Monday, October 29, 2007

As we move into November...

*Kurt Birkins was selected by the Devil Rays off of waivers. It's not a big loss for the organization, although with the clear lack of quality bullpen options available this season, it might not have been the best move to give away a potentially helpful arm. Pitching as a starter in Norfolk, Birkins struck out almost a batter an inning. He got hit hard in a couple starts in Baltimore, but that's clearly not where his future is, if he has one. He managed to strike out 27 in 30.1 innings as a reliever in Baltimore, but his numbers were superficially inflated by poor luck on balls in play. Birkins will never be a dominant reliever, but he probably has a future in the age of the seven man bullpen.

*Lots of shuffling on the 40 man roster in recent weeks. Fredy Deza was added. He pitched in relief and as a starter this year with Bowie, putting up a 4.43 ERA. At 25 and having never made it past the Eastern League, his future is limited at best.

Reliever Bob McCrory was also added to the 40 man roster. He's 25 and made what was essentially his full season debut, splitting time between Frederick and Bowie and striking out a man an inning. He worked almost exclusively as a ninth inning man (finishing 37 games in 44 appearances) and performed well, but his walk totals still suggest some unresolved command issues. The feeling seems to be that he has a real shot to contribute to the bullpen in 2008 in some capacity. There could be worse solutions.

Val Majewski lost his place on the 40 man, finally extinguishing any faint hopes of prospectdom that he still had. Majewski once seemed destined to have some role in the big leagues, but after missing all of 2005 to injury, he completely lost any power he once had, leaving him with a bat that doesn't play in the corner outfield, even as a reserve.

Adam Stern is gone too. He didn't hit again this year in AAA, but the Javy Lopez trade was still a net positive for the Orioles. Sayanora to Elder Torres. At least Brandon Fahey and Luis Hernandez augment their lack of hitting skill by playing SS rather than 2B.

*The Orioles still don't have a full coaching staff. Roch says that the First Base coaching job is down to Chris Hoiles and some guy named Mo. If we could only be so lucky as to see the return of Chris Hoiles to an Orioles uniform.

*The Red Sox win again! Fuck them!
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*Alex Rodriguez is officially a free agent after opting out of his contract yesterday. And there sure seems to be some acrimony between Rodriguez and the Yankees suggesting he will play elsewhere next season. No surprise there. I'll guess that the end result is 8 years for a quarter of a billion dollars.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Offseason Moves So Far

The Orioles moved quickly to fill the vacancy at pitching coach by hiring former Marlins' PC Russ Kranitz. He comes in having guided a very young 2006 Marlins' staff to an excellent season which was enough for Baseball America to name him their Major League Coach of the Year. I'll reserve optimism on this one given the failures of two high profile pitching gurus (Leo Mazzone and Ray Miller) in recent years. Still, on the surface of it, it seems that the Orioles made about as good a hire as could be expected.

As could be expected, the team has already parted ways with some deadweight as Jaret Wright, Rob Bell, Victor Santos, and Victor Zambrano have all been granted free agency after fulfilling their role as sub-replacement level pitchers on last year's staff. Catcher JR House was also released. That one isn't surprising, although it still hurts that the Orioles continue to ignore the concept of freely available talent.

And since no round of transactions can be completed without the Orioles doing business with the Cubs, the club claimed Cubbies reliever Roberto Novoa off of waivers. He missed all of this season with an injury after adequate performances for the Tigers and Cubs from 2004 to 2006. He did strike out more than a batter per inning in about 45 innings of relief work for the Cubs in 2005, so he might be a nice power arm to have in the organization. If nothing else, this hopefully signals that the Orioles are looking to solidify the bullpen through low-cost acquisitions rather than multi-year contracts. The team has done that in the past, though one would hope that the new front office is better equipped to separate possible contributors from junk.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Leo Mazzone Fired

Leo Mazzone, Orioles pitching coach and assumed pitching genius, was fired by the team last week after two years in charge of the team's staff.

In terms of raw numbers, Mazzone failed as a pitching coaching here in the Charm City. After so many great staffs working under Bobby Cox with the Braves, Mazzone came back to his home state to work with long-time friend and manager Sam Perlozzo as the Orioles' Pitching Coach, succeeding Ray Miller in 2006. Mazzone's first O's staff in 2006 finished with a 5.35 ERA (ERA+ of 84), bad enough to finish 13th in the 14 team American League. This year's team improved to a 5.19 ERA (86 ERA+), but still did no better than 13th in the AL.

