Erik Manning

Erik became addicted to Cardinals baseball as a young lad growing up on the mean streets of O'Fallon, MO. He moved away to Tulsa to attend Bible College, where he met his wife, who talked him into moving to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, also known as the Bermuda triangle of baseball. His dream is to see the MLB.tv blackouts end, and his other interests are theology and philosophy of religion. He is the parent of two young boys.

There’s been some concerns raised about the Cardinals’ plate discipline, most notably about Pujols swinging at a lot more pitches out of the zone than usual. The problem isn’t just limited to Albert. Holliday, Schumaker and others have all been a little more hacky than usual. On the flip side, Colby Rasmus has really raised his game in the on-base percentage department. He’s taken a much more disciplined approach overall, but his strikeout rate has raised some concerns.

The problem with even bothering looking at batter’s walk and strikeout rates this early in the season is we’re talking about small samples. Studies have shown that it takes about 150 plate appearances for a player’s strikeout rate to become something we can draw conclusions from, and 200 plate appearances for his walk rate. But Swing% and Contact %’s become a safer guide as early as 50 PA’s and 100 PA’s respectively. These stats give us a better idea of a batter’s plate discipline than K% and BB% this early in the season.

Jeff Zimmerman has found a way to use plate discipline stats such as these to estimate a player’s future walk and strikeout rates. Armed with this knowledge, we can get a good idea of what to expect in the plate discipline department from the Cards going forward.  The stats are from FanGraphs, batters must have a minimum of 50 PA.

Name Est. K% Est. BB% Actual K% Actual BB%
Colby Rasmus 25.4% 13.3% 35.6% 17.7%
David Freese 23.8% 10.4% 23.2% 8.8%
Brendan Ryan 20.9% 9.3% 24.7% 10.7%
Ryan Ludwick 25.1% 10.3% 27.2% 10.7%
Yadier Molina 17.8% 9.1% 12.1% 8.9%
Matt Holliday 18.2% 8.8% 18.3% 4.8%
Albert Pujols 15.5% 13.3% 16.9% 13.2%
Skip Schumaker 10.8% 4.5% 14.8% 10.1%

Intentional walks are taken into account, and some of the Cardinal batters have some gaudy IBB totals. Colby Rasmus has five intentional passes! So instead of factoring in the batter’s current IBB%, I used their Marcel projected IBB%.

Some observations:

  • Colby Rasmus really has shown a better eye, and should be counted on for walks going forward. This isn’t a big surprise judging by his minor league history, but his pitiful walk rate last year was a little worrisome. Colby should cut down the K%.
  • If David Freese really walks 10.4% of his plate appearances, I will be thrilled. He’s made me a believer with his performance to date.
  • Matt Holliday should revert back to normal when the dust clears.
  • Now the bad news. Skip Schumaker’s walk rate looks good now, but he could be on his way to a terrible walk rate unless something changes.
  • Albert is on his way to his highest strikeout rate since he was a rookie, and his lowest walk rate since 2004. He’ll still be really, really good, but just not the Albert we’re used to. The thing about Pujols is when he has a flaw, he seems to be able to correct it in short order.

The cure for a slumping offense is facing the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Their pitching has allowed a league leading 180 runs. That’s a bit unlucky according to BaseRuns, which says they should have allowed 167, which is still awful. Really, really awful. That’s 6 runs allowed per game for those of you scoring at home. While their pitching staff has underperformed expectations, expectations weren’t that high to begin with.

I’m going to just cut to the chase since the game has already started, but I think we all know what to expect.

Yes, folks, there are still Pirate fans in existence. Smart ones, too. Matt Bandi helps oversee the blog Pittsburgh Lumber Company, one of the finest team-centric blogs around. Matt was nice enough to humor me for this series’ edition of My Questions Three.

You can also follow Matt on Twitter at @mbandi

Run prevention has been *ahem* a bit of a problem for the Pirates so far this season. The starting pitching staff in particular has really got pummeled. Do you see any glimmer of hope with any of these guys? What’s going on?

Yes, the rotation will be better. It can’t get much worse, that’s for sure. Charlie Morton has produced some awful results, but his peripherals indicate that he has actually pitched pretty well. His K and BB rates have been excellent all season. He has been undone by a disastrous HR/FB rate and a BABIP that is much higher than should be expected. He also may be tipping his pitches, a flaw that is definitely correctable. Zach Duke and Paul Maholm have established themselves as average starting pitchers, and Ross Ohlendorf should provide similar production when he returns from the DL next week. The fifth starter will be an issue all year, and the shuttle between Triple-A Indianapolis and Pittsburgh will remain busy.

