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The Mets’ Suboptimal Outfield

Consider the current payrolls of two teams:

Team            Payroll          MLB Rank

Team A      $133.7M                9

Team B      $133.3M               10

You, being a reader of some intellectual attainment, have probably divined that one of these teams is the New York Mets. That would be Team A. Team B is the Seattle Mariners. As we enter 2017, just under eight years after Bernie Madoff’s guilty plea, the Mets still have the payroll of a team playing the 18th-largest city in America; four of NYC’s five boroughs have more people.

Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson has assembled a team that is essentially the anti-Cubs: the Mets’ core is their young, cost-controlled pitching staff, which was the best in the majors last year according to FIP-. Supporting the staff is a cast of position players that produce roughly MLB-average offense (16th last year in wRC+) and defense (15th in UZR/150). The Mets payroll is upside-down, heavily invested in the modestly effective position players, while the outstanding pitchers mostly throw for food. The most expensive pitcher on their roster is Addison Reed, at $7.75M. At Mets prices, for the coming year, that would buy you around one-third of Yoenis Cespedes or David Wright.

The Alderson formula has produced three years of 80+ win teams from 2014-2016 (82, 89, and 87, according to Pythagoras). But clouds are gathering. Seven of the eight starting position players on opening day will be at least 30 years old. Even the young pitching is less young than you might think. Matt Harvey will be 28, and Jacob deGrom already is. The pitchers’ long war with soft tissue has intensified: After last season, Steven Matz finally donated his bone spurs to science, but worryingly is planning to throw slower in 2017. Perhaps necessity will beget virtue, but Matz’ room for error may decline with his average velo. Noah Syndergaard still has his bone spurs, and Zack Wheeler may never start another major-league game. And so on.

Which brings us to today’s topic, which is focused on the Mets’ peculiar outfield, and their especially peculiar decision to give Jay Bruce most of the starts in right. The Mets’ failure to move Bruce in the offseason has been well-chronicled. Bruce had seemed to get his career back on track with 402 blistering plate appearances with the Reds in 2016, and the Mets jumped at the chance to get him in exchange for two pieces deemed expendable (Dilson Herrera and Max Wotell). Bruce cratered in New York, posting the second-worst ISO and wOBA of his career (if you were to consider his time in New York to be a separate season). After that performance, Met fans would have traded Bruce for a traffic jam in Fort Lee, but Alderson wanted more.

You can see Alderson’s logic: Having traded two prospects away (Herrera has exceeded his rookie eligibility, but he’s still only 22), Alderson now wanted two prospects back. As the Forbes article linked above noted, this misread the market. But it also misread Jay Bruce. In 2016, Bruce’s combined wRC+ was 111, good for 14th in the majors out of 21 right-field qualifiers. Bruce’s career wRC+ is 107 — so, far from being an anomaly, last year taken as a whole was simply Jay being Jay. Alderson paid for those 402 tantalizing plate appearances with the Reds in 2016, rather than considering Bruce’s entire body of work. Right field is an offensive position, and Bruce’s offensive contributions are modest. On a playoff team, he’s probably better suited to a bench role.

Steamer projects Bruce to regress to a wRC+ of 97 this year, while the man Bruce will effectively bump from the lineup, Michael Conforto, is projected to achieve 113. It’s possible the Mets’ internal projection system gives Bruce a much better prognosis; it’s likely the other 29 teams’ systems don’t think much of Bruce, or he wouldn’t still be a Met. Steamer thinks Conforto is worth about 0.7 wins more than Bruce, with Bruce getting over 100 more plate appearances. Giving Conforto the everyday role (or at least the everyday role against northpaws) and reducing Bruce’s playing time could be worth a win or so to the Mets.

How important is that win? Extremely, it would seem. As noted above, the Mets have assembled a team capable of getting into the playoffs, but not likely to overwhelm the competition. In this sense the Mets aren’t like the Cubs at all; the Cubs were assembled to crush their competition in the regular season, while the Mets plan is to squeeze into the playoffs and then say a number of Hail Marys that can only be expressed in scientific notation. The Cubs could have afforded to start Jay Bruce in right last year, and in fact they started someone worse (offensively, at least) and still broke a century-old curse. The Phillies could afford to start Jay Bruce in right in 2017 (and indeed wanted him, though not at Alderson’s price), because wins in 2017 will likely mean little to them. For a team like the Phillies, with some money to spend and no plans to win this year, Bruce would be useful cannon fodder — someone to run out there most days who allows them to keep their more valuable prospects in the minors.

The Mets are in a far different position than either of these teams, neither certain to dominate nor certain to fold. FanGraphs projects the Mets to win 83 games this year, which would put them just outside the second wild-card spot. I think that exact total may be a little pessimistic, but focus on their overall position in the league rather than the specific number. Four teams are projected to have between 82 and 88 wins (the Mets, Cards, Pirates, and Giants); it is fairly easy to imagine any two of them being the wild cards.

Moreover, the Mets are in win-now mode. As noted above, this is an old roster, and there’s not a lot of help on the way. The Mets have just two players in MLB’s top 100 prospects, though one of them is Amed Rosario, who could solve the Mets’ shortstop problems for a decade. With a Seattle-size payroll, and two long-term contracts (Cespedes and Wright) destined to get ever more albatrossy as the months tick by, the Mets need to scrape for every win they can now. The fragility of the Mets’ starters, who are unquestionably the team’s strength, gives the task further urgency.

Seen in this light, the decision to play Bruce seems to be an unforced error. The Mets have three options here:

  • Use Bruce as a bench player: This fits Bruce’s current skills. He can be an effective left-handed pinch-hitter, and play three corner spots in a pinch. It is admittedly difficult to pay a player $13M to spit seeds for six innings, but as noted above, the Mets need to win right away, and Bruce can help them do that.
  • Pay some other team to make Bruce go away: The Mets asking price for Bruce over the winter was too high: They wanted prospects in exchange for paying none of his salary, and Alderson now knows that was unrealistic. But the Mets might be able to get another franchise to take perhaps half of his salary in exchange for a low-A player with some upside; high-velocity relievers with arm or control problems are sometimes the currency of exchange in trades like this. And it’s difficult to believe that the relatively cash-strapped Mets could find no good use for $7M.
  • Start Bruce to enhance his trade value: This seems to be what Alderson has in mind: hope that Bruce gets hot like he did last year, and then flip him for at least the two prospects that it cost to get him in the first place. This kind of stock-market baseball makes sense only if the wins don’t matter, but every win will matter for the Mets this year.

The Mets have an interesting team. A lot of people would actually like them if they weren’t the New York Mets. In piloting this intriguing but surprisingly cost-constrained franchise, the usually sure-handed Alderson shouldn’t compound his initial error in acquiring Bruce by misusing him now that he’s here.


Cardinals’ Sin: Defensive Indifference

Last season the St. Louis Cardinals scored the fourth-most runs in the majors, but were a mere 13th in runs allowed. Yes, the rotation had its issues, including but not limited to Lance Lynn’s season-long absence, but the pitching staff managed to finish seventh in FIP. The large disconnect between the Cardinals’ runs allowed and FIP has the aroma of a defensive rat.

The Cards ranked 17th in the FanGraphs Def rating, and five of their top eight players by plate appearances had negative ratings. The team’s roster had a severe internal contradiction last year, putting weak defenders behind a merely average strikeout staff; the Cards were 15th in K% last year. Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak recognizes the problem, and recently took one step to address it by signing Dexter Fowler to play center. Craig Edwards recently covered the signing in detail, calling attention to the continuing controversy regarding Fowler’s defense. The Cards will play him in center, but he might not really be a center fielder.

Randal Grichuk patrolled center last year in a manner that will make no one forget Jim Edmonds. His advanced defensive metrics, though, were not terrible; his UZR in center was a hair below average. The Fowler signing pushes Grichuk to left, but it isn’t at all clear Fowler is actually an improvement.

