Is Tim Lincecum on his way to an all-time season?

To make a point, I’m going to start off by listing the last MLB FIP leaders over the last 25 years:

  • 2009: Zack Greinke (2.33)
  • 2008: Tim Lincecum (2.62)
  • 2007: Jake Peavy (2.84)
  • 2006: Johan Santana (3.04)
  • 2005: Johan Santana (2.84)
  • 2004: Randy Johnson (2.30)
  • 2003: Pedro Martinez (2.21)
  • 2002: Pedro Martinez (2.24)
  • 2001: Randy Johnson (2.13)
  • 2000: Pedro Martinez (2.17)
  • 1999: Pedro Martinez (1.39)
  • 1998: Kevin Brown (2.23)
  • 1997: Roger Clemens (2.25)
  • 1996: John Smoltz (2.64)
  • 1995: Randy Johnson (2.08)
  • 1994: Greg Maddux (2.39)
  • 1993: Greg Maddux (2.85)
  • 1992: Roger Clemens (2.54)
  • 1991: David Cone (2.52)
  • 1990: Roger Clemens (2.18)
  • 1989: Bret Saberhagen (2.45)
  • 1988: Roger Clemens (2.17)
  • 1987: Nolan Ryan (2.47)
  • 1986: Mike Scott (2.16)
  • 1985: Dwight Gooden (2.15)
  • 1984: Dwight Gooden (1.69)

So, over the last 25 years, only two pitchers have had a FIP below 2.00. In fact, going back through the FanGraphs era (1974-present), Doc and Pedro are the only two starters to have a FIP below 2.00.

Tim Lincecum could join them this year.

I know, I know, he’s only made six starts in 2010 going into Sunday. And, I know, his FIP coming into Sunday was just below 2.00 at 1.93.

But his xFIP—which normalizes for home runs and usually is a sobering stat for quick starters—sits at 1.97.

Lincecum has an 11.91 K/9 and 1.70 BB/9, coming out to a 7.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s compensated for a drop in fastball velocity by throwing an absurdly good changeup—which is 6.23 runs above average.

ZiPS doesn’t see Lincecum continuing his ridiculous dominance for the rest of the season, projecting a 2.49 FIP for the rest of the season. The main factors behind that are a rise in Lincecum’s BABIP from its current .275 to .310 and a rise in BB/9 to 2.98.

It’s tough to argue with those ZiPS projections, but it’s still cool to think about Lincecum having a shot at posting a FIP below 2.00 this year. At the least, he looks well on his way to winning his third consecutive NL Cy Young.

Kyle Gibson stays grounded in minors

Having watched Kyle Gibson pitch at the University of Missouri the last two years, I know he can be a very, very good pitcher. So when I saw that he’s working a 3.21 FIP through 37.0 innings with the Twins’ high-A Fort Myers Miracle, I can’t say I was surprised.

The Twins do a fantastic job developing pitchers whether they have good stuff or not. Nick Blackburn doesn’t have great stuff, but he’s developed into a pretty solid back-of-the-rotation starter in the last few years (minus his poor start this year).

The same goes for Kevin Slowey, although he’s developed into a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy despite having a fastball that barely touches 90 on the radar gun.

Scott Baker has better stuff than Blackburn and Slowey but still doesn’t have great stuff—and he hasn’t had a WAR below 2.9 in a year in which he’s made over 20 starts in his career.

Gibson has better stuff than all three of those previously mentioned pitchers, which is a pretty scary thought for the future of the AL Central.

He features a very good low-90’s fastball with movement and a plus slider to go along with a good-not-great changeup that could develop into a plus pitch.

More importantly, though, is that Gibson has good command of all three of his pitches. He’s done a fantastic job keeping the ball down so far, and that’s where the title of this post comes into play.

Of balls put in play off Gibson, 66.7 percent have been ground balls—two in every three. If he can continue to keep the ball on the ground at a high rate (obviously not that high), he’ll quickly move through the Twins system, having success everywhere he goes. Through just 37 professional innings, Gibson would be projected to have a 5.07 FIP if he was called up to the majors today.

While that’s not great, remember that Gibson is still in the nascent stages of his pro career.

