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Is the Baseball Dead?

The first month of the season was marked by cold weather throughout much of the country. It seemed to have an adverse affect on offense, with power numbers particularly affected. MLB players put up an isolated-power figure of .156 this March and April, which was the lowest mark since April of 2016. Rob Arthur, who has performed extensive research on the juiced ball, noticed the ball wasn’t traveling quite as far in early April even after accounting for weather — this despite a barrage of homers in the spring. Alex Chamberlain conducted some research of his own and determined hard-hit balls and barrels weren’t doing as much damage as in previous seasons, and he wondered if baseballs had been de-juiced. It’s an interesting question that deserves further research.

Chamberlain speculated that MLB had taken the juice out of the ball, potentially through the use of humidors. He found that hitters had to hit the ball harder to get it out of the park. He also observed that, when controlling for exit velocity and launch angle, batted balls weren’t quite doing the same damage as in years past. He concluded that, since we are now well past the cold-weather days of April, the change in batted balls this season is meaningful.

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The American League’s All-Star Roster Has More Talent

The National League has won more games than the American League this season in interleague play, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at our individual leaderboards. The top seven position players by WAR this season reside in the American League and 10 of the best 11 — as long as Manny Machado remains in the AL — also play in that league. The parity when it come to interleague record is more likely a function of the National League’s relative parity, while the American League is very top and bottom heavy. The best teams in the AL can only do so much, as the bulk of the NL overwhelms the bottom-feeders in the opposite league.

As for the All-Star rosters, they more closely resemble the leaderboards. The graph below shows the WAR totals for every player on the All-Star Game roster, including those on the active roster but excluding those who have been replaced due to injury or a Sunday start.

Last year, both leagues featured a collective WAR similar to the NL’s mark this season, though the AL was missing Mike Trout. This year, Trout is back and acting like himself, while Mookie Betts and Jose Ramirez seem to be acting a lot like Trout, as well. If we removed the top three players from each roster, the collective WAR totals would be pretty close. That said, the All-Star Game would be also be less entertaining.

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The Real Work Is Just Beginning in St. Louis

On Saturday evening, the Cardinals made the necessary — though arguably tardy — decision to fire manager Mike Matheny. The now-former Cardinals skipper was at the helm of some successful teams, but after two consecutive playoff misses and a mediocre 2018 season, Matheny was shown the door. While managers often receive too much praise for success and too much criticism for a club’s failures — Matheny certainly benefited from inheriting a World Series champion and might ultimately have been fired for piloting this year’s club to just a .500 record — the last few weeks shined an unwelcome light on the Cardinals due to communication issues with Dexter Fowler and the defense of Bud Norris and old-school antics.

While Matheny’s poor bullpen management and recent internal troubles will get a lot of attention, his biggest deficiencies as a manager were (a) an inability (or refusal) to discern his players’ present talent levels and (b) his related preference of managing with his gut. While the latter quality might function as a virtue in some situations, it most famously caused Matheny trouble in the 2014 NLCS when he turned to Michael Wacha after weeks of rest. It has also forced the Cardinals front office to make roster moves around Matheny’s weaknesses instead of playing to his strengths.

When Matheny was provided with depth, he would neglect it, exiling useful players to the bench. When he was provided with clear starters, those starters would receive so much playing time that they were exhausted by late summer. Prospects were sent to Memphis not because they had something to prove in Triple-A but because playing time was at a premium in the majors. Veteran relievers were required because younger options were ignored, and Matheny’s need for fixed roles led directly to the acquisition of Greg Holland, whom Matheny persisted in using even when all indications suggested that such a thing was hurting the club. Mike Mayers drew raves in spring training but, due to Matheny’s insistence than an eighth reliever ought to be reserved for emergencies, was ignored once the season began. The front office is, of course, complicit in accommodating Matheny’s wishes, but they apparently desired to be free from the restrictions the manager put on their decisions. Now they can turn to other, fundamental questions.

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The National League’s Most Balanced Pitcher

When I think about control artists, I think about pitchers who consistently hit their spots, particularly on the edges of the strike zone. These thoughts are further associated in my mind with low walk totals. So when I look at the National League leaderboard in walk percentage and see Miles Mikolas at 3.9%, I assume, he is good at painting corners. Then I look at his heat maps, and I don’t see that at all.

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American League First Basemen Aren’t Good

Debates about All-Star selections are generally pretty fleeting. The selections are announced, there’s maybe a week’s worth of complaints, then the game, then the sport is overwhelmed by the trade deadline and ensuing pennant races. That said, one of the complaints that pops up is that every team gets an All-Star and more deserving players are left home while less-deserving players on bad teams are selected for the game. This year, Salvador Perez might be one such selection. Perhaps Yan Gomes might have been more worthy. It isn’t just teams needing to send at least one player that can result in potentially deserving candidates failing to make the squad. The nature of the game itself, pitting the American League against the National League, brings about a similar issue.

Take Mitch Moreland, for example. Moreland has a 134 wRC+ and a solid 1.5 WAR in 269 plate appearances on the season. He’s arguably the best first baseman in the American League this year and therefore deserving of his place at the All-Star Game. On the other side of the coin, here are the top qualified first basemen in baseball this season ranked by WAR.

Best First Basemen of the First Half
Name Team PA HR wRC+ WAR
Freddie Freeman Braves 399 16 152 3.6
Paul Goldschmidt D-backs 394 20 148 3.3
Brandon Belt Giants 323 13 146 3.0
Jesus Aguilar Brewers 285 23 162 2.8
Matt Carpenter Cardinals 356 17 137 2.8
Joey Votto Reds 398 9 140 2.7
Cody Bellinger Dodgers 364 17 119 2.0
Matt Olson Athletics 373 19 117 1.7
Carlos Santana Phillies 381 14 114 1.3
Jose Martinez Cardinals 339 13 129 1.1

Freddie Freeman is having a great year, with Paul Goldschmidt, Brandon Belt, Jesus Aguilar, Matt Carpenter, and Joey Votto all relatively close. We could remove Carpenter given that he’s started more games at third base, but it doesn’t change the overriding theme of National League superiority at first base. Of those top five players, just two have been named to the All-Star Game. Jose Abreu is a good player having a bad year and was voted in the by the fans. Moreland isn’t even on this list because he hasn’t qualified for the batting title because he was splitting time with Hanley Ramirez early on and gets some days off against lefties.

The only AL player on the list above is Matt Olson. The A’s first baseman has a 117 wRC+, which is solid, but it is lower than the average of all NL first basemen this season. The list of first basemen in the AL only includes two players (three if you count Niko Goodrum) on pace for above-average seasons.