It is clear, however, that even Fredbird would be a defensive improvement over Matt Holliday in left. UZR liked Holliday as a defender early in his career, but hasn’t thought much of him since 2012. Holliday’s offense made up for his increasingly offensive glove, until last year. Mozeliak’s first move to right the wrongs of the Cardinals’ 2016 roster was his eminently wise decision to let Holliday walk. Fowler may or may not be better than Grichuk in center, but Grichuk will almost certainly be far better than Holliday in left. (And, heck, maybe Fowler’s defensive improvement will stick.)

This will still, in all likelihood, be a below-average defensive outfield, but 2017’s edition should be slightly more agile than the 2016 product. The good news is that St. Louis has a heavy groundball staff; they led the league in GB/FB ratio last year. The bad news is that infield defense is even worse than the outfield.

Mozeliak is moving to fix this, too. Matt Carpenter has played five different positions in his career, none especially well. Next year he will man the cold corner, his bat having developed to the point that it can carry him at that position. Giving most of the second-base starts to Kolten Wong will improve defense at the keystone. He’s not a stellar defender, but is far better than any of the other available options.

The left side of the infield, as currently constructed, will remain scary bad. Defense is the province of the young, something that Jhonny Peralta isn’t. Heading into his age-35 season, Peralta will surrender runs in quantity whether he plays short or third. The current odd man out in the infield, Jedd Gyorko, could be a solution at the hot corner. He’s not a great defender either, but he’s better than Peralta, six years younger, and probably at least equivalent offensively.

Aledmys Diaz is young, but not as young as you think, and played old at short last year, finishing 22nd out of 28 shortstops with at least 450 plate appearances in Def. It’s hard to know whether the offense he displayed last year is real; Steamer sees some regression but is still optimistic. As long he hits he’ll play, and St. Louis will have to hope the glove develops, at least a little. The farm lacks much of a shortstop crop, and the free-agent cupboard is also bare.

The pitching staff can help hide the defense’s weaknesses by striking batters out more often. The return of Lance Lynn and his career strikeout rate of 22% in April or May should help in that regard, although Tommy John survivors sometimes struggle initially upon their return. The flame-throwing Alex Reyes, with a combined career K/9 of 11.7 at all levels, could help even more if he wins a rotation spot.

But that’s a big if. Assuming Lynn and Reyes both win spots, that leaves one of last year’s starters spitting seeds in the bullpen. Lynn in effect replaces the now-departed Jaime Garcia. But who would Reyes replace? “Mike Leake” roars (or chirps) the Cardinal faithful, and on pure performance they’re not wrong. Leake projects to have the worst ERA, FIP, and K/9 of any Cardinals starter next year. He will also be entering the second year of his questionable five-year, $80-million contract, making Leake simultaneously a Cardinal and an albatross. He is a less-extreme version of Jason Heyward, a player whose contract significantly impedes benching.

Lynn may not be back on opening day, and teams frequently can avoid using a fifth starter for the first couple of weeks of the season thanks to frequent off days. It’s likely that manager Mike Matheny won’t make a decision until he has to, and he may not have to until well into May. Leake may get off to an awful start, perhaps making it easier to banish him to the pen. Michael Wacha may suffer a similar fate, or get injured again. Both the Mikes were disappointing last season, but Reyes doesn’t offer sure improvement, given his eye-watering walk rates.

So this may be a roster bug, but it’s also a feature. The Cardinals have no sure-fire No. 1-caliber starter, but they have considerable depth, including the guys mentioned above as well as Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Luke Weaver, and perhaps Trevor Rosenthal. The last two are nearly and entirely untested (respectively) in the major-league rotation, but both cook with gas and could help alleviate the team’s defensive problems if they can command their stuff.

Another way to get more Ks would be for manager Mike Matheny to get a bit more out of his bullpen at the expense of his lower-stuff starters. The Cardinals were 20th in reliever innings last year, despite having a bullpen that finished 12th in FIP and 13th in ERA — not Rivera-esque, but usable. The addition of Brett Cecil will help if he performs as his contract suggests the Cardinals are projecting. Some of the losers in the rotation sweepstakes could also be effective relievers. Rosenthal used to be one, and Reyes showed a flash of brilliance in 17 innings at season’s end last year. Few Cardinals fans will put a big stack on Matheny’s decision-making capacity, but there is at least the possibility that he might make better use of the resources at his disposal.

The Cardinals had a poorly-configured team by the end of last season, but Mozeliak is taking steps to correct it. Cardinals fans are surely hoping that whatever roster sins remain will not be mortal ones.


Texas Medicine

The 2016 Texas Rangers finished with just 82 wins. With an aging core and a desiccating farm system, the Rangers are drifting toward baseball’s Sargasso Sea of medioc-

What? You say the Rangers won 95 games last season?? Get on with your bad self!

Hmm … diligent research has revealed that the Rangers did indeed win 95, despite a microscopic run differential of +8, the lowest positive run differential in the majors last year. That wily Pythagoras pegged the Rangers at 82 expected wins last season, and perhaps unsurprisingly, FanGraphs currently projects the Rangers to win, yes, 82 games next season. A modest uptick in offense (due in significant part to having Jonathan Lucroy available for the whole year) will be offset by a modest erosion of the Texans’ already leaky run prevention. With an aging core and a desiccating farm system, the Rangers are drifting toward baseball’s Sargasso Sea of mediocrity, a team neither good enough to challenge for a playoff spot, nor bad enough to enable Total Roster Makeover.

For public consumption at least, Rangers’ GM Jon Daniels is acting like he has a 95-win team on the roster, throwing out speculation that the team may be after Andrew McCutchen, Edwin Encarnacion, or perhaps even Chris Scissorshands. Daniels is, on the evidence publicly available, a rather capable individual, and it is difficult to believe he is ignorant of the true state of his team.

He has a core of four 3+ win players (Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Adrian Beltre, and Lucroy), none of whom is younger than 30. They have some young guys with upside (Rougned Odor, Nomar Mazara, Jurickson Profar, Joey Gallo), a glove-first shortstop whose contract won’t end until after humans have colonized Mars, and Shin-soo Choo, who has become the fragile platoon corner outfielder that many feared when he signed his own post-Mars-colonization deal.

Fortunately for the Rangers, their roster weaknesses are glaring. They have four positions (1B, CF, DH, and 5th SP) that each project to amass fewer than 1 win. These should be the focus of Daniels’ attention. Let’s take them in turn:

1B/DH

I’ll consider these together, because the Rangers can fill one of these positions with Joey Gallo, if they don’t trade him. Gallo is a true baseball anomaly, and his big-fly-big-whiff profile has been well chronicled. He had a 34.6% strikeout rate in AAA last year, a rate qualifying hitters exceeded only twice in the majors since 2007:

Mark Reynolds     2010     35.4%

Chris Carter           2013     36.2%

And the bad news is that neither of these whiffly guys broke 30% in their minor-league careers (leaving out a very short appearance in AA by Reynolds). So Gallo walks (and homers, and strikes out) alone. If the Rangers really were a 95-win team, they would probably be best served by moving Gallo for whatever they could get, which would undoubtedly be a useful return. A 95-win team can move a prospect for an overpriced veteran who will nevertheless put them over the top. But that team is not the Rangers, who are probably better off seeing what they have in Gallo, working him into the lineup as soon as practicable. But Rangers fans beware! No windshield in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metropolitan statistical area will be safe.

That still leaves a big hole at the other position. Profar could play first, but his bat likely won’t be able to carry the position, at least not yet. Encarnacion wants a megacontract, and while the Rangers may be able to afford the cash (they have the eighth-highest payroll in the AL next year, and they have a Texas-sized TV contract) the contract length will be brutal. Encarnacion recently turned down 4y/$80m from the Blue Jays, so he’ll presumably want more than that from the Rangers (or anyone else). Thanks to the qualifying offer, he’ll also (for now, at least) cost a first-round pick. While he obviously would provide some short-term help for the Rangers, adding a very expensive and declining veteran on a long-term deal probably isn’t the kind of move an 82-win team should be making.

