Rockies Magic Number

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

To Close or Not to Close

Going into the 2009 season, I will say something strange:

I think that our bullpen (as it is as of December 17, 2008) is one of the stronger parts of our team.

I know, gasp, right? Something good about Rockies pitching? Get out of town.

We have 3 strong pitchers in the back of our bullpen in Manny Corpas, Huston Street, and Taylor Buchholz, that all have closing material. Buchholz put up a 0.95 WHIP and a 3.11 K/BB ratio. Corpas’ K rates dropped a bit, but he still put up a decent K/BB ratio. It seems the BABIP bug might’ve gotten to him a bit, maybe he was tipping his pitches a bit, whatever. Huston Street, while wilder than both Buchholz and Corpas, brings a much higher K rate than the others, which can give him the edge over the other two.

Behind them, we have part time STUD and part time batting practice instructor Luis Vizcaino, Veteran LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY) Alan Embree, and castaway Jason Grilli to fill in the 6th and losing efforts. And in the event that those SIX PITCHERS are unable to get the job done, we can turn to AAA closer Ryan Speier to pitch several for us. We’ll also have Hirsh in AAA trying to figure out how to pitch again, so he might be available for callup as a workhorse.

So let’s rehash real quick.

We have:

1. RHP Manny Corpas
2. RHP Taylor Buchholz
3. RHP Huston Street
4. RHPDUI Luis Vizcaino
5. LHP Alan Embree
6. RHP Jason Grilli
7. RHP Ryan Speier 

At the very least.


This brings us to the million dollar question:

Who’s the closer?

1. The case for Corpas

Corpas was the closer during the magical run to the World Series in 2007, posting a 2.08 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP, and a 50:23 K:BB. He was slated to be the closer in 2008, before a series of somethings caused him to fall apart and give the job back up to Brian Fuentes. Corpas has the most Coors Field closing experience, gets solid GB%, and is also being paid the most. He brings a big slider and a well-located fastball that can induce weak contact as well as punch guys out.

2. The case for Street

2005 AL RoY Huston Street has been closing in Oakland the past 4 seasons, all relatively successful. Out of the 3 candidates for closing in Coors Field, Street has the most experience, and has by far the goofiest grin. Similar to Corpas, 2008 was not a great year, showing a career high in ERA, WHIP, and BB/9. However, between Bill James and Marcel the Monkey, we’re anticipating a 1.15 WHIP and a 66:21 K:BB. Street, very similar to Corpas, brings a low 90s fastball and a strong slider that he throws effectively for strikeouts.

3. The case for Buchholz

Taylor Buchholz started with Houston as a starter, and also attempted to be a rotation regular with Colorado in 2007. Post all-star break, the Rockies decided to have Buchholz pitch strictly out of the pen, which he succeeded at. Since he’s been made a bullpen fixture, his game has gotten significantly better. He’s striking more guys out, he’s throwing his curveball more effectively, and he seems to be rediscovering his pitches now that he doesn’t have to pace himself for 6 innings. While Buchholz has no closing experience, he’s seeking a bigger role in the pitching staff, and he’s also demonstrating that he has the stuff to do it. He throws a low-to-mid 90s fastball along with a big 12-6 curveball. He’ll occasionally mix a slider in, but it’s just an extra offspeed pitch. His money is in his curve.

So who should it be? We have a Coors Field style former closer, a strikeout machine that will replace Fuentes’ swingin’ finishes (for better or for worse), or a newcomer to the 9th inning who has been improving with every step he’s taken. Do you go with experience, and give it to Street? Do you try something new, and give it to Buchholz? Or do you go with familiarity, and give it to Corpas?

How about none of the above?

Don’t roll your eyes too hard yet. I am obviously proposing the Rockies close by committee, and here’s why:

1. (hey, it’s another list!) None of the 3 stands out as the obvious choice of closer. Buchholz has never done it, Corpas kind of imploded last year, and Street’s shown himself to be kind of a headcase in Oakland. This isn’t to say they can’t still succeed in the late innings, but there isn’t a Fuentes or Hoffman or KRod ready to jump out and take command.

