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The Greatest Generation of 25-Year-Olds Is Right Now

Javier Baez, Mookie Betts, Matt Chapman, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Jose Ramirez are among the game’s best players. Together, they have averaged more than 6 WAR a piece this season. Six wins is the generally the point at which a player enters MVP contention. As a group, in other words, Baez and Betts and company have all played like MVP candidates.

Excellence in baseball isn’t the only trait shared in common among the aforementioned players, however. They’re all also basically the same age: each is currently competing in his age-25 season. If that seems like a lot of players all excelling at roughly the same point, it is: it’s quite possible, in fact, that we are witnessing the best group of 25-year-old position players the game has ever seen. The table below features the best seasons by a 25-year-old dating back to 1901.

Top Age-25 Seasons by Player
Year Name Team HR wRC+ WAR
1920 Babe Ruth Yankees 54 239 13.3
1957 Mickey Mantle Yankees 34 217 11.4
1921 Rogers Hornsby Cardinals 21 191 11.2
1933 Jimmie Foxx Athletics 48 189 9.9
1990 Barry Bonds Pirates 33 165 9.9
1928 Lou Gehrig Yankees 27 192 9.7
2004 Adrian Beltre Dodgers 48 161 9.7
2018 Mookie Betts Red Sox 30 180 9.4
1912 Ty Cobb Tigers 7 187 9.1
1944 Snuffy Stirnweiss Yankees 8 141 9.0
1946 Stan Musial Cardinals 16 187 8.8
1906 Terry Turner Naps 2 121 8.6
1913 Tris Speaker Red Sox 3 180 8.6
1915 Benny Kauff Tip-Tops 12 175 8.4
1912 Eddie Collins Athletics 0 158 8.3
1937 Joe Medwick Cardinals 31 180 8.3
1959 Hank Aaron Braves 39 175 8.2
2017 Aaron Judge Yankees 52 172 8.2
1989 Will Clark Giants 23 174 8.1
1975 Mike Schmidt Phillies 38 142 7.9
2018 Jose Ramirez Indians 38 151 7.9
2001 Alex Rodriguez Rangers 52 159 7.8
1965 Ron Santo Cubs 33 145 7.7
1969 Sal Bando Athletics 31 152 7.7
1978 Jim Rice Red Sox 46 162 7.7
1983 Wade Boggs Red Sox 5 155 7.7
2005 Albert Pujols Cardinals 41 167 7.7
1912 Heinie Zimmerman Cubs 14 162 7.6
2012 Buster Posey Giants 24 164 7.6
1910 Sherry Magee Phillies 6 168 7.5
1924 Frankie Frisch Giants 7 132 7.5
1940 Joe DiMaggio Yankees 31 167 7.5
1943 Lou Boudreau Indians 3 133 7.5

This is a fascinating list, and I’ll ask you to note a few things. First is this: of the 33 players presented above, 18 of them are already in the Hall of Fame. Betts and Ramirez are obviously among the 15 who haven’t haven’t been elected to the Hall. Adrian Beltre, Buster Posey, and Albert Pujols are all probably bound for the Hall, but remain active. Aaron Judge isn’t as probably bound for the Hall of Fame but also remains active. That leaves just nine of 33 great 25-year-olds who both (a) are absent from the Hall but also (b) have finished their playing careers.

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Jacob deGrom and the MVP Precedent

Historically speaking, pitchers don’t win MVP awards — or don’t win them often, at least. There are exceptions to the rule, but the honor historically has been reserved for a league’s top position player. The logic among voters generally follows a couple recognizable lines of reasoning. Pitchers don’t play every day, some voters argue. They have the Cy Young all to themselves, say others. Whatever the justification, the record reveals a preference for position players over pitchers. Consider: since reliever Dennis Eckersley won the American League MVP in 1992, only Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander have been recognized as their respective league’s most valuable player.

It’s possible that some voters aren’t using entirely sound logic to arrive at their conclusions. Even if they’re employing the wrong process, however, they’re still usually arriving at the correct result: pitchers simply aren’t the best players in their leagues all that often. Position players make an impact at the plate and on defense. They just have more opportunities to create value. Their roles give them a competitive advantage.

Or, they usually provide a competitive advantage. This season, however, that hasn’t been the case. This season, the best player in the National League is likely a pitcher. While a lot of obstacles stand between Jacob deGrom and an MVP award, he deserves consideration — and there’s a really good argument he deserves to win.

Before we get to the more compelling arguments in favor of deGrom’s MVP candidacy, it makes sense to entertain the less compelling ones, too. First among them is the Mets, who have been poor this year. While voters are explicitly told that the MVP needn’t come from a playoff team, voters have typically evaluated a player’s performance in the context of his team’s performance, the logic presumably being that the player in question has been an asset in the most important situations. While the Mets are heading for a high draft pick now, it would be unfair to say that deGrom hasn’t been pitching in meaningful games. Thanks to their strong start, the Mets’ postseason hopes were remained alive into mid-June. Even if you wanted to assess deGrom some sort of penalty for playing for a bad team — let’s say you discount his second-half WAR by 50% — he would still lead the National League by that measure. It’s also worth noting that deGrom leads all National League pitchers in win probability added. In the games he’s pitched, in other words, he has been incredibly helpful to the cause of potentially winning a game, even if the end result has been disappointing.

Ultimately, there will be voters who are dogmatic in their views on which players are eligible for the MVP award. To those who contend, for example, that pitchers oughtn’t win it or that it should go to a member of a playoff team, I have little to say other than the rules and ballot history suggest otherwise. For those who are prepared to entertain the possibility of such a thing, however, then Jacob deGrom has a really good case.