Last season, E5 had his worst wRC+ and ISO since 2011, and his worst K% since 2009. Next year will be his age-34 season, and while even a decaying Encarnacion can help a team, his punishing contract is likely a better fit for a team that already has almost every other piece in place. For all his gaudy counting stats, E5 projects as just a 2.4 win player next year. The Rangers can probably get better results by spreading his putative salary over a larger number of players and a lower number of years. A platoon of Steve Pearce and Pedro Alvarez at DH could be the bargain-hunter’s option here. And let’s not overlook Ronald Guzman, who had a breakout season in AA last year (.825 OPS) before struggling in 95 plate appearances at AAA. He’s not a top prospect, but he’s still only 21, and he could be a useful piece later in 2017.

CF

The conversation probably starts with McCutchen, who appears to be a good buy-low candidate from a Bucs team that obviously wants to sell. Cutch has a team-friendly deal and a reputation as a glue guy, but the key questions are (a) will he ever hit again and (b) will he ever field again? The Rangers are going to have start restocking the farm soon, and giving away what remains of their young talent for McCutchen seems shortsighted unless they are convinced they can fix him (or that he can fix himself). Steamer, for what it’s worth, sees a significant bounceback.

Carlos Gomez presents a (much) less exciting option, but also one that will only cost money, and perhaps not in excessively painful amounts. If the Rangers believe that his health has returned for more than a minute, Gomez could fill the bill, but most of the value he has is likely to be on defense, and the Rangers did not have an especially fly-prone staff last year (nor will the addition of Andrew Cashner change that much).

Dexter Fowler raises some of the same issues as Encarnacion, though on a smaller scale. Although he put up adequate defensive numbers last season, most metrics have  seen him as a below-average center fielder throughout his career, and he will surely want more years than make sense for the Rangers’ current position on the development curve. He’ll also (for now) cost a first-round pick. All of the above is true with even greater force with respect to Ian Desmond. The Rangers should make sure he becomes someone else’s problem next year.

If the Rangers can somehow swing a trade involving Profar and one or more lesser prospects for McCutchen, then that might be the best plan. (I’m not forgetting Marcell Ozuna here, but I’m assuming he’ll cost even more in prospects than McCutchen, and I’m not assuming he’ll be able to retain his OBP progress from last year.)  There are no great options here, but the lower-risk move is probably to sign Gomez.

Starter 5

A.J. Griffin is currently slated for the cannon-fodder spot in the rotation, and this year’s free-agent pitching class is legendarily bad. Rich Hill could be a perfect fit, given that he won’t ask for too many years and is having a late-career resurgence that may only be explicable with reference to the dark arts. As a fly-ball pitcher, however, he would need help in center (e.g., Carlos Gomez), and he might cough up a few more homers than last year. And he’s obviously an injury risk, but that will be priced into the deal.

Ivan Nova (!) is probably the next-best option. Steamer projects a 2.3-win season, in line with what he achieved in 2011, 2013, and last year. I’ve never been a big Nova fan, but the Rangers don’t have a lot of options here, so he may be a decent plan B if Hill signs elsewhere. And that Top-100 prospect, southpaw Yohander Mendez, has put up good minor-league numbers across six levels (counting the three A levels separately): a collective 2.46 ERA over 292 innings, and an 8.6 K/9. He’ll also be just 22 next year. While probably needing a bit more seasoning, he could reach the rotation in next season’s second half if (when?) Cashner or Martin Perez falters, or Hill gets hurt.

* * *

The 95-win Rangers were an illusion, and their chances of standing toe-to-toe with the Astros in the 2017 AL West are slim indeed. Instead, they need to start preparing for the post-Beltre era. They have some good young talent in place and a front office that has shown aptitude for acquiring more. They can attempt to sneak into the playoffs this year at relatively low cost, while retaining a cadre of young talent with which they can challenge the Astros’ AL West dominance in the years to come. Or they can act like a 95-win team. Sometimes it’s better to take the medicine.


The Non-Decline and Fall of the San Francisco Giants

The Chicago Cubs, hinting that this year they may have magick stronger than The Goat, recently brought the San Francisco Giants’ even-year playoff dominance to an end. It was an offensively offensive series; add the two teams’ OPS together and you’re just 100 points better than David Ortiz. The low-velocity Giants staff struck out a batter an inning, and both lineups walked at a lower rate than the unwalkable Royals. My working theory was that this series represented the final demise of the already waning power of the current edition of the Giants, and that the next chart-topping version of Big Head Bruce and the Monsters would have mostly new musicians. Turns out that this theory is only partially correct.

Your 2016 San Francisco Baseball Giants were actually a little better than the world-beating 2014 squad, at least when resort is had to statistics:

Stat                                            2016 (MLB rank)            2014 (MLB rank)

Position Player fWAR                   26.7 (4)                                  23.0 (9)

SP fWAR                                          15.0 (5)                                  10.1 (21)

RP fWAR                                           2.1 (22)                                  1.4 (24)

Position Player wRC+                    98 (t12)                                   99 (9)

SP FIP-                                              96 (t7)                                    104 (19)

RP FIP-                                              97 (20)                                    98 (18)

Run differential/game                    +0.51                                      +0.31

Let’s pause a minute to consider the bullpen numbers, which are the very essence of “meh” both years. The Giants have had the reputation of having a good, cheap bullpen. It’s certainly cheap: Sergio Romo is the plutocrat of the unit at a relatively unimposing $9 million. But “good” is more of a stretch; the Giants relievers have delivered value pretty much consistent with what they’ve been paid.

Some commentators have carpeted Bochy for his bullpen usage during the NLDS, but (perhaps because I’m not actually a Giants fan) I take a longer view. The miscellaneous roadies Big Head Bruce has had to work with will hardly make anyone forget The Nasty Boys, but he has often been able to squeeze value out of them when it’s mattered most. In order to maximize value out of this motley crue (I’m in town all week — try the garlic fries) Bochy has had to be very active in the late innings, and the more decisions any manager has to make, the more that will go wrong.

Giants general manager Brian Sabean has correctly recognized that in Bruce Bochy he employs one of the best tacticians in the game today. Sabean has maximized the value of this skill by handing Bochy a collection of misfit bullpen toys and saying “here, you figure this out.” On most nights Bochy does, but every once in a while he fails, as happened in the star-crossed six-pitcher 9th in Game 4. If you want to see what a bullpen meltdown looks like in graphic form, here it is. (Younger or more sensitive Giants fans are advised not to click on that link.)

My guess is that Bochy has had a few other bad bullpen nights, but most of those have happened when the East Coast was already asleep. When you happen to have a bad night nationwide, people may be a little too inclined to draw definitive conclusions. (I do not cut Buck Showalter this kind of slack. Bochy has a bunch of semi-interchangeable parts that present numerous non-obvious choices. Buck doesn’t.)

But back to our regularly scheduled program: the 2016 Giants were, by most measures, a better squad than the 2014 one. This is a roster that’s peaking, and perhaps fell victim to what will soon be a storied Cubs team, or (more prosaically) to the bad luck inherently possible in a short series. So the Giants can look forward to an extended run of playoff contention!

Or not. The Giants are heading in full sail toward the dragon-pocked part of the map. This an old team — the Giants have the sixth-oldest set of position players in the majors and the oldest pitching staff. They have just two regular players under 27, Madison Bumgarner (still just 26) and Joe Panik (25). To borrow a Casey Stengel line, in 15 years Bumgarner may be in the Hall of Fame. In 15 years, Joe Panik will be 40.

The Giants’ farm will provide little aid. Their system has just two MLB top-100 prospects, with the best being the positionless Christian Arroyo at #79 (though the excellent Bernie Pleskoff is less hostile to his defense than I am). Austin Slater isn’t in the top 100, but he raked at AAA at age 23 with good plate discipline, so he may be able to fill the outfield spot Angel Pagan is likely to vacate.

