Archive for Red Sox

Best Final Seasons, Part One

A few years back, I wrote a fourpart series about the worst final seasons for good players. It was inspired by Willie Mays, who very prominently had a bad final season, but was far from the worst season. Now, David Ortiz has inspired the flip side of the coin – the best final season. The Large Father is off to quite a hot start, and so some people have asked, how good does he have to be to produce the best final season of all-time? As you’ll see, the answer is he’ll have to do quite a lot.

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The Red Sox Offense Has Been Better Than the 1927 Yankees

The Boston Red Sox played the first game of a series versus the Houston Astros last night, and they scored 11 runs, eight of which came against Houston starter Dallas Keuchel. The day before that, they played the Oakland A’s, and they scored 13 runs. The two days prior to that — also against the A’s — they scored 13 and 14 runs, respectively, with one of those games coming against Oakland starter Sonny Gray. In the span of four days, Boston torched last year’s Cy Young Award-winner and the third place runner-up for a combined 15 earned runs. Pitching in the major leagues tends to be a matter of razor-thin margins, and that margin is made even more razor-thin in the pitcher-unfriendly confines of Fenway Park; regardless of that fact, the Red Sox offense is currently in the equivalent of a brightly-colored baseball fever dream, going berserk on anything and everything in its path.

We’ve seen a couple articles about this offense in the past few days. The sheer number of offensive categories they currently lead in baseball is wildly impressive. We’re going to dig a little deeper today, however, and get a little historical perspective before trying to pin down the processes this offense has taken to cause such an incredible run of form.

First, let’s take a look at where this offense would rank if it finished the season with this type of production. Let’s compare the 2016 Red Sox to every team since the start of the live ball era (1920) by wRC+. wRC+ is adjusted for parks and leagues, so it allows us to easily compare offenses from different years to one another. Take a look at the top 10 teams of all time by wRC+ — with each point above 100 representing a percentage point above league average:

Ten_Best_wRC+_1920-2016

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Is It Time to Worry About David Price?

The Red Sox were a fairly popular pick to win the AL East entering this season. The continued maturation of their young position players combined with an improved starting rotation — fronted by big-ticket free-agent acquisition David Price — was the recipe for success.

Here we are, over a month into the campaign, and the Sox are battling the Orioles for the top spot in the division. The offense has been even more potent than expected, with David Ortiz fighting off father time and Xander Bogaerts taking the next step toward stardom. The pitching staff, however — with the exception of knuckleballing savior Steven Wright — haven’t gotten the memo. Price, in particular.

Price enters his start this evening with an AL-worst 6.75 ERA. It’s not like his stuff has evaporated: he still possesses a strong 53/12 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and his swinging-strike rate stands at a career best 14.1%. Today, let’s dig into some granular ball-in-play (BIP) data and draw some conclusions as to whether it’s OK to start worrying about Price.

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The (Mostly) Good News About David Price

A quick check of the pitching leaderboards for qualified starters reveals an unsettling fact for the Red Sox: David Price has the second-worst ERA in baseball. Cue the alarm bells! The Sox paid for an ace, and instead, they’ve gotten the exact opposite of an ace — as far as outcomes are concerned, at least. Seven starts into the season, some element of worry has to be merited, right? The answer is yes, of course, because an ERA of almost seven for a No. 1 starter after over a month of games has to be worrying. Price has been terrible, and if you’re worrying about him or would like to, that’s probably merited. The reason why we’re here is to look into whether his performance thus far is grounds to for worry in the future, as well: though Price can’t get any of his clunkers back from the past seven starts, we can certainly look into whether those clunkers might presage future clunkers.

First, let’s start with the bad news, because it’s always better to end with good news. The bad news has been right there in front of us in every single one of Price’s starts this season, flashed up on a board in the stadium or on our TV screens during every pitch: his velocity is down. Way down. Lowest it’s ever been. That’s worrisome not only because velocity loss leads to a smaller margin of error, but also because velocity loss is the most visible indicator of injury. The drop captured in the red box in the chart below — depicting Price’s velocity by month from 2011 to 2016 — ought usually to inspire some concern (chart courtesy of Brooks Baseball):

Price_Velo

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Finding a Trade Partner for Ryan Braun

Over the weekend, Ken Rosenthal reported that the possibility of Ryan Braun being traded “was becoming more realistic”, as Braun is off to a fantastic start to the 2016 season, and he’s starting to put some distance between himself and the BioGenesis scandal that cost him half the 2013 season and a good chunk of his reputation. Since the suspension, Braun hasn’t played up to his previously established levels of performance, and when combined with his contract and the baggage surrounding how he handled his failed test, he was mostly an immovable object.

