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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Looking At Danny Santana

Danny Santana had a fantastic rookie season. Santana's .319/.353/.472 slash line and his OPS+ of 130 are fantastic numbers for anyone, let alone a 23-year-old in his first big league season. Because of Santana's youth and the fact that he had what appears to be a breakout rookie season, the expectation for Santana is that he will continue to improve and build upon his great rookie season.

To be blunt: That's highly unlikely. His strikeout to walk ratio was 98 to 19, and very rarely do players who can't control the strike zone continue to hit at a high level year after year.

It's important to note that a key benefit of advanced stats is that they can help paint a very clear picture of what would be expected the following season. Things like batting average on balls in play (BABIP) are based far more on luck than skill, and generally if a player has a very high average in this stat, his numbers will fall off quite a bit the next season. For example, if someone's BABIP is between .280 and .295 over the first four seasons of their career, and then suddenly spikes to something like .354 in year five, it's very likely that this players sixth season BABIP is far more likely to be between .280 and .295 than it is to be anywhere near .354 again. A higher BABIP will boost each part of the slash line, as a .250/.300/.390 hitter could become a .275/.340/.420 hitter, becoming 10% more effective purely based on luck.

Saying that, one thing that does bother me about these kind of advanced stats is that I think people use them too often to judge the prior season incorrectly. What I mean by that is too often players who got lucky and had a big season thanks in large part to simply dumb luck aren't given the credit they deserve. Sure, the player got lucky. But the point should be to see who brought the most ACTUAL value to the team, not just perceived value. Getting lucky, while completely out of the player's control, still adds value to the team. A player who improves his offensive output by 10% because he just improved his swing or strength in the off-season is worth the same amount as a player who improves his offense 10% just by dumb luck.

Anyway, back to Danny Santana. The 23-year-old center fielder/shortstop was a good player last season. However, he was mostly a good player because he got lucky. His .319 batting average is largely due to a completely unsustainable .406 batting average on balls in play. Santana narrowly missed qualifying as he received just 430 plate appearances, but the league leader hit .373 on balls in play, while the league average was .299. Had Santana hit .299 on balls in play, he would've had 90 hits instead of 129. If we just pretend all of those hits were singles (highly unlikely, but easier for computing the slash line and kinder to Santana) that would've led to a slash line of .222/.262/.375. Suddenly Santana's rookie season doesn't look so fantastic.

But again, Santana getting lucky last year doesn't mean he wasn't valuable. He was very valuable. It's just not likely he'll be anywhere close to as lucky ever again. Even if we project a 10% improvement, but a league average BABIP*, Santana's slash line would be .245/.290/.415. The average shortstop hit just .255/.310/.368 this past season, which makes Santana's projected .705 OPS slightly above average. Add in Santana's above average base running and what projects to at least average defense, and he looks like a valuable player even without unsustainable luck.

*A 10% improvement in one year isn't all that likely, but Santana is also likely to post at least a slightly above average BABIP over his career because he strikes out a lot (that's not factored into the stat) and he's fast, so he should get more infield singles than an average player, so it should even out or get close enough that the guesses aren't too far off.

Unfortunately, Santana's power numbers are also unlikely to remain anywhere close to what they were as a rookie. That would significantly reduce Santana's slugging percentage. In 2,400 minor league plate appearances, Santana hit .273/.317/.391. He was always younger than the average age for each league, so his numbers are a little more impressive in that context, but nothing in his minor league numbers suggest consistent power, even from gap to gap. He also didn't look very big, so it's highly unlikely a strength or conditioning program was responsible for the sudden power surge.

Had we taken say just 18 singles from the 39 hits Santana would lose with a league average BABIP, and then 13 doubles, 5 triples and 3 home runs, suddenly the .222/.262/.375 line drops to .222/.262/.296.Then giving the same generous 10% increase and again a league average BABIP, Santana's projected season would be .245/.290/.325, meaning he'd need to be an elite defensive shortstop to bring value, because his .615 OPS would be below average offensively. Santana's defense at short is really an unknown as he barely played their this past season, but most projections have him anywhere from below average to above average. As a good athlete with quick feet and a strong throwing arm, I'd expect him to be at least average and probably above average.

