It’s been a great week — Jeff and I just concluded our Spring Training trip that coincided with the SABR Analytics Conference. We really enjoyed meeting a ton of new people. And on behalf of both of us, I want to express our thanks to the entire D-backs Communications Department for helping us get a closer look at the team and all the moving parts that makes the organization great. Exciting things in the works for this year.
I also have to say: it was a blast hanging with Jeff, too. He made a great point yesterday: our regular email/phone/podcast work is great, but working together in person was scary good. We didn’t get in an episode of The Pool Shot over the weekend (should post on or before Weds), but we worked through some upcoming projects — and I think you’re going to enjoy the results. There’s nothing more interesting than baseball, and digging in like that was as good as it gets. Jeff is a great writer and analyst, and I’m lucky to work and interact with him for that reason, in no small part because he has skills I don’t have. But he’s a great friend and teammate, as well. And that’s what makes this whole thing tick.
It’s weird to say, but: how great is Twitter? The platform seems made to order for watching games “together” with people from everywhere. Watching with people in person is as great as it gets, but the last few days made me better appreciate how fortunate I am to follow the team with so many other people, instantaneously. A particular shout out from me and Jeff to the whole @RealDbackNation crowd (who do a ton of fantastic charity work, as well — you owe it to yourself to get plugged in with them).
— DbackNation (@RealDbackNation) March 15, 2015
The Analytics Conference itself — or what I made of it when not at Salt River Fields — was also impressive. A ton of helpful information about making analytics more accessible, and a few nuggets I’ll defer interacting with until future posts.
One of the most interesting things to come out of the conference for me was the presentation of Greg Ackerman and his team from Syracuse, presenting their findings about what kinds of managerial decisions correlate with teams’ ability to outperform their run differential. They tested a number of possibilities, including pinch hitting, pinch running, innings pitched by relievers, stolen base attempts, and sacrifice attempts. Only two types of decisions ended up statistically significant in their study: pitch outs (fairly negative) and defensive replacements (slightly positive). Talked to Greg about the pitch outs, but I’m still very confused by it. Do pitch outs make your team more likely to give up runs? Possible, but to the exact extent that that’s true, it should change the run differential itself. I thought maybe it was a lurking variable – pitch outs only happen with runners on, and you’re more likely to give up runs when you have runners on. But probably not – after all, for those runners to actually determine wins or losses, they’d have to score. Tough nut to crack. The defensive replacement part is easier: even if you trade away offensive production equal to (or maybe even greater than) the defensive production you gain with a replacement, it still benefits you to shift the probabilities closer to the status quo if the status quo has you winning.
The defensive replacement bit obviously has real application to the D-backs this season. If I had my druthers, Ender Inciarte would be a near-starter, not unlike what Gerardo Parra was for the club in 2012. But even if he’s not starting most games, he will (hopefully) play in most games. And while I’m no scout, Nick Ahmed really surprised me in drills and both offensively and defensively on the field in these last few days. Regular defensive replacements in the infield are fairly rare, but this is definitely something to think more about.
And since it’s the roundup, it’s also appropriate to say: the D-backs fan base is extremely lucky to have several talented reporters covering the team. Nick Piecoro, Zach Buchanan, Steve Gilbert, Jack Magruder and others aren’t just good — they’re great. The work that goes into what they do and the skill with which they do it is hard to fathom, and the creativity required and delivered by them in their positions is stunning. I can’t imagine doing their thing, and fortunately I prefer our (very different) kind of thing, anyway — but what we do is frequently only possible because of what they do and how well they do it. We are so spoiled.
On to the links:
- Especially considering how we graded the move in our Offseason Report Card, this may be the biggest news of the last week: as Nick Piecoro reported, Oscar Hernandez will be out six weeks after breaking a hamate bone in his catching hand. Great discussion of this on the latest episode of D-backs Podcast. It’s a “good break,” definitely — the team can keep him without playing him at the start of the season. Expect a long rehab, since the D-backs only need to keep him on the Active Roster for 90 days to acquire his rights permanently. And while he works this spring — perhaps in extended spring training — maybe the team will get used to the idea that Jeff and I pushed just after his selection in the Rule 5: that on days when he’s not expected to catch, he can get some work in at Salt River Fields during the day before warming the bench at Chase Field.
- Zach Buchanan got a lot of deserved attention for this piece on Peter O’Brien‘s roots and his mother’s exit from Cuba. Really enjoyed it, and perspective is important.
