Author Archive

How to Fix Arbitration for Relievers

Last week, Dellin Betances lost his arbitration case after his agents attempted to argue that he should be paid like an elite reliever, which, of course, he is. But because arbitration is based on historical comparisons and mostly rely on traditional metrics, Betances wasn’t able to overcome his lack of saves, which is effectively the deciding metric for how much a reliever will get in arbitration.

This is a problem for Major League Baseball. The ideas about traditional bullpen usage are finally breaking down, and increasingly, teams are looking to deploy elite relievers in situations before the ninth inning. But if you’re a young pitcher, and you know that the system the league uses to value your performance depends almost entirely on how many saves you rack up, there isn’t a good incentive for you to agree to that kind of role. The way the system is setup, the best young relievers are financially motivated to try and move into the closer’s role as quickly as possible, because that’s the only bullpen role that arbiters put a significant value on. The arbitration system is effectively propping up 1990s-style bullpen usage, and it’s going to hinder the buy-in from players on a better way to deploy relievers during the season.

As Ken Rosenthal wrote, maybe the best answer to this problem (and the many other problems with arbitration) is to just get rid of the process entirely, which costs both teams and agencies thousands of hours of work for no real purpose. As Rosenthal notes, it wouldn’t be that difficult to design an algorithm that could determine the salaries of pre-free-agent players, and could take into account more meaningful metrics than the ones generally considered by the arbiters making the decisions now.

But at this point, that’s a pipe dream. Dumping the arbitration system might be a long-term reality, but Dellin Betances probably won’t still be pitching by the time that actually has the chance of happening. So how do we fix arbitration before one of the game’s truly great relief pitchers spends the next three years getting his pay docked simply because he’s not pitching the ninth inning? It’s probably easier than we might think.

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Eric Hosmer Is an Historical Anomaly

Over the weekend, Ken Rosenthal wrote that the Royals were not going to simply accept Eric Hosmer‘s departure through free agency as inevitable, and were going to attempt to sign him to a long-term extension before he hit the open market. Because Hosmer is represented by Scott Boras, we were treated to the hyperbole of the first baseman as a “franchise player” and the speculation that he might ask for a 10 year deal, a contract which would make the Ryan Howard extension look like the bargain of the century.

Yesterday, in response to that article, Jeff Sullivan gave a good old college try in attempting to justify the idea that Eric Hosmer could be in line for a “mega contract”. Jeff did a good job of showing the ways in which Hosmer could potentially be underrated, and with a big 2017, could be viewed more favorably than he is by the typical FanGraphs reader at this point. I don’t know if he convinced anyone that a 10 year deal for Hosmer wouldn’t be a total disaster, but it was a nice effort.

But in thinking about what a fair contract for Hosmer might be, I began to look for historical comparisons, to see what guys like Hosmer had done in their late-20s and early-30s. In looking for those comparisons, I realized there basically aren’t any, because Eric Hosmer is a historically unique player.

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Dave Cameron FanGraphs Chat – 2/22/17

12:00
Dave Cameron: Happy Wednesday, everyone.

12:01
Dave Cameron: Everyone is in camp, games are happening shortly… baseball is almost back.

12:01
Dave Cameron: Let’s talk about the 2017 season, or just about anything else on your mind.

12:02
The Average Sports Fan: What pace of play initiative are you most in favor of? Most opposed to?

12:03
Dave Cameron: I’m pro-pitch clock. Almost every pace/length problem gets solved if we shave 2-3 seconds off the time between pitches. In 2015, when players actually were trying to speed things up, it was really noticeable, and the game was way more enjoyable to watch. And then it all went away last year for no reason.

12:03
Dave Cameron: In terms of most opposed, no one thinks that runner on 2nd in extra innings thing is a good idea.

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Nationals Sign Matt Wieters For Some Reason

For most of the offseason, industry speculation suggested that the Nationals were the most likely landing spot for Matt Wieters. They were losing Wilson Ramos to free agency, which created a hole at the catcher spot, and Wieters was already comfortable with the geographic area, having spent his entire career in Baltimore to that point.

But all winter, the team didn’t seem to show much interest. At the beginning of December, Washington traded for Derek Norris, who had a terrible 2016 but has plenty of signs pointing to a 2017 bounce-back. With Norris and Jose Lobaton in the fold, they had a perfectly capable pair of receivers, both of whom rated as well above average in Statcorner’s catcher framing metrics. Catching wasn’t the strength of the team, but neither was it some glaring weakness like their bench, and if ownership was going to allow for more spending, there seemed to be plenty of other places for the Nationals to upgrade.