I'd prefer to see the Twins trade Santana at his peak value, ideally to a team who is still impressed by the shiny slash line and not what he's likely to do next season. Speculating on trades is silly, since it's impossible to know what gets offered, among other things, but if a team is willing to trade a solid, young, near-ready major league starter the Twins would be silly not to accept.

Santana was fun to watch this past season, but if the Twins want to get back to playing meaningful games late in the season, they need to start selling high. This off-season, trading Danny Santana would be doing just that.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Aaron Hicks: Not a Bust (yet)

Aaron Hicks is not yet a bust. I realize that's an unpopular opinion amongst the Twins faithful, but a simple understanding of his numbers makes it a fact.

Calling Hicks a bust seems to stem from him struggling offensively over the last two seasons in the big leagues. The thought process seems to be that he got two years to show he belonged on the team, and he struggled. Of course, each season was less than half a season's worth of at bats, so Hicks first two years in the big leagues are really the equivalent of most rookies first seasons.

To be fair, Hicks hasn't just struggled with the bat, he's been horrible. Hicks has 538 major league plate appearances over the last two seasons and he's posted a slash line of .201/.293/.313 for just a .606 OPS. Hicks' OPS+, which adjusts for the offensive environment the player played in (allowing fans to compare players across different eras), is 69. 100 is average.

The last two great center fielders the Twins had, Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter, both struggled in their first taste of the big leagues. Hunter's first three seasons he was given 441 plate appearances, and he hit .254/.309/.377, good for an OPS of .686. While the OPS is 80 points higher, Hunter's OPS+ was just 73. Slightly better than Hicks, but basically the same. Because Hunter played during the peak of the steroid era when offense was at an all-time high, his .686 OPS is basically as close to the league average as Hicks .606 was this season. Both players were drastically below average in their first taste of the big leagues.

Puckett was more highly regarded than both players, and was given over 500 plate appearances as a rookie. In his 583 plate appearances, Puckett hit .296/.320/.336, which was good for an OPS of .655. (Both OBP and SLG were rounded up, so together they equal a point less) Puckett's OPS+ was just 79. That's considerably better than Hicks, but still well below average and hardly the kind of rookie season that speaks to a future Hall of Fame career. Both Hunter and Puckett seemed to take their offense to another level after about 1,000 plate appearances. (This happened for Hunter in his fourth season, when he posted an OPS+ of 102, 2% above average. Puckett eclipsed this mark in his third season, and posted a ridiculously good OPS+ of 142, 42% above average.)

Of course, just because Puckett and Hunter struggled and then emerged as all-stars doesn't mean Hicks is destined to follow the same path. For every Hunter and Puckett there's the entire early 1990's busts, like Rich Becker. It's important though to remember that a 500 at bat sample size is far too small to make any true judgments. Hicks minor league numbers are solid and suggest an above average player in the future. Considering he had 2,500 at bats in the minors, I feel much safer projecting his future on that large sample than a small sample size spread over two seasons.

Giving Hicks the center field job on opening day for the third year in a row is something the Twins need to do. With top prospect Byron Buxton ultimately missing a full year of development with his injury woes this past season, he's likely at least half a season (and likely more than a year) away from contributing at all in the big leagues. Hicks has struggled the past two seasons out of the gate, but with no other options the team could do a lot worse than someone with Hicks minor league track record. If he gets a full season's worth of at bats in his third season and there isn't improvement, then we can talk about him being a borderline major league backup.

But to call a player a bust after just more than 500 at bats is silly, especially when the franchise's best two center fielders also struggled in their first 500 at bats. Don't give up on Hicks yet, Twins fans. He might emerge as one of the team's best young players after this season, and while others may be surprised, now you won't be.


