Author Archive

Kevin Kiermaier, Breakout Candidate

Kevin Kiermaier has long been underrated in the mainstream baseball world. He provides value in ways that tend to get overlooked or, at least, receive less attention. You probably know, for example, that Kiermaier is an elite defensive player. You’re probably aware that Kiermaier is an above-average baserunner. You might also know that Kiermaier has recorded a league-average batting line despite having faced the most difficult pitchers and that he owns a pair of piercing green eyes.

The total package is quite valuable. Kiermaier has already produced 13.1 WAR for his career over parts of three major-league seasons. He produced more than five wins in 2015, and per 162 games, he’s a 5.8 WAR/season player for his career.

I’m guessing most in the FanGraphs community consider Kiermaier to be a star. If things go well, everyone else might believe that this year, too.

Yesterday, Baseball Prospectus editor Aaron Gleeman posted some of PECOTA’s top breakout picks for hitters in 2017. Some of them aren’t all that surprising: I think a lot of people suspect there is more in the bats of Byron Buxton and Gregory Polanco and Addison Russell. But one name on the hitters list did jump out at me, and that was Kiermaier’s.

Wrote Gleeman:

WARP has long viewed Kiermaier as one of the most underrated players in baseball and now PECOTA thinks he has a chance to add above-average offense to otherworldly defense. Last season Kiermaier upped his power and plate discipline, but it went largely unnoticed because he hit just .246 and missed two months with a broken hand. If he continues to be plus-20 runs in center field Kiermaier is a star no matter what, but PECOTA sees untapped offensive upside in the 27-year-old. At the 60th percentile he’d reach 6.0 WARP and at the 70th percentile or higher he’d be among the MLB leaders in WARP, combining amazing defense with an .800 OPS.

Kiermaier’s top age-27 PECOTA comp? Vernon Wells. While the older version of Wells wasn’t productive, the 27-year-old version recorded a 128 wRC+ as a center fielder in a six-win campaign.

If Kiermaier goes from being a plus-plus glove and league-average bat, to a player with a plus-plus glove and better-than-average bat, he will be (or should be) near the top of the AL MVP voting. He finished third in bWAR (7.3) in 2015, but 17th in AL MVP voting.

So is this breakout possible? Maybe it’s already happening.

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Restricted Free Agency, Anyone?

You’re probably aware of the Dellin Betances arbitration case and the interesting comments Yankees president Randy Levine made afterward. FanGraphs’ Nicolas Stellini wrote about the situation over the weekend.

No player or team likes going through the arbitration. Both parties try to avoid the process if at all possible, as it can create animosity between the camps.

And if you’re a player, you’re perhaps increasingly motivated to avoid allowing a panel of arbitrators determine your salary. Historically, teams beat players in the majority of arbitration cases, according to data compiled by Maury Brown:

Moreover, Brown reported this week that the advantage in favor of the owners has widened in recent years. The process increasingly seems to favor clubs — in part, perhaps, because arbitrators remain behind the times in how they evaluate performance.

Consider this David Laurila Baseball Prospectus Q&A from 2012 with long-time arbitrator Roger Abrams. Abrams suggests that the information presented to arbitrators is typically “not quite sabermetrics” and that arbitrators are not “baseball specialists.”

DL: You used the phrase “not quite sabermetrics,” but can it be assumed that more advanced statistics are presented today than in years past?

RA: It’s a mixed bag. What you don’t want to do is confuse the arbitrators, and some of the sabermetric stuff can be rather confusing. On the other hand, arbitrators can understand the importance of a strikeout-to-walk ratio. They can understand why ERA is a critical stat as opposed to wins and losses, which are meaningless–the pitcher doesn’t win or lose the game; the club wins or loses the game. The pitcher is responsible for earned runs. That is very simple-minded sabermetrics, and that is helpful in salary arbitration. Of course, it’s all glossied up in the submissions, which, frankly, you don’t have enough time to read within 24 hours, let alone digest.

Now, maybe arbitrators are slowly changing how they evaluate performance, but, at best, it’s a slow process that’s probably not caught up to better ways of understanding and measuring player value.

At a time when owners are making gains in percentage of revenue share, the arbitration process — especially in early arbitration years — is one more force working against players.