- Also at azcentral.com, Nick Piecoro wrote about O’Brien and his recent throwing troubles. Jeff and I were also following this closely in the Sunday B game. O’Brien made some great throws in that game, coming down to second in between innings, etc. The kind that are strong enough to tail — and he had them tailing in right on the runner’s side of the bag. He airmailed a meaningful throw to third base, but another one there and several to the pitcher were half speed, around the horn or getting the ball back to the pitcher. These are the types of things you miss not because you can’t throw, but because you just haven’t made those throws very often. In the Piecoro piece, he quotes Glenn Sherlock and Dave Stewart on not being all that concerned. I have no idea what’s going to happen here. I know framing is something that can be taught — Sal Fasano proved that in 2013, taking a particularly bad framer in J.P. Arencibia and making him particularly good in less than two months. O’Brien also has instincts and skills, turning a very unusual 3-6-3-4 double play with a rundown while playing first base in the afternoon game on Sunday. The Oscar Hernandez injury carries some good fortune with it, but it makes this other catcher decision more difficult. Maybe the ideal situation would have O’Brien return to full time play as a catcher for Reno for at least a month or two (service time considerations may also favor that). Either way, Tuffy Gosewisch should see the lion’s share of playing time behind the dish for the early part of the season. Also in that piece: Andrew Chafin and Vidal Nuno are now only in the running as relievers for the April squad, all the more interesting given a dominant inning from Chafin on Sunday and the recent struggles of Matt Reynolds and Will Locante.
- From last Wednesday, Buchanan wrote that the third base competition is tight. Tomas looked comfortable at third — maybe too comfortable — and Jeff and I both observed that he tended to make throws with his weight on his heels. Footwork in general is the issue, most likely, and while he showed a lot of bat-to-ball skill over the weekend, he wasn’t squaring up much in my little window of seeing him in person. And yes, I’m aware of some bias when it comes to Jake Lamb…but the guy just looks awesome out there, in BP, in drills, in games. He looks like a recruitment video for third basemen. Moving him to the outfield would be a complete shame, because defensively, it’s his footwork and positioning and first step that are his biggest strengths — things that just aren’t as important in the outfield. At the plate, the approach looked great with a lot of center field hitting. Great note from Buchanan in that piece about Lamb getting better results with an adjustment that saw him keeping his weight on his back foot.
- At FanGraphs last week, Mike Petriello had a great, thorough (and GIF’d) piece on the Tomas-at-third experiment. Read it. I love how Petriello thinks — just like I try to do here the kind of D-backs content I’d most want to read, Petriello content is exactly what I most want to read. I happen to stand firmly in the Lamb camp and happen to feel like I saw a lot of reasons to support that recently, but Petriello puts that point perfectly: “It’s not that Lamb is a guaranteed star; it is that he’s the type of young player a rebuilding team like Arizona should want a look at.”
- This probably isn’t a coincidence: my favorite sportswriter ever, Jerry Crasnick, also took on the subject of Tomas playing third, but from an angle that included talking to Tomas and others in the D-backs organization. Read this, too. Interesting that Jeff and I were focused on Tomas’s throwing technique while a scout Crasnick talked to considered throwing to be Tomas’s strength. But for both reactions, it still comes down to footwork — and that’s not an easy thing to learn.
- Also from Piecoro: Chris Owings is back in game action, and he looks good. No ill effects, it looks like. The team is getting Owings time at second base, although he’s still the heir apparent at short. As noted above, I think Nick Ahmed may be turning heads, so there could be some figuring out to do.
- Buchanan also wrote about Evan Marshall, who could be called on to close if Addison Reed is not ready at the start of the season. He definitely looked impressive on Sunday, with three ground ball outs mixed in around a flare to the outfield. Marshall was very unusual last season; as Buchanan wrote, his 60.7 GB% rate came with a 9.9 strikeout rate. I wrote three weeks ago that this rare combination of skills makes Marshall a promising closer candidate, and Buchanan asked that very question of bullpen coach Mel Stottlemyre, Jr. Check out his answer.
- If you want a great 30,000 feet season preview, look no further than Snake Pit’s overview here. If you are reading this right now, chances are you prefer the view at a lower altitude — and that’s fine, since each unit of the preview will link you to analysis on that level. I agree with all of it, and endorse it as a way to get ready for the season. Oh, and congrats to Jim on the site’s 10th anniversary! Just think about it — as of Weds or Thursday this week, it will have been in motion for more than half of franchise history. And Jim is still coordinating and contributing top notch stuff. In this world, that’s as rare as a Brad Ziegler ground ball rate, and worthy of the deepest respect.
- The D-backs moved up in the latest edition of ESPN’s “Future Power Rankings.”
- As explained by Piecoro, the D-backs had an interesting chapter in the Will Farrell odyssey last week.
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