Volatility is rampant throughout baseball, but is at its most visible in the bullpen and the player draft. Year to year, each can make or break a team and their evaluators, especially when you consider the high stakes involved with first round draft picks and the money and expectations that are involved with being a team’s first pick. With regards to the bullpen, the year-to-year stability and production of a player is tenuous at best, and it is rare to find a reliever that provides not only elite results – be it saves, holds, or another metric – but results that remain consistent across years.
It is also rare to have first round draft picks in the bullpen; these high-profile selections are typically slotted for players that will perform at higher impact positions than reliever for the foreseeable future, such as starting pitcher. However, it does happen; take for instance Kansas City Royals former starter Luke Hochevar:
As you can gather from Rany Jazayerli‘s tweet, the role Hochevar finds himself in (a multimillion mop up reliever) wasn’t the one envisioned when the Royals made him the first player picked in the 2006 amateur draft. Sometimes, the best laid plans and the information at hand end up not being enough to prevent a poor decision being made; sometimes, things simply don’t work out. Yet, the time, effort and (most importantly) money involved with the development of any player, let alone a first round draft pick, forces a team to make allowances and to give the player an opportunity to succeed in a different role.
Enter the bullpen.
The bullpen is a sanctuary from past failures in many respects. Failure to live up to your starting pitcher billing. Failure to learn a third pitch. Failure to get hitters out with a traditional release point. Whatever the case may be, it is a rare breed of reliever that has spent his entire career in the ‘pen and even rarer to be drafted in the first round – Drew Storen comes to mind as an example of the infrequent player drafted in the first round and projected as a career reliever.
Yet, first round talent is first round talent – and whether it’s to start the game or come in at a high leverage point in the later innings, talent will prevail. With this and Jazayerli’s Hochevar tweet in mind, I began to wonder: do bullpens display a draft round effect? Do teams who employ higher round draft picks in their relief corps enjoy more success than those who don’t?
As we set off to find out if this effect is legitimate, let’s get the details of the materials and methods used sorted out.
First, I used Baseball Reference to determine team bullpens – if they weren’t listed as a starting pitcher and hadn’t started a game thus far in 2013, I included them as a reliever.
Next, I went and collected their draft data – both round and pick. Now here’s where things get a little shaky; I excluded players who were not drafted, which means non drafted free agent signings, guys like Baltimore’s Darren O’Day, for example, are not part of the data set. Another type of player excluded are international free agent signings, so guys like Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney won’t be part of this analysis.
For bullpen rankings, I used Fangraphs, and their positional power rankings articles for relievers, which you can find here.
I also grabbed each reliever’s career Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) from their Fangraphs page as a measure of each pitcher’s ‘talent’; theoretically, the more talented a pitcher, the more readily he can determine outcomes, which would be reflected in a lower career FIP. While FIP isn’t perfect, it’s a nice analog for our purposes here.
OK, on to data!
This chart shows the average round of each team’s bullpen pitcher, as well as how many first rounders they have coming in relief, contrasted with their Fangraphs bullpen ranking. Overall, Colorado leads all of MLB with their drafted relievers, on average, drafted in the first round (actually, 1.25th round), and shares the lead with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Toronto Blue Jays for most bullpen first round draft picks, each with 3. Atlanta’s bullpen was ranked #1 by Fangraphs for 2013, with Houston’s coming in 30th place, with Atlanta doing so with no first round talent.
Right away, we can see the volatility previously mentioned – no real smooth progressions or trends jump out at us. Exemplifying this volatility are 2 teams that have an average bullpen draft round of 20 – the New York Yankees and Milwaukee Brewers – yet New York’s ‘pen is ranked 3rd, while Milwaukee’s is 29th. You would assume ‘lesser’ talent, as judged by average draft round, would mean a lesser relief corps, yet New York’s staff flies in the face of that assumption.
Good stuff already; now let’s look at team average FIP:
Again, we don’t see much of a trend here. Aside from the #1 ranked team having the lowest team FIP amongst its drafted pitchers and the #30 team having the highest FIP, it’s a hodge podge in between. Let’s confirm with a regression.