The pieces are there for this to be an average rotation once things settle down. That being said, the pitching matchups this weekend do not exactly favor the Bucs.

Andy LaRoche seems to finally be living up to his promise. What are your thoughts on his early season performance, and do you think he will continue to have this sort of success?

LaRoche will not produce like this all season, as he is relying on a high BABIP at this point. But he will certainly hit well enough to remain somewhere in the lineup once Pedro Alvarez arrives, and his plus defense at third may even force Alvarez across the diamond to first base. LaRoche was a league average player in his age 25 season in 2009, and is just now entering his prime. He is unlikely to be an All-Star level player, but he should be an above average complementary piece for the Pirates for several years.

Neal Huntington is definitely a lot more saber-friendly of a GM than David Littlefield, and he’s been pretty candid with the fans. What are your overall impressions of him, and are you satisfied with his job performance to date?

I am a huge fan of Huntington’s, and I think he has done just about everything in his power to turn this franchise around. He came on board when the Pirates were in an absolutely awful situation. They had virtually nothing in the minor league system and the major league roster was mostly made up of aging mediocrity. The organization essentially did everything wrong for His only real option was to draft well and wait 5+ years for that talent to begin arriving in Pittsburgh. He did a good job to add several younger, talented players through trades to supplement the solid drafting and speed up the rebuilding process.

The Pirates are still a long way from competing, and will still require many breaks to go their way to be successful. But for the first time in years, Pirate fans have legitimate hope for the future. Neal Huntington is the reason for that hope.

FanGraphs added an interesting new metric that stemmed from Jeff Zimmerman’s anti-save rant. That’s what is cool about the sabermetric community. They solve problems together, and then Appelman comes along and puts these stats on the site for everyone to enjoy.

The stats are shutdowns and meltdowns, and they are a win probability based stat. The value for a shutdown or meltdown when a reliever accumulates greater than or equal to 0.06/-0.06 WPA in any individual game. In other words, they improve or blow the chances of their teams winning by at least 6%.

Here’s how the Cardinal relievers stand at the moment.

Reliever Shutdown Meltdown
Ryan Franklin 7 0
Dennys Reyes 4 2
Trever Miller 3 1
Jason Motte 3 1
Felipe Lopez 1 0
Kyle McClellan 2 1
Blake Hawksworth 1 3
Mitchell Boggs 2 2
Joe Mather 0 1
Totals 23 11

DO NOT TRUST THIS CANADIAN

fangraphs.com

Top three performers in win probability added:

  1. Jaime Garcia .233
  2. David Freese .209
  3. Nick Stavinoha .186

Hyperventilating prospect geek fraternity: Vindication.

Joe Blanton may never want to attempt a bunt again. Brendan Ryan apparently made a great play on Blanton’s bunt attempt in the third inning. I still am waiting to see the replay, but it had John Rooney and Mike Shannon freaking out, so it must have been pretty good. The inning ending DP cost the Phillies -6.3% in win expectancy. Then Blanton got doubled up in on a bunt attempt in the 5th in spite of a wild throw to Skip Schumaker, who was covering first, by Ryan who was covering third.  The umpires called Blanton out for standing in the grass, interfering with Yadier Molina‘s throw. That cost the Phils -11.5% in win expectancy.

I thought the Phillies walking Holliday to load the bases was a semi-interesting move. According to The Book, it’s only with two outs when the decision to walk the current batter a function of the difference in skill between the batter (in this case Holliday) and the hitter on deck (Freese). Holliday is a .397 wOBA hitter according to ZiPS, Freese .345.  Freese on the other hand is riding a hot streak, while Holliday hasn’t been playing up to his usual standards yet. But knowing that a hitter is in the middle of a hot streak has pretty much nil predictive value. Charlie Manuel, or whoever was managing the game for the Phillies may have had the right idea expecting that the hitter should hit at his predicted norm.

