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Putting a Dollar Value on Prospects Outside the Top 100

There are 6,000 or so minor-league baseball players at any given moment. By definition, meanwhile, there are only 100 minor-league ballplayers on any given top-100 prospect list. That means there are also around 6,000 minor leaguers not on top-100 lists — all 6,000 of them still intent on reaching the major leagues.

And many of them do reach the majors. For half-a-dozen years, Carson Cistulli has highlighted a number of prospects who failed to make a top-100 list by means of his Fringe Five series, and some of those players — like Mookie Betts and Jose Ramirez — have gone on to become stars. There should be little doubt that prospects outside the standard top-100 lists have value. Determining how much value, however, is a different and more involved question.

When I attempted to determine a value for prospects who’d appeared on top-100 lists, I was working with a relatively small pool of players. Even 15 years’ worth of lists equates to 1,500 players at most. Attempting to determine the value for every prospect, meanwhile, would appear to be a much larger task. Does one look at the roughly 90,000 minor-league seasons over the same period? That seems daunting. Looking at Baseball America‘s team-level prospects lists, which feature 10 players per organization, would provide a more manageable 200 prospects per season outside the top-100 list, but that wouldn’t quite get us where we need to be, either.

And yet, as I’ve noted, these prospects have value. On THE BOARD, for example, there are currently 689 prospects with grades (a) of at least 40 but (b) less than 50 (the lowest grade earned by players on a top-100 lists, typically). It’s these prospects in whom I’m interested. What follows represents my attempt to place a value on them, as well.

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Post-2018 Farm System Rankings

Today, I’ve published a pair of posts in which I attempt to estimate the present-day value of prospects, both in terms of WAR and dollars. With that work complete, the logical next step is to turn away from the value of specific prospects and towards farm systems as a whole.

One can get a sense of the stronger and weaker systems just by eyeballing the rankings produced by Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel. What the prospect-valuation data allows us to do, however, is to place a figure on baseball’s top-800 or so prospects, creating a more objective ranking based on the grades assessed to each player here at FanGraphs.

These rankings provide a current snapshot of the farm systems before Longenhagen and McDaniel embark on their winter-long reveal of team prospect rankings. (The first post in their offseason series will appear this week.) As noted, the methodology for valuing prospects based on their grades is explained in my last two posts on the subjects:

Keep in mind, these values are based on the current CBA, where players receive a minimum salary for roughly three years and then have three (or four) years of arbitration before reaching free agency after six full MLB seasons. Players are generally underpaid compared to their value on the field during these seasons, which is what creates the high present-day values and partially justifies the high value placed by teams on prospects when executing trades.

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An Update to Prospect Valuation

By the numbers, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is worth almost twice as much as baseball’s next best prospect.
(Photo: Tricia Hall)

Over the years, a good deal of effort has been put into determining the value of prospects. Victor Wang, Scott McKinney (updated here), Kevin Creagh and Steve DiMiceli together, and Jeff Zimmerman have all published work on the subject, roughly in that order.

The reasoning behind such efforts is fairly obvious: teams trade prospects for proven players all the time. Finding an objective way to evaluate those trades is useful to better understanding how the sport operates. Indeed, FanGraphs has benefited from those prospect-valuation studies on multiple occasions.

With another year having passed, I’ve attempted to build on the work of others and produce updated valuations of my own. Previous efforts have been very helpful in the process, while the input of prospect analysts Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel has helped me find results that would be most useful.

In building this study, I set out with the following aims:

  • To separate players into as many useful tiers as possible without creating unnecessary distinctions.
  • To use as much data as possible so long as it was useful and likely still relevant today.
  • To make the valuations as forward-looking as possible.
  • To recognize that player development is not linear and that players appearing on prospect lists vary from major-league-ready to raw, Rookie-level talents.

To those various ends, here are some of the parameters of this study:

1. Baseball America’s top-100 lists from 1996 to 2010 serve as the foundation for prospect grades.
When I started the study, I looked at the lists dating back to 1990, separating out position players from pitchers and organizing by year. I found that the evaluations from the earlier part of the 90s — especially those for pitchers — had considerably worse outcomes than those that came after. I debated whether or not to throw out the data. Eventually, though, I decided that since 15 years of prospect numbers were showing decidedly different results, and that there was considerable turmoil occurring within the sport during that time — expansion, a strike, and a lockout — it seemed reasonable to toss the earlier years and go with the assumption that the 1996-2010 lists more accurately represented prospect evaluation today and going forward than the rankings of 25 years ago.