AL First Basemen
Name Team PA HR wRC+ WAR WAR/600 PA
Matt Olson Athletics 373 19 117 1.7 2.7
Mitch Moreland Red Sox 269 11 134 1.5 3.3
C.J. Cron Rays 351 17 119 1.1 1.9
Justin Smoak Blue Jays 340 12 123 0.9 1.6
Niko Goodrum Tigers 256 8 112 0.9 2.1
Yonder Alonso Indians 315 13 107 0.9 1.7
Yulieski Gurriel Astros 310 6 116 0.8 1.5
Ronald Guzman Rangers 228 8 104 0.7 1.8
Joey Gallo Rangers 345 21 95 0.6 1.0
John Hicks Tigers 248 8 109 0.6 1.5
Joe Mauer Twins 251 2 100 0.4 1.0
Jose Abreu White Sox 378 12 105 0.2 0.3
Ryon Healy Mariners 295 18 104 -0.1 -0.2
Logan Morrison Twins 291 10 77 -0.3 -0.6
Albert Pujols Angels 355 13 89 -0.3 -0.5
Luis Valbuena Angels 254 9 67 -0.4 -0.9
Neil Walker Yankees 202 2 51 -0.8 -2.4
Chris Davis Orioles 300 9 38 -2.0 -4.0

As a whole, first basemen are having their worst season in the American League in more than 50 seasons.

The 99 wRC+ for AL first basemen is perfectly acceptable as an average offensive player, but because first base is generally the easiest position to play on the diamond, the standards are generally higher for the bat. American League first basemen haven’t finished a season below average at the plate since 1957, and the only other time it has happened in the last 100 years was in the 1948 season. As the graph above shows, they are generally comfortably above average, with only the 1982 season getting close. As the season wears on, first basemen should start performing a bit better than they have, but right now they are nowhere close to the top of the pecking order by position.

First basemen are actually in the bottom half of the league. The caliber of shortstop play is tremendous and third basemen are doing great as well, but first basemen really shouldn’t be this bad. It’s clearly not an MLB-wide issue, as their NL brethren are having no such problem carrying up the average enough to be pretty close to historical norms. It might be fun to lay the blame on Chris Davis, but first basemen would still be only slightly above average on the season without Davis’ contributions, if you want to call them that.

I checked among the designated hitters to see if the league was missing some good ex-first basemen that might be skewing the results, but all the top DHs this season — J.D. Martinez, Nelson Cruz, Shin-Soo Choo, Giancarlo Stanton, and Khris Davis — are converted outfielders. The converted first basemen are either barely above average (Edwin Encarnacion) or well-below (Albert Pujols, Logan Morrison). A quick look at last year’s AL first basemen shows some drain over to the NL, but mostly these are just poor performances from good players mixed in with a bunch of players not expected to do all that well.

2017 AL First Basemen
Name Team PA HR wRC+ WAR
Jose Abreu White Sox 675 33 138 4.2
Eric Hosmer Royals 671 25 135 4.1
Justin Smoak Blue Jays 637 38 132 3.5
Logan Morrison Rays 601 38 130 3.2
Carlos Santana Indians 667 23 117 3.0
Joey Gallo Rangers 532 41 123 3.0
Yonder Alonso – – – 521 28 132 2.4
Joe Mauer Twins 597 7 116 2.2
Chase Headley Yankees 586 12 104 1.9
Yulieski Gurriel Astros 564 18 118 1.7
Trey Mancini Orioles 586 24 117 1.7

Hosmer and Santana are now in the NL, though Hosmer isn’t playing all that well. Smoak is having a decent season, but the rest of the players are not, nor are they expected to do well the rest of the year. A quick look at our projections will tell you, it isn’t just first-half performance that seems to indicate the balance of power is in the NL, as our best estimate of talent says the same thing.

First Baseman Projected wOBA
Name Team PA wOBA
Joey Votto Reds 288 .395
Freddie Freeman Braves 293 .392
Paul Goldschmidt D-backs 288 .386
Anthony Rizzo Cubs 294 .375
Brandon Belt Giants 242 .363
Matt Carpenter Cardinals 284 .362
Eric Thames Brewers 241 .361
Carlos Santana Phillies 282 .360
Cody Bellinger Dodgers 268 .357
Steve Pearce Red Sox 76 .353
Jose Abreu White Sox 283 .351
Justin Smoak Blue Jays 290 .347
Matt Olson Athletics 279 .345
Jose Martinez Cardinals 284 .345
Matt Adams Nationals 80 .343
Yonder Alonso Indians 290 .343
Joey Gallo Rangers 266 .342
Jesus Aguilar Brewers 241 .342
Justin Bour Marlins 259 .341
Mitch Moreland Red Sox 239 .338
Blue=NL, Red=AL

American League first basemen aren’t always going to be this bad, but they have been so far this season. This is just a weird time in the cycle for the position, probably not helped by the lack of competition for playoff spots in the league compared to the NL. Many might be up in arms over Jesus Aguilar or Brandon Belt not making the All-Star team. It isn’t that they aren’t deserving of a spot as one of the top-60 or so players in baseball, or one of the top six players at their position. They just happen to play in the wrong league.


The Royals Should Trade Whit Merrifield

What does Whit Merrifield see in the gauzy mists of his future?
(Photo: Minda Haas Kuhlmann)

Whit Merrifield is a pretty good baseball player. Despite not debuting in the majors until his age-27 campaign and recording 1,700 roughly average plate appearances in Double-A and Triple-A before that, Merrifield has now produced two seasons’ worth of above-average offense at the major-league level. His 5.3 WAR ranks seventh among all second baseman since the start of last season. The 120 wRC+ he’s recorded this year is surpassed only by the marks produced by Jose Altuve and Jed Lowrie among AL second baseman. And while that’s his primary position, he has also played first base, center field, and right field this year and does have some experience at third base and left field, as well.

That combination of offensive skill and defensive flexibility makes Merrifield the sort of player who can fit on a number of clubs. It’s also what makes him appealing as a possible trade-deadline target for contenders. The Royals have a piece from which other clubs should benefit. They should make every effort to find a deal that makes sense.

Merrifield’s appeal isn’t limited to his performance. Because of his late start as a major leaguer, he won’t even be eligible for arbitration until 2020 and won’t be a free agent until after the 2022 season. Those extra years typically add considerable weight to trade value, allowing clubs to avoid wading out into the expensive free-agent waters.

Also due to Merrifield’s late start, however, the prospect of his cost-controlled years is a bit different than for other, similarly experienced (or inexperienced) players. While his league-minimum salaries for this year and next are appealing, Merrifield is likely to have entered his decline phase for the last three of his cost-controlled seasons. Cost-controlled seasons can be a great benefit to a team, but most of that theoretical benefit is based on a player still in his prime and potentially even improving. Players can get better in their early 30s — Jeff Kent and Daniel Murphy come to mind as prominent examples of second basemen alone — but age-related decline is the rule not the exception.