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Why the Dodgers’ World Series Odds Are So High

With last night’s win, the Dodgers moved into first place by half a game over the Rockies. The clubs are equal in the loss column, and with just 11 games left in the regular season for Los Angeles, their playoff position appears precarious. A glance at our Playoff Odds page, however, might leave you with a different impression. According to the Playoff Odds, the Dodgers have a four-in-five chance of winning the NL West, with Colorado taking the division one in five times. Even in those cases where the Dodgers aren’t projected to take the division, they’re forecast to take a Wild Card spot in half the time. Despite teetering just on the edge of contention, the team has an 89% shot at making the postseason. Nor is that even the weird part: the Dodgers also feature a 17.8% probability of winning the World Series, the highest marks possessed by any team that’s not the Houston Astros.

We could glance at the Dodgers’ number, dismiss it as unreasonably high, and move on with our lives. Alternatively, as my colleague Alex Chamberlain has suggested, we could dig a bit deeper to see what’s going on. Let’s do the latter.

The logic implicit in the Playoff Odds isn’t all that difficult to figure out. The Dodgers are a very talented team with great players, so they would typically be expected to win more games than they lose — and also to win more games than the Rockies. Factor in a series against the Padres and a series against the Giants — while the Rockies play the Phillies and the Nationals — and the disparity between the clubs grows. The Dodgers are going to win a lot of simulated seasons under those circumstances.

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Clayton Kershaw’s Disappearing Fastball

Clayton Kershaw is nearing the end of another very good season. For the third straight year, the left-hander will fail to record 30 starts or 180 innings, but his 3.05 FIP and 2.51 ERA, his 25% strikeout rate and 4% walk rate make him one of the 10-15 best starters in the game by rate — and still a top-25 pitcher after accounting for volume. That’s not quite the 2011-15, Cy Young-level Kershaw who averaged more than 7.0 WAR per season, but it’s still good enough that he’ll likely opt out of his deal with the Dodgers in favor of entering free agency.

As to why Kershaw is now only “really good” instead of “Death Star-level dominant,” the easy culprits are age and health. He’s 30 years old now and has spent time on the disabled list due to back problems in each of the last three seasons. Perhaps directly related to those issues has been the loss of velocity on the lefty’s fastball. The graph below shows average velocity by season and includes his slider for reference.

For a decade, Kershaw sat at roughly 94 mph with his fastball. Last year, he averaged 93. This season, that figure is closer to 91. In the meantime, Kershaw has slowly modified his slider to increase its velocity into the 87- to 88-mph range we see today. (If you want to read more about the evolution of that pitch, re-visit Jeff Sullivan’s post on the matter from back in 2014.) The point here is that the slider, while perhaps experiencing a bit of a dip relative to last year, has exhibited pretty much the same velocity this season as the past few, while the fastball has slowed down significantly. The slider has been a pretty consistently very good pitch since 2014, with whiff rates in the mid-20% range and swings on half of pitches outside the zone. The whiff rate is down to 15% and swings outside the zone are closer to 40%, but the pitch is dropping a bit lower and inducing grounders on 66% of batted balls. Due to a high infield-fly rate, only 9.3% of batted balls are flies that leave the infield. The result for Kershaw on the slider has been a 47 wRC+ consistent with his career numbers.

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Masahiro Tanaka Is Getting Well at the Right Time

When the Yankees put Masahiro Tanaka on the disabled list back on June 9, it didn’t appear to represent a massive blow to the club. The team was 42-19, in a virtual tie for first place with the Red Sox. Luis Severino was pitching like a Cy Young frontrunner. Tanaka, for his part, was having an inconsistent season. When he went down with hamstring injuries, he’d recorded a 4.96 FIP and 4.58 ERA for the season and had given up 10 homers in his previous six starts. The intriguing Jonathan Loaisiga was about to take Tanaka’s spot in the rotation — and would perform well in his absence — further limiting the potential damage of Tanaka’s loss.

Fast-forward three months and circumstances have changed pretty considerably. Severino has cooled considerably, while other rotation pieces like Loasigia and Domingo German have fallen off the radar, having been replaced by solid additions in J.A. Happ and Lance Lynn. Without Severino fronting the rotation, however, the team lacks a pitcher with potentially dominant stuff to start the Wild Card game, leaving the possibility of a second straight involuntary bullpen game for New York in a winner-take-all matchup. Now Tanaka might be the best candidate for that role.

The Yankees right-hander has always been very reliant on breaking stuff out of the zone to get batters out. His fastball sits in the low 90s and isn’t notable for a lot of rise (the four-seamer has a career 5.2% whiff rate) or a ton of sink (his two-seamer has a ground-ball rate below 50%), so he needs batters to swing at his offspeed pitches to be successful. That plan has worked over the course of his career. The graph below shows how often pitchers throw in the zone and how often batters swing at offerings out of the zone.

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The Difference Between Starters and Bench Players

If we take for granted that major-league baseball teams are trying to win and not lose games — and, for the most part, it’s probably fair to take this for granted — we can also take for granted that the players whom they use most often and who appear most frequently in starting lineup sare also the best players rostered by those clubs. Put differently: starters tend to be good, bench players less good. That is not informative analysis. It is fact.

What might be informative, however, is a brief study to determine exactly what makes a good or bad backup. What follows is an attempt at such a study.

To begin, let’s first take a look at production by position from starters. There isn’t a precise way to delineate which players are starters and which players are bench material, as those titles often shift throughout the season. For the purposes of this piece, though, I separated all players into two distinct groups: players with at least 250 plate appearances and players who do not have 250 plate appearances. I categorized those in the former group as starters. The graph below shows how those players tend to perform on offense.