Even though I’m a White Sox fan, I’m really rooting for Gibson to make it to the majors quickly and have success when he does make it. I’ve covered the Missouri baseball team the last two seasons, and I can say without a doubt Kyle Gibson was the best interview I’ve had over the last two years.

Professional, mature, cordial, informative, knowledgeable, witty, pick an adjective. I always enjoyed Gibson starts not just because I got to see him pitch, but because it meant I had the pleasure of talking to him after the game. Heck, even when I didn’t do a story about Gibson, I still tried to interview him because he always had great things to say.

So here’s hoping Gibson makes it to the bigs quickly. I may be rooting for a division rival, but I’ll always root for Kyle Gibson.

HR Kelly

Kelly Johnson is so famous that when you search his name on Google images, this is the first picture that pops up:

That would be Clarence L. Kelly Johnson, a “Lockheed Aviation Legend” whose personal quote (I guess) was “be quick, be quiet, and be on time.” If the other Kelly Johnson—the one who didn’t pass away 20 years ago—is anything, it’s quick and quiet.

With his Thursday home run off the Cubs’ James Russell, Johnson leads the National League in home runs on April 30 with nine, one behind MLB leader Paul Konerko. He led baseball in isolated power at an absurd .457 before going 4-5 with a home run Thursday afternoon at Wrigely Field. He’s in the top five in baseball in wOBA and top 10 in WPA.

Those numbers have come in the mold of Lockheed Kelly Johnson: quick and quiet. I guess you could say the baseball Kelly Johnson is on time with everything, too, because you gotta have good timing to hit the ball as hard as he has this year.

What’s most impressive about Kelly Johnson’s start, though, is that he’s Kelly Johnson.

This is the same Kelly Johnson who, in 510 career games, has a pretty solid .346 wOBA. He’s always seemed like a good-to-very-good player, somebody who can get on base nicely with some gap-to-gap power.

The most home runs he’s hit in a season is 16, that coming back in 2007. He’s already halved that in a month this year.

ZiPS’ updated projection has him pegged to hit 24 home runs this year with his torrid start. Obviously, he’s going to cool down with the long balls—coming into today’s game, he was hitting a home run on one in every three fly balls.

A .389 wOBA in 2010 is what ZiPS sees at the end of the year for Johnson, too. For reference, only two second basemen had higher wOBAs in 2009—Ben Zobrist and Chase Utley.

How the heck did the Braves let this guy get away?

After posting a .306 wOBA in 2009, the Braves designated Johnson for assignment following the season, handing the second base reins over to Martin Prado. I guess it should be noted that Prado had a .396 wOBA coming into today—but his .408 BABIP is unsustainable.

Similarly unsustainable was Johnson’s .247 BABIP in 2009. He didn’t hit an abnormally low amount of line drives and he didn’t swing at an abnormally high amount of pitches out of the strike zone.

Johnson did hit more fly balls than ground balls for the first time in his career in ’09. Usually, batters who hit more fly balls have lower BABIPs.

But even then, that ugly .247 mark wasn’t going to repeat itself in 2010, right?

At first, I was surprised to see that Johnson’s 2010 BABIP was .250 coming into Thursday. Then I remembered that eight of his 20 hits coming into Thursday went for home runs. So that explains that.

What’s great about Johnson is that he isn’t looking like one of those early-season Pyrite players. While his first-month stats aren’t sustainable, they shouldn’t fall far enough to where Johnson’s first month is lumped in with the likes of, say, Chris Shelton.

Instead, expect Johnson to keep up a very nice level of production for the rest of 2010.

Podsednik, Pudge, and pixie dust

You know it’s early in the year when…

…coming into Sunday, Scott Podsednik had a better wOBA than Matt Holliday, Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Adam Dunn, and Hanley Ramirez. Ivan Rodriguez has been even better, besting Adrian Gonzalez, Joe Mauer, Alex Rodriguez, and a bunch of other guys.

Both Podsednik and Rodriguez have BABIPs that are through the freaking roof, with Pods coming in at .442 and Pudge at .460. Only Austin Jackson (.500!) and Martin Prado (.473) have higher BABIPs than Rodriguez, and those three plus Franklin Gutierrez (.446) have higher BABIPs than Podsednik.

