Monthly Archives: May 2015

Understanding Mike Fiers

You may remember that I picked Mike Fiers as my dark horse to snag a few Cy Young Award votes. No? Well, read it. This is an update on my pick as well as a chance to help you better understand the season he’s having.

Based on his 1-5 record and 4.53 ERA, it’s easy to say Mike Fiers has had one hell of a lousy season. Luckily, a pitcher’s win/loss record and Earned Run Average are silly stats. By using stats that actually mean something, you’ll realize that Fiers has been the best starting pitcher on the Milwaukee Brewers. Yes, I know. The Brewers stink and so does their rotation. Saying Fiers is Milwaukee’s top pitcher isn’t saying much. But maybe it’ll mean more if I say Fiers has been one of Major League Baseball’s top 41 pitchers in 2015. Maybe it’ll mean more if I say Fiers has been just as valuable as Cole Hamels (2.98 ERA) and Michael Wacha (1.87 ERA). Do I have your attention now?

Despite his fat ERA, Fiers has actually been a very solid starter for the troubling team in Milwaukee. He’s been worth 0.9 WAR in 10 starts, and ranks 30th among starters in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP).

Fiers has been good, but he could be even better. But before we get to that, let’s look at the one big aspect of his game in which he’s flourished the most.

Strikeouts and Walks

Fiers has always been a strikeout guy, a trend he’s continuing in 2015. He’s punching out over 26% of batters he’s faced and only 10 starters have a higher rate. More importantly, after a plethora of walks in his first few starts of the year, Fiers has done an excellent job of limiting free passes. This is one of the reasons his ERA should starting dropping. Additionally, his K-BB% is outstanding. A pitcher’s in-season K-BB% (strikeout percentage minus walk percentage) tells us a lot about his future performance. If a pitcher’s K-BB% is great, he’ll most likely be a great pitcher throughout the rest of the season, and vice versa. Fiers’ ratio is great. It sits at 19.6%, the 15th-highest mark in baseball. He’s striking out batters at a huge rate and not walking them. That’s just want you want out of a pitcher.

Based on this, Fiers’ ERA should be much lower; however, there are two glaring issues that he needs to correct. One involves a lot of unluckiness, but the other is all on him. Let’s tackle the latter first.

Home Runs

Fiers has given up seven home runs (six of them off his four-seam fastball), and as a result, is giving up 1.22 home runs per nine innings and owns a 12.1% HR/FB ratio.. Sadly, those aren’t even the highest marks on the Brewers. With a slow 88-90 mph fastball and a sometimes hanging curveball, Fiers has to hit his spots perfectly in order to get outs. When he doesn’t, this happens.

Take a look at Fiers’ placement of pitches hit for home runs this season (as of 5/26/2015).

chart (3)

All of those home run pitches were in either in the middle of the zone or toward the top. He missed his location on every one.

But Fiers is a guy that’s going to give up home runs. He always has and that’s just who he is. He won’t be able to hit his spots perfectly every time, meaning some pitches will end up in the bleachers. He still, however, can limit them a bit more.

Batting Average on Balls in Play

Like Ryan Braun (read this), Fiers has also been a victim of some pretty rotten luck in 2015. Although in Fiers’ case, his luck isn’t as bad luck as Braun’s.

Out of every qualified starter in Major League Baseball, Fiers is allowing the highest batting average on balls in play. His .386 BABIP allowed beats the next guy by 11 points. Almost every ball put in play is falling against Fiers, and a part of that has to do with his hard-hit rate. Fiers has a crazy high BABIP and a 1.55 WHIP — this is the first time I’ve mentioned WHIP on this, so be glad you’re witnessing history — because hitters are making hard contact 42.2% of the time. Once again, just like his BABIP, no one in baseball has a higher percentage than that. So it’s really no surprise that so many balls are falling for base hits.

The surprising thing is, however, that up until this season, Fiers had only allowed a .295 BABIP. And that makes sense. Fiers is a strikeout pitcher and strikeout pitchers usually generate weaker contact. That was true for Fiers until 2015 rolled around. Yet, there’s really no way batters can continue having this much success on batted balls. Regression to the mean should take its course.

Forget about Fiers’ win/loss record. Forget about his ERA. If you do that, you’ll realize that Fiers has pitched quite well this season. If he can at least keep the ball in the yard a little more frequently, and if batters stop crushing the ball off him, Fiers should only get better.