So does that mean everybody would be OK just eliminating the arbitration system? I’m guessing the answer is “No,” but I do think the players union would benefit from replacing the current system with something that exists in other major pro sports — namely, restricted free agency.

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Mark Appel Is in a Better Place. Will It Matter?

Mark Appel is one of the great unknowns this spring. He remains something of an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, and now shrouded in post-surgery mystery.

I will begin with a brief history of a player who has seen his prospect luster diminished as dramatically as few pitchers in recent memory.

Recall that the former Stanford University ace was drafted twice in the first round. In 2012, under the new restrictions on amateur signing bonuses, the Pirates weren’t willing to forfeit a future draft pick for exceeding their pool limit. Appel’s signing demands were not met, and he returned to Stanford.

He returned for his senior year, which seemed like a risky decision given that injury or poor performance could diminish his stock. But Appel won the bet on himself as he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2013, by Houston, one spot ahead of Kris Bryant. While Appel over Bryant looks like Bowie-over-Jordan-like decision at the moment, Appel had an impressive resume coming out of school, including a mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider that helped him set the program’s strikeout record with this very pitch against UCLA nearly four years ago:

But few have fallen further than Appel in the last four years.

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Travis Sawchik FanGraphs Chat

Travis Sawchik: Greetings, everyone. Thanks for being here today. Let’s begin Sawchik Chat VII …

Moltar: Travis, I’ve been home recovering from nose surgery since wednesday and I’m going insane from boredom. How do MLB players deal with their recovery time before rehab from all the various surgeries they get? Anything I can do to stem the boredom for the next couple days before I can go back to work?

Travis Sawchik: I know Pirates pitchers recovering from TJ or other surgery/injuries at the club’s complex on Florida had a trivia team in Bradenton, Fla. …But, yeah, boredom being away from teammates and competitive is probably one of the more difficult parts of rehab for players

RABBINICAL COLLEGE GUY: Who makes it to a playoff game first at some point Twins or the Reds? Why?

Travis Sawchik: Twins have Buxton and Sano, and their potential, and no Cubs in their neighborhood. That’s a better outlook, I think. I would have liked to have seen them add De Leon this offseason

Q-Ball: Does the new CBA, with the more uniform IFA slotting, hurt a team like the Pirates, who have made a real investment in DR relative to other teams?

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Is This Age of Competitive Balance Sustainable?

Geography is a powerful force. In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, for instance, Jared Diamond argues that geography is the most powerful force to have shaped civilization. Societies that have benefited from favorable geography and access to resources have enjoyed more prosperity than those that have not.

In baseball, geography has mattered quite a bit, too.

Generally, teams residing along the coasts are located in larger markets and enjoy more fans — which means they enjoy more paying customers, more advertising dollars and corporate sponsors, and greater TV deals, too. The Yankees, residing in the game’s largest market, own 27 World Series titles. Teams based in the fly-over country cities of St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Milwaukee, have combined for 32 World Series titles, with the Cardinals alone accounting for 11 of those.

So perhaps the lasting legacy, the top achievement of Bud Selig, was ushering in an era of greater competitive balance that made geography and market size less deterministic. The small-market Royals won the World Series in 2015, and small-market Cleveland was one more timely hit away from doing so last fall. Twenty-one of the sports’ 30 franchises have advanced to the postseason since 2013, and every team has reached the postseason in the 21st century.

In the 1990s, competitive balance, the divide between the large- and small-market clubs, was a frequent talking point. In the latest round of collective-bargaining talks, it was not often the subject of discussion outside caps placed on international spending. For The Hardball Times last month, Gerald Schifman demonstrated objectively that “hope and faith” are at record levels in baseball. The majority of teams enter the season with a plausible path to at least the No. 2 Wild Card. I wrote in 2015, about how fly-over country was no longer irrelevant.

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Spring Training Is Long. Could It Be Better?

Living amidst the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania, ignoring a snow-and-ice covered driveway isn’t an option for me. Our property’s concrete access to the garage includes what seems like a 30-degree slope to reach the street. While I work from home, my wife does not. My wife and I do not own four-wheel drive automobiles. So, as is the case for many others, knowing that pitchers and catchers have reported is one of the first signs the thaw is near.

Visual evidence, courtesy the author.

But spring officially remains, of course, more than a month away.

