Archive for Daily Graphings

MLB Hitters Are Getting Off the Ground

Last week, Travis Sawchik wrote an outstanding article titled “Can More MLB Hitters Get Off the Ground?” The article went in depth about the optimal swing plane, and about the resistance it can face within the game when a player’s thinking about trying to hit the ball in the air. Players have been instructed for decades to swing down on the ball in an attempt to generate backspin. Recent breakouts like Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner, however, can vouch for simply letting it fly. They’ve found their success from always swinging up.

For the most part, right now, the conversation is built upon anecdotes. There have been players who have changed their swings, but we haven’t seen anything reflected in the overall league numbers. Last year, the average ground-ball rate was 45%. Five years ago, the average ground-ball rate was 45%. That number seldom budges, and it does in part speak to baseball’s consistency. We aren’t seeing a reflection of a whole bunch of guys suddenly adopting uppercuts.

But then, it all depends on how you dig. It turns out there is something. A sign, if a small one, that we’ve entered a period of transition.

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Alex Reyes Is the Season’s First Injury Victim

Pitchers and catchers have been in camp for all of a day and a half, and the baseball gods may have already claimed the first pitcher to feed their insatiable hunger for elbow ligaments and heartbreak. Alex Reyes of the Cardinals, a top-five prospect in all of baseball — if not the best (keep an eye out for Eric Longenhagen’s final rankings) — is headed for an MRI after experiencing the dreaded elbow discomfort. According to Jeff Passan, there’s significant worry within the organization that Reyes will need Tommy John surgery.

That’s a massive blow to the Cardinals, who were almost surely counting on Reyes for major contributions in their rotation. The rest of the pitching staff is largely a patchwork of the old (Adam Wainwright), the ineffective (Mike Leake) and the recently repaired (Lance Lynn). Only Carlos Martinez stands out as a real candidate to turn in 190 or so genuinely good innings. Knowing the Cardinals, they’ll probably still get a few prospects to emerge out of thin air and provide value at the big-league level, but Reyes is Reyes.

His fastball is the sort of pitch that’s spoken of in hushed and reverent tones. The curveball isn’t far behind. He’s the prototypical über-prospect in the age of Noah Syndergaard. He’s what they look like. For a Cards team that’s projected to win just 84 games, he was going to be a vital cog. He may be gone for the whole season.

There are two major implications here: one for the status of the club this year and one for the status of Reyes and his career. The second is largely an unknown. Every elbow reacts differently. Reyes may not need Tommy John. He may need it, and then another one. The Cards are almost surely praying that he’ll just need rest and rehabilitation, and that the ligament is still somewhat intact. Ervin Santana and Masahiro Tanaka have been pitching with partial tears of their ulnar collateral ligaments. It can be done, but it would likely eat into Reyes’ titanic velocity. We don’t yet know what the damage is.

If he does require surgery, the prognosis isn’t excellent. Research by Jon Roegele suggests that, for pitchers who undergo a Tommy John procedure between ages 16 and 23 (Reyes is 22), the median figure for innings pitched after the surgery is just 221. Only 40% of pitchers in that age group reach the 500-inning threshold. That 221-inning mark is worrisome for someone of Reyes’ age. But again, we’re not yet certain if he’ll need surgery.

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DJ LeMahieu Gets No Respect

Monday afternoon, I put up an InstaGraphs post titled “The Least Intimidating Hitter in Baseball.” The idea was to use a formula including fastball rate and zone rate, because, the way I figure, the more aggressively a hitter gets pitched, the less the pitchers are afraid of. I combined a couple z-scores to get a number I’ll refer to today as the Aggressiveness Index, and many of the players in the linked post are unsurprising. Turns out pitchers go after Ben Revere aggressively. Ditto Nori Aoki and Billy Burns. There’s nothing weird there.

