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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.


The Worst Pitch in Baseball

Quick thought experiment for you: what’s the worst pitch a pitcher can throw? You might say “one that results in a home run” but I disagree. Even in batting practice, hitters don’t hit home runs all the time, right? In fact, let’s quantify it — according to Baseball Savant there were 806 middle-middle fastballs between 82 and 88 MPH thrown in 2016. Here are the results of those pitches:

2016 Grooved Fastballs
Result Count Probability
Strike 296 36.7%
Ball 1 0.1%
Out 191 23.7%
Single 49 6.1%
Double 17 2.1%
Triple 4 0.5%
Home Run 36 4.5%
Foul 212 26.3%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

So 86% of the time, we have a neutral or positive result for the pitcher, and the remaining 14% something bad happens. Not great, but when a pitcher *does* give up a homer on one of these pitches, there wasn’t really more than a 5% chance of that happening.

No, for my money, the worst thing a pitcher can do is to throw an 0-2 pitch that has a high probability of hitting a batter. The pitcher has a huge built-in advantage on 0-2, and by throwing this pitch he throws it all away and gives the batter a free base (or, at best, runs the count to 1-2). But everyone makes mistakes.


That’s Clayton Kershaw, hitting the very first batter he saw in 2015 with an 0-2 pitch. Here’s Vin Scully, apparently unwilling to believe Kershaw could make such a mistake, calling the pitch:

Strike two pitch on the way, in the dirt, check swing, and it might have hit him on the foot, and I believe it did. So Wil Myers, grazed by a pitch on an 0-2 count, hit on the foot and awarded first base. So Myers…and actually, he got it on his right knee when you look at the replay.

I was expecting more of a reaction from Kershaw — for reference, check out this reaction to throwing Freddie Freeman a sub-optimal pitch — but we didn’t get one. I wouldn’t worry about him, though — he’s since thrown 437 pitches on 0-2 counts without hitting a batter.

Kershaw is pretty good at avoiding this kind of mistake, but the true champion of 0-2 HBP avoidance is Yovani Gallardo*, who has thrown well over 1,200 0-2 pitches in his career without hitting a batter once. Looking at a heat map of his 0-2 pitches to right-handers (via Baseball Savant), you can see why — it’s hard to hit a batter when you’re (rightly) burying the pitch in the opposite batter’s box.

*Honorable mention: Mat Latos, who has thrown nearly as many 0-2 pitches as Gallardo without hitting a batter

Of course, 0-2 HBPs are fairly rare events, so it shouldn’t be too surprising to find that a few pitchers have managed to avoid them entirely. In fact, most pitchers are well under 1% of batters hit on 0-2 pitches. To get a global overview of how all pitchers did, let’s look at a scatter plot of average 0-2 velocity versus percent of HBPs in such counts over the past three years (click through for an interactive version):

I think one of these data points sticks out a bit to you.

I hate to pick on the guy, but that’s Nick Franklin, throwing the only 0-2 pitch of his life, and hitting Danny Espinosa when a strikeout would have (mercifully) ended the top of the ninth of this game against the Nationals. Interestingly, Franklin was much more demonstrative than Kershaw was, clapping his hands together and then swiping at the ball when it came back from the umpire. He probably knew that was his best opportunity to record a strikeout in the big leagues, and instead he gave his man a free base. Kevin Cash! Give this man another chance to redeem himself. He doesn’t want to be this kind of outlier forever.


Happy Trails, Josh Johnson

Josh Johnson could pitch. In this decade, seven players have put up a season in which they threw 180+ innings with a sub-60 ERA-: Clayton Kershaw (three times), Felix Hernandez (twice), Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester in 2016, Zack Greinke and Jake Arrieta in 2015, and Josh Johnson in 2010. That was the second straight excellent year for Johnson, making the All-Star team in both 2009 and 2010, and finishing fifth in the Cy Young balloting the latter year. Early in 2011 he just kept it going, with a 0.88 ERA through his first few starts. In four of his first five starts that year, he took a no-hitter into the fifth inning. Dusty Baker — a man who has seen quite a few games of baseball in his life and normally isn’t too effusive in his praise of other teams’ players — had this to say at that point:

“That guy has Bob Gibson stuff. He has power and finesse, instead of just power. That’s a nasty combination.”