But today, the winter of industry speculation proved prescient, as the Nationals have reportedly signed Wieters, giving him $21 million in guaranteed money over two years along with an opt-out after the first year. The lesson, as always; if you’re not sure where a Scott Boras client is going to sign, Washington is always a safe guess.

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The Worst Transactions of the 2017 Offseason

Last week, I wrote up what I thought were the 10 best transactions made this winter, looking at teams that helped themselves the most with quality upgrades. Today, we tackle the flip side of that coin, and look at the moves that I liked the least.

However, because of the significant improvements teams have made in their decision-making processes, the reality is that this list simply lacks the magnitude of the best moves of the winter. It was really quite difficult to find even 10 transactions that I think did real damage to the franchises that made them, and the ones that ended up towards the end of this list are the kinds of boring little moves that most fans aren’t even going to realize happened.

Even at the top of this list, we’re looking at teams spending a little inefficiently on useful players who can help them win, with no real huge overpays or franchise-killing contracts that will be regretted for years to come. There were no “what were they thinking?” trades this year, no insane free-agent signings that show a huge gap between the market’s perception and a player’s on-field value. So, these are deals I liked the least in a winter full of mostly good moves. At this point, every team knows what they’re doing, and they just aren’t giving us much meat for these kinds of columns.

But symmetry says we have to publish it anyway, so here are the 10 moves for which I didn’t entirely care this offseason.

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The Best Transactions of the 2017 Offseason

Spring training is here, which means it’s time for the annual winter retrospectives. While teams that have been crowned the “winners of the offseason” are often overrated heading into the next season, the reality is that teams do make significant transactions that can alter a playoff race and, in some cases, can change the entire direction of a franchise. In this post, we’re going to look at the 10 moves that I liked the most this winter, in terms of either pushing a contender towards their goal of winning in the short term or a team making a move to significantly improve their long-term outlook.

Deals that move the needle to a larger degree get more credit on this list, so this isn’t necessarily just about the most efficient allocation of resources. As such, the moves at the top of the list are more of the big-acquisition types, while the round-out-the-roster bargains end up on the bottom of the list or in the honorable-mentions category.

Tomorrow, we’ll tackle the 10 moves I liked the least, and the traffic on these two posts will once again show that you guys like head-scratching far more than back-patting. But today, let’s give some kudos to the teams I think made the best moves this winter.

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Dave Cameron FanGraphs Chat – 2/15/17

12:00
Dave Cameron: Happy Wednesday everyone.

12:01
Dave Cameron: I’m still battling a fever/cold/thing but will hopefully be able to do the full hour today.

12:02
Goose: Which New York team has the better SS in 2 years?

12:02
Dave Cameron: Depends on if the Yankees sign Machado.

12:03
Dave Cameron: (That’s only partially a joke.)

12:03
Dave Cameron: Since you probably meant whether I prefer Rosario or Torres, I’ll lean towards Torres.

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The Problem With Starting Travis Wood

Yesterday, the Royals reportedly agreed to a two year, $12 million contract with free agent left-hander Travis Wood, helping round out a pitching staff that needed some additional depth due to the tragic loss of Yordano Ventura. Wood had several other suitors, and in order to help convince him to come to Kansas City, it appears that the team has offered him a chance to compete for a spot in the starting rotation.

There’s nothing wrong with giving him a shot in spring training, especially since Nate Karns — the likely fifth starter before Wood signed — isn’t exactly a surefire starter himself. But while Wood is a useful pitcher who could likely be a significant asset for the Royals in a bullpen role, the Royals should probably hope that he bombs his rotation audition and accepts a role in relief instead.

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The Disconnect Between Franchise Values and Player Salaries

Yesterday, the Miami Herald reported that Jeffrey Loria has an agreement in place to sell the Marlins for $1.6 billion, a more than 10 fold increase in franchise value from the $158 million he paid to buy the team in 2002. If the team actually sells for that $1.6 billion total — and, according to follow-up reports, the final sales price hasn’t been agreed to, and there’s a long way to go between handshake agreement and the actual transfer of the franchise — Loria will have made an 18% compounded annual return on his initial investment.

That’s the kind of annual return promoted by scam artists and ponzi schemers, luring in investors with promises of huge returns that never materialize. An 18% annual return over 15 years that actually materializes is a huge business success, and Loria’s cash-out will serve to make him even more extraordinarily wealthy.

And as Ken Rosenthal wrote last night, these franchise valuations are not going to go unnoticed by the player’s association.

Oh, it’s good to be an owner.

Granted, it’s also good to be a player, but the most recent collective-bargaining agreement, with its modest increases in luxury-tax thresholds, already seems to be stifling salary growth.

