Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Future of Disco.

So, is Chris Hayes a prospect? The experts have spoken.

Chris Hayes is nowhere to appear in Kevin Goldstein’s rankings of the Top 11 Royals prospects released today ($$), not that this is surprising at all. What might be surprising is that he is nowhere to be found in Baseball America’s listing of the Royals’ Top 30 Prospects, and in fact, his name has never appeared in the pages of that august publication.

One minor league expert who has not completely ignored Hayes is my friend John Sickels, whose The Baseball Prospect Book 2009 is now on sale. Hayes warranted an entry in this year’s book:

Chris Hayes went to Northwestern University in Illinois and was quite successful during his junior and senior seasons. But scouts don’t like him very much, as he is a submarine pitcher with below average velocity. He signed up with Windy City in the Frontier League in 2005, pitched well, then signed with the Royals as a free agent in 2006. He continued to pitch well in Double-A last year, throwing strikes and getting ground balls. I don’t like the low strikeout rate, but the other numbers are sharp. If he keeps this up in Triple-A, he could sneak into the major league pen. Stranger things have happened. Grade C.

Grade C is the lowest grade that Sickels gives out to a player worthy of mentioning in his book. Saying “he could sneak into the major league pen” and “stranger things have happened” is not exactly an unqualified endorsement.

So the experts have spoken, and what they’re saying is that Chris Hayes is, at best, a marginal prospect, a future 11th man if he’s lucky.

I am not a minor league expert, though I played one in the pages of Baseball Prospectus for several years. Nonetheless, I can say with some confidence that I think the experts are wrong and that Hayes is very much a prospect, and that he has a very real chance to enjoy a long and successful career in the major leagues.

I believe the reason why my evaluation of Hayes’ potential differs so much stems from the fact that I don’t think you can evaluate Hayes the same way you evaluate overhand pitchers. Much like the rules that apply to traditional pitchers don’t necessarily work when discussing a knuckleball pitcher, I think that we ought to think of low-arm-angle pitchers as their own breed as well.

Many years ago – I think in one of the “Baseball Books” he published from 1993 to 1995 – Bill James made the point that the sidearm pitchers in the major leagues almost all had the same two characteristics: 1) they came from very humble origins and 2) they were almost universally effective pitchers. This was after the heyday of sidearm/submarine pitchers like Tekulve and Quisenberry, but you still had pitchers like Mark Eichhorn, who had a career ERA of 3.00 on the nose, and in 1986 had one of the most underrated rookie seasons of all time, with a 1.72 ERA in 157 innings. He famously declined the Blue Jays’ offer to let him start on the final day of the season so that he could get the five innings he needed to qualify for the ERA title. If he had taken them up on the offer, not only would he have wrested the title from Roger Clemens, he would have posted the lowest ERA of any AL pitcher in the last 40 years. Going to college in Baltimore in the early 90s, I watched up close as Todd Frohwirth gave the O’s three terrific seasons after he was let go by the Phillies.

There always seems to be a half-dozen guys in the majors who throw from a low arm slot, and they’re almost invariably overlooked because they’re slotted in middle relief, but they almost all do good work. Chad Bradford, obviously, was made famous in Moneyball precisely because of his lack of recognition. Cla Meredith was a throw-in to the Padres from Boston in the Doug Mirabelli trade. Brian Shouse briefly pitched for the Royals in 2002, then – naturally – came into his own with the Rangers as soon as he left, at age 34. I had never heard of Pat Neshek before he was called up to Minnesota. I only knew about Brad Ziegler because he was one of Goldstein’s favorite minor leaguers – all he did was set a major league record with 39 consecutive scoreless innings to start his career.

None of these guys was well-regarded as an amateur (none were drafted in the first five rounds). None of them were well-regarded in the minor leagues – I am almost 100% certain that none of them ever appeared on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list. And yet all of them have been excellent relief pitchers in the majors – sometimes, like Neshek and Ziegler, immediately, but in each case in their first extended opportunity.

(Baseball teams may finally be wising up to the market inefficiency regarding sidearm pitchers – Joe Smith was a 3rd-round pick out of college by the Mets, and immediately put on the fast track, throwing just 42 innings in the minors before getting called up.)