For reference, the highest BABIP any regular player had in 2009 was .394 by David Wright. A look at the top BABIPs of ’09 reveals a lot of really good hitters (i.e. Ichiro, Hanley Ramirez, Joe Mauer) and speedsters (Michael Bourn, Jason Bartlett, Chone Figgins).

The problem is that neither Rodriguez nor Podsednik qualify as good hitters or speedsters.

The 39-year-old Rodriguez hasn’t had a good wOBA since 2004 and has a barely below-average speed score of 4.5. Podsednik has had some average wOBAs over the years, but the last time he had a really good wOBA was 2003.

So when you combine each player’s BABIP with their recent history, there’s almost no chance either player keeps hitting as well as they have for the first three weeks of the year. If they do, then they obviously have some sort of magic pixie dust they sprinkle on their bats.

And if they do, they should pass some of it to Mark Teixeira (.128 BABIP), Aramis Ramirez (.140), and Carlos Quentin (.149).

The odds are stacked against both Podsednik and Pudge. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. But if I’m right, I guess I’ll just high-five myself or something.

Because there ain’t no party like a Liz Lemon party because a Liz Lemon party is mandatory.

Your way-too-early defensive leaders

April 21: Christmas!

If Christmas was based on a small sample size.

FanGraphs released its first UZR update today much to the happiness of basement-dwelling bloggers everywhere. The leaderboard:

First base: Kendry Morales, LAA (2.6)

Second base: David Eckstein, SD (2.5)

Shortstop: JJ Hardy, MIN (3.1)

Third base: Jose Lopez, SEA (3.1)

Right field: Nelson Cruz, TEX (5.2)

Center field: Austin Jackson, DET (3.1)

Left field: Carl Crawford, TB (5.1)

And if you’re looking for a pitcher, look no further than this:

I guess Jose Lopez qualifies as the biggest surprise given that he had only played five games at third base before 2010, so there’s no track record to refer back to.

Eckstein is the only one of these players who scored low (get it? It’s because he’s short!) in UZR last year, clocking in at -3.5 at second base. Austin Jackson has rated “average to below average” in the minors, so he may be due for a regression as well.

Morales, Hardy, Cruz, and Crawford all scored well in UZR last year, so seeing them at the top of the leaderboard isn’t surprising.

But here’s the obvious caveat: to truly evaluate defensive talent, you need three years of UZR data. A hundred or so innings of data is nowhere near enough to make a good evaluation on a player’s defense. Evaluating defense on 100 innings of data would be like telling everybody a movie is good based on a 30-second trailer that has like two funny Vince Vaughn lines that promise to be the only mildly comical lines in the entire movie.

So now that I’ve rendered this post completely worthless, I guess I should leave you with some sort of value to take away.

Plate discipline numbers are reliable this early in the season, and as a team, the St. Louis Cardinals are the biggest hackers in baseball, swinging at 47.6 percent of pitches. But the Cards don’t swing at a ton of bad pitches—they’ve swung at 25.8 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, putting them right around the middle of the pack.

Instead, the Cardinals’ in-state counterparts have had the worst pitch selection. The Royals’ lineup has swung at 30.7 pitches out of the strike zone, a tick above the Astros at 30.6 percent. The Rangers, Mets, White Sox, and Marlins have all swung at over 30 percent of out-of-the-zone pitches as well.

Finally, this has no connection to defense or hacking, but I mean…this might be the greatest thing to hit the internet since stealth cat.

Sorry, Panda.

How good was the Springfield Power Plant team?

When C. Montgomery Burns sent Waylon Smithers out to scour the American League, the National League, and the Negro League, a pretty solid roster was assembled for the Springfield Power Plant. But was it really the best roster that Smithers could have assembled?

Thanks to FanGraphs and Rally’s WAR database, we can see just how good of a job Smithers did. All these numbers are from the 1992 season, as the episode aired on February 20, 1992.

The verdict: the roster probably should have led Mr. Burns to release the hounds or, at least, the Robotic Richard Simmons. But just how bad was it?

