Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Yuniesky Betancourt: Revisited

     When the Zack Greinke trade was announced, most people were too excited to notice that Yuniesky Betancourt was even included in the deal. (At least I was.) However, Kansas City fans were equally excited to get rid of the man they called YunE-6, as Betancourt's impatient ways, corresponding sub-.300 OBP, and extremely poor showings in many advanced defensive metrics led to him being widely criticized on the internet and elsewhere. (A quick Google search of "Yuniesky Betancourt worst player" yielded almost 17,000 results.)
     But why did Doug Melvin want him in the deal, let alone anoint him the starting shortstop? Bearing in mind that Kansas City GM Dayton Moore has pulled off some obscenely good deals in the past (please note the heavy sarcasm), and that no team is proud to call Luis Cruz their everyday shortstop (no sarcasm), Betancourt is still being paid $2 million by Milwaukee, which is, at current exchange rates, about 2 Orlando Cabreras or, in more familiar terms, 1/3 of a JJ Hardy. For all Betancourt is ridiculed online, this is the closest thing I can find to a defense of him, and it rips modern baseball analysis so many times it appears that Joe Morgan was writing in the place of Tom Haurdricourt. 
     So from there, I set out to try and determine if the man now known as Yuni B was truly a horrible waste of a roster spot whose only virtue was being in the same organization as Tony Pena Jr. and Luis Cruz, or perhaps a shrewd pickup by Doug Melvin? (level of sarcasm TBD)
     I started by putting selected stats from 2008 onward into this table:

Offense                          G           PA          AVG          OBP             SLG          OPS+       ISO       BABIP        SPD   
2008SEA1535900.2790.30.39185.113.289    3.8 
2009 SEA/KC1345080.2450.2740.35166.106.2563.9
2010 KC 1515880.2590.2880.40588.146.2672.8

     Not much reason for optimism there. Aside from a modest jump in power production last year, there's really nothing to hang your hat on. While some might hope he could channel his 2008 BABIP, it has steadily declined, presumably along with his speed, since his rookie year. (He posted a speed score of 5.2, which gradually eroded to last year's 2.8.)
     However, there is a silver lining in this seemingly unsalvagable cloud of non-production. Here are Betancourt's career platoon splits:

             PA          AVG        OBP          SLG           OPS
vs. L1400.2890.3410.4380.778
vs. L7550.2840.320.4370.754
vs. R23020.2680.2890.3790.668

       Would you look at that! If nothing else, Betancourt has hit .284/.320/.437 against lefties for his career. His production against southpaws actually resembled that of an above-average shortstop last season, which means he does do at least one thing well. (Many Kansas City fans spent years trying to find one thing he could do well, then just gave up and went back to mocking "The Process.")
     If Betancourt can continue hitting left-handers at this clip, he could probably be valuable in a platoon shortstop/pinch hitter role. The Milwaukee Brewers don't have anyone just sitting around who could fill the other half of said hypothetical platoon, but by giving lefty-hitting Craig Counsell 1-2 starts a week against righties (who he has hit .260/.346/.355 against in his career), they could squeeze the most value out of Betancourt and Counsell, who is collecting dust on the bench as we speak.
    Here's when things get tricky. This next table shows Betancourt's performance in various defensive metrics, 2008-2010.

             G        FLD%          RF/9     RF/9+            +/-*        UZR*    TotalZone       DRS*         FRAA

