Why can’t Billy Hamilton hit a triple?

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On May 2 of last year, Reds centerfielder Billy Hamilton strolled to the plate for the second time that day. Facing Johnny Cueto, Hamilton laced a sharp liner to left center—a batted ball, in most common circumstance, results in a routine single. Denard Span, the center fielder, understood immediately it would not be a routine single. He hurried a few steps to his right, scooped the ball from the ground, twirled, and fired a quick throw to the second baseman. Of course, it was too late. Billy Hamilton was sliding into second with a leadoff double.

The Reds’ announcers were impressed. “He can turn a single into a double and a double into a triple better than anyone in the game,” one remarked.

The first part is almost certainly true. (I will show you, later, with videos, and statistics.) But the second part is where things get tricky.

Last year, Billy Hamilton hit three triples. Other players who hit three triples in 2016: John Jaso, Freddy Galvis, Carlos Santana. 60 players hit more triples than Billy Hamilton last year. In 2012, Billy Hamilton stole 155 bases in a single minor league season. What gives? Why isn’t Billy Hamilton hitting any triples?

Obviously, Hamilton’s lack of power is well-trod territory. In August, August Fagerstrom wrote on the delightful results of his weakest contact. He noted in his piece that Hamilton sat at the lowest exit velocity of any single qualified batter in the league. (Hamilton finished the year just above other noted slap hitters Dee Gordon and Billy Burns.)

But just three triples? Hamilton’s contemporaries, Burns and Gordon, had 4 and 6, respectively, in a smaller amount of plate appearances. But after watching all of Hamilton’s 25 extra-base hits from last year, it’s clear looking at exit velocity leaderboards doesn’t totally get the job done. I have done the hard work here, and I return with this astounding explanation: Billy Hamilton didn’t hit a ball in the gap for the entire season!

For the purposes of this exercise, “hitting a ball in the gap” will be defined as a batted ball that splits two outfielders and reaches the wall. A ground balls or line drive in the alley is not a gapper.

Now, as promised, is some video. Behold, the closest Hamilton came to hitting a ball in the gap in 2016:

So, this one comes down to a technicality. Is a lofted fly ball, misjudged by both outfielders, but still landing between them (though not rolling all the way to the wall) a gapper? Some may say yes. Some may say no. (I say no.) You can choose to get hung up here, or you can choose to accept the statistical improbability that this is the only ball that could even be debatably determined as a batted ball in the gap by Hamilton in 2016.

His other closest instances of a ball in the gap:

On August 14th, Keon Broxton drops a line drive hit to his left. The scorer gives Hamilton a double.

Back on May 5th, Hamilton lofts a fly ball to center. Kirk Nieuwenhuis tracks back and lets the ball hit his glove as it falls to the grass.

That’s it. Every other Hamilton extra base hit last year was either a routine single stretched into a double, a grounder down the line, or a line drive into the alley. Some illustrative examples:

Grichuk got to the ball in time, but his arm just didn’t have enough juice to peg Hamilton.

This is Hamilton’s first double of the year, on April 9. We can chalk this one up to an early season blunder.

This is from June 1. Not sure how you’re still sleeping on Billy Hamilton at this point. Don’t fall asleep on Billy Hamilton!

So, to circle back to the original premise, this is how Hamilton—despite his prodigious speed—ends up with an pedestrian quantity of triples. Of his 19 doubles, I counted ten that I interpreted as regular old singles stretched into doubles by sheer willpower.

The underlying exit velocity and launch angle numbers back this up, too. Hamilton tied for the league lead last year in doubles with a launch angle of less than 0 degrees (essentially, ground ball doubles.) This likely undersells (oversells?) Hamilton, as Statcast strangely didn’t pick up four of his doubles. (Three of the missing doubles were grounders.)

Why does this matter? Well, it’s fun. Watching Billy Hamilton run is very fun. And extremes are fun. But what’s interesting here for Hamilton, specifically, and also for baseball players, generally, is the idea of attempting to calculate baserunning value from batted ball outcomes. Fangraphs’ baserunning statistic, BsR, is largely composed of UBR, which uses linear weights in various base-out states to calculate the expected baserunning value. This is strong and good methodology, but it leaves out a large component of baserunning skill (stretching extra bases), which is exactly what Hamilton is demonstrating in those clips.

Based on my own rudimentary analysis, it looks like Hamilton turned ten should-be singles into doubles. In a perfect world, we’d count those extra bases in his BsR, and subtract them from his ISO. (Poor Billy Hamilton’s ISO).