On the bright side, the contracts of Jake Peavy and Pagan expire this year, taking $26 million off the books. Romo and Santiago Casilla will be departing for broadcasting careers as well, taking $15 million more of liabilities with them. The Giants need one or two outfielders and starting pitching, but especially with respect to the latter, next year’s free-agent class would make a cow laugh. The 2018 list is a better one, but between now and both free-agent classes likely interposes a new collective bargaining agreement, so there’s enough fog to compel Sabean to operate his lights on low beam.

And the competition isn’t sitting still. Regardless of how the hated Los Angeles Dodgers fare in the NLCS, they are poised to compete for a while. The Rockies have an exciting core of young talent, even if casual Rox fans despair of the team at the moment. The Outlaw A.J. Preller merits a blog post all his own (say, there’s an idea!), and while the Padres seem to have a bit of transmission loss between talent and wins, some improvement there is possible as well, especially if Tyson Ross can make a successful return from thoracic outlet surgery. (What? You say there’s another team in the NL West? Hmm … I’ll research that and get back to you.)

So the Giants may be stalling or even slipping backward in a division where at least two of the teams are making progress. The Giants have a good but mostly older core which could use the kind of help that free agency and prospect trades are unlikely to provide in 2017. So 2016 may indeed be the last gasp of this once-in-a-while mighty franchise, at least for the moment. Sabean has pulled a whole warren of rabbits out of his hat during his long tenure, but in 2017 he’s going to have to dig deep.

Perhaps there will be a powerful goat looking for work …


The Heyward Fault

It’s no secret that Jason Heyward is having an epic, epic bad season. Heyward is not just last in wRC+ for right fielders, but last by a wide margin. He has the seventh-worst ISO in all the land, worse than Billy Hamilton. Worse than Cesar Hernandez. Worse than Alexei Ramirez. Alexei Ramirez, for God’s sake. Finally acknowledging the soul-crushing reality, Cubs manager Joe Maddon benched Heyward last Friday.

This is historically bad power from a right fielder. In the wild-card era, Heyward’s ISO constitutes the 11th-worst power season for a right fielder. Of the ten other seasons, Ichiro! owns five of them, and Nick Markakis two more. So only four actual guys have managed a worse ISO in right than Heyward since 1994.

Heyward’s power has declined against all pitches, but not evenly. (I’m actually using ISO x 1000 to eliminate those pesky decimal points):

 

Pitch               2016 ISO                Career ISO                  Diff

4-seamer             143                           154                           -11

2-seamer             087                           177                          -90

changeup            029                          160                         -131

slider                   083                           157                           -74

curve                    000                          122                         -122

In battling the 4-seamer, 2016 Heyward looks pretty much like the factory model. Against the other pitches, 2016 Heyward looks like Enzo Hernandez. Back in May, Jeff Sullivan wondered why Heyward was swinging disproportionately often at high pitches when historically he had been a better low-ball hitter. The above chart may provide an answer. Four-seamers tend to live upstairs, while the other pitches like to drink Milwaukee’s Best down in the basement den. Heyward may have made a rational adjustment, swinging more often at the pitch he can hit (or rather, pitches that look like the pitch he can hit) and less often at the others.

Even if accurate, this simply answers one riddle with another. What could have made a historically good low-ball hitter suddenly lose the lower half of the strike zone? And the power disappearance was indeed sudden. In 2015, Heyward actually hit with more power in the second half, though his ISO did drop off in September.

Heyward may have begun hearing the spine-tingling incidental music back in 2014. That year his power against lefties, seldom menacing, completely winked out.

Year                   ISO vs. L

Career                   .119

2013                      .191

2014                      .056

2015                      .093

2016                      .096

This may have been foreshadowing, or not. There is no clear pitch-type pattern evident in Heyward’s disappearing power against lefties. He collapsed against all offerings, doing somewhat less badly only against the slider. Indeed, one of the main criticisms of his eight-year contract was that Heyward had become a platoon player.

In 2016 the platoon split has disappeared, but not in a good way. Heyward has actually hit lefties with more power than righties this year (.096 vs. .083). But let’s face it, for hitters, almost any number that begins with “.0” is a wrong number.

The most likely explanation is some form of injury. Heyward had wrist problems earlier this year, and wrist injuries notoriously sap power. But .088 is whole lotta sappage. When Derrek Lee hurt his wrist in 2006 his ISO plummeted to … .189. Certainly one can imagine any number of nagging injuries that slow bat speed or reduce plate coverage. But it seems peculiar that Heyward would struggle least against the pitch that is usually the most overpowering. Perhaps Heyward is selling out to get to the 4-seamer because the injury has slowed his bat enough that he simply has to get started early.

Another possibility, perhaps, is a vision problem, as very briefly suggested in the comments to Sullivan’s post in May. Perhaps Heyward is able to pick out the 4-seamer, but unable to differentiate reliably among the other pitches, thus approaching them all with punchless caution. A vision problem could also be causing Heyward to sell out as discussed above. In either case, selling out would seem to cut against Heyward’s grain as a (sometimes maddeningly) patient hitter.

There is nevertheless some evidence Heyward is trying to start the bat earlier, not because of ocular or muscular problems, but because of a complex, misaligned swing. There have been a number of stories concerning Heyward’s poor mechanics, but most of them were written this season, when the poor results became manifest. Outright criticism of his swing, at least in public, was relatively uncommon before this year.

But there were signs, perhaps (as signs are wont to be) obvious only in retrospect. In 2014, David Lee wrote an excellent piece scouting Heyward’s rapidly evolving stances — the pictures alone are worth a look. Two years earlier, Terence Moore wrote about Heyward’s swing coach praising Heyward for having Plans A, B, and C at the plate. Both of these pieces are hopeful, treating Heyward’s willingness to tinker as a sign of dedication — a player relentlessly seeking continuous improvement.

But relentlessness doesn’t solve every problem, and improvement is very rarely continuous. Hitters can be comically addicted to routine, fearing that the slightest change will plunge their careers into Oylerian Darkness. But there is some virtue to having a baseline from which to work. In music, it’s literally a bass line. In oral presentations, it’s a theme. In cooking, it’s a recipe. In none of these cases does the baseline translate directly into real results, but it provides critical direction so that the (or at least an) end result actually results.

It’s possible that Heyward has lost his anchor. He wouldn’t be the first player to do so. Roy Halladay famously had to reconstruct his pitching motion in the purgatory of Dunedin. But Halladay had become an arsonist, spraying the field with a 10.64 ERA. Until this year, Heyward hadn’t ever truly pancaked. It’s possible that Heyward is tinkering his career into oblivion. I’m not sure I buy this, but at this point there is even less evidence for the competing theories. A serious bone, muscle, or vision problem probably would have landed him on the DL.

Heyward may be treating his swing like jazz, but baseball is the blues. At least he plays in the right city to learn that lesson.


The Critical Importance of Dylan Bundy

The Orioles are a playoff contender. They also have a rotation than can best be described as “aspirational.” Their starters rank 19th by fWAR as I write this, and too many of them put more fear into Buck Showalter than they do the opposition. You may be asking yourself “Self, has a team with a rotation this bad ever won the World Series?”

Well, ever is a really long time, but I did check in on the World Series winners over the last 10 years, and the answer is: why yes. It’s happened twice in fact: The last two Worlds Series winners (Royals and Giants) also had mediocre starting-pitching production, ranked 22nd and 23rd by fWAR (respectively). The Giants, at least, had Madison Bumgarner, who amassed nearly 4 WAR, won all seven games of the Series, and hit two homers in each game. Ok, not all of that sentence is true, but the Giants clearly had an ace, a horse they could ride to victory.

The Orioles rotation is a lot less ace-y. Chris Tillman sits at 2.4 WAR right now, good for 31st in the majors. Kevin Gausman may reach 2.0. No other O’s starter will.