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An Estimate of Every Team’s Payroll Room

Free agency officially begins on Saturday. While clubs have had the right this week to negotiate exclusively with their own departing players, that stops tomorrow. Tomorrow, anyone can talk to anyone.

As we enter free-agent season and attempt to understand which deals are likely and which are less so, it helps to have a sense of how much each club has to spend. Last offseason unfolded slow: teams and players battled on contract terms until spring. When the dust finally settled, payroll hadn’t actually increased from the previous year — a relatively rare occurrence, especially in an era when the game is so financially healthy.

That lack of upward movement in salaries was attributed, in part, to the impressive free-agent class of this winter. By looking at payrolls from the past couple years, we can get an idea of who has the most money to spend and who will need to significantly increase payroll if they want to get in on free-agent spending.

To begin, let’s consider what payrolls looked like at the beginning of the 2018 campaign.

That massive payroll worked out pretty well for the Red Sox: the World Series winners took advantage of the attempt by others clubs to stay under the competitive-balance tax threshold. At the other end of the payroll spectrum, meanwhile, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Tampa Bay managed to win a bunch of games without spending big, though the relationship between payroll and wins remains relatively strong.

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Those Disastrous World Series TV Ratings

The popularity of baseball is oft-discussed and yet somewhat difficult to measure. We can look at everything from attendance to jersey sales to commercials to revenue and yet fail to reach any real conclusions due to the constantly changing ways in which people consume media and celebrate fandom.

Another measure is television viewership and ratings. Determining the number of people who have enough interest to watch the sport on television should be a relatively good measure of popularity, although even those measures need context to make any sense. On one hand, local television ratings remain strong during the season, indicating relatively widespread support for the game. On the other hand, the ratings for this season’s World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers were not good.

Consider a couple of headlines. Like Boston-LA World Series Struck Out Looking for Fox from the LA Times and like The 2018 World Series was Good for the Red Sox–and Bad for Baseball from The Atlantic. Even commissioner Rob Manfred acknowledged disappointment with the ratings after the first few games.

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Four Questions Facing Dodgers After World Series Loss

For the second straight year, the Dodgers’ season has ended in a World Series appearance but not a World Series victory. While the Red Sox’ four-games-to-one win might show up in history as something of a blowout, the Dodgers were one key hit away from victory in Game One. If they’d also held onto a fifth-inning lead in Game Two and an eighth-inning lead in Game Four, we’d be talking about a great Dodgers team finally winning it all.

It didn’t happen that way, though — and it wasn’t because the Red Sox wanted it more or because the Dodgers’ analytics failed them. Sometimes baseball happens. It happened to the Dodgers, and in the end, the more deserving team won.

Win or lose, the Dodgers were going to face a lot of questions this offseason. Here are the four most-pressing questions in need of an answer.

Bring Back Clayton Kershaw?

Clayton Kershaw could make the decision easy for everyone by not opting out of the two years and $65 million he has left on his contract. There are plenty of concerns with Kershaw: his velocity has declined and he’s relying on his slider more than ever. The future Hall of Famer will begin next season at 31 years old, hardly an elder, but certainly past his prime. Despite those concerns, Kershaw started 31 games in 2018 and pitched 191.1 innings, including the postseason. His ERA and FIP, including the playoffs, were 2.96, and 3.31, respectively. Those are both very good numbers along with his 3.6 WAR from the regular season. Among pending free-agent pitchers, only Patrick Corbin had a better season — and Kershaw showed he could still get outs at a high rate with declining velocity.

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The Red Sox Have to Bench Somebody

After the first two games of the World Series, the Red Sox are probably feeling pretty good. With two victories already to their credit, they need to win just two of their next five contests to win this year’s title. The odds are in their favor.

As they begin the the first of three games in Los Angeles, however, they have a decision to make regarding their lineup, owing to the absence of the designated hitter in a National League park. The issue comes up every year, but rarely does it present much difficulty to decision-makers. Most American League champions feature either feature a DH who isn’t worth playing elsewhere or an obvious weakness somewhere in the lineup.