To get a sense of how Merrifield might age, I looked for second baseman since 1995 at 28 and 29 years old with a WAR between 5.0 and 8.0 and age-29 WAR between 2.5 and 5.0. Note that this analysis doesn’t account for the fact that Merrifield was a mostly mediocre minor leaguer, but instead focuses on his good run over the last two years.

At age 30, the 12 players who fit the above criteria averaged a solid 107 wRC+ and 2.8 WAR. At age 31, they experienced a typical move downward, to a 103 wRC+ and 2.2 WAR. By age 32, only half the players recorded more than 2.0 WAR and, at age 33, the only players to surpassed the 1.5 WAR threshold were Kent, Ray Durham, and Eric Young.

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Has Ditching the Sinker Worked for Pitchers?

Earlier this year, Travis Sawchik urged baseball fans to go see the two-seamer before it’s gone. A year ago, Alex Stumpf discussed the death of the sinker. Over the years, pitchers have chosen to de-emphasize a sinking fastball, instead opting for breaking pitches and four-seamers. The sinker has never been a swing-and-miss pitch, and as pitchers have gotten better, they’ve been more able to utilize offerings more likely to lead to a strikeout. While the change has been a gradual one overall, there are a certain number of pitchers every season who make dramatic changes to contribute to the downward trend.

Last season, 55 of the 134 pitchers with at least 100 innings threw a sinker at least 25% of the time. This season, the number of pitchers throwing a sinker that often has dropped by nine percentage points, pretty clear evidence of the sinker decline. Let’s focus in on the sinkerballers from a year ago. This season, 36 of the 55 sinker-throwers from a year ago have pitched at least 50 innings this season. Nearly half of those pitchers have dropped their sinker use by at least four percentage points and nearly one quarter have dropped usage by more than 10 percentage points.

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Did Jon Gray Deserve His Demotion to the Minors?

In one sense, Jon Gray’s 2018 season has been pretty successful. He’s struck out 29% of the batters he’s faced this year, for example, which ranks 12th among 90 qualified starters. His walk rate, at 7%, sits in the top third for starters. His home-run rate of 1.1 per nine innings is right in the middle of the pack among that sample, too, as are his 92 innings.

That’s he’s done of his work at elevation in Colorado makes those numbers even more impressive. His 3.07 FIP has produced a 2.5 WAR, one of the top 15 figures in baseball. Unfortunately, the Rockies haven’t received the benefit of that good pitching. In fact, Gray’s 5.77 ERA ranks 88th out 90 starters. The massive difference between his ERA and FIP would represent the largest such disparity in baseball history, and it was of sufficient concern to the Rockies to send Gray to Triple-A.

Not too long ago, Jay Jaffe wrote a piece on Jon Lester, whose season was also busting historical norms. Lester’s ERA was significantly lower than his FIP. So far this season, Gray is Lester’s opposite. The graph below shows every pitcher’s FIP and ERA this season.

You can see Jon Lester over there on the left on his own. If you go to the right, you can see Jon Gray with nobody even close to him. It should be evident that, in the middle, most players are reasonably close when it comes to ERA and FIP. The average differential per player 0.53. Of the 88 ERA and FIP pairs in this sample, 77 are within one run. So far this season, Gray’s 2.69 ERA-FIP is roughly double the player closest to him, as the table below shows.

Biggest ERA-FIP Gaps, 2018
Name Team ERA FIP E-F
Jon Gray Rockies 5.77 3.08 2.69
Jason Hammel Royals 5.56 4.20 1.37
Lance Lynn Twins 5.49 4.37 1.12
Sonny Gray Yankees 5.44 4.39 1.05
Nick Pivetta Phillies 4.71 3.68 1.03
Luke Weaver Cardinals 5.16 4.22 0.93
Vince Velasquez Phillies 4.69 3.81 0.87
Luis Castillo Reds 5.85 5.03 0.82
Carlos Carrasco Indians 4.24 3.42 0.82
Zack Wheeler Mets 4.47 3.66 0.80
Qualified starting pitchers.

That isn’t just remarkable for this season. Since 1901, here are the biggest differences among qualified pitchers.

Largest ERA-FIP Since 1901
Name Team Season ERA FIP E-F
Jon Gray Rockies 2018 5.77 3.08 2.69
Jack Knott Browns 1936 7.29 5.16 2.12
George Caster Athletics 1940 6.56 4.52 2.04
Hub Pruett Phillies 1927 6.05 4.11 1.94
Chris Bosio Brewers 1987 5.24 3.38 1.86
John Burkett Rangers 1998 5.68 3.89 1.78
Bert Blyleven Twins 1988 5.43 3.66 1.77
Joe Oeschger Braves 1923 5.68 3.91 1.77
Ernie Wingard Browns 1927 6.56 4.80 1.76
Bobo Newsom – – – 1942 4.73 2.99 1.74
Ricky Nolasco Marlins 2009 5.06 3.35 1.71
Early Wynn Senators 1942 5.12 3.42 1.70
Jack Lamabe Red Sox 1964 5.89 4.21 1.68
Rick Wise Phillies 1968 4.55 2.89 1.66
Pol Perritt Cardinals 1913 5.25 3.59 1.66
Qualified starting pitchers.

There are a few Hall of Famers on that list in Blyleven and Wynn, but nobody comes close to what Gray has done thus far. Just to get a few more familiar names, here’s the same list since 1995.

Largest ERA-FIP Since 1995
Name Team Season ERA FIP E-F
Jon Gray Rockies 2018 5.77 3.08 2.69
John Burkett Rangers 1998 5.68 3.89 1.78
Ricky Nolasco Marlins 2009 5.06 3.35 1.71
Jaime Navarro White Sox 1997 5.79 4.21 1.59
Jose Mercedes Orioles 2001 5.82 4.32 1.51
LaTroy Hawkins Twins 1999 6.66 5.16 1.50
Edinson Volquez – – – 2013 5.71 4.24 1.47
Nate Robertson Tigers 2008 6.35 4.99 1.36
Derek Lowe Braves 2011 5.05 3.70 1.35
Clay Buchholz Red Sox 2014 5.34 4.01 1.33
Jose Jimenez Cardinals 1999 5.85 4.53 1.32
Zack Greinke Royals 2005 5.80 4.49 1.31
Mike Oquist Athletics 1998 6.22 4.93 1.30
Qualified starting pitchers.

There are some good pitchers on this list, too, including Zack Greinke. The odds are against Gray maintaining such a high difference. With half a season to go, Gray’s ERA is likely to be considerably closer to his FIP moving forward. If, the rest of the way, Gray’s FIP is one run lower than his ERA like it was in 2016, his ERA will end up right around Chris Bosio’s 1.86 number from 1988. If Gray’s ERA is half a run higher than his FIP like it was last year, he’ll end up with something close to Jaime Navarro’s 1.59 from 1997 and not even crack the top-15 all-time.