But as we gain more access to information, we can perhaps start to develop a way to include this in the BsR methodology. Already, we know that Hamilton’s grounder to center against the Rockies—hit at 95 MPH, with a -5 degree launch angle—results in a double just 3% of the time. With this information, why couldn’t a similar expected runs value be implemented to batted balls, with the goal of separating hitting performance from baserunning performance?

In this theoretical world, Hamilton’s adjusted slugging percentage drops to .289, and his adjusted ISO drops to .029. This would put him at second-worst in the modern era. Just another way for Billy Hamilton to look like one of the weirder players in baseball.

Chris Denorfia: Secretly Kind of Good?

Chris-Denorfia

It was just one game, but it summed up a half-season’s worth of frustration in a tidy, infuriating little package. Eighty-five pitches were thrown against the Mariners in their game against the Indians on July 30 — 69 strikes, 16 balls — and Seattle tallied exactly zero runs and just three hits, bending over to Cleveland in a game that lasted two hours but felt like a lifetime.

It felt like the nadir of an all-too-familiar streak of offensive ineptitude; it made me feel like something, ANYTHING, needed to be done to fix this goddamn offense. Something splashy, something that felt like a move of significance. And, as if the stars had aligned to satiate my impatience, the performance came the night before the trading deadline. Trading Nick Franklin for Austin Jackson was that splashy move. Trading Abraham Almonte for Chris Denorfia was not.

As I noted in the July 31 Email Exchange, the very name “Chris Denorfia” seems to be a signifier for “scrub.” It’s an unassuming name, and Denorfia, at first glance, is a very unassuming player. He was racking up significant playing time in AAA as late as 2009, at age 28. When you’re spending years that should, in theory, be your prime as an average player for the Sacramento River Cats, it’s likely a sign your major league career isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

But a trade from Oakland to San Diego, rather than killing his offense, actually revived Denorfia’s career; in 2010, his first true year in the majors (his previous high in plate appearances was 120), Denorfia posted a 113 wRC+ with average defense as a corner outfielder. A quad-A player was suddenly a valuable commodity. He’s hit every year since then, until this year — and that’s why I’d like to posit this move is, quite sneakily, one of the better moves made over this trade deadline, and one that could significantly improve the Mariners’ chances going forward.

An important thing to realize, as I noted in that July 31 Email Exchange and alluded to earlier in this post, is the context within which this move was made. I won’t spend too much time addressing it, but the Mariners outfield has been a nuclear wasteland this season. Cumulatively, Seattle outfielders carry the league’s worst wRC+, checking in at a 78, 22% below league average. Michael Saunders’s injury hasn’t helped matters, but the lack of depth stuck out like a cold sore from Opening Day. Contenders rarely grant roster spots to sub-replacement-level players, let alone start three of them at the same time, but that’s pretty much what the Mariners were doing for not-insignificant stretches of the year.

It’s too much to say the Mariners needed to trade for an outfielder — because the goal of trades are to make a team better, not necessarily improve a specific facet of it — but it was by far the easiest place to upgrade. Stefen Romero, James Jones, and Endy Chavez have all been among the worst players in the MLB this season. By simply acquiring a +1- to +1.5-win player, they’re be making substantial upgrades. Compare that to, say, the catcher position, where you’d need a +3-win player to make the same degree of upgrade. One-win players, obviously, come much cheaper than 3-win players, and Denorfia fits that first mold pretty closely. At least, this year, he does.

There’s an argument for Denorfia being pretty damn underrated, and not at all someone who ought to be perceived as a 1-win player. His 107 wRC+ since the 2010 season equals the marks of Nick Markakis, Carl Crawford, and Alfonso Soriano over the same time span, and his defense eclipses all three of these players, who’ve achieved widespread public regard in the recent past.

It’s kind of obvious why no one knows who Denorfia is (let alone considers him any good): the letters on his old uniform. Nobody gives a shit about the Padres. They’re the Mariners’ soul mates (and bitter rivals), playing in a giant park with boring players and fading out of playoff conversations by Memorial Day. I consider myself something beyond a diehard baseball fan, but I can’t name four players in the Padres’ starting lineup.

The Mariners and Padres share another obvious similarity: their enormous ballparks. Petco suppresses counting stats like crazy, fooling a casual fan into thinking some players are just terrible hitters. Thankfully, wRC+ does the dirty work for us, but one can understand why Denorfia’s .275/.332./.399 since the start of the 2010 doesn’t exactly get people all hot and heavy.

Truth is, though, Denorfia’s earned the benefit of the doubt to this point in his career. Many will view this year as the norm, but I think it ought to be viewed as the aberration.

