Archive for ‘Free Agents’

Friday: 12.14.2012

Josh Hamilton in Offensively-Challenged Los Angeles

Josh Hamilton signed a surprise five year deal with the Los Angeles Angels worth $125 million dollars as they hope to out-hit their opponents on the heels of losing two important cogs from their rotation in Dan Haren and Zack Greinke. Forecasting a player’s career is one of the toughest things to do even when you have a guy who appears to be growing linearly at each level in the minors and then as a major leaguer. When you take one of the most unique cases ever like Hamilton, it gets a helluva lot harder, so I’m going to punt to a degree.

To guess how his body will age after what he put it through contains so much guesswork that it’s not even really worth it. Virtually every player has some sort of comparable within history to rely on or at least seek guidance from, but not Hamilton. Instead, let’s focus on the biggest change for Hamilton: his home ballpark. I think that will have a major effect on his production as he leaves one of the best ballparks in the game and enters a sneaky-tough one.

HamiltonTexRoad

To the surprise of nobody, I hope, Hamilton does significantly better at the Ballpark in Arlington. Part of that is because virtually every player does better at home (unless you play in cavernous confines like Petco Park) and more importantly because TBIA is a very favorable park for hitters. It rated in favor of hitters across all major categories including 4th in runs according to ESPN Park Factors. Baseball-Reference does composite park factors, one for batters and one for pitchers, where over 100 favors batters. Texas hasn’t been under 100 on either side of the ledger since 1994. In other words, it’s a hitter’s paradise.

And still a third outlet gets to the heart of how much Hamilton enjoyed his home park. Stat Corner shows park factors by batter handedness and they show Texas with a 117 home run factor for lefties. The same goes for doubles and triples while singles are still favorable at 103. Again, 100 is even so lefty batters get a 17 percent advantage on home runs in Texas. Just for a point of reference, we all know Yankee Stadium offers a very generous home run edge to lefties because we see it with our eyes every night, but the numbers back it up as well with a 146 factor. Keep in mind that these numbers from Stat Corner are three-year rolling averages.

So that is what he is leaving behind.

We saw in the figure above that he is still a mighty capable hitter elsewhere. If you average the home run and RBI totals over his average plate appearance count the last three years (582), he’s a 27-89 guy. So .294 average, 870 OPS, 27 home runs and 89 RBIs? That’s basically Andrew McCutchen the last three years. McCutchen’s 863 OPS is the closest match to Hamilton’s road numbers over the last three years. I used three years to approximate the plate appearances. Cutch had 2004 in that span.

Next closest was Evan Longoria, but I had to drop the plate appearance threshold to 1500. Longo has an 872 OPS in 1547 plate appearances as his 2011 and 2012 were injury-shortened. I’m not using these two as comps, rather using them to show what an 870 OPS guy looks like. The problem with using these two is their trajectories are a lot different than Hamilton. We can’t just expect Hamilton to put up a reasonable facsimile of his road work with the Angels because that doesn’t factor in his career trajectory or aging. Nor does it take into account the fact that he will be playing 81 games in Angels Stadium. That might actually be more important than anything his body does, at least in the short-term.

Going through our resources again, we see that ESPN had Angels Stadium as the 4th-worst for runs scored and they didn’t register a favorable mark for hitters in any of the major categories, except for triples which isn’t exactly a major part of Hamilton’s game. In fact, they were 4th-worst for hits in general, 6th-worst for home runs, 8th-worst for doubles, and 17th-worst for triples. Baseball-Reference shows that they’ve gone from neutral/slightly pitcher’s park to heavy pitcher’s park just recently posting 92 batter and pitcher park factors each of the past two seasons.