2. This is the perfect opportunity to play matchups. We aren’t doing anything big in 2009, barring more magic, so why not experiment a bit with the bullpen? We have setup men/closers, why not see how many ways we can pitch them against the opposition? Granted, it will take more time from the coaching staff to research the matchups and who does best against what, and there might be a lot of success to be had. Sure, nobody’s gonna rack up all the SAVES, but maybe they’ll be able to rise above a flawed stat and see that they’re doing something pretty cool.

3. There are 9 outs, they should be recorded the most effectively, not just based on who has the most seniority or anything. You could have Corpas knock down 2 contact hitters and then pull him because the next batter has a good history, get Street to pitch a 4-out “hold”, and then have Buchholz seal up the bottom of the lineup. Or maybe Buchholz can bury 4 guys, Street comes in for a big K, and then Corpas pitches another 4 outs. Buchholz has always been tougher on Lefties, so you can bring him or Embree in the later innings to get the big LHB out, and then put it back on the shoulders of Street or Corpas. Either way, it becomes a closing STAFF and not just a Closer and the Setup guys. I like the idea of a 3-headed monster finishing games for the Rockies.

4. If they don’t play matchups, it’ll at least be a good way to play the guy who’s hot and take the load off the guy who’s not, hopefully without any hard feelings.

So this is really just a pipe dream for me, because I don’t think that Hurdle would run a bullpen like this. But here’s my second proposition: Close with Buchholz. He may seem like the least logical choice, but he is good enough to do it, and it’ll more than likely give him a lot of 3-out saves, and leave more workload on the more experienced relievers. And call me crazy, but I want my best pitchers pitching the most innings.

The reason I pick Buchholz over the other two is that the other two are very similar in their pitching styles. They are both low 90s Fastball + a big slider, but one tends to pitch to contact and the other the lack thereof. So depending on the batting styles, ie. if you have Jack Cust, Adam Dunn, and Mark Reynolds coming up in the 7th, put in Street to strike out the side, Corpas in the 8th, and then in the 9th you have to prepare for the curve coming over the top when you’ve been watching sliders coming in from both sides. I’d rather change things up in the 9th anyhow, because if batter shave been watching sliders for the previous 6 outs, if they start to adjust, Corpas can get the GB or Street can get the big K, and then they have to readjust to the big hammer in the 9th.

The reason this is even crossing my mind is because Closers are stupid. They’re never used in the right situations, because they’re all about SAVES, which is a stupid statistic. The 9th inning may have its own mentality to it, but it’s not always the highest leverage situation. You might have the 2-3-4 guys coming up in the 8th, so Scot Shields gets lit up while K-Rod sits back waiting to face the 6-7-8 so he can get a fistpumping 3-out save with a 3 run lead backing him. I’d rather use K-Rod against the big dogs and let Shields mop up what’s left in the 9th.

Financially, any moneyball type GM knows that you shouldn’t pay someone big bucks in free agency to come be a closer, because there’s a chance that at any given point, there’s a guy between your pen and AAA that is just mowing batters down that year, and you could probably squeeze a season out of luck/batter unfamiliarity and have an effective bullpen for next to nothing. That and locking up relief pitchers is just a bad idea to start with.

Basically, O’Dowd is making some subtle smart moves. The team is now comprised of high OBP high Power kinds of batters in Iannetta, Stewart, Hawpe, and the general OBP of the team is looking to be higher, just based on Spills and Helton putting in more time, and Tulo hopefully being a more patient batter. Don Baylor should help here too.

OBP is the new way in thinking about how to build a team, so why not use this season to condition the new lineup, maybe see some Dex, and then trot out a solid bullpen that works as a unit, not just the sums of pieces? I think it would be cool to see a young team bring in new ideas and succeed while doing it.

Monday, December 15, 2008

2009 – Who plays where? A mathematical look at lineup construction.

Looking forward to the 2009 season, the Rockies find themselves a logjam at roughly every position, SS excepted. Let’s take a look at the 14 position players we anticipate being on the roster, along with their offensive and defensive capabilities.