Monday, November 3, 2014

The Physics of Golf

Another interesting graphic from the kind people at InfographicWorld. This one pertains to the physics of golf. If you've ever wondered why golf balls have all those dimples or how the temperature truly affects your shot distance, take a look.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Ricky Rubio, Turnovers and the Casual Fan

Ricky Rubio can't shoot. I would imagine looking through basketball fans tweets during a Timberwolves game would reveal several tweets complaining about Rubio's shooting ability. And while it is true that Rubio's shooting leaves a lot to be desired, fans as usual focus on the "flashy" part of the game rather than the big picture.

When Miguel Cabrera won the triple crown, many fans were convinced that he HAD to be the MVP, because he had won the triple crown for goodness sakes! How could he not win it? It's simple; fans and writers and even "baseball experts" had been valuing the wrong parts of the game. Batting average, home runs and RBI make it easy for a casual fan to see who had a good season, but the issue is that these statistics are horribly outdated to determine real value on the field. Mike Trout has been a better player than Cabrera for 3 years now, because he runs the bases a lot better and he's been a good defender, while still adding a ton of value with his offense. The all-around game is more important than 3 arbitrary numbers that were picked more than 100 hundred years ago. That's a fact.

Now, Rubio isn't close to an MVP type player. I'm not comparing him to Trout or Cabrera, just pointing out that casual fans tend to value the wrong statistics quite often. That's not their fault; a lot of fans just want to watch the game and cheer for their team. All the statistics and learning what each stat really means can be a turn off for fans, I understand that.

People like Bill Simmons, who get paid ridiculous amounts of money to talk about sports, don't get the benefit of the doubt though. Simmons continues to rail against Rubio's game because "he can't shoot!" and acts as if every point guard needs to score 20 points a game. He doesn't. Simmons should know this. Steve Nash, even at his peak in Phoenix, had games where he'd score single digit points but dole out 15-17 assists with very few turnovers. Nash was a blackhole on defense. Rubio is one of the best defensive point guards in the league, and unlike most players he gets a lot of his steals without gambling out of position (think Corey Brewer or Chris Paul) but rather by reading passing lanes while remaining in front of his defender. Rubio's basketball IQ is a huge reason for his solid defense, and his length helps a lot too. Rubio's 191 steals led basketball last season, and while steals were often considered an "empty stat" because of the gambling involved in getting the steals (players will get backdoored and allow a basket, foul trouble, etc.) but Nate Silver's Five Thirty Eight blog did an interesting study on the value of the steal this past March. That's well worth the read. Long story short, it's far from an empty stat.

Rubio's assist numbers remain near the top of the league as well. He's gotten less flashy since his rookie year, and while that's less fun to watch, it should in theory help him cut down on his turnovers. As a point guard, controlling the offense is very important. It's difficult to win close games if your point guard is turning the ball over too much, because every possession counts.*

*Long rant: Flip Saunders has been terrible through two games as a coach. In the 3rd quarter of the season opener against Memphis, Flip thought it'd be a good idea on three consecutive possessions to call a post up for #1 pick Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins had barely shot the ball to this point, and seemed very passive. That's not entirely unexpected from a 19-year-old rookie who had trouble exerting himself even at the collegiate level. 

Wiggins plays in the flow of the game, he's not the kind of player who can just be isolated against someone and score. At least he's not that kind of player yet. Making matters worse, Saunders made these play calls despite TONY ALLEN being the man guarding Wiggins. Allen is probably the league's best defender, and if not the best he's very close. Having a raw rookie with little offensive tools go one on one with Tony Allen is just stupid. Wiggins was, as one would expect, stopped on all 3 plays. That's three possessions Flip basically just gave away. The Wolves would lose the game by just 4 points. His explanation? That he wanted Wiggins to "go against the best" to get his feet wet. In the first game of his career. Yes, the Wolves are unlikely to make the playoffs, but guess what? You don't "play for the future" in game 1. Wait until the team is 2-9 or 5-17 or something before you give away possessions in a close game. Let Wiggins get his feet wet against a poor defender, so his confidence will improve.

