The Joel Hanrahan Trade: Jerry Sands

This is part III of my analysis of the Joel Hanrahan trade. You can find my opinion of Joel Hanrahan here and opinion of Mark Melancon here.  This article will examine Jerry Sands.

Sands, a corner outfielder/first baseman, is a power hitting first baseman with good walk rates and scary strikeout rates in the high minors.  In the last two years, at AAA in the Dodgers organization, he put up a .278/.344/.586 line at age 24 and a .296/.375/.524 line at age 25.  He accomplished this, unfortunately, in the notoriously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.  Those years represent wRC+s* of 119 and 130 respectively.  Those are good, not great numbers from a player of his age.

In 2011, he got 227 plate appearances with the Dodgers and put up a .253/.338/.389 line for a 108 wRC+.*  That bodes well for his future success. Also, his walk rate in the minors has hovered around 10%, which is solid.

Less promising is the fact that he is a right-handed batter who derives much of his value from hitting for power.  Left field at PNC Park is cavernous, and is brutal for right-handed pull hitters.  In 2011, PNC Park was the second-worst park to hit a home run in for right-handed batters.

Overall, I think that Sands is a player that has a chance of turning into a valuable player and should be at least useful at the present time as a bat off the bench or the short-half of a platoon.  I do not think that he is a type of player that is all too hard to find, however.

His market value, I think, is not that high.  In an article evaluating the mega-trade between the Dodgers and Red Sox that Sands was included in, he is talked about only for a paragraph.  He is not meant to be the centerpiece of this trade. As a throw-in, Sands is fine.  Don’t expect him to be too much more than that.

*wRC+ measures a player’s offensive performance compared to the league average, and takes park effects into account.

**all stats from FanGraphs

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The Joel Hanrahan Trade: Joel Hanrahan

In case you somehow missed it, Joel Hanrahan was traded to the Boston Red Sox, along with Brock Holt, for Mark Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel, Jerry Sands, and Ivan De Jesus.

I’m not sure where I stand on this trade yet.  To get a clearer picture of it I am going to write about each player individually and, after that, judge the trade.  I already looked at Mark Melancon.  This article will examine Joel Hanrahan.

I wrote about my concerns regarding Hanrahan in mid-summer.  My main concern was that while he was still effective (per ERA) he had become a completely different pitcher than he was when he was dominant in 2011. He had lost velocity on his fastball and gained velocity on his slider.  His strand rate, at the time, was around 95%, which was clearly unsustainable. His fly ball rate had gone from 28.6% to 50.7%. He was walking everybody.  If you looked at the stat line, it looked like it came from somebody else. It wasn’t that Hanrahan was having a bad year; he wasn’t Hanrahan.  These problems are all still relevant.

The word out of Boston is that the Red Sox management team thinks that leg injuries and working in non-save situations were the causes of Hanrahan’s struggles. As for the leg injuries, I doubt that the injuries lasted all year, and the problems that I mentioned were present all year.  Also, I really don’t put much stock in closer’s getting worse in non-save situations. Granted, in low leverage situations, Hanrahan did have the highest wOBA against, at .319.  In high leverage situations, which you would expect him to lock down as an “experienced closer,” however, he posted a .295 wOBA against, which is not wildly different. These explanations are unsatisfactory.

It boils down to this: I don’t trust Joel Hanrahan to stay healthy and continue to be a dominant closer.  Too many warning signs exist.  This is exacerbated by the track record of relief pitchers’ poor health and volatility.  Could Joel Hanrahan stay in strong form and be worth well more than $7 million? Absolutely.  Could he collapse and be worth less than nothing? Absolutely.  Joel Hanrahan is high risk and high reward at this point.

I can’t finish this article without saying this: I loved watching Joel Hanrahan.  2011 Joel Hanrahan may always be one of my favorite baseball memories.  His slider is etched into my memory.  May your arm never fail you Joel.  I just wish that I was sure that it wouldn’t.

On Mark Melancon: Pitchers and the Concept of “Luck”

It appears that Mark Melancon is going to be a part of the return in the Joel Hanrahan trade with the Boston Red Sox.  Last year, he had a 6.20 ERA.  This is ugly.  He also had a 4.58 FIP. This is less ugly, but still bad. His xFIP, on the other hand, was 3.45.  For context, it was 3.14 when he pitched to a 2.78 ERA for the Astros in 2011.