When assessing the flukiness of a player’s year-to-date performance, there’s two primary places we usually look. The first, and most common, is simply looking at the player’s BABIP. Denorfia’s 2014 BABIP — .295 — is a good 21 points below his career average of .316. It’s not some catastrophic difference, but it’s enough of one to make a difference of some significance. According to DIPS theory, Denorfia’s been some degree of unlucky, in terms of how many of the balls he’s made contact with have dropped for hits, torpedoing his batting average and OBP. We can expect both to rise going forward.

There’s a more glaring indicator here, though, that Denorfia’s performance this year is a fluky one, and that’s his HR/FB rate. This is the other measure of flukiness; generally, a HR/FB rate well below or well above career norms indicates the hitter has been either unlucky or lucky in the amount of fly balls flying over the fence. This year, Denorfia’s HR/FB rate is nearly five times lower than his career average, at 2.3% against a career average of 10.1%. Unless turning 34 suddenly sapped all of his strength, it stands to say that Denorfia’s slugging percentage has been destroyed by a few more fly balls falling just short of the fence than usual.

Yeah, there’s a chance that age has hit Denorfia like Solange hit Jay-Z (ugh). But that would be a REALLY sharp decline. Chances are, Denorfia’s been a good deal of unlucky this year. It’s not like he’s been declining every year; he’s one year removed from a career-season that approached all-star levels of productivity. If he can find even 90% of his career productivity from the plate, the Mariners might have just stumbled upon a surprisingly valuable contributor for virtually nothing. My bet’s on the fact that they just did.

James Jones Is Not the Answer

James

It takes a special kind of curmudgeon to dislike James Jones. The dude rocks a Junior Griffey grin, steals bases like a maniac, and carries a batting average that would make your dad raise an approving eyebrow. I can’t remember the last time the Mariners had an outfielder that was this much fun (Sorry, Raul, but your omnipresent look of dread in left field never exactly screamed “fun”). And yet, I find myself dreading each of his plate appearances, sighing deeply whenever I see his name penciled in at the top of the batting order.

Anyone that’s flipped to ROOT Sports this year understands the Mariners need another outfielder. Often, though, the names thrown out as needing replacements are Dustin Ackley or Endy Chavez. Yes, James Jones is a likable guy, but his profile going forward is not of a player worthy of a spot on a playoff contending team. In fact, replacing Jones might be more urgent than Ackley or Chavez.

It’s hard to see Jones as essentially a replacement level player, because he so clearly looks the part of a regular. The athleticism stands out like an exclamation point – you don’t want to give Jones anything but a pass with the eye test, watching him cover ground like he does in the outfield. But UZR, unfortunately, disagrees with your eyes. Let’s take the mandatory moment to pause and acknowledge the size of the sample, but it’s not like Jones got called up last week. His UZR/150 (runs prevented/conceded per 150 games) of -25.6, compiled since his emergence in May, ranks 154th out of 156 qualified field players. You can scream “small sample” and “UZR is flawed” until your face turns blue and teal, but a ranking that drastically low indicates quite clearly that Jones is nowhere near an average center fielder at this point in his career. Yeah, he may not be quite this bad, but the UZR (and DRS, another defensive metric) is one of a well-below average outfielder. You’re probably aware that minus defense can be dealt with, as long as the offense is compensating. Here’s the thing, though: the offense is always going to be below-average. And when Jones’s offensive limitations truly become apparent, it’s going to be near impossible to justify keeping him on a major league roster.

Jones just doesn’t have the peripherals to even approach the level of a league-average hitter. Let’s take his current statistics at face-value — a 19.7% strikeout rate and a .056 ISO — and assume they’re sustainable across an entire season (which is an optimistic assumption). On the nifty FanGraphs filters, I isolated single seasons from 1999 to 2013 where hitters put up K% rates at or above and ISOs at or below Jones’s current level, since the goal here is to see whether he could fill the role of an outfield regular. No regular player in that time span has kept up a strikeout rate that high and ISO that low for an entire season. The closest comparison to Jones would be Gregor Blanco’s 2008, where he put up an 89 wRC+, propped up by a 14.3% walk rate. So, basically, in order for Jones to find even slightly below-average success at the plate with his current plate discipline, he needs to both buck recent historic trends AND bump his walk rate up 10 percentage points. The disheartening thing here, though, is that an 18.5% strikeout rate might be overestimating Jones’s potential.