But with Braun hitting .372/.443/.605 — yeah, that is heavily inflated by a .409 BABIP, but his early season strikeout rate is back in line with Peak Braun levels, and he can still hit the ball a long way — and only four guaranteed years left on his deal after this season, dealing Braun is starting to look like something that could happen. It’s almost a certainty that the Brewers will take on some of his remaining contract in any deal in order to get better talent in return, with the question of how much of the remaining ~$90 million they’ll keep on their books being settled depending on how well he keeps hitting and what other sluggers hit the market this summer.

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Saying Nice Things About A.J. Pierzynski

A.J. Pierzynski has played baseball for a very long time. He’s one of the few players to predate not only the PITCHf/x era (2007-present), but also the Baseball Info Solutions era (2002-present). He’s one of just six active players who played in the 1990s — the others are Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, Bartolo Colon, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. They are all well celebrated and beloved players. Pierzynski does not fit in that group.

If you’re familiar with Pierzynski, you likely know that his opponents generally have not been all that fond of him. A Google search for “A.J. Pierzynski hate” turns up plenty of results. Rather than focus on that, I thought it would be fun to find some nice to things to say about Pierzynski.

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What Pitchers (and Numbers) Say About Pitching in the Cold

Maybe it was the fact that she spent her formative years in Germany, while I spent most of mine in Jamaica and America’s South, but my mother and I have always disagreed about a fundamental thing when it comes to the weather. For her, she wants the sun. It doesn’t matter if it’s bitter cold and dry; if the sun’s out, she’s fine. I’d rather it was warm. Don’t care if there’s a drizzle or humidity or whatever.

It turns out, when we were disagreeing about these things, we were really talking about pitching. Mostly because life is pitching and pitching is life.

But also because the temperature, and the temperature alone, does not tell the story of pitching in the cold. It’ll make sense, just stick with it.

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Wright’s Stuff: Talking Knuckleballs with a Knuckleballer

It’s not everyday you get the opportunity to speak with someone who’s mastered a craft to which few others in the world can lay claim. Red Sox pitcher Steven Wright, drafted as a conventional pitcher in the second round of the 2006 draft by the Cleveland Indians, was converted to a knuckleballer by that same organization in 2011. He made his major-league debut with the Red Sox in 2013, following a 2012 trade that sent Lars Anderson to Cleveland, and has since thrown more than 1,500 knuckleballs at the big-league level, joining R.A. Dickey as MLB’s only active knuckleballers. Wright was a member of Boston’s 2016 Opening Day roster, and currently occupies a space in their starting rotation.

I spoke with Wright in the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field during the Red Sox’ season-opening series. He commented on his knuckleball relative to Dickey’s and Tim Wakefield‘s, how speed affects a knuckleball and its location, on the evolution of the pitch, finger pressure, and more.

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On his knuckleball: “I watched a lot of video of R.A. and Wakefield. I just throw it. I just grip and it and rip it. For me, I think it’s trying to stay under control. R.A. throws his harder, Wakefield threw his slower. I feel like I’m right in the middle of them – I don’t throw quite as hard as R.A. or quite as slow as Wakefield. We’re all pretty similar, we just throw it at different speeds.”

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Ramirez to Ramirez: A Brief History

On Sunday, with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Boston reliever Noe Ramirez fielded a comebacker off the bat of Toronto center fielder Kevin Pillar. He flipped it to Hanley Ramirez for the putout. It wasn’t a particularly momentous occasion, but it got me thinking — was this the first ever Ramirez to Ramirez putout in major-league history? I probably would have let it go right there (I’m pretty lazy, after all) but Jim Reedy pointed out that there have only been 29 Ramirezes in major-league history, and that didn’t seem like to daunting of a number. So I dove in.