And in game 2, with the Wolves holding a 5 point lead with 45 seconds left, Saunders called for the Wolves to intentionally foul Andre Drummond. Drummond is a very poor free throw shooter. He's shot just 40% from the line in his 3 seasons in the NBA. Simple math dictates that would give him just a 16% chance of making both shots, but the Wolves held a 5 point lead. Why give the Pistons a chance at 2 free points with the clock stopped, when they're hardly an efficient offensive team anyway? As one would expect, Saunders strange decision nearly backfired into the worst possible scenario. Drummond made his first free throw, cutting the lead to 4, then missed the second one rather badly. Detroit got the rebound, swung the ball around, and got a wide open three point look. It hit the back of the rim, because the Pistons aren't a good team either, and the Wolves rebounded the ball and escaped. But had the 3 point shot gone in, Saunders would have given the Pistons a 4 point possession in a situation they were unlikely to even score 2 points. It made no sense at the time, and looked even worse a few seconds later. Saunders made a few solid moves as GM this summer, including the haul for Kevin Love. It's just too bad one of his other moves was hiring himself as coach.

Rubio's biggest problem is his turnovers, not his shooting. Shooting improves over your career generally, especially among guards who can't shoot as rookies. Jason Kidd is the best example, in my opinion. He entered the league highly regarded, but he couldn't shoot. He was a great floor general from day one, and his all-around game off-set the poor shooting. Rubio's game is very similar to a young Jason Kidd's.

True shooting percentage (TS%) is a stat that measures shooting efficiency between two pointers, three pointers and free throws. It's literally what it says it is; the players true shooting percentage. Kidd's first three seasons his TS% were 47%, 47% and 50%. His 3 point shooting over that same time frame? 27% as a rookie, 34% and then 37%. He was slowly improving each season.

Rubio's numbers over his first three years? His TS% was 47.5% as a rookie, then 48% and 49% last season. And while Rubio's three point shot hasn't improved as steadily as Kidd's did, he's shot 34%, 29% and 33% over this first three years. Rubio is a better free throw shooter than Kidd was, which shows that if Rubio can put it together, there's no reason to think his shot can't improve at least to the level that Kidd's did. Kidd didn't shoot 40% from 3 point land until he was 35 years old. But by becoming a better mid-range shooter and hitting about 35% of his three's, Kidd was a very valuable player thanks to his all-around game.

And I'm not just cherry picking Jason Kidd because he improved over his career. I chose Kidd because that was the comparison Rubio received when he was drafted, and five minutes of research will show any casual fan that shooting improves over a career, at least among guards. Kidd is the best example, but certainly not the only one.

Anyway, Rubio's issue is turning the ball over too much. Rubio's turnover percentage (The number is the percentage of turnovers a player would commit per 100 possessions) has been poor each season. He's been remarkably consistent, posting a 22.2, 21.4 and 21.8 turnover percentage in his first three seasons. For someone who can't shoot, it's almost impossible to turn the ball over more than 1/5 of the time and still be above average. Rubio has been slightly above average, thanks in large part to his defense.

For comparison's sake, Chris Paul's turnover percentage is generally between 12 and 14%, while players like John Wall and Jrue Holiday have percentages between 16 and 18%. Even JJ Barea is only at 15.6%. 20% or above is simply too high for a point guard, especially one with the basketball IQ and court vision of Rubio.

The good news is that Kidd is again a great comparison. Kidd's first three seasons were a little less turnover prone than Rubio, posting 20, 19 and 19% in those three seasons. Kidd's fourth season was bad as well, but he took a huge leap in his fifth season and would spend the next 9 seasons posting a far more acceptable 17.8% turnover percentage. If Rubio can make a 10% improvement on his turnover rate (dropping it from 22% to about 19 or 20%) and just a 2 or 3% improvement on his true shooting percentage over the next two or three seasons, the Wolves will likely have an elite point guard because of his all around game.