The sale of the Marlins for $1.6 billion, or even a lesser but significant sum, would only reinforce to the players that they should be getting more, setting the stage for labor friction in the future.

If you’re one of the free agents that got roundly rejected by the market this winter, and then you see Loria walking away with a $1.5 billion profit on the sale of the team, it’s certainly easy to connect the dots and say that there’s something wrong here. But as easy as it is to hate Jeffrey Loria for the way he’s run the Marlins since buying the team, it’s also important to remember that people buying into MLB franchises right now are purchasing more than just a collection of baseball players.

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The Biggest Free-Agent Bargain Still Out There

Thanks to the fact that MLB teams have put their wallets away this winter, we’ve seen some surprisingly low prices for remaining free agents of late. Jason Hammel signed for 2/$16M, significantly less than my 2/$24M forecast and well below the crowd’s 3/$36M estimate. Sergio Romo got 1/$3M, when I had him at 3/$18M and the crowd had him down for 2/$14M. Both the crowd and myself had Mike Napoli at 2/$20M; he’s getting 1/$8.5M instead. The February free-agent signings aren’t finding a lot of money, and the rest of the remaining free agents are mostly just hoping to find jobs.

So for teams looking to fill out their roster with flawed-but-maybe-useful role players, there are some bargains to still be found. Joe Blanton will likely be a solid reliever for someone next year, and seems unlikely to get a big contract at this point. Pedro Alvarez could help a number of teams as the left-handed portion of a DH platoon and will probably find work. Chase Utley, Angel Pagan, and Adam Lind all still look like useful bench players, and will probably not cost a lot to fill those roles. But if I had some money left in my budget and was looking for the most value I could get, I wouldn’t sign any of those guys.

I’d sign Jorge de la Rosa.

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Dave Cameron FanGraphs Chat – 2/8/17

12:00
Dave Cameron: Happy Wednesday, everyone.

12:01
Dave Cameron: Spring Training sort of starts next week, so I guess this is the last official chat of the off-season.

12:01
Monsignor Martinez: Hello Dave. Is there a way we can look at past Fans projections? I want to do a post-analysis.

12:02
Dave Cameron: I don’t believe we have those archived anywhere. They are probably in the database though, so if you use the contact form to send in your request, David Appelman might be able to provide them.

12:02
Erik: Your article on new ideas yesterday had a bit of an “end of history” feel to it. Don’t we always feel, in the moment, like we’ve reached the end of innovation, only to realize afterwards, when we have some perspective, that things have been changing the whole time and will continue to change? Why should today be different than any other point in baseball history?

12:04
Dave Cameron: That wasn’t my intention. I definitely think there are still a lot of things to learn about the game, and it’s going to continue to evolve as the players and the skills change. But I think we’re reaching a point of diminishing returns for organizations based on how much value they get from these new ideas. I think of them kind of like scoops for reporters; the lasting impact of being first is minimal.

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The Devaluation of New Ideas

Over at The Ringer yesterday, Ben Lindbergh wrote a fantastic piece on what MLB teams are doing to protect their intellectual property in the wake of the Astros’ hacking scandal. But while Ryan Pollock tackled the question of how an organization might protect itself from malevolent outside intrusions, Lindbergh’s piece focused on what teams are doing about the inevitable transfer of their ideas that come from the relatively free movement of front office employees and the increasing availability of qualify data in the public sphere.

If you’ve been paying attention to the types of posts that have gone up on InstaGraphs over the winter, you’ve noticed all the job postings; MLB teams are greatly expanding their research and development departments, and because front office employees mostly don’t sign long-term contracts, a good number of these positions are filled by people who were already working for another club in some capacity. Interns move into analyst roles, analysts become managers, and managers can switch organizations to land director jobs. And this cross-pollination of employees means that ideas are difficult to keep internal, since you can’t force someone to unlearn the processes that were valued by their former employer.

And that’s just the issue teams face when one employee goes to work for one other organization. Team employees are not guaranteed to always stay within the circle of working for the organizations themselves, and sometimes, they move into public-facing roles. Lindbergh himself interned for the Yankees back in 2009, and his time in their baseball operations department informed his opinion on catcher framing, which he’s since written extensively about in the public arena.

Perhaps even more interestingly, Tom Tango joined MLBAM last year, and is now working on developing Statcast-related tools that will help the public better understand how to use tracking data for player evaluation. Tango spent a good chunk of the last decade working for the Blue Jays, Mariners, and Cubs, and while he’s not going to just come out and say “This is what the Cubs look for in a pitcher”, it’s a good bet that the processes he’s building are going to look reasonably similar to the ones that were being used internally by the front offices he worked for. And now, any team in baseball that knows how to use Baseball Savant will have access to those ideas, raising the baseline for the minimum level of understanding of how to use Statcast.