NamePosition(s)2008 OPS2008 VORP 2008 UZR @ #1 position2008 UZR @ #2 position
Chris IannettaC0.89530.4N/AN/A
Yorvit TorrealbaC0.687-1.4N/AN/A
Todd Helton1B0.7798.65.1N/A
Clint Barmes2B, SS0.7919.12.1-3.9
Troy TulowitzkiSS0.7328.1-3N/A
Ian Stewart3B, 2B0.80410.32.70.3
Ryan SpilborghsCF, LF0.87517.7-3.8-0.8
Brad HawpeRF0.87929.7-37.2N/A
Garrett Atkins3B, 1B0.7818-7.4-5.6
Carlos GonzalezCF, RF0.634-
Seth SmithRF, LF0.7853.7-2.51.1
Jeff Baker1B, 2B0.79111.2-1.5-3.8
Scott PodsednikCF, LF0.656-0.7-4.6-0.8
Omar Quintanilla2B, SS0.635-3.6-0.2-0.8

The above should have a few notations to it: Barmes’ and Tulowitzki’s 2008 UZR performances are most likely low due to hasn’t-played-there-in-awhile (Barmes) and injury concerns (Tulo).

So let’s get to the point. Not everyone buys OPS, not everyone buys VORP, but I’m sure most everyone will buy one or the other.

If you don’t know what either is, I’ll give a quick rundown on what they both are.

OPS = OBP+SLG = On-Base percentage + Slugging percentage.

OBP = On Base Percentage = (Hits + BB + HBP)/Plate Appearances
SLG = Slugging Percentage = (1*1B’s +2*2B’s + 3*3B’s + 4*HR’s)/AB

OBP is essentially how often a player doesn’t make an out. SLG is batting average, weighted for extra base hits.

VORP = Value over replacement player = A park-adjusted measure of how many runs a player will provide above/below replacement level player will add to his team. For more information on VORP, refer to Keith Woolner’s Introduction to VORP article.

UZR = Ultimate Zone Rating = Number of runs prevented based on defensive play

So this chart here basically tells us how many runs a player will add to the team’s offensive totals with his bat, and how many he’ll prevent with his glove.

The Rockies have a good number of options at each position, both defensive and offensive. The question is which will be the best, and how can we adjust players to maximize runs?

The All-Bat Lineup
C: Iannetta (VORP 30.4)
1B: Garrett Atkins (VORP 18)
2B: Jeff Baker (VORP 11.2)
3B: Ian Stewart (VORP 10.3)
SS: Clint Barmes (VORP 18)
LF: Seth Smith (VORP 3.7)
CF: Ryan Spilborghs (VORP 17.7)
RF: Brad Hawpe (VORP 29.7)

The saddest part of this might just be that 3.7 VORP in LF. Smith would most definitely produce better than that given an entire season. The lack of Tulowitzki is surprising, especially with Baker at 2B and Barmes at SS, but there’s a couple things to note:
1. Tulowitzki slumped terribly early in the year, but finished strong;
2. Tulowitzki was hurt for a good amount of time this season. Even with the terrible slump, he’d probably be good for about 12-15 runs over the season were he to play the entire season;
3. Stewart’s VORP would be similarly higher, probably around 20+ were he to get a full 550AB as a starter, bumping Baker from the lineup when Tulowitzki reemerges at SS and Barmes is slid back to 2B.

Depressingly, this is our best lineup. 56.8 runs above replacement, above a AAA squad. Granted, if we added in the runs if Stewart and Smith were full time players, and adjusted Tulowitzki’s numbers a bit to somewhere between this season and 2007, the number would look far better. But as it stands, we are hurting somewhat from Holliday’s absence.

The next lineup to look at is the all-glove lineup.

C: Iannetta (UZR doesn’t really apply to catchers)
1B: Todd Helton (UZR 5.1)
2B: Clint Barmes (UZR 2.1)
3B: Ian Stewart (UZR 2.7)
SS: Omar Quintanilla (UZR -0.8)
LF: Ryan Spilborghs (UZR -0.8)
CF: Carlos Gonzalez (UZR 2.7)
RF: Seth Smith (UZR -2.5)

Again, things that stand out:

1. The lack of Tulowitzki is again no good, but remember he had quad problems all season. A properly rehabbed quad will more than likely move Tulowitzki from the -3 he’s sitting at back to the +5 rating he was at last season.

2. Quintanilla’s low UZR surprised me, but it might also be due to a lack of range, just because he’s a smaller fielder. He has a good glove and makes good plays on the balls he can get to, but he’s not really ideal; the bigger SS has taken over the thoughts of a lot of GMs. He plays as a just below average fielder, but again, it’s Range vs. Ability to make plays, and ErrR (runs avoided by not making errors) is above average for Q, while RngR (runs avoided by ability to get to balls) is definitely below.