That isn’t so much the case for J.D. Martinez and the Boston Red Sox, however.

Consider some examples from recent World Series. In 2014, Billy Butler DH’d for the Royals in Kansas City but only pinch-hit in San Francisco. Kendrys Morales played the same role for the 2015 edition of the Royals. Last year, it was the Astros’ Evan Gattis. Only Cleveland, during their series against the Cubs, was forced to take some unusual measures to include their usual DH in the lineup, placing Carlos Santana in the outfield. That said, Cleveland also lacked a surplus of great outfield options at the time.

The last legitimately good AL player forced from a lineup when the World Series headed to an NL park was probably Kevin Youkilis in 2007, when the presence of David Ortiz sent him to the bench. But the current version of the Red Sox will be forced to take similar steps in Los Angeles. Martinez was a six-win player this season, with a 170 wRC+ as Boston’s designated hitter, marking the best season by a DH since Ortiz’s 2007 campaign for the world champions. Martinez needs to go to an outfield corner, and even if he we assume that he had just bested (worsted?) the single-season low for UZR (-36 runs, set by Brad Hawpe in 2008), he still would have recorded nearly four wins this season. He needs to be in the lineup, right?

It would seem so, yes, but once Martinez goes into the outfield, one of the following scenarios needs to occur:

  1. The Red Sox bench Jackie Bradley Jr.; or
  2. they bench Andrew Benintendi; or
  3. they play Mookie Betts at second base.

Mike Petriello made the case for the third option over at MLB.com. In that piece, he notes that the decision is easier in games Four and Five with a lefty on the mound, mentions the lack of potential opportunities for Betts at second base based on Red Sox pitching and Dodgers hitters, says the offensive numbers are a wash, and concludes thusly:

So if the lineup choices are a wash, this comes down to defense. Martinez is a sizable step down from Betts in right, but he’s got to be there if we want his bat in the lineup. Betts is likely a small step down from Bradley in center, probably a barely perceptible one, but that matters with Martinez in right. And at second, Holt is worse than Kinsler, but better than Betts. You could argue in either direction. Either way, Betts and Martinez must both play, and Bradley’s defense is more valuable than Holt’s.

Maybe putting Betts at second base is too radical for the World Series. Perhaps Cora will just keep it simple and bench Bradley, starting Holt or Kinsler at second base. It’s the easy way to go, and Red Sox fans know better than most how hard one poorly-timed defensive miscue can sting. But October is when the tough choices mean the most. Putting Betts at second is far from traditional. It just might be the right thing to do.

Petriello presents an interesting argument, but I’m not sure it is the correct one. Instead of separating offense and defense, let’s try to combine them. First, here are the player projections with a slight platoon adjustment for the lefties against a potential righty in Walker Buehler.

Red Sox Lineup Options
Name WAR/600 Projections
Mookie Betts 6.8
J.D. Martinez 4.2
Andrew Benintendi 3.7
Jackie Bradley Jr. 3.5
Ian Kinsler 2.8
Brock Holt 2.1
Bradley Jr., Benintendi, and Holt bumped up 0.5 WAR for platoon advantage

That’s what things look like when the players are all playing their normal positions. I’m leaving Martinez where he is, since the DH penalty is roughly equivalent to a -10 outfielder, a figure that seems about right. In the scenario where Betts goes to second base, we have to remove about a win off his value because of the change in defensive position. He’s a great outfielder, yes, but given his lack of recent play at second base, it’s probably not reasonable to expect even average defense from him, regardless of how many grounders he’s taken over the last few years. Putting that into the calculation, we see these numbers for the four outfield slots plus second base.

Red Sox Lineup with Betts at Second Base
Name WAR/600 Projections
Mookie Betts 5.8
J.D. Martinez 4.2
Andrew Benintendi 3.7
Jackie Bradley Jr. 3.5
TOTAL 17.2
Bradley. Jr. and Benintendi bumped up 0.5 WAR for platoon advantage. Betts loses a win for defensive change to second base.

Maybe Betts is better at second base than we think. Maybe Martinez is worse in the outfield. What happens if we replace Bradley with Betts in center field and put Kinsler at second base.