While “pitchers and catchers reporting” is a romantic phrase that warms the heart and while it boosts the morale to see footage of players stretching and playing catch on sun-soaked diamonds in Arizona and Florida via MLB Network, another snowfall or two likely awaits. It’s still very much winter and spring training remains a really long period, though it will be shortened by two days in 2018 in accordance with the new CBA to allow for extra days off in the regular season.

Still, the length of spring training is increasingly unnecessary for the vast majority of those involved, a point made by Adam Kilgore for the Washington Post. Pitchers require – or at least baseball thinks they require – about six weeks to stretch out their arms for the regular season. For everyone else, though, the length spring training provides little benefit. Said Ryan Zimmerman to the Post:

“People are showing up more ready than they used to be, and we haven’t really changed anything,” Zimmerman said. “We haven’t adjusted to what the professional athlete does in the offseason now. I understand it. For me as a position player, it’s unnecessary.”

Zimmerman didn’t supply alternatives to reshape and re-imagine the spring, but perhaps spring training’s length and format has become a prisoner to tradition. Has anyone or any team thought about a dramatically different way to maximize spring training? I’m not aware of one, though perhaps there are incremental changes being implemented that go mostly unnoticed or unreported.

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Ilitch Offered Model for Owners to Follow

As you know, late Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch died last week.

Even if you follow the sport only casually, you’re probably aware that Ilitch wanted to win as badly as his club’s fans did — to a point, even, that sometimes led to irrational decision making. When Victor Martinez hurt his knee in the winter of 2012, for example, Ilitch spent $214 million on Prince Fielder. Since 2006, the Tigers’ payroll has been higher than the major-league average every season, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts via Baseball Prospectus — and higher by at least $30 million on eight occasions since that same year, including each of the last six years. As a reference point, the Detroit metro area was the 13th largest to host a major-league team last season.

Said Ilitch of winning to after signing Jordan Zimmermann to a $110-million deal:

“That’s all I think about,” Ilitch said. “It’s something that I really want. I want it bad. We’re doing everything we can to make sure we get as many of the best ballplayers out there.”

Not all owners can say that. What percentage can say that, I’m not certain.

FanGraphs’ own Nathaniel Grow wondered in December of 2015 if Ilitch had accidentally suggested the possibility of collusion when asked if he’d go over the luxury threshold:

“I’m supposed to be a good boy and not go over it,” Ilitch said, “but if I think there are certain players that could help us a lot, I’ll go over it. Oops, I shouldn’t have said that.”

Even those of us who aren’t Michigan natives – but care about the game – have some familiarity with his interest and passion for the Detroit community. While, as the Detroit Free Press has recently reported, his relationship with the city was complicated at times, he rehabilitated parts of downtown Detroit when few others were willing to make an investment in the depressed central business district. He was a philanthropist. He paid Rosa Parks’ rent.

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Salvador Perez Deserves a Break

Salvador Perez, to me, is one of the more overrated players in baseball.

Defining “overrated” is a largely subjective endeavor, but, to me, he has received praise and exposure in a volume not commensurate with his abilities. Yes, he was part of a world-championship club, and he was of course heavily involved as its catcher. Still, his production is not that of an All-Star.

He’s posted three straight seasons of sub-.290 on-base percentages, wRC+ numbers of 91 or less. He’s a below-average hitter, and he doesn’t stand out at the game’s most challenged offensive position outside of pitcher. MLB catchers combined for a .310 on-base mark last season and an 87 wRC+. Perez posted an 88 wRC+.

In an age when pitch-framing has been quantified and now prized, Perez was rated as the worst framer in baseball last season, according to StatsCorner. Perez, like Matt Wieters, might have a framing problem in part because, at 6-foot-5, he’s unusually tall for a catcher. According to BWARP, which includes framing value, Perez has been worth an average of 0.5 WAR per season since 2014. Half a win! This is a player who has been invited to participate in four straight All-Star games. There’s a disconnect here.

What he does do well is stay on the field and throw out baserunners.

While Perez isn’t highly regarded as a receiver, he does lead all catchers in Defensive Runs Saved (39) since 2013, which accounts for catcher defense without considering framing. Perez led the AL last season by throwing out 48% of attempted stolen-base runners. His 35% rate over the course of his career is well above the league average of 28% over that six-year span.