This resembles the Royals 2015 rotation more than that of the 2014 Giants. The Fighting Yosts had two 2+ WAR starters: Yordano Ventura and Edinson Volquez. Like those Royals, the O’s have a relentless offense (though relentless in a much different way), and a quality bullpen (both 5th in reliever WAR).

Both rotations also received a key midseason reinforcement. In the 2015 Royals’ case it was Johnny Cueto, who put up an unimpressive 4.76 ERA in his time in KC, but did contribute 1 WAR. With the Royals, Cueto went over 6 innings per start with a 4.06 FIP, giving the bullpen some rest and pushing the radioactive Jeremy Guthrie to the margins of the rotation. The Royals had three 1+ WAR hurlers in the second half: Ventura, Volquez, and Cueto.

The Orioles similarly received a rotation boost after the All-Star break, but via roster re-deployment rather than trade. On July 17 Bundy made his first major-league start. Against the punchless Tampa Bay Rays, Bundy surrendered four runs in just 3 1/3 innings. He struck out four, walked three, and coughed up three dingers. In the space of about an hour, Bundy’s ERA jumped more than half a run.

And it’s been heading down ever since. In his last five starts, Bundy has posted a 1.84 ERA, a .472 OPS against, 32 Ks in 29 innings, and just four walks. Those three homers the Rays hit are still the only ones he’s yielded. These aren’t joke teams Bundy’s been beating: of his last five opponents, only the White Sox’ offense serves comfort food.

In the second half, Bundy trails only Tillman in starter WAR for the O’s. He and Tillman will both reach 1. It seems unlikely any other O’s starter will. Using the 2015 Royals as a model, the Orioles can have success down the stretch and into the postseason with three decent starters. The only candidates are Tillman, Gausman, and Bundy. This puts a lot of heat on a guy with just six major-league starts.

Are there alarm bells? In moving to the starting rotation, Bundy’s velocity has actually increased. His home run rate (1.65/9) is worrisome, but in sample sizes this small it’s dangerous to draw any conclusions from that. He’s doing something new with his curve, probably a key part of his recent success. He’s a achieved a whiff rate in August with the curve that’s almost twice that of any other month in his career. He’s also using his sinker more. These are good things, but any time an injury-prone pitcher makes this many changes at once, it’s possible that he’s rolling the dice with his soft tissue.

The biggest warning sign is probably the innings. His 70+ IP this year amount to just under a third of all his innings in organized ball. In one sense this was expected: Bundy was supposed to get to the majors with relatively minimal minor-league time. However, it’s taken him nearly five years since being drafted to get to 241 career innings (across all levels). No one expected that.

There isn’t a lot of history to go on here; Bundy doesn’t have many comps. There are good reasons for that. Forty years ago the medical advances that have made Bundy’s continued baseball existence possible did not yet exist. Moreover, prior to free agency, it would not have made economic sense for a team to incur those costs even if it could have. Back then, baseball was like Verdun: throw people at the enemy’s trenches and maybe enough of them will survive to take the objective. If not, order up another division and try again. In the baseball context, that meant if a young pitcher’s arm failed, you sent the kid home with a positive reference for his future employer, and gave the next kid the roster slot.

No team can afford to be so cavalier with its pitchers today, at least the ones with significant ceilings. Bundy is, in theory, the unobtanium of baseball: a young, cost-controlled, electric arm. The Orioles’ patience with him to this point is thus admirable, but hardly visionary. It’s more a reflection of how baseball has changed than of the merits the organization.

But the interests of the young pitcher and his employer do not always coincide. Bundy finds himself in a situation similar to that of Steven Matz, a situation in which Bundy’s long-term future and the Orioles’ immediate future may be incompatible. He is critical to whatever hopes the O’s may have of reaching, much less going deep into, the playoffs. Bundy’s heart wants him to continue starting well into October; whether his elbow agrees remains to be seen.

But no matter what fate awaits the O’s and Bundy, 29 other franchises are watching the Bundy story unfold. He will be the comp for the brilliant yet jeopardized young arms of the future. For the front office there is the remote but tantalizing prospect of competitive advantage: The franchise that finds a reliable way to fix those wings will undoubtedly take flight.


Meet the Matz: Of Bone Spurs, Paychecks, and Pennants

On June 30, Mets manager Terry Collins sent left-hander Steven Matz to the mound to face the Chicago Cubs. Matz turned in a modest performance, striking out six in 5 1/3 innings while surrendering two homers. Not a terrible outing, but a club as offensively challenged as the Mets can only afford so many starts like this. What made the outing of more than the usual interest was that this was Matz’ first appearance after the world learned he had a bone spur in his left elbow.

Bone spurs are not generally in and of themselves debilitating, but they can inflict significant pain. And since pain is your body’s way of saying “don’t do that again, you stupid git,” the pain a bone spur causes may in turn cause other changes to the pitcher’s usage patterns and delivery. Those changes might end well, or they might not. A cascade of other injuries and mechanical problems can follow.

So a bone spur presents player and team with a choice: the player can pitch through the injury, at reduced and perhaps increasingly decaying effectiveness, or opt for surgery, which resolves the problem but sidelines the player for several months. In Matz’ case, surgery could doom his season.

If Matz were an entirely independent actor, surgery would seem the rational choice. Like all players, Matz’ overriding goal is to get The Contract: the multiyear 7-8 figure deal that will provide financial independence for Matz and his family for as long they subsist on this benighted orb. (Matz will tell you his overriding goal is to win a World Series, but that’s probably number two on his list.) By skipping the rest of this season and coming back healthy next year, Matz probably boosts the odds of making it to The Contract before critical elements of his body begin to rebel.

But Matz is not truly independent: the Mets organization, his teammates, and Baseball Tradition all exert substantial influence. Peer pressure may play a significant role here. Even John Smoltz, one of the most intelligent minds in baseball broadcasting today, discussed Matz’ bone spur (and Noah Syndergaard’s apparently smaller one) in a recent Fox broadcast with the quit-whining-and-rub-some-dirt-on-it machismo that would hardly have been out of place a century ago.

Smoltz said the pitchers can deal with bone spurs by changing their pitch selection, and there is some evidence Matz is doing just that. He used his slider at a 15% clip in April and May; in June he abandoned it. His velocity, however, is essentially unchanged, and he’s using his other pitches more or less as he always has.

So maybe Matz is reacting to the pain, maybe not. But he would certainly pay a price if he seemed to be reacting in a highly visible way. For all the analytical advancements of the past quarter-century, players are still expected to suffer in silence. Those who don’t may “lose the manager’s trust,” and have fewer opportunities to establish that they merit The Contract. I’m no fan of conformity, but it is sometimes the economically rational decision.

Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson views the Matz dilemma through a substantially different risk-assessment prism. As long as the Mets have a good shot at the playoffs, Alderson has little incentive to see Matz hit The List for any significant length of time, at least unless and until his performance seriously deteriorates. The supposedly pitching-rich Mets have nothing behind their current top five starters. No, not even Rafael Montero, who is putting up a 6+ ERA in Las Vegas this year. What stinks in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Further concentrating Alderson’s mind are the Mets’ playoff odds. This is a borderline playoff team; FanGraphs says the Mets have a 56% chance of making the playoffs, but most of that 56% just puts the Mets in the wild card. Still, that’s a five-point jump from last Wednesday, before the Mets ripped off a four-game sweep of the 1927 Yan– er — I mean, the Cubs. But sadly for the Mets, the division-leading Nationals have also been swatting aside opponents with cavalier disregard — most of the Mets’ playoff gain came at the expense of the Fighting Lorians.

Like Matz, Alderson faces a tough decision: how to balance the future against the now. The Mets are neither clearly bad enough to play for next year, nor clearly good enough to play for this one. Their roster is largely set for the near future; of their significant contributors only Neil Walker will walk at the end of the season, likely to be replaced by Dilson Herrera. The Mets are ninth in attendance, 14th in local television revenue, and 16th in payroll. They are also first in BMI (Bernie Madoff Influenza). This isn’t a team that can likely add a lot of payroll, particularly if they intend eventually to fork over some major bitcoin for at least some of the current starting rotation.