Both Jones’s recent performance and his future projections just don’t see Jones sustaining his current K%. In July, he’s striking out at a 26.9% rate, with no subsequent increase in ISO. ZIPS, a trusted projection system, foresees Jones carrying a 26.4% strikeout rate the rest of the way. Any way you slice it, Jones combines too high of a strikeout rate with too little power to be an effective major league hitter, at least in his current state. Only one player from the last 15 years has qualified for the batting title carrying a 20% strikeout rate and a .075 ISO, and his wRC+ was 58.

That was a whole lot of negativity about James Jones, so let’s back up a little bit. None of this is to say Jones is doomed to the land of washouts. While, at age 25, he’s a bit older than your typical prospect, there’s certainly still time for Jones to improve. He clearly has the physical tools to be a plus center fielder, which is a valuable asset on its own. He’s run above-average BABIPs his entire career, demonstrating an ability to leg out plenty of infield hits. And if he could add just a little bit of power — say, get his ISO up to .100 or so — the prospect of playing Jones would look a lot more tenable.

But the Mariners are in the heat of a pretty tight playoff race, and every little contribution matters. Right now, James Jones might be one of the worst major league regulars, and now is not the time to be experimenting to see whether he’s worthy of future playing time. It’s a shame to say, because yes, he runs fast and gets lots of hits and makes dope catches. But at this point in the season, James Jones is just not good enough to be an everyday outfielder.

Power Rankings: The First 12 Songs on Journey’s “Greatest Hits”

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Cameron’s in Amsterdam, so I can pretty much post whatever I want. And I have become inspired to compile this very important list, inspired by this tweet. Songs 13-15 will be omitted from the rankings, as they are objectively bad songs.

1. Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)

2. Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’

3. Open Arms

4. Faithfully

5. Any Way You Want It

6. I’ll Be Alright Without You

7. Lights

8. Only The Young

9.  Don’t Stop Believin’

10. Who’s Cryin’ Now

11. Ask The Lonely

12. Wheel In The Sky

Haiku Fridays: On a Saturday

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Detroit Tigers

Heyyy, so, yeah, got a little busy yesterday, didn’t get the haikus out on time, but here we are! Time for some awesome Mariner haikus to kick off Friday (Saturday).

 

Last night’s game was long

Tried to keep up for a while

Then it was Friday

 

Mike Trout is the worst

Terrible baseball player

He has a stupid face

 

Felix vs. Richards

Flamethrowers past and present

Stars, the both of them

 

An ode to Ackley

Dustin, yo, what the fuck, man

Pullin’ some bullshit

Is It Still Okay to Hate Howard Lincoln?

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The pitchforks are tucked securely under our beds. The day is June 28, 2014, and the Mariners just completed a series win over the world champions. The series before that, they swept the hottest team in baseball. Their record is 43-37, and if the season ended today (yes, I know you’re tired of that phrase, too bad, I’m going to savor this), the Seattle Mariners would be preparing for a nine-inning game against the Angels for the right to continue onto the ALDS.

What all of this means: the Mariners are having debatably their most promising season in 10 years. Four years of unwatchable suck have floated away like a balloon, and here we are, nearly at the halfway point in the season, with real aspirations of reaching the postseason. This isn’t 2009, a team built on an unsteady foundation, ready to collapse at any moment. Pythagorean record, BaseRuns, you name your context-neutral statistic of choice: these Mariners are actually a little better than decent. And in these moments, it is especially important to remember that Howard Lincoln is still one of the absolute worst CEOs in professional sports, and will limit the potential of the Mariners as long as he is employed.

I know, I’m being a real bummer at the exact time when I ought to be the most excited. I’ve had enough misery following this team for 10 years; why should I actively seek out misery? Part of it, I think, is an intrinsic need to seek balance in any given situation. You know the cliché: never get too high, never get too low.

Another, more pressing reason: I can’t let go of the fact that this team isn’t built on the process that enables long-lasting success. I’m concerned all that will come of the next five years is one failed Wild Card run and four years of payroll-deadlocked misery.

And that all starts at the top with Howard Lincoln, who’s served as the team’s president and point person for the absentee Nintendo ownership for a very long time. He actually had some truly noteworthy accomplishments near the start of the decade. Lincoln is credited, in part, for ensuring the Mariners remained in Seattle (although Ken Griffey Jr. had just as much or more to do with that). He hired Pat Gillick, who oversaw the magical 2001 season. Since that year, though, it’s been shit sandwiches all the way down.

