Needless Beanball Drama

It’s March 7 as I write this, and already I’m having to write about beanball wars.

In a spring training game at the Phillies facility in Clearwater, Stephen Strasburg hit Chase Utley in the back leg. I wasn’t at the park, but on TV, it sure as heck looked like Strasburg was out of control and hit Utley accidentally.

The Phillies, apparently, weren’t going to take this “insult” lying down. Next half-inning, Doc Halladay threw one behind Tyler Moore’s back. A beanball war in spring training? I’ll let the beat writers tell you all about the rest of it. 

This blog is no stranger to Philadelphia/Washington beanball wars, alas. As far as anybody can tell, this all began on on July 26, 2007 in Philadelphia, where John Lannan hit both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, earning himself an ejection in his major-league debut. Last year, during the Cole Hamels/Bryce Harper affair, I examined it from the pitcher’s point of view:

Let’s set aside the fact that Hamels freely admitted that he beaned Bryce Harper on purpose–supposedly in the service of “old-school” prestige.  Even without Hamels’ boasting, we could have easily surmised that Hamels beaned Harper intentionally. Lannan was not suspended because, in all probablity, he had no idea where those balls were going when they left his hand.

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And what about the other protagonist in Sunday’s beanbag war–Jordan Zimmermann? He hit Hamels in the shin, but has continued to maintain his innocence. The stat sheet should make us doubt that claim, as well. He has a career BB/9 that rivals Hamels at 2.15, and only 3 wild pitches in 323 innings of work. I don’t think anybody can doubt that he knew where he put that fastball.

[Parenthetically, I must not be the only one amused that John Lannan has gone from Public Enemy Number One in to Starting Pitcher Number Five in Philadelphia.]

So, what to make of the Crisis in Clearwater?

First in the dock is Stephen Strasburg. In his brief career, Strasburg posts a 2.40 BB/9, 7 wild pitches, and 4 hit batsmen. That’s tremendous control–especially compared to Lannan.

But in mitigation, it was Spring Training. Strasburg is manifestly in “working on stuff” mode–and it’s possible that at least for one pitch, stuff did not work for Strasburg today. It happens.

And, speaking of stuff happening, here’s something interesting: Since his debut in 2003, nobody in baseball has been hit by more pitches than Chase Utley. Chase Utley has been hit by pitches a staggering 151 times in his career. Since 2003, the next-nearest MLB player is Jason Kendall, plunked 121 times. Trailing Utley on the National League leaderboard for HBP since 2003 is Rickie Weeks, a distant second at 108 HBP. 

Utley’s staggering ability to be hit by pitches is even more remarkable when we consider that Jason Giambi leads active MLB players in this category, with 175 HBP. But Giambi’s been playing since 1995, which makes Utley’s 151 HBP since 2003 a staggering achievement in being hit by pitches.

Indeed, if we take Utley’s career average, we would expect him, in any 162-game stretch, to be hit by pitch 21 times. To put that in perspective, in 2012, any given team in the major leagues could have expected to be hit by a pitch around 50 times. Utley’s career average HBP would, by themselves, account for nearly half of an average team’s HBP.

That’s astonishing. Could it be that there’s just something about Chase Utley that makes him that much more likely to be hit by pitches? Is it his batting stance? Is it a habit of crowding the plate? Is it a failure to make a reasonable effort to avoid being hit by the pitch? (To be fair, Utley DID make quite an effort to avoid Strasburg’s wayward pitch yesterday).

But if the Phillies want to react to this by bristling and hurling beanballs willy-nilly, I guess there really isn’t anything we can do about it.

Pitchers & Catchers Report!

Nats pitchers and catchers officially report to Viera today!

Of course, many of their teammates have already been in Viera for quite some time, getting extra work in before the official start to spring training.

Notably, however, a few Nats have been doing a lot more with their winter vacations than that. Henry Rodriguez, along with his fellow Venezuelans Jesús Flores and Wilson Ramos, spent the winter playing in the Venezuelan League. However many off-season workouts you can do, I imagine it’s very different to be able to work on your skills in a situation where real games are on the line, in front of stadiums packed with thousands of adoring fans.

While beat writers will be busy asking other ballplayers what they did on their winter vacation–and while those other ballplayers will reply with endless variations on “I worked really hard; I’m in the best shape of my life now,” the Nationals’ three Venezuelan ballplayers can get on with their business and let their records speak for themselves. Well, what do those records say?

First, a note about the Venezuelan League season. There is a 63-game regular season, followed by a 16-game round-robin “semifinal” that determines the two teams that face each other in the final championship series. I’m only looking at regular-season statistics here. After all, that’s all I look at when I look at a player’s MLB statistics. The Round-robin and championship series phases are “post-season,” and so won’t be counted. Besides,as I said yesterday, I’m lazy. Getting proper offensive statistics would require more data entry than I have time or inclination to do.

Henry Rodriguez: Tan Capaz de Ser Feo como Fenómeno

A few days ago, I tweeted that Henry Rodriguez was going to be someone I’ll be watching carefully over the course of the 2012 season. In his time with the Nats so far, he has shown himself capable of unbelievable feats of relief pitching dominance. But to say he had some issues getting his considerable power under control might be something of an understatement:

According to SB Nation, the 10th-worst Pitch of 2011. I still cringe just thinking about this.