Regressing FIP by average draft round gives us the following:
f(x) = -0.006x +3.906 and R² = 0.005
This means there is a slight negative trend between FIP and round drafted, which is peculiar; you would assume that as draft round increased, so would FIP, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. However, a coefficient of determination (R²) of .005 means there isn’t a terribly strong association between FIP and draft round. Doing the same exercise, but replacing average draft round with average player draft number gives us the same results – nothing. Strong correlations between data are normally accepted at R² greater than 0.8.
While you could do a regression between FIP and Fangraphs ranking, I don’t include it here, since the Fangraphs rankings included all members of a bullpen, drafted or otherwise, so our dataset doesn’t exactly match with what Fangraphs was working with when they made their rankings. However, you will end up with a very low R² and strength of association; not shocking, given the disparity between the datasets.
Let’s look at things in one more way – is there a significant difference in Fangraphs ranking between teams, grouped by number of first rounders?
Cutting to the chase, there isn’t.
Overall, we see that average draft round or position doesn’t appear to have much effect on a bullpen and being drafted in a low numbered round doesn’t necessarily equate to superior performance. Since non-drafted free agents weren’t included in the analysis, we can’t make too many inferences or come to too many rock solid conclusions about the results, unless we make a whopper of an assumption that the drafted and non-drafted groups are similar enough to assume what we learned from the drafted players can be applied to the non-drafted players. Yeah, let’s not do that. While not an exhaustive exercise, it does lend merit to the notion that so much of baseball is a crapshoot – #1 draft picks flame out, while guys who couldn’t even get drafted in a 50 round format are All-Stars. While the stats don’t necessarily lie in this instance, they certainly don’t appreciably explain or quantify all of the variables that go into determining the career success of those that are acquired by through the amateur draft, at least within the scope of interest I have presented.
In a game already defined by uncertainty, volatility reigns.
Coming into spring training, the expectations for the 2013 Washington Nationals, needless to say, are much different from those placed in front of them in 2012. A NL East championship, an unfettered Stephen Strasburg (at least innings-wise), and a couple of fresh faces in the form of Denard Span and Dan Haren all add weight to the already heady prognostications set forth by those who…uh…prognosticate.
These are but a small sampling of what’s shaping DC expectations; beyond them is what is being impatiently expected out of the age 20 season of NL Rookie of the Year
and future curer of cancer Bryce Harper. Thus far in his 33 spring training plate appearances, Harper is doing everything he can to silence critics that forecast a sophomore slump, hitting at a .438/.455/.750 slash line in his Florida environs. This of course, has Nationals fans’ hearts aflutter, thinking of what his 1.205 spring training OPS will translate to, once the regular season begins and teams start playing for keeps – All Star appearances, MVP’s… championships?
Or nothing at all?
The chronicles of baseball lore are strewn with the names of rookies who sparkled, only to immediately fade once season two came upon them; who can really say for any certainty that this won’t happen to Harper? Who can say that spring training stats *are* useful, and possibly prognosticators of a fabulous follow-up season?
Well, for this post, we can. Let’s get to it.
To preface our little exercise, let’s have a look at what Matthew Kory recently wrote about Harper and the expectations surrounding him and his 2013 season. For those of you too lazy to click the link, I will paraphrase – what Harper has done at age 19, using home runs and OPS as measures of success, hasn’t been done very often, and typically not in the same way that Harper did it in 2012. As such, his encore performance in 2013 is hard to predict, given his unique skill set.
So we have a tough task ahead of us, fair enough. Let’s take what Kory has given us, fiddle with the numbers a bit, and add a little something more, shall we?
Thanks to Baseball Reference, we have all of Harper’s numbers at our fingertips – let’s compare them to what others have done at age 19 historically, looking at both OPS+ and BRef’s version of Wins Above Replacement – rWAR. For Harper, he came in at a respectable 119 OPS+ and a 5.0 rWAR in his age 19 season – so respectable, that no one else in baseball history has performed above that OPS+/rWAR combination as a teenager. Let’s loosen the criteria a tad – the only other players in MLB history aside from Harper to have an OPS+ greater than 119 along with a rWAR greater than 2.0 as teens were Ty Cobb (132 OPS+/2.3 rWAR) and Mel Ott (139/3.7), both of whom were mentioned in Kory’s article. As a rough guide, a 2.0 rWAR is considered starter level output; anything at 5.0 or above is All Star quality.