Fantasy sports have caused us to think of scoring as the be all end all, but players who do several things well (even if they can't score) are oftentimes more valuable than a player who scores at a high rate but does little else. Watching Rubio clank open mid range jumpers and his awkward release can get frustrating, but patience is key. As a Timberwolves fan, patience is often necessary. Rubio will continue to get better and better, and while he's unlikely to ever become the kind of scorer Steve Nash was, his all around game should be comparable to Kidd's when all is said and done.

Just please, stop complaining about Rubio's shooting. It's unorthodox, especially compared to the American raised point guards, to have a player who doesn't want to score first. And that's the biggest problem. You can't see Rubio's great defensive positioning causing a turnover in the box score, and you don't see the kind of hustle play he makes every game chasing down a fast break, causing a missed layup or two. But it's very easy to see that he shot 2-9 from the field and 1-5 on threes. Please, next time you see Rubio with a poor shooting game, just remember he's likely contributing in EVERY OTHER FACET of the game. Ricky Rubio is far from the Timberwolves problem, and is far more likely to be a major part of the solution. Don't jump off the bandwagon because he doesn't hog the ball like Kyrie Irving.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Tigers win 3-team blockbuster

Yesterday was one of the more surprising trade deadlines in recent memory. There were several big trades that saw several roster shakeups, including Jon Lester heading from Boston to Oakland for Yoenis Cespedes. With Oakland acquiring arguably the two best pitchers available over the last month (Jeff Samarzdija being the other), one of their main competitors knew they needed to get involved in the arms race. And get involved the Tigers did.

After weeks of David Price trade speculation, with a different "favorite" emerging seemingly daily, the Tigers came basically out of nowhere to land the Cy Young candidate. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has been incredibly active with his teams in the past, and in this case despite giving up Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly and a solid prospect, the Tigers were big winners. Dombrowski even texted A's GM Billy Beane some good natured ribbing after landing Price.

Austin Jackson has been a solid player over the last few seasons, including a fantastic 2012 season. Unfortunately for the Tigers and Jackson, though, his 2012 season was aided by being extremely lucky on balls hit in play--his batting average on balls in play(BABIP) was an unsustainable .371, compared to just .335 the last two seasons.

While .335 is still a very good number, the fact is Jackson strikes out a lot, so his batting average and on base percentage will always be considerably lower than his BABIP. In other words, it's unlikely Jackson will ever replicate his 2012 season. His offensive upside is likely limited to what he's done the last two seasons, which at .272/.335/.409 is still above average. However, Jackson's defense has declined each of the last three seasons, at least according to his ultimate zone rating (UZR) via Fan Graphs. Despite saving 18 runs above average from 2010-2012, Jackson has been below average defensively over the last two seasons. Jackson was 4.5 runs below average last season, and has been even worse this season, posting a UZR of -9.6, meaning he allowed almost 10 runs more than an average defensive center fielder between opening day and today.

Every 10 runs, saved or allowed, is equivalent to basically one win. While that seems like nothing in a 162 game season, remember he's playing one of 9 positions. If the Tigers entire defense was 10 runs below average over the course of a season, they would likely lose about 9 more games than an average defense would. It gets sort of complicated, of course, as this is assuming that the improved defense would come with the exact offensive output as their less defensive-minded counterparts. Getting back to Jackson, though, by going from a good defender in 2011 (+7.8) to a poor one (-9.6) this season, his value alone has dropped by 2 wins. The Tigers were brilliant to get rid of a declining player--and even smarter to get David Price for their troubles.

Drew Smyly is a cost-controlled starter with #3 starter potential, who's had a very good season for the Tigers this year. While he's not in the same league as Price, especially in October, Smyly should be a very solid rotation piece for the Rays, and at cheap salaries to boot. He's a solid Price replacement. Because of Jackson's clear decline both offensively and defensively, it's easy to understand why the Rays preferred Nick Franklin to Jackson.

Franklin isn't the type of can't miss prospect we had expected Tampa Bay to land in a Price trade, but he was a top prospect recently, held his own as a 22-year-old rookie in the big leagues last year, and has continued to mash AAA pitching for the better part of two years. He profiles as a below average to average defensive shortstop, so most expect the Rays to play him at second base, where his defense might actually be slightly above average. The Rays are undoubtedly hoping Franklin's bat will develop enough to be more than a AAA-MLB tweener, and as a 23-year-old hitting .294/.392/.455 in AAA with almost as many walks as strikeouts, he still profiles as a very solid big leaguer.