Digging deeper with our third resource shows the real trouble. Or at least, potential trouble. Stat Corner given Angels Stadium a home run park factor of just 82 for left-handed batters! In other words, that park is suppressing lefty longballs 18 percent more than a “normal” park. Remember he was getting a 17 percent advantage in Arlington so this move constitutes a potential 35 percent dip in home run production for 81 of his games. His new ballpark also stifles double/triples to the tune of a 92 park factor while it is essentially neutral on singles with a 99 factor. Adding to chorus, Brian Cartwright, creator of Oliver, confirmed what we saw from Stat Corner.

How has Hamilton done in these confines through his career thus far? Glad you asked. Obviously with Rangers he has had plenty of exposure (his 166 PA there are his second-most in any park) to the ballpark, though it hasn’t exactly gone well on the whole. He has a .260/.325/.440 line with five home runs, 19 RBIs, 8 percent walk rate, and 17 percent strikeout rate in Anaheim. The story is bit different when you look at the five slices of the pie that make up these numbers, but does it tell us anything?

HamiltonLAbyYrThere is a small sample size alert in effect for the entire 166 plate appearances, so of course any one of the five slices receives the same alert, even louder to be honest. It is at least somewhat interesting that the composite is really brought down by a rough go in LA this past year. The Angels completely shut him down. To that point, he’d put together a .287/.367/.500 line in 128 plate appearances. Of course his big problem from 2012 at large rears its head here, too. His strikeout rate was enormous in Los Angeles last year just as it was with a career-worst 26 percent rate for the year. If that trend continues, his work in LA prior to 2012 won’t matter because the overwhelming swing-and-miss will continue to eat into his production.

I don’t necessarily expect him to crumble into a league average player because of his home park, but the impact should be significant even though he won’t be facing the Angels pitching anymore. He hasn’t really enjoyed success in any of the renowned pitcher’s parks in the American League where he has something of a sample (70+ plate appearances) except Cleveland.

HamiltonPitchParks

I’ll reiterate again that these are all small samples. I’m not disclosing that so they can be ignored, just to point that I’m not putting an egregious amount of weight into them and you shouldn’t either as I’m sure many great players struggle in these parks. Conversely, they aren’t entirely meaningless either. In other words: the mean a lil’ somethin’. And let’s keep in mind that he has 18 games in the top two venues. So that’s 99 games in three venues where he hasn’t posted better than a 765 OPS for his career.

It should be noted that he will get a benefit of 18 games in the state of Texas to pad the road numbers we saw at the very beginning. He’s removing the LA ones and replacing them with nine in Arlington and nine in the home of the new AL West foe, Houston. He has been remarkably successful in Houston no doubt due to both the park and the fact that they haven’t exactly been awesome of late. Nor will they be in 2013, so that should continue. He has a .344/.400/.525 line with seven extra-base hits including a pair of home runs and nine RBIs in 70 plate appearances.

Where does all of this leave us?

Barring some serious changes from what we’ve seen to date, Hamilton’s production is a virtual lock to decrease and not just marginally.  As far as the contract goes, the baseball community has wins valued at about $5 million dollars per meaning Hamilton would have to be a five win player on average over the life of the contract to “earn” it. Of course there is other value to bringing in someone like Hamilton (listed lowest to highest, IMO) in terms of attendance, apparel sales, potential playoff earnings, etc… I honestly don’t believe I have the capability to calculate the exact impact for all of them, but I think you could reasonably slice a win per year ($5 million) off of “expectation” and it wouldn’t be completely out of bounds. In other words, I don’t think owner Arte Moreno and GM Jerry DiPoto signed this deal saying, “we absolutely, unequivocally think Hamilton will deliver 25+ wins during these five years, so we’ll go ahead and do this deal!” They are hoping for star-level production for the first two-three years resulting in no worse than some playoff appearances and ideally a title. If that occurs, they’ll consider the deal a success.