While health is in part a skill, and while he has a strong arm, the overall profile is not one of an All-Star, let alone a quality regular. Unless, I’m missing something. And I think I might have been missing something. I wasn’t aware how dramatic Perez’s first-half and second-half splits were until watching MLB Network’s top-10 catcher show via DVR the other night.

Salvador Perez, Career Splits
1st half 0.282 0.312 0.456 0.174 107
2nd half 0.263 0.293 0.410 0.146 87

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Is the End Near for Stars-and-Scrubs?

There are competing theories on how, assuming an imperfect supply both of resources and assets, to best build a team. For instance, construct a roster with stars and scrubs or pursue a more balanced approach? Chicago White Sox general manager Rich Hahn — and, I believe, most general managers — are entrenched in the balanced-approach camp.

Hahn has generally been praised this offseason as he’s embarked on a rebuild project, and deservedly so. He added the game’s No. 2 overall prospect according to Baseball America and, in Yoan Moncada and three potential impact arms in Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech and Reynaldo Lopez in trades that sent Chris Sale to the Red Sox and Adam Eaton to the Nationals.

In making those deals, Hahn traded two players on team-friendly deals, in their primes, who accounted for nearly 40% of the team’s total WAR production last season. Hahn hopes that, in return, the trades yield the core of a team that enjoys a greater breadth of talent. Said Hahn recently to

“The last few years we’ve had a very top-heavy roster and the reason we haven’t won had nothing to do with the quality players at the top end of that roster,” Hahn said. “When the time comes that we are in a position to contend again, we are going to be approaching that with ideally a much deeper, more thoroughly balanced roster than what we had. It had to do with what was going on with not just one through 25, but one through 35 or 40. So now as we approach this, we have to build that organizational quality depth, not just insurance policies, but real high-caliber depth.”

The end is perhaps not quite yet here for the stars-and-scubs approach. The Angels have Mike Trout and everybody else and hope to contend with that arrangement. The Marlins have Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich but one of the game’s thinnest farm systems.

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The Rockies Could Really Use Joe Blanton

Two weeks have elapsed since I last wrote about the Rockies, so I hope enough time has passed to allow me to return to the subject matter.

As we know, Colorado has experimented with a number of approaches to pitching at Coors Field, from sinker-heavy staffs to expensive free agents to four-man rotations. Nothing, it seems, has worked. Back in January, I wrote about how the Rockies ought to be a center of pitching innovation when I advocated for the club to break away from the traditional five-man rotation.

While battling fatigue is one significant issue tied to pitching at altitude, another is, of course, the movement of pitches in the thin air. One kind FanGraphs reader directed my attention to a Dan Rozenson study on pitch effectiveness at Coors Field.

Wrote Rozenson:

There is strong evidence that the slider performs in absolute and comparative terms better than the curveball in Coors Field. Part of this can probably be attributed to the fact that sliders deviate from the “gyroball” trajectory of a pitch thrown in a vacuum the least of the major pitch types. Sinking fastballs also have a sharp drop-off in performance at Coors, and there is some evidence that using a cut fastball would be a good alternative.

Rockies management would be wise to learn from failed pitching experiments past. Their system ought to emphasize pitchers developing an arsenal of pitches that could be used effectively at home. This most obviously means encouraging their pitchers to throw sliders instead of curveballs as their main breaking ball, although further study might be able to illuminate what other pitches offer a comparative advantage in Denver.

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The Cubs of the Round Clubhouse

When I was researching a piece about the Cubs’ clubhouse culture last month and the similarities it shared with the Clemson football program (i.e. it’s OK to have fun), I stumbled upon an interesting detail about the Cubs’ new clubhouse.

I knew the Cubs had the celebration room, regarded by some as a superfluous addition to the clubhouse. There’s also an impressive new strength-and-conditioning component. The old clubhouse, something of an subterranean alley way, was converted into a batting cage. There are a number of other amenities, as well, as one might expect of a new facility like this. The new clubhouse’s footprint of 30,000 square feet is about a quarter of the size of the Wrigley Field playing surface.

But it’s one of the smaller departments of the new clubhouse that I find interesting – the actual locker room space within the clubhouse. From an Associated Press story:

The Cubs decided to go with a circular shape — 60 feet, 6 inches in diameter, matching the distance on a baseball field between the mound and home plate — rather than the more conventional rectangle to encourage more unity and equality. There are no preferred corner lockers. Everyone can see one another.