Quoting from Lindbergh’s piece:

As more and more Statcast data trickles out to the public, we’re approaching a point when the stat-savvy fan can form a nearly complete picture of a player’s performance on the field. Teams have already reached that point, but they also have a handicap that narrows the gap between public and private knowledge: They lack the public’s ability to crowdsource with a brain trust whose size is limited only by the moderate difficulty of communicating online. “Now more so than ever,” the former scouting exec says, “secrets are harder to keep secret from the public at large. An enterprising independent analyst is likely to come closer to reverse-engineering insight into a team’s roster-building process than many clubs would be comfortable admitting.”

McCracken adds, “I think a lot of folks would be surprised at how little ‘secret’ information there really is at any one team, and even further surprised at how little benefit that ‘secret’ information confers.” Mariners director of analytics Jesse Smith sees it the same way: “Hypothetically, by the time someone has taken a statistical method elsewhere, has been able to implement it and is in a position to use that information to influence the decision-making of other teams, we would probably be onto the next thing.”

Because ideas can move within organizations, or from behind the walls of a non-disclosure agreement into the public sphere, teams can’t rely on long-term sustained advantages from discovering a new idea or a new way of evaluating a player or skill. As Lindbergh said, in 2009, the Yankees may have beaten the league to quantifying the value of catcher framing, but by 2011, Mike Fast had proven the concept in public, and even after the Astros snapped up Fast for themselves, the advantage diminished quickly for the early adopters, since everyone started looking for catchers who could steal strikes, or at least not give them away.

And that’s why there was one particular line in Lindbergh’s piece that perhaps best encapsulates how teams are looking to get long-term advantages now.

“The real secret is in the discipline that it takes to implement strategy.” Another NL R&D director stresses, “The execution of the ideas is far more important than the ideas themselves, and so that tends to be the most difficult thing to reproduce in another organization.”

This is where it seems the current advantage really lies. As Travis Sawchik outlined in his book Big Data Baseball, the Pirates didn’t necessarily have any brilliant new ideas that helped turn their franchise around, as plenty of other teams were aggressively shifting their defenders or looking for harmony between their pitchers and their defenders. But what they did, perhaps better than anyone during the last few years, was get information from the office to the field, and get buy-in from players that doing things differently was going to make them more likely to win.

At this point, it seems the value is less in the quality or proprietary nature of a team’s ideas, and more in the vehicles that move those ideas around. Teams are now spending more resources on people who can help bridge the gap between the front office and the coaching staff or the players themselves. With guys like Brian Bannister making an impact by helping the Rich Hills of the baseball world become something more than what they were thought to be, the value won’t be in having someone in the organization who advocates for a plan as simple as “throw more curveballs”, but will be in having someone with enough credibility that the players will actually throw more curveballs.

This doesn’t mean that new ideas have no value, of course, but it does seem like MLB is well past the time when a team can simply figure out what the next undervalued statistic is and turn that into a winning roster. With a very short shelf life on actual proprietary ideas, the new way to beat your opponents may be about better implementing well-accepted concepts in a way that actually makes a difference on the field. It’s no longer just about finding new ideas and then exploiting those ideas for maximum gain, but in figuring out how to deploy ideas that might make a small difference on a wide scale.

After all, as Travis wrote yesterday, the idea of the ideal swing plane being an uppercut isn’t really a new idea anymore, but teams who end up with a Josh Donaldson or a Justin Turner — a player whose value was dramatically altered by a data-driven change in their process — can get a lot of value out of the implementation of that idea. It isn’t a secret, but there are still huge differences in how well even stale ideas get put into practice, and that seems to be the way that the best teams in baseball are currently separating themselves from the rest of the pack.

So, when someone inevitably asks what the next market inefficiency is in baseball, I’ll probably shorten my answer to “communication”. With ideas themselves no longer conveying huge advantages, it’s the ability to turn even somewhat obvious beliefs into actual action that can give an organization a legitimate, sustainable edge.


The Twins Quit on Byung-ho Park

On Wednesday, Travis Sawchik wrote about why there are still reasons for optimism surrounding Byung-ho Park, despite a rough first year in the major leagues. The piece was titled “Don’t Quit on Byung-ho Park”, but two days later, the Twins have done exactly that, designating him for assignment in order to clear a roster spot for Matt Belisle.