Catcher: Mike Scioscia

“Will…I…be…able…to…play…softball…tomorrow?”

“No, Mr. Scioscia. At this time tomorrow you’ll barely be able to breathe.”

Scioscia retired after the 1992 season, a season in which he had just a .260 wOBA. Rally pegged him as a -0.9 WAR player, hardly good enough to be a mercenary on a company softball team.

And he certainly couldn’t use the radiation excuse for his dropoff in performance.

The better option for the team would have been Darren Daulton. He posted a career-high .402 wOBA with the Phillies and had a 7.4 WAR in what was easily the best year of his career.

To be fair, Daulton was coming off a -0.3 WAR 1991 season. A safer bet would have been Mickey Tettleton, who was coming of a 5.2 WAR season in 1991. However, he fell to 3.0 WAR in 1992, over four wins below Daulton.

[Wins lost: 8.3]

First base: Don Mattingly

“I thought I told you to trim those sideburns! You’re off the team! FOR GOOD!”

“…I still like him better than Steinbrenner.”

Smithers could’ve done better than Mattingly and his 2.3 WAR in 1992. Like Scioscia, a significant amount of wins were lost on this pick.

Frank Thomas should’ve been the pick at first base. His .432 wOBA was second-best in baseball in 1992 and his 7.6 WAR was stout in his third year in the majors.

Maybe it was the sideburns that drew Smithers to Mattingly.

[Wins lost: 5.3]

Second base: Steve Sax

“You just don’t know when to stop talking, do you, Saxy boy?”

What was Smithers trying to prove with Sax? That he had an eye for old, washed-up talent? Sax’ .279 wOBA was second-worst among qualified second baseman in 1992 and his -0.6 WAR nearly beat out Scioscia for worst on the team.

Ryne Sandberg and his 7.1 WAR would have been a far better choice for the team. Although I guess he wouldn’t have been a candidate to serve six consecutive life sentences for all the unsolved murders in New York.

[Wins lost: 7.7]

Shortstop: Ozzie Smith

“aaaaaaaaaahhhhh COOL!”

Finally, a semi-respectable pick. While Smith’s .339 wOBA wasn’t anything special, it was the second-best among shortstops. Obviously, Smith’s defense was his strong suit, and that pushed him to being a 4.3 WAR player in 1992.

However, Barry Larkin had a much better 1992 than Smith. Larkin’s .374 wOBA easily was the best by any shortstop and his 5.7 WAR was outstanding as well.

[Wins lost: 1.4]

Third base: Wade Boggs

“And I say England’s greatest prime minister was Lord Palmerston!”

“Pitt the Elder!”

It’s tough to blame Smithers for picking Boggs, who was coming of a 6.0 WAR 1991. However, his wOBA dipped to .315 in 1992 and his WAR plummeted to just 2.2.

Robin Ventura or Gary Sheffield should’ve been the pick. Their 6.1 WARs topped third basemen in 1992. As a White Sox fan, I’ll say Smithers should’ve gone with Ventura, although seeing Sheffield get punched out for thinking Pitt the Elder was England’s greatest prime minister would’ve been pretty great.

[Wins lost: 3.9]

Right field: Jose Canseco

“Never fear, ma’am, I’ll save your cat!”

Splitting time between Oakland and Texas, Canseco compiled just a 2.1 WAR in 1992. The juicehead’s defense is what brought him down, as his .357 wOBA was at least respectable.

The right pick here would have been Larry Walker, who posted a 5.8 WAR in his third full season with Montreal. While Danny Tartabull’s .397 wOBA led all right fielders, Walker’s .379 wOBA and good defense put him at the top of the right field WAR charts that year.

[Wins lost: 3.7]

Center field: Ken Griffey Jr.

“It’s like there’s a party in my mouth and everyone’s invited!”

Believe it or not, Griffey wasn’t the right pick for center field. His 5.4 WAR was nice, but there were plenty of players with better WARs in 1992.

Kirby Puckett was one, coming in at 6.7. But he wasn’t the best.

That would be Andy Van Slyke, with a 6.9 WAR. I’ll admit I was pretty surprised at that one.

[Wins lost: 1.5]

Left field: Darryl Strawberry

“Are you better than me?”