     First off, RF/9+ is Range Factor, divided by the RF/9 of all shortstops in the league for that year, times 100, so, a RF/9+ greater than 100 means the shortstop in question (in this case, Betancourt) made more successful plays per nine innings than the average shortstop, where a RF/9+ means he made fewer successful plays. I don't know if anyone has done that before, but I thought it would be useful to provide some context what is above and below average, as a 4.56 doesn't mean much to me and probably doesn't mean much to you, either. (If you need more information on any of the metric, just click on the link by its' name.)
          The five metrics to the right of Range Factor all essentially try to do the same thing: Determine how many runs the player saved or cost his team compared to an average fielder at his position (except for plus/minus, which is measured in "plays"). Each of them has their own crazy way of getting there, but most (but not all) of them rely on data such as the speed and location of batted balls, which is collected by people working for companies like Baseball Info Solutions. (Plus/Minus, UZR, and DRS each use data from Baseball Info Solutions, so I grouped them together with the asterisk.)
     The most interesting thing I saw in this table was that in 2010, Betancourt had a significantly higher Range Factor and Fielding Percentage than in 2008 or 2009, and he picked up about 20 runs in both TotalZone and FRAA, the two metrics that don't rely on batted ball data from BIS. However, the three metrics that use the BIS data did not pick up such a change. What caused the dichotomy?
     It is my guess (I have nothing to validate this, at least not yet) that Betancourt, for whatever reason, did improve defensively last season, yet UZR, DRS and Plus/Minus didn't notice the change. Though still devoid of evidence to support this, I think the answer lies in bias in batted ball (whether a ball was a ground ball, fly ball, or line drive) and hit tracker (where a ball was hit and how hard) data.
     One way that batted ball data ends up getting skewed is illustrated here. This article is already too long, so I won't try to test or prove anything, but will wrap this up by continuing with my rambling hypothesis on how Betancourt rebounded slightly from his 2009 season and that UZR, DRS, and Plus/Minus didn't notice.
    It's entirely possible that there is a subconscious bias among those who collect the batted ball and hit data. BIS likely employs smart people who are also baseball fans, people who might chuckle lightly at the mention of Betancourt's name. I am not questioning their objectivity or professionalism, but just to illustrate my point: If you were watching Jeff Suppan pitch last year or the year before and saw him not give up a home run, could you chalk it up to anything but luck?
    *I know this article doesn't provide a shred of evidence to suggest such a bias, but 1000 or so words is enough for one post. My next big piece is going to be a more objective look at how Betancourt could (or could not) have been undervalued by those fancy new defensive metrics.

All stats, except for FRAA, are from either baseballreference or fangraphs. FRAA is from Baseball Prospectus and was used with permission.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

If nobody pays attention to the date on this, I'll look really smart.

On Monday, the Brewers were 0-4, the season apppeared all but lost, and was surging in popularity. A nice winning streak can calm things down nicely, and here are some quick cuts on why nobody should have ever been nervous.

1. All teams go through some tough stretches. The 2008 Brewers had one 4-game losing streak, one 6-game losing streak, and on three seperate occasions, went 6 games without a win.

2. Milwaukee is playing without the services of Corey Hart, Jonathon Lucroy, and Zack Greinke. That's three average or better regulars whose spots are being taken by three guys who would generously be described as "replacement level." Upon their return, the team could improve fast.

3. The bullpen: Two of the four losses were blown spectacularly by John Axford and Takashi Saito. Axford's two saves have been shaky, and it's very possible he ends up being a one-year wonder, but if/when he finds his rythmn, watch out. As has been previously noted, there are also several guys in the high minors who could likely make an impact soon.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Few More Reasons for Optimism in 2011

It took me six hours to come up with two reasons to feel good after the last four games, but here we go:

Doug Melvin: Quite simply, owner Mark Attanasio is expecting more out of Melvin (he's the General Manager, kids) than one Wild Card in 9 years, and if the 2011 club falters, it's likely the "rebuilding" of the club won't occur under Melvin's watch. The front office knows this, which probably was part of the reason behind the desicion to go out and trade away what was left of the minor league system to acquire Greinke and Marcum. In a couple of months, if the team is even remotely in the playoff race, expect for Melvin and Co. to again do whatever they can to round up the reliever or shortstop they need, even if they don't have the pieces to pull off a Sabathia-type deal.

The Bullpen: The Brewers could be 2-2 right now if not for some, um, shaky relief appearances. But help may be on the way. Mark Rogers and Mike McClendon will begin the season in Triple-A Nashville, though both of them pitched well in limited big-league looks last year. Rogers could potentially dominate, as his post-shoulder surgery fastball reached the upper 90s in shorter stints last year, and McClendon showed enough to be an effective middle man. John Axford's 2010 could very well be an outlier, and 40 year old setup men don't carry a brilliant track record, but the Brewers, with two more than servicable bullpen arms biding time in Nashville, and another hard thrower (Zach Braddock) waiting in the wings, the bullpen could go from a steroid-enlarged thorn in the club's side to a young, exciting unit ready to provide cost-effective innings for years to come.