This is a bit of a surprising decision because, a year ago, the Twins paid a $13 million posting fee to acquire Park’s rights. But that was a different front office with different evaluators, and the new management team in Minnesota apparently decided that Park wasn’t worth keeping on the 40-man roster, so they’ll either trade him or expose him to waivers, where any team who wants to take a shot on the bounce back would be on the hook for the roughly $9 million in guaranteed money he has coming over the next three years.

Given they minimal salary commitment, I can’t imagine Park is actually going to clear waivers. $3 million per year is nothing in this day and age, and with a multi-year deal, there’s some upside with Park that doesn’t exist if you sign, say, Chris Carter, to a one year contract. And as Sawchik noted in his piece, anyone who was thinking about signing Carter to a cut-rate deal should probably be interested in Park too.

Borrowing a couple of tables from Sawchik’s piece.

Barreled Balls
Rank Player Batted balls tracked Barrels/Batted ball %
1 Gary Sanchez 128 18.8
2 Byung-ho Park 123 18.7
3 Khris Davis 357 18.2
4 Nelson Cruz 381 17.8
5 Chris Carter 315 17.8
6 Mark Trumbo 386 17.4
7 Tommy Pham 81 17.3
8 Giancarlo Stanton 248 17.3
9 Chris Davis 313 16.9
10 Miguel Cabrera 437 16.5
SOURCE: Statcast via Baseball Savant
Min. 75 batted-ball events in 2016

And this one.

Avg. Exit Velocity of Fly Balls and Line Drives
Rank Player Batted balls Avg. FB/LD exit velo (mph)
1 Nelson Cruz 381 99.2
2 Tommy Pham 81 98.9
3 Pedro Alvarez 208 98.7
4 Franklin Gutierrez 148 98.2
5 Khris Davis 357 98.0
6 Gary Sanchez 128 97.8
7 Josh Donaldson 408 97.8
8 Giancarlo Stanton 248 97.4
9 David Ortiz 393 97.3
10 Byung-ho Park 123 97.2
SOURCE: Statcast via Baseball Savant
Min. 75 batted-ball events in 2016

Like Carter, Park hits the crap out of the baseball when he makes contact. And, like Carter, he doesn’t make enough contact. But if you’re okay with the swing-for-the-fences-and-whiff-a-lot approach, well, Park actually made more contact than Carter did last year.

Carter and Park, Plate Discipline Stats
Name PA O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone%
Chris Carter 644 25% 67% 44% 38% 77% 65% 45%
Byung-ho Park 244 27% 67% 46% 44% 77% 67% 47%

Of course, having a lot of similarities to a free agent who can’t find a home isn’t really an argument in favor of Park having a lot of value. Perhaps the Twins decided to DFA Park in part because of the league’s reticence to signing Carter, thinking that perhaps with Carter still willing to sign a one year contract, that maybe Park will slip through waivers. Or, more interestingly, maybe they DFA’d Park because they want to sign Carter themselves; that would be a fun twist to this story.

Of course, that’s pretty unlikely. The reality is that, while Park remains interesting on his own merits, there might not have been much playing time for him in Minnesota. With Joe Mauer and Kennys Vargas ahead of him on the 1B/DH depth chart, Park was probably ticketed for a platoon role, and maybe even a limited platoon role given that Vargas is a switch-hitter who hits lefties better than righties, so Park was only likely to play when Mauer wasn’t in the line-up. Neither Mauer nor Vargas are great players, but Mauer has some franchise icon appeal, and Vargas is both probably better and definitely younger, so giving him the bulk of the DH time is likely a better long-term investment.

Park probably fits better on a team that doesn’t already have a Kennys Vargas to DH, or a local hero making $23 million a year at first base. The power makes him worth another shot, and given the state of several teams 1B/DH positions, I’m pretty sure the Twins will find someone to take the rest of Park’s contract off their hands.

For instance, the Rangers seem to want to give Joey Gallo more time in Triple-A this year, but if they send him back to the minors, they would be penciled in to start Ryan Rua and Jurickson Profar as their 1B and DH options. Sure, everyone still expects them to sign Mike Napoli to play one of those two spots, but Park would still be an upgrade over Rua/Profar at the other position, and give them a cheap source of power while they figure out what Gallo might be.

Alternately, the A’s might also be interested, given that they were hunting for right-handed DHs earlier this winter, and currently have some combination of Yonder Alonso and Ryon Healy at their 1B/DH spots. In a year that is unlikely to result in a playoff berth, taking a shot on Park’s power is probably worth some playing time. Or, if we’re looking for a rebuilding team who needs a DH, the White Sox currently project to have Matt Davidson as their starting DH, and Steamer is forecasting him for a 73 wRC+ and -1 WAR. I would imagine the Twins would rather not trade Park to the White Sox, but if it comes down to waivers, there’s no way Chicago should let him get past them.