The numbers so far are historical, and may or may not be predictive of future performance. Of course, we won’t know for a while whether Harper will repeat his 119 OPS+/5.0 rWAR 2012, but we can see if Cobb and Ott duplicated or bettered their age 19 seasons as 20 year olds, as measured by OPS+ and rWAR. To the numbers (courtesy of Baseball Reference)!
Well, then. If history is to be trusted, Harper has some work ahead of him this year, if he is to equal his historical equals with regards to his age 20 season. Looking only at rWAR, Cobb’s age 20 saw a 187% increase in rWAR, with Ott showing a 97% increase in rWAR the year after his age 19 3.7 rWAR season. For Harper to emulate these jumps in performance, he would have to finish 2013 with at least a 9.8 rWAR; 56 seasons of 9.8 rWAR or greater have been seen in MLB history, the most recent being Mike Trout‘s 2012 10.7 rWAR season… at age 20.
Right now, Harper is looking at some heady numbers to put up come the regular season to keep up with the Cobbs and Otts of the MLB world, and continue the statistical trajectory he has set himself upon into his 20’s. As previously mentioned, he’s doing a heck of a job of doing just that thus far in spring training. Let’s look at some more data and take a sampling of who is performing as well as, if not better than Harper thus far in spring training, and see if we can gain anything from it, as it pertains to Harper’s potential for 2013. For this table, we are looking at players who have a 1.205 OPS or better in 33 or more spring training plate appearances (PA):
Even as hot as Harper’s bat has been to start 2013, there are plenty of others that are just as locked in; also of note is the lack of star players on the list, aside from Brandon Belt. Looking at it from another perspective, we can also say that Harper is doing all of this against close to MLB quality opponents, as seen with his 8.9 OppQual stat. OppQual – or Opponent Quality – is a new stat from Baseball Reference, which attempts to grade the quality of the pitchers a hitter faces in spring training. Given the number of players invited to participate in spring training, from guys just out of rookie league ball, up to MLB veterans, this value is a nice way to help determine whether spring training hitting stats have some bite to them. While Harper will of course face better pitching come the regular season, it won’t be by much, if OppQual is to be taken into consideration; MLB level quality opponents are scored a 10, with AAA level players scoring an 8 per OppQual. Harper’s 8.9 and Belt’s 9.3 show that they are hitting against just about MLB quality opponents.
While the numbers and methods to the madness that I have presented are in no way the be all, end all, I think they lend themselves some credibility in explaining not only how special a player Bryce Harper has been already, but could possibly be. On the other side of the coin, it also shows that a tempering of expectations is necessary, not only to keep things in perspective regarding Harper’s possible place in baseball history, but also within the context of a season, a season that really hasn’t truly begun. For every Albert Pujols, who led all hitters in spring training OPS in 2012, there’s a Kila Ka’aihue, who ‘won’ spring training OPS honours in 2011, only to follow it up with a 69 OPS+ that season for the Kansas City Royals.
While many will consider this perspective to be one straight out of a Debbie Downer skit, it’s one that allows sanity to remain firmly in one’s grasp, something that many baseball fans can’t boast (see: Cubs, Chicago).
No matter what Harper does in 2013 and beyond, he still has much to be proud of. Harper has already bettered fellow Las Vegan and former Rookie of the Year Marty Cordova, not only in garnering All Star honours – something no position player born in Vegas can boast – but also by not missing games after succumbing to tanning booth sunburn.
Ahh, silver linings.
I am an unabashed Xavier Nady fan – have been ever since I saw him manhandle the pitching staffs of many a college baseball team of northern California that came through to play his Cal Bears back in the day. Some of you might also remember my Nady love from this previous post.
Regardless of how your memory is jogged of my man crush on the Salinas Slugger, if there is Nady News, I am all over it, like Nady on a mid-thigh high, mid to upper 80’s fastball, with little to no movement from a right handed pitcher, preferably in a hitter’s count.
my our good friend and newly minted Kansas City Royal is back in the news, once again to haunt the dreams of Washington Nationals fans.
If it wasn’t torture enough for Nats fans to bid him adieu after several lackluster, yet sporadically productive weeks as a National, only to see him end the year a World Series winner…
…the ZiPS Projections for 2013 have come out, and Nady once again returns to troll the hearts and minds of Nats fans:
Nadytude. It never dies.