What drives the difference in these numbers is Melancon’s HR/FB rate. The formula for xFIP “is almost exactly the same as the formula for FIP, with the lone difference being how each accounts for home runs:” FIP uses home runs, while xFIP regresses HR/FB rate.  Melancon’s poor FIP and poorer ERA were driven by his HR/FB rate, which increased from 11.1% to 22.2%. Melancon still induced 50.0% groundballs, so his 1.60 HR/9 innings is absurdly high as Pat Lackey, of WHYGAVS, pointed out on Twitter.

When Charlie Wilmoth, of Bucs Dugout, and Dejan Kovacevic, of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, were…discussing?…Melancon, their disagreement came down to whether they thought that Melancon’s home run rate would return to earth.  Essentially, Wilmoth argued that the influx of home runs was the result of “luck” while Kovacevic held that it was not.

Immediately, my mind jumped to a wonderful article written by Dave Cameron at FanGraphs about Tim Lincecum, who had a similar problem.  Cameron’s argument is that Lincecum’s home runs aren’t the result of luck, but rather random variation.  The sabermetric community has simply fallen into the pattern of calling it luck. (I encourage you to read the whole piece. It’s very well done.)

The difference between luck and random variation is very important.  As Cameron points out, it’s not unlucky if you throw a pitch down the middle of the plate and it gets ripped 450 feet for a home run.  The number of times you do that for every certain number of pitches is the result of your skill level.  The principle of random variation says that it’s very possible for a good pitcher to throw a number of bad pitches with greater frequency in small samples.

For example.  Pitcher X throws 500 innings, with a home run rate of 1 home run per nine innings.  This would mean that he would have given up roughly 55 home runs in those 500 innings.  Random variation says that 8 or 10 of those home runs could very well come in, say, 40 innings.  That’s a home run rate of 1.8.  Those 40 innings don’t have as much predictive value as the full 500 innings.  In fact, they have very little predictive value.  As such, it is much better to trust the larger sample size and/or regression to the mean when it comes to HR/FB rate.

Relievers’ seasons are, almost uniformly, small sample sizes.  As a result, I put a lot more faith in Melancon’s career HR/FB rate of 13% over 157 innings than his single season rate of 22.2% over 45 innings.  If this is the case then he will likely be an effective reliever going forward.

N.B. This is not indicative in any way of my thoughts on the trade as a whole.  This is a discussion about Mark Melancon, nothing more.  If you saw Twitter tonight, you will understand my disclaimer. This disclaimer is useless because no one read this. This is a matter of form to make me feel better.

Dejan Kovacevic is Driving Me Insane

Last night, the Pirates signed Russell Martin to a two year contract worth $17 million.  I thought it was a good move, for reasons which I plan to detail soon.  Dejan Kovacevic of the Tribune-Review disagreed.

That’s fine.  Martin’s signing has gotten a lot of attention because his value comes from places where what we know is vague and new.  I expect and encourage disagreement.  Kovacevic’s response, however, was beyond the pale.

Kovacevic compares the signing of Martin to the Matt Morris trade.

Yes, the Matt Morris trade.  The trade where Dave Littlefield traded Rajai Davis for Matt Morris and the $12-15 million dollars left on his two year deal.  Kovacevic argues that the Martin signing parallels the Morris trade.  That is, both moves were made by general managers afraid of losing their jobs and were a waste of assets.  Let’s compare the two moves.

At the time of the trade, Morris made more money per year than Martin will, even before accounting for salary inflation over the last five years, which has been significant.  Littlefield also gave away a young player, Davis, who would later be a contributor on Major League teams. From a purely finance and asset based evalutation, this does not remotely approach the Martin signing in terms of the cost of acquisition.

Additionally, Morris had nowhere near the value of Martin as a player prior to their respective acquisitions by the Pirates.  In the two years before the trade, Morris had ERA+s of 90 and 91.  The year before, he was around average with an ERA+ of 103, but even that was preceded by an ERA+ of 90. He hadn’t finished a year with a WAR of 1 or greater since 2003.  He was washed up and over the hill, and everybody knew it.

Martin, on the other hand, has provided value both recently and steadily.  He plays catcher, where nobody can hit, and has wRC+s of 90, 100, and 95 the past three seasons.  His defense is well-regarded, with his pitch framing being among the best in the league.  He is being paid less than $10 million dollars a year, and a win is valued on the market at $5 million per year.  He has been worth more than 2 wins each of the past three seasons without taking into account pitch framing.