If I’m understanding the principles in laid out in The Book on when the IBB is kosher, the smallest wOBA ratio has to be 1.25 between the hitter at the plate and the hitter on deck, and that’s after doing some factoring of how patient a hitter is on deck. Freese is not the world’s most disciplined hitter, and the ratio fell short – 1.15, meaning that walking Holliday to get to Freese wasn’t the best managerial move. Freese made them pay.

I can relate to Bill Baer, he and I like to keep it ubiquitous. Bill covers the Phillies for Heater Magazine, writes the must-read Phillies blog Crashburn Alley, and then drops his non-Phillies baseball expertise at places like Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Daily Digest. You can also follow him on twitter.

In time for the upcoming four-game series between heavy weights in their respective divisions, Bill was nice enough to answer my questions three. (Yeah, I’m using a bad joke from Monty Python. Look, I’m stereotyped as a basement dwelling dork, I got to work hard to live up it. Ni!)

Erik: Is Ruben Amaro trying to make us (Cardinal fans) hate him? Ryan Howard, the $125 million dollar man. What do you think of the deal for your beloved Phillies, and how does it impact teams looking to sign or re-sign potential free agents Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder?

Bill: I’m not a fan of the Howard extension. It’s not due to his body type or his comparables on Baseball Reference; it’s because he plays at the least important position on a National League baseball diamond, he’s already 30 years old, he’s a one-dimensional player, and he’s already on the decline. As I wrote here last week:

Already, Howard has shown signs of decline as his walk rate has declined every year since 2007 and sits at a paltry 3.6% thus far in 2010. His BABIP has been lower as more and more teams have employed an infield shift against him. Opposing teams have also been bringing in more left-handed relievers to face Howard and his production against them has swiftly dropped. His strikeout rate has declined gradually but so has his isolated power. Using FanGraphs’ pitch type linear weights, Howard’s production against the fastball has dropped every year since 2006. He has swung at more and more pitches outside of the strike zone every year since he came into the Majors. Finally, his whiff rate (swinging strike percentage) has increased every year since 2006.

I think the Howard deal sets the baseline for players like Fielder. I don’t think it affects Pujols all that much as I had previously thought he would become a $30 million dollar man anyway. He is in his own stratosphere. However, generally speaking, because there will be fewer first basemen on the market, the prices should go up slightly. It will be interesting to see what happens if the economy fully recovers as well.

Erik: Roy Halladay has been pitching incredibly well since coming over the Phillies. Is this a matter of the National League being that much easier than the American League, or is there some other underlying reason for Doc’s improvement?

Bill: You may be surprised when you hear this: #9 hitters, typically the opposing pitchers, have the fourth-highest OPS (.563) against Roy Halladay behind #8 (.922), #3 (.783), and #5 (.736). However, the NL East is definitely not the AL East in terms of offense. Four of his six starts have come against the NL East, one against each team. His results: two complete game shut-outs (@ ATL and vs. NYM) and a 0.81 ERA with 26 K and 4 BB in 33 innings.

Overall, he has been slightly lucky. His BABIP is about 30 points lower than normal and his HR/FB% is about half of what it should be. His 2.85 SIERA is higher than his 1.47 ERA which essentially validates that he’s been lucky, but it also indicated that he has still pitched extremely well. The NL Cy Young race will be interesting between him and Tim Lincecum (2.08 SIERA). Your guys Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter may want to exact some revenge and get their name on the list as well.

Erik: Ryan Madson just landed on the DL with a broken toe, and one of the Cardinals’ favorite punching bags – Brad Lidge – just was activated. Who closes games for Philadelphia, and how sizable of a lead do you feel safe with? 4 runs? 7? In all seriousness, assess Philly’s bullpen situation for us.

Bill: Phillies fans haven’t been on the Ryan Madson bandwagon because they think he lacks the mental capability to pitch the ninth, but that is a patently bogus claim. As I wrote here, Madson has actually been better in the ninth inning — in a very limited sample — than in the eighth inning. He has the best stuff of anyone not named Roy Halladay on the Phillies’ pitching staff. I would argue he has the best change-up in all of baseball, in fact. And Phillies fans don’t want him anywhere near the ninth inning. Now that he’s on the DL, it doesn’t matter.

The Phillies’ bullpen is even more of a problem than it was going into the season. J.C. Romero hasn’t looked sharp in his one and two-thirds innings of work and it’s unlikely that he and Lidge can handle a serious workload at this point. I won’t feel comfortable with these guys until the 27th out is recorded.