Slicing off the win from his expectation would then mean he has to be a 4.0 win player for five years, or net 20 wins however he wants to disperse them. Considering that his most favorable of the three win metrics (fWAR, rWAR, & WARP) was at Fangraphs and he was still “only” a 4.4 win player with an amazing year at the dish, I think he will be hard-pressed to fully “earn” the contract from a wins standpoint, at least in terms of how we calculate wins in the sabermetrics community. A lot of that seemingly low (when you consider his offensive output) win total from last year (btw, his rWAR was 3.4 & WARP was 3.9) is because he was a net negative in the field. Will he get better moving back to a corner outfield spot? Even if he does, will his bat stay on par with 2012 so that he’s then a 4-5 win player?

In a word: no. I just can’t see it happening. Hamilton is one of the most talented players in all of baseball so no one would lose their minds if he chased down a 1000 OPS again, but that would be an upset and fantasy folks should probably forget about the days of Hamilton’s MVP season (1044 OPS) and last year (930 OPS), instead focusing on his 2011 as a potential peak (882 OPS). The power output could be stunted to sub-30 levels, too. He hit 58 percent of his home runs in Arlington from the last years (that also happened to be 58 home runs as he hit exactly 100). He will struggle to keep that record going in Angels Stadium.

And again, all of this doesn’t even begin to try to factor his aging curve and his past troubles with drug addiction will play in his mid-30s. Hamilton is still a star-caliber player, but not necessarily superstar-caliber in his new digs so if your league doesn’t allow a discount for his switch in home ballparks, then bow out immediately. Tread cautiously.

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Friday: 12.7.2012

Joe Blanton in Los Angeles… er… Anaheim

After declining Dan Haren’s $15.5 million dollar team option and letting Washington pay him $13 million for one year, the Los Angeles Angels signed Joe Blanton for $15 million dollars over the next two years. Blanton, heading into his age 32 season, is essentially a Haren-lite in that he has strong K/BB rates and struggles with home runs. Home runs have been especially problematic for Blanton of late as he has posted a 1.4 HR/9 rate in each of his last three full seasons spanning 2009-2012 (he had a 1.1 in just 41 IP in 2011).

In that same time, he has a 3.4 K/BB that his risen yearly topping out at 4.9 last year. His sharply declining walk rate is primary factor as it has dipped yearly since 2008 when he tied a career-high 3.0 BB/9 all the way down to last year’s excellent 1.6 mark. His newly discovered strikeout success has been a bit overlooked. He carried a 5.1 K/9 in 761 innings with Oakland, but then moved over to the National League and saw a rise of more than two strikeouts per game up to 7.3 K/9 in 674 innings. There is a benefit in moving over to the NL, but it’s about 0.3 strikeouts per game so it wasn’t just that for Blanton.

His whiff rate (swinging strikes) rose dramatically in that time suggesting his stuff got better. The data only goes back to 2007 which only covers about a year and a half of his Oakland work, but you can see the sharp rise in that time:

   Year IP Whiff Rate
2007 230 6.8%
2008 198 6.6%
2009 195 8.4%
2010 176 9.8%
2011 41 10.4%
2012 191 10.4%

The dramatic rise has been driven mostly by improvements in his breaking stuff. For the data set we have, his slider whiff rate jumped from 13% in the two years with Oakland to 17% in the four in the National League (mostly with Philly before last year’s trade to LA). His curveball jumped from 12% to 20% and it has been at 22% the last three years. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain the strikeout gains upon returning to the American League.

Unlike Haren, who he is ostensibly replacing, Blanton gets a nice boost in home ballpark when it comes to his biggest problem: home runs. Citizen’s Bank Ballpark in Philly actually suppressed righty home runs a bit last year with a 94 rating (where 100 is average), but lefties had a field day at 126. Dodger Stadium is often thought of as a pitcher’s park (and it has been on the whole rating 100 or lower since 1962), but you can hit some home runs there and last year it had a 108 rating for righties and a 117 mark for southpaws.