Park’s upside is probably something like an average player, so he’s worth the $9 million gamble to see if he can make enough contact to hold down a roster spot. For $9 million with a potential three year payout, there’s just not much risk here, and enough upside for another team to take a low-risk flyer on a guy with serious power. One could reasonably argue that the Twins should have kept him around and hoped to find enough playing time to be the team that got some value out of a potential improvement, but since they just had to have Matt Belisle pitching the seventh inning in a non-contention year, some other franchise will now get to make a bet on Park’s cheap upside.


The Nationals Have a Depth Problem

If baseball teams had 10 man rosters, the Washington Nationals might be the team to beat heading into 2017. With an enviable group of star talent, the top of the Nationals roster compares favorably with just about any other group in MLB. For instance, here are our projections for the just the 10 best players on the Cubs, Dodgers, and Nationals, who we have forecasted as the three best teams in baseball.
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Dave Cameron FanGraphs Chat – 2/1/17

12:01
Dave Cameron: Happy Wednesday, everyone.

12:01
Dave Cameron: We’re a few weeks away from the start of spring training, so we’re nearing the end of winter.

12:01
Dave Cameron: Of course, it’s snowing at my house right now, so it doesn’t feel like it.

12:02
Dave Cameron: Let’s get this party started.

12:04
Not a scout: Bernie Pleskoff thinks Ian Happ is overrated. Only explanation was that he had a bad fall. He OPS’d over .800 in his first full season as a pro even with a bad finish. What are your thoughts on Happ?

12:04
Dave Cameron: Overrated is such a loaded term, because you don’t know what the baseline is. Overrated compared to what? How is he being rated?

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Punting First Base Is The New Black

It’s no secret that this winter has not been kind to veteran hitters, particularly those with limited defensive ability. Mike Napoli is still a free agent, as are Chris Carter and Pedro Alvarez. Brandon Moss just signed with the Royals yesterday, getting a backloaded $12 million on a two year deal. Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Mark Trumbo all took significant discounts relative to their initial asking prices. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the market for offense-first players was remarkably poor this year, to the point where it could be seen as an overcorrection; perfectly useful players are signing for less than what similarly valuable players with different skills are getting paid.

What is perhaps most interesting about this development, however, is that the teams who could are most in need of a first base upgrade are also teams that should be trying to squeak out every marginal win they can find.

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Maybe the Rockies Are Contenders in 2017

We’ve written a lot about the Rockies in the last week. David Laurila interviewed GM Jeff Bridich about how he sees the organization, we talked about their signing of Greg Holland, Jeff Sullivan covered their pitch-framing possibilities, and Travis Sawchik suggested they try something different with their pitching staff. Finally, this morning, we wrapped up unofficial Rockies week with the team’s ZIPS projections.

That’s a lot of Rockies content, but all have it has been focused on specific parts of the team, while leaving mostly untouched the question that is central to their organization and the moves they made this winter: are the Rockies legitimate contenders this year?

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Maybe Greg Holland Made An Inspired Choice

Yesterday, Greg Holland reportedly agreed to sign with the Colorado Rockies. As a guy coming off arm surgery, looking to re-establish himself as a premier reliever and rebuild his value, going to Denver seems to be an odd choice. As Travis Sawchik noted this morning, the recent history of pitchers escaping Colorado and finding significant paychecks are not great, and of course, because of how the park plays, Holland’s numbers are likely to be worse this year than if he had agreed to sign closer to sea level.

Generally, we’re used to players looking for big contracts next year signing in venues that fit their skills, and these type of one year deals are often called “pillow contracts”, but there’s nothing soft and comfortable about pitching in Coors Field. Maybe we need a new name for Holland’s choice? “A bed of nails contract” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily, but more accurately portrays the situation Holland seemingly placed himself in.

But in thinking about why Holland would go to Colorado, I think we need to acknowledge that the game has evolved, and the methodologies for evaluating player performances have changed dramatically. And given those changes, maybe Holland didn’t just take a short-term cash-grab that puts him in a worse position for next year; maybe he made a choice that could actually be beneficial to his future earnings.

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Mark Trumbo and the Everyday Player Tax

Last Thursday, two free-agent hitters found homes, with Mark Trumbo returning to Baltimore and Luis Valbuena switching AL West cities, going from Houston to Anaheim. While the expectation was that Trumbo was going to sign something of an albatross contract — I named him the No. 1 Free Agent Landmine heading into the off-season — he ended up signing for a perfectly reasonable price; $37.5 million over three years. While the Orioles will need to resist the urge to put him in the outfield anymore, $12.5 million a year for what Trumbo can do at the plate is not some kind of franchise-killing overpay.