Red Sox Lineup with Bradley Jr. out
Name WAR/600 Projections
Mookie Betts 6.8
J.D. Martinez 4.2
Andrew Benintendi 3.7
Ian Kinsler 2.8
TOTAL 17.5
Bradley. Jr. and Benintendi bumped up 0.5 WAR for platoon advantage. Betts loses a win for defensive change to second base.

Betts isn’t likely to lose any value in center field given his range and arm are just as good as Bradley Jr.’s, even by Statcast metrics. Whatever he would theoretically lose in terms of fielding runs from the move, he would gain back by means of the center-field positional adjustment.

Whatever the case, it appears as though the difference between the two alignments — if one exists — is just a few runs. And while that’s minuscule over the course of one game, logic dictates that, when the radical solution doesn’t come out any better in the numbers, it probably isn’t worth the downside risk. The argument holds whether Benintendi or Bradley Jr. is benched. Given that Bradley Jr. seems more likely to hit the bench against a lefty on Saturday and Sunday (if necessary), I think it raises the argument that it is Benintendi who should sit against Walker Buehler.

Given Benintendi’s spot in the batting order, it is fairly clear that Alex Cora feels it is his left fielder who hits lefties (and righties) better than Bradley Jr. The projections (with defense) put the two players as near equals. Against Buehler, that means Cora is simply choosing offense or defense in Los Angeles with the other a potential pinch hitter. Neither option is a bad choice, but since Bradley Jr. still projects competently on offense against a righty, choosing defense over offense — in light of Martinez’s presence in the field — it makes sense to go with Bradley Jr. over Benintendi. The Red Sox center fielder has been unlucky with the bat this season by xwOBA, and it is possible projections are underrating his ability.

The graph below shows all players with 500 plate appearances with their xwOBA and wOBA, per Baseball Savant. Those players above the line are underperforming their xwOBA, while those players below the line are overperforming it.

Most of the players who undershoot their wOBA based on their xWOBA are slow as seen by the table below.

Biggest xwOBA Underachievers
Player wOBA xwOBA wOBA-xwOBA Sprint Speed
Kole Calhoun .283 .335 -.052 26.1 ft/sec
Victor Martinez .281 .324 -.043 23.2 ft/sec
Joe Mauer .319 .355 -.036 26.0 ft/sec
Chris Davis .239 .274 -.035 25.5 ft/sec
Nelson Cruz .361 .394 -.033 24.9 ft/sec
Salvador Perez .304 .337 -.033 25.1 ft/sec
Alex Gordon .305 .336 -.031 25.5 ft/sec
Jackie Bradley Jr. .311 .340 -.029 27.8 ft/sec
Joey Votto .370 .396 -.026 25.4 ft/sec
Ryon Healy .296 .322 -.026 26.0 ft/sec
Marcell Ozuna .327 .352 -.025 27.8 ft/sec
Yangervis Solarte .285 .309 -.024 24.7 ft/sec
Joey Gallo .343 .366 -.023 27.7 ft/sec
Jose Martinez .356 .378 -.022 26.5 ft/sec
Kyle Seager .288 .309 -.021 25.9 ft/sec
Jose Abreu .337 .358 -.021 26.7 ft/sec
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

It’s a bunch of really slow guys, a player who gets massively shifted in Joey Gallo, and then Marcell Ozuna and Bradley Jr. The Red Sox center fielder has hit a lot better than his batting line indicates. At least against a righty starter, he deserves to play. With the pitcher’s spot inithe lineup, Benintendi will still have an opportunity to impact the game off the bench. It certainly feels odd to advocate benching one of Boston’s best players in Andrew Benintendi, but I suppose that is one of those good problems to have.


The Recipe for the Red Sox’ Secret Sauce

Every plate appearance, every run, and every win is magnified in the postseason. The Red Sox came to bat more than 6,000 times, scored nearly 900 runs, and won 108 games during the regular season. In the playoffs, it’s been roughly 400 plate appearances, 68 runs, and nine wins so far. Because it is the playoffs, and because it is fun and important and special, when players and teams do something out of the ordinary, it stands out and deserves greater discussion. This postseason, the Red Sox have scored more than half their runs with two outs and, with two outs and runners in scoring position, are hitting like J.D. Martinez in the middle of a hot streak. That’s amazing, and it is great for the Red Sox, but we should be a little leery of trying to extract some sort of design or strategy from this great run.

