively, Rizzo also made a great play in the seventh.

3.) Also picking up right where he left off, unfortunately, was Carlos Marmol. Marmol threw 19 pitches, with 9 of them being strikes. He threw 8 pitches to Garret Jones before earning a swinging strikeout on a slider in the dirt. Then, Marmol hit Andrew McCutchen with the second pitch of the at bat. After Marmol allowed a single to Pedro Alvarez, Chris Bosio visited the mound and whatever Bosio had to say must not have worked, because Marmol then walked Gaby Sanchez on five pitches.

If any teams were thinking about trading for Marmol, it would have happened by now. Today’s performance just reinforces what people have been saying about Marmol and the fact that he cannot be trusted to get the last three outs of a game. I would hope the Cubs decide to give Marmol’s job to Kyuji Fujikawa who came into the game and got Russell Martin out with two pitches. If you’re keeping track at home, Fujikawa got as many outs as Marmol with only one-tenth of the pitches. Dale Sveum says he is sticking with Marmol for now. As Cub fans watch Marmol continually walk batter after batter this year, they need to remind themselves that he has the fourth highest salary on the team. As executive watch Marmol this year, they need to remind themselves, “This is why you don’t pay closers a lot of money.”

Spring Training Stats – Who Cares?

Fortunately, it’s that time of year again: Opening Day is less than a week away! Unfortunately, it’s also that time of year when some baseball analysts forget that they are rational human beings, ignore previous years’ stats, and quote spring training statistics in order to fill air time without putting anything into context and stating the fact that most spring training statistics tell nothing about a player or a team. For example, in spring of 2011, former Cubs bust Jake Fox led the major leagues in home runs with 10 and extra base hits with 17, only to be designated for assignment later that year on June 1.

Now, with the popularity of Twitter, I don’t even get to wait until Opening Day to break out my face palm response to this ridiculous practice. Today, one of the people I follow on Twitter retweeted the stat “Only two teams (Mariners and Braves) hit more home runs than the Astros (46) this spring.” So, what does this mean? Does this mean that the Astros will hit for power and surprise the AL West? No one would think that. I feel that most of the people quoting spring training statistics know that almost all of them are meaningless, but they are trying to generate discussion. If you want to generate discussion, do it in an intelligent way.

There are a few spring training stats that I feel have some value. Most of them concern pitching and most of them are more alarming than encouraging. I pay attention to velocity, or, in Roy Halladay’s case, lack of velocity. Walks tell a lot about how a pitcher is hitting his spots during spring training. My most valuable spring training statistic, however, is games played. Currently, the New York Yankees will start the season with Phil Hughes, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson all on the disabled list. This looks to be too much for them to overcome and result in them missing the playoffs.

On a recent Cubs television broadcast, the Cubs’ spring training record was discussed. Len Casper is a very smart baseball guy. I feel like, if he is being force to fill time with substance, I would just rather have the substance be of an educated variety. Len did a great job last year during Sunday broadcasts, discussing a new statistic and educating an old fashioned Bob Brenly. Why not try to educate your audience as well throughout the year? It would be much nicer than discussing statistics that have shown to have no meaning. In the end, a more educated audience is better for baseball and better for Cubs fans when looking at what moves the Cubs are making.

What Happened to Carlos Marmol?

After last November’s botched Carlos Marmol-Dan Haren trade, I thought the Cubs had blown their only opportunity to trade the wild-throwing closer. Then, last week, I read that the Cubs had informed Marmol’s agent to expect a trade. I couldn’t believe how much he had declined since the 2010 season in which he boasted a WHIP of 1.18 and a strikeout percentage of 41.6. After looking at the numbers, I could see a trend in the past three seasons.

Marmol

Marmol is not getting the swinging strikes he used to get earlier in his career.  More specifically, he isn’t getting first-pitch strikes (F-Strike%) and swinging strikes at pitches outside of the strike zone (O-Swing%).  Looking at his 2012 F-Strike% of 47.8, Marmol is pitching behind in the count to more than half of the batters he faced, unlike in 2010 where he was ahead of nearly two-thirds of the batters he faced. A declining O-Swing% tells me that his slider is not as effective as it was in 2010, when batters were swinging at more than a quarter of his pitches that were outside of the strike zone.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, if this amateur can look at some numbers and graphs and determine this trend, a well-paid team sabermetrician can definitely see this. In the end, the Cubs will never get the value for Marmol that he once had, as recently as 2010. But, I will never forget the amount of movement Marmol’s slider had in 2010, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

How Do Strikeouts Affect Team Wins?

