Saturday, August 25, 2012

O's pitching philosophy is different, which may not be a bad thing

Last week, Dan Duquette, the Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations (or, you know, their general manager), was interviewed by MASN's Steve Melewski about the organization's pitching philosophy now that he and director of pitching development Rick Peterson have been around for nearly a full season. Much of the talk centered around top prospect Dylan Bundy and the fact that the O's won't let Bundy throw  his cut fastball, arguably the youngster's best pitch, this year (and possibly beyond).

You should read the entire interview, in which, oddly enough, Duquette seems defensive of the strategy and isn't really a fan of anyone questioning what he's doing. Here are some of his comments to Melewski:
"The philosophy of the organization is to encourage pitchers to develop a good delivery, command of their fastball, an off-speed pitch and a good breaking ball," Duquette said. "The first breaking ball that we work with our young pitchers on is a curveball. So that is basically the level of progression of our instruction and our organization philosophy.

"First of all, the cut fastball, we don't like it as a pitch, OK? And we don't like it for young pitchers because it takes away from the development of their curveball, which is a better pitch long-term and also, the velocity of their fastball. So we encourage development of an overhand breaking ball that has depth along with command of their fastball and, of course, velocity and movement will get the hitter out."
If Duquette had stopped right there, he may have been better off. It's at least somewhat defensible that a pitcher, especially at a young age, should be working on maintaining a strong delivery and developing fastball-changeup and curveball/slider command. But he kept going, questioning whether Mariano Rivera's cutter is actually a cutter or just "his fastball." Duquette also challenged whether the cutter was actually an efficient pitch, which seems peculiar considering several of the game's best pitchers throw cutters. Still, I was more surprised by Duquette's seemingly hostile tone, but he could be tired of people asking why Bundy hasn't been able to throw his cutter. Honestly, though, it's more than a fair question.

On Thursday, Melewski interviewed Peterson, who should probably do the talking about this subject for the O's from now on instead of the occasionally aloof Duquette. Again, read the entire interview. Here were, to me, the two most interesting responses from Peterson:
Why don't you like use of the cut fastball?
"What happens is you start to get off to the side of the baseball (with your grip) and then you're no longer consistently behind the baseball. Typically what we see is the more you throw that cutter, you can become dependent on it and you start to overuse it and typically what happens to guys that overuse the cutter is their fastball velocity drops. That has been consistent over the years."

So with younger pitchers, you discourage use of the cutter?
"Yeah, we'd like them to develop the curveball or the slider as the primary breaking ball, something that has depth to it, not something that is flat. And the cutter is a pitch that typically is thrown later on in your career, often after you've been in the big leagues several years. Be it Roy Halladay, be it Cliff Lee, those are pitches they developed later in their career, not when they were young starting pitchers coming through the minor leagues.

"I'm not saying the cutter is not a good pitch, don't misunderstand me. A cutter used effectively is a nice addition to your arsenal. But a cutter thrown 40 percent of the time for a young power pitcher can become a crutch, then your velocity drops and you fail to develop your changeup and a breaking ball that has depth to it. The cutter overused is normally not displacing changeups and curveballs, it's displacing fastballs."
So there's at least a lot of thought behind what the O's are doing. They don't want Bundy to simply get in a mode in the minors where he throws cutter after cutter to get batters out. They want him to develop his other pitches first, and then there's the possibility that they'll let him have the pitch back at some point in the majors. But by the time he's ready, Peterson doesn't seem to think he'll need the cutter anymore, or at least not until later in his career. They also don't want Bundy's fastball velocity to drop, which Peterson says is a possible result from constantly throwing cut fastballs.

ESPN's Keith Law has been one of the most outspoken critics of how the O's have been handling Bundy, and that was before this cutter discussion started. Law believes the O's started Bundy way too low -- he thinks Bundy should have started his minor league career at least at Single-A Frederick or Double-A Bowie -- and he was not a fan of limiting Bundy to three innings at a time when he first started pitching this season. Predictably, Law is not of fan of the O's cutter philosophy either. When asked in an ESPN chat last week on what he thought of it, Law said, "I think it's nonsense, and in Bundy's case, the worst possible outcome for the kid's future." He also added this on Twitter:
So, yeah. It seems pretty bold (but harsh) for the O's to disallow Bundy from throwing the pitch entirely, but it'll be even more ridiculous if they never let him throw the pitch again (which almost seems unreasonable). I'm pretty sure Chris Tillman, who's 24, throws a cutter, and he's been more effective this season than in years past.