And who knows? Maybe my Cy Young prediction will turn out to be right.



Flipping Luis Sardinas might be in the cards

The Milwaukee Brewers acquired Luis Sardinas as part of the trade that sent Yovani Gallardo to Texas. And with Scooter Gennett being demoted to the minors, along with Hector Gomez and Elian Herrera doing very little positive things at the plate, Sardinas was called up maybe earlier than what people expected. In 32 games in Triple-A, Sardinas posted a .324 OBP and created 10% fewer runs than league average. In other words, he didn’t do much with the bat that warranted a promotion; however, his Triple-A numbers as a player in the Brewers’ organization were better than they were as a Triple-A player with Texas.

After a hot start with the big-league club, Sardinas has slowed down and has become the player most scouts have him pegged as. He’s good with the glove (although Defensive Runs Saved has yet to see that), but very below-average offensively. He has yet to walk this season, and is striking out at a 23.8% clip. Plus, his lack of power is unsettling.

Sardinas is a shortstop by trade, but unluckily for him, the Brewers already have one of those in Jean Segura. And no, the Brewers are not about to give up on Segura. Milwaukee also has a stud shortstop in Double-A right now in Orlando Arcia. Arcia, by the way, is currently taking the league by storm. ESPN’s scout guy Keith Law recently ranked him as baseball’s 20th-best prospect. He’s so talented that Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Todd Rosiak suggested the Brewers might move Segura to third base in order to make room for Arcia. They might not need to do that if Arcia can man second, but as of now, that’s not in the plans.

Sardinas is capable of handling second base, which makes him a bit more valuable, but do the Brewers really want three infielders — Segura, Arcia and Sardinas — who have absolutely no pop or power in their bats? I would be very surprised if the infield shaped up like that in the future. The Brewers have a hard enough time as it is scoring runs.

That’s why you shouldn’t be surprised if Sardinas is wearing a different uniform come August.

It basically comes down to this: who has the higher ceiling, Sardinas or Gennett? The Brewers will probably trade one of them, if not both, and I think Sardinas would offer the greatest return. He’s younger, is a better defender and can switch-hit, meaning there’s no need to platoon him like a team would and has done with Gennett. Milwaukee would, however, need to demand a power-hitting third baseman or a second baseman with at least gap power. When Aramis Ramirez retires after the season, the Brewers will be in desperate need of someone in the infield who is capable of producing runs.

Sardinas might be the ticket that grants that wish.

The horrible luck of Ryan Braun

Luck is a part of baseball. It’s also the reason we have sabermetric statistics like Fielding Independent Pitching, Skill-Interactive Earned Run Average and Batting Average on Balls In Play. We have those to try and strip away the luck, or in BABIP’s case, to see how much luck is involved. We need these stats in order to get a better feel of a player’s true performance. Earned Run Average does by no means accomplish this. Same with batting average. (But you already know this, right?) We just can’t use old-school stats and act like they’re perfect. That’s being lazy. Sabermetrics isn’t perfect either, but it’s a lot closer to the right side than the wrong side.

Whether you like it or not, luck can contribute to a player’s great or poor performance. And that brings us to Ryan Braun.

In 2014, Ryan Braun posted career lows in hard- and medium-hit percentages while his soft-hit percentage was the highest it has been since 2011. In layman’s terms, Braun hit the ball “hard”, as categorized by Baseball Info Solutions, with less frequency than ever before. That’s why it’s not really an astonishment when you look at his numbers from that year. They were down across the board, highlighted by his .226 batting average and .299 wOBA in the second half. You can blame it on the performance-enhancing drugs (although you’d be wrong) or you can fault his faulty non-working thumb, but you can’t blame it on bad luck, not when looking at his quality of contact.

But Braun’s back, and so his is power. It’s just like I predicted. He has 10 home runs, an ISO of .241 and 123 wRC+. He’s back to the player baseball fans are accustomed to seeing, yet, despite the incredible spike in numbers, he’s been the victim of some downright horrendous luck in 2015.

Let’s investigate by looking at his quality of contact and his batting average on balls in play.

  • 14th. That’s where Braun ranks out of 175 qualified hitters in hard-hit rate with a percentage of 40%.
  • 133rd. That’s where Braun ranks out of 175 qualified hitters in BABIP with a .268 mark.