But a certain name showed up in eighth place. Last year, pitchers didn’t show any significant fear of facing DJ LeMahieu. That makes sense if you weren’t paying attention, but LeMahieu played every day, and finished with a 128 wRC+. LeMahieu, ever so quietly, had himself a breakout, four-win season, yet it looks like pitchers just didn’t care.

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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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2016 AL Starting-Pitcher Contact Management: Non-Qualifiers

We’ve been at it for some time now, utilizing granular exit-speed and launch-angle data to evaluate 2016 contact management (for ERA title-qualifying pitchers) and contact quality (for regular hitters) performances on a position-by-position, league-by-league basis. To wrap up this series of posts, we’ll next look at additional pitchers and hitters who didn’t meet the playing time thresholds to be covered previously.

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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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Jeremy Jeffress and Using Spin Rate to Get Better

It’s exciting to have so many statistics available to us when we’re trying to evaluate our favorite players. From the players’ perspective, though, it’s probably more exciting when those statistics allow them to improve themselves. From that point of view, metrics like launch angle and spin rate probably have a certain appeal that some others don’t: they provide a measurement of something that might help a player understand his game and get better.

There’s one problem, though — with spin rate, at least. Indications are that it’s difficult for a pitcher to change his in any material way. Still, as Jeremy Jeffress may have found, it can provide a window into betterment.

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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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The Least Intimidating Hitter in Baseball

You can learn a lot about a hitter by the way he gets pitched to. Granted, you can also learn a lot about a hitter by the way that he hits, but when you look at the approach, you learn something about perception. You learn how opponents see the hitter. Two useful measures: fastball rate, and zone rate. You could of course go deeper than this, but fastball rate tells you something about fear. The same goes for zone rate. If someone keeps getting fastballs in the zone, the pitchers probably aren’t afraid. If someone rarely sees fastballs or pitches in the zone, well, something else is going on.

Some 2016 numbers, for reference:

Fastball and Zone Rates
Split Fastball% Zone%
Pitchers 71% 55%
Non-Pitchers 56% 48%
Top 25 ISO 53% 45%
Bottom 25 ISO 59% 49%

You can see how aggressively pitchers are attacked by other pitchers. The fastball rate skyrockets, and you get five out of nine pitches in the strike zone. More powerful hitters see fewer fastballs, and fewer strikes. Less powerful hitters see more fastballs, and more strikes. This is all easy and intuitive, and although there are other variables to consider, we’ve touched on the big stuff.

Using these statistics, we can attempt to quantify a hitter’s intimidation. No, it’s not perfect, but I’ve still run the math, calculating z-scores for both of the rates. The last step is just adding the two z-scores together. In this table, the least intimidating hitters in baseball in 2016, given a minimum of 200 plate appearances.

Least Intimidating Hitters, 2016
Player Season Fastball%, z Zone%, z Combined
Ben Revere 2016 3.5 1.9 5.3
Nori Aoki 2016 1.8 2.6 4.4
J.B. Shuck 2016 1.9 2.1 4.0
Billy Burns 2016 1.2 2.7 3.9
Shawn O’Malley 2016 1.9 1.9 3.8
J.J. Hardy 2016 1.5 2.2 3.7
Angel Pagan 2016 2.6 0.9 3.5
DJ LeMahieu 2016 2.3 1.0 3.3
Darwin Barney 2016 1.3 1.9 3.2
Derek Norris 2016 1.6 1.6 3.2

It’s Ben Revere! And it’s Ben Revere by a mile. Revere just saw 70% fastballs, and he saw 52% of all pitches in the strike zone. That’s not quite where pitchers wound up, collectively, but Revere was nearly pitched like a pitcher, and that certainly sends a message. No one was afraid of him, and not coincidentally, Revere finished with a 47 wRC+. He did, though, smack a couple of dingers.

For some context, I calculated numbers for individual hitter-seasons throughout the PITCHf/x era, stretching back to 2008. Where did Revere’s season rank in terms of its unintimidatingness?