It seemed like he was going to dominate the NL East for years to come.

Josh Johnson felt pain. His first Tommy John surgery was in 2007, when he was just 23. His elbow had been bothering him for nearly a year before he finally got the surgery. His manager was optimistic at the time:

“I think he’ll be fine once he gets that rehab stuff out of the way,” Gonzalez said. “You see guys who underwent Tommy John surgery, they come back and pitch better.”

But the hits kept coming. His excellent 2010 season was cut short because of shoulder issues (though he didn’t go on the DL) and his promising 2011 season came up short because of shoulder issues. Those same issues had been bothering him all season but he pitched through the pain for two months.

“It took everything I had to go and say something,” he said. “Once I did, it was something lifted off my shoulders. Let’s get it right and get it back to feeling like it did at the beginning of the season.”

“I’m hoping [to return by June 1st],” he said. “You never know with this kind of stuff. You’ve got to get all the inflammation out of there. From there it should be fine.”

That injury cost him the rest of the season.

Josh Johnson loved baseball. Think about something you loved doing, and your reaction if someone told you that you had to undergo painful surgery with a 12-month recovery time in order to continue doing it. Imagine you did that, but then later on, someone told you that you had to do it again if you wanted even an outside chance of performing that activity, but the odds were pretty low. Josh Johnson had three Tommy John surgeries, because they gave him a glimmer of hope of continuing to play baseball.

Josh Johnson had a great career. It’s only natural to look at a career cut short by injuries and ask “what if?” but he accomplished plenty. He struck out Derek Jeter and Ichiro in an All-Star Game, threw the first pitch in Marlins Park, and made over $40 million playing the game he loved. He even lucked his way into hitting three home runs. Now he’s a 33-year-old millionaire in retirement; I think he did all right.


Playing Roulette with Danny Duffy and Wil Myers

January is notoriously slow for baseball activity, but the other week gave us two interesting extensions to digest. Wil Myers was extended for six years and $80 million, while Danny Duffy received five years and $65 million. Both of these players have had interesting careers thus far. Wil Myers has been polarizing in various ways since he was traded for James Shields. The most recent development has been his transition from playing OF to 1B, and seeing if he would be a valuable asset. As for Duffy, he spent part of the season in the Royals’ bullpen before sinker/slidering his way to potential ace status. If you look at both of their production over the last four years you see the following:

Year Duffy Myers
2016 2.8 3.8
2015 1.2 0.6
2014 1.9 -0.1
2013 0.5 2.3
Total 6.4 6.6
Average 1.6 1.7

The table above doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence paying these two individuals the approximate GDP of Qatar. Obviously, the Royals and Padres liked what they saw this past year and were ready to buy into the future. Both Duffy and Myers have youth on their side at 28 and 26 so the teams are buying recent improvements and prime years. Steamer, too, is optimistic about both players, projecting Duffy for 3.1 WAR and Myers for 2.4 WAR.

These deals are not without risk and there is real concern about the inconsistency of both players. As illustrated above, both Duffy and Myers have had years of above-average production and also years where they barely scratched replacement level. These deals may be seen as opportunistic for both player and team, but let’s take a look to see where the value may lie. First, we need to look at how much the team paid and the expected breakeven value.

 Name Contract Value Expected War War Per Year
Duffy 65,000,000 8.1 1.6
Myers 83,000,000 10.4 1.7
Assumes 8M / 1 WAR

Based on this analysis, the teams are paying these players to be exactly what they have been over the past four years. At first glance, this seems like a steep price for the pair who have had middling results but players who have shown superstar upside, even inconsistently, have immense value. A similarity both players share is signing these contracts under team control. Each presumably would have done better on the open market but decided to sell after career years.