The Mets have three prospects in MLB’s top 100, but just one (Dominic Smith) in the top 50, and Smith barely clears that hurdle at #45. Although showing some increased power this year, Smith threatens to develop into the next James Loney, a threat so grave that Alderson fended it off (momentarily at least) by bringing in the current edition to fill in for the wounded Lucas Duda at first. Young shortstop Gavin Cecchini is raking at AAA to the tune of an .871 OPS, but he only recently found the rake in the back of his garage behind the broken foosball table; his career minor-league OPS is a pedestrian .745. Alderson is showing his faith in Cecchini by filling the Mets’ yawning chasm at third with an incipient public relations disaster.

Alderson has a little time. Playoff chances can swing wildly during the season, as he discovered last year. In three weeks he’ll have a better idea of where the Mets stand, and can then make a decision regarding Matz. If the Mets collapse, then the incentives for both team and pitcher come into alignment, and Matz will likely have surgery. If the Mets surge (they did, after all, finally find Nimmo), then he’ll ask Matz to shut the hell up and rub some dirt on it. Unlike some of his co-rotationists, Matz isn’t a superhero. He’ll do what he’s told, while watching with trepidation as The Contract recedes into the future.


Making Heaven Great Again: The Angels’ Struggle for Redemption

There are good systems, there are poor systems, then there’s 50 pounds of effluence, and then there’s the Marlins. Add another 50 pounds, and you’ve finally reached the Angels.

Baseball Prospectus, 2016

Disclaimer: The side effects of reading through the entire Angels Top 30 may include drowsiness and an upset stomach.

– Baseball America Prospect Handbook, 2016

I’ve been doing these rankings for eight years now, and this is by far the worst system I’ve ever seen.

Keith Law, 2016

The practice of farming is prohibited. All right or claim of a major league club to a player shall cease when such player becomes a member of a minor league club, and no arrangement between clubs for the loan or return of a player shall be binding between the parties to it or recognized by other clubs.

National Agreement, Article VI, Section 4 (1903)

Sometimes the most important things are the things that aren’t there. Those words from the 1903 National Agreement, the peace treaty ending the brief but intense war between the National and American Leagues, were omitted from the revised agreement in 1921. And into that omission rushed Branch Rickey, who did not invent the practice of “farming” minor league players, but who perfected it with a ruthless efficiency that real farmers would only achieve much later with he generous application of pesticides. Rickey purchased not players, but teams, and in some cases entire leagues.

The 1903 farming ban codified, albeit temporarily, the American League’s declaration of independence from the National League, first issued in 1901. The farming ban was Ban Johnson’s announcement to the world that no one was going to treat his league’s players as farmhands. The ban also helped secure the loyalty of the Players’ Protective Association, an incipient union opposed to the practice (see pdf p.2), and was one factor encouraging star players to jump to the new league.

Major league owners routinely eluded the farming ban, however, and by 1920, baseball’s next crisis year, the ban was on the ropes. Wracked by gambling scandals, poor wartime attendance, and the ghastly death of Ray Chapman, organized baseball forged a new National Agreement in 1921. The new agreement omitted the farming ban, perhaps because the AL, having by that time firmly achieved major league status, lost interest in the cause of player liberty. Although Commissioner Landis despised the concept of farm systems, he was largely unable to prevent their development.

Landis failed because the economic logic of farm systems is unassailable: By owning most (though certainly not all) aspects of the production process, major league teams could greatly reduce the transaction costs inherent in developing major league-caliber players. Farm systems also limit the competition among teams for minor league player’s services. After the draft, the player is essentially under team ownership for several years, unable to work for any other team without the owning franchise’s consent.

Every major league team eventually developed a farm system, though (as Bill James has noted) laggards like the Cubs and Pirates paid a heavy price, suffering through years of mediocrity beginning in the 1940s. It is now impossible to imagine a major league team without a farm system. Or at least it was until this year. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim today stand on the threshold of an alternate future, a future in which Judge Landis won. Alone among MLB franchises, the Angels today entirely fail to benefit from the major league owners’ long twilight struggle to reduce minor league players to peonage.

I want players. Lots and lots of players.

Billy Eppler, 2016

The Angels’ recently minted general manager, Billy Eppler, will lead the team through the next phase of its dystopian journey. To be fair, it’s not exactly true that the Angels have no farm system at all — they have minor league affiliates in thrall to the major league club, just like other major league clubs do. And those affiliates may even win a few games (so far, just a few). But the system is bereft of impact talent at any level. A handful of these guys will turn out much better than now perceived, but the vast majority won’t. The next pennant winning Angels lineup and rotation is invisible without experimental pharmacological assistance.

One way to get “lots and lots of players,” or at least a relatively large haul of good players, would be to trade Mike Trout. The idea has been debated on these pages and elsewhere, and I don’t propose to rehash the details here. One thing Eppler might want to consider, however, if he contemplates such a drastic move is that nothing of the kind has ever happened in baseball history. Nothing even close.

Trout had a 9.4 bWAR last year; no player with that high a WAR has ever been traded in the following season. Connie Mack infamously sold Eddie Collins and his 9.1 bWAR to the White Sox after the 1914 season. The woeful Boston Braves traded Rogers Hornsby (8.8 bWAR) to the Cubs after the 1928 season for a clown car of substandard players and $200,000 in a classic salary dump.

Mike Piazza was traded twice in one year after his 8.7 bWAR in 1997. First, the Dodgers shipped him to the Marlins in exchange for a pile of good but expensive players; in this odd case the salary-dumping team received a superstar, although it also unloaded a superstar in Gary Sheffield. The Marlins then Marlined it up real good just one week after Piazza put on the teal, sending him to the Mets for Geoff Goetz, Preston Wilson, and Ed Yarnall. Centuries from now the Marlins will be viewed as we view the giant Moai of Easter Island: with a mixture of awe at the achievement and amazement that the people responsible failed to put their limited resources to better use.

And that’s about it for the top 200 player-seasons. So Eppler would be piloting the S.S. Anaheim into uncharted seas if he traded Trout; there is no comparable trade out there by which one could even vaguely assess his value.  That doesn’t mean Eppler shouldn’t try, but he shouldn’t try too hard. Trout is still just 24, and it is conceivable that the next pennant winning Angels lineup could still have him in it. No other GM in baseball history has seen fit to trade a player of Trout’s caliber; Eppler should be wary of being the first.

There is another way, pioneered by a team just a few hours north on the 5. In 2002 the San Francisco Baseball Giants made it to the World Series with a team that GM Brian Sabean had built around Barry Bonds. Bonds, for you youngsters out there, was the Oughties’ Mike Trout, though I suspect that both men would bristle at the comparison. Drug-fueled or not, Bonds dominated the game like few ever have, yet Sabean labored mightily to get Bonds into the World Series. Ultimately, Sabean achieved this not by tending crops in the blazing fields from dawn to dusk, interrupted only by a cholesterol-laced dinner at noon. Your 2002 Giants had exactly one (1) player with a bWAR over 1.o who had come up through the Giants farm system. That was Russ Ortiz, a pitcher many may remember as a failure because the red crystal in his palm began glowing right after his age 30 season, but up to that point he was a reliable innings eater with roughly a league average ERA.

So here’s the point:

Giants total 2002 bWAR: 50.6

Giants 2002 bWAR from home-grown players:  5.3

Yeesh. Tony Torcato. Damon Minor. Trey Lunsford. Yep, they’re in the 5.3, and they’ll be gleefully wielding flaming pitchforks in Scouting Hell. The news wasn’t all awful — Joe Nathan is in that 5.3, as is the aforementioned Ortiz. But it’s safe to say that the 2002 Giants are a team that Judge Landis might have liked. Well, you know, except the PED part.