Here's one thing I do know: Over the past 10-15 years, the O's have done a horrible job of both drafting and developing organizational talent, and that includes starting pitching. Let's take a look at their draft picks (pitchers only) in the first five rounds of the last 10 MLB drafts (not including this year).

2002: Adam Loewen (1st round), Hayden Penn (5th)
2003: Brian Finch (2nd), Chris Ray (3rd), Bob McCrory (4th)
2004: Wade Townsend (1st, didn't sign), Brad Bergesen (4th)
2005: Garrett Olson (1st (supplemental)), Brandon Erbe (3rd), Reid Hamblet (5th)
2006: Pedro Beato (1st (supplemental)), Zach Britton (3rd)
2007: Timothy Bascom (4th), Jake Arrieta (5th)
2008: Brian Matusz (1st)
2009: Matt Hobgood (1st), Randy Henry (4th), Ashur Tolliver (5th)
2010: Daniel Klein (3rd)
2011: Dylan Bundy (1st), Mike Wright (3rd), Kyle Simon (4th), Matt Taylor (5th)

Again, that's a lot of bad draft picks. But whatever the O's were doing then to develop those pitchers' abilities wasn't working -- at all. Some of those draft picks were/are OK relievers -- Ray, Bergesen, Beato -- but none of them is still with the O's. Britton, Arrieta, and Matusz are all still starters and have at least a shot of being effective, but you can't say the same for anyone else on that list. And all three of those guys have struggled at the major league level and have been disappointing. Hobgood and Klein haven't been able to stay healthy and are long shots to ever make it to Baltimore. And Henry (to Texas for Taylor Teagarden) and Simon (to Philadelphia for Jim Thome) are no longer in the organization. Oh, and Wright is also a reliever.

I'm not sure if what the O's are doing will work. It seems a little radical and might be an overreaction to the results of one type of pitch. But I do know that it's refreshing to see that Duquette and particularly Peterson have some sort of well-thought-out plan, and I'm sure it's much more complex than simply not allowing their younger minor leaguers to throw cutters.

It would be nice if the organization was better at drafting talent, period, but when they actually have good players, it's important that they grow and are eventually useful to the major league club. That hasn't happened for a while, but maybe it will now.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

J.J. Hardy is not doing what the O's need him to

J.J. Hardy is a superb defensive shortstop, but he's consistently batted in the second spot the entire season despite putting up awful offensive numbers (.226/.273/.372). In his first season with the Orioles last year, Hardy batted .269/.310/.491, which isn't ideal for a No. 2 hitter because of the low on-base percentage, but it didn't hurt the O's much because he displayed a surprising amount of power. He posted a .222 ISO (isolated power, which measures a player's ability to hit for power/get extra-base hits) -- the best of his career -- yet only has a .146 ISO right now, which would be one of the lowest of his career.

So what's gone wrong? Let's explore.

Hardy's walk and strikeout numbers aren't much different. In fact, he's striking out less and walking slightly more.

2011: 5.5 BB%, 16.2 K%
2012: 5.7 BB%, 15.2 K%

His BABIP is low, though, which means he's been somewhat unlucky. He's only posted a BABIP above .300 once in his career, but this season's .240 mark is lower than his career BABIP of .274. So he's due for a few more hits to drop in, but that doesn't solely explain an OBP this low.

He's hitting more line drives this season than last (from 16.4% to 17.5%), and his ground ball/fly ball ratio is higher than last season (from 0.93 to 1.02). His home run/fly ball ratio (9.4%) is also nowhere near last seasons's (15.7%). So he's hitting the ball somewhat harder, but overall he's hitter fewer fly balls -- and even fewer of them are leaving the ballpark.

Hardy's plate discipline isn't the problem either. Not only is he swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone, but he's making more contact with those pitches as well. He's swinging at about as many pitches in the zone and overall is swinging the bat slightly less, but that doesn't explain the significant drop in his numbers either.

So what's been the problem? Fastballs and right-handed pitching. I think it was Jim Palmer who either last night or the night before discussed how Hardy seems to be having trouble with outside fastballs and ones tailing away. Hardy's a pull hitter who likes to turn on inside pitches. He doesn't hit the ball to the opposite field often, and when he's down in the count he'll try to foul off pitches he can't handle until he gets something that he can. After destroying fastballs last season (per Fangraphs PITCHf/x pitch value data), Hardy's not hitting them much this season and is actually hitting some offspeed pitches slightly better.