The Orioles did fine here, mostly; you could argue that they could have spent even less and gotten Chris Carter, a similar-enough player, but not making the most cost-efficient move doesn’t make this a disaster. Trumbo is a solid enough big leaguer, and $38 million in MLB these days just isn’t that much money.

I say all that up front to clarify that the rest of this post isn’t a criticism of the Orioles’ decision to retain Mark Trumbo. I just thought the juxtaposition of Trumbo and Valbuena signing on the same day was interesting because, well, look for yourself.

Trumbo and Valbuena, 2014-2016
Name PA BB% K% ISO AVG OBP SLG wRC+ BsR
Luis Valbuena 1382 12% 22% 0.199 0.243 0.334 0.442 115 -1.9
Mark Trumbo 1574 7% 25% 0.224 0.253 0.309 0.477 110 -8.0

Over the last three years, Trumbo and Valbuena have both established themselves as useful players, mostly based on their ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark. Trumbo has a bit more power, but Valbuena draws more walks, and thus gets on base more often, so he’s actually been the better hitter of the two during that time. Oh, and Valbuena’s also a little faster, so he’s added a little extra baserunning value, expanding his lead even a bit more. Over these three years, Valbuena has been worth +23 runs relative to a league average hitter, while Trumbo has come in at +11.

Now, sometimes, multi-year comparisons aren’t all that helpful in figuring out why player valuations diverge, because the more recent data is the most important one. And of course, Trumbo is coming off the best year of his career, as he put up a 123 wRC+ last year. But in this case, looking at just the most recent year doesn’t change things much, because interestingly, Valbuena also put up a 123 wRC+ last year, the best mark he’s put up in his career. This isn’t a case of one guy trending up and the other trending down; both were good hitters last year, and they’ve both been above-average hitters the last three years.

There isn’t an age factor here either. Valbuena was born in November of 1985, Trumbo of January of 1986. They are both 31, at the point where we can expect both to start declining in value, but not old enough where a catastrophic drop-off is imminent.

There are, though, two differences between Valbuena and Trumbo; the thing I find fascinating about these contracts is how those two differences drive the valuations.

The first difference is that Valbuena has some defensive value, and if he ends up playing a lot of first base — with Albert Pujols questionable for the start of the year, that sounds likely — he might end up being a solid defensive first baseman. In nearly 4,000 innings at third base, Valbuena has a career +10 UZR (though it has been worse the last few years) and as a former middle infielder, he’s more athletic than most guys who end up playing first base. Valbuena probably isn’t going to be a gold glover at first, but as a guy with the flexibility to play both corners and potentially be an asset at first base, there’s some real defensive value here. Trumbo is a solid defender at first base, but that position is blocked in Baltimore, so he’s either a liability in the outfield or a designated hitter, and won’t be adding defensive value in either case.

So, Valbuena has been a better offensive player the last three years, matched Trumbo’s wRC+ last year in the best year of Trumbo’s career, and adds some defensive value as well. I’ve held off including it as of yet since it can often be the only thing people focus on, but it’s worth noting that Valbuena has been worth +6.3 WAR over the last three years, while Trumbo is at +2.0. By overall production the last few years, it isn’t even really close; Valbuena has been significantly better.

And yet, while Trumbo got 3/$37.5 million with the qualifying offer attached, Valbuena got 2/$15M, despite not being tied to draft pick compensation. The market looked at these same-aged players and preferred Trumbo, despite a lack of a massive offensive advantage and definite defensive limitations.

Why? Because there remains a significant difference in how teams value everyday guys versus platoon players, and fair or not, Trumbo is seen as a player you can stick in your lineup regardless of who is pitching, while Valbuena is viewed as a part-time player.

With Trumbo, you’re basically getting the same thing no matter who is pitching; his career wRC+ splits are 113/110, so you can put him in the lineup and expect mostly the same production everyday. Valbuena, like most left-handed hitters, runs a bit larger split, with a career 86/98 wRC+ split against lefties and righties, and an even more extreme 79/126 split over the last three years. Valbuena’s entire emergence as a quality hitter has been based on his ability to hit for power against right-handed pitching; against lefties, he still hits like the middle infielder he came up as.

A corner infielder who hits lefties like Valbuena hits lefties shouldn’t be starting against them, so the Angels are almost certainly going to platoon him, and the fact that they have to pay another player — and more importantly, dedicate another roster spot — to a guy to share his job dramatically discounts his value on the market. Full-time guys get paid on a different scale than part-time guys, and Valbuena is a seen as a part-time guy, so he gets less than Trumbo despite the performance advantages he’s displayed of late.

