January 2011

Adrian Beltre’s Glove and C.J. Wilson’s ERA

By R.J. Anderson //

Eno Sarris already wrote about Adrian Beltre’s impact on the Texas Rangers’ offense. Due to the nature of fantasy scoring, Beltre’s individual defensive value will not result in points. Instead, the only way fantasy owners can reap the excellence of Beltre’s defense is to pick up the Rangers pitchers who seem most likely to benefit.

The recipe for a pitcher who stands to gain from Beltre’s presence includes a pitcher who gives up plenty of balls to the left side. A large ratio of those balls should be of the groundball variety. While Beltre is sure to make a snag or two on a liner and track down a fly pop-up here and there, he’s going to make his living off scooping and firing grounders at a prolific rate.

Using Baseball-Reference’s groundball-to-flyball ratio (which includes line drives as flyballs), it turns out that only three of the Rangers 2010 pitchers finished above the league average mark of 0.79. Oddly enough, each is a southpaw. Ageless set-up man Darren Oliver (0.90), swingman Matt Harrison (0.88), and starter C.J. Wilson (0.98) vary in fantasy value. There is no reason to ever own Harrison, Oliver is a nice get in leagues that value holds, and Wilson might be considered one of the better pitchers in the American League if he can continue the success he found in his first season of starting.

Therefore, Wilson is going to get the attention here.

In 2010, batters held a batting average of .090 against Wilson on balls hit inside the infield (well above the American League average of .078). Batters also managed a .206 batting average on groundballs hit against Wilson (AL average was .231) and .556 on bunts (AL average was .449). Since exact batted ball locations are unavailable, assumptions have to be made based on the infielders’ overall defensive value.

FanGraphs’ UZR suggests that the only below-average defender on the Rangers infield last year was (then) third baseman Michael Young, with Ian Kinsler, Mitch Moreland, and Elvis Andrus rating as either average or above-average at their positions. That’s not to say UZR is perfect or that Young is responsible for Wilson’s mishaps on grounders per se.

But it does indicate that in a vacuum, the Rangers defense should be improve, with Beltre the vacuum cleaner set to replace Young at third base. And that should help Wilson retain some of his strong 2010 value, which included a sparkling 3.35 ERA.

Adrian Beltre, Texas Ranger

by Eno Sarris // 

Look at the career statistics for Adrian Beltre, and you might be surprised to see how much money he’s made. After going to Texas and signing his newest five-year, $80 million contract (with a $16 million vesting option), Beltre will have earned close to $200 million (at least) by the time his career ends. And yet right now, his career batting average is a mere .275 and he’s averaged about 23 home runs per full year.

The truth is, he’s probably been worth the money (if not high fantasy picks most seasons) for two reasons: his glove and the offense-suppressing ballparks that have made his numbers look worse than they’d be most elsewhere. R.J. Anderson will take a look at the value of Beltre’s excellent glove later this week. For now, let’s take a look at Beltre and his relationship to his home parks over his career.

AdrianBeltre-300x243.jpgBeltre didn’t like hitting in Safeco field. He’s a right-handed pull hitter and the park factor for home runs by a right-hander in that park is just 84 (100 is average). That kept him to a .253/.307/.409 line in 363 games in Seattle – 1406 at-bats that helped suppress his overall value in fantasy leagues. That modest work came after 489 games and a .253/.316/.423 line in spacious Dodger Stadium (which had a 92 park factor for right-handed home runs last year).

What happens to his overall numbers when you take out those 3076 at-bats? Away from Safeco and Dodger Stadium, Beltre has hit .293 with 26 home runs per 600 at-bats. And, as he showed with his .325 batting average and 28 home runs in Fenway, Beltre can be even better if given an extra boost by his home park.

Fenway had a 95 park factor for right-handed home runs – and a 130 park factor for right-handed doubles. That helped Beltre put together his second-best batting average and clear his previous high in doubles by eight in a great year for the Red Sox. His new stadium in Arlington has a 105 park factor for right-handed home runs (105 for doubles), and Beltre will surely enjoy calling such a park home.

The .331 batting average on balls in play in 2010, in the face of his career .294 BABIP, probably means that his batting average will fall in 2011. His new park won’t allow him to pepper the Green Monster with doubles any more. But while the batting average falls, the power might surge. A home park that is 10% friendlier for home runs will help his case.

Bill James projects a .283 batting average and 24 home runs for Beltre in 2011. Up the home run total since his new home stadium is now determined, and that looks about right. Take Beltre in the early rounds of your draft (especially given the position scarcity at third base) and profit off owners that put too much credence in his overall career numbers.

Can Aaron Harang Replicate Jon Garland’s Formula?