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Mookie Betts Is Dustin Pedroia All Over Again

A little more than a decade ago, an undersized, often-overlooked second baseman climbed the ranks through the minor leagues and made his debut in Boston, peppering line drives off the Green Monster in Fenway Park’s left field while capturing the hearts of Red Sox fans with his aggressive and well-rounded style of play.

After 10 years of Dustin Pedroia, watching Mookie Betts burst onto the scene over the last two years must be like déjà vu in Boston.

Of course, the players have their differences, the most obvious being Betts’ place in the outfield. His move from his natural place at second base was dictated by Pedroia’s presence at the position. But the similarities in stature, and approach, cannot be understated:

Mookie Betts vs. Dustin Pedroia, Career Numbers
Name AVG OBP ISO K% BB% wRC+ GB% LD% Pull% Pull wRC+ Non-Pull wRC+
Dustin Pedroia .299 .365 .145 10% 9% 116 45% 21% 42% 175 76
Mookie Betts .291 .348 .179 13% 8% 121 39% 20% 39% 254 65

In the early stages of his career, Betts has put the ball in the air a bit more often, and thus hit for a bit more power. Pedroia’s struck out less and gotten on base slightly more. But these differences are minuscule; both have an elite control of the strike zone due to their ability to make a ton of contact while possessing the eye to draw a good number of walks. And the most striking similarity is that both inflict massive damage to the pull field.

Highest pull-field wRC+, 2015

  1. Kris Bryant, 290
  2. Bryce Harper, 261
  3. Colby Rasmus, 260
  4. Edwin Encarnacion, 257
  5. Mookie Betts, 254

Last year, Betts was one of the five best pull hitters in the game, his name appearing alongside four of baseball’s best power hitters in overall pull production despite his 5-foot-9 frame. His power output to the pull side, admittedly aided somewhat by the Green Monster, exceeded that of Josh Donaldson‘s. Pedroia, meanwhile, has been among baseball’s most consistent pull threats for a decade.

Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis is quick to point out, though, that while both do the brunt of their damage to the pull side, neither hitter goes to the plate with a pull-field approach.

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Maybe Travis Shaw Is Just Better Than Pablo Sandoval

Perhaps you already thought it inevitable, but now it’s official: Out of the gate, Travis Shaw will be starting for the Red Sox at third base, over Pablo Sandoval. Through the end of his contract, Sandoval is owed more than seventy-five million dollars. Shaw, meanwhile, is owed an amount of money you could actually imagine in your own bank account. This is surprising, because of the commitment the Red Sox made to Sandoval the previous offseason. But this is not surprising, because Sandoval was a disaster. Hanley Ramirez might’ve been a more conspicuous disaster, but Sandoval managed to beat him, ever so slightly, in negative WAR.

There are just a few things that have to be said in response to the news. The first, which is critical, is this is non-binding. I mean, Shaw will start on opening day, but beyond that, no one’s really said anything. It stands to reason Sandoval is going to play; he’s not going to be a full-year pinch-hitter. It is legitimately unusual for a team to rule against its own financial commitments, at least this soon. And then — well, this decision was probably easy. This is the right time to give Shaw his chance. He might just be a better baseball player than Sandoval is, and after back-to-back seasons of misery, the Red Sox are in the business of maximizing wins.

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Adam LaRoche Was One of the Best 29th Round Picks Ever

Adam LaRoche may or may not be retiring. It certainly seems as though he is, and it seems as though his decision was made abruptly. While that may not be 100 percent certain, now seems like a good time to look back on his career. On one hand, LaRoche was sort of a letdown, in that he never really took off the way it seemed like he might. On the other hand, LaRoche was a huge success, and should be celebrated as such.
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Jackie Bradley’s Measured Pursuit of a Record

Even Jackie Bradley couldn’t have guessed it. Before the start of the 2014 season, the Red Sox outfielder told the Boston Herald’s Jason Mastrodonato that he wanted to steal more bases. That’s become something of a Spring Training trope over the years, but Bradley did his best to keep good on his word and went 8-for-8 in steals.