But I wonder if the discount being applied between the two groups is too heavy, because while it makes plenty of sense to platoon Valbuena and get a higher overall level of production, you don’t actually have to. The Angels could choose to play Valbuena everyday and save the roster spot for some other use, if they really see it being a significant negative to have to carry a right-handed first baseman to share that job. And if we just project Valbuena out to Trumbo-like playing time, it’s still not clear that Trumbo is significantly better.

Let’s just say the Angels decided to just play Valbuena mostly everyday, not platooning him more heavily than any other left-handed hitter is. In general, LHBs who get about 600 PA per season end up having the platoon advantage in about 70-75% of their plate appearances, we’ll use 73% just to split the difference. With exactly 600 PAs, that would mean Valbuena would get 438 PAs against RHPs and 162 against LHPs.

Let’s take a fairly extreme position, and say that his true talent platoon split right now is something like 90/110 wRC+ — remember, that’s almost double Valbuena’s career 12 point split — which is actually a pretty significant split as far as MLB players go.

If we give him the 73/27 distribution of PAs that most regular LHBs get, that would work out to something like this in a regular role.

Trumbo and Valbuena, 2014-2016
Pitcher PA wRC+
RHP 438 110
LHP 162 90
Total 600 105

That 105 wRC+ is an almost exact match for the average of the ZIPS and Steamer projections for Valbuena in 2016; Steamer is on the low side at 99 overall, while ZIPS is up at 113, so their blended average is 106. So that at least passes the smell test. But we don’t know what percentage of platoon advantage those systems were projecting, and since neither had him forecasted for 600 PAs, we should assume they’re probably letting him face a higher proportion of RHPs. So let’s make Valbuena a little worse than those overall projection numbers, and re-run the estimate to give us something a bit worse than what ZIPS and Steamer are projecting him for in part-time duty.

Trumbo and Valbuena, 2014-2016
Pitcher PA wRC+
RHP 438 105
LHP 162 85
Total 600 100

In this estimate, we’re being pretty harsh on Valbuena; his wRC+ against RHP goes down 21 points from what it was the last three years, while his vs LHP number only bounces up six points, and is still below his career average. This is probably pretty close to what Steamer is projecting Valbuena’s splits at, and it is definitely the more negative outlook, given his recent track record.

But even with that pessimism, Valbuena still projects as a league-average hitter while playing everyday. Trumbo projects for a 110 wRC+ as an everyday guy, in both ZIPS and Steamer, so the forecasts agree that, for next year, you’d rather have Trumbo’s bat than Valbuena’s, especially if you’re not willing to use a roster spot to platoon Valbuena with an RHB.

But the difference between a 110 and a 100 wRC+ over 600 plate appearances is about seven runs. That’s not nothing; that’s most of the way to one extra win. But then, there’s the baserunning, where Valbuena makes up some of that gap. And then there’s the defensive value, which isn’t trivial. If you give Valbuena some credit for being able to still play third, he probably makes back a few of those runs, and in the end, we’re looking at a gap of a couple of runs between full-time Trumbo and full-time Valbuena, if there’s any gap at all.

And full-time Valbuena is an inefficiency; with just a modicum of work, you can find a decent right-hander to face left-handed starters, and end up with a better overall rate of production. Yeah, it costs you a roster spot and that guy doesn’t play for free, so his cost has to be factored into the equation, but most teams carry a right-handed bench bat anyway, and if you have to pay a slight premium to get a guy who is worth starting occasionally, you still come out ahead overall.

The big story this winter has been the market correction on bat-only corner guys, but interestingly, the Valbuena signing points out that there’s even more room for those kinds of guys to come down in price in the future. Instead of paying even this reduced rate for the full-time slugger, signing a guy with a platoon player label at the discount currently being applied is an even cheaper way to get similar production.


Dave Cameron FanGraphs Chat – 1/25/17

12:01
TP: Do you think Alex Reyes is going to open the season in the rotation?

12:02
Dave Cameron: Whoops; guess we’ll answer that question before I say hi.

12:02
Dave Cameron: My guess would be no; he’s going to be on an innings limit, and has options, so the easiest way to handle their crowded rotation is to let him work in Triple-A for a month or two.

12:02
Dave Cameron: Anyway, hi everyone. Happy Wednesday.

12:03
Erik: Which division favorite requires the fewest things to go wrong in order to miss the playoffs completely?

12:04
Dave Cameron: Probably Houston. A couple of injuries to guys like Correa, Altuve, or Springer, and they might be sunk.

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