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Chase-ino Royale...

I think the evil genius that is Josh Byrnes has decided to have a little sport. "Bwah-ha-ha," he says, as he sits in his ivory tower of learning at Chase Field. "Let's not tell anybody anything about what's going on here. I enjoy watching all those silly media and blogs thrashing around, trying desperately to find something to write about." [Pauses to stroke white Persian, feed incompetent minion to piranhas in Chase swimming pool, etc.] "Little do they know, that while they struggle for news, we are about to announce the signings, not just of Mark Mulder, but Barry Zito, and every other free-agent starter." [Adjusts laser-cannon aimed at groin of captured Steinbrenner spy] "We shall corner the market in baseball players, and then no-one can stop my masterplan of world domination. Soon, the whole world will know my name..."

Oh, sorry - that last line was Dolph Lundgren in the Rocky IV trailer, not Ernst Stavro Blofeld. My mistake. ;-) But, actually, irritating though it may be for us on the outside, I can see exactly why there is no news coming out of Chase. If it becomes known what players Byrnes is going after, other teams might join the hunt, purely to drive up the cost to us. I strongly suspect this is what we've done for some of those whose names have been linked to Arizona. By offering fair market value, we guarantee either a) getting the player or b) a rival having to overpay. Mind you, if that's our tactic, then our opinion of fair market value, and the market's version of it, would appear to be some way apart. See the auction for Japanese negotiating rights, for example.

In lieu of actual news then. Dan Fox of Baseball Prospectus has updated his fascinating tool, to provide data for all pitchers and hitters over the past four seasons. It takes the balls in play and provides the breakdown as to the percentages that were grounders, fly balls, pop ups and line-drives, and also breaks each of these categories down by direction. So, if you want to see how many ground balls Chad Tracy hit to the left side last year, this program can sort you out. [Fans of Douglas Adams will not be surprised to hear that the answer is, of course, 42]

It's interesting to take a look at these figures, and try to draw some conclusions from them. For example, again looking at Chad Tracy - was there any significant difference between the high-average, high-power batter he was in 2005, and the more K-inclined hitter he seemed to become last season? In overall result, the only area to show much (+/- 3%) was fly-balls, which decreased from 38.3% to 32.8%. All the other categories showed small gains. But with regard to location, his line-drives became definitely more opposite-field, the percentage pulled to right dropping from 50% to 40%. Perhaps more interesting is to compare the stats for Tracy, with those of left-handers in general.

               All LH     Tracy 2005  Tracy 2006
Grounders    45 24/15/61  33 24/18/58 36 25/15/61
Fly Balls    28 39/40/22  38 40/35/25 33 42/39/18
Pop-ups      07 67/08/25  07 75/03/22 09 69/09/22
Line Drives  19 29/30/41  21 26/24/50 22 33/27/40
BA/OBP/SLG                308/359/553 281/343/451

[How to read the chart. The first number for each group is the percentage of all balls in play: the next three are the percentages of those hit to left, middle and right. For example, looking at all lefties over the period of the survey, 45% of the balls in play were grounders: 24% of those went to left, 15% to center, and 61% to right. Some totals will not be 100% because of rounding to the nearest percentage]

Tracy is definitely more fly-ball oriented than the usual leftie, though this tendency was reduced in 2006. These also go more to the opposite field than normal, and that seems to be a trend: in 2004, Tracy hit as many fly-balls to left as right, but last season the ratio was more than 2-1 in favor of left. The other marked change is in the direction of Tracy's line-drives. In 2005, almost half went to right, with the other half split almost evenly between center and left. But in 2006, there was a definite shift towards left, and that mirrored 2004, where the split was almost even. Was Tracy now being pitched away, so being forced to hit the ball that way? It might explain the significant drop in power (SLG% down over 100 points), though without knowing where his homers were hit - they're not "balls in play" so are excluded from the data here - we can't be sure.

It's fun to look at Brandon Webb's statistics too, which pretty much confirm what we already knew; the man is a ground-ball machine. He faced 950 batters, and there were only eleven pop-ups off him all season - one every three games. Given, on average, about 8% of balls in play are pop-ups, that's an amazing deficit for our Cy Young winner. The man killed right-handed hitters in particular, getting more than 70% grounders, when they put the ball in play - that compares to 44% for all right-handed hitters. Two-thirds of those went to the left-side of the infield, and that's actually down from 2005, when over 3/4 of the balls went that way. Drew and Tracy, are you ready?

We also know lefties had more success facing Webb and his sinker, and this is reflected in a fly-ball figure almost twice as high as that for righties: they clearly were better able to elevate the ball. But for both sorts, most of these went to left field. As far as left-handed hitters go, that's probably where you want them to be, forcing them the opposite way, where their power will be weakened. And next year, looks like we'll have Byrnes out there rather than Gonzalez, so there should be fewer dying quails hitting the turf. Or, at least, they'll be accompanied by an Eric hitting the turf as well... :-)

Speaking of our left-fielder turned Benedict Arnold (though as a Brit, that's more a compliment than anything!), in an "oh, how the mighty have fallen" kinda way, let's compare Luis Gonzalez in 2003, with the pale imitation which patrolled occupied left field last season. Same layout as for the Tracy chart above.

               All LH     Gonzo 2003  Gonzo 2006
Grounders    45 24/15/61  38 20/15/65 41 19/15/66
Fly Balls    28 39/40/22  29 32/40/28 30 35/42/23
Pop-ups      07 67/08/25  11 65/09/26 11 81/07/12
Line Drives  19 29/30/41  22 20/38/42 18 13/37/50
BA/OBP/SLG                304/402/532 271/352/444

Line drives are the key here: that's what separate a good batter from a mediocre one, and Gonzo has gone from significantly above average to below-par. Those have mostly turned into grounders: the drop is only 4% of balls in play, but remember my comments last time, about how one at-bat in twenty decides what kind of hitter of you are? This is Exhibit A. It's also clear that Gonzo, never a great opposite-field hitter, has now got nothing to left at all. The average southpaw hits 29% of line-drives that way: Luis managed less than half that, only 13%, in 2006. That's well below Barry Bonds' figure (18%) - and you saw the kind of exaggerated shift 'Roidman gets from the defense when he comes to the plate.