Bradley’s a former running back who certainly has the speed to steal bases at the major league level, but lacked the instincts and experience to do it at an efficient clip. He was just 31-for-49 (63%) in the minor leagues, well below the major league average success rate of 73%. He knew he had the explosiveness, likening the necessary jump of a base stealer to that of a running back accelerating to hit a hole. He just needed to get better at identifying the pitcher’s movements and understanding the profitable situations to take off.

Seems he’s done a good job. Jackie Bradley Jr. is 13-for-13 on steal attempts to begin his major league career.

It may not seem like a large number, but since the beginning of the expansion era in 1961, Bradley’s perfect 13 is tied for the 11th-longest streak to begin a career, and is halfway to the record:
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The Easiest Explanation for Rich Hill

When we tell a lie, it’s often rooted in fact. It’s tough to just completely pull a lie out of thin air; somewhere, entrenched deep down within a lie, there’s a factual base. But we start with that small fact, and we turn it into a big lie, and at first we know not to believe that lie but over time, if we continue to lie, two things begin to happen. One, the lie begins to expand. We add in new layers, hyperbolize the already fictitious tale, and turn it into something larger than we’d ever intended. Two, we begin to believe that lie. We’re not aware of this happening, but tell a lie enough times and you’ll forget where you started. That’s how you really wind up in trouble.

Rich Hill felt like a lie last season. I’m still not sure I believe it happened. And, as if I was the one who told the Great Rich Hill Lie of 2015, I began to embellish the story. Two days ago, I’d have bet good money that Rich Hill did what he did last year over 10 or more starts. Give me enough time and I’d have said he did it over a full season. But alas! Rich Hill was only literally Clayton Kershaw for four starts, not 10 or 20 or 33.

But Rich Hill being literally Clayton Kershaw for any amount of time last year still seems like a lie, and when we look at the numbers, it’s almost impossible to make sense of them. It took long enough for us to come to terms that what Clayton Kershaw does is just what he does. We can’t have a second one. When we see 36 strikeouts in 106 batters faced, what does that mean? What does five walks mean? Half of balls in play on the ground — what’s that? In just four starts, these types of numbers have so little context, it almost does more harm than good to think about them. So naturally, we go deeper.

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Ruben Amaro on Analytics (and Evaluation)

Ruben Amaro had a reputation in Philadelphia. To many, the only evaluation tools he trusted were his scouts’ eyes. Basically, he was an old-fashioned — if not backwards-thinking — general manager.

The extent to which that’s accurate is debatable. Amaro wasn’t necessarily cutting edge — Matt Klentak, who replaced him as Phillies general manager, is clearly more analytical — but the perception was skewed. Amaro attended Stanford and learned from Pat Gillick, so his intelligence and knowledge base are anything but slight.

That’s not to say he didn’t make errors in judgement over his tenure. He made several, which is part of the reason he was relieved of his duties last September. Amaro is now with the Red Sox, having made an atypical move from high-ranking front-office executive to first-base coach.

On Sunday, Amaro took a few minutes to shed some light on his days as a decision-maker. The role of analytics in the evaluation process formed the crux of our conversation.

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Amaro on analytics: “You can’t ever deny the numbers. That’s true for every GM and every baseball person, regardless of whether you’re ‘old school’ or ‘new school.’ When a scout walks in, the first thing he does is pick up a stat sheet and look at what the player does and what he’s been doing. The numbers don’t lie.

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Betts, Springer, and Other Contract-Extension Candidates

As teams begin full workouts in Spring Training, they get the opportunity to make sure that all of their players arrive healthy and in good shape to start the season. While they likely pay attention to all players, of particular interest are those players who their second or third years in the big leagues. These players are still making the major league minimum salary and, as a result, are the best candidates to approach regarding a long-term extension. Such deals offer players with their first real shot at big-time money, and often pay off down the line for teams: indeed, as my research indicates, teams saved more than half a billion dollars on long-term extensions signed from 2008 to 2011. While the number of candidates for contract extensions isn’t as numerous as in previous seasons, there are a few potential stars.