Least Intimidating Hitters, 2008 – 2016
Player Season Fastball%, z Zone%, z Combined
David Eckstein 2009 3.1 2.7 5.8
David Eckstein 2010 3.1 2.5 5.6
Marco Scutaro 2013 2.6 2.9 5.5
Nick Punto 2013 2.8 2.7 5.5
Ben Revere 2016 3.5 1.9 5.3
Jason Kendall 2010 2.8 2.5 5.3
David Eckstein 2008 2.8 2.2 5.1
Denard Span 2011 2.0 3.0 5.0
Ryan Hanigan 2015 1.9 3.0 4.9
A.J. Ellis 2015 3.0 1.9 4.9

Not a bad showing — fifth place, out of 3,148 hitter-seasons. David Eckstein occupies the top two spots, and, sure, of course he does. Because I’m sure you’d wonder, the lowest combined score is -6.7, belonging to 2012 Josh Hamilton. Pitchers definitely didn’t want to throw him any fastballs, and they didn’t want to risk anything he’d find particularly hittable.

Back to Revere. There was an article on after the home run embedded above, which was Revere’s first of the season. Said Dusty Baker, unironically, or maybe ironically, how should I know:

“I’m just hoping he doesn’t get that dreadful disease of home run-itis,” Baker said.

Said Revere, referring to same:

“If I try to hit it in the air, I’ll probably be at .250 or a Mendoza-line .200 hitter. But if I hit the ball on the ground or line drives, I’ll be .300 for a long time.”

Revere ran the same ground-ball rate he had as a regular in 2015, when he hit .306. He finished the year batting .217.

The Reinvention of Franklin Gutierrez, Baseball Miracle

The Dodgers signed Franklin Gutierrez over the weekend. Now, I didn’t realize the Dodgers still had room on their major-league roster, but they probably know better than I do. Here is a list of problems that have sent Franklin Gutierrez to the disabled list over the past several years:

  • stomach gastritis
  • strained left oblique
  • torn right pectoral
  • concussion
  • strained right hamstring
  • strained right hamstring

Related to the above, here are Gutierrez’s year-to-year plate-appearance totals after getting traded to the Mariners:

  • 2009: 629
  • 2010: 629
  • 2011: 344
  • 2012: 163
  • 2013: 151
  • 2014: 0

That zero stands out. Gutierrez missed all of 2014, making the personal decision to sit out so he could focus on treatment. Treatment for what? Treatment for ankylosing spondylitis! Young athletes are not often diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, but Gutierrez was, and there isn’t a cure. It’s a condition he’ll deal with for the rest of his life, and it costs him flexibility and mobility. It’s cruel and unrelenting, and when Gutierrez elected to not play, he couldn’t have known whether he’d ever be able to return.

But he tried in 2015. He tried, and he succeeded, having settled on a treatment plan that left him feeling somewhat okay. Gutierrez batted almost 200 times with the 2015 Mariners, and then he batted almost 300 times with the 2016 Mariners. And the player that Gutierrez turned himself into was and is dramatically different from the player he’d been before.

Franklin Gutierrez vs. Franklin Gutierrez
Years PA Def/600 BB% K% wRC+ ISO HR/FB% Hard% Zone% WAR/600
2007 – 2010 1999 18.3 7% 21% 94 0.143 9% 32% 53% 3.6
2015 – 2016 472 -10.3 9% 29% 135 0.255 30% 44% 45% 3.7

That’s a comparison of recent Gutierrez to what’s basically peak, healthy Gutierrez. Earlier in his career, Gutierrez was as smooth an outfield defender as anyone had ever seen. He was one of the best defensive players in baseball, and at the plate, he showed some promising pop. Now look at the last two years. Gutierrez has become a negative defensive asset, because he simply doesn’t move so well anymore. For the same reason, he’s seldom aggressive on the bases. So much of that old athleticism is gone, and it’ll never return. But Gutierrez has found a way to compensate. He’s gotten bigger, and he’s made a conscious effort to try to just beat the living crap out of the ball.