Over at the Athletic, Jayson Stark has some of the amazing numbers the Red Sox have put up this postseason, including how they’ve scored 36 of their 68 runs with two outs. Teams usually score about 37% of their runs with two outs, so an increase by close to 50% is impressive. To try and determine how unusual of an occurrence this is, I ran a simple test, looking at the percentage of team runs scored with two outs from August 1 to August 13 of this year, roughly approximating the number of games the Red Sox play in October. During that one random stretch, no team was as high as 53% like the Red Sox arecurrently, but four teams were above 45%, with the Nationals at 48% to top the league. This is just one random stretch, but with a standard deviation of seven percentage points, what the Red Sox are doing puts them in the top 5%.

Then, for the same dates, I looked at team stats for runners in scoring position with two outs. Nobody ran numbers quite like the current Red Sox streak, with a wRC+ in the 220s, but there were two teams with at least a 190 wRC+ in the sample. One of those teams was the Braves. The other was these Boston Red Sox. So while what the Red Sox are doing is unusual, it also isn’t something that is impossible — and, indeed, the Red Sox seemed to do it earlier this season in early August.

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The Most Important Play of Game One

Neither the Red Sox’ four-run margin of victory, nor the ease with which Craig Kimbrel finished off the ninth, really do justice to the intensity of Game One of the World Series. Despite the final score, only 10 of the game’s 80 plays took place with a run differential greater than two runs. There were 11 high-leverage plays overall, and the average leverage index was 1.14, which is higher than normal. It was a game with important, exciting moments — and none were more important than certain moments of the seventh inning.

In terms purely of win expectancy, Eduardo Nunez’s three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh off Alex Wood was the game’s top play. When Nunez stepped to the plate with runners on first and second, two outs, and a one-run lead, the Red Sox’ chances of winning the game were 77% — which is to say, good but far from from certain. After his three-run homer — which came off the bat with a launch angle just under 20 degrees but managed to clear the Green Monster, anyway — Boston’s win probability increased to 96%. The game was pretty much over.

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The Best World Series Game One Matchups of All Time

Tonight’s World Series game features two of the best pitchers in baseball, with Clayton Kershaw facing off against Chris Sale. Jayson Stark made the argument that it might be the greatest starting matchup of all-time based on the career WHIPs of the pitchers. Kershaw and Sale have amassed over 100 WAR combined, and the former is the older one at just 30 years of age. Kershaw is already a surefire Hall of Famer, while Sale is likely to finish in the top six of Cy Young voting for the seventh straight year.

Career accomplishments are great, but they don’t necessarily tell us how well a pitcher is performing at present. The Clayton Kershaw we are seeing this year is not the same as the one from a few years past. To that end, I took a look at every World Series Game One matchup dating back to integration in 1947 and used single-season WAR to get a sense of how good this Kershaw-Sale matchup is historically

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The Best World Series Money Can Buy

If the Milwaukee Brewers had managed to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the seventh game of the NLCS, this post would examine one of biggest payroll disparities in World Series history. The Brewers couldn’t quite get the job done, however. As a result, it’s the Dodgers who advance to the final round of the 2018 postseason, and instead we have the most expensive World Series in history.

The Red Sox are projected to record a final a payroll around $237 million, which is the highest in baseball. The Dodgers — after considerable cost-cutting measures during the offseason — will finish the year with a payroll close to $194 million, per Cot’s Contracts. The Dodgers’ figure will likely be the fourth highest in MLB this season behind the Red Sox, Nationals, and Giants. The $423 million spent on payroll by the two World Series participants this season is the most ever.

The payroll totals somehow don’t do justice to how much these clubs have spent to get here. The Dodgers have spent $1.249 billion over the past five years, for an average payroll of $250 million. That’figure comes before accounting for the $28 million per season the Dodgers have paid in competitive-balance taxes. The Red Sox payroll this season — due to the Dodgers’ and Yankees’ efforts to get under the $197 million tax threshold — is more than $30 million clear of the second-place Nationals. When the club’s $10 million tax bill is considered, the team’s payroll is more than 20% higher than the Nationals. The difference between the Red Sox and Nationals is roughly the same as the difference between the Nationals and the 12th-place Mets. The Red Sox have spent $987.1 million on the team over the past five years, for an average payroll of $197 million — and just a bit over $200 million when factoring in taxes paid. Only the Dodgers and Yankees have spent more during that time.

