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.
If you’ve read this blog with any frequency, you’ll know that I am enamoured with lefty pitchers. Can’t get enough of ’em*. I am also a sucker for a good baseball ‘underdog’ story. 239048th round draft pick who goes on to win MVP? It just got a little dusty in here. Born club footed, but persevered to not only play, but win a stolen base title? YES.
Old lefthander, back in a big league camp, and making waves? OH YES.
While spring training is normally a bit of a slog, this preseason has been a bit more interesting to follow due to the stories of redemption for four lefthanders – 3 former MLB level pitchers and a former outfielder making the conversion to a pitcher. All have had varying levels of success in the past, but find themselves years removed from their last big league appearance, and wearing a high double-digit number in spring training, as non roster invitees. Let’s meet our old friends, shall we?
Scott Kazmir, Cleveland
A 2-time All Star while a starter for the Tampa Rays, Kazmir is easily the most high-profile return from oblivion story of the 2013 preseason. Having made a nice splash in spring training with Cleveland as one part of the Indians plan of trying to catch lightning in the bottle one last time with a former AL East starter (the other being Daisuke Matsuzaka) in an effort to bulk up their starting rotation, Kazmir has already been given the #5 slot in the rotation. While his early 2013 numbers are impressive – a 13 K/BB ratio against 9.2 OppQual opponents per Baseball Reference – his propensity to give up his share of hits, as evidenced by his 12.5 H/9 ratio and 1.46 WHIP, apparently remains from his Tampa and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim days. In spite of this, it is the return of his fastball velocity this spring that has people hopeful that Kazmir can make a triumphant return to the MLB, after 5 IP with the Angels in 2011, and a sojourn to the wilds of Independent League baseball with the Sugarland Skeeters.
Nate Robertson, Texas
A former starter for the Florida Marlins and Detroit Tigers with ‘meh’ results (career 89 ERA+ and 1.85 K/BB ratio), Robertson nonetheless provided consistent and serviceable innings, to the tune of an average of 31 starts and 191 innings per season, until being released by the Marlins in 2010. While already asked by the Texas Rangers to accept a minor league assignment, the reassignment shouldn’t be misconstrued as a demotion, as Robertson pitched well in spring training, and did so free of the elbow problems that plagued his previous career, and also with a more sidearm delivery. While stats are sparse on Robertson with his new delivery, it can be expected that the opportunity to pitch a few innings as a LOOGY a la Javier Lopez or Clay Rapada, and be a low BABIP, high ground ball rate pitcher is ripe, and that it is simply a numbers and waiting game that is between him and a spot in a MLB bullpen.
Mark Hendrickson, Baltimore
No stranger to the Oriole bullpen, Hendrickson finds himself back in Charm City, which was where we last saw him in a major league uniform, in 2011. Your textbook lefthanded journeyman, Hendrickson, much like Robertson, is looking to make a return to the MLB after a couple of years away, and a revamping of his delivery to a more sidearm release point. Historically, Hendrickson has been a low K/9, pitch to contact type of pitcher, who greatly depends on his defense to hoover up any would be hits, and things are no different now. However, he does look to add more deception and a little more movement to his mid to high-80s fastball and curve combo with a drop in his release point; with this and his 6’9″ stature, Hendrickson has the potential to become a more effective reliever than what he has been historically, inducing ground balls at a rate greater than his career 44% clip, and making lefthanded hitters a little more uncomfortable in the box while facing him. This will come more than likely after a stint in the minor leagues to further hone his delivery, and become more consistent with the new release point. If this spring has shown anything, it’s that Hendrickson is still not completely comfortable with the lower release point, and does tend to drift up to a more 3/4 delivery at times, making him more hittable and prone to a big inning.
Jason Lane, Minnesota
Probably the most intriguing of the four, Lane looks to come back not only at a different position, but also from the longest amount of time away from the big leagues. When we last saw Lane, he was patrolling the outfield for the Houston Astros, primarily in right field. Somewhat overlooked due to the success of teammates at the time, who included Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio, and Jeff Bagwell, Lane’s most prolific season was the NL Championship 2005 season, hitting 26 HR and enjoying a 109 OPS+. After a couple of at bats with the San Diego Padres to finish up his 2007 season, Lane was granted free agency, and went on to bounce around the minors for a couple of teams, notably the Toronto Blue Jays. While with the Jays, Lane was occasionally called upon to toe the rubber when he wasn’t playing in the field, with mixed results. After spending the 2012 season with Arizona AAA affiliate Reno, again splitting his innings between the field and the mound, the Minnesota Twins offered him a minor league deal and an invite to spring training. While his professional successes have come from his bat, Lane has always had a good, live arm, and was actually the winning pitcher in the championship game of the 1998 College World Series, as a USC Trojan. This spring training has been a mixed bag for Lane, who shows a good, low 90s fastball with a serviceable curve ball, as he continues to make the transition to a full-time pitcher, and gain command of the strike zone. If his limited minor league numbers are any indication, look for Lane to be an above average K/9 guy, who will give up his share of hits, but will do so without having too many leave the ballpark. Out of sheer coincidence, Lane’s traverse back to the bigs also included a stop in Sugarland, much like Kazmir.