The Hot Rod’s 2011 season with the Nationals split the difference between those two extremes. In 59 appearances and 65.2 innings pitched, the Hot Rod recorded an ERA of 3.56, a FIP of 3.24, and a WHIP of 1.51. On average, in any given nine-inning stretch, you could have expected him to strike out 9.59 batters, and walk 6.17 of them–and give up a measly 0.14 home runs.

How did he do in Venezuela this winter? In 23 appearances and 23.2 innings pitched, he recorded an ERA of 3.80, a FIP of 3.88, and a WHIP of 1.39. On average, in any given nine-inning stretch, you could have expected him to strike out 9.39 batters, walk 6.46, and give up 0.38 home runs.

The one thing that kills Rodriguez is his walks. His walk rate crept up during the 2011 Venezuelan league regular season, and that’s not something Nats fans wanted to see. The 1.39 WHIP is lower than his 2011 MLB WHIP of 1.51, despite an increase in walk rate and decrease in strikeout rate, so it looks like Venezuelan-league batters had a harder time reaching base safely after making contact. I can’t verify this without better information, but I’m betting the sheer speed of his pitches leaves hitters making weak, late contact–they must not have been catching up to the fastball. Of course, when they do time him, they can do serious damage. Witness the increase in home run rates (although I wonder if that’s just bad luck, rather than bad pitching).

In many ways, the 2011 Venezuelan regular season has been a disappointment for Hot Rod, because in the 2010 Venezuelan league regular season, he put up dominant numbers. The numbers speak for themselves. In 21.1 IP over 18 appearances, Hot Rod posted absolutely Strasburg-like stats: 1.69 ERA, 1.84 FIP, 0.94 WHIP. Strikeouts per 9 innings? 14.00. And, most importantly of all: 3.80 walks per 9 innings. Oh, and zero home runs.

When Henry Rodriguez is locked-in, as he was in Venezuela in 2010, he’s one of the most fearsome relievers in the game, capable of totally destroying opposing batting. But when he’s not locked-in, he puts up performances that are, well, not nearly so dominant. We saw that in DC all last summer, and fans in Venezuela saw it this winter. It will be interesting to see whether Nats pitching coach Steve McCatty can work with Henry to get his fearsome power under control. If the 2010 Venezuelan League model of the Hot Rod rolls out of the bullpen for the 2012 Nats, the National League is in for a nasty surprise. But if the 2011 Hot Rod coughs and sputters to life, fans seated behind home plate should, for their safety, carefully inspect the netting, and maybe consider buying a half-smoke while Henry goes to work.

Ramos y Flores

Let’s move on to the Nats’ two botanically-surnamed catchers. In Venezuela this winter, one of them batted .332/.369/.516, with 16 doubles and 8 home runs, posting a wRC of 27. The other batted .216/.274/.273, with 2 doubles and 1 home run, with a wRC of 11. Which is which?

If you guessed that the flourishing catcher was Jesús Flores, you are right. Flores didn’t see much action with the Nats in 2011, and we had pretty much forgotten about him in DC after he was hurt in 2009. The last good look we’d gotten at Flores was in 2008, when he batted .256/.296/.402 with 18 doubles, a triple, and 8 home runs. If his Venezuelan league offensive figures are any indication of his readiness for the 2012 MLB season, I think the Nats can expect very good things from Flores. If Flores bats in 2012 the way that he did in Venezuela, we can project him to have a wRC of 34 in 2012–4 more runs than we would have expected from his recent past.

Ramos’s Venezuelan season got off to the worst possible start–he was kidnapped at gunpoint by masked men, and the freed in what was supposed to have been a fierce gunfight. Only he can know how he was affected, but his offensive production, at first glance, looks to have dropped off considerably. If Ramos bats as well in 2012 for the Nats as he did in Venezuela, I’d project him to post a wRC of 46–3 runs fewer than I have him projected this year.

But look again. During the 2010 Venezuelan season, he batted .322/.390/.567 with 17 doubles and 9 home runs, posting a wRC of 23. But, crucially, Ramos got 200 plate appearances in 2010, as opposed to only 95 in 2011. If we give him 200 plate appearances in 2011, he ends up with a wRC of… yup, 23!

How can that be? My guess: one of the components of wRC is the league average wOBA. In 2010, when Ramos put up the gaudy Venezuelan numbers, The league average wOBA was .283. In 2011, that average dropped to .275. Perhaps Ramos’s numbers (and scaled numbers) are down because the whole league’s numbers are down. Perhaps Venezuelan league pitching improved as a whole. Either way, Nats fans can be comforted by the fact that, even after everything that’s happened to him, Wilson Ramos is the same ballplayer he’s always been.

What Nats fans should look forward to this spring, however, is an emerging Catcher Controversy. Flores did very well with the Navegantes de Magallanes–look at those offensive stats! If Flores can continue to build on his Venezuelan League successes while in the Grapefruit League this spring, we might find that it is Flores, not Ramos, who ends up as the Nats’ opening-day catcher.