Given the significant swings in performance, these contracts are unique because the total value of the contracts may be recouped over 1-2 years. Just this past season, Duffy and Myers were worth 2.8 and 3.8 WAR, respectively. Using the 99th percentile outcome for both these players, a 5 WAR outcome seems to be the absolute ceiling for these two players. Using the same 8M per WAR valuation, a 5 WAR season would produce a value of $40M. This would account for 62% of Duffy’s breakeven WAR and 48% of Myers’. If they were to return to their previous form and be worth 1.6 WAR each year for the remainder of the contract, the team would still enjoy a significant amount of surplus value. If you think 5 WAR is optimistic and prefer to think of their ceiling as closer to 4 WAR, the math still favors the teams’ side of these deals.

Danny Duffy and Wil Myers represent players who offer youth and inconsistency, and they have shown glimpses of stardom. Their respective contracts build both optimism and risk into the final dollar value. The unique part of these deals is quantifying the risk associated with these players. Given their inconsistencies, the teams should potentially expect to receive most of the value in one year while receiving middling results in the others. The Padres and Royals are betting on talent and recent improvements. Teams generally extend players with the idea of receiving consistent year-to-year value. Duffy and Myers portray a more boom-or-bust scenario. Generally, we have an idea of how a contract will go after Year 1; given these two players, we won’t know the result of the deal until the very end.


The Major Impact of Edwin in Cleveland

Recently, the Cleveland Indians signed slugger Edwin Encarnacion in a bold move to get their formerly middle-of-the-pack offense kick-started.  The deal, which pays $65 million to Encarnacion over three years, can’t be considered a good or bad deal yet — that is still to be determined.  If Edwin, who is, like everybody in the world, constantly getting older, performs like he did for the past two years, then the deal will be a steal for the Indians.  Yet if Edwin begins to show his age at the plate, then the deal will hardly be worthwhile.  Most likely, though, he will accumulate 25-35 (on an overly optimistic side) home runs, while batting for a not noteworthy .280.

Looking over the signing, one can easily come to the assumption that Cleveland will be better with Edwin.  Certainly, any level-headed person wouldn’t consider him to be a minus.  However, nobody has really come out and said that Edwin is the difference between a good team and a great team.  Yet from looking through the depths of Cleveland’s roster, one sees something uncontrollably powerful occurring slowly but surely in Cleveland.  Something that has been in development every since the Indians brought Jason Kipnis to the big leagues in 2011.  And now, with the addition of Edwin Encarnacion, they seem to be done.

What the Indians have done through the past five years is that of a front-office masterpiece.  Last year, they came within a game of winning of the World Series, and this year, they are poised to make a run for the trophy again.  As mentioned before, it all started with the arrival of a noncommittal prospect named Jason Kipnis in 2011.  Kipnis had played well, but definitely not worth a mention in any top-prospect lists.  In the majors, he took a few years to blossom, but he’s been on the rise ever since.  He is now a solid second baseman with speed and power, the second-sacker of every team’s envy.

That same year, Francisco Lindor entered the rookie team of the Indians.  Unlike Kipnis, he became a highly-touted prospect, and his first appearance in the major leagues, in 2015, was widely watched.  And ever since that first game, Lindor has not looked back, joining Kipnis in the ranks of the best middle infielders in the league.

This past year, 2016, was when all the front office’s hard work finally blossomed.  At first, the season did not start out very well.  Stalwart right fielder Michael Brantley got injured early on, and the season’s prospects looked slim.  Yet about a third of the way through the season, something amazing happened.