While the odds are against them to fully regain the glory of their younger years, each of these four portsiders are a testament to the resilience of their spirit and their willingness to persevere. Their spring training stories are also a testament to the notion that if you’re lefthanded and have a pulse, you’ll always have a job in baseball.
Cynicism aside, you can’t keep a good man down, handedness be damned.
*Except for Norm Charlton
So by now many/most of you have seen the Brandon McCarthy incident that occurred during Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Inland Empire, Barstow, and High Desert of Kern and LA Counties, and parts of San Diego. Scary stuff, life threatening stuff. Stuff of nightmares, and stuff that conjures up flashbacks to Juan Nicasio, even Ray Chapman.
As a neuroscientist by trade, I feel compelled to have a teaching moment, and hopefully shed some light on the medical aspects of the incident, in hopes of arming folks with a little extra knowledge of this type of injury, and perhaps add some additional gravity to the situation, while also alleviating some of the mystery, and concern over the epidural hematoma Brandon sustained.
Excuse me while I change into my white coat — mine’s flannel lined, and super comfy.
Ahh, that’s better; gotta love the LL Bean Health Care catalog.
While he didn’t quite dodge the ball coming off of Erick Aybar‘s bat, McCarthy did dodge a huge bullet in terms of his long-term health; he was quickly seen, and the physicians involved with his initial care did him a great service by getting a CT scan of his head. With the help of my crack staff of interns here at HDIB?, here’s a ‘nice’ CT image of what an epidural hematoma looks like:
See the bright white crescent on the left? That’s the hematoma, which is simply an area of blood that has pooled outside of blood vessels due to trauma. As you can image, a baseball to the noggin at over 120 miles per hour will create enough trauma for the tiny capillaries and vessels of the head to get a little leaky, shall we say. For this type of injury, the blood pools between the tough, layered outer covering of the brain – collectively called the dura – and the skull. As more blood seeps out of blood vessels, the greater the pooling between the dura, and skull. More pooling, more intracranial pressure – the skull doesn’t have much ‘give’, as you can imagine, to flex against the swelling – which in turn, pushes the hematoma into the brain.
From here, the brain gets smooshed (medical term there, folks), and depending upon which part of the brain gets smooshed the most, you can see a number of symptoms, arising from what that smooshed brain area is responsible for – language, vision, movement, what have you. More severe hematomas can smoosh all the way down to more basic areas of brain that are responsible for things like, say, breathing. This can happen over a matter of hours, or a matter of days, which is why the CT scan, as well as keeping a person with this in the hospital for observation, is a crucial aspect of diagnosis, and treatment of this injury.
OK, my impromptu neurosurgery residents, what do we need to do, and how do we do it. Yes, you with all of the tattoos, playing Fruit Ninja on your phone – whatcha got?
…reduce intracranial pressure is the first step? Excellent! What’s a quick, and mildly barbaric way to do that?
You, the one with the bowtie, picking your earwax and smelling it, you’re up.
… a craniotomy? What you lack in social skills, you add in sheer neuroscience genius. While you are correct in wanting to do this, there are other methods of reducing the pressure from the hematoma, but the craniotomy is arguably the quickest, and most thorough way to get this resolved.
OK, so off we go to the OR to drill a hole in poor Brandon’s skull, to ‘evacuate’ the hematoma, and reduce that brain smooshing. You can find more in-depth information about the procedure here.
There we have it, in a nutshell – for those scoring at home, it’s a Brazil nut. While a somewhat common injury, especially in falls, and car accidents, it’s exceedingly rare within the realm of baseball injuries. McCarthy’s prognosis is quite good, given the speed in which the medical staff treated this, from the team trainer, down to the neurosurgeon.
Isn’t neuroscience great?
The answer is yes. Yes it is.
…and even more awesome is that Brandon is going to be OK, and hopefully back on the mound soon, albeit not this season, I would imagine.
I hope you enjoyed my teaching moment, and that it adds to your enjoyment of the game, and to your amazement of the human body, at rest, and in motion.
Is Brandon McCarthy awesome?
Yes. Yes he is. And with the help of modern medicine, he will continue to be.