Some percentile rankings from the last two years:

  • HR/FB%: 100th
  • ISO: 96th
  • Hard%: 99th
  • wFA/C: 99th
  • Exit Velo: 96th
  • Contact: 7th
  • K%: 5th
  • Fastball%: 4th
  • Def/600: 19th

No hitter in baseball has managed a higher rate of home runs per fly ball. Gutierrez has some of the best hard-contact measures around, having sacrificed contact to get there. At this point, he has a lot of power and a lot of swing-and-miss, and so pitchers increasingly treat Gutierrez like a terrifying threat, avoiding fastballs and avoiding the zone. As far as other things go, Gutierrez can still play the outfield, but he isn’t very good at it. And there will be days he’ll wake up and he simply won’t be able to play. On those days, his condition won’t let him.

The reality is, Gutierrez isn’t getting healthier. And teams are reluctant to sign a player whose availability is unpredictable. From time to time, the Dodgers might end up frustrated, playing games with a short bench. But they know what they’re getting into, and they know what Gutierrez has been able to do since his return. Having lost a lot of his ability to move around, Gutierrez has focused on more light jogs and fewer hard sprints. He remains active with his 34th birthday coming next week, and given where he’s been, that’s almost impossible to believe.

The Calculated Mediocrity of the Atlanta Braves

The Braves aren’t going to go very far this year: that’s an assertion that’s unlikely to bite me six months from now. Both our Depth Charts projections and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA forecast Atlanta failing to clear the 80-win threshold. The acquisition of Brandon Phillips over the weekend did little, if anything, to change that. Phillips is roundly projected to be just a touch over replacement level this season. The man he’s supplanting, Jace Peterson, is who you see a picture of when you look up “replacement level” in the baseball dictionary. Peterson has taken more than a thousand trips to the plate and played more than 2,000 innings in the field. He’s put up a career WAR of 0.4. Phillips needn’t do much to represent an upgrade.

That’s good, because (as just stated) Phillips probably isn’t going to represent much of an upgrade — a sentiment that basically other every club appears to share. Nor do new additions Bartolo Colon or R.A. Dickey, or Jaime Garcia appear set to turn the club around. The Braves have spent their winter loading up on veterans on one-year deals like these players, using them to round out a roster that has some desirable elements and other pieces that are less helpful. There’s unquestionably value in replacing bad players with somewhat competent ones.

Doing that isn’t enough to make the Braves contenders. They seem to understand this, of course. The Braves don’t appear to be banking on a postseason spot this year. They’re unlikely to compete with the Mets and Nationals in the NL East, and their projected high-70s win total puts them in position to have another nice draft. Even with all the Freddie Freeman in the world, the Braves are no match for the forces of superior baseball and sweet, sweet prospects.

What they do seem to have done is field a team that’s palatable enough to draw people into their new taxpayer-funded stadium. Because of that new stadium, the organization will attempt to pull of a difficult balancing act this year. Fans will need to be sold on the product currently on the field, and on what’s to come.

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Reds Shed Brandon Phillips to Play Brandon Phillips

When you play in the majors long enough, and when you stick with one team for a while, you’re granted certain leverage. Brandon Phillips used his well-earned no-trade protection to block moves that would’ve sent him to Washington, Arizona, and Atlanta. That last decision took place in November, while the Braves were also talking with Sean Rodriguez. They signed Rodriguez, and the Phillips talks went cold. There wasn’t anything more to discuss.

Yet while Phillips was given more leverage, he wasn’t given *all of* the leverage. The situation in Cincinnati threatened to turn ugly, with the team clearly ready to move on and play younger players. Phillips faced the possibility of being benched or released, moves from which he couldn’t protect himself. Talks with the Braves picked back up in the aftermath of Rodriguez getting into a car accident. This time, Phillips acquiesced. The Reds aren’t getting much in return; they’re hardly even getting salary relief. What the Reds do get to do, now, is play Jose Peraza without things being uncomfortable. And, coincidentally enough, Peraza looks an awful lot like another Brandon Phillips.