Also, here are Hardy's splits this season (and career splits in parentheses) vs. right-handed and left-handed pitching:

vs. RHP: .215/.255/.362 (.256/.303/.413)
vs. LHP: .261/.328/.403 (.266/.345/.466)

Again, Hardy's numbers are down across the board. But his numbers against lefties this season are at least serviceable for a strong defensive shortstop. Those numbers against righties, though, are truly ugly.

It's worth remembering that last July Hardy was given a three-year, $22.25 million extension. It's nice that the O's found their short-term option at shortstop and that Hardy is so good defensively at that position, but if he's not hitting he's not helping the club nearly as much as he did in 2011. Instead of trading Hardy at the trade deadline last season when he was arguably having the best season of his career, the O's are stuck with the possibility that Hardy peaked and may only be a shell of that previous offensive force. Also, if Manny Machado stays in the majors and is on the club after spring training next season, and there's really no reason to think that he won't, then Hardy is blocking Machado's true position, or at least the position he should be playing at the big league level until he proves that he can't.

I like Hardy and he's a steady, veteran presence who has helped the O's get where they are right now, but it's looking more and more like the O's and Andy MacPhail missed a big opportunity to sell high on Hardy a year ago and add a few pieces to fill other holes in the O's farm system.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Orioles keep winning, which is awesome

Somehow, some way, the Orioles (64-53) keep racking up wins. After consecutive victories over the Red Sox, the O's have a chance to sweep Boston today and send them five games under .500. The O's have also won nine of their last 11 games.

It's been noted that the O's have a difficult schedule in their remaining 44 games after today. Here's how those games break down:

3 at Detroit
3 at Texas
3 vs. Toronto
4 vs. Chicago
3 at New York
3 at Toronto
4 vs. New York
3 vs. Tampa Bay
3 at Oakland
3 at Seattle
3 at Boston
3 vs. Toronto
3 vs. Boston
3 at Tampa Bay

Yikes. First of all, it's crazy that we're even talking about this. Again, somehow the O's are 11 games over .500 and are leading the wild card. No matter what happens the rest of the season, this is actually happening right now. For a team with very little hope heading into April, the run this team has been on is almost incomprehensible. But, you know, luck, run differential, and regression, etc., so let's try to stay grounded -- though it won't be easy.

Making the playoffs isn't easy, especially for an O's team that's already fighting an uphill battle in the AL East. The Red Sox and Blue Jays have had bad luck with injuries all season, but as O's fans are more than well aware of, that's part of the game. The O's have battled their share of injuries this year and have had some pretty terrible luck with them in past seasons. So it's important to remember this: No one feels sorry for you. After 15 years of futility, the O's have needed and will continue to need some good fortune for them to have a chance of actually sneaking into the playoffs.

Of their 44 remaining games, 28 are against the AL East. Plus, teams like Detroit, Texas, and Oakland are all pretty good, too. And while it's bad enough to play all of those games against good teams, the O's also have one trip to the West Coast left, which includes three games in Oakland and three in Seattle. Luckily, on that trip the O's avoid the Angels, who have a 7-2 record against the O's this season.

That remaining schedule could wear down even the best of teams, but over the course of this season, the O's have held their own against decent teams, primarily in the East. In fact, other than their struggles vs. the Angels, the only other teams they're under .500 against are the Rangers (1-3), Tigers (1-2), and Yankees (5-6) -- and there's nothing wrong with that. Overall, they're 18-13 vs. the Central division, 11-14 vs. the West, and they finished 11-7 in interleague play. But the biggest surprise is their 24-19 record in the East, fueled by an 8-3 record against the Red Sox. Sorry, Beantown.

Considering that schedule and that the O's have been playing over their heads, I'm not sure they're going to be able to ride out that storm and eventually still be in contention heading into the final days of the regular season. But this team has accomplished way more than I ever thought they would, and I certainly won't write them off. This whole winning thing has been fun, and I hope like hell it continues.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

O's surprisingly promote Manny Machado to Baltimore

After the Orioles completed their three-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners with a 9-2 win last night, I went to bed. So I missed the flood of stories around midnight saying the O's were calling up Manny Machado from Bowie to play third base for the major league club. Machado, 20, is considered the O's second-best prospect behind Dylan Bundy and is a top 10 prospect in all of baseball.