2006 was written off by many, including myself, as an adjustment period for Mazzone as well as the staff. 2007, if was hoped, was the year that the vaunted Mazzone Effect came to bear on the team's results. But it was not to be, at least superficially.

What isn't shown in the numbers is that the staff put together an outstanding (or at least very good) 4.13 ERA through the end of July. Erik Bedard had fully realized his potential and might have been the best pitcher in the AL. Former top prospect Jeremy Guthrie had been outstanding in what was a classic case of a pitcher turning it around under Mazzone's tutelage (ignoring cause and effect for a moment). The bullpen was solid, even with Danys Baez combusting from the start.

But then things fell apart. Bedard and Guthrie were both injured in the last two months. The formerly nifty Brian Burres imploded upon being sent to the bullpen. Steve Trachsel, who had inexplicably defied his peripherals all season, was traded to the Cubs. Chris Ray was lost for the year. Danys Baez never improved back to previous seasons' form.

And the Orioles kept plowing through arms in trying to find a working combination. Prospects James Hoey, Garrett Olson, and Radhames Liz flopped upon extended auditions in the bigs. Sub-replacement level veterans like Paul Shuey and Rob Bell had places in the bullpen for what seemed like years. And by September the Orioles were giving starts to the likes of Jon Leicester, Kurt Birkins, and the Brothers Victor (Santos and Zambrano).

However, simply blaming the talent collection is somewhat insufficient. The job of the coaches is to improve the talent. It's clear that some of the poor performance was the result of poor talent evaluation by the front office as well as a desperation to find warm bodies and functioning arms as well as plain old bad luck. But Mazzone's deft touch didn't help highly rated Orioles prospects like Olson or Hoey adjust to the majors. Daniel Cabrera, a centerpiece of the team's youth movement on the pitching staff, regressed strongly in 2007, posting perhaps his worst season yet.

In the end, the last two years are not a damning statement against Mazzone by any stretch, though it has certainly shown that enough credit for the Atlanta staffs has not been given to the manager/general manager team of Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz. When Mazzone's old Atlanta reclamation projects (Jaret Wright, Russ Ortiz, Jim Brower), results were ugly.

The Orioles are not likely to find a better pitching coach, but at the same time, the staff is unlikely to get appreciably worse next season. Dave Trembley will have significant input on his coaching staff, one which won't include Mazzone or Tom Treblehorn. It's hard to be excited about seeing the most ballyhooed coach in recent baseball history leave the bench, but perhaps it won't be so bad after all. We'll find out soon enough.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Orioles Defense 2007

Listed below are the rankings for every Orioles defender in the IF and OF based on translations from Justin Inaz. It's based on Hardball Times' RZR (Revised Zone Rating) data. Learn more about Inaz' procedure for generating these numbers on his site.

The basic idea is that a zone rating (percentage of balls made into outs within a fielders' zone of responsibility) is converted into the number of runs a player saves or concedes relative to a league average defender. Plays made out of zone (OOZ) are also factored in as a positive for defenders. The rule of thumb is that ten runs is equal to about one win. Troy Tulowitzki of the Rockies (+27.6 runs) wins about three more games than the average SS with his glove. On the flip side, Derek Jeter (-37.1 runs) gives up four wins or thereabouts with his glove relative to an average player.

Standard disclaimers about sample size and the imperfect nature of defensive stats apply as always.

1B - Moore (-0.7), Gomez (-1.1), Huff (-3.1), Millar (-4.2)

Millar has something of a reputation as an underrated defender - sure handed but lacking in range. That was the case this season, but Millar's range was worse than some had imagined. Huff, on the other hand, was as bad as advertised. With regular work at 1B, he would have rated among the very worst in the majors.

2B - Roberts (+4.1), Fahey (+3.3), Gomez (-0.1), Bynum (-0.4), Luis Hernandez (-0.7)

The Orioles had solid middle infield defense on the season. Roberts rates as a solidly above average defender, ranking between Robinson Cano and Mark Grudzielanek. Brandon Fahey is either a Gold Glover at second or a small sample size fluke. He's 15th in the majors among keystone fielders despite playing a mere 31 innings at the position. That pace is certainly not sustainable going forward, but there is little doubt that Fahey has the skills to rank among the best in the league if he played the position regularly.