After Gillick retired, Lincoln (and his recently retired business partner, Chuck Armstrong) hired Bill Bavasi, whose father was Buzzie Bavasi, a legendary figure in the MLB world. Bavasi’s only GM experience was a six-year stint with the Angels in the mid-90s, a tenure that ended without a playoff appearance. His time with the Mariners was even more disastrous. A quick summary of his greatest hits: Richie Sexson for four years and way too much money, keeping Yuniesky Betancourt and Miguel Olivo around for far too long, signing Carlos Silva for four years, $48 million (even 14-year-old me knew that move was terrible). Besides an illusory 2007, the M’s finished in last place every year of Bavasi’s tenure.

I’d like to be fair to Lincoln, and concede it’s very difficult to parse, from my humble college student perspective, who bears the responsibility for a team’s continuous failures. Obviously, it’s never fully the owner’s responsibility, and it’s never fully the GM’s; on a case-by-case basis, the weight of responsibility shifts. However, I’d like to posit that in this particular arrangement, Lincoln ought to bear the burden of responsibility.

Example one: the Mariners’ sharp shift in philosophy following the 2010 season. If you’re an M’s fan, you know the timeline. Lincoln hires Jack Zduriencik, who immediately makes moves to shore up the defense, smartly exploiting a market inefficiency. The Mariners compete late into the season, everyone’s happy, Z trades for Cliff Lee in the offseason, and Sports Illustrated picks the M’s to contend for a World Series. 2010 comes, and everything blows the fuck up. They lose 101 games, and instead of seeing through the process that brought them success just a year prior, the Mariners spend the next three years acquiring ostensibly powerful hitters with no other discernible strengths — Miguel Olivo, Jesus Montero, Mike Morse, Raul Ibanez. You get the idea.

I really dislike conjecture, but it’s REALLY hard to see an individual shifting his baseball worldview so drastically in such a short period of time. It stands to reason, then, that this was a directive straight from the top. And this isn’t just a blind assumption; there is concrete, reported evidence that shows Lincoln, whose background is serving as a lawyer for Nintendo, was playing an active role in baseball operations.

In the depths of the offseason following another fourth-place Mariners finish, former Mariners beat writer Geoff Baker released a very damning report of the inner workings of the Seattle brain trust. Implicated heavily in the report was Lincoln. There were reports of Lincoln and Armstrong ripping into former manager Eric Wedge after a particularly poor performance, reports of Lincoln and Armstrong writing notes and passing them to Zduriencik during games, even reports of Lincoln instructing Wedge to make Felix throw batting practice. All of these practices, if true, are an embarrassingly excessive demonstration of overreach from management.

The most damning piece of that Baker piece was the accusation that Zduriencik was still hanging around because Lincoln did not want to admit to his failure. A poor decision compounded by an even worse one — it sums up the last 10 years of Howard Lincoln in a nutshell.

If the last 1,000 words hasn’t made it clear, at no point in the recent past has Lincoln demonstrated a capacity to effectively run a baseball team. Even this year’s team is the product of a flawed process. The offense is buoyed by $240 million dollar Robinson Cano, who could look like a sunken anchor as soon as next year. Most of the homegrown talent, save for Seager and (kind of) Zunino, has utterly failed. If not for an otherworldly season from Felix, and thank God for him, this would be a below-average team, again.

This is an institution not just fraught by instability, but defined by it. Howard Lincoln is the agent of chaos. The sooner he’s removed, the sooner we can begin to realistically dream about a real year-to-year contender. Until then, I’ll be watching anxiously, waiting for the house of cards to collapse. And I’m sure as hell not throwing away my pitchfork.

Welcome

IXomMVIU

This blog is the product of a million Facebook chats and one too many Justin Smoak warning track flyouts. It feels a little silly to introduce ourselves in this way, since if you’re reading this, you know who we are already, but Cameron and I are students and writers at UW and Cal, respectively, and have been friends since we were both in Miss Fettig’s kindergarten class in 1998. Our initiation into the dreary existence of Mariners fandom came with the arrival of Ichiro in that 116-win 2001 season. It’s been real shitty since then, but we persist in pinning our naive hopes of a championship on the backs of Endy Chavez and Cole Gillespie, hoping for another season like the one that got us excited about baseball in the first place. Hopefully, we’ll beat the Yankees next time.

The title of the blog is Why Oh Why?. If it isn’t obvious already, it’s a play on legendary Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus’s signature phrase “My Oh My.” We hope the title encapsulates the futility that the last 14 or so years of Mariners fandom has brought.

We’ll have a few Mariners posts a week, plus a daily conversation on a popular article in sports journalism. We have no grand delusions of this blog achieving any sense of popularity (but if Grantland is reading this, we’ll take a job). Rather, this is just a place to talk about the Mariners and talk about sports journalism, and hopefully you’ll enjoy reading along too.

All Hail King Felix,

Michael