As we are getting close to the All-Star Break, it might be useful to take a look at the biggest half-season differences from our splits leaderboards, which go back to 2002. Here are the biggest first-half differences for pitchers with at least 70 first-half innings.

Largest ERA-FIP by Half Since 2002
Name Team Season 1st Half IP 1st Half ERA 1st Half FIP 1st Half ERA-FIP
Glendon Rusch MIL 2003 82.1 8.09 4.38 3.71
Jon Gray COL 2018 92.0 5.77 3.08 2.69
Tim Lincecum SFG 2012 96.2 6.42 4.01 2.42
Ubaldo Jimenez BAL 2016 79.1 7.03 4.63 2.40
Zack Greinke MIL 2011 74.1 5.45 3.05 2.40
Colby Lewis TEX 2014 84.0 6.54 4.17 2.37
Ricky Nolasco FLA 2009 90.2 5.76 3.56 2.20
Jake Arrieta BAL 2012 101.1 6.13 4.04 2.09
Edwin Jackson TBD 2007 74.1 7.26 5.19 2.07
John Lackey BOS 2011 79.0 6.84 4.84 2.00
Manny Parra MIL 2009 71.2 6.78 4.80 1.98
Ryan Dempster CIN 2003 96.0 6.75 4.78 1.97
Sidney Ponson BAL 2004 113.0 6.29 4.35 1.94
Edinson Volquez SDP 2013 109.2 5.74 3.85 1.89
AVERAGE 89.0 6.54 4.28 2.26
Min. 70 IP

That was quite a performance from Glendon Rusch. He would actually go on to have a couple productive seasons as a Cubs swingman, but 2003 might have soured the Brewers on his future. Scanning the list for similar performances to Gray, another Brewer, Zach Greinke, sticks out with a near-identical FIP to Gray this season. As the average indicates, we have roughly average to maybe below-average pitchers by FIP accompanied by horrendous ERAs. The next table shows how those players performed in the second half.

Second-Half Performance for Largest ERA-FIP
Name Team Season 1st Half FIP 1st Half ERA-FIP 2nd Half IP 2nd Half ERA 2nd Half FIP 2nd Half ERA-FIP
Glendon Rusch MIL 2003 4.38 3.71 18.0 4.00 2.14 1.86
Tim Lincecum SFG 2012 4.01 2.42 89.1 3.83 4.36 -0.53
Ubaldo Jimenez BAL 2016 4.63 2.40 52.2 2.39 3.60 -1.21
Zack Greinke MIL 2011 3.05 2.40 97.1 2.59 2.92 -0.33
Colby Lewis TEX 2014 4.17 2.37 86.1 3.86 4.75 -0.89
Ricky Nolasco FLA 2009 3.56 2.20 94.1 4.39 3.15 1.24
Jake Arrieta BAL 2012 4.04 2.09 0.0 0.00
Edwin Jackson TBD 2007 5.19 2.07 86.1 4.48 4.62 -0.14
John Lackey BOS 2011 4.84 2.00 81.0 6.00 4.58 1.42
Manny Parra MIL 2009 4.80 1.98 68.1 5.93 4.96 0.97
Ryan Dempster CIN 2003 4.78 1.97 16.2 6.48 6.63 -0.15
Sidney Ponson BAL 2004 4.35 1.94 102.2 4.21 4.54 -0.33
Edinson Volquez SDP 2013 3.85 1.89 59.2 5.73 4.98 0.75
AVERAGE 4.28 2.26 66.0 4.49 4.27 0.20
Min. 70 IP.

As we might expect, the players’ first-half FIPs line up pretty well with their second-half FIPs. What’s interesting is that the second-half ERAs also line up pretty well with the FIPs from both the first and second halves. While this is what we would expect to see, it’s nice to have it show up so neatly.

One problem the above doesn’t solve is why Gray’s FIP, specfically, is so much lower than his ERA. A portion of the responsibility goes to his home park. Pitchers routinely post higher ERAs than FIPs in Coors Field because BABIP is a lot higher in Coors Field. Balls in play are not incorporated into FIP, so larger swings, like the one we see at Coors Field, are going to drive up ERA a bit. That only explains a very small portion of Gray’s differential, though. For the rest, please see the graph below depicting BABIP and left-on-base percentages for all qualified starting pitchers.

Previous research indicates that a vast majority of the difference between FIP and ERA is due to two factors, the two stats seen in the table above: BABIP and LOB%. Gray is the worst in both, about 50 points clear in BABIP and with few peers in LOB% this season.

A really poor BABIP might be an indicator that Gray is no longer an MLB-caliber pitcher. The rest of his stats say otherwise, however. Per Baseball Savant, his expected BABIP is about 50 points lower than his actual figure. As league-wide expected BABIP is about 20 points higher than actual BABIP, even once you factor in Coors Field, Gray’s BABIP is about 50 points too high based on the quality of contact, leaving the rest to luck and defense.

As for left-on-base percentage, if it were really high, we might think that perhaps Gray has trouble pitching with runners on base and that Gray’s 1.91 FIP with bases empty compared to 4.67 with runners on — and his .274 xwOBA with bases empty compared to .334 with runners on — speaks to the same issue. However, the latter number is roughly average for the league regarding xwOBA and pretty close to average for FIP once Coors Field is factored in. Jeff Zimmerman theorized that the issue might be pitching meatballs behind in the count, but even Gray’s numbers behind in the count are similar to an average pitcher in those situations. His velocity has been down in his last few starts. Ben Lindbergh noted the absence of competitive pitches from Gray this season. However, none of those theories explains a league-worst left-on-base rate or the massively high BABIP. The Rockies would have to keep Gray in Triple-A the rest of the season to game his service time, so that is an unlikely motivation, although if he hits the disabled list in the minors he would not accrue MLB service time like he would if he were DL’d now and something more serious was discovered.

Jon Gray is performing historically so far, but not in the way he would like. Now he’s pitching in a city he’d probably prefer not to. Based on the past history of others, as well as himself, there seems to be a pretty good chance — absent injury — that his ERA is going to be headed downward soon even if the big-league Rockies won’t be seeing the benefit of that downturn at the moment.


This Might Not Be the Angels’ Year

In terms of playoff odds, Mike Trout gives the Angels a pretty good head start over the rest of the field every season. Where Los Angeles has had trouble over the last few years, however, is surrounding Trout with enough talent to make the postseason. They tried spending big, bringing in Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, and C.J. Wilson and extending Jered Weaver. That netted them exactly one playoff appearance, in 2014, when they were swept in three games. They’ve slowed down spending a bit in recent years, but made a savvy trade to bring Andrelton Simmons aboard, brought in Justin Upton and signed him to an extension, jumped on Ian Kinsler in a trade, signed Zack Cozart, and then lucked out in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes.