The Indians were not doing badly, but were definitely not excelling in the season.  So, in a radical move, they decided to see how a prospect would fare in the bigs.  So they summoned Tyler Naquin from the farm system and immediately implanted him in center field.  Thankfully, the lanky Naquin performed above and beyond anyone’s expectations.  He finished the season in the contest for Rookie of the Year, despite missing a good chunk of the season.  Meanwhile, a player who had spent a few years in the bigs yet never really got to play was coming into his own just about the time when Naquin came up.  Jose Ramirez had been drafted by Cleveland after the 2010 season and was called up in 2013.  He didn’t get much playing time, and was sent back down to the minors the next year.  He was called up again in 2015, and played poorly.  However, he wasn’t ready to ruin his big-league career.  At around the time Naquin came up, Ramirez became hot.  He started playing like he hadn’t ever in his career.  Somehow, someway, a switch had been flipped inside him.  Somehow, someway, the Cleveland Indians were in business.

Although the Indians had failed to win the World Series, the season had still been a wild success.  They had built a powerful machine, and with Brantley back in right field for the 2017 season, who knew what could happen?  But still, they seemed to be missing something.  Even with the amazing midseason reinforcements and Cleveland’s powerful lineup (Napoli, Santana, Lindor, Kipnis), the Indians were 18th in the majors in runs scored.  They were getting many runners on base, as their .329 OBP (tied for seventh-best in the MLB) testified.  They just needed one more piece, a guy who could get those many baserunners home.  And although Napoli was big and strong and hit majestic homers, he just wasn’t the guy the Indians needed.  So they signed Encarnacion.  With him on the team and Brantley back, possibilities are boundless.  Their lineup (shown below) will be incredibly potent.

1.  Francisco Lindor;  Shortstop

2.  Jason Kipnis; Second Base

3.  Edwin Encarnacion; DH

4.  Michael Brantley; Right Field

5.  Carlos Santana; First Base

6. Jose Ramirez; Left Field

7.   Lonnie Chisenhall; Third Base

8.  Roberto Perez; Catcher

9.  Tyler Naquin; Center Field

Although the order could be debated on, its potency and presumed consistency are undeniable.  There are only 1.5 holes in the lineup (Roberto Perez=1, Chisenhall=.5), and other than that, the rest of the lineup is stocked with really good players. That’s seven really good players in one lineup.  That is something special.  The lineup is also well-rounded.  There are Lindor, Kipnis, Brantley, and Ramirez providing consistency, while Encarnacion and Santana provide the dingers.  Of course, the four who provide consistency can be relied on to produce at least 15 homers a year.  And although the batting order looks very impressive, the pitching rotation is what really makes the Indians special.  The pitching rotation made it to the World Series minus two of their best pitchers — Salazar and Carrasco — and almost won it!

The addition of Encarnacion will, in my opinion, prove to be great.  The Indians will leap from 18th to fifth in offense in the majors, and they will have a very good regular season.  Again, this is just my opinion, but the Indians do look awfully dangerous come the 2017 season.


A Closer Look at Mark Melancon

If you paid any attention at all to the 2016 Giants, you noticed that the bullpen was pretty terrible. When the game was on the line – when all the cards were on the table – the bullpen came in and ruined everything. Need I remind anyone of NLDS Game 4 against the Chicago Cubs? I didn’t think so.

Anyway, that’s old news. The Giants did something about this problem, inking closer Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62MM contract on December 5.

Some in the baseball industry think that the contract is risky. There are two main reasons: first, Melancon relies heavily on limiting home runs, and was helped by playing half his games at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, an extreme pitcher’s park. Indeed, his HR/FB ratio over the last four years (5.9%) has been much better than the league average (10.1%), and if it regresses, Melancon is in trouble. The obvious counterargument is that Melancon is moving move from one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball (PNC Park) to the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in baseball (AT&T).

The second knock on Melancon is that his strikeout rate is just mediocre. This makes him risky because if he suddenly starts walking people or losing command within the strike zone, there’s no buffer of dominant stuff to fall back on to sustain the success he’s had for most of his career. Before delving into that success, it’s worth understanding where the Giants are coming from.