Update: I returned the favor for Bill at his blog.

fangraphs.com

Praise the Almighty, this game was on TV. The local Fox station in Cedar Rapids has picked up the Cardinals KSDK games, or it least it seems that way. That means I’m no longer stuck with just waiting for national broadcasts. This might not sound like much for you lucky people with Fox Sports Midwest, but this news made for a glorious Sunday afternoon for me. Happy baseball days are here again.

Three Stars of the Game:

  1. Carp + 34.6%
  2. Freese +11.1%
  3. Boog +4.3%

Aside from a horrible, horrible game one of the series, Freese capped off a splendid week with another homerun, his third in the last four games. Thanks to a solid start to the season,  Freese’s updated ZiPS projection has him pegged for a .348 wOBA on the season.

The Reds seemed to have their bats glued to their shoulder against Carpenter. 9 of his 100 pitches were swinging strikes, yet he K’d 8.

I don’t think Brandon Phillips bunting in the 4th inning with Stubbs on second base with no outs was the dumbest decision ever. Busch III isn’t a high run scoring environment, and runs are hard to come by with Carpenter pitching. And the Reds should be able to count on Aaron Harang to keep them in games.

I could understand it more if it was more of a sneaky bunt with Phillips’ speed. Even with the straight up bunt attempt, his speed still can cause problems for the defense. The bunt decreased the Reds win expectancy by just 2.2%, and their run expectancy went down slightly, from 1.58 to 1.56. Votto was up next, and things were looking good for Cincy.

Carpenter’s walk to Votto set-up the double play, but it also increased the Reds’ WE to 2.3, and now Carpenter had to face Rolen, who is no easy out.  So the bunt wasn’t a horrible call, and the walk to Votto very well could have blown up in Carpenter’s face. I’m not sure it’s as clear cut as the “all sacrificing is dumb” crowd would make this out to be.

In case you haven’t noticed, this prodigal son has returned.

via fangraphs.com

My stars of the games votes go for:

  1. Skip +29.7 win probability added
  2. Pujols +26.8%
  3. Lohse +22.8%

This was one of Kyle Lohse’s better starts since signing with the Cardinals, or at the least it was certainly one of his more efficient. He only needed 89 pitches to get through seven innings, and faced just five batters over the minimum. Best of all, Lohse was missing bats; he struck out 8. Coming into this game, Lohse had only struck out 9 of the 97 total batters he faced, and his swinging strike rate was just 4%. For a pitcher whom the Cardinals still owe around $34 million, today’s outing was just what the doctor ordered.

Lohse was on cruise control until the 7th, before he hit a speed bump by giving up a lead-off triple against Jay Bruce. If Colby Rasmus wasn’t napping on his throw to home on Cabrera’s sac-fly, he might have not even scored, and then Lohse struck out the next two to end the inning. This is why I was left scratching my head about why Lohse didn’t come out for the next inning. While it’s true that hitters gain an advantage over the starting pitching as the game goes on, Lohse was dealing. I think it’s pretty clear by the results he had something left in the tank. His velocity was consistent, and he was missing bats with his slider.

Hawksworth came in the 8th and allowed two runners to reach. Dennys “the Human Sweat Machine” Reyes couldn’t get Joey Votto out, who made the game 3-2 on an RBI single, and then was allowed to face Scott Rolen, who hit a game-tying sac fly.

Was this a bad move? There’s a lot of ways to look at this one. The leverage index was 3.5, meaning this was as crucial of a situation you could come across. That’s “relief ace time”.  The thing is, with the Cardinals is that there’s no real relief ace in the bullpen, so you’re left with mixing and matching . Bringing in a LOOGY against Votto is probably the right thing to do.  I have Votto’s projected wOBA against lefties as .360, versus .392 against right handers. He’s just a good hitter regardless of who he’s facing, but he has enough of a platoon split to go to someone like Reyes.

Having Reyes pitch to Rolen is another matter. The LI bumped up to 4.7, with lefty Jay Bruce on deck. Jay Bruce has a noticeable platoon split; his true ability is .316 versus lefties, .357 versus right-handers, but I have Rolen at .374 wOBA against lefties, .352 against righties. Now if you think Franklin is your man, then let him earn it against Rolen and Bruce. Walking Rolen to get to Bruce would have made the Red’s scoring chances even higher, and facing him isn’t wise, so why not just go all-in with Franklin? Franklin came in a batter late, but fortunately for the Cardinals, the Reds bullpen imploded. After Skip hit a go-ahead RBI against Danny Ray Herrera (a lefty!), the Reds were too scared to throw another strike, apparently, walking the next three batters. Skip’s RBI increased the Cardinals win expectancy to 87%, the three walks increased it another 11%.