By R.J. Anderson //

A comparison:

Pitcher A – 1,829.1 IP, 4.42 ERA, 4.7 SO/9, 2.9 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9

Pitcher B – 1,451.2 IP, 4.33 ERA, 7.5 SO/9, 2.5 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9

Pitcher A is Jon Garland before joining the San Diego Padres; Pitcher B is Aaron Harang through the 2010 season. Harang has agreed to a one-year deal with the Friars worth $3 million, making the comparison apt and timely. Garland boosted his reputation by turning in an impressive 2010 season. A combination of 14 wins, 200 innings on the nose, and a 3.47 ERA has that sort of effect on opinions. Can Harang manage the same?

Harang was one of the National League’s finest starting pitcher from 2005 to 2007. His average season included 14 wins, 226 innings, a 3.77 ERA, and a 3.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He ate innings, he won games, he avoided walks, he struck batters out, and he did so while pitching in a hitter’s park. Since then, Harang has struggled to recapture any semblance of those seasons. His average season in the past three seasons: 6 wins, 153 innings, a 4.71 ERA, and a (still very good) 2.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Some would call the 32-year-old hittable nowadays. His batting average on balls in play over the past two seasons tops .330. Prior to 2009, Harang’s BABIP had topped .320 over an entire season only once, and that came when he was much younger. One of Harang’s career-long ailments is home runs. Yet, believe it or not, his flyball per home run percentage is roughly league average (11%). The issue with Harang’s homers is not the percentage of flyballs they represent, but rather the percentage of batted balls that are flyballs. That’s nothing that a prolonged stay in the super-friendly confines of Petco Park (and the Padres’ likely to be very good defense) can’t potentially help fix.

With that in mind, don’t be surprised if Harang becomes a worthwhile sleeper pick in NL-only leagues.

For more on Aaron Harang and other starting pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.

Who Will Close in Atlanta?

by Eno Sarris //

Though the retirement papers haven’t been filed, it seems that Billy Wagner has holstered his left arm for good and left an opening at the back end of the Atlanta bullpen. Since the closer position is such a volatile job – about one-third of the closers who begin the year earning saves end up losing their job to injury or poor play – cheap saves are tantamount to fantasy success. Guessing correctly about Atlanta’s pen will pay dividends.

craig kimbrel.jpgIn the pole position is Craig Kimbrel, a fireballer with a 97 MPH fastball who has been groomed as the Closer of the Future with capital letters. He’s already fielding questions about being the closer this season. Eyeball ERA and strikeout rate alone, and he looks like a shoo-in. His numbers in those categories in both the minors (1.85 ERA, 14.4 K/9) and majors (0.44 ERA, 17.42 K/9) are impeccable, even eye-popping.

Those two numbers don’t quite tell the whole story, though. There’s one more number that must come to the fore: Kimbrel has walked a ton of batters in his career – 5.7 per nine innings in the minors and 16 in his first 20 and 2/3 innings in the majors (6.97 BB/9). He’s got some Ricky Vaughn in him, too.

Look at his pitching mix on Texas Leaguers, and you’ll see that this story continues on the pitch-by-pitch level. The swinging strike rates for his fastball (13.3%), changeup (24.3%) and slider (18.2%) are all well above the respective averages for those pitches (6.9% for fastballs, 15.1% for changeups, and 14.9% for sliders). It’s the changeup that gets strikes the least often (56.8%), and from FanGraphs’ splits page, we can see that he uses his fastball least often in 0-2 and 1-2 counts. Perhaps that poor strike rate on the pitch labeled as a changeup on Texas Leaguers leads to longer counts and more walks.

Looking around the league to see if there’s a role model for Kimbrel, we see that only eight qualified pitchers had a walk rate over 5 BB/9 IP. Among those, only Carlos Marmol and Kimbrel’s teammate Peter Moylan had ERAs under 3.00. Marmol is the obvious comp for Kimbrel, though, since he was the only one who paired a double-digit strikeout rate with a very poor walk rate. If Marmol’s success is to be believed, it seems to say that a walk rate like that can work, if the strikeout rate is stratospheric. Still, there’s some risk with Kimbrel if there’s really only one comp out there for him.

Competition from the rest of the pen should come mostly from fellow youngster Johnny Venters. The recently acquired Scott Linebrink is more decent than good (he’s never struck out a batter per inning or shown a good groundball rate, despite many solid years), and the rest of the pen is more about filling roles than finishing games.

Venters fared well in his rookie year. He struck out 10.08 batters per nine innings and garnered 68.4% of his contact on the ground, both excellent numbers that deserve attention, especially since he cooks with gas (94.6 MPH). While his control isn’t great (4.23 BB/9), it’s not as poor as Kimbrel’s. There is still a caveat for the lefty – he’s much better against lefties than righties. He struck out 14.79 per nine innings against lefties (and walked 3.21 per nine), and only had a 7.69 K/9 (4.75 BB/9) against righties. Those split issues also followed him through the minors, so they might be real.

Since Kimbrel has been groomed for the role and doesn’t own worrisome splits, he’s the front-runner. Venters is probably the backup plan. Treat them as such in your mixed-league drafts this season.