Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Stuck Between Stations

Pinning down exactly what Vernon Wells is and means is, as it turns out, quite difficult. Writing about the Vernon Wells trade without mention money is nearly impossible. Writing about the Vernon Wells trade more than four days after it went down is pretty much impossible.

What possible angle remains uncovered? What flavour of payroll flexibility-tinged glee is as yet unsampled? Is there room to be wistful over a guy who, frankly, no one will actually miss?

Vernon Wells is a lot like this blog post. Two days too late, instantly forgotten. There is no great epiphany coming in the next few paragraphs. Don't read on if you expect some grand analogy and ultimate tribute to one of the greatest compilers of achievements this team has ever known.

Vernon Wells — by virtue of his contract and the era in which he played — is just a rich guy who played baseball in Toronto for a long time. Not once during his tenure as a Blue Jay was he the best player on his team. They might elect him to Ring of Honour one day, but then again who cares. Will you buy a ticket to cheer his accomplishments?

Off the field - he did more than his share. Beyond his admirable charity work he was nice enough to the media guys and respected as a teammate. All things no fans actually give two hot shits about. He made too much money and took too much abuse. He got hurt diving for balls despite constant whining from fans claiming he didn't dive enough.

By signing an insanely lucrative contract, which stands to set his children's children for life, Vernon Wells became a victim. He was a victim in 2007 just as he is now: victim of a guy with way too much money to spend and a pressing need to justify his existence by spending it.

Which births anew Vernon Wells - Opulent Victim. Wells is damaged goods to far too many Angels fans already, though he's yet to pull a Halo "A" low over his eyes.

They'll boo him because the Tony Reagins doesn't wear a uniform. They'll boo him because their team is aging and the manager's a jackass and because Torii Hunter is just too damn smiley. Vernon Wells will hear boos from Seth Cohen and Gwen Stefani's third cousin unless he goes Tuffy Rhodes on Opening Day. Even then, he'll hear it.

Not nearly as loud as he'll inexplicably hear it from Jays fans. Despite serving as a casualty in the ongoing deification of Alex Anthopoulos (pictured above) Vernon Wells will hear many boos on his return to Toronto.

Boos he has heard before. They booed him when he walked with his family on doggie day and they booed him at nearly every turn. All because he agreed to take more money than he may have been worth, then got hurt, then got better but played crappy.

Vernon Wells isn't much different from Roy Halladay or Carlos Delgado. They all presided over middling times for a middling club. Except those two players are better than Vernon Wells. They hit better or pitched better and smiled bigger and became the thing we desperately want athletes to be, each in their own way. Vernon Wells just played and went home.

He did the thing too many people claim to want but actually detest from professional athletes. A certain segment of the fanbase loves railing against hot dogs one minute then bemoaning boring cliche machines the next. Vernon Wells was affable and frank and available and nobody gives a shit because of what he wasn't, not who he was.

Ultimately, I think this town will forget Vernon Wells in a hurry. Despite logging thousands of innings in the middle of Rogers Centre, his legacy will not last. Other insane contracts will shove his from the memory, other affable & well-adjusted athletes will attract our undeserving scorn.

Blue Jays fans will quickly learn 30 home runs for a center fielder is a three year running total, not a baseline for acceptable production. They'll wake up tomorrow and realize Jason Frasor is the longest tenured Blue Jay (and even he's on the outs.) The now-annual New Blue Jays Epoch begins, in earnest, today.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The First Step in the De-Citofication Process

Rock Paper Scissors for the Cleanup Spot!
Despite the slightly incendiary title, I come today not to bury Cito. Nor do I plan to excrete anything on or around his grave. I hope to pose a simple question1: should Vernon Wells continue as the Blue Jays cleanup hitter?

The easy answer is no. Despite putting up strong numbers in 2010 Wells is ill-suited to the role. The Book suggests your best hitters in the 1,2, and 4 spot. Wells hits fourth because he's The Team Leader and other such stuff. Jose Bautista hit third much of the year, starting in late June. Vernon batted cleanup every game, all year long.

It is difficult to argue the results as both men put up huge numbers. What is open to debate is the role their spot in the batting order plays in that success. From a "winning games" perspective, hitting Bautista third and Wells fourth is less than ideal.

Consider a great post on a great blog The Process Report. The finest Rays writers come together to provide excellent, high-end analysis. This week, they examined if the Rays best hitter — Evan Longoria — was better suited to hitting third or fourth.

How does that relate to the Jays? Applying the same thinking the Process Report guys used for Longoria2, I thought I'd take a look at the opportunities afforded Bautista and Wells. Nothing too fancy or esoteric, simply what was the situation when they came to the plate.