Somehow, the Giants bullpen wasn’t dead last in Win Probability Added (WPA) last year. They were 10th-worst in baseball at -0.01. The bullpen essentially broke even in terms of increasing or decreasing the team’s chances of winning.

For example, if a starter went six-plus innings, leaving the game with two on and one out in the 7th with a team win probability of 80 percent, the Giants bullpen (as a whole, for the entire season) sustained those odds. Of course, in reality, things don’t quite play out that way in individual games, since the odds at the end of a game are always 100 or 0 percent. Essentially, they blew some games and they saved some games. Compared to other teams in baseball, the Giants were significantly worse. They were the only playoff team with a negative bullpen WPA. When the dust all settled, the bullpen was pretty bad, both in and out of context, and the breakeven WPA reflects that.

Enter Mark Melancon. Over the last four seasons, no relief pitcher has a better WPA. He’s put up 13.25 WPA in 290 innings. While WPA isn’t necessarily a sustainable skill, it’s hard to argue that the following players lucked their way onto the top 10 WPA leaderboard among relief pitchers since 2013: Melancon (13.25), Zach Britton (12.97), Andrew Miller (10.94), Wade Davis (10.41), Tony Watson (10.31), Craig Kimbrel (9.32), Aroldis Chapman (9.21), Dellin Betances (9.00), Kenley Jansen (8.98), and Joaquin Benoit (8.92). Those are some of the very best relievers in the game.

Notice that Melancon is way ahead of Britton, and way, way ahead of everybody else. Melancon’s stellar WPA basically means that, since 2013, he’s been the best reliever in baseball at increasing his team’s chances of winning. That seems significant.

On a broader scope, Melancon has been among the best relievers in the game in other key areas:

Category Total RP rank
IP 290 2nd
WPA 13.25 1st
ERA 1.80 3rd
FIP 2.25 8th
ERA- 48 4th
FIP- 60 9th
WHIP 0.91 5th
Soft% 25% 7th

 

Relative to his peers, Melancon has pitched a ton of innings, been among the best in baseball at preventing runs, limited baserunners extremely well, and induced plenty of soft contact. While he may not be the most dominant relief pitcher out there, the results speak for themselves, and the Giants are clearly expecting those results to continue.

Melancon will remain in an extreme pitcher’s park. He’s a ground-ball guy who has a tendency to allow weak contact, and he will have an excellent infield defense behind him. He has a track record of success (albeit not the kind that’s always sustainable).

The Giants seem to covet pitchers like Melancon who induce weak contact, instead of guys who routinely strike out 10+ batters per nine. Johnny Cueto is like that. Matt Cain was like that. Those two perfectly illustrate the risk and reward with players of their statistical profile.

Cueto took a step forward in what was already a brilliant career when he moved to the wide open spaces of AT&T Park with stellar infield defense behind him. Matt Cain, however, lost the control that enabled him to be so successful early in his career, and his ability to induce weak contact and limit home runs disappeared, and he suddenly became one of the worst pitchers in baseball.

Any large commitment to a baseball player is risky. Melancon is arguably a type of pitcher who comes with some added risk. Despite it, Melancon has a tremendous track record, will play in a great ballpark for his skill-set, and will be helped by San Francisco’s superior infield defense. There are no sure things in baseball, but continued success for Melancon is well within the realm of possibility, and it’s exactly what the Giants expect and need.


xFantasy, Part II: Triple Slash Converter

Following up on the introduction of xFantasy this week, I’ve packaged the projection equations together here into a single Triple Slash Converter tool. This allows you to input a player’s PA, AVG, OBP, and SLG, and will spit out the resulting expected 5×5 stats. Check out the original post to explore the equations used in more detail.