Almost every other major-league home clubhouse I have entered is rectangular in shape. Certain locker spaces, like those with no neighboring locker on one side, are reserved for the most senior and/or most talented players. It’s not unlike the corner offices in your work place, which you might be hesitant to enter unannounced. There’s a sort of hierarchy of locker space, with certain players benefiting from a location next to unused locker space, which they use to store their spill-over belongings. The middle relievers, the bench players: they typically have no such luxuries.

While I’m not an expert in clubhouse design — nor the social manners and customs within those spaces — and while I’m only permitted clubhouse access along with other media for specific periods before and after games, I suspect the traditional clubhouse shape and layout does not always foster optimum discussion and collaboration opportunities.

And, to continue a theme from last week here at FanGraphs, one the great inefficiencies in today’s game is communication. Every club has the access to the same information, or similar information, but clubs ask different questions of the information and share information differently. I presume that there are different levels of collaboration in every organization.

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Thor Is Bigger, Stronger… and Riskier?

As spring-training camps open this week, as pitchers and catchers report to complexes across sunny Arizona and Florida, we are about to be inundated with stories suggesting a number of players are in the best shape of their careers. These are often players coming off down years, or veteran players who’ve dedicated the offseason to better diet and exercise with a view to lengthening their careers, or maturing players who’ve become more serious about their training and conditioning. Such claims are less often associated with 24-year-old pitchers who’ve just led the majors in WAR (6.5) and fastball velocity (98 mph) the previous season.

But Noah Syndergaard arrived bigger and stronger to Mets camp in Port St. Lucie, Florda, claiming to have added 15 pounds of muscle.

Syndergaard told the the New York Post and other outlets about one of his favorite dishes, which he used to add the lean mass and perhaps fight against deer overpopulation:

“My go-to is the Bowl of Doom,” Syndergaard said. “It’s sweet potato and hash with bacon, and you have buffalo in it and venison sausage, avocado and scrambled eggs, and that is plenty. That’s primarily what my diet consisted of this offseason.”

Resident pitching guru Eno Sarris already wrote this afternoon that the weight gain and other potential improvements could mean even better things for Syndergaard.

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Travis Sawchik FanGraphs Chat

Travis Sawchik: Welcome to Sawchik Chat VI, let’s talk …

baby bull : are you a believer in 4 win Odubel Herrera?

Travis Sawchik: After back-to-back 4-win seasons, I suppose we all should be

Curtis: If Gary Sanchez floats a .270/25/80 line this year at C, what percentage of people will be disappointed?

Travis Sawchik: Probably far too many … But Yankees should be very pleased if that happens along with solid defense

Guest: What do you think about Cody Bellinger?

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Herm Schneider and the Immense Value of Health

Last week, Ben Lindbergh authored an excellent piece regarding baseball’s “ever expiring ideas” for The Ringer. FanGraphs editor Dave Cameron described the trend as a “devaluation of new ideas.” But I think many can agree on one area of the game that features considerable room for growth, one many clubs are pursuing: injury prevention.

Even as teams employ modern treatments, the total of days missed due to injury continues to increase. MLB players spent 36,893 days on the disabled list last year, according Jeff Zimmerman’s excellent research, which broke the previous high of the 15-year study by 21%. There are many culprits cited to explain this trend, from the rise from youth sports specialization to the toll of increased velocity on the elbows and shoulders of pitchers. Will Carroll, one of the few who have tried to measure injury loss and cost, estimated the sport spent $1.1 billion alone on disabled pitchers from 2008 to -12. Despite advances in wearable technology, despite more focus on injury prevention and strength and training programs, injuries keep increasing.

To better understand how the industry might improve its ability in keeping players healthy and on the field, I spoke to the athletic trainer who’s had more success than anyone in keeping players off the disabled list in the 21st century.

Last week, I talked with Herm Schneider as he made his way to O’Hare airport in Chicago to catch a flight to Arizona to begin his 38th season as the head athletic trainer of the White Sox. The 64-year-old is the sport’s longest tenured head athletic trainer. And for good reason: according to Zimmerman’s data, he’s been the most effective.