The first assumption we must make to assuming Jose Bautista is a "better" hitter than Vernon Wells. In 2010, he certainly was. In addition to his prodigious power, Jose Bautista made far fewer outs than Vernon Wells. Even if the home runs dry up, this trend stands to continue thanks to Joe Bau's discerning eye and Vernon Wells' nervous twitches.

Like the Process Report dudes, I'll focus on first inning plate appearances. Check out the chart(s) below!

To summarize, cleanup hitter Vernon Wells came to the plate 99 times in the first inning, compared to only 64 appearances in the second (where he would leadoff, nobody on & nobody out.) Of those 99 first inning plate appearances, Wells batted with a running in scoring position more than 40% of the time. Compare that to number three hitter Jose Bautista, who saw runners in scoring position a mere 17% of his first inning plate appearances.

I recognize this isn't an "apples to apples" comparison when we consider how much Wells benefits from hitting behind an OBP machine like Jose. Bautista's plate appearances in the cleanup role won't mirror Vernon's but the differences will be relatively slight. Numerical vagaries aside, having an out-making fool like Wells hit with two out and nobody on isn't the end of the world.

Should Wells reach, Bautista's ability to extend the inning only increases the chance of scoring. Should Wells do his Vernon Wells-thing, making the third out of the inning, there is ersatz leadoff man Jose Bautista doing his patient slugger-thing at the top of the second inning. Win-win!

On a team without:
  1. a prototype leadoff guy(?) and
  2. in no real rush to get on base in the first place
The standard line of "RBI guy in the 3 spot!!11!" kind of goes out the window. Wells has the power to put up instant offense from that spot without killing nascent rallies started by the (last year, at least) more proficient Bautista.

Provided everyone is warm and fuzzy about it, this team would be far better positioned to score more runs with Wells/Bautista 3/4. And yes, I realize this very debate was bandied about last year at this time regarding Hill and Lind shifting from 2/3 to 3/4. Things change; it is baseball we're talking about.

Moving elder statesman Vernon Wells too far from the middle of the order isn't a wise move for a new manager on his way into town. Hopefully Farrell can use his fresh eyes and new perspective to convince the players that a more optimized lineup helps them all in the end.

1 - Completely unrelated to contract arbitration, as that shit is for the birds.

2 - I basically stole their chart format, too. No honour on the internet indeed.

Credit to AP Photo (courtesy of Daylife) for the photo, Fangraphs for the play by play info and The Process Report for the original idea.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fetch Me a Polish-to-Spanish Translator!

The good men of Bluebird Banter have a sweet little offseason feature wherein they mine their readership for predictions. When it came for Marc Rzepczynski, I couldn't resist offering my two cents.

As a dyed in the wool R-Zep supporter, I quickly started typing numbers as they came to my head. Without giving too much thought or consideration, this is what I jabbed into my workLEISURE TIME AT HOME keyboard.
I think 120 innings would be great. 8 K/9, 3 BB/9, 1.10 HR/9. 4.30 FIP, 8-10 Won loss.
I threw the W/L record in as for "when in Rome" sake but the rest, upon reflection, doesn't look too bad. Certainly not unattainable. The Bill James Projection System TM figures Rzepczynski for a 110.0 IP, 9.08 K/9, 4.25 BB/9, with a 0.82 home run rate. Good enough for a tidy 3.83 FIP.

Others remain unconvinced. Many see R-Zep as a potential bullpen arm, perhaps developing into a Scott Downs high-leverage jack-of-all-trades. While that role is crucial and Rzepczynski could possibly fill it, why settle for the pen when the rotation is within his grasp?

Consider the man pictured above, Jorge De La Rosa. Like R-Zep, De La Rosa battled control issues for years before cutting his walks to a manageable number. The Brewers tried JDLR as a reliever before he eventually moved to the rotation full time with the Royals after surviving a stern DFAing.

Since moving to the Colorado Rockies, De La Rosa proved himself quite valuable. Decreasing the walks and increasing his ground ball rates helped him amass nearly 8 WAR in three seasons in the mountains. A 2 year plus an option, $11 AAV contract was his reward after testing free agency this fall.

Looking at the De La Rosa's strikeouts, walks, home runs and the like, there is no reason to believe Marc Rzepczynski can't put up nearly identical numbers this very season.

De La Rosa throws harder but they miss nearly the same number of bats. They handle lefties and rights with similar levels of effectiveness. If anything, R-Zep shows similar control now, as a 25 year old with less than 2 years in the Show, to De La Rosa at his 29 year-old peak.