There are a few surprising results. First, third basemen top the list. Given that the position is more difficult to play than an outfield corner or first base, we would expect to see third base somewhere in the middle. The next surprise — at least for me — is the appearance of first base in the middle of the pack. First base is generally associated with the most offense, and we would expect to see it at the top. The final interesting placement is at catcher. That catcher appears last is not a surprise, but that it’s pretty close to average and not too far behind the rest of the up-the-middle defensive positions stands out.

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Edwin Diaz, Blake Treinen, and the Greatest Reliever Seasons Ever

Reliever performance is volatile, fluky even from year to year. One season, a closer is dominant; the next, he’s just average. Over the past 40 years, there have been 59 relief seasons of at least 3.0 WAR. Only Rob Dibble, Eric Gagne, Rich Gossage, Tom Henke, Kenley Jansen, and Craig Kimbrel have produced seasons of that standard consecutively. By comparison, 10 starting pitchers have exceeded 7.0 WAR in consecutive seasons (67 seasons total), and 10 position players have exceeded 8.0 WAR in consecutive seasons (83 seasons total). Those 59 relief seasons were compiled by 41 different relievers, and three of those seasons are happening right now.

Josh Hader’s second half hasn’t been as good as his first after a forgettable All-Star Game, but with a 1.83 FIP and a 2.08 ERA, Hader is right at 3.0 WAR. In a lot of seasons, a solid finish to the year would make Hader the highest-rated reliever by WAR. This year, however, Hader is solidly in third place behind Edwin Diaz and Blake Treinen.

A year ago, Diaz posted a 4.02 FIP and a 3.27 ERA. That’s not bad, but it’s also not great. Diaz struck out 32% of batters faced, which is quite strong, but he also walked 12% of batters and gave up 10 homers. This season, Diaz is using his slider a bit more to get swings outside of the zone. The results have been staggering: he’s increased his strikeouts by about 50% while decreasing his walks and homers by 50% as well. With a few weeks to go, Diaz has piled up 3.7 WAR thanks to a 1.38 FIP — or 34 FIP- when factoring in league and park, which allows us to compare across eras. Only four relievers have ever put up a FIP- that low: Wade Davis, Gagne, Jansen, and Kimbrel (twice). The increased specialization of the closer role means that those four players all come from the past 20 years. Although Diaz’s 1.95 ERA and 48 ERA- are very good, they are not the best marks in the game. That honor goes to Treinen.

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Using Contact Quality to Sort Out the AL Cy Young Mess

The American League Cy Young race is pretty messed up this season. The current WAR leader, while apparently healthy, might throw so few innings in September that he fails to qualify for the ERA title as a result. The pitcher currently ranked second by WAR in the league hasn’t pitched in a month. A third pitcher who, as of July 1, had authored a sub-2.00 ERA and fantastic peripherals — and was probably the favorite for the award — is now an afterthought.

Overall, there are probably eight candidates who deserve to appear on a ballot — and that’s without even considering the credentials of dominant relievers like Edwin Diaz and Blake Treinen. Voters, however, can only choose five names — and, as a result, it is possible that totally defensible ballots will omit the eventual winner (or that a pitcher who would have otherwise won will be omitted from a totally defensible ballot).

As I noted yesterday with regard to the NL’s Cy Young field, this award invites multiple questions about how best to evaluate pitching performance. Unavoidably, one’s choice for Cy Young will depend on how one weighs what a pitcher can and cannot control — and how best to quantify those effects. In this post, I’ll look at various metrics and consider the implications of each regarding luck, defense, and pitcher skill.

Before we get to how contact and defense might be playing a role in voters’ minds, though, let’s look at some fairly standard statistics at FanGraphs.

AL Cy Young Contenders
Metric Chris
Sale
Trevor Bauer Gerrit Cole Justin Verlander Corey Kluber Luis Severino Carlos Carrasco Blake Snell
IP 146 166 182.1 195 195 173.2 169 157
K% 38.7% 31.5% 34.6% 33.6% 25.6% 28.5% 29.3% 30.4%
BB% 5.8% 8.2% 8.1% 4.6% 3.8% 5.9% 5.0% 8.8%
HR/9 0.62 0.43 0.84 1.25 1.06 0.98 1.01 0.86
BABIP .276 .298 .286 .277 .269 .317 .322 .250
ERA 1.97 2.22 2.86 2.72 2.91 3.52 3.41 2.06
FIP 1.95 2.38 2.70 2.96 3.19 3.05 2.95 3.08
WAR 6.1 5.9 5.7 5.8 4.8 4.9 4.6 3.7
Blue=First
Orange=Second
Red=Third

Jay Jaffe made the case for Chris Sale’s candidacy last week, and that case certainly looks quite strong — or would, if the season ended today. Problem is, Sale might not get too many more opportunities to build said case. The left-hander is scheduled to throw two innings for Boston today and then another three innings on the 16th. If he records those five innings and then, say, another 10 over his final two starters, he won’t qualify for the ERA title and will potentially allow other pitchers the opportunity to catch up in value.

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Defense, Contact Quality, and the NL Cy Young

This year’s National League Cy Young race invites multiple interesting questions about how best to evaluate pitching performance. Jacob deGrom, for example, is the league’s leader in ERA by a healthy amount; however, he’s also recorded only as many wins as reliever Jeremy Jeffress. Max Scherzer is having another great season, but his .255 BABIP compels one to consider whether his 2.31 ERA is the product of luck or defense (although the Nationals have recorded below-average defensive numbers both by UZR and DRS). Aaron Nola, meanwhile, has recorded a similarly low BABIP even as Philadelphia has produced NL-worst figures both by UZR and DRS. Finally, while the race has been viewed as a three-person contest for some time, it’s also possible Patrick Corbin has inserted himself into the conversation with a fantastic second half.