While players and clubs certainly can agree on contract extensions during the winter, it’s less common for players who have yet to reach arbitration. The only long-term extensions signed this past offseason were between Dee Gordon and the Miami Marlins and Brandon Crawford and the San Francsisco Giants — and, in both cases, the relevant player was entering his second year of arbitration. Last year around this time, I discussed potential position-player candidates for extensions, and named eight players. Of those eight, four agreed to extensions: Brian Dozier, Juan Lagares, Adam Eaton, and Christian Yelich, although Dozier’s deal did not cover any free agent seasons. Adding Lagares, Eaton, and Yelich to the list from last year, here are the players who’ve been extended in the recent past.

Recent Pre-Arbitration Contract Extensions
Name Team OBP SLG wRC+ WAR Contract (Year/$M) Service Time
Mike Trout Angels .432 .557 176 10.5 6/144.5 2.070
Matt Carpenter Cardinals .392 .481 146 6.9 6/52.0 2.012
Andrelton Simmons Braves .296 .396 91 4.6 7/58.0 1.125
Starling Marte Pirates .343 .441 122 4.6 5/35.0 1.070
Jason Kipnis Indians .366 .452 129 4.4 6/52.5 2.075
Christian Yelich Marlins .362 .402 117 4.4 7/49.6 1.069
Juan Lagares Mets .321 .382 101 4.0 4/23.0 1.160
Yan Gomes Indians .345 .481 130 3.6 6/23.0 1.083
Adam Eaton White Sox .362 .401 117 3.0 5/23.5 2.030
Paul Goldschmidt Diamondback .359 .490 124 2.9 5/32.0 1.059
Allen Craig Cardinals .354 .522 137 2.7 5/31.0 2.077
Jedd Gyorko Padres .301 .444 111 2.5 5/35.0 1.016
Anthony Rizzo Cubs .342 .463 117 1.8 7/41.0 1.040

While the Allen Craig contract has not worked out, and Jedd Gyorko was unloaded to the Cardinals this offseason, the above contracts are some of the very best (for clubs) in the majors. Dan Szymborksi recently listed his 25 most team-friendly contract situations, and Marte, Rizzo, and Trout all made the list. In his most recent edition of the trade-value series, Dave Cameron ranked Trout first among all players, while Goldschmidt was third, Rizzo was seventh, and Marte, Simmons, and Yelich all cracked the top 30. Yan Gomes and Jason Kipnis also appeared on that list. Matt Carpenter, meanwhile, has worked out well for the Cardinals and Eaton put in a solid season for the White Sox, while Lagares struggled through injuries and will begin this season as the fourth outfielder for the New York Mets.

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MLB Farm Systems Ranked by Surplus WAR

You smell that? It’s baseball’s prospect-list season. The fresh top-100 lists — populated by new names as well as old ones — seem to be popping up each day. With the individual rankings coming out, some organization rankings are becoming available, as well. I have always regarded the organizational rankings as subjective — and, as a result, not 100% useful. Utilizing the methodology I introduced in my article on prospect evaluation from this year’s Hardball Times Annual, however, it’s possible to calculate a total value for every team’s farm system and remove the biases of subjectivity. In what follows, I’ve used that same process to rank all 30 of baseball’s farm systems by the surplus WAR they should generate.

I provide a detailed explanation of my methodology in the Annual article. To summarize it briefly, however, what I’ve done is to identify WAR equivalencies for the scouting grades produced by Baseball America in their annual Prospect Handbook. The grade-to-WAR conversion appears as follows.

Prospect Grade to WAR Conversion
Prospect Grade Total WAR Surplus WAR
80 25.0 18.5
75 18.0 13.0
70 11.0 9.0
65 8.5 6.0
60 4.7 3.0
55 2.5 1.5
50 1.1 0.5
45 0.4 0.0

To create the overall totals for this post, I used each team’s top-30 rankings per the most recent edition of Baseball America’ Prospect Handbook. Also accounting for those trades which have occurred since the BA rankings were locked down, I counted the number of 50 or higher-graded prospects (i.e. the sort which provide surplus value) in each system. The results follows.
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Baseball’s Most Improved Defender, by the Numbers and Eyes

It might be the biggest debate in baseball, statistically speaking. We’re well past RBI and pitcher wins, by now. WAR is a big debate, but not so much because of the offensive statistics, or the baserunning figures. WAR is debated largely due to the thing I had in mind when I wrote that first sentence, the one about the biggest debate in baseball, statistically speaking: defense.