3. Spilborghs really didn’t log any time at RF this season, but an ideal defensive OF at this point (that doesn’t involve bringing up Cory Sullivan) would have Smith in LF, Spills in RF, and Gonzalez in CF.

4. Brad Hawpe is absolutely awful in RF. Like atrocious. I mean oh my lord he’s bad. If you just do VORP + UZR to see how many runs Brad Hawpe added to the team this season overall, he’s at a nice -8. He has to be moved to LF or the Rockies need to move to the AL.

Now, as if this wasn’t all terribly nerdy enough, I’ve topped myself here. I used a computer program to tell me how many games each guy should start over the course of a season. It takes the #runs scored + #runs prevented by each player, above/below the level of an average player, and it maximizes the total number of runs scored and prevented.

The computer’s ideal lineup is:

C: Iannetta
1B: Helton
2B: Barmes
3B: Stewart
SS: Tulowitzki
LF: Hawpe
CF: Seth Smith
RF: Spilborghs

The concept here is that Smith may not really be that great in CF, but his Offense+CF defense is better than Gonzales'. You might think that his CF defense would be bad enough to move him to RF and put Spills in CF, but the concept here is that the combination of Smith's CF defense and Spilborghs' RF defense is better at preventing runs than Spilborghs in CF and Smith in RF.

The immediate thought that comes into my head is "But CF is far more important defensively than RF is, put the better defender in CF at the cost of RF!" and this logic is sound. So sound, in fact that because UZR is in terms of runs (range+error prevention), the relative difficulty of the positions is already taken into effect. This isn't saying that Smith is the same defensively at every position, it's saying he's worth so many runs at LF, CF, and RF, because they all play differently, and UZR accounts for that. So this isn't saying Spills is SO good in RF that he'll pick up all of Smith's slack, it's saying that yeah, Smith isn't a great CF, but by putting him in CF and putting Spills in RF is going to minimize the number of runs we give up. If it were Spills CF Smith RF we'd give up more runs is what we're saying here.

Now, if I were to add Dexter Fowler (and get rid of Podsednik) at a completely average defensive ability (UZR=0) in all 3 OF positions, and a bat slightly inferior to Barmes’ into the equation, my infield stays the same, but the OF changes to:

LF Spilborghs
CF Smith
RF Fowler

Now, I haven’t messed around and made Atkins some sort of garbage player, I used per-game run production from Baseball Prospectus and UZR ratings from Fangraphs, and then just ran the numbers. I didn’t demand Atkins play less than 50 games, I didn’t tell the program to bench Hawpe. In the case of Atkins, it becomes a case of a declining bat plus an already sub standard glove results in becoming a backup. And Hawpe’s issue that his atrocious OF defense simply kills his playing time.

If you read my previous post, you know that I think Atkins should be traded in favor of starting Ian Stewart, and maybe netting some young pitching. In this model, Atkins plays a grand total of 36 games, all at 3B, as Hawpe gets all the 1B time when Helton isn’t playing. I'm not sure how poor Hawpe would be at 1B, but if I say he's exactly as bad as Atkins, he'll still get the playing time thanks to a stronger bat.

The thing I learn from this? Defense is more important than people may think. If the Florida Marlins were defensively stronger, I'd wager they'd improve significantly. Defense is supposed to be a strong point of the Rockies, and it seems that just by the numbers, we're not playing optimally. 

The optimal solution, again, just by the numbers, is to let the kids play.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Reasons the Colorado Rockies should trade Garrett Atkins

To lead this off, I like Garrett Atkins. I do. I don't grouse when he gets playing time, I think he's a nice guy, he has a good swing, and he's a pretty good batter in general.

However, he is right in the middle of a logjam.

He is the established 3B, but Ian Stewart is showing all signs of taking over the position and being far more productive.

He's the backup 1B, but Todd Helton's back surgery sounds like it went well. 

The organization has stated that his future with the team is linked to Helton's health.

My opinion? Trade him anyhow.

Here's why.

1. Atkins has a poor glove, and one of the strengths of our organization is our defensive talent. He can make the plays that are within his small zone, but ask him to range to his left, and the ball is going into Left Field unless Tulowitzki comes up with it. He's a converted 1B anyhow, and he wasn't very good at that either. Stewart, however, has an above average glove and will save the team more runs with his glove than Atkins would, and he's showing an incredible amount of power from his bat, as well as a very good eye.