Sorting through the candidates is difficult. Ultimately, one’s choice for Cy Young will depend on how one weighs what a pitcher can and cannot control — and how best to quantify those effects. To start, here are some general metrics that should be familiar to FanGraphs readers.

National League Cy Young Contenders
Metric Max Scherzer Jacob deGrom Aaron Nola Patrick Corbin
IP 202.2 188 188.2 179.2
K% 34.4% 31.3% 26.6% 31.3%
BB% 5.8% 5.7% 6.8% 5.9%
HR/9 0.93 0.43 0.62 0.65
BABIP .255 .290 .251 .293
ERA 2.31 1.68 2.29 3.01
FIP 2.66 2.08 2.86 2.38
WAR 6.7 7.3 5.4 6.0
Blue=Leader
Orange=2nd Place

Based on these numbers, Jacob deGrom is the pretty clear favorite for Cy honors, with Max Scherzer an equally clear runner-up. What’s less clear, however, is that the results of a vote would produce a similar outcome, as both pitcher wins and other versions of WAR are likely to influence writers — and arrive at different conclusions than the figures here. Below, I’ve included some different versions of WAR, each of which paint the field in a different light.

National League Cy Young Race and WAR
Metric Max Scherzer Jacob deGrom Aaron Nola Patrick Corbin
WAR 6.7 7.3 5.4 6.0
RA9/WAR 7.6 7.9 7.3 5.7
BRef 8.7 8.1 9.4 4.4
BPro 7.2 6.6 6.1 5.5
Blue=Leader
Orange=2nd Place

Here we see a version of reality that suggests greater parity in the race. Averaging the numbers above, we’d still put deGrom first, Scherzer second, and Nola third, but Scherzer actually places ahead of deGrom in two of the four metrics, while Nola and Scherzer are more closely situated. Examining how each of WAR metrics arrives at its destination can help inform how to use them. Last week, Eno Sarris took a look at some of these same issues in a discussion of how large a role luck ought to play in Cy Young voting. There is also the question of what defines “luck” in the context of pitching, what sort of control a pitcher exerts over certain outcomes, and what role a a pitcher’s park ought to play in our evaluations of him.

The metrics above all feature different inputs which, naturally, lead to different results. In the version of WAR used at FanGraphs, those inputs are innings, strikeouts, infield flies, walks, and home runs — along with factors for league and park. DeGrom leads by this particular measure because his strikeout, walk, and homer numbers are all great. Scherzer has good walk and strikeout numbers but a closer-to-average home-run rate. Nola features slightly inferior (although still excellent) strikeout and walk numbers — plus a good home-run rate — but he falls behind Corbin, who has good numbers in all three.

The next metric, RA9, is another version of WAR carried at FanGraphs — one which, in this case, simply considers the number of runs a pitcher allows while also factoring for league and park. That’s how Nola, with the very good ERA, jumps up near Scherzer, though still short of deGrom. RA9 includes runs that were scored or not scored due to defense and sequencing, but does not try to make any adjustments for those factors.

Baseball-Reference begins with something like FanGraphs’ RA9 calculation but makes further adjustments for opponent and team defense, which is a significant factor in this year’s race. Nola tops the Baseball-Reference WAR leaderboard because of how well he’s prevented runs despite Philadelphia’s poor defense. Generally the effects of these defensive adjustments are muted, but because Nola appears to be headed for one of the 10 best bWAR seasons of the last 50 years, this case invites some scrutiny. Patrick Corbin suffers from the opposite scenario: Arizona has recorded strong defensive numbers, meaning he receives a “penalty” of sorts for his contribution to run-prevention.

Here are the overall team defense numbers by DRS, which Baseball-Reference uses, and UZR, which is included in WAR for position players but not pitchers here at FanGraphs.

NL Cy Young Race and Team Defense
Metric Max Scherzer Jacob deGrom Aaron Nola Patrick Corbin
UZR -13.2 -27.1 -38.2 14.8
DRS -50 -79 -113 105

There is obviously a much larger spread with the DRS figures, as defensive adjustments alone mean a difference of 24 runs between Nola and Corbin, which is about four times as much as the difference by UZR.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, their Deserved Run Average (DRA) metric accounts for as many aspects of a pitcher’s game as possible and attempts to factor for everything including park, opponent, catcher, umpire, and pitch effectiveness to determine how many runs a pitcher should have allowed with all those variables rendered neutral. By their methods, Scherzer leads over deGrom, with Nola and Corbin a ways behind.

There’s certainly an argument to be made for considering the strength of a defense behind a pitcher, and reason dictates that a defense can help or hurt a pitcher’s run-prevention numbers. Defense alone, however, isn’t going to fully explain the difference between a pitcher’s FIP and ERA. Luck is involved, as well. We can use Statcast information to determine just how much defense and luck might be involved, though it won’t do a good job separating those two factors. For starters, here are the xwOBA and wOBA figures for each of the pitchers above.

NL Cy Young Race, Defense, and Luck
Name wOBA xWOBA Difference
Max Scherzer .245 .256 -.011
Jacob deGrom .240 .257 -.017
Aaron Nola .247 .266 -.019
Patrick Corbin .256 .289 -.033
League .312 .322 -.010

In terms of what a pitcher has deserved to concede based on quality of contact, strikeouts, and walks, Scherzer has gotten just about what we might expect, while deGrom and Nola aren’t far off expectations. Corbin is the outlier here, and there is a case to be made that Arizona’s defense is partially responsible for his good fortune. What’s interesting, though, is that Corbin’s ERA is actually much higher than his FIP. This could mean that Corbin has been rather fortunate this year on home runs or that the contact he’s conceded on balls in play has been of higher quality than the sort conceded by other pitchers.