Triple Slash Converter

A few optional things can be used to improve the projected fantasy line…

  • Batting order: Must be an integer between 1 to 9. Determines overall R/RBI/SB as well as distribution of R vs. RBI. If you aren’t sure, the sixth spot is about average production.
  • Team runs: Number of runs you expect the player’s team to score (full season). More team runs means more player R/RBI. If you aren’t sure, 720 is about average.
  • Team SB: Number of bases you expect the player’s team to steal (full season). More team SBs means more player SBs. If you aren’t sure, 85 is about average.
  • SPD: The SPD score for a player is fairly consistent year-to-year (outside of aging effects), and is useful for two reasons: 1) Faster players score more runs 2) SPD predicts SB’s well. If you aren’t sure, 3 or 4 is about average for fantasy-relevant players.

Part III, examining the predictive power of xFantasy and comparing it to projections, is still in the works, but I realized that the package of equations from Part I would be much more useful if everyone had a tool to play around with them!


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.


Finding the Giants a Bat

Bobby Evans, the San Francisco Giants general manager, has said on numerous occasions that he’s comfortable with Mac Williamson or Jarrett Parker as the starting left fielder in 2017. That’s hard to believe.

In all likelihood, Evans said that so other teams and representatives of free agents don’t think they need to make a move for a left fielder. It’s a matter of leverage.

The Giants have, however, publicly stated that they’re targeting top relief pitchers. That need is so obvious they’d be foolish to deny it.

Despite what the Giants say publicly, they’re probably in the market for a left fielder and/or a third baseman in addition to an ace reliever.

Evans has stated that Eduardo Nuñez will be the starting third baseman, and that he’s comfortable with that reality. However, he’s lied about third base — or at least gone back on his word — before.

It happened just four months ago. Nuñez was acquired on July 28 in a move that surprised fans and analysts alike. Matt Duffy was just two days away from beginning a rehab assignment on his way back from an Achilles injury. Evans said he spoke with Duffy and assured him he wasn’t being replaced, and insisted that Nuñez was added as depth. Four days later, Duffy was traded to Tampa Bay.

So teams lie. They “change their minds.”

There’s no doubt the Giants could use some help in the lineup. While they weren’t a bad offensive team by any stretch, their lack of power in 2016 was severe, and the departure of Angel Pagan leaves a vacancy in left field. While Parker or Williamson may be capable of filling that void, it’s hard to imagine an otherwise complete team (once the bullpen is addressed) relying on two unproven players at a premium offensive position. Especially if they’re going to stand pat with Nuñez — an average hitter at best — as the starting third baseman, another premium offensive position. The Giants have a great starting rotation and several quality, cornerstone position players. Including the bullpen, they’re just two or three pieces away from looking like one of the best teams in the league. For all those reasons, it would be shocking if they didn’t acquire a left fielder.

One name that’s been mentioned is Ian Desmond. He’s capable of playing center field and shortstop (and therefore pretty much any other outfield or infield position) and he provides solid value on the base paths and at the plate. However, Desmond’s offense is a bit overrated. He’s put up just a 101 wRC+ in his career, and his bat has been known to disappear for long stretches.

Another problem with Desmond is that he’s a free-agent hitter. Free-agent hitters don’t like to sign with the Giants. It makes sense, when you think about it. What hitter in their right mind would want to play in San Francisco, given otherwise comparable alternatives, when it’s cold, windy, and the ballpark is enormous? Sure, the fans are great, the park is picturesque, and of course there’s the whole winning thing. But let’s be real: free-agent hitters would much rather go to Houston, Chicago, St. Louis, or just about anywhere other than AT&T if given the choice.

That’s why the Giants like to make the choice for them. Most of San Francisco’s impact hitters came to the team via the draft or a trade. Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, and Brandon Crawford are homegrown. Nuñez, Pagan, and Hunter Pence were acquired in trades. They traded for Melky Cabrera, Pagan, and Casey McGehee in recent off-seasons. They got Freddy Sanchez, Carlos Beltran, Pence, Marco Scutaro, and Nuñez in mid-season trades.