So how did Sabean do it? If you haven’t guessed the answer, you probably should consider taking some of those self-paced training courses you’ve been blowing off. He signed him a passel o’ free agents (including Bonds himself, of course, as well as Reggie Sanders (3.5 bWAR in 2002) and Benito Santiago (2.6)). And he traded. Oh, did he trade. Jeff Kent was the most critical acquisition, amassing a 7.0 bWAR in 2002, which, as the alert reader will quickly grasp, exceeded the entire Giants farm produce by a wide margin. Here are the other significant guys Sabean dealt for:

David Bell (3.2)

Kirk Rueter (3.0)

Robb Nen (2.5)

Jason Schmidt (2.3)

Tsuyoshi Shinjo (1.9)

Kenny Lofton (1.7)

Tim Worrell (1.5)

That’s 15.9 bWAR for those of you keeping score at home, and adding in Kent brings the total to 22.9, or just under half of the Giants’ 2002 total. The best players traded away for those guys, by far, were Matt Williams (cumulative 12.5 bWAR after being traded for Kent) and Bill Mueller (11.8 cumulative bWAR after being traded for Worrell). Given that Williams brought Jeff Kent, the only clear mistake in hindsight was Mueller, an outstanding but aging and fragile player who put together some memorable late career seasons after being traded for Tim Worrell.  That trade may not have worked as Sabean would have hoped, but it was defensible at the time.

So the Chapter 7 condition of the Angels’ farm system doesn’t necessarily prevent Eppler from remaking his roster. But it does severely constrain his efforts; the players Sabean traded away for the most part didn’t pan out, but he was able to convince other baseball executives that they would, executives who get paid good coin to see through exactly this kind of B.S. (those are Sabean’s initials — it’s probably a coincidence). Eppler doesn’t even have enough talent on the farm to fake it.

But the current Angels major league roster has some useful bits in addition to Trout. Kole Calhoun, Andrelton Simmons, and Garret Richards (albeit currently with a UCL subject to manufacturer recall) aren’t exactly a “core,” but they’re not a bad franchise starter kit. Nick Tropeano and Andrew Heaney (albeit currently with a UCL subject to manufacturer recall) offer some hope that young Angels fans might see a quality start before they have their first legal beer. And Josh Hamilton’s $26 million of dead weight exits the ledger after this year. The Angels will be paying Albert Pujols until humans colonize the Alpha Centauri system, but other than that, their contracts aren’t awful.

So one plan might include trading some (though certainly not all) of the above-named players, especially Calhoun, who is developing into an advanced hitter at a somewhat advanced age. It will also include signing free agents in bunches, more than Sabean did. Harder to do now than in the past, given that teams seem to be locking up their top-tier young players with greater frequency, but this is why scouts get paid (or should get paid) the big dollars. Some franchise (do I smell fish?) will undervalue its own talent, and Eppler must be there to pick up the pieces.

Or he can trade Trout.

I’m glad I’m not Billy Eppler.


The Cubs, the Astros, and Tank Warfare Revisited

Last year the once lowly Cubs won 97 games, and the also once lowly Astros won 86. Because both clubs had been as bad as Trump’s rug for years, many attributed these successes to the practice of tanking — intentionally losing games to acquire high draft picks with which to rebuild. This year, the Astros have gone a bit backward in the early going, thanks mainly to an incendiary pitching staff (if you had this guy second among Houston pitchers in WAR by mid-May, stop reading this right now and go fix world hunger). The Cubs have continued to roll, and as you know are currently on a pace to win 3.4 billion games this year. Those tanks seem unstoppable.

The interwebs were aflame with tanking debates during the offseason, with some saying it’s destroying Our Way of Life, and others saying well, no, it isn’t. This seems like a question susceptible to analysis using a new statistic with a vaguely humorous name. But before we get to that, we need to define the “tank” — I consider it to be the bottom six teams in the majors in any year. I arrived at six by rigorously counting the number of divisions in major-league baseball, and assuming that in most years the bottom six teams will be in their respective divisional cellars. This won’t always be true, but it will seldom be egregiously false.

So a team in the tank gets one of the top six draft picks in the following June draft. The new statistic, TankWAR, is simply the WAR attributable to each player the team drafted with a top-six pick, or to players obtained by trading one of those top-six players.

The Cubs and Astros each had four tank picks in the last ten drafts, twice the random expectation. The italicized players have reached the majors.

Cubs Tank Picks 2006-2015

Albert Almora (6) 2012

Kris Bryant (2) 2013

Warbird (4) 2014

Astros Tank Picks 2006-2015

Carlos Correa (1) 2012

Mark Appel (1) 2013

Brady Aiken (1) 2014

Alex Bregman (2) 2015

Last year the Cubs accumulated 50.2 WAR. Bryant contributed 6.5 of that, while Kyle Schwarber added another 1.9. So the Cubs’ TankWAR last year was 8.4, or 16.7% of the team total. On the one hand, the Cubs probably would have come close to 90 wins without these guys. On the other hand, wins 90-97 are among the most valuable in baseball. On the third hand, last year it wouldn’t have made a difference. At 89 wins or 97 the Cubs were the second wild card. On the fourth hand, that’s probably pretty rare.

Also note that of the Cubs’ starting 13 (eight position players plus five starting pitchers) only Bryant and Schwarber were Cubs draftees. The team acquired the other 11 through trades and free-agent (including international) signings. To put it another way, 42 of the Cubs 50 WAR came from players that every other GM had access to regardless of the previous year’s record.

This year, the Cubs’ TankWAR is just 1.4 (with Bryant contributing 1.5 and Schwarber subtracting 0.1 before suffering his season ending injury). That’s just under 10% of the Cubs’ total WAR of 15.6. So however important tanking was to the Cubs last year, this year it’s mattered less thus far.

For the Astros, Carlos Correa put up a 3.3 TankWAR in 2015, just over 7% of the Astros total of 44.6. Those three wins put the Astros in the playoffs — without them, The Fightin’ (and I do mean fightin’) Scioscias would have been in. To no one’s great surprise, in the current season Correa has just about doubled his contribution to the team — his 0.8 TankWAR is 14% of the team’s 5.6 total. (In theory, Ken Giles‘ -0.3 WAR could also be considered TankWAR since Mark Appel was one of the Ryder-load of prospects Houston traded for him, but Appel seemed to be an afterthought in that deal.)

The Astros were a more draft-dependent team than the Cubs in 2015, with six of their 14 regulars (including the DH) being Houston draftees. George Springer was by far the highest pick of the lot, costing Houston the 11th overall pick, thanks to the Astros bad-but-not-especially-tankly 76-86 finish in 2010 (good for fourth of six in the then-bloated NL Central). Most of the Houston draftees were guys that the other 29 GMs had passed over, and over, and sometimes even over again.

Both teams still have solid farm systems, if somewhat less spectacular than in recent years thanks to graduations and in the Astros’ case, that ill-advised Giles trade. The tank picks currently in their respective systems could help their teams relatively soon. But these teams are already very good. The remaining tank draftees won’t be turning their teams around so much as extending their respective windows of success, either by joining the big club or anchoring key trades.

So the evidence that tanking works is mixed. Both teams have benefited from their tank picks, but it is a significant exaggeration to say the Cubs’ and Astros’ recent successes are solely or even primarily because of tanking. However, Bryant and Correa in particular are players that can move their teams from good to great. These are the kinds of players that will typically be available only to the very worst teams under the current draft system. Thus, the worrywarts aren’t entirely … wartless — there will always be some incentive under some circumstances to get one of those top picks.

That said, the case for making major rules changes in response to tanking remains thin. While it’s clear that in recent years the Cubs and Astros lacked quality major-league talent, it isn’t at all clear that they were deliberately trying to sabotage their rosters (the case of Kris Bryant’s AAA hostage drama is a different problem). And, as noted above, most of the Cubs’ and Astros’ WAR during their recent resurgence has come from players who they could have obtained whether they had tanked or not. Indeed, one of the most tank-dependent teams of all time, your 2008 World Series Rays, obtained less than a quarter of its WAR from tank picks.