Keep in mind the average AL hitter this season is hitting .255/.319/.395, so both Franklin and Jackson are likely to be at least slightly above average hitters for the forseeable future and aren't without value. But being an average hitter and a below average defender doesn't help a team win much, so both the Rays and Mariners are hoping either these players bats improve more than expected, or that their defense is better than advertised. Jackson would likely be an above average corner outfielder, for example, but his offense is much more valuable as a center fielder.

The final piece Tampa Bay received was Willy Adames, a low-A level shortstop who's just 18 years old. Despite getting the least amount of publicity as part of the deal, Adames has a chance to develop into an elite prospect after this year's performance. The average age in Adames league this season was 21.5, while Adames doesn't turn 19 until September 2. Despite the massive age difference, he's hit .269/.346/.428 while the league average is just .254/.325/.373. Adames is playing one of the least offensive positions in the league, is considerably younger than his competition, and has excelled. The Rays undoubtedly are trusting their scouts too, but the stats show Adames as a potential elite prospect in the future, assuming he can stay at shortstop.

That said, none of the players TB got profiles currently as a future star, and Price might be the most valuable player the Rays have ever traded. After getting Wil Meyers from KC for James Shields and Wade Davis, maybe we've just been trained into expecting TB to always win a trade, rather than simply getting fair value. While the trade isn't terrible for anyone involved, the expectation around the league seemed to be that TB would only move Price if they were blown away by an offer. Either they like Franklin, Adames and Smyly more than most, or the offers simply weren't close to what was being reported.

The Tigers however become the odds-on favorite now to win at least the American League, and they may even be the favorites to win it all. If Justin Verlander can get back to even 85% of what he's been in the past, this Tigers rotation will be incredibly scary come October. As good as Oakland's staff looked with Samardzija, Kazmir and now Lester in a short series, the Tigers can counter with 3 or all of Price, Scherzer, Sanchez and Verlander.

And because storylines that people try to write months in advance rarely come to fruition, I fully expect Detroit and Oakland to both lose in the first round of the playoffs. I certainly hope not, as a Tigers-A's ALCS would be quite entertaining. Deadline moves can be a catalyst or a speed bump, and in only a few months we will all find out. Personally, I can't wait.





Thursday, July 31, 2014

Otto Porter Poised For Improvement

Today's post is written by Jason Slint,  for FanDuel.com. Fan Duel is a great fantasy sports website with both free and paid games available for multiple sports, making it the perfect site for your fantasy basketball needs. 

The Washington Wizards have to reflect on the 2013-2014 season as a positive for the franchise. They were able to not only make the playoffs as a pretty high seed, but they advanced to the 2nd round. Just about everything went right for the team, except the fact that they got almost no production out of rookie Otto Porter Jr. After a strong summer performance, the team is optimistic that he will be able to contribute in fantasy basketball this upcoming year.

When a player is drafted 3rd overall, they are expected to make some type of an impact as a rookie. Injuries caught up to Porter very early, and he was never able to settle into the rotation. Not only will he be more comfortable with the NBA style of play, but things will open up with Trevor Ariza no longer in town.

Paul Pierce has been signed by Washington to bring stability to the franchise, but people in fantasy basketball understand that he is not going to play a lot. At 36 years of age, he is more of a mentor at this point in time. Perhaps he can help Porter turn the corner and be a productive player for Washington. They are certainly hoping that he can be that final young piece to put alongside John Wall and Bradley Beal on the perimeter.

Porter might not be a fantasy basketball standout, but he doesn't really need to be. Instead, he is someone who needs to show activity on both ends of the floor, handle the ball with decent success and knock down open shots when they are given to him. As long as he is able to fit into the system for Washington, his future is still very bright. Expect a much better sophomore campaign for the forward out of Georgetown.

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