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So Much Talent in the WBC

The World Baseball Classic is scheduled to begin early next month. This will represent the fourth such tournament, Japan having won the first two, followed by a victory by the Dominican Republic the last time around. While the United States has yet to win, they bring more talent than the rest of the countries represented.

The 16 participating countries officially named their rosters last week, accounting for a total of 226 position players and 321 pitchers from 16 countries. Not all the players will necessarily play, of course. With a view to limiting workload, teams have been permitted to name pitchers who might appear in later rounds of the tournament, even if they’re absent from the first — the idea being to protect players who haven’t benefited from spring training before the start of their respective professional league. There are four Asian countries participating in the tournament, for example — China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — and a number of their players play at a fairly high professional level. Other teams like Australia, Israel, and Italy feature fewer MLB-type players on their rosters, naturally. Even so, there’s still a great deal of talent in the tournament — something which we can identify in the projections.

Of the 226 position players in the tournament, a Steamer projection is available for 133. Of those 133 players, 86 earn a forecast for replacement-level production or better in 2017. Nor does that account for the talent in the various Asian leagues. In other words: despite the presence of countries in which baseball is less popular, it’s still probably fair to estimate that close to half of the position players participating in the WBC will be of MLB caliber. In terms of the talent level for which we have available projections, the U.S. has a decent advantage.

The U.S. has a 50% advantage over the second-place Dominican Republic, with Venezuela and Puerto Rico placing not too far behind. The Netherlands — thanks to a combination of Xander Bogaerts, Didi Gregorius, Jonathan Schoop, and Andrelton Simmons — also figure to bring up a decent amount of MLB value. When we account for the number of players, and factor in the likelihood that starters will receive the bulk of the playing time, the gap between the Dominican Republic and the U.S. shrinks.

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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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Sunday Notes: Ilitch, Bader’s Bat, Baker’s Meditation, more

Mike Ilitch had a nondescript career as an infielder. Signed by Detroit in 1952, he was assigned to Class D Jamestown where he played alongside Coot Veal and Charlie Lau. Veal went on to play shortstop for the Tigers. Lau went to the big leagues as well, then became a legendary hitting guru.

Ilitch spent four years in the low minors, then became a pizza magnate and a beloved owner of two sports franchises in his hometown. On Friday, he passed away at the age of 87.

Ilitch opened his first Little Caesars in 1959, and in 1982 he bought the Detroit Red Wings. Ten years later, he bought the Detroit Tigers. All three thrived under his ownership.

Little Caesars is the third-largest pizza chain in the United States. The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup four times from 1997-2008, and have reached the playoffs for 25 years running. The Tigers have gone to the postseason five times in the last 11 years, and their lowest attendance over that stretch was 2.46 million.

What will happen now that the patriarch of the Ilitch empire is gone? Read the rest of this entry »

David Robertson and the Dangers of Reliever Volatility

Right-handed reliever David Robertson is earning $12 million per year on a rebuilding Chicago White Sox team that has little need for a high-priced closer. The Washington Nationals, meanwhile, might need a closer if they aren’t comfortable with internal options who, whatever their qualifications, lack proven closer experience. As a result, it isn’t surprising to find that the two teams have been discussing a trade. Robertson is owed $25 million over the next two years, a relatively reasonable fee given the cost of closers on the free-agent market. If the White Sox are looking to dump salary, Robertson might make sense for multiple teams, but if the Sox want prospects back, both Chicago and Robertson’s suitors might be better off waiting until July, even if the price for relievers is higher at that time.