Another thing to bear in mind is that every team is different. For some teams, attendance is highly correlated with winning percentage, and for others, not so much. Tanking will probably cost the highly correlated teams more revenue, making it harder for those teams to finance the other rebuilding components. The low correlation teams have more patient fans and thus may have the room to explore more radical roster revision approaches.

Thus, a patient fan base is an asset. Changing the rules to prevent death-and-resurrection rebuilds isn’t a neutral solution — it would directly favor the teams whose fans desert them in the lean years (these are discussed in detail in the preceding link), and disfavor the teams with patient fans (like the Cubs and the Astros). The case hasn’t been made that the patient fan problem is so egregious that it needs to be legislated out of existence; indeed, it isn’t clear there’s a problem here at all. Each franchise (well, maybe except this one) tries to win by maximizing the advantages it has over its competitors while minimizing the impact of its relative weaknesses.

That doesn’t sound very nefarious. In fact, it sounds a lot like baseball.


No Country for Old Men: The Rockies’ Road Ahead

If you’re a baseball fan, you want to see the game succeed around the world. (Note: If you’re not a baseball fan and you’re reading this post, then a cruel and capricious Fate has once again sent your life’s tormented journey careening badly astray.) Baseball is the national sport in Japan and Cuba. It is played avidly in great swaths of Latin America. Korea, Taiwan, and even Australia have popular leagues. Baseball spans the globe and it was invented here. That’s pretty cool.

But a game that has colonized the land of the marsupials has struggled to gain a foothold at the major-league level in one place right here in the U.S. of A., and that’s Denver. Since their birth in 1993, the Colorado Rockies have never had four consecutive winning seasons. They’ve been to the postseason just three times, failing to get past the divisional series twice.  During their 23 seasons, the Rockies have finished last or second to last in their division 18 times.

The Rockies’ recent puzzling trade of Corey Dickerson for Jake McGee has renewed existential discussions about baseball at altitude: Can the Rockies ever win? If so, how? One aspect of this broader inquiry looks at the statistical anomalies associated with Coors Field. Another branch, the limb I’ve crawled out on here, looks at the Rockies’ roster construction problems.

We are fortunately not completely bereft of evidence bearing on the question of how to assemble a winning Rockies roster. Dan O’Dowd did it, taking the team to the World Series in 2007 and establishing the franchise’s only semi-sustained run of non-futility from 2007-2010. His success was somewhat fleeting, which is why he’s working for the MLB Network now. But he did at least momentarily succeed where all other have failed, so it’s worth sifting through those old Rockies to see if any useful artifacts can be found.

The 2007 Rockies were a career-year team. A lot of things went right for a lot of players at exactly the same time. Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki had MVP caliber seasons (though fWAR liked Tulo a little less than bWAR did). Holliday, Kaz Matsui, Jeff Francis, and Manny Corpas all had career years under either version of WAR, and bWAR says 2007 was Tulo’s best year. Those were five of the Rockies’ six WAR leaders in 2007, the other being Todd Helton. Except for Matsui and Helton, they were under 28 years old.

These Rockies could pick it, especially in the middle infield. Regardless of defensive metric used, Tulowitzki and Matsui had outstanding defensive seasons. Using Fangraphs Def rating, Tulo at 22.2 runs above average was behind only the magnificent Omar Vizquel (30.2) at short. Matsui lacked enough innings to qualify, but he would have been third (13.0) behind only Brandon Phillips (19.4) and Chase Utley (14.5). The metrics split significantly on two other Rox, Holliday and Helton. Total Zone loved ’em, Def did not.

The Rockies took advantage of that iron curtain infield with a heavy ground ball pitching staff. The Rockies staff was first in the NL in the ratio of ground balls to fly balls, and in ground outs to air outs. They were better than the league average in WHIP, H/9, and BB/9. Their ERA and FIP were mediocre, but the park-adjusted figures were much better. Their ERA- of 90 was good for third in the NL, while their FIP- of 97 tied them for fifth. The one thing the Rockies pitchers didn’t do was miss bats – they were 14th of the then-16 NL teams in K%.

One more thing about the 2007 Rockies: they were young. Pitchers and hitters averaged about a full year younger than the league. Helton and Matsui were the only starting position players over 30, and Rodrigo Lopez was the only semi-regular rotation denizen over 30. The bullpen had two key contributors over 30: Brian Fuentes and LaTroy Hawkins, but also two under 26 (Corpas and Taylor Buchholz).

Today’s Rockies lack most of that 2007 vibe. The 2015 lineup had just one player, Nolan Arenado, who had a breakout season, and he was the only player from whom such a season might have been expected. The middle-infield defense was was almost exactly average, with Tulo (-1.6 Def) and DJ LeMahieu (2.6 Def) mere shadows of the 2007 keystone combination. The pitchers still get a lot of ground balls, but they don’t do anything else well. In 2007 the Rockies staff tied for 7th in the majors in average fastball velocity; last year they tied for 17th. And the team is older; the hitters are at just about the league average, and the pitchers roughly four months above it.

Career years, stellar defense, hard throwing: these are the components of a younger man’s game, and this is especially true in Denver’s lung-busting altitude. Whether by design or accident (or more likely some combination of both), O’Dowd found a winning recipe for Coors that exploded into relevance in 2007. Assemble a roster of mostly younger players with high ceilings, and hope a decent quantity of them hit those ceilings at the same time.

Not only is this easier said than done, it is also a strategy freighted with risk. A roster built like this may well still fail more often than it succeeds, though the successes can be very sweet. The expanding competition for young talent puts a premium on the Rockies’ ability to find players deeper down prospect lists that have promise and have not yet come close to achieving it. It’s harder to sell tickets when the team isn’t relentlessly successful.

But an overlooked aspect of Coors Field is its positive impact on team revenues. It is simply a fabulous place to watch a baseball game, particularly on a sun-drenched Denver summer afternoon. The Rockies put a craptastic product on the field last year and still managed to rank 8th out of 15 NL teams in attendance. This is the worst they’ve done in the last five years, despite fielding teams that have evaded victory with alarming regularity.

Denver fans are enthusiastic and patient. This is exactly the kind of fan base for which a gambling, win-in-the-window and then rebuild strategy might work. This is the fan base Billy Beane wishes he had.

The Rockies may or may not be poised to implement a plan like this. They now have six prospects in MLB Pipeline’s top 100, headlined by Brendan Rodgers, a player that may have the glove to stick at short with a bat that would play at third. They have some young hard (or at least harder) throwing arms. They have David Dahl, a center fielder who might have the enormous range to make fly balls slightly less dangerous to the pitching staff.

But there are some dragons on the map. Forrest Wall, the Rox’ top second base prospect, is more bat than glove, a combination that may be less helpful at Coors than elsewhere. Ryan McMahon is a third baseman and Trevor Story may profile best there, but this is the one major-league hole the Rockies have already filled. They have a glut of low-ceiling outfielders only slightly alleviated by the McGee trade.

That trade looks less puzzling seen in the light of a young, high-upside strategy. As David Laurila recently noted, the most favorable to way to interpret this trade from the Rockies’ standpoint is that GM Jeff Bridich intends to flip McGee for one or more promising prospects. Corey Dickerson is a decent player, but he doesn’t really fit with this kind of plan. It’s reasonable to expect a similar trade involving Carlos Gonzalez before the trade deadline. You will definitely need a scorecard to identify your 2017 Rockies.

The wildest of cards here is the Rockies’ erratic ownership group, at whose behest the team held onto Tulo for too long, and may have done the same with CarGo. If the Rockies want to follow the strategy outlined here, they will need to constantly and relentlessly purge their roster of older players when the career-year potential is behind them and their defense (or velocity) starts heading south.

Owners often want to hang on to the old, familiar names. The Rox would be better off having hearts as cold as their ballpark’s beer.