Despite what appears to be a collection of good moves, the results are still lacking. Now, news that Cozart will miss the rest of the season diminishes the Angels’ chances even further.

At the moment, there are only seven teams with at least a 5% chance at the playoffs in the American League. In the National League, there are nine teams with a similar chance. A week ago that number was 11 (sorry, Pirates and Rockies), and two weeks ago it was 12 (sorry, Mets). The National League looks very competitive this season, with a bunch of teams in the hunt and no single club possessing more than a 90% playoff probability. The American League, on the other hand, looks like this:

Four of the five playoff spots appear to be locked up, with the Mariners currently looking likely to take the final one. The pennant race is not without intrigue — the Yankees and Red Sox will battle to avoid a one-and-done Wild Card round — but Cleveland looks to be running away with the AL Central, and unless the Mariners have another gear, the Astros are going to take the West. As for the non-Yankees/Red Sox Wild Card, the Mariners have a seven-game edge over the Athletics and a nine-game lead over the Angels. If the Mariners win half the rest of their games, the Angels would need to win 50 to catch them. That’s 62% of their remaining dates, close to a 100-win pace over the course of the rest of the season.

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Offseason Spending on Relievers Isn’t Working Out

While this past winter moved slowly for a number of free agents, the offseason’s available relievers actually found work pretty quickly. By the time the calendar turned, 13 relief pitchers had received multi-year contracts worth more than $10 million, totaling more than $250 million overall. Addison Reed and Greg Holland would later ink deals for more than $10 million, as well. Much has been made of the fiscal restraint exercised by teams this past winter, but teams didn’t really apply that same sort of caution to reliever deals. Perhaps they should have.

In total, there were 30 deals in excess of $1 million dollars signed by relief pitchers this past offseason. With half the season having passed, it seems like an opportune moment to review how those deals are working out for the players and their clubs. Because of how relievers are typically utilized, we are necessarily dealing with small sample sizes, but that’s also just how things operate with relievers: the difference between a good and bad season might be a few rough innings.

The graph below shows WAR and the amount of guaranteed money the player signed for in the offseason.

Teams would hope that the trendline here slopes up and to the right. That would suggest a general correlation between the money received by a player and his on-field production. The graph above, however, doesn’t look anything like that. Indeed, if a slope exists at all, it goes down and to the right. And even if we omit the Rockies from it — they were responsible for the winter’s three biggest relief contracts — this graph would still pretty much look like a jumbled mess. Seven of the 11 players with more than 0.5 WAR this season signed contracts for less than $10 million total. Of the 13 relievers at replacement level or below, eight received eight-figure guarantees. There appears to be little rhyme or reason at all when it comes to money and performance.

Perhaps the total money skews things somehow. To see if that’s the case, here’s a similar graph, except with average annual value instead of total money.

Still nothing, right? It appears that way.

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Goldschmidt, Trout, and the Greatest Weeks of the Century

One week’s worth of at-bats isn’t going to tell you a lot about a player. Hitters can look very good or very bad for entire weeks or even months, and it doesn’t necessarily represent their talent level or tell you a whole lot about it. For example, on April 9, Shin-Soo Choo began what has been thus far the worst week of the entire season. He came to the plate 29 times and got one hit, a single, which was good for a -70 wRC+. However, on the season, he has a 134 wRC+, which is not too far from his career line. Didi Gregorius had a 336 wRC+ the second week of the season and a -66 wRC+ the second week of May. Crazy things can happen in 20-30 plate appearances, and two of the craziest stretches of this century happened in the past two weeks.

You’ve probably heard that Mike Trout has been on a roll lately. That last statement has almost always been true for the past seven seasons, but it was particularly true last week. From June 11 to June 17, Trout came to the plate 28 times. He reached base via a hit 13 times, including four homers and a double. He was walked on seven occasions and was hit by a pitch once. He struck out five times. That leaves just two occasions where Trout made contact with the ball and got out. Once he hit a sacrifice fly and once he grounded into a double play. He was not named the American League Player of the Week.

That Trout was not named Player of the Week is a surprise, but sometimes consistent greatness doesn’t get rewarded. What’s more surprising is that Trout’s week wasn’t the best offensive week of the season. More specifically, it was not even the best offensive performance this month. That honor goes to Paul Goldschmidt one week earlier. From June 4 through June 10, Goldschmidt came to the plate 29 times. He reached base via a hit 16 times, including four homers, one triple, and six doubles. He also walked three times and was hit by a pitch. He struck out four times and made an out on a ball in play six times. His 455 wRC+ narrowly edged out Trout’s 439 in a week’s time.

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What a Smaller Strike Zone Can Do for Pace of Play

Last week, I discussed the consequences of an expanded strike zone on the game, finding that it leads to more strikeouts and fewer balls in play. While some have suggested that a larger zone — by inviting more swings from batters — might actually result in an uptick in batted balls, the observed results don’t support that hypothesis. Whatever gains a larger zone creates in terms of swing rate, they’re negated by an increase both in whiff rate and called strikes, leading to more strikeouts overall.

What that post addressed was what would happen if the strike zone got bigger. This post attempts to answer a similar question — namely, what would happen if the strike zone got smaller?

In order to test the effects of a shrinking strike zone, it’s necessary first to identify an actual instance in which the strike zone has gotten smaller. Fortunately, such an instance exists, thanks again to the research of Jon Roegele, who produced this visual in his piece on the strike zone last year.

That’s the 2007 strike zone on the left and 2017 zone on the right. As you can see, the outside edge to lefties used to be called a lot more frequently than it is now. The bottom of the zone has gotten larger for both lefties and righties (a point addressed in my last post), and the result has been a smaller strike zone for lefties than their right-handed counterparts.

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What Was Marcell Ozuna Thinking?

With two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning on Monday, the Cardinals found themselves up by one run. Matt Bowman, the Cardinals pitcher, put himself in a little bit of trouble when Rhys Hoskins hit a single and then advanced to second on a groundout. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny put Bowman in considerably more trouble with the dubious decision to walk Carlos Santana and put the winning run on base in order to try for the double play. Bowman did not get the double play, instead striking out Jesmuel Valentin. That brings us to Aaron Altherr, the game’s final batter.

The win-expectancy chart provides a pretty good idea of what happened on that play.


Source: FanGraphs

If the graph doesn’t help enough, here’s a small clip of what transpired.

Marcell Ozuna dove for the ball and, by missing the catch, allowed Hoskins and Santana to score and win the game for the Phillies. Mike Matheny defended the aggressive play, because that’s what a manager is supposed to do. That doesn’t prevent us from asking the question, though: just how badly did Ozuna screw up by trying to dive for a catch he wouldn’t end up making?