A few weeks back, on the Baseball Tonight podcast, Buster Olney and Jayson Stark were discussing whether or not strikeouts affect wins. If my memory serves me correctly, it was Jayson Stark, but that’s not significant. The Atlanta Braves were the team that brought the subject of strikeouts and wins into the discussion as they are expected to be toward the top of the league in strikeouts, but also looking to be a contender in the postseason.

After listening to the podcast, I began to wonder, “What affects team wins more, batter strikeouts or pitcher strikeouts?” As always, I looked to FanGraphs for my data. The first thing that I noticed was that the Washington Nationals led the majors in wins and batter strikeouts last year, but this could be an outlier. So I exported the data to Excel and ran a linear regression for batter strikeouts and pitcher strikeouts. Here is what I found for last year.

First, I looked at the data to see how strikeouts by batters affected team wins, since this was the question being posed by Olney and Stark.  I found a coefficient of determination, or , which was R² = 0.00655 . What this tells me is that 0.0655% of team wins are explained by batter strikeouts, which is a very weak correlation. I would conclude there is no statistical relationship between batter strikeouts and team wins. Again, this was only for last season. If I were to use more data, it is possible for the value of  to increase, but I wouldn’t imagine significantly enough to make me any more confident using batter strikeouts to predict team wins.

Second, I used the same procedure for pitcher strikeouts and this time found R² = 0.31738, or that 31.738% of team wins can be explained by pitcher strikeouts. In my opinion, this is a pretty significant relationship. It should be no surprise why a pitcher like Justin Verlander, who led the league in strikeouts, is so valuable to his team. According to this data, about 32% of the Tiger’s wins can be explained by the strikeouts he and other pitchers on their staff are getting.

In the end, the answer to my question is that the strikeouts that pitchers get of batters affect team wins much more than the strikeouts that a batter gets. Overall, one should always be careful with any data obtained using a regression. Always keep in mind that correlation is not the same as causation. But, it is fun to look at how two statistics are related and why teams do what they do when building rosters.

2013 Preview – Starting Rotation

As I did the projections for the Cubs starting rotation, I realized I had a lot of questions and uncertainty about performance. Will Jeff Samardzija continue the progress he made last year? Will Matt Garza or Scott Baker stay healthy enough to be of value to the Cubs either in their rotation or the trade market? What will the rotation look like by the end of the year? I tried researching as much as I could before I came to any conclusions. Here are my projections:

  IP W L H ER K/9 BB/9 ERA K BB WHIP
Samardzija 180 13 9 162 76 9.30 2.89 3.60 186 58 1.22
Garza 120 9 9 105 52 8.37 2.79 3.92 112 37 1.18
Jackson 190 12 12 174 84 7.99 2.76 4.00 169 58 1.22
Baker 90 6 9 85 32 8.25 2.15 3.15 82 21 1.18
Feldman 110 5 10 124 63 7.01 2.34 5.11 86 29 1.39
Wood 140 6 12 119 66 6.87 3.12 4.27 107 48 1.20

First, Jeff Samardzija pitched better in the second half of the season last year than he did in the first. He had a lower WHIP, lower BB/9, and higher K/9. Since the Cubs were looking hideous by that point in the season last year, I had completely missed this. I’m hoping this was more Samardzija progressing and less the warmer temperatures during that part of the season. I’m projecting him to continue to progress and solidify his spot as a front-end starter.

When I began thinking about this post, I figured Matt Garza was a total wild card. I had no idea what the Cubs would get out of him this year coming back from his elbow injury. Then, Garza strained his lat muscle and will start the season on the disabled list. This is a big disappointment for the Cubs, as Garza was likely to be traded sometime this season. Although I still believe that will happen, his value has definitely been diminished.

Unlike Matt Garza, Scott Baker was already expected to start the season slowly after not pitching at all since 2011.  He had problems with his flexor tendon and then eventually needed Tommy John surgery with the Twins. I believe he’ll start the season on the DL and Scott Feldman will pitch about 110 innings. If all goes well, Baker will pitch well also and yield the Cubs some more prospects in a midseason trade.

The projection for Edwin Jackson was easy for me because he is such a consistent pitcher. In the past five years, he’s pitched between 183-209 innings, and his WHIP has been between 1.22 and 1.51.  I see him being the most reliable starter for the Cubs this year with little change from his normal statistics.

Overall, Cub fans must remember that Samardzija may be the only pitcher in the Cubs rotation when they are contenders. Two or three of the starters could possibly be on another team by the end of the year.  It’s possible one of the young pitchers will seize an opportunity to surprise everyone as a starter and be this year’s Samardzija. But, don’t hold your breath.

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