The biggest knock against Hayes – and I say “biggest knock” in the way that you might say that the biggest knock against Muggsy Bogues was his height – is that he doesn’t throw hard. While we don’t have any Pitch f/x data, the best estimation is that his fastball runs about 79 mph. And if Hayes was a conventional pitcher, the discussion would end there. The list of conventional pitchers who have succeeded in the majors with a fastball under 80 is pretty much zero. (The closest I can think of would be John Tudor, who in his final season (1990) threw maybe 81-82 mph, if memory serves. He had a 2.40 ERA in 146 innings.)

There are two types of pitchers that can survive, and even thrive, in the majors with a fastball in the 70s: knuckleballers and submariners. Among pitchers who threw even 10 innings last season, the slowest fastball (with an average speed of 72.9 mph) was thrown by Tim Wakefield (he only threw his FB 13% of the time; his knuckler averaged 65.1 mph, and his curveball – his curveball? – averaged 59.5.) The second-slowest fastball, at 79.6 mph, was Chad Bradford’s. Third was Brian Shouse, at 80.5 mph.

Interesting, all the other sidearmers came in at 85 or higher – Meredith at 85.1, Ziegler at 85.3, Neshek at 89.0, Joe Smith at 89.4. This goes with a theory I have that the ability for a pitcher to succeed at lower velocities correlates with just how low his arm angle is. Whether it’s the deception that comes with the fact that the ball looks like it’s shooting out of the pitcher’s mound, or the bizarro movement on the pitches, or simply the novelty of facing an underhand pitcher, it appears that throwing submarine-style is worth about 5 mph compared to a sidearm pitcher, and throwing sidearm is worth about 5 mph compared to an overhand pitcher. As Hayes pointed out in his interview, Bradford is really the only true submarine pitcher in the majors. (Shouse throws only slightly harder than Bradford, but he’s a lefty, and lefties always seem to thrive with fastballs a few mph slower than their right-handed counterparts.)

I’m old enough to remember Quisenberry on the mound, but not old enough to remember what the consensus was on how hard he threw. Some of you older hands help out – how hard did Quisenberry throw? I want to say around 80 mph, but it could have been slightly faster – or slightly slower.

The point is, no one seems to take Hayes seriously as a prospect because of his velocity, when in fact we have a lot of evidence that throwing 79 mph is not an impediment to success for a submarine pitcher. On the contrary – 79 mph is exactly in the range of what the best submarine pitchers in recent memory have thrown.

So the scout-based objections to Hayes’ prospect status appear overblown. That leaves us with his performance record. The biggest black mark on Hayes’ stat sheet is his strikeout rate – 137 whiffs in 203 career innings (6.06 K/9) is not particularly impressive for a minor league pitcher, and last season his K rate was just 5.35 per nine. Once again, though, it’s not entirely fair to evaluate Hayes’ strikeout rate as if he’s a conventional pitcher. The whole point of throwing underneath is that, if you do it well, you don’t need to strike batters out in order to be successful. Quisenberry struck out 3.27 men per nine innings in his career. (Read that sentence again.) Bradford’s career K rate is 5.47 per nine.

The reason why strikeouts hardly matter for a submariner is that it seems to be a near-universal law that submarine pitchers keep the ball on the ground. That’s not necessarily the case for sidearmers – while Meredith and Ziegler have great sinkers, Neshek is a flyball pitcher who has given up 15 homers in 121 career innings. Byung-Hyun Kim was a sidearmer who threw exceptionally hard, and his penchant for fly balls led to some of the most dramatic baseball moments of this decade. But submarine pitchers, even in the high-offense era we’re in, are relatively immune to the home run.

They also tend to have well above-average control. And if you can limit walks and home runs enough, it takes three hits in an inning to score a run. Even if you don’t strike anyone out, the odds are slim that the opponent will turn five groundballs into three hits. (And even if they do, they still might not score if you can mix in a GIDP.) Quisenberry walked the unfathomably low total of 0.79 batters per nine innings when you strip out the IBB, which as Hayes remarked is the lowest figure since 1926 (and I think he was including the IBB’s – take them out and Quiz might have the best control of any major league pitcher since four balls became a walk.) He gave up just 59 homers in 1043 career innings. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he would have been a successful pitcher if every one of his strikeout victims was given a mulligan and allowed to bat until they made fair contact.

Bradford isn’t Quisenberry – no one is – but his career rates of 1.73 unintentional walks per 9 innings, and 0.48 HR per 9, are both outstanding, and the reason why he has a career 3.24 ERA even though he’s allowed exactly one hit per inning in his career.