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Jason Heyward’s Latest Change Is Making a Difference

One could argue that, during the 2015-16 offseason, Jason Heyward was my hill. If that’s the case, I am now mostly dead. After producing almost six wins in his final campaign with the Cardinals, the outfielder recorded just a lone win in each of his first two seasons with Chicago.

I say mostly dead, though, because Heyward’s bat is showing some signs of life: since coming off the disabled list a month ago, he’s hitting .307/.347/.489 with a 124 wRC+. While that represents a hot streak for the Cubs version of Heyward, it pretty closely approximates what the team probably expected from Heyward when they signed him. Whatever the case, it is the best run he has produced since the joining the team.

Heyward’s swing changes have been frequent over the past few years. He has altered his mechanics nearly every season of his career. The Cubs hoped to unlock more power out of Heyward after he posted a 121 wRC+ for the Cardinals in a 2015 campaign during which he took a bunch of walks, limited his strikeouts, ran the bases well, and exhibited slightly below-average power. The Cubs weren’t wrong to try and unearth that version of Heyward. With his defense, baserunning, batting eye, and contact skills, the addition of a bit more power might have made Heyward an MVP candidate.

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A Bigger Strike Zone Is a Bad Idea

There are a lot of strikeouts in today’s game. The most ever, in fact. If the season were to end today, the league’s 22.4% strikeout rate would represent an all-time high, eclipsing the record set in 2017. That record from 2017 surpassed the one set in 2016, which itself surpassed the one set in 2015, which surpassed the one set in 2014. Ever since 2008, actually, baseball has produced a new strikeout record, and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious end in sight.

With all those strikeouts come a lot of opinions on how to reduce strikeouts. The latest set of proposals come from Tom Veducci at Sports Illustrated. Verducci correctly places blame/credit for the strikeouts with the pitchers, where it belongs, and he suggests a few solutions: lowering the mound, limiting the number of pitchers on an active roster, and introducing a pitch clock.

I find it curious that Verducci omits any mention of the strike zone itself. I have previously proposed raising the bottom of the strike zone to put more balls in play, but there are others — including at least one MLB manager — who believe that a larger strike zone might increase the number of balls in play.

The possibility of this effect is one I’ve heard mentioned on broadcasts before, so it isn’t without precedent. The theory goes like this: an expanded strike zone will force batters to exercise less patience and, as a result, swing at more pitches. More swings, and perhaps more emphasis on contact, means more balls in play.

Fortuitously, this is a theory we can test, because the strike zone actually hasn’t remained static in recent years. In fact, thanks to great research by Jon Roegele, we know exactly where the strike zone has gotten bigger. The very bottom of the strike zone has increased considerably over the last decade, and although it got slightly smaller the last couple seasons, the trend has reversed itself this year. Even if there wasn’t an increase this year, the strike zone would still be substantially larger at the bottom of the zone than it was a decade ago.

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Juan Soto Is Already Making History

Juan Soto is 19 years old and has hit 19 home runs this season. Of those 19 dingers, 14 happened before Soto reached the majors, but two of the MLB homers were hit last night. Through 76 plate appearances, Soto is putting up a Mike Trout-like .344/.447/.641 slash line good for a 192 wRC+ and an intriguing nickname. Hitting so well for a month is great, but it isn’t out of this world. So far this season, there have been 12 players who have put up a monthly split worth a 190 wRC+ or higher. That list includes names like Trout, Mookie Betts, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, and Manny Machado, but it also includes names like Daniel Robertson, Christian Villanueva, Brandon Crawford, and Scooter Gennett. What that hot start has done is changed Soto’s outlook both for this season and his career.

Soto has already drastically changed his projections for the year. Here are the top 30 hitters in baseball going forward according to our Depth Chart projections.

Top Projected Hitters Going Forward
Name PA HR AVG OBP SLG wOBA WAR
Mike Trout 374 23 .301 .432 .613 .429 5.1
Giancarlo Stanton 381 31 .269 .358 .606 .395 3.1
Freddie Freeman 382 18 .300 .402 .546 .394 2.9
Bryce Harper 365 21 .279 .402 .547 .393 2.9
Joey Votto 382 14 .296 .427 .497 .393 2.5
J.D. Martinez 370 25 .291 .360 .587 .391 2.3
Mookie Betts 370 16 .303 .375 .538 .383 3.7
Nolan Arenado 378 21 .292 .363 .561 .382 2.7
Kris Bryant 390 17 .276 .385 .511 .379 3.2
Paul Goldschmidt 386 17 .277 .389 .511 .378 2.2
Aaron Judge 390 25 .253 .370 .531 .378 2.8
Anthony Rizzo 386 19 .271 .381 .511 .376 2.3
Josh Donaldson 357 18 .262 .369 .506 .370 2.7
Charlie Blackmon 369 16 .296 .363 .513 .369 1.5
Juan Soto 259 11 .295 .369 .504 .369 1.3
Jose Ramirez 377 15 .294 .362 .512 .368 3.3
Carlos Correa 374 16 .281 .366 .496 .364 3.2
George Springer 362 17 .272 .362 .492 .364 2.5
Manny Machado 378 20 .285 .348 .524 .363 3.0
Christian Yelich 370 12 .291 .372 .474 .361 1.9
Jose Altuve 374 10 .313 .370 .475 .360 2.7
Brandon Belt 329 12 .265 .370 .473 .359 1.9
Francisco Lindor 386 15 .289 .355 .491 .358 3.4
Nelson Cruz 361 21 .263 .344 .506 .357 1.4
Rhys Hoskins 356 18 .251 .352 .487 .356 1.5
Andrew Benintendi 362 11 .284 .364 .476 .356 2.0
Jose Abreu 377 17 .286 .344 .506 .356 1.4
Edwin Encarnacion 373 21 .249 .349 .493 .356 1.2
Justin Turner 357 12 .284 .365 .466 .355 2.4
Eric Thames 255 14 .246 .345 .503 .355 0.9

The projections say that at 19 years old, Juan Soto is one of the top 15 hitters in the game. The list above is an impressive one. Look at some of the names after Soto: Jose Ramirez, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve. These are the very best hitters in baseball, and Soto looks to be their peer. Soto rose so quickly in part because of how little time he spent in the minors. As Eric Longenhagen wrote when Soto was called up, in recent history, only Alex Rodriguez had less experience in the minors than Soto. An injury last season kept his game log to a minimum, and that meant he was a bit underrated as a prospect entering the season. He was ranked No. 45 here at FanGraphs, and no major service put him among the top-20 prospects in baseball.

