As mentioned, this is my first season reading the Baseball Prospectus annual, and as those around me this spring have noticed, it’s full of numbers. Numbers are okay, but without analysis or interpretation, it can be a bit like reading the backs of a bunch of really comprehensive baseball cards (that also happen to include some sophisticated projections for the season ahead). There’s nothing wrong with numbers, but they don’t tend to make for very exciting reading on a site like this. Instead of asking you to widen your eyes along with me at the number of home runs Chris Davis is projected to hit this year (thirty, down from his Triple-Crown-repeat-spoiling fifty-three in 2013), I’ve tried to extract a few nuggets of information from the weeds of the raw data that will make watching baseball this season just a little bit more enjoyable.
- Ryan Doumit: The Atlanta Braves picked up this catcher through an offseason trade with the Twins. A lot of catchers seem to offer good offense or good defense but usually not both, and in that respect, Doumit is not an exception. He’s been an above-average hitter for the past three years, and he’s been flashing his bat during spring training. What’s notable is just how bad he is at the defensive part of his job, pitch framing in particular: “It turns out that Doumit loses more net strikes for his pitchers than any catcher in the league. Although he only started 43 games behind the dish, [his] sloppy receiving cost his pitchers approximately 20 runs, or two wins, last season. That’s almost inconceivably bad on a per-pitch basis . . . .” (Pitch framing is receiving a lot more attention this year. Here‘s a deep dive if you’re very interested.)
- Ian Kinsler:The Detroit Tigers traded Prince Fielder and some money to the Texas Rangers in exchange for the speedy Kinsler, who will occupy second base in place of the departed free agent, Omar Infante. One of the many items BP provides for each player is a set of three “comparables,” the historic players to which the player is most likely to perform comparably in the coming season. One of Kinsler’s comparables is Jackie Robinson, whose name jumped out at me because most of the comparables are players I’ve never heard of, and I was surprised to see a familiar name. It also made me realize how rarely we think about Robinson as an actual player.
- Speaking of second basemen and things I’d never heard before, BP loves referring to those infielders as “keystoners,” and not just for members of the Pirates, Rockies, and Mariners.
- Leveraged Swingouts: In addition to individual team chapters, BP also includes a few articles on other, broadly applicable topics. In arguing that baseball analysts ought to consider more than aggregate trends and, occasionally, drill down on an individual player’s strengths and tendencies, Russel Carleton, the clinical psychology Ph.D. who also wrote in the Rockies’ chapter that Denver’s altitude wasn’t that big of a deal, offered an interesting bit of information about the likelihood that a particular batter would swing at the first pitch during a high-leverage plate appearance. According to Carleton’s research, the player most likely to swing at the first pitch of a high-leverage at bat is Atlanta’s Justin Upton. Prince Fielder, by contrast, is the least likely to swing at the first pitch of a high-leverage plate appearance. I can’t imagine this being too surprising to any fans of last year’s Braves or Tigers.
- Curtis Granderson: For a few minutes, Granderson was the face of the Detroit Tigers franchise, and he was the centerpiece of the three-team trade that sent him to the Yankees, an extremely solid presence in the outfield and the batting order. He joins the Mets this season after four seasons in the Bronx, the last of which was severely limited by forearm and hand injuries. Rather than a return to his recent, pre-injury form, BP’s projection algorithm, PECTOA, predicts a sharp leveling off for Granderson from his 2011-12 production rate, particularly in the areas of power, endurance, and baserunning. Why? The only real clue the player writeup offers is age: he’s thirty-three.
- Internal Inconsistencies: One of the added challenges for someone like me who is new to advanced baseball statistics and even newer to Baseball Prospectus is when statements in the team essays don’t match up with the numbers in the team prospectus. For example, when Dave Flemming writes that “the Giants . . . finished with the NL’s third-worst defensive efficiency,” I don’t know if that quite squares with the team numbers, which show that the Giants’ DER ranked nineteenth in baseball. Was the AL really that bad on defense last year? Yes, but not quite bad enough to make Flemming’s statement accurate. (Teams with worse DER: Mets (20th, NL); Anaheim (21st, AL); Yankees (T-22nd, AL); St. Louis (T-22nd, NL); Cleveland (T-24th, AL); Houston (T-24th, AL); Seattle (T-24th, AL); Detroit (27th, AL); Minnesota (28th, AL); Philadelphia (29th, NL); and Colorado (30th, NL).) By my count, San Francisco had the fifth-worst defensive efficiency rating in the NL, not the third-worst. This isn’t to pick on Flemming; his essay happens to be the one I read most recently in which I noticed a small departure like this. For those of us trying to climb into this world, minor technical slips like this make the rungs of the ladder a little tougher to grasp. (While we’re here: a) Wow, the AL really was bad on defense last year, and b) I know there was a time when professional baseball’s different leagues really mattered in conversation, but, outside of toiling beat writers who need variety in their syntax to make it through 162 games, it probably is ok to stop with things like “the Giants . . . finished with the NL’s third-worst defensive efficiency”– that they ranked nineteeth out of thirty total teams is sufficient, and actually more meaningfully descriptive, in my opinion.
- Jhonny Peralta: If you talked to me last year, you know I have mixed feelings about Peralta, but one thing I never thought was fair was they way people made a point of including him in conversations about Detroit’s much-maligned defense (the fourth-worst in baseball, as just mentioned). Visually, Jhonny did not seem terrible at shortstop, and he hit better than people gave him credit for, too. Maybe it was easy for folks to slight Jhonny because he’s a “quiet” (i.e., doesn’t speak English so well) guy, but it’s nice to see that the numbers tell a different story about Peralta’s defense. I’m not enamored with BP’s defensive metric, Fielding Runs Above Average (“FRAA“), mostly because its year-to-year fluctuations seem unrealistically large, but the 8.6 FRAA he posted in 2013 situated him very nicely between the 5.5 that is considered “great” and the 11.6 that is considered “excellent.”
- Switch Fielders: Most baseball fans are familiar with switch hitters, players who can bat from both the left and right sides of the plate. What I did not realize, though, was how many players bat from one side and throw from the other. This may be old news to closer followers of the game, but my initial hypothesis is that this has to do with defensive-based adjustments (i.e., easier and faster to make throws from a certain fielding position with a certain hand, independent of which side of the plate the player prefers for hitting purposes).
One final note: the way we watch baseball on television is changing, some would say dramatically so. Find out how here.
Feel free to offer your opening day thoughts in the comments below.