Friday, March 4, 2011

Markakis' Overlooked Skillset

I wanted to highlight this post by Tim Anderson of Birds Watcher, not really for praise and certainly not for ridicule but to frame a larger concept I wanted to delve into: Nick Markakis, Leadoff Hitter.

Tim wrote an article when Brian Roberts was sidelined with neck spasms and wondered who would/could lead off in his absence. A very good question.

Last season the answer would have been easy – Corey Patterson. His speed and hot bat at the plate was ideal for the lead-off position.

While this would not have been true most of the time, Patterson, at least early in the season, did a decent job in that role. The Orioles called him up on May 12th and through the end of June was posting a line of .286/.337/.409. Considering the fact that Oriole leadoff hitters had only been getting on base at a sub-.300 clip before that, Patterson was a welcome surprise.

But considering the fact that Patterson has a career .292 OBP and that he finished the 2010 season with a .315 OBP, he's not normally suited for that role.

Pie would also have been a good option, batting lead-off in eight games for the O’s in 2010. However, with the acquisitions of Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero, Felix Pie is sentenced to a bench role in 2011.

True, Pie will probably not be a full time player in 2011. But he's got a .305 career OBP and it's not about to get better. Why does Tim think he would be a good leadoff hitter? Why do I think he won't? Let's try to define the qualifications for a competent major league leadoff hitter.

Earl Weaver on leadoff hitters:

The leadoff hitter should be someone with a high on-base percentage, a guy who draws seventy or more walks and hits for a high average...The first inning is the only time a manager is given the chance to set up the batting order exactly the way he wants it. After that, it's rare for the leadoff hitter to start an inning. My goal is to have as many players on base as possible when the number-four hitter comes to bat...I like to get my best on-base men in the first three spots inthe order.

Bill James:

One player--a leadoff hitter, no less--said a few years ago that if he wanted to walk he'd have been a mailman. Common sense would suggest that the response considered appropriate to such a comment would be to yank the player aside and say, 'Look, you yoyo, you're not out there trying to prove to girls in the bleachers what a big strong hitter you are. We're trying to win ballgames here. You're expected to help.'

First and foremost, getting on base is the most important skill a leadoff hitter can possess and by a wide margin. All other skills are icing on the cake.

For me, a leadoff hitter should have the following attributes, in this order.

1) Good On Base Percentage - hits for average and walks regularly
2) Good Baserunner - speed is a plus but a smart baserunner can go from 1st to 3rd on a single more often than a dumb one with speed
3) Power - leading off a game with a double or  homer can be a potent weapon
4) Good Basestealer - they can pile up the bases...but more importantly, don't often get caught.

So it starts with OBP and neither Patterson nor Pie have it.

Center fielder Adam Jones lead-off 15 games for the O’s in 2010 and struggled mightily. He hit .188 with a .443 OPS and only two extra base hits, both doubles.

This is true. Jones has some pop but is not a very good baserunner, not a good base stealer and then there's that .319 career OBP to contend with.

The only logical option for lead-off would be the man filling in for Roberts at second – Robert Andino. Andino played well in 16 games last season, collecting a .295 average, a .333 OBP, and driving in six runs. Andino is not the best hitter and that certainly hurts the Orioles offensively, but he is the best option for the team.

No. Not by a long shot.

Those 16 games from 2010 aside (actually, including them), Andino has a career .275 OBP in the majors. And only a .309 OBP in the minors. There would be fewer worse options on the roster than Andino. Anyone can be respectable for 16 games.

Who else is there?

Nick Markakis? Long shot.

We'll come back to Nick...

J.J. Hardy? Not quite.

Mark Reynolds? No.

A .323 and .334 career OBP respectively. Better options than Andino but not ideal.

Luke Scott? Absolutely not.

Why "absolutely not", I wonder? Scott has a career .354 OBP. He's not a base stealer but is a decent enough base runner. And he definitely has some power

The problem is, Tim never states exactly what he's looking for in a leadoff man. I would assume, given those  who he favors and who he dismisses, he is looking for a speedy guy, preferably a guy who can steal bases and bunt for hits. But he is undervaluing OBP.

Now back to the "long shot". Markakis possesses a .368 career OBP. Check. He's a good base runner and the Bill James Handbook has backed that up. Check. While he has never developed the home run power that was hoped for, Nick has doubles power to the gap and double-digit homer power. Check. Not a great base stealer but does choose his spots well with a 72% success rate over his career. Half a check.

Markakis is so obvious a choice to move into the leadoff spot in Roberts' absence that it is amazing that his name never comes up in that capacity. He is still seen as more of a middle-of-the-order type of bat, so much so that everyone ignores his top-of-the-order skillset.

So if Roberts went down again, I would move Nick to the leadoff spot and probably slide Scott in at #2 ahead of Derrek Lee, Vlad Guerrero and Mark Reynolds.

And Nick would make a hell of a leadoff hitter. It's time to recognize his skills. After all, Brian Roberts won't be around forever.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Crystal Ball 2011: Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman

With the signing of Justin Duchscherer, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta became linked for Spring Training 2011. With his addition Tillman and Arrieta are the most likely candidates to be sent down to Norfolk. (Although with this news, maybe not so much.)

Jeremy Guthrie, Duchscherer (if healthy) and Brian Matusz are locks for the rotation. Bergesen is probably staying...he's not great but fairly reliable. So Tillman and Arrieta are dueling for one spot.

Some point to Arrieta's September as proof that he has turned a corner and should be the front runner for the final spot in the rotation. But while the numbers are great (2-1, 2.60 ERA, 13 K, 2 BB) but it was only over 17 innings. But over the course of the season, he walked nearly as many as he struck out. Not a good recipe for a young pitcher to make a leap forward.

Speaking of the numbers...

              IP    K   BB   HR   ERA   FIP   WHIP
Arrieta     100.1  52   48    9  4.66  4.76  1.535
Tillman      53.2  31   31    9  5.87  5.89  1.528

Yeah...still doesn't look great for Tillman here.

But it seems to me that Tillman got more "swings and misses" with his stuff last season. So let's compare with the data from Fangraphs. O-Swing is swings outside the strike zone, Z-Swing is swings in the strike zone. Swing is total swing percentage, F-Strike is first pitch strikes and SWStr is swinging strikes.

           O-Swing%  Z-Swing%  Swing%  F-Strike%  SwStr%
Tillman     25.2%      66.0%   43.2%     50.0%     6.3%
Arrieta     29.0%      61.6%   43.6%     54.1%     5.7%

I thought Tillman would have had a bit more of an advantage here but they are pretty much even. Which is disappointing. I would have expected a bit more swinging strikes from Tillman's stuff than Arrieta's but up to this point, they are in a dead heat.

If I had to choose, I still like Tillman's upside better than Arrieta's but they are very similar at this point. This spring, I'd watch the strikeouts and walks for both of these guys very carefully. Homers will happen in Florida, ERAs and Wins will fluctuate with the defense but the walks and strikeouts will be the best bellwether for their competition in Sarasota. And it starts tomorrow when Tillman takes the mound against the Phillies.

For more general ramblings about the Baltimore Orioles, go check out Dempsey's Army...