Don't like George of the Rose? Consider another young lefty picking up big-time hype and praise everywhere these days, Gio Gonzalez. How different, exactly, are Gonzalez and Rzepczynski? All numbers across 2009 & 2010.

Marc RzepczynskiGio Gonzalez

I must be getting old and forgetful, which one of these guys is an OMGSTUDALWESTFAVORITE and which one is potentially battling with Jesse freaking Litsch for a rotation spot?

Obviously the innings are a thing, as well they should be. 200 inning seasons are 200 inning seasons, giving more legitimacy/stability to Gio's rates. But why the huge gulf in opinion?

If you factor in more park effects than simply HR/FB normalization...you see what I mean. Marc Rzepczynski has all the tools to be a league-average starter— and a history of using them. Considering a few similar starters, he starts to look even better.

All numbers courtesy of Fangraphs.

Getty Images photo courtesy of Daylife.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Hey, Would You Look at That!

While one internet haunt of mine winds down and another gears up, the home base keeps on keeping on. As it turns out, today is the third anniversary of Ghostrunner on First.

Three years! Not bad for a no-account scumbag. Lots of fun in the past, plenty of work to do in the future.

Thanks again to all the readers, linkers, lurkers, commenters, and anybody else who takes a few moments of their day to give a damn. I couldn't go on without the love and affection shown here and all around the Great Interweb Plains. For that I thank you all.

In the coming year you can expect...more of the same. What do you want from me? I'm only one man!

Thanks again y'all!

Monday, January 10, 2011

An Interesting Spin on an Age-Old Tale

Annually updated "Best Shape of His Life" articles are a tired spring training trope. Consequently, pointing out the sportswriter's Vernal Equinox tradition has become a cliché itself. The number of snarky posts riffing on the number of earnest puff pieces is nearly equal. Based on some of the evidence provided by Twitter and a few Blue Jays public appearances, it looks like the Jays scribes will have to dig a little deeper down in Dunedin this time around.

Unless, while attending yesterday's epic Raptors clash with the Sacramento Kings, Travis Snider somehow used the Air Canada Centre seats incorrectly I struggle to imagine how he might be too big for the fancy chairs. Maybe he means shoulder-to-shoulder space with the guy next to him? We can only hope.

No such hope remains for Jesse Litsch who — despite claims of double-digit weight loss this offseason — apparently cannot stop eating. When pressed for details by admitted GROF reader Wesley Leong, National Post reporter Eric Koreen came with a dagger to Little Litsch's pink self-image.

Ouch. Poor Jesse. But he's so athletic! Look at him, shooting around (apparently underwater, go Blackberry!) with Vernon Wells after the game.

Despite Litsch's legendary athletic status, I would quite enjoy playing basketball against him. Blogger versus jock for all the marbles! Winner gets to keep Jesse's false fronts!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Playing to the Base (Let's Talk About Feelings)

This should be a happy time for Jays fans. It is a happy time. Roberto Alomar, local folk hero, enshrined in the Hall of Fame! The first to go in as a Blue Jay! Excitement!

Unfortunately the scrutiny maelstrom surrounding Hall of Fame inductions may have shot a few holes into the Roberto Alomar mystique. Calling his defense track record into question and the like. Long suffering Jays fans howl in disbelief, unable to fathom the great second base deity might not be as transcendent as they remember.

It was nearly 20 years ago, after all. People jumping out of their skin to decry the faulty metrics based on observations they made when they were 12. Just like Parkes said in the comment section of his post on the matter, you can't toss aside defensive metrics and meaningless awards when Jeter wins them but use them as to back your Robbie the GBOAT case.

But Robbie Alomar isn't a rational buy for Jays fans of a certain age, he's an emotional one. The iconic home run, taking rueful hot dog Dennis Eckersley deep against all odds, is etched in the minds of those old enough to remember.

Does it matter that Candy Maldonado actually contributed more, in terms of WPA, on that fateful day? Nope, it does not matter one bit. We remember it how we remember it, and we associate so many of those fuzzy feelings with Robbie. Rightfully so.

Robbie clearly has an affinity for Toronto, too. The most deeply cynical among us (hi!) might suggest his loud lobbying to go in as a Blue Jay seeks to exploit that affinity, that he recognizes the value in being "Blue Jays Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar" when it comes to appearances and signings.

Or he just valued his time in Toronto as the best of his career. His ongoing relationship with the team suggests as much. Being heralded as a hero will do that.