Instead of making a major trade at the deadline, promoting Machado is arguably the biggest move the O's could have made (outside of promoting Bundy straight to Baltimore instead of to Bowie), and it's probably something that Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette have discussed before. Machado, who's hitting .266/.350/.431 at Bowie (and was named Eastern League Player of the Week just a couple days ago), has almost exclusively played shortstop in his time in the minors, but it wouldn't make much sense to move J.J. Hardy from the position, because even though he's not hitting all that well, he's still playing outstanding defense at the position. There's no guarantee that Machado would do the same, and it's unknown how long he'll be with the team. Still, the O's are promoting Machado for a reason: They think he's good enough right now, and at 60-51, they want him to help them win more games.

Buck Showalter echoed that sentiment in his comments after the game:

So, will Machado help the team? If he plays every day, which he should if he's on the big league club, he'll be replacing the third base platoon of Wilson Betemit and Robert Andino. Betemit will likely still DH some and get occasional starts in the field to keep his bat in the lineup against right-handed pitching, but Andino will probably be relegated to more of a utility role since Omar Quintanilla has taken over the regular second base duties. Overall, Andino is hitting .227/.292/.318 and Betemit is batting .263/.323/.427, so neither guy is really a superior option offensively. Machado probably won't be much better right away -- and it may be unfair to expect that he will be -- but he may be able to be decent defensively while hitting better than Andino -- sort of a combination of the two's skills. Still, Machado has never played much third base, and now he'll be doing so at the highest level. (Apparently Machado took "a lot of ground balls at third" during his time in Bowie, according to manager Gary Kendall. So that's good, I guess.)

I'm not sure if Machado is ready or that it's a smart move to bring him up right now. I guess we'll find out over the next few weeks and months. As with most player promotions, fan opinions are mixed. But there's one thing this move definitely is: bold. It's an extremely bold move. I'm sure the team's current record played a part in the decision, but then again, if the O's were 20 games out of first place, wouldn't it almost make just as much sense to play Machado every day in the majors if they thought he was ready? Possibly, I guess.

But here's the cool part of all of this: Now we get to watch Machado play on a team that's currently tied for the lead in the wild card standings. Regardless of how good this team actually is or if they can stick around through late August into September, that's pretty exciting.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Orioles and winning

Today, August 7, 2012, the Orioles have a 58-51 record. Here are O's team records on this date the past 10 years:

2011: 44-67
2010: 36-74
2009: 46-63
2008: 55-59
2007: 52-59
2006: 50-63
2005: 53-58
2004: 51-57
2003: 54-58
2002: 54-57

That's right, not a single winning record on this (arbitrary) date in the past decade. What does it mean? Not a whole lot really, especially since that run differential (now -55) keeps sticking out, tempering even the most optimistic fans.

But the O's have far exceeded expectations, and winning is so, so much better than losing. Whether the O's keep this up, though unlikely, is anyone's guess, but even the worst run differential can't take away those 58 wins.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Appreciating Wei-Yin Chen

Orioles fans didn't know what to expect when the team signed Taiwanese starter Wei-Yin Chen to a three-year, $11.3 million contract this past offseason. But Chen, now 27, has been better than expected and currently has a pitching line of 3.46/4.05/4.32 (ERA/FIP/xFIP) after pitching seven scoreless innings and getting the win against the Rays in Tampa Bay last night. He leads all rookies in innings pitched (135.1) and is tied for second in AL rookie pitcher wins above replacement (2.1 fWAR) behind Yu Darvish (2.4).

Chen's FIP and xFIP indicate that he's probably due for some regression, mostly because he's not a ground ball pitcher and he's gotten a little lucky BABIP-wise (.260), plus he doesn't have completely overpowering stuff (19.3 K%, 7.8 BB%). But even if he's not quite this good, he's still been a very good signing, particularly for an O's team that's struggled to find any kind of starting pitching consistency. And he's also doing this while pitching in arguably the best division in baseball, the AL East -- no small task.

When Jason Hammel went down in mid-July (knee surgery), the O's needed Chen to step his game up. He's done just that: Since July 14, Chen has five consecutive outings of pitching at least 5.2 innings and allowing three runs or fewer. In the process, he's lowered his ERA from 3.93 to where it is now, 3.46.

There's no guarantee that Chen continues to pitch this well or that he's this effective in his future years in Baltimore. This is his first year in the majors, and teams very well may adjust to Chen the more they face him. But the O's rarely have cost-controlled, effective starting pitchers under contract period, let alone for multiple years, and with Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and Zach Britton currently unable to live up to their expectations, Chen's effectiveness has been crucial for a 56-51 O's team.

By the way, if Chen's contract wasn't looking like enough of a bargain, his three-year deal also includes a club option for 2015 at $4.75 million. So, yeah, that'll probably work out.

Stats via FanGraphs. Salary info via Cot's Baseball Contracts.