2. Atkins has a declining bat. In 2006, his 2nd year, Atkins looked like he'd be a cornerstone of this organization for years to come. Lock him up long term. But he decided to go year to year, and it's probably helped the organization more in the long run than him. His batting average has dropped, his power numbers have dropped, basically everything about his game has declined. And I fault this specifically: He's getting impatient. His first 3 seasons, he was a very patient hitter, and his OBP showed it. 2006 he was batting .329/.409/.556. Very solid numbers. His next season, he slumped terribly during April/May, but rebounded and caught fire down the stretch to finish at .301/.367/.486 – still pretty solid numbers. 2008 he was borderline worthless, batting .286/.328/.452.

The biggest thing I noticed about this is the IsoD (OBP-AVG). 2006 it was .080, 2007 it dropped to .66, and 2008 it has dwindled to a mere .042. This tells me he's not walking nearly as much, and with the drop in batting average, it suggests he's getting impatient. He wasn't destroying the ball coming out of the gates this year, and's plate discipline numbers show me that he is swinging at 19.1% of balls outside of the zone, an increase from 14.7% in 2006. He's swinging at more inside the zone as well. In fact, his swing% has jumped from 40.0% in 2006 to 42.5%. It's not a MASSIVE amount, but when you consider how many pitches they see in a season, it's a lot more swinging, and a lot of it is coming outside of the zone. His strikeout totals have jumped as well, from 76 to 96 to 100. It's still not a MASSIVE amount, but if you look at his declining contact rates, I don't think his AVG and number of K's is going to improve.

3. We don't need him to back up Helton. Atkins may be the guy to play 1B if Helton's out with a sore back, or so it seems, but we're forgetting that we already have a completely viable backup for Helton already on the team. No, I'm not talking about Joe Koshansky, I'm talking about our own Brad Hawpe. Remember that Brad Hawpe played 1B at LSU, so he's not a stranger to the position. You might then say that Hawpe would be a butcher at 1B, and Atkins is more familiar to the infield. Well, true as this may be, Brad Hawpe is one of the worst defensive RF in baseball, Atkins is already bad at 1B, so I'm guessing Hawpe would have far less of an impact on the team's defense if he were at 1B. An IF of Hawpe-Barmes-Tulo-Stewart is strong defensively at 3 of the 4 positions, and getting Hawpe out of the OF might make room to give Smith more playing time. I'm not suggesting Smith is a defensive whiz, but there's no way he's as bad as Hawpe is. (I know Hawpe has a cannon on his left shoulder, but he lets enough balls by him that it just isn't worth it.)

4. Moving Atkins signals that Stewart is the full time 3B, and it could help his production just in terms of not having to think about playing LF or 2B just to get his ABs in.


Should we keep Atkins, the only other option really is to juggle him around between 1B, 3B, and LF – because we should NOT move Stewart for anything at this point. The upside is you keep Atkins' bat, which may be due for a rebound, in the lineup, as well as your other guys, but you suddenly have to deal with more players being pushed out of an optimal defensive position. Stewart ends up playing both 2B and LF, Spilborghs is left in CF (which isn't awful, but he'd be better at a corner with a Sullivan or Gonzalez type in CF), Barmes is booted from the lineup at times (Not awful, offensively, but I like his glove at 2B moreso than Baker or Stewart).

Because of the constantly juggling lineups, it's helpful to have replacement players like Jeff Baker and Omar Quintanilla who can play multiple positions, but defensively, all the movement is not good for the regular players. Were Hawpe the #2 1B, Spills would stay in LF, Stewart at 3B, Barmes at 2B, and because Spills isn't bouncing from LF to CF all the time, we could call up Dexter Fowler, because he'd know that CF is his to roam with no competition for playing time. Also, when Hawpe plays 1B, it'd give Seth Smith significantly more playing time, and we might be able to see his bat develop a bit more.

Factor in the fact that Atkins is due for an arbitration raise, it'd be a cost effective move, and we might just be able to get some sort of pitching help in exchange. If we're gonna be cheap, let's be smart about it at least.

All the Woody Paige's floating around Denver would hate it, but trading Garrett Atkins is simply a smart move for this ballclub.