We can remove the most skill-based aspects from above by taking out strikeouts and walks and looking at xwOBA on just batted balls.

NL Cy Young and xwOBA on Contact
Name wOBA on Contact xwOBA on Contact Difference
Max Scherzer .340 .357 -.017
Jacob deGrom .317 .345 -.028
Aaron Nola .296 .325 -.029
Patrick Corbin .343 .397 -.054
League .364 .379 -.015
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Here we see almost no effect on Scherzer’s outcomes, with a slight benefit for deGrom and Nola, and then a big help for Corbin. You’ll note that the league-wide numbers are off by 15 points from each other, likely due to a potentially dead baseball, as the estimates on launch angle and exit velocity are based on previous seasons, when the ball was perhaps a bit more lively. As we are looking at numbers between pitchers in this season alone, the comparisons still provide value. What happens when we remove home runs and look solely at batted balls? See below.

NL Cy Young and xwOBA on Balls in Play
Name wOBA on BIP xwOBA on BIP Difference
Max Scherzer .256 .310 -.054
Jacob deGrom .287 .325 -.038
Aaron Nola .251 .296 -.045
Patrick Corbin .292 .361 -.069
League .293 .334 -.041
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

In theory, these numbers factor in both defense and luck on batted balls this season. As we can see, it appears that, whatever poor defense has victimized Nola has likely been evened out by good fortune. The same is true for deGrom. Scherzer, meanwhile, appears to have received a slight benefit, with Corbin being the recipient of some good defense in Arizona. This probably doesn’t leave the reader with any definite conclusions. We have a better idea about the quality of contact and how defense might have affected run totals — which is to say not much — but the extent to which a pitcher exerts control over that contact is also a matter of debate.

If you believe that a pitcher controls very little of opponent contact — or, alternatively, are unsure of the level of control — the version of WAR hosted here at FanGraphs is your main resource. If you believe that a pitcher is wholly responsible for the quality of contact he concedes and also that defensive quality doesn’t move the needle much in one direction or another, RA9/WAR makes some sense for you. If you believe further adjustment needs to be made for defense, bWAR can provide some help. If you want a more granular look at individual pitches, DRA provides guidance. If you just want something based entirely on xwOBA, a crude attempt is made below.

While the question of value is somewhat objective, there is some subjectivity involved, but if making a decision on the Cy Young, it’s important to have as much information as possible to determine why one pitcher might be better than the other. It isn’t enough to simply prefer one stat over another and blindly rely on it because you generally agree with the methodology. Look at how the results are reached to make the best possible decision.

*****

As promised in the final paragraph above, here’s a rough approximation of WAR based on xwOBA:

NL WAR Based on xwOBA
Name IP xwoba xWAR
Max Scherzer 202.2 .256 7.1
Jacob deGrom 188.0 .257 6.5
Aaron Nola 188.2 .266 6.0
Patrick Corbin 179.2 .289 4.4
Zack Wheeler 167.1 .293 3.9
Clayton Kershaw 137.1 .277 3.9
German Marquez 164.1 .294 3.8
Noah Syndergaard 128.1 .277 3.8
Mike Foltynewicz 157.0 .291 3.8
Ross Stripling 110.1 .262 3.7
Jack Flaherty 132.1 .280 3.7
Jameson Taillon 164.0 .299 3.5
Miles Mikolas 173.2 .304 3.4
Tyler Anderson 153.2 .302 3.2
Alex Wood 144.1 .299 3.1
Walker Buehler 110.2 .279 3.1
Kyle Freeland 176.1 .312 3.0
Nick Pivetta 145.0 .304 2.9
Jon Gray 157.1 .309 2.9
Anibal Sanchez 113.2 .288 2.8
Kyle Hendricks 169.2 .313 2.8
Vince Velasquez 134.0 .302 2.8
Sean Newcomb 149.1 .314 2.4
Wei-Yin Chen 118.1 .305 2.3
Zack Greinke 181.1 .324 2.3
Kenta Maeda 117.0 .306 2.3
Zach Eflin 114.0 .306 2.2
Steven Matz 133.2 .314 2.2
Joe Musgrove 103.1 .301 2.2
Jake Arrieta 154.2 .322 2.1
Jhoulys Chacin 168.0 .327 2.0
Carlos Martinez 108.2 .310 2.0
Jose Urena 151.0 .325 1.9
Tanner Roark 170.1 .329 1.9
Trevor Williams 148.2 .330 1.6
John Gant 96.0 .314 1.6
Derek Holland 152.2 .331 1.6
Stephen Strasburg 107.0 .320 1.5
Robbie Ray 97.1 .317 1.5
Madison Bumgarner 105.2 .326 1.3
Julio Teheran 159.1 .338 1.3
Junior Guerra 135.0 .334 1.2
Gio Gonzalez 151.1 .337 1.2
Joey Lucchesi 110.1 .330 1.2
Luis Castillo 148.1 .338 1.2
Brent Suter 101.1 .329 1.1
Jose Quintana 147.2 .339 1.1
Rich Hill 108.2 .332 1.1
Tyson Ross 143.2 .339 1.1
Luke Weaver 133.1 .338 1.0
Andrew Suarez 139.1 .341 1.0
Zack Godley 159.2 .343 0.9
Mike Montgomery 107.2 .336 0.9
Matt Harvey 138.2 .343 0.8
Chase Anderson 150.1 .346 0.8
Ty Blach 110.0 .345 0.6
Trevor Richards 102.2 .345 0.5
Ivan Nova 146.2 .351 0.5
Eric Lauer 95.2 .346 0.4
Chad Bettis 112.0 .349 0.4
Tyler Mahle 109.0 .348 0.4
Sal Romano 134.2 .354 0.2
Jon Lester 158.0 .360 0.0
Clayton Richard 158.2 .362 -0.2
Dan Straily 122.1 .369 -0.4
Chris Stratton 126.1 .374 -0.7
Tyler Chatwood 103.2 .378 -0.9
Homer Bailey 106.1 .382 -1.0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Min. 400 batters faced. Numbers through Saturday.