Blanton gave up 14 home runs in Citizen’s Bank a year ago, seven to each side. He actually only gave up three bombs in 38 innings in Dodger Stadium last year (2-1 favoring righties for those wondering). His new home, Angels Stadium, hasn’t yielded a favorable home run park factor to either side of the dish since 2009 including last year’s extremely stingy 80 to righties and 82 to lefties. Though the entire sample dates back to his Oakland days, Blanton has allowed just one home run in 48 innings of work there en route to a 2.61 ERA in six starts and two relief appearances.

Blanton doesn’t have the upside of Haren at all. The comparison is meant only between the similarities in strong K/BB rates and trouble with home runs. Blanton hasn’t been on the ride side of a 4.00 ERA since 2007, but his last three full season xFIP totals are encouraging at 4.01 in 2009, 3.87 in 2010, and 3.39 last year (his 3.15 in 2011 came in just 41 innings).

The xFIP totals are so favorable because they balanced out his gaudy home run problems with a league average HR/FB rate whereas Blanton has been above 12% the last four years (including the partial 2011) topping out with last year’s 15.3%. If you aren’t confident that he can utilize the park to make major strides in the home run department, then FIP would be a better indicator for you. It still tells a positive story about how he has pitched the last three full season declining from 4.45 in 2009 to 3.91 last year.

Though going back to the AL isn’t a positive indicator for ERA in general (NL starters have a 0.28 advantage the last four years), this specific case represents an opportunity for a pitcher to buck the trend and slice some fat off of his ERA going the other way. I like Blanton as a late dollar days target to round an AL-only or deep mixed league staff. His unimpressive numbers from last year (4.71 ERA, 10-13 record) combined with the general assumption that moving to the AL is a net negative for a pitcher will leave his price tag lower than it should be for this talent profile.

Thursday: 12.6.2012

Dan Haren in Washington

If Dan Haren had somehow been a free agent last year, he would’ve commanded a mint. It would’ve certainly topped C.J. Wilson’s five year deal for $77.5 million which was the highest among pitchers changing teams (C.C. Sabathia signed five year extension for $122 million with the Yankees). Alas, Haren was in the fourth and final guaranteed year of a $44.75 million dollar deal that included a club option for $15.5 million in 2013. Given his track record as one of the most reliable, quality arms in the game, it was easy to envision that getting picked up and Haren becoming a free agent for the 2014 season.

Things didn’t go according to plan for Haren. While he has suffered back and hip soreness for quite some time, neither had interfered with him establishing himself as one of the game’s true workhorses with 33 or more starts in seven straight seasons never throwing fewer than 216 innings and rising yearly since 2008 to a 2011 peak of 238. So of course with the worst timing possible, he is struck down by the back for his first ever DL stint in early July. Worse yet, the time missed is less of an issue than the damage to his performance as he labored to a 4.33 ERA and 1.29 WHIP (both full season career highs) in 177 innings.

The Angels declined the option instead paying him $3.5 million to test the market where he found out yesterday he was worth $13 million dollars for a year to the Washington Nationals.  When you add in the buyout, he is actually going to make a million more than he would’ve had he been kept on in LA, but now with just a one year deal, he has to prove himself to the league before he will command another multi-year contract.

As Sam Miller pointed out yesterday on Baseball Prospectus, the declining velocity is a growing concern in addition to the back and hip especially since they may well be related. And given the uncertainty around his health, it is difficult to project how Haren will perform in 2013, but let’s try to get some clarity anyway.

LEAGUE/BALLPARK

Shifting from the American League to the National League often benefits a starting pitcher and we’ve seen that in Haren’s career already. Excluding the 119 innings as a Cardinal split over two years from ages 22 to 23, we see that Haren pitched to a 3.59 ERA with a 7.2 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 in 1172 innings between Oakland and Los Angeles compared to a 3.56 ERA, 8.7 K/9, and 1.6 BB/9 in 586 innings with Arizona.