The recent update to the top prospects list here put Soto at No. 9, but he seems unlikely to make the list next season as he exhausts his rookie eligibility in the coming months. It’s difficult to understate how rare Soto’s performance is thus far, as his presence alone in the majors makes him a historical oddity. When Ronald Acuña was called up at just 20 years old earlier this season, Jay Jaffe conducted an analysis on debuts and the Hall of Fame. He found that of the 238 retired players to take a single plate appearance in the majors at 19 years old, 25 made the Hall of Fame, a roughly one-in-ten shot. Jaffe went a bit further and found that only 59 players in history took 100 plate appearances at Soto’s age, and of the 54 retired players, 13 went on to become Hall of Famers.

To try and put Soto’s season in context, I went back to 1905 and looked for players with at least 50 plate appearances at 19 years old or below. Soto already appears on the first page of the WAR leaderboards.

Best Seasons at Age 19 or Younger
Season Name Team Age PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
2012 Bryce Harper Nationals 19 597 22 .270 .340 .477 121 4.4
1928 Mel Ott Giants 19 499 18 .322 .397 .524 140 4.1
1996 Edgar Renteria Marlins 19 471 5 .309 .358 .399 106 3.5
1906 Ty Cobb Tigers 19 394 1 .316 .355 .394 130 2.7
1989 Ken Griffey Jr. Mariners 19 506 16 .264 .329 .420 106 2.5
1923 Travis Jackson Giants 19 351 4 .275 .321 .391 88 2.3
1936 Buddy Lewis Senators 19 657 6 .291 .347 .399 87 1.9
1964 Tony Conigliaro Red Sox 19 444 24 .290 .354 .530 138 1.9
1951 Mickey Mantle Yankees 19 386 13 .267 .349 .443 116 1.5
1954 Al Kaline Tigers 19 535 4 .276 .305 .347 76 1.4
2012 Manny Machado Orioles 19 202 7 .262 .294 .445 97 1.2
1970 Cesar Cedeno Astros 19 377 7 .310 .340 .451 111 1.2
1935 Phil Cavarretta Cubs 18 636 8 .275 .322 .404 94 1.2
1945 Whitey Lockman Giants 18 148 3 .341 .410 .481 144 1.1
2018 Juan Soto Nationals 19 76 5 .344 .447 .641 192 1.0
1910 Stuffy McInnis Athletics 19 81 0 .301 .363 .438 149 0.9
1927 Jimmie Foxx Athletics 19 146 3 .323 .393 .515 129 0.8
1964 Ed Kranepool Mets 19 461 10 .257 .310 .393 98 0.8
1974 Robin Yount Brewers 18 364 3 .250 .276 .346 77 0.8
1991 Ivan Rodriguez Rangers 19 288 3 .264 .276 .354 73 0.7
2011 Mike Trout Angels 19 135 5 .220 .281 .390 87 0.7
1974 Claudell Washington Athletics 19 237 0 .285 .326 .376 107 0.7
1915 Pete Schneider Reds 19 100 2 .245 .245 .372 80 0.6
1952 Harry Chiti Cubs 19 118 5 .274 .305 .451 102 0.6
1958 Johnny Callison White Sox 19 71 1 .297 .352 .469 125 0.6
Position Players with at least 50 PA

Of the 12 retired players above Soto, six are Hall of Famers. Three of the five players directly behind him are Hall of Famers, and the sixth player is Mike Trout. Also of interest, seven players have put up six-win seasons at age 20, and the only one not in the list above is Ted Williams. That list features nine of the best 13 age-20 seasons in history. Soto only has 76 plate appearances so far, but he’s also not done yet. For fun, let’s add two potential Sotos to the list above. One hypothetical Soto is completely unrealistic, but it shows what he would do with another 300 or so plate appearances if he kept up his torrid pace. The other version is more realistic, showing Soto’s rest-of-season projections combined with what he’s done so far.

Best Seasons at Age 19 or Younger
Season Name Team Age PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
2018 Juan Soto PACE Nationals 19 380 25 .344 .447 .641 192 5.0
2012 Bryce Harper Nationals 19 597 22 .270 .340 .477 121 4.4
1928 Mel Ott Giants 19 499 18 .322 .397 .524 140 4.1
1996 Edgar Renteria Marlins 19 471 5 .309 .358 .399 106 3.5
1906 Ty Cobb Tigers 19 394 1 .316 .355 .394 130 2.7
1989 Ken Griffey Jr. Mariners 19 506 16 .264 .329 .420 106 2.5
2018 Juan Soto PROJ Nationals 19 335 16 .305 .386 .541 140 2.3
1923 Travis Jackson Giants 19 351 4 .275 .321 .391 88 2.3
1936 Buddy Lewis Senators 19 657 6 .291 .347 .399 87 1.9
1964 Tony Conigliaro Red Sox 19 444 24 .290 .354 .530 138 1.9
1951 Mickey Mantle Yankees 19 386 13 .267 .349 .443 116 1.5
1954 Al Kaline Tigers 19 535 4 .276 .305 .347 76 1.4
2012 Manny Machado Orioles 19 202 7 .262 .294 .445 97 1.2
1970 Cesar Cedeno Astros 19 377 7 .310 .340 .451 111 1.2
1935 Phil Cavarretta Cubs 18 636 8 .275 .322 .404 94 1.2
1945 Whitey Lockman Giants 18 148 3 .341 .410 .481 144 1.1
2018 Juan Soto NOW Nationals 19 76 5 .344 .447 .641 192 1.0
1910 Stuffy McInnis Athletics 19 81 0 .301 .363 .438 149 0.9
1927 Jimmie Foxx Athletics 19 146 3 .323 .393 .515 129 0.8
1964 Ed Kranepool Mets 19 461 10 .257 .310 .393 98 0.8
1974 Robin Yount Brewers 18 364 3 .250 .276 .346 77 0.8
1991 Ivan Rodriguez Rangers 19 288 3 .264 .276 .354 73 0.7
2011 Mike Trout Angels 19 135 5 .220 .281 .390 87 0.7
1974 Claudell Washington Athletics 19 237 0 .285 .326 .376 107 0.7
1915 Pete Schneider Reds 19 100 2 .245 .245 .372 80 0.6
1952 Harry Chiti Cubs 19 118 5 .274 .305 .451 102 0.6
1958 Johnny Callison White Sox 19 71 1 .297 .352 .469 125 0.6
Position Players with at least 50 PA

Juan Soto is currently projected to have the sixth-best season by a 19-year-old since 1905 (and yes, I cherry-picked the year to get Ty Cobb in there). Of the six players to hit two wins in a season at Soto’s age, four are already in the Hall of Fame, a fifth is his teammate Bryce Harper, and the sixth, Edgar Renteria, put up 35 WAR in an underrated career. Refining the list a bit, here are the seasons of at least 300 plate appearances and a wRC+ of 100, a list Soto will crack after a couple-hundred plate appearances and a wRC+ above 70 the rest of the way.