In a recent piece at Fangraphs, Matthew Carruth talked about using BaseRuns as a reality check for a team’s performance to date in the early goings of the season. BaseRuns is touted as king of all run estimators. It’s designed to give a more exact model of the process of scoring runs and its accuracy holds up extremely well, even in the craziest of contexts. You can read up on it more here and here.

So when we look at BaseRuns, we should get a good idea of how many runs the team should have scored or allowed. It’s good at telling off  on who has been the beneficiary of some good or bad luck. John Wright used his Excel knowledge to give us a daily-updating spreadsheet for 2010 Pythagorean Wins with BaseRuns.

Sweet nerdy goodness.

With his help, let’s look at the NL Central and see what’s going on.

  • The Cardinals are who we thought they are. Or who we think they are. That Dennis Green quote has received an unfortunate amount of miles. I digress. The Cardinals have scored 105 and allowed 73 runs. Their BaseRuns scored/allowed  is 109-74. Their actual record is 15-8, their Pythag record is 15-8, and BaseRuns says they should be 15-8. If this team keeps playing this well, BaseRuns says they’ll win 109 games. Of course they won’t, but the Cardinals remain the easy favorites to win the division.
  • The Reds are not what their record indicates. The Reds are on pace to win 85 games, with a .522 winning percentage, but according to BaseRuns they’re really on pace for 68 wins. They’ve scored 7 more runs then they actually should have, and allowed four less.
  • The Cubs are better than this. The Cubs “should” have scored 5 more runs and allowed 13 less runs then they’ve actually have. According to BaseRuns, the Cubs should be 14-10, not 11-13.
  • The Pirates and the Astros are legitimately bad. Both are on pace to lose 110 games by the way they’ve been playing. The Astros offense is averaging 2.9 BsR per game. The Pirates pitching has allowed 6.4 BsR per game. That’s bad. Real bad.
  • The Brewers offense giveth, the Brewers pitching taketh away. Brewers are 2nd worst in baseball behind Pittsburgh in BsR allowed (137), but are 1st in the majors in BsR scored. (132).

Download the spreadsheet, check it from time to time.  It’s sort of a nice little “power ranking” and helps you understand how teams are playing up to reasonable expectations.

Converting Win Probability added, or WPA,  into individual player Win-Loss records, we looked back at the juggernaut that was the 2004 Cardinals. Today here’s the ’82 World Champs. Remember, with WPA  there’s no accounting of fielding or position, but this does perfectly add up to the team’s 92-70 record. Defense is what this team is famous for, bear that in mind.

First, the hitters:

Offense W L
Keith Hernandez 9 0
Lonnie Smith 9 0
Ken Oberkfell 4 2
Willie McGee 4 2
Tom Herr 4 3
George Hendrick 4 4
Tom Herr 4 3
Ozzie Smith 3 4
Darrell Porter 2 3
All others 4 13

Maybe one day I’ll give Lonnie Smith his close-up, as he’s an interesting player, fraught with personal demons and peaks and valleys during his career. Nicknamed “Skates” for his lack of grace in left field, but for what it’s worth, Total Zone rates him as an average outfielder overall. Smith hit .307/.381/434 with 68 steals, and came 2nd in the MVP voting to Dale Murphy.

Keith Hernandez was equally good in what amounted to his last season as a Cardinal.  Say no to the blow, kids. Here’s the pitching/defense:

Pitching/Defense W L
Joaquin Andujar 9 4
Bob Forsch 7 5
John Stuper 5 3
Steve Mura 4 5
Bruce Sutter 7 3
Dave LaPoint 5 3
All Others 8 13

Sutter finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting and 5th in the MVP voting.  Joaquin Andujar is one player I wish I could somehow clone and put him in today’s game. My favorite Joaquin quote:

“You can’t worry if it’s cold; you can’t worry if it’s hot; you only worry if you get sick. Because then if you don’t get well, you die.”

Words to live by.

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