“Well, I’ve never met you before, but…yes.”

A major back injury limited Strawberry to just 43 games and a -0.3 WAR with the Dodgers in 1992. However, Strawberry regressed from a 6.5 WAR in 1990 to a 3.7 WAR in 1991, so Smithers isn’t completely exempt from criticism here.

Injury or not, the left field pick should have been obvious. Barry Bonds led baseball with a .469 wOBA and posted a 10.0 WAR in his MVP season of 1992. Those numbers were untouchable, and maybe picking Bonds would have meant it wouldn’t take a walk-off hit by pitch to beat Shelbyville.

[Wins lost: 10.3]

Pitcher: Roger Clemens

“Sir, he’s in no condition to pitch.”

Clemens had a great 1992, leading baseball with a 2.54 FIP. But, once again, Smithers strikes out with this pick.

In his final year with the Cubs, Greg Maddux posted an 8.4 WAR with a 2.58 FIP en route to winning the National League Cy Young. Plus, he’s too smart of a person to be tricked into clucking like a chicken because of some hypnotist.

[Wins lost: 0.5]

Total WAR lost: -42.6. Way to go, Smithers.

Alfonso Soriano: a tale of fail

November 6.

According to wikipedia, the first European set foot in Texas on November 6, 1528. Actor Ethan Hawke was born on November 6, 1970. And November 6 is also Constitution Day in three countries—Dominican Republic, Tartarstan, and Tajikistan. I have no clue where Tartarstan is.

And, on November 6, 2006, the Chicago Cubs gave Alfonso Soriano $138 million.

Cubs fans don’t care that Texas was discovered on that day. They don’t care that “If you do not smoke this, we have a problem” Ethan Hawke was born on that day. And they certainly don’t care about Constitution Day in other countries.

No, for Cubs fans, November 6 was the day that the Cubs made the team’s worst free agent signing. And it was for a lot of coin.

An artist’s rendering of the signing.

To be fair, it’s not like Soriano was a slouch in 2006. With Washington, Soriano hit a career-high 46 home runs with a .377 wOBA. He also played solid defense to the tune of an 8.1 UZR in left field, which helped him reach a WAR of 5.5.

Soriano’s demise didn’t begin in 2007, either. While he hit fewer home runs, he wasn’t in a position to do so. UZR loved his defense*, too, and he posted a 5.6 WAR. So, at least for a year, Soriano’s tenure in Chicago was going well.

But the Cubs gave thee 30-year-old Soriano an eight-year contract. His January 7 birthday meant he was 31 when he played his first game with the Cubs.

And the Cubs have him until 2014. In 2014, Soriano will be 38.

So when Soriano declined to a 3.1 WAR in 2008, it was certainly cause for concern. After all, players usually don’t improve as they get into their 30’s—instead, they decline.

And that’s exactly what Soriano did in 2009. He declined to the point where he was the fourth-worst qualified position player in baseball last year.

Offensively, Soriano was a liability. He struck out in nearly three percent more at-bats than his career average and his wOBA fell to a career-low .314.

Behind that drop was an obvious inability to hit breaking balls. Of pitches thrown to Soriano, 24.7 percent of them were sliders, the second-highest percentage in baseball. He also faced the fourth-highest percentage of curveballs of anybody in baseball.

Obviously, pitchers threw Soriano more breaking stuff because he couldn’t hit those pitches. He was about one run below average against sliders and two runs below average against curveballs.

On top of those offensive struggles, Soriano played terrible defense. Stuff like this happened a lot.

The worst part about Soriano’s 2009 struggles may not be that they happened, though. It’s that, at age 34, there’s no reason to think Soriano can come close to living up to his contract through 2014.

Maybe Soriano will rebound out of negative WAR territory in 2010. But he won’t rebound to earn his $18 million salary.

And he still has five years left in Wrigelyville. With a fanbase that’s been frustrated since 2003 and doubly frustrated since 2005, it’s not going to be a fun time for Soriano in left field at Wrigely for the next five years.

But hey, at least he’s making a lot of money.

“How do you sleep at night?”

“On top of a pile of money with many beautiful ladies.”