SS - Tejada (+4.8), Luis Hernandez (+4.1), Gomez (+2.2), Fahey (+1.4), Bynum (+0.4).

Imagine that. The much maligned (defensively, at least) Miguel Tejada rates as a comfortably above average defender. The numbers confirm that Luis Hernandez is better; he contributed nearly as much defensively in fraction of the innings. It's entirely possible that the system is overrating Tejada. As I posted last week, the BP fielding stats (which aren't PBP based) show a gigantic gap between the below-average Tejada and the well above-average Hernandez. Still, these numbers should be very interesting to those in the Front Office wanting to move Tejada to another position.

3B - Mora (+2.8), Moore (-1.8), Gomez (-2.6), Huff (-3.9)

Mora rates as above average. That generally jibes with perception, at least this year. On the left side of the infield, Mora was the one catching heat for his defense in 2006. Now Tejada has assumed that role. Scott Moore shows why he was regarded as a weak defender during his time in the minors. Huff continues to be terrible regardless of the position.

LF - Bynum (+1.9), Fahey (+0.7), Millar (0.0), Knott (-0.1), Redman (-0.4), Gibbons (-1.0), Payton (-9.0)

When your two main LF are below replacement level with the bat and below average with the glove, that isn't a good situation. Gibbons was surprisingly good, though still below average. Payton was atrocious and didn't live up to his reputation as a plus glove.

CF - Payton (+1.0), Patterson (-1.3), Bynum (-3.0), Redman (-7.9)

Corey Patterson got no love this year, going from an Gold Glove defender to one that was slightly below average. Patterson has all the physical tools in addition to being more than competent in terms of taking routes to the ball. The lack of out of zone (OOZ) plays made by Patterson stands out as one reason for his low rating.

RF - Gibbons (-0.2), Payton (-1.0), Markakis (-12.6)

It's believable that Miguel Tejada was an above average SS this season. It's believable that Corey Patterson might have had a down year and rated as a below average fielder in center. But Nick Markakis as one of the worst RF in the game? No way, right?

Markakis was ahead of only a select few - Guillen, Cuddyer, Guerrero, Griffey, Abreu, and Dye. It's possible that the high scoreboard in RF at Camden Yards suppressed his numbers beneath what they should have been. Balls of off the scoreboard count as plays in the zone that weren't made, despite the fact that there was no chance they could be turned into outs. It's similar to the Green Monster taking Manny Ramirez from a run of the mill atrocious fielder to ten runs worse than anyone else in the majors, albeit on a smaller scale.

It wasn't a great year for the defense, if you believe these numbers. Mora, Roberts, and Tejada were above average, but the other four positions ranked. It is good that MacPhail seems likely to emphasize defense though he needs to find the proper balance between defensive and offensive considerations.

Monday, October 1, 2007

And so it ends... 69-93. For the tenth straight season the Orioles lost more than they won. For the ninth time in the last decade, the club finished in fourth place in the five team AL East. And for the third straight season the team lost more games than they had won the previous season.

The Orioles had a total payroll of $93.554M according to USA Today, good for tenth highest in the majors. Only four of the top ten teams in total payroll went to the playoffs, but aside from the Orioles and the White Sox (72-90), every one of them finished with more wins than losses. Indeed, a payroll of nearly four times that of divisional rival Tampa Bay scored the Orioles a mere three additional wins.

The birds finished tenth in the AL in runs scored with 756 while finishing 9th in OPS+ at 97. The pitching staff and defense did little better, finishing 13th in ERA (5.19) as well as runs allowed (868). The Orioles scored fewer runs and gave up fewer runs, but that was mostly the effects of scoring going down across the league. While Baltimore's OPS+ stayed the same as in 2006, the team's ERA+ managed to drop from 86 to an even more terrible 84.

While there were bright spots, 2007 was just another year that saw Baltimore sink further and further into baseball irrelevance. The new Man in Charge, Andy MacPhail, does seem to realize that changes - real, sweeping changes - need to me made for this ballclub to become competitive once again. He insists that he hasn't finalized a plan for this offseason, so we'll check back once the moves start being made to see what MacPhail is going to do for the club.