There’s still a strong “eye test” contingent. Folks who believe you just can’t put a number on defense. On the other side, there’s a staunch numbers crowd. The crowd that argues, well, you can’t see every play from every defender, and you also can’t ignore or probably even be aware of your own internal biases; I’ll stick with the numbers. Where it gets real tricky is that, even within the numbers-oriented crowd, there’s some skepticism of those very numbers. There’s some concerns with the methodology. Defensive shifts make things extra tough.

So for the most part, we shrug our shoulders and accept that, for as far as these things have come over the years, we’ve still got to do some leg work. If we really want to gain an idea of a player’s defensive ability, we’ve got to just take it all in, and look for clues along the way. What does each defensive metric say? When they agree on one thing or another, we’ve got ourselves a clue. How about errors? They’re not the best, but they’re not worthless. Do they line up with what we saw in the advanced stats? Clue. Check out some spray charts, or Inside Edge. Watch some film, and read some scouting reports. Plenty of clues to be found in there, especially given all you’ve learned along the way. Do all this, and you’ll have a pretty good idea. Even if one number or one play or one quote goes against what you’ve concluded, that’s the point; your body of research holds more weight than that one thing that purports to invalidate your findings.

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Each year, Tom Tango does a fun little project called the Fans Scouting Report. The nature of the project, essentially, is to crowdsource the eye test. There’s plenty of ways to use the data, and I’ve settled on one, for now. I wanted to look for improvement, and I wanted to look for agreement, using both the eye test, and the advanced numbers. I used three sources of defensive metrics (UZR, DRS, FRAA) for fielders with at least 500 innings in 2014, and 2015. I averaged those to get component defensive runs above average figures, and then, I compared against the Fans Scouting Report’s numbers. Using some z-scores, I could come up with an overall ranking of agreed-upon improvement.

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The Wainwrightization of Rick Porcello

I don’t know if you paid much attention to Rick Porcello last year, but I bet you have made a bad pancake. You know, one of those pancakes when you wait too long before you flip it. Or maybe you tried to make a pancake without preheating the cooking surface. The parallels work as well as any parallels do — you mess things up from the start, despite the best of intentions, but then you are still able to flip the pancake, and you don’t repeat the mistake the second time. So the second half of the cooking process beats the hell out of the first, and in the end, even a messed-up pancake is still a decent enough pancake. And you feel like the next pancake is going to be a lot better.

Porcello got things turned around after it was too late for the Red Sox to get things turned around. So the progress happened quietly, as matters involving the Red Sox go, but if you want an explanation you can just browse to the top of Porcello’s FanGraphs player page. As I write this, there’s a quote from a few days ago, where Porcello talks about how he went back to going sinker-first. The four-seamers up were a neat idea, but the experiment failed, and Porcello found himself when he went back to pitching like himself. It all makes sense, and it bodes well enough for 2016.

So looking ahead, for Porcello, there’s going to be a lot of attention on his sinker. It’s a nice pitch, but I prefer to think about something else that’s gone on in plain sight. When you think Rick Porcello, you don’t usually think curveball. But over the course of last season, he did something suspicious.

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The New Members of the 40 WAR Club

If you go to our leaderboards and click on “career,” you’ll get a sample of 3,879 qualified position players, and 2,988 pitchers. If you lower the playing time threshold down to zero on each, you end up with 16,824 and 9,127. Now, obviously there’s some overlap in those numbers, but the point is that at least 16,000 players have suited up for a major league game. In that context, when I note that only 472 players total (314 position, 158 pitcher) have crossed the 40 WAR threshold, you can see it’s a big deal. It’s more or less the top-500 players in the game’s history (you can fill in the gaps — and probably then some — with Negro League players for whom we don’t have WAR or any advanced metrics).

That’s not to say there’s a lot of fanfare with getting to 40 wins. No one throws you a party, and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything to the person. But since we know that 50 WAR is sort of the dividing line for whether a player can be a Hall of Famer (as I noted recently, there are plenty of players in the Hall of Fame who barely cracked the 50 WAR plateau, and I believe there are even some in who are below it), then 40 WAR is sort of the dividing line for whether we’ll argue about a player being deserving of the Hall of Fame. Well, for everyone except relief pitchers, anyway.

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