In the last five years, the difference in ERA between starters in each league is 0.24 favoring the National League. That figure is on the rise recently after a 0.20 split in 2010 rose to 0.28 in 2011 and then 0.32 last year. Strikeout rates favor the NL by 0.3 and those have held pretty steady in recent years as well while walk rates are essentially dead even.

Any potential gains from the league switch may well be washed out by the trade in home parks. Angels Stadium remains overlooked as one of the most pitcher friendly parks in the game. He is leaving the park that ranked third-friendliest for pitchers (according to Baseball-Reference) last year and fourth-friendliest over the last three years to enter the 16th-friendliest from last year and over the last three years. Nationals Park has essentially been a dead even park for its entire existence. On the scale, 100 is even and the park has never rated higher than 101 for pitchers or lower than 98 for batters in a given year.

Digging deeper shows even more potential pitfalls for Haren. Over at Statcorner, they give a lefty-righty breakdown of each park factor in several categories. They show the home run park factor in Anaheim to be at 82 for lefties (again with 100 being average) and 80 for righties while it jumps to 96 and 106, respectively in D.C.

Let’s not forget that Haren spent a good bit of time in a hitter’s park when he was with the Diamondbacks from 2008 through half of 2010 before being traded to LA. During that time the park rated at 107, 106, and 105 for pitchers. He didn’t really have trouble with the park until 2010. In 2008, he had a 3.35 ERA in 113 innings at home with a 0.8 HR/9 then in 2009 he was even better with a 2.81 ERA in 115 innings and a 0.9 HR/9. He had a 4.36 ERA in 74 home innings in 2010 including a ghastly 1.6 HR/9 before the trade.

What we don’t know is whether or not his back and/or hip were bothering him at all during that 2010 run. In fact, it would make sense if either was an issue during the early part of the season because the poor home numbers are confined to a four start block in late April through May when he had four starts and posted a 6.67 ERA over 27 innings allowing nine home runs (3.0 HR/9) with four or more earned runs in each outing.

He also had a 35/5 K/BB in that span so the struggles were a bit baffling. He closed out his Arizona tenure with a 3.34 ERA in 40 innings spanning six starts in June and most of July. He only allowed four home runs (0.9 HR/9) during that time. It would be pure speculation to suggest he was banged up during that rocky run, but it also wouldn’t be surprising.

CONCLUSION

The focus on league switch and ballparks is important because of Haren’s home run tendencies, dwindling velocity, and injury concerns, but the fact is that if the latter of those three is in check, he will be good (and possibly even great). He showed as much last year for various spells. He had a 3.34 ERA in April, saw it balloon to 4.41 in mid-May before chiseling it back down to 3.53 in June. Then the back issue wreaked its havoc for a four start spell that saw him yield a 9.14 ERA in 22 innings before finally succumbing to the injury and hitting the DL.

He looked sharp instantly upon his return on July 22nd, but strained it again leading to some mid-August struggles. Then he closed the season strongly with an eight start run of 2.81 ERA in 48 innings with 41 strikeouts and just five walks. Looking at his gamelog seems to show the obvious points where the back and hip were causing the most pain for Haren. Haren still had an excellent walk rate, solid strikeout rate, and finished 17th in baseball in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

An offseason to get right will obviously serve Haren well and clearly the Nationals saw enough in his medical records to give him $13 million dollars so I would still trust him as a fantasy asset. The beauty of his shaky 2012 and the continued talk about his back troubles is that it will lower his 2013 price at the draft table. He bounced back from his rough 2010 and he can bounce back from this. The drop in velocity is never great, but if he had put up his same peripherals with a normal home run rate (~1.0 HR/9 for him) and a 3.50 ERA, then we wouldn’t be ringing the alarms as loudly about it. The caution for injury will be built into the price of Haren; he has a deep enough track record to be trusted again in 2013. Given health, bet on 200+ innings of 3.50-3.75 ERA (a difference of five earned runs over 200 innings) with at least 7.5 strikeouts per game and a strong WHIP on the right side of 1.20.