In essence, the comparison does not fit on any level.  That said, every writer releases something that I disagree with on the merits. What really irks me is the tone that Kovacevic has taken with his critics on Twitter.

Kovacevic took a lot of heat for this piece, some of it understandable and some of it rude.  His response was ridiculous.  I will provide what I think is a representative example of his approach.  He posted: “Just got my first “straw man” charge. Do I hear an “ad hominem?” How about a “meh?”.  This is an obvious allusion to this exchange, which he is apparently proud of.  Saying that an author argued against a straw man is a legitimate criticism of an argument.  It’s not really what Kovacevic did, but it would be valid if he had.  To compare that to the “ad hominem” and “meh?” arguments, which have no substance, is ridiculous and an attempt to put down his detractors.  That is an “ad hominem” argument.

Essentially, Kovacevic made an argument that fails on its merits.  Then, when people criticized his argument, he lashed out and was brusque and dismissive.  I’m glad that he takes the time to engage his readers.  That said I’d rather he not do so at all if he only does it to take potshots at his critics and pump up his supporters.  It’s irresponsible; it’s flat out wrong; and it drives me insane.

Really? Really?: Chris Young’s Ejection

Maybe I’m overly sensitive to stupid sports journalism because of my love for Fire Joe Morgan, but this is ridiculous.  A sportswriter in Arizona, Nick Piecoro, genuinely thinks that Chris Young arguing balls and strikes shows that he is a competitor.

I was at the game in question. In fact, I was one of maybe 5000 people who stayed out in the rain to see this at bat. The first pitch to Young was on the low and inside corner. I thought it was going to be a ball. I felt as though no pitcher had gotten a call on that pitch all game. That said, I was really surprised to see Young get so angry at the call. It was a pitch that was close to the strike zone and, more importantly, it was strike one. The umpire has unilateral control over strikes two and three. There is no reason to aggravate him.

More importantly, the pitches that he got really upset about, strikes two and three, were the EXACT SAME PITCH. Did he think that he had convinced the umpire that his strike zone was wrong? How did he not expect that to be strike three?  I thought that the incident made Young look like an idiot.

Sadly, this is not the most ridiculous thing in the article. That honor belongs to referring to the Diamondbacks, at the time 56-55, as “in the thick of a pennant race”. Now that I think of it, it was also ridiculous to refer to “the thick of a pennant race” as early as August 8th.  In summary, Nick Piecoro is a moron.

Bob Ryan is Retiring…

And everything that I’ve read about it has been a eulogy. Why is there a rule that when somebody retires or dies they only talk about their positives? It’s almost offensive to the deceased and retirees. When I die, call me crazy, I want my family and friends to remember me as I actually was: a flawed individual.  I will now write about Bob Ryan, a flawed individual.

I will always remember Bob Ryan as the nasty participant in Around the Horn that I never wanted to be on. Please, let it be Jackie MacMullan or Michael Smith. Not angry Bob Ryan; not Woody Paige without the ability to laugh at himself. He struck me as a writer who supported his opinions with conjecture and casual observations, and then tried to convince people that he was right through force of voice, i.e. yelling.

There is no better example of why I think of Mr. Ryan this way than his reaction to the 2011 Bill James Projections. He disagreed with them, thinking that they undersold the Boston Red Sox as a whole. This is fine. Projections are always guesswork, and it’s healthy to question them and argue about whether they are accurate or not. The shape of Mr. Ryan’s argument, however, was not healthy.

Instead, he personally attacked Bill James, trying to discredit him by repeating Dan Shaughnessy’s joke that James “doesn’t even like to watch baseball.” First, anyone who cites Shaughnessy as a reliable source loses some credibility in my eyes. Beyond that, using a derisive joke isn’t just using an ad hominem argument, it’s the worst kind of ad hominem argument. If an ad hominem argument is made that addresses real character concerns, then it implies that care was taken in the argument. To make a flippant joke is to dismiss your opponent as insignificant; he doesn’t deserve any more attention than that.

I have not read or seen 99.9% of Bob Ryan’s work as a sports reporter. It’s entirely possible that he was a wonderful reporter. That, however, was not my impression of him, and I know that this side of Ryan existed. He probably deserves a lot of credit for a long and successful career, but he also deserves criticism for his penchant for mean-spirited ad hominem arguments.