Javier Baez’s Other Secret Skill

It’s been a few years now since we first discovered that Javier Baez has an elite tagging skill. At the time, it wasn’t obvious that a player actually could have an elite tagging skill. Applying a tag seems like a pretty specific, rote act. There’s not a lot of variation. Baez, though, somehow found a way to do it better than everyone. Baez has a way of doing that.

Well, it seems possible Baez has managed to somehow find value where none seemed clearly available — in this case, by causing fielders to self-combust while he runs the bases. It’s a skill that leads to errors and extra bases for Baez and his friends, and it was on display Wednesday night as Baez stood at first base with Anthony Rizzo up to bat. The Cubs’ first baseman hit a single to center field. Then this happened:

Baez scored on the throwing error and Rizzo advanced to second, eventually making it to third thanks to another throwing error. A guy on Twitter with 1.7 million followers asked for a post on this.

 

This is that post.

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Something’s Gotten Into German Marquez

German Marquez is on quite the run. In the second half of the season, Marquez’s 2.3 WAR ranks third in all of baseball among pitchers behind only those marks recorded by Jacob deGrom and Patrick Corbin. His 2.29 FIP and 2.79 ERA since the All-Star break are both fantastic. He’s struck out nearly one-third of the batters he’s faced with five times as many strikeouts as walks. He’s doing all of this while pitching his home games in Colorado, and he’s just 23 years old. That’s quite the dramatic turnaround for a pitcher who put up a 4.73 FIP and a 5.53 ERA in his first 16 starts of the 2018 season. Like many young pitchers with a boatload of talent, Marquez has spent his first few years in the big leagues experimenting with different pitches and usage patterns. He seems to have found one that works.

A year ago, Marquez was primarily a fastball-curveball pitcher. He would mix in a change every now and again, and he did experiment with a slider, but it wasn’t used often and it stayed up in the zone. With a mid-90s fastball and good curve, Marquez produced a 21% strikeout rate, 7% walk rate, and an ERA and FIP in the mid-fours. In Coors Field, those still represented above-average numbers. For Marquez to progress, however, he was going to need to develop a third pitch. When Eric Longenhagen discussed Marquez ahead of the 2017 season, he anticipated the introduction of that third pitch.

Marquez also has a plus curveball in the 76-81 mph range that has a slurvy shape to it but bites hard and has solid depth. A back-foot curveball is the best weapon Marquez has against left-handed pitching right now, as his changeup is still below average. But Marquez is just 21 and his delivery is loose and fluid so there’s likely more coming from the changeup. Marquez’s command elicits similarly bullish projection because of the delivery and athleticism and he’s already throwing plenty of strikes. He’s a relatively low-risk mid-rotation arm, an above-average major-league starter.

Longenhagen mentioned the change as a potential addition, and Marquez did work to make that change more of a weapon heading into this season. That plan hasn’t exactly worked out. Marquez is throwing the changeup under 10% of the time this season. Even against lefties, he’s turned to it on just 11% of all occasions. What’s improved most for Marquez is the slider, and it is fooling hitters. Here’s Nick Hundley swinging at a slider despite holding a 2-1 advantage in the count:

 

 

The pitch works well in and out of the zone. When he throws the slider outside the zone, Marquez induces swings around 40% of the time, and batters swing and miss on two-thirds of those attempts. When the pitch is in the zone and batters swing, they make contact roughly 80% of the time, but on 44% of sliders in the zone, the hitter doesn’t bother to swing, like Evan Longoria in this 0-2 count.

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The Best Deadline Trade of the American League

When the New York Yankees grew concerned about their rotation for the rest of the season, they made a pretty big move to get J.A. Happ from the Blue Jays. In Brandon Drury, they traded a young player with success at the major-league level. Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel ranked Drury the fifth-best minor leaguer traded at the deadline. The club also gave up Billy McKinney, who ended up 19th on the same list. It wasn’t an inconsequential deal.

Happ has been everything the team could’ve hoped for. He’s recorded a 3.95 FIP and 2.37 ERA since joining the Yankees. He’s been worthy roughly half a win. He looks like he’ll be an asset for a team that’s bound for some kind of postseason play. He’s also not even the top-performing pitcher his own club acquired at the deadline.

Rather it’s Lance Lynn who has put up the best park-adjusted FIP of any pitcher acquired at the trade deadline — including Cole Hamels — as the following table indicates.

Notable Starter Trade-Deadline Acquisitions
Name Team IP WAR K% BB% ERA- FIP-
Lance Lynn Yankees 31.2 1.2 27.7 % 6.6 % 92 47
Cole Hamels Cubs 39.0 1.4 25.7 % 7.4 % 17 55
Kevin Gausman Braves 32.0 0.8 18.0 % 5.7 % 42 72
J.A. Happ Yankees 24.1 0.6 30.3 % 7.1 % 60 81
Nathan Eovaldi Red Sox 25.0 0.6 13.7 % 3.4 % 114 82
Chris Archer Pirates 22.1 0.2 22.4 % 8.4 % 162 116
Numbers as of August 30.

Cole Hamels has been fantastic, but when you factor in both Yankee Stadium and the American League, he’s produced the better fielding-independent numbers. (With his edge in innings, Hamels’ has recorded a higher WAR.) Nor is it just against trade acquisitions that Lynn fares well. Here are the top pitchers by WAR this month.