Over the last 15 years, the White Sox have lost the fewest days to the disabled list of any major-league team – and it’s not close. While DL data is hardly a perfect measure of time lost to injuries, as the disabled list is also employed by clubs as a roster-manipulation tool, the White Sox have averaged just over 500 DL days per season since 2001, according to Zimmerman’s research. Only three other teams have averaged fewer than 775 days lost to injury. The White Sox’ domination is illustrated clearly by this chart from Zimmerman’s piece:

The White Sox continue to remain one of the healthier teams in recent years, as well. Over the last five seasons, the White Sox have recorded the second fewest DL days, and fourth fewest over the last three seasons.

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LoMo Returns, Rays Continue Opportunistic Offseason

The Rays are one of the under-the-radar teams that the FanGraphs and PECOTA projection systems forecast to be in the AL Wild Card mix.

As Jeff wrote last month following the Logan Forsythe-for-Jose De Leon deal, the Rays have continued to add years of control and surplus value this offseason. While the Rays do not necessarily need pieces like Mallex Smith and De Leon for 2017, they have moved some of today for more of tomorrow. It’s generally a good practice for a small-market club that must constantly balance the present with the future. I wrote last month that the Rays would be wise to remain opportunistic and fill their second-base void internally and take advantage of the overcorrection against bat-only players that Dave Cameron identified earlier this offseason.

The market has long overpaid one-dimensional power hitters. This, though, feels like more than just a simple market correction. When perfectly useful players on one year deals for $7 million can’t get moved for even a non-prospect, it feels like the pendulum has swung too far the other way. It’s time to jump on this, contenders; these bargains won’t last forever.

And the Rays responded this week by signing one of the remaining such bats in Logan Morrison, who was, of course, with the club last season. There was such a supply of these bat-only, or bat-mostly, players that it caused Eno Sarris to wonder if they would all even find homes this offseason, so we’re happy to report Morrison, Chris Carter and Mike Napoli have all indeed found teams willing to employ them this week.

With their collection of transactions to date this offseason, the Rays have added a quality controllable arm, an interesting outfielder, while losing little, if any, production at second, first and in the rotation. The Rays are quietly one of the offseason’s winners.

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Baseball and the Tie Game: A Logical Match

September 29, 2016, marked a cool and damp evening in Pittsburgh. PNC Park was sparsely populated for game No. 159 of the regular season, the final Pirates’ home game of the campaign.

The hosts had little to play for, having been eliminated from postseason contention, failing to make the playoffs after three consecutive trips to the postseason. The visiting Cubs had already secured a playoff spot and the best record in the NL.

I sensed many, including those in the press box, were ready for the season to end. Then the rains came. The tarp was deployed. Western Pa. was soaked by more than an inch of rain.

In the sixth inning of a 1-1 tie, the umpires decided they had see enough regular-season baseball in Pittsburgh in 2016. They sent everyone home with baseball’s first tie game since 2005. I was there as a witness, recounting the events for what turned out to be the last game story I wrote as a beat reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

I am revisiting this history today because of the Jeff Passan’s report from Wednesday that revealed the league’s plans to experiment with some radical extra-inning practices at the lower-levels of the minor leagues this season — notably, beginning extra innings with a runner on second base. The goal is to avoid ridiculously long games that tax everyone, most notably young arms. And the experiment could eventually lead to implementation at the major-league level.

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How Teams Can Better Innovate

If you haven’t read Ben Lindbergh’s piece on the baseball’s ever expiring secrets, I suggest you free up 15 minutes at work (or elsewhere) today.

Lindbergh’s closing point:

Maybe that’s the lesson to take from this whole sordid story. We’ve known for some time that Correa’s crimes were illegal, unethical, and punishable by many months in prison. What we might not have known makes the story sadder still: In baseball’s current climate, it’s not even clear how much hacking helps.

If you haven’t read Dave Cameron’s related post on the devaluation of ideas, I recommend you do so, because it hits on one of the greatest market inefficiencies in the game today: communication.

Wrote Cameron:

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…. 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.

Ideas are quickly adopted today and I agree that communication is something of a market inefficiency. After all, an idea has no value without implementation. It was a salient point in my book Big Data Baseball. And it’s not always about effective top-down communication either, a front office sending an analytically based idea to be adopted by the coaching staff and players. Effective communication must also include a bottom-up channel. For instance, it was Texas Rangers manager Jeff Banister, the Pirates bench coach from 2013 to -15, who told me in reporting for the book that it was the coaches who initiated an important, data-backed tactic in 2013. It was the assistant coaches who asked data analysts to quantify a hunch they had: they wanted to know if certain pitch sequences in certain locations could make batters more uncomfortable, leading to a greater ground-ball rate.