A lot has been made of the fact that Hayes’ terrific season in 2008 was the result of a BABIP of just .241, which is not likely to be sustained. That’s certainly true, but Hayes was so successful last year that he could easily regress to .300 and still be effective. Keep in mind, not only did he have a 1.64 ERA last season, but given his peripherals (less than a baserunner an inning, just four homers allowed in 66 innings), his expected ERA was probably even less than that. In 2006 and 2007, his BABIP was in the normal range, he gave up about a hit an inning – and he still had ERAs of 2.78 and 3.10, because he did everything else so well.

For his career, Hayes has walked 43 batters (at least 6 intentionally; I don’t have data for 2006) in 203 innings, a UIBB rate of 1.64 per nine. He’s allowed just 7 homers, for a HR rate of 0.31 per nine. Those numbers are even better than Bradford’s minor league rates: Bradford walked 2.31 per nine (although I don’t have any IBB data for him), and allowed 0.37 HR per nine. I expect Hayes’ HR rates to go up as he spends more time in the high minors, but even so his performance record is every bit as impressive as Bradford’s was.

(For the record, Quiz walked 1.74 batters per nine in his minor league career, and struck out 4.39 per nine. I only have homer data for 1978 and 1979; in those two seasons he allowed just 2 homers in 99 innings.)

There’s one other reason why I think that Hayes can maintain his success in the major leagues. Allow me to quote him directly here:

My advantage in an at-bat is how different I am from your average pitcher. I have yet to see a professional hitter taking batting practice off a batting practice pitcher throwing submarine-style. An experienced hitter has taken a swing at a “normal” back-spinning fastball thousands of times. It's been a while since I've hit, maybe it's more like millions.

They see thousands of 90 mph-plus fastballs per season. Then, enter the “weirdo” stage right, and I throw that all upside down (literally and figuratively). A guy just out of college in A-ball may be used to guys throwing 85 mph on average, and they haven't honed their swing as much as a more salty veteran. The higher up the levels I go, I believe the bigger advantage I have, because I'm that much different from the norm.

For years I’ve made essentially this argument with knuckleball pitchers: that the typical decline in performance that all players endure when they go from Triple-A to the majors is not completely applicable to knucklers. If the typical pitcher with a 4.00 ERA in Triple-A (assume a neutral park, etc.) can be expected to post a 5.50 ERA in the majors, a typical knuckleball pitcher with a 4.00 ERA might expect his ERA to be 4.75 in the majors. Why? In a nutshell – because major league hitters are not selected for their ability to hit the knuckleball.

Sports are the ultimate Darwinian process – at every level, the players who show the most ability advance, and at each higher level they then face players with more ability, and so on. If you can hit an 80 mph fastball in high school, you’ll get the chance to hit 85 mph fastballs in college, then 90 mph fastballs in the minors, then 95 mph fastballs in the majors – provided you succeed at each level. And therefore hitters at each higher level have been selected for their proven ability to succeed against inferior pitchers.

But the knuckleball is such a unique pitch, a pitch that works not because of its velocity but because of its unpredictable and late movement, that the best knuckleball hitters in the world may not be in the majors at all. There might be a guy down in A-ball who can’t catch up to the fastball and can’t lay off the slider, but can follow a 69-mph floater right up until the last moment. And there might be guys in the majors who could hit Sidd Finch if his fastball was straight enough, but are helpless against the mystical powers of the butterfly pitch.

(I’ll pause here to tip my hat to Dave Nilsson, who might have been the greatest hitter of my lifetime against the knuckleball. The Australian catcher was 16-for-25 lifetime against Tim Wakefield, with a slash line of .640/.719/.960. He was just 2-for-10 against Dennis Springer, but with a homer and three walks.)

I made this argument on the internal BP mailing list years ago, and Clay Davenport looked into my theory a little. What he found was that after a promotion to the majors, knuckleball pitchers did appear to require less of a translation to their numbers than the average pitcher. The sample size was small and not necessarily significant, but the theory had promise.

Just as submariners can be lumped in with knuckleballers in the sense that they can survive without velocity, I think that like knuckleballers, their pitching style is so far from the norm (and there are so few of them to practice against) that major league hitters are not much likelier to hit them than their minor league counterparts.