What about players who aren't thought of as heroes? As anyone familiar with the self-deprecating stylings of Dirk Hayhurst knows professional athletes — especially those on the talent margins — must cast off the constant fear and self doubt associated with professional inadequacy.

Blogoncé herself wondered "aloud" if I didn't want to @-reply Jesse Litsch on Twitter with a link to the post I wrote earlier this week, expressing my belief that Litsch is unfit for the rotation. I can honestly say I did not.

There is no part of me that wants to put Jesse Litsch on blast, attempting to draw his attention to the uninformed opinion of a no-account blogger like me. Not that he'd put any stock in it in the first place. Either way, the thought of Litsch bristling at the thought that some clown in his parent's basement doesn't think he has what it takes makes me uneasy.

Seriously, who am I to tell Litsch he isn't good enough? In any professional baseball player's eyes, I'm nobody. Could my insignificant words penetrate the iron-clad shell of pro athlete confidence? Hopefully not. But it is surely part of the din.

It's all in the game though. Jesse Litsch knew what he was getting into long ago. A product of the RBI program, he's overcome more than his share of adversity. Here's hoping he stays strong and overcomes a little more, in spite of what clowns like me believe.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I Defy You to Make Sense of Jesse Litsch

There is no middle ground on Jesse Litsch. You either think he's the worst starter the Jays have, or simply bad. So polarizing! Might he be the fifth starter, or fighting for the long man role? Unless you're Mike Wilner in Daytime Radio Host/Chase Producer mode or have a thing for freckles, you probably don't think too highly of Jesse Litsch. Both of which are somewhat understandable but not especially estimable.

Let me get this out of the way: I don't understand the appeal of Jesse Litsch. Every non-disastrous outing he makes seems more unlikely than the last. I don't think I'm alone in this. In fact, the Fangraphs community projections for Litsch serve as a great reminder for the value of scouts.

Four different Fangraphs users submitted 2011 projections for Jesse Litsch. 2 self-identified Jays fans and 2 out-of-town fans. The Jays fans, likely armed with scarred memories of Listch's outings past, project a dire 2011 for the Jays right hander. The non-Jays fans hardly toss him Cy Young votes but those with Litsch baggage foresee half as many innings with fewer strikeouts and more base runners.

Base runners are not the friends of pitchers like Litsch. Pitchers who miss bats at a below-average rate must hope against hope to induce a ground ball to do the work they're out pitch cannot. It's stressful stuff, hanging on by a BABIP thread.

Just look at the company Litsch keeps. Here is a complete list of pitchers (since 2007) with at least 340 innings pitched, K/9 under 5.00 and ground ball rates under 50%. Children, look away from the screen.
  • Jesse Litsch
  • Braden Looper
  • Jon Garland
  • Kyle Kendrick
  • Scott Feldman
  • Mark Buehrle
  • Paul Byrd
  • Nick Blackburn
  • Livan Hernandez
  • Jeff Suppan
  • Carlos Silva
  • Zach Duke
A rather contemptible lot. Some "effective" starters, durable hurlers who dutifully take the ball every fifth day. Mark Buerhrle is the best of the lot (15 WAR over this time frame) but he features the group's highest K rate while yielding the fewest home runs.

When compared to the august company he keeps, two factors work against young Jesse Litsch. His in ball average is the lowest and his strand rate is the second highest. That, to me, is terrifying. Regression waiting to happen. Jesee Litsch isn't exactly the kind of guy who can afford to regress. A rebuilt elbow might keep Jesse Litsch from using his ground ball-inducing cutter as frequently in the future, exposing him to even more fly balls and home runs.

Some pitchers demonstrate repeatable ability to maintain high strand rates and below-average in play averages? Yes, yes they do. But they aren't among this wing and a prayer bunch. If Jesse Litsch transitions to more of a fly ball pitcher, his in play average might stay down but the strand rate will rise when the home runs roll in.

Only Buehrle has a (fractionally) higher strand rate than our pink hero and I'm willing to credit his superlative pickoff move and general left-handedness as bonus points for his magical case against reason. We certainly can't make the same allowances for Litsch.

Is this a long way of saying I don't think Jesse Litsch is a viable fourth, fifth, or emergency starter? Yes. Not only does he have marginal at best skills, his inability to remain healthy pretty much discounts any inning-eater claims.

Is Marc Rzepcynzski a better option in every single way? Absolutely! I don't say that as an unabashed fanboy1 but as someone who feels that the ability to miss bats and induce an above-average number of ground balls outweigh struggles with control and the occasional gopher ball.

1 - This is a lie.