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Let’s Pick Up the Pace

Earlier this week, colleague Nicolas Stellini made an impassioned defense of the traditional intentional walk, which is endangered according to a Jayson Stark ESPN report. We know MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has made quickening the game’s “pace of action” one of his priorities, and Stark reported that MLB has proposed two rule changes to the MLBPA: raising the strike zone above the knees and transforming the intentional walk to an automatic one.

But it’s unclear whether these two measures, if implemented, would result in a brisker pace of play. Eliminating the traditional intentional-walk process would have little effect, as Stark notes:

“In an age in which intentional walks actually have been declining — there were just 932 all last season (or one every 2.6 games) — that time savings would be minimal. But MLB sees the practice of lobbing four meaningless pitches as antiquated, so eliminating them would serve as much as a statement as it would a practical attempt to speed up the game.”

The growth of the bottom of strike zone has also been a focus of the commissioner, who is concerned with the record levels of strikeouts and the fewer and fewer balls put in play. They’re reasonable concerns, as there is a lot of standing around in today’s game. From Stark:

“The change in the strike zone, however, could have a much more dramatic effect, MLB believes. Its intent is to produce more balls in play, more baserunners and more action at a time when nearly 30 percent of all hitters either walk or strike out — the highest rate of “non-action” in the game’s history.

Changes to the strike zone, however, could and likely would have dramatic effects and unintended consequences. The change would reduce the strike zone by an estimated 34 square inches, which according to Jon Roegele’s excellent research, would reduce the strike zone by 7.2%.

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The Phillies Are the Best of the NL’s Worst

This is probably not going to be the Phillies’ year. Probably not next year, either. How’s that for building optimism to begin a post?

Even former Phillies interim president, now senior advisor, Pat Gillick noted he might have been too optimistic in suggesting the Phillies could contend in 2017 or 2018.

Last year wasn’t great for the Phillies, as the club finished 20 or more games out of first place for a fourth straight season. The farm system had setbacks. The Phillies’ system declined from a rank of eight last year by ESPN to 14th entering 2017 even after adding the draft’s No. 1 pick, Mickey Moniak, to the system and with J.P. Crawford yet to debut.

If you’re a Philadelphian searching for optimism, you won’t find it in the PECOTA or FanGraphs projected standings, either, each of which forecast a fifth-place finish for the Phillies.

PECOTA’s Projected Last-Place Teams
Division Projected Last-Place Team Wins GB
AL East Orioles 73 17
AL Central Royals 71 21
AL West Athletics 75 18
NL East Phillies 74 14
NL Central Reds 74 17
NL West Padres 70 28

FanGraphs’ Projected Last-Place Teams
Division Projected Last-Place Team Wins GB
AL East Orioles 79 13
AL Central While Sox 70 21
AL West Athletics 77 13
NL East Phillies 71 19
NL Central Brewers 68 26
NL West Padres 66 29

Among the last-place finishers, perhaps the Orioles have the most reason for optimism. Not only have they beaten preseason expectations before, but they brought a similar club to the postseason, briefly, last October.

At a time when there are groups of teams clearly trying to contend and others clearly attempting to rebuild – particularly in the NL – there’s not a lot of hope entering spring for fanbases in San Diego, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. But perhaps the Phillies are the best among the worst teams in the NL, perhaps they are the best hope for an NL Cinderella story.

There is this silver lining: Baseball Prospectus has the Phillies closer to first place (14 games back) than any other projected last-place team. FanGraphs has the Phillies finishing 2017 the fewest games back of any NL last-place team. Optimism!

If you’re hoping the Phillies can surprise and make things interesting in 2017, there’s this, too: the Phillies were among the unluckiest teams in baseball last season (from a pitching perspective). The Phillies’ ERA-FIP differential was fourth in baseball; the bullpen, specifically, ranked second by that measure. While this isn’t to suggest that the Phillies’ 2016 bullpen was a quality group, there’s also reason to believe it wasn’t as catastrophic as its 5.05 ERA suggested.

