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.

John Lannan Is Not Cole Hamels or Jordan Zimmermann

I have been too upset about the continuing ugliness between the Nats and the Phillies to weigh on the beanball war that Cole Hamels started on Sunday. (I have tweeted about it, though). But it seems that many people in the City of Brotherly Love are upset at the slap-on-the-wrist five-game suspension Hamels must serve. Of course, the Phillies won’t be too hurt by the suspension–Hamels won’t even miss a start–so why are the Phans so upset?

Apparently, they cry fraud because John Lannan was not suspended for allegedly beaning Chase Utley and Ryan Howard on July 26, 2007–earning the Syracuse Chiefs lefty the dubious distinction for having been the first pitcher to have been ejected during his major league debut.

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.

Indulge me in a little statistical thought experiment. Let’s assume we can use a pitchers’ walks-per-9-innings-pitched rate (BB/9) and his number of wild pitches as very rough proxies of that pitcher’s ability to control where the baseball is going. If that’s true, then a pitcher with poor control will issue, on average, more walks and more wild pitches. A pitcher with excellent control will issue fewer walks, and fewer wild pitches.

OK, fine. According to Fangraphs John Lannan has a career  BB/9 of 3.38 and recorded 15 wild pitches over 751 innings pitched.

It should come as absolutely no surprise that Cole Hamels has better command: his career BB/9 stands at an impressive 2.23. He has issued a scant 15 wild pitches over 1,201.2 innings pitched.

It should be blindingly obvious to anyone now that 2012 Syracuse Chief John Lannan is not as good at putting the baseball where he wants it as 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels is. It gets even more obvious when you consider that 2007 John Lannan–whose specter has now returned to whip up the Phans’ warped persecution complexes–was even wilder than his career figures. In 2007 alone, Lannan’s BB/9 was an astonishing 4.41–and he issued 1 wild pitch in a scant 34.2 innings of work!

So, on that fateful day in 2007, when John Lannan hit two helpless Philadelphia batsmen in quick succession, it’s pretty safe to say that he had no idea where the baseball was going.

Conversely, on a cool May evening in DC, when Cole Hamels appointed himself the guardian of the old school, there can be absolutely no doubt that Hamels intended to harm his target. Like Elvis Costello, his aim is true.

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.

So, in sum: Hamels, by his own confession, is guilty of an intentional beaning. Zimmermann, in all probability, is guilty of intentionally retaliating.

John Lannan is guilty of nothing more than being a mediocre pitcher at best–a crime for which Nationals fans have suffered on many occasions.

Quit whining, Phans.

Wang Goes Down

I was going to write a post about what I think the Nats should do with John Lannan, but the question has been suddenly rendered moot by today’s injury to Chien-Ming Wang. For now it looks like the pride of Tainan City, Taiwan has at least a strained hamstring. I hope it’s not worse than that.

Parenthetically: watch that video of Wang going down again. Once you get over the awkward, vaguely slapstick fall, you get to see some pretty good baseball. Wang seems to injure himself just as he goes down to scoop the baseball. Then, as he’s falling, he has the presence of mind and focus to drag his (good?) foot over the bag and retire Russell Martin, who also leaps to avoid clobbering Wang. Excellently played by both the falling Wang and the running Martin. This is why they’re in the big leagues, folks.

Wang’s injury means that John Lannan drops right into the Nats’ Number 5 starter role. Oddly, this substitution doesn’t really change my projection for the 2012 Nats at all: 86-88 wins. Lannan’s mediocre FIP is, oddly, cancelled out by his better offense.

We’ll re-visit the whole starting line-up and do the calculations more rigorously after the next round of cuts. For now, I’m going to hope that Wang’s hamstring recovers and that he’s not seriously injured. I was looking forward to watching him pitch this year.

Round and Round it Goes

It’s been a dizzying day in Natstown. First came the news that the Nationals had prevailed in the salary arbitration case against John Lannan, netting Lannan a $5 million sallary instead of the $5.7 million he asked for.

Just when everybody thought it would be time to put the arbitration proceedings behind us and focus on baseball, Natstown was rocked by the news that Bavarian-born St. Louis hurler Edwin Jackson had joined the Nats for a one-year deal valued at about $10 million.

Wait, WHAT?

I guess that means Rizzo’s going to trade Lannan and acquire that mythical center fielder, right? Well, not really. “We did not acquire Edwin Jackson to trade another starting pitcher,” said Rizzo.

If we’re to take Rizzo at his word–something I myself am loath to do–where does that leave the 2012 Nationals?

The Nats can’t possibly break camp with all of that starting pitching. Someone has got to go on the pitching staff. It can’t be Detwiler, who’s out of minor-league options. I very much doubt that it will be Wang. The only pitcher in the rotation that comes to mind with minor league options left is…the five-million dollar man, John “Long Ball” Lannan.

So Jackson must replace Lannan. What does that mean? Well, between 2008 and 2011, Edwin Jackson has has a FIP of 4.13 (as opposed to Lannan’s 4.57). Assigning him the 180 innings that I gave Lannan in my previous projections, Edwin Jackson’s better pitching is worth one extra win. That’s right Nats town: With Edwin Jackson instead of John Lannan, the 2012 Nationals would be projected to 85 wins.

It could potentially get better. Edwin Jackson is a much better batter than Lannan. I project he will be worth 1.16 wRC in 2012. So what? That nudges the win total up to 86.

That’s a lot of wins for a ballclub that’s only broken even once (the magical 2005 Nationals!). But that hasn’t stopped some observers from envisioning big things for the Nats. Who would have believed that Buster Olney was going to put the Nats in the wildcard?

My best guess here is that the fans in Syracuse will be treated to John Lannan for a good while…until a deal can be struck trading Lannan, Bernadina, Detwiler, and possibly Lombardozzi for a capable center fielder.

Also, what shouldn’t be lost in all this is that John Lannan has been a pretty good pitcher for the Nats, all in all. As a friend of mine remarked right after the arbitration award was announced, “Lannan has done yeoman’s work for the Nationals during some of their darkest years.” Even if he didn’t get all of what he asked for, he deserved at least some of it.