The hits just aren’t falling for Milwaukee’s right fielder. He’s crushing the ball, but very few are finding holes or gaps; he has just three extra-base hits (not including HRs). His BABIP is so low, that Johnny Giavotella is laughing at him. The fact you don’t even know who that is says everything.

What’s even more surprising is Braun’s career hard-hit rate and BABIP numbers. In parts of nine major league seasons, Braun has hit the ball hard 36.2% of the time, and owns a .334 batting average on balls in play. Bad luck is essentially kicking Braun’s ass this year.

It’s a good thing the MLB season is 162 games, and it’s a good a little thing called “regression to the mean” exists. In all likelihood, Braun’s BABIP will start rising faster than Harold Reynold’s disapproval ratings. There’s just no way Braun can continue to hit the ball as hard as he is without getting results.

Ryan Braun is hitting well right now. Just imagine how he’ll do when luck decides to stop torturing him.


Brandon Kintzler over Rob Wooten? That’s crazy talk

Note: I realize the Brewers made this transaction to keep fresh arms in the bullpen. But that doesn’t mean it was the right move.

After four games and six innings, the Milwaukee Brewers felt it was necessary to give up on Rob Wooten in favor of a reliever who posted a negative WAR in 2014, didn’t make the team in ’15 and was designated for assignment just three weeks ago. This paints a clear picture as to just how bad things are going in Brew Town.

Brandon Kintzler is the new arm in a bullpen that desperately needs some help. As of May 7, the Brewers’ bullpen ranks 25th in ERA (4.27), 29th in FIP (4.64) and 28th in WAR (-0.3).  They’ve given up the second-most home runs in baseball which has resulted in a 1.46 home run per nine innings ratio. The Brewers have already shown Tyler Thornburg the door, with Wooten becoming the latest victim.

But Kintzler is far from the savior the Brewers need. Milwaukee gave up on Wooten too quickly this season, a fact they’ll soon realize once Kintzler starts getting the call.

Let me be clear. Wooten has been horrendous thus far. His ERA is north of 11 and his FIP is just south of 7. He’s even been quite lucky this year. And yet here I am, trying to convince you he should’ve been given a longer leash (I mean, the guy was only allowed to get 18 outs before he was canned).

For some reason, Wooten has lost his sense of the strike zone and, in turn, has become wild. He walked just eight batters in 34.1 innings a season ago, but has already walked six this year. He actually has given up more walks than he has hits. His abundance of walks is one of the very few reasons why sending him down makes sense. It’s better for him and the Brewers if he can work out his strike-throwing issues down on the farm instead of on the big stage.

Another aspect of Wooten’s woes (what a good name for a band) is batters are no longer hitting the ball on the ground against him. His ground ball rate sits at 37.5% after 53.3% ratio in 2014, and while that’s not good news, Wooten has somehow limited batters to a .250 batting average on balls in play. This is even more fascinating considering he has allowed a 58.8% hard-hit percentage (highest among Brewers). If both the lack of ground balls and the high hard-hit rate continue, Wooten’s BABIP would obviously rise considerably. He can’t stay this lucky for long. Wooten’s not a strikeout pitcher, meaning he relies a lot on groundball outs. I can only imagine what his ERA would look like if his BABIP was higher.

So, maybe Wooten does need a little time in Triple-A to get some things sorted out, but it doesn’t change the fact that Kintzler’s still not the answer.

Kintzler has been OK for the Sky Sox this season in extremely limited action because of a DL stint (6.35 ERA and 2.42 FIP), but I don’t really care about what minor league numbers look like for a player who would be considered a veteran at the major league level. In 2012, Kintzler was a slightly above average reliever. In 2013, he was damn good. In 2014, he was the fifth-worst reliever in Major League Baseball.

To my surprise, the Brewers tendered Kintzler a contract before spring training, and then not to my surprise, optioned him to Triple-A before the season started with general manager Doug Melvin saying he needed to work on “commanding his pitches” and “getting back his sink.” Apparently, he’s done just that. Otherwise, I don’t think Kintzler would’ve gotten the call. There’s a chance that Kintzler can return to the pitcher he once was, but the odds of that are small. Either way, the Brewers bullpen stinks with or without him.

I hope Wooten can fix his control problem, because I believe he can be a useful bullpen piece. And who knows, maybe a team in need of relief help will come calling.