Moreover, the Phillies have improved the group this offseason by signing Joaquin Benoit and trading for Pat Neshek. From Carson’s report on the fairly optimistic ZiPS projections:

A brief examination of Joaquin Benoit’s (44.0 IP, 0.6 zWAR) player page reveals that the 2017 season will represent his 16th as a major-league pitcher. He recorded one of the highest average fastball velocities of his career last year, his age-38 season. He’s projected to produce the lowest ERA on the club by some measure. Even after Benoit, Philadelphia has a number of pitchers capable of handling high-leverage innings: Hector Neris (78.0 IP, 84 ERA-), Pat Neshek (46.1, 80), and Edubray Ramos (74.0, 88) are all quite strong on a per-inning level.

As for the rotation, it’s intriguing.

ZiPS has the top-five rotation options accounting for 10 zWAR (that’s ZiPS WAR). I wrote about Aaron Nola last week. Not only does Nola have a burgeoning front-of-the-rotation skill set, but no pitcher underperformed his FIP more than Nola last season. Nola finished with a 4.78 ERA in contrast to a 3.08 FIP.

While Vince Velasquez posted a 5.33 second-half ERA after a 3.32 first-half mark, his underlying skills remained consistent. Velasquez posted a 28.4% strikeout percentage and 8% walk rate in the first half, and a 26.3% K percentage and 8.5% walk rate in the second.

Jeremy Hellickson is back after accepting a qualifying offer, Jerad Eickhoff posted a 3-WAR season and 197 innings, and the inconsistent Clay Buchholz lost his command, but not his stuff, last season, and could benefit from leaving the AL East environment for the NL. Even if Buchholz and Hellickson are not part of the next Phillies’ postseason team, with quality seasons, they could perhaps be flipped for assets that are part of the next Philadelphia team to play deep in October.

The pitching staff is going to have to be better, and luckier, because the club’s run-productive capabilities have a long way to go even after adding Michael Saunders, Howie Kendrick and Chris Coghlan.

The Phillies were the worst offensive team in the majors last season. Objectively, as intriguing as Crawford’s two-way game is, it doesn’t look like he’ll be Francisco Lindor or Corey Seager when he’s summoned. At least not right away. Crawford has often struggled after promotions, and produced a paltry 27 extra-base hits across Double-A and Triple-A last season. We’ve read and heard about Jorge Alfaro‘s power and arm for years, but expecting a Gary Sanchez 2016 would be folly. Only Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera project three-win players or better in 2017. If the Phillies’ lineup is going to make dramatic improvements, it will likely require some breakouts at unexpected levels from the Crawfords and Alfaros.

As a group, the Phillies are inching closer to relevance. While there’s a clear divide between the Haves and Have Nots in the NL, the Phillies should have one of the better rotations among second-division teams and an improved bullpen. They have an intriguing collection of young position players who can perhaps exceed expectation and timetables. With improved luck, maybe they can exceed expectations while accelerating the rate at which they return to play meaningful baseball in September.

Sergio Romo Opts for Dodger Blue

As Ken Rosenthal reported Monday, Sergio Romo has found a home in Los Angeles, signing a one-year deal with the Dodgers and switching sides in one of the game’s most spirited rivalries. Romo will always be associated with the Giants, part of three World Series-winning teams, but he’ll pitch for the Dodgers in 2017 and it’s going to take some getting used to for everyone.

The incomparable Grant Brisbee offered a fascinating detail as he came to grips with the transaction:

(Romo) was recognizable. He was on commercials. He was reliable. He occasionally made opposing hitters look silly, as if they just picked up the sport of baseball. And he was around for nine seasons. Here’s a list of San Francisco Giants who have thrown nine seasons or more since the team moved west:

Juan Marichal
Greg Minton
Matt Cain
Gary Lavelle
Kirk Rueter
Scott Garrelts
Randy Moffitt
Jim Barr
Gaylord Perry
Sergio Romo
Tim Lincecum

How many relievers spend nine seasons with a club nowadays? It’s a rare tenure. But by relocating south to join the division favorites, he will now be part of the group setting up for closer Kenley Jansen, unless manager Dave Roberts blows our minds and begins using Jansen in non-save situations.

Everything from Romo’s demonstrative actions to his pitch mix remains interesting. He’s succeeded with below-average velocity thanks to his slider, a fascinating pitch that proves in the bullpen you can really make a career with one pitch – if it’s outstanding.

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