Does that mean Hayes is the next Bradford, or even Quisenberry Jr? Not necessarily. But the Royals owe it to themselves to give him every opportunity to prove otherwise. Some team is going to get lucky and find the next great submarine pitcher. The Royals were lucky enough to sign Hayes out of a tryout camp, but if luck is the residue of design, it’s the team that has designs on Hayes as a major league pitcher that’s going to really get lucky. The White Sox didn’t know what they had with Bradford; the Red Sox didn’t know what they had with Meredith. Let’s hope the Royals know what they might have with Hayes.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

My Interview With Chris "Disco" Hayes.

Some of you have already noticed, but for those who haven’t – I conducted a very long interview with my new favorite Royals minor leaguer, Chris Hayes, over at Baseball Prospectus. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and thanks to my bosses over at BP, both parts are free to the public – you don’t have to be a subscriber to read them.

If you’re not familiar with Hayes already, I suggest you start here. Before I read this blog entry, all I knew about Hayes was his stat line, that he was a sidearmer, and that he was not drafted out of college. After I read his AFL blog – and stopped laughing – I knew that this was a guy I needed to talk to. (Here’s another interview he gave, with Lisa Winston at

As it turns out, the interview went better than I could have possibly expected. I knew this was going to be something special when, after he said he preferred “Angels and Demons” to “The Da Vinci Code” (a sentiment I agree with, not that anyone asked), I practically dared him to come up with an ambigram in his response – then nearly coughed up a lung when he did. (Although a little internet sleuthing reveals that his ambigram is suspiciously similar to the one you can create on this website. I’m on to you, Chris.)

If you’re not rooting for Hayes to make it, you don’t have a heart. It’s not just that he’s a Royal (though that helps) and that he’s a funny guy – it’s that he’s so normal. The guy is one of us.

Hayes had to walk on to make his college team – the not-exactly-CWS-bound Northwestern Wildcats. He served as the last man on the bench for two years, and didn’t get any regular playing time until he was a senior. He has a degree in computer science. He never got drafted. He has trouble breaking 80 on a radar gun. I’m willing to bet that a few readers here have a more distinguished amateur career than Hayes did, and I imagine that more than a few of you had more velocity on your fastball once upon a time.

Part of what has allowed baseball to maintain its grip on American culture for nearly a century and a half is that by its very nature, the game seems accessible to the average person. Even at its highest level, the game is played by people who, to the untrained eye, look no different than you or I. Basketball players are freakishly tall, football players are freakishly big. Baseball players can win MVP awards when they’re listed at 5’9”, 180 pounds, like Dustin Pedroia, and in reality he’s probably shorter than that.

Hayes takes that everyman image one step further. Pedroia may look normal, but obviously he has extraordinary skills lurking under the surface, the skills which allow him to swat 95-mph fastballs for home runs despite his small frame. Hayes looks normal – 6’1”, 195 pounds, nothing special for a pitcher – and he complements that normal appearance with commonplace ability. He doesn’t look like he throws hard because he can’t throw hard. We all have a brother or a friend or a high school classmate who could have done what Hayes did - or at least it's tantalizingly easy to think they could have.

Dan Quisenberry famously said, “I found a delivery in my flaw,” and like Quiz, Hayes owes his path to the majors to the very ordinariness of his talents. If he threw 88 mph overhand, he might have fashioned a decent college career, been a late-round draft pick, and endured a brief and painful minor league career. Instead, he threw 79, and that forced him to get creative. Necessity is the mother of inventive deliveries.

Hayes isn’t just one of us, he’s One Of Us: he’s a baseball stat geek too. A year ago Brian Bannister became an internet sensation for speaking about DIPS theory and about how he tried to use his knowledge to overcome it. (Of course, a year ago Bannister was coming off a season where his BABIP was .262; in 2008 his BABIP was .310 – ten points higher than the pitching staff as a whole – and it’s clear that he’s going to have to work with DIPS theory – by, say, increasing his strikeout rate, which he did last year – to sustain major league success.) Hayes shows the same awareness of sabermetric analysis and the same determination to use it to his advantage.

Bannister’s intelligence contributes to his success, but you’re still talking about a guy who touches 90, a guy was a seventh-round draft pick out of USC. Hayes is Bannister minus 10 mph, but with better minor league numbers (granted, as a reliever). You have to respect that.

But does that makes Hayes a prospect? More on that in my next column. Mind you, I wouldn’t have wasted this much time talking to (and about) him if I didn’t think he was.