From 2011 to -15, Robertson was one of the very best relievers in baseball. During that time, he averaged nearly two wins above replacement per season. The only relievers with a higher total WAR during that time frame were Aroldis Chapman, Greg Holland, Kenley Jansen, and Craig Kimbrel. That 2015 campaign, Robertson’s first with the White Sox, was also arguably the best of his career. He struck out 34% of batters while walking just 5%. A very low 66% left-on-base percentage gave him just a 3.41 ERA (compared to his 2.52 FIP), but the results were fine nonetheless. Entering the 2016 season, Robertson was again set to be one of the very best relievers in the game, earning a 1.9-WAR projection on our Depth Charts projection. The season didn’t go as well as expected.

Robertson put together a solid season, recording a good 3.58 FIP (82 FIP-) and a similar 3.47 ERA (82 ERA-). The result: a 1.0-WAR season, making him one of just a dozen full-time closers to hit the one-win mark last year. The results were good, but they represented a decline from his elite numbers the five years prior to 2016. His strikeout rate dropped from 34% to 28%; his walk rate more than doubled, up to 12%, after having remained below 9% since the 2011 season. Last season might be an outlier. It’s possible that Robertson return to form this year. It could be a new normal for Robertson going forward, though — or, worse, it could represent a decline that could continue into this season. The problem is that nobody really knows.

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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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Why Extra Innings Shouldn’t Change

We just had a conversation on Monday about the league’s ideas for changing up the game, and about tilting at windmills. Intentional walks aren’t that big a deal. Now extra innings are killing baseball, apparently.

Jeff Passan has reported that baseball is going to start testing out a new policy at Rookie-level ball. Every extra inning will start with a runner automatically standing on second base, with the idea of ending the game quicker. I can see the argument. Extra innings drag, especially if they go on for extended periods of time. This rule would theoretically protect against 19-inning wars of attrition in which position players get to try out their fastballs. Nobody wants to sit around into the wee hours of the morning until someone finally pushes a run across the plate. That’s the rationale behind this, right?

“What really initiated it is sitting in the dugout in the 15th inning and realizing everybody is going to the plate trying to hit a home run and everyone is trying to end the game themselves,” Joe Torre told Passan. And the same is likely true of the fan still sitting out in the bleachers in the 15th inning, no? Is anybody still watching at home in the 15th inning? The sooner a baseball game can end, the better. That seems to be the message here.

Yet this proposed cure may not be any better than the supposed disease.

The Australian Baseball League has this rule, and some other international formats of play employ it. It hasn’t garnered glowing reviews.

As we know, bunts stink. They’re a waste of an out. They work less often than you’d think. It’s not totally uncommon for a runner being bunted over from second to be thrown out at third. Plus, the league just publicly stated its vendetta against old-fashioned intentional walks this week. If MLB is concerned with pace of play, making extra innings even more of a slog through the mud feels quite counterintuitive.

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Four Perspectives: How Do MLB and MiLB Balls Differ?

Pitchers need to get used to a different ball when they reach the big leagues. The variance is slight, but it is nonetheless noticeable. That was the opinion of four pitchers to whom I spoke, and facts back up their feelings.

According to a source within Major League Baseball:

  • The MLB ball is made in Costa Rica, and the MiLB ball is made in China.
  • The MLB balls cost more.
  • There are some differences in the materials, such as the kind of leather.
  • Tests are conducted, and the performance of the balls are in line with one another. Even so, major-league pitchers on rehab assignment are allowed to use MLB balls during their minor-league outings.

That last bullet point seems especially telling. Given the availability of that option, there is clearly a difference.

Here is what the handful of hurlers — all of whom pitched in both MLB and Triple-A last season — told me in mid September. Along with the physical feel of the spheroid, pitch movement and the carry of fly balls were also addressed.


On the Construction and Feel of the Ball

Ben Heller: “It seems like it’s a bit tighter in the big leagues. And the ball is slicker, too. The way they rub it down here makes it a little slicker in your hand, so I find myself trying to get a little moisture to counteract that.”

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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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