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If Not Aaron Judge, Then Andrew McCutchen for Yankees

When Aaron Judge went down with a wrist injury at the end of July, the Yankees didn’t appear to be a club in dire straits. While there would be no replacing the American League’s 2017 WAR leader, the team would still be in decent shape, having entered the season with three talented outfielders beyond Judge in Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton.

Things haven’t quite worked out as expected, though. Stanton has played mostly designated hitter, while Gardner has struggled offensively. The result: a possible weakness in the lineup where one wasn’t anticipated. With the Yankees’ acquisition of Andrew McCutchen, however — a deal first reported by Buster Olney — the lineup should benefit considerably.

Joel Sherman has reported that two prospects would go back to the Giants if and when the deal is confirmed, including infielder Abiatal Avelino. The 23-year-old reached Double-A in 2016, spent some time in three levels last year, and moved back and forth between the two highest minor-league levels while destroying Double-A pitching and struggling in Triple-A.

Update: Jim Bowden is reporting the other player in the deal Juan De Paula, currently a starter in Low-A, and Jon Heyman reports that the Giants and Yankees are splitting the roughly $2.5 million remaining on McCutchen’s deal. 

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Mike Shildt and the Cardinals’ 180

The Cardinals fired longtime manager Mike Matheny one game before the All-Star break this year, with the team at 47-46 for the season. The organization promoted Mike Shildt to replace Matheny, and the club has gone [27-12] with Shildt in charge, winning their last nine series matchups, including six against teams with winning records. This is how the Cardinals’ playoff odds have changed during Shildt’s brief tenure as manager.

Things didn’t improve immediately. After a collection of games against the Cubs, Reds, and Rockies, St. Louis’s chances of reaching the postseason had actually deteriorated a bit by the end of July. As they entered August, the Cardinals had just a 7% probability of qualifying for the playoffs.

With a 20-6 record in August, however, Cardinals’ odds have improved almost tenfold. Coinciding with that improvement in the standings, the Cardinals took the interim tag off Shildt’s title and extended his contract through 2020. Some considered the timing a bit odd.

Here’s Ken Rosenthal:

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Cubs Payroll Set to Soar with Potential TV Deal

Since 2004, the Chicago Cubs have belonged to a lucrative partnership with the White Sox, Blackhawks, Bulls, and some iteration of Comcast/NBC to broadcast games on NBC Sports Chicago, previously known as Comcast SportsNet Chicago. That partnership appears likely to end at the conclusion of next season, however, according to Bruce Levine at 670 The Score. While the current deal has been fruitful for the Cubs, the opportunity to own their regional sports network will give them a chance to multiply their television revenue several times over. Over the last few seasons, the Cubs have lingered just behind heavyweight clubs like the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Yankees in terms of payroll. A new television deal should put them on par with those teams for the foreseeable future.

The Cubs’ move to create their own network separate from their current partners has been in the works for several years now. The Chicago market has lagged behind cities like Los Angeles and New York in terms of the presence of RSNs. NBC Sports Chicago is still the only game in town, while LA and New York both have four networks broadcasting the major sports. Other big markets like the Bay Area and Boston also have multiple networks despite featuring the same number of — or even fewer — teams to broadcast.

When I last wrote about the Cubs’ option to start their own network three years ago, I noted the ominous cable bubble that has been pervasive for years but indicated the Cubs wouldn’t have a problem getting their channel carried by cable providers. It’s been three years, but the cable bubble refuses to burst. Even the Rays are getting billion-dollar local TV deals.

The market has changed in the last few years, as the number of cable subscribers continues to fall. Traditional cable providers have not only lost customers who no longer or never will pay for cable TV, but they are also facing increased competition from digital-only providers like DirecTV Now, Playstation Vue, Sling, and YouTubeTV. In 2017, cable companies lost 3.3 million subscribers, but digital providers gained 2.6 million, softening the blow dealt by those who no longer pay for television. In most cases, those digital providers are airing local RSNs and emphasizing to customers the opportunities available to watch sports without a traditional cable package. These models are new and it isn’t entirely clear how long they can last providing a skinnier, cheaper version of cable, but it has provided a lifeline to a model that, at one point, appeared to be on the way out.

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Strength of Schedule and the Pennant Races

No team plays a completely balanced scheduled over the course of a season. Some divisions, naturally, are better than others. Because intradivisional games account for roughly 40% of the league schedule, there is necessarily some irregularity in the strength of competition from club to club. Interleague play, which represents another 10% of games, also contributes to this imbalance. Given the sheer numbers of games in a major-league campaign, the effect of scheduling ultimately isn’t a major difference-maker. Talent and luck have much more influence over a club’s win-loss record. In any given month, however, scheduling imbalances can become much more pronounced.

Consider this: at the beginning of the season, just one team featured a projected gain or loss as large as three wins due to scheduling. The Texas Rangers were expected to lose three more games than their talent would otherwise dictate. Right now, however, there are eight teams with bigger prorated schedule swings than the one the Rangers saw at the beginning of the season — and those swings could have a big impact on the remaining pennant races.

To provide some backdrop, the chart below ranks the league’s schedules, toughest to easiest, compared to an even .500 schedule.

The Diamondbacks have a pretty rough go of it. Outside of five games against the Padres, the other “worst” team they play is the San Francisco Giants. They have one series each against the division-leading Astros, Braves, and Cubs along with a pair of series against both the Dodgers and Rockies. If Arizona were chasing these teams for the division or Wild Card, their schedule would present them with a good opportunity for making up ground. Given their current status, however, it just means a lot of tough games down the stretch.

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Finding a Landing Spot for Andrew McCutchen

Entering the year, the Giants had hopes of contention, with Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen joining a core of position players that included Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, and Buster Posey plus Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto to lead the rotation .