That was a really long way of saying that I expect the Giants to trade for a hitter, and I expect that hitter to be a left fielder. Just the other day, Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned Jay Bruce and J.D. Martinez as possible trade targets:

The problem with Bruce is that he’s bad. A lot of Giants fans probably love with Jay Bruce. They shouldn’t. Defense actually matters, and a player’s home ballpark can have a massive impact on his offensive output. Bruce’s defense is terrible, and the offense we’re used to seeing from him is a mirage, because for essentially his entire career he’s played half his games at the Great American Smallpark (eye roll) in Cincinnati.

Forget about Jay Bruce. J.D. Martinez is much more intriguing. Over the last three seasons, Martinez has posted wRC+s of 154, 137, and 142. To put it bluntly, the man can flat out hit. He put up +4.0 fWAR in 2014, +5.0 in 2015, and just +1.8 in 2016. The reason for the big drop in 2016 is that he allegedly “forgot how to play defense.” He put up decent enough defensive numbers in 2014 and ’15 that betting on a rebound is probably worth the risk. His stock might never be lower, which means that now is the time to buy, especially because the Tigers are selling.

Martinez is an impact bat. He’s under team control for one more season and costs just $11.8M. He’s 29 years old. He would immediately become the Giants’ biggest power threat. His righty bat would fit in nicely among a lineup of mostly left-handed hitters. Manager Bruce Bochy could use Parker and Williamson to give Pence, Span, and Martinez days off, meanwhile evaluating if they’re capable of having a bigger role in 2018. Or, the Giants could fall in love with Martinez and do their best to re-sign him after 2017, as they’ve had success doing with players they’ve acquired in trades.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Martinez would be a big splash and a massive upgrade (assuming, which we probably shouldn’t, that he remembers how to defense), but there are other intriguing trade targets to discuss.

Jorge Soler is one of them. He has big upside. He’s entering his age-25 season. He still flashes the tremendous raw power and athleticism that had people so hyped on him after his spectacular, albeit brief, 2014 debut in which he slashed .292/.330/.573 in 97 plate appearances.

Despite the hot start, Soler has managed a pedestrian .258/.328/.434 line in 765 career PA. He’s no longer a starter for the loaded Chicago Cubs. Kyle Schwarber’s return from a knee injury makes playing time even more unfathomable for Soler. He’s likely expendable if the price is right.

He’s signed for the next four years for a total of just $15M, but he can opt into arbitration eligibility if he feels that will earn him more money. It’s worth noting that Soler’s defense does not rate particularly well, although it’s also worth noting that he’s not as bad as Jay Bruce.

Another intriguing name is Marcell Ozuna, who would probably be a better ‘get’ than Soler. He’s put up a solid 103 wRC+ in his young career. He’s only 26 and is arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason. He’s capable of scintillating hot streaks at the plate and plays very good outfield defense. He would be an excellent addition to the Giants, and, like Desmond, he can play center field. The Marlins are reportedly interested in acquiring starting pitchers after the tragic death of Jose Fernandez. The Giants could theoretically offer a package centered around their young, promising minor-league pitcher Tyler Beede.

So there you have it. Everybody knows that the Giants need serious help in the bullpen. It’s so obvious, the team is willing to shout it from the rooftops. What’s less obvious is their need for for an upgrade in either the outfield or at third base. (Of course, it’s entirely possible they’ll upgrade at both positions.) Since Nuñez is an established veteran, and Parker and Williamson are not, it seems more likely that the Giants will target a left fielder than a third baseman if they decide to only address one of those positions.