Best Seasons at Age 19 or Younger
Season Name Team PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2018 Juan Soto PROJ Nationals 335 16 .305 .386 .541 140
1928 Mel Ott Giants 499 18 .322 .397 .524 140
1964 Tony Conigliaro Red Sox 444 24 .290 .354 .530 138
1906 Ty Cobb Tigers 394 1 .316 .355 .394 130
2012 Bryce Harper Nationals 597 22 .270 .340 .477 121
1951 Mickey Mantle Yankees 386 13 .267 .349 .443 116
1970 Cesar Cedeno Astros 377 7 .310 .340 .451 111
1996 Edgar Renteria Marlins 471 5 .309 .358 .399 106
1989 Ken Griffey Jr. Mariners 506 16 .264 .329 .420 106
Position Players with at least 300 PA and 100 wRC+

Juan Soto’s season is special just because he made it to the major leagues. His season is spectacular due to his performance so far, and if history is any indication, he’s about to have a monstrous career.3


Jordan Hicks, Now with Command

Jordan Hicks once deserved our attention because he was the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball. He later commanded more of our time because he couldn’t get any strikeouts despite that incredible velocity. Hicks is once again being highlighted at FanGraphs because he has appeared to resolve his previous issues. Over the last three weeks, in fact, he’s been the best reliever in baseball.

Hicks is still fascinating because he throws the ball really hard. His 99.7-mph average on his fastball still tops MLB with a healthy lead over Aroldis Chapman, per Baseball Savant. He’s thrown 180 pitches of at least 100 mph with Chapman’s 103 the only pitcher within 125 of him. He’s thrown more fastballs above 102 mph than below 97 mph this season as the graph below shows.

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Trading Jacob deGrom Would Be Foolish

The Mets started out hot in 2018, needing just 12 games to record 11 wins. It would take the club another 30 games to get their next 11 wins, however. Even then, at 22-19, the team’s prospects for contending seemed decent. Twenty-one games and just six wins later, a once-promising season looks much less so. The graph below shows the team’s playoff odds since the start of the season.

Even heading into May, the playoffs looked like a 50/50 proposition. A week later, it was one-in-four, and now the Mets’ odds of making the playoffs are basically 1-in-10. In what figures to be a very competitive National League playoff race, the Mets’ record is better than only the Marlins’ and Reds’. To make the playoffs, they will have to pass eight teams. Unless the club turns things around quickly, they might find themselves as sellers in a month. The question, though — if indeed the Mets do becomes sellers — is “Who precisely do they sell?” The two best players on the team are ace-level starting pitchers controlled beyond this season in Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. Buster Olney recently argued the team should at least gauge their trade value.

So deGrom is everything that the New York Mets really need right now, in their worst of times, in his dominance and his leadership. But given the current challenges of the organization — the gray-beard age at the major league level, the lack of depth at the top of their farm system — they owe it to themselves to welcome offers from other clubs for deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, to at least understand what’s possible.

If the Mets were to start a rebuilding process, deGrom and Syndergaard would be the first to go. With deGrom in arbitration through 2020 and Syndergaard controlled through 2021, the duo would fetch a huge prospect haul. For sake of comparison, after the 2016 season, the White Sox traded Chris Sale for Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Luis Basabe, and Victor Diaz, and then traded Jose Quintana last year for Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Matt Rose, and Bryant Flete. If the Mets were to trade both deGrom and Syndergaard, they would probably come pretty close to that kind of haul.

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Did Spring Training Matter for Free Agents?

Despite missing a portion of spring training, Jake Arrieta has actually beaten his projections thus far.
(Photo: Ian D’Andrea)

As was documented on a number of occasions at this site during the winter months, the 2017-18 offseason represented the slowest free-agent market on record. While the economic implications of the offseason remain unclear, that’s not the only way in which the game was disrupted this winter. Because a number of players signed late, a number of players also benefited from something less than a full complement of spring-training games. Logic dictates that could have an effect on performance. But does the data support that logic?

We could attempt to answer that question by examining performances from just the first couple weeks of season — when late signees would still, hypothetically, be getting reacquainted with the speed of the game. There would so much randomness involved in such a study, though, it would be impossible to reach any real conclusion based on a handful players. It might not be entirely responsible to try and draw conclusions from two months’ worth of performances, either. As it stands, though, we at least have a larger sample with which to work — and if we considered production too far removed from spring, we might end up not testing the effect of missed time, at all.

Of the Top 50 Free Agents, 10 signed in March or later. One of those players, Greg Holland, is a reliever. We could compare Holland’s performance to the 15 other relievers, but I’m not sure that would be a worthwhile endeavor. Holland has made 18 appearances, only pitched 13.1 innings, and recorded 15 walks, 10 strikeouts, a 5.97 FIP, and a 9.45 ERA. His -1.52 WPA is the worst in the National League. I didn’t run the numbers, but suffice it to say, there’s no way the rest of the free-agent relievers have been as bad as Holland. You could chalk that up to a lack of spring training, but it might be more worthwhile to look at position players and starting pitchers.

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The Yankees Probably Need to Make a Trade

The season has gone pretty well for the Yankees thus far. Sure, the team brought in Neil Walker and Brandon Drury in the offseason and they are currently below replacement level; however, those two were acquired as placeholders for Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar, and the two prospects are already succeeding in the big leagues, leaving the performance of the acquisitions moot. Greg Bird got hurt again and Tyler Austin wasn’t great. Giancarlo Stanton has only been good and not great, but Aaron Judge has been great, and Didi Gregorius and Gary Sanchez have been good while Brett Gardner and Aaron Hicks have exceeded expectations. Yankees position players lead the American League in WAR at 13 and are projected to top all of baseball the rest of the way.

On the pitching side, the Yankees have done pretty well, too. Just as they were projected, the bullpen has been the best in baseball, striking out 32% of batters faced. Luis Severino has been one of the best pitchers in baseball with a 2.15 FIP that leads all qualified starters in the American League. After Severino, the rotation hasn’t been good, but with the bullpen, the team’s 9.5 WAR is third in all of baseball.

Fortunately for the Yankees, the team’s good results have translated in the win column up to this point with 40 victories. At this moment, they are projected to win more than 100 games and finish with the best record in baseball. The Yankees may be in an enviable position; however, there are some drawbacks to being an immensely talented, super-rich franchise piling up wins like nobody’s business.

The first drawback is their main rival, the Red Sox. Boston is also an immensely talented, super-rich franchise piling up wins, and only one of these two teams is going to win the division. Despite having the two best records in baseball and the highest playoff odds in the game, the Yankees and Red Sox rank fifth and sixth, respectively, in odds of making the division series. One of the two clubs is going to have to fend for itself in the Wild Card game in what will likely be a 50/50 shot against Shohei Ohtani, James Paxton, or maybe even Justin Verlander. Winning the division is going to affect the Yankees’ odds of winning the World Series by 5%-10%, maybe more.

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