Roughly four-fifths of the way through the year, however, the Giants have no hopes of contention. With a record under .500 and a competitive National League landscape, it is pretty clear that this will not be their season. Further dooming their 2018 campaign is the news that Posey will be out the remainder of the season with hip surgery. The Giants are passing players through waivers to prepare for any trades that might benefit the club. The most likely candidate at this point appears to be Andrew McCutchen.

The Giants’ troubles aren’t McCutchen’s fault. The former Pirates star has put up a 112 wRC+ and 1.4 WAR on the season. That’s less impressive than nearly all his seasons in Pittsburgh but still a rough approximation of the 119 wRC+ and 2.2 WAR for which he was projected before the start of the year. That makes McCutchen a productive player, one who would serve as an upgrade on a team with a hole, if not over a decent everyday player. Along with McCutchen comes his remaining salary which is somewhere, in the neighborhood of $3 million. The combination of McCutchen’s play and his salary scared teams off during the waiver process as he reportedly went unclaimed.

Unclaimed doesn’t necessarily mean unwanted: there are teams that could use McCutchen that might not love the idea of taking on his salary, as well. San Francisco can now negotiate with any team and can, if they choose, pay down some of McCutchen’s salary in an effort to make a deal more attractive. At the trade deadline, Jay Jaffe surveyed the positional replacement-level killers and found several teams — including the Astros, Diamondbacks, Phillies, and Rockies — lacking in the corner-outfield spots. For the most part, those teams have opted not to fill those holes.

Taking a look at the potential landing spots from another angle, let’s look at each contenders’ projections at both corner-outfield spots.

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Believing in the Rockies’ Belief in Matt Holliday

Yesterday, Jeff Sullivan wondered aloud why the Rockies, a contending club that would benefit from some offensive help, hadn’t taken any steps to address a pretty clear weakness. Today, Colorado responded by calling up a 38-year-old outfielder who couldn’t get a major-league deal this season. If nostalgia is your thing, the Rockies’ decision to bring back Matt Holliday is a clear winner. Whatever questions Sullivan had yesterday, however, likely weren’t cleared up by this most recent move. That doesn’t mean it won’t work, of course.

From a feel-good perspective, the move is a no-brainer. Below is a WAR leaderboard for position players in Rockies franchise history.

Rockies’ WAR Leaders
Name G PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Todd Helton 2247 9453 369 .316 .414 .539 132 55.1
Larry Walker 1170 4795 258 .334 .426 .618 147 44.4
Troy Tulowitzki 1048 4415 188 .299 .371 .513 124 34.1
Carlos Gonzalez 1220 4961 225 .291 .351 .518 117 25.5
Nolan Arenado 840 3538 178 .293 .348 .540 119 24.6
Matt Holliday 698 2968 128 .319 .386 .552 133 20.2
Charlie Blackmon 884 3713 133 .301 .357 .493 113 17.1
Vinny Castilla 1098 4451 239 .294 .340 .530 101 15.5
Andres Galarraga 679 2924 172 .316 .367 .577 124 13.4
Ellis Burks 520 2054 115 .306 .378 .579 127 11.0
Ubaldo Jimenez leads all pitchers with 18.1 WAR

Holliday is one of the franchise’s greatest players, arguably the team’s best hitter of all time after Larry Walker. In 2007, Holliday hit .340/.405/.607 with a 151 wRC+ and 6.9 WAR, that last figure still the best a Rockies player has recorded since Holliday was traded to the A’s ahead of the 2009 season. He finished second in the MVP voting that year, was called safe at home, and won the NLCS MVP as the franchise advanced to their only World Series appearance. Holliday would go on to capture a title with the Cardinals, but as the place where his career started, Denver clearly has some significance to the outfielder.

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The Battle Between Payroll and Parity

Over the All-Star break, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred addressed the Oakland A’s, their quest for a new ballpark, and their remarkably low payroll. With regard to the last of those items, Manfred exhibited little concern, suggesting there was almost no correlation between a club’s capacity to spend money and its ability to win games. John Shea reproduced and retransmitted the following comments, care of Manfred, at the San Francisco Chronicle.

“I categorically reject the notion that payroll should be the measure of whether somebody is trying to win in our game today. I reject that not because I prefer low payrolls to high payrolls. I reject that because I know that the correlation between payroll and winning in baseball is extraordinarily weak.

“You do not guarantee yourself wins by having a high payroll, and as the Oakland A’s have showed, you can win with a low payroll. So I really reject the premise of that question. Those are the economic facts.

“Falling into this notion that payroll is a measure of whether an owner is trying to win is literally sophistry.”

I’ve got good news and bad news for the Commissioner. The good news is that, in six out of the last seven individual seasons, the correlation between wins and payroll hasn’t been very strong, as the graph below suggests.

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Cubs Acquire Daniel Murphy, Infield Insurance Policy

With the Nationals under .500 and their playoff hopes growing slimmer, the club decided to put a few pending free agents on waivers. One of the more prominent names is that of Daniel Murphy, who is headed to the Cubs. The deal was first reported as close by Craig Mish and then confirmed shortly thereafter by multiple sources.  Jon Heyman came through with the return, so here’s the deal:

Cubs receive:

  • Daniel Murphy

Nationals receive:

The trade is an interesting one for several reasons. First, because the Cubs were the team to claim him and trade for him, that means that every other team in the National League passed on Murphy. The 33-year-old lefty was in the final year of his three-year, $36 million contract that pays him $17.5 million this season with $5 million deferred to the following two years. That means Murphy is owed about $4 million for the rest of the season. The money, plus a lack of need at Murphy’s position of second base, likely caused other contenders to pass and land in the lap of the team with the best record in the National League.

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