Baseball’s winter meetings are right around the corner (editor’s note: now underway! Mark Melancon!). Look for the Giants to be right in the thick of things. They’ve been heavily involved at the meetings these last few years, as constructing a roster that wins championships has become a realistic annual goal. Despite the front office saying that they’re comfortable with their current group of position players, the acquisition of a left fielder in addition to an ace bullpen arm seems imminently likely in the coming days or weeks. It’s just a matter of when, and whom.


The Yankees Can Become a Contender, and Spend Less

With the new MLB CBA being agreed upon, details of the agreement are trickling in to the baseball news outlets. One of the major agreements is a new luxury-tax threshold for the upcoming 2017 season and beyond. The threshold will increase to $195 million for the 2017 season, an increase of $6 million. It will continue to increase over the four following seasons as well. This is good news for the Yankees.

For years, the Yankees have been over the luxury-tax line since its incorporation in the 2003 season. With incremental increases in taxes from being above the line, the Yankees have paid in excess of $276 million over the past 14 seasons, far more than any other team. Because of the funds that the Steinbrenners have had to issue out as an extra tax, Hal Steinbrenner has stated that he wants to go under the tax and reset the penalties against them.

As it stands, the Yankees have a payroll of approximately $136.2 million, albeit with only seven major leaguers signed to contracts. Their payroll includes the $21 million paid to Alex Rodriguez and $5.5 million of Brian McCann’s salary that they share with the Astros. With that said, they have seven players that they are likely to retain through arbitration, which adds approximately $22.1 million to their payroll according to MLBTradeRumors.com. After that, their payroll stands at about $158 million. To complete their 25-man roster, 11 MLB minimum contracts need to be added. At the new amount of $535,000, the total then stands at $164 million.

As their roster stands, the Yankees will be well under the tax threshold if they don’t sign a single MLB free agent. After a year of doing that already though, that is very, very unlikely. The team is already highly involved in negotiations with most of the top remaining free agents. Three of the players they are involved with include Aroldis Chapman, Edwin Encarnacion, and Rich Hill. Most of all, the Yankees are involved with Chapman and have long been thought to be the ultimate landing spot for him by several sources.

According to FanGraphs’ own Dave Cameron, Chapman projects to receive in the realm of $18.5 million as an annual average. He follows with an annual average of $21 million for Encarnacion. For the sake of this article and the point of the Yankees spending less (and my own belief of salary projection), I will use MLBTradeRumors’ Tim Dierkes’ salary projection for Rich Hill. He puts it at $16.7 million on average compared to Cameron’s $24-million average. The difference comes down to the third year, yet at a cheaper rate.

With these salaries, as with many large MLB contracts, there is an expectation of back-loading the deal, or having higher averages at the end of the contract. Because of this, a projection of first-year salaries close to $16 million for Chapman, $17 million for Encarnacion, and $13 million for Rich Hill are obtainable. For those values, the deals would have to be fairly back-loaded, which would sting a bit in the long-term. However, it is good to keep in mind that back-loaded deals wouldn’t hurt too much since two major salaries in C.C. Sabathia and Rodriguez will no longer have to be paid.

For the first-year salaries above, the Yankees could conceivable sign one of Chapman or Encarnacion and Rich Hill while staying below the luxury-tax threshold. They wouldn’t be far off if they decided to sign both Chapman and Encarnacion (a net $32 million added after factoring in league-minimum deals for two players sent to AAA).

All of this doesn’t even factor in the possibility of the Yankees trading Brett Gardner and/or Chase Headley. Trading both would give them the ability to add two of the above plus potentially Justin Turner while giving young players like Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin the opportunity to play.

Considering these possibilities, the Yankees would be able to creep just under the luxury-tax threshold heading into the season. This would reset their penalties with a year to spare before an expected spending spree during the 2018-2019 offseason thanks to the likes of Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and many others that may be available that winter. All of this is very speculative, but it shows that one of the premier teams in terms of spending has the potential to become much better than last year while spending much less. The Yankees having more money to spend is dangerous for the rest of the league and gives them the ability to cut bait and buy players if their top prospects don’t work out.