As for the talent actually featured on the current rosters, the two clubs are very even: both had close to $155 million on the active roster in their respective LCSs. The graph below shows salaries (for competitive-balance tax purposes) for the players expected to play a role in the World Series. Players are shown by the amount of money the Red Sox or Dodgers are paying, not necessarily their full salary for the season. For example, Manny Machado is credited only with the portion of his salary for which the Dodgers are responsible following his acquisition from the Orioles.

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The Astros’ Doomsday Scenario

The Houston Astros won the World Series last year. They had a really good chance of winning it again this year. Unfortunately for the team, a really good chance in the playoffs still topped out below a 50/50 shot, and they ran into a really good Red Sox team that played well. Winning back-to-back championships is hard. No team has done it since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000. Even making it to the World Series in back-to-back seasons is difficult. Since that Yankees’ team made it to the series again in 2001, only the Phillies in 2008 and 2009, the Rangers in 2010 and 2011, and the Royals in 2014 and 2015 have participated in the World Series in back-to-back years. The odds were in the Astros’ favor and simultaneously stacked against them. Always take the field.

The Astros are incredibly well set up for the future. In Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa, the team has not only three legitimate stars but potential MVP candidates. This 2018 season was not a good one for the 24-year-old Correa, whose lower-back problems sidelined him at times and rendered him an average player when he was in the lineup. Consider how well the Astros persevered, though, despite lacking the services of six-win player. Kris Bryant of the Cubs had a similar season, for example, and the Cubs’ offense struggled to score runs, eventually losing in the Wild Card Game and firing their hitting coach. The Dodgers were huge favorites in the National League West. Without Corey Seager, however, they struggled to 90 wins and a 163rd game for the division after acquiring a similar player for half the season in the form of Manny Machado.

Alex Bregman emerged as a star, Jose Altuve put together a very good season despite his own injury issues, and George Springer turned in another good season. On offense, the team took a step back from its MLB-best 123 wRC+ in 2017, but still put together the fourth-best offense (110 wRC+) in the majors. The downturn in offense made little difference, as the pitching stepped up. A full year of ace Justin Verlander plus a trade for co-ace Gerrit Cole paced the team with 13 combined WAR, while Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr., and Charlie Morton all put together above average seasons. Those five pitchers made 152 of the team’s 162 starts. The rotation’s 22.5 WAR placed them just behind Cleveland’s and meant the bullpen had to cover just 499.2 innings. Houston didn’t have a problem with middle relievers because they never had to use them.

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The Red Sox’ Unsung Heroes

During his tenure as an MLB executive, Dave Dombrowski has earned a reputation for failing to build quality bullpens. Currently the president of baseball operations with the Red Sox, that reputation grew during his time with the Tigers and has followed him to Boston. Dombrowski took over Detroit in 2002. In 2003, the team lost 119 games. From 2004 to -15, Dombrowski’s Tigers won an average of 83 games per year, made two World Series appearances, qualified for the ALCS four times, and reached the playoffs five times overall. Those teams routinely had the worst bullpen in baseball, however.

The graph below shows average wins per year and reliever WAR from 2004 to -15.

At the end of the 2015 season, when Dombrowski came to a Boston organization with a great farm system, he shored up at least one inning’s worth of bullpen by trading for Craig Kimbrel. Dombrowski’s reputation might have come with him to Boston, but the Red Sox have gotten solid performance from their relievers the last few seasons.

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Manny Machado Gets Dirty

Last night, Manny Machado scored the decisive run in an extra-inning walkoff victory to tie the NLCS at two games a piece and put the Dodgers within two wins of the World Series. When discussing Machado and last night’s game, we’d ideally be focusing on his key hit, his smart and aggressive take of second base on a wild pitch, and his impressive dash from second to home on a single to right field that barely beat a strong throw from Christian Yelich.

We aren’t talking about that, though. We’re talking instead about a play in the 10th inning of last night’s game on which Manny Machado made contact with Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar:

In real time, it looked really awkward, but not necessarily malicious. After the game, the Brewers said the play was dirty or insinuated as such by questioning Machado’s general attitude about playing hard. From the MLB.com story:

“It’s a dirty play by a dirty player,” Brewers right fielder Christian Yelich said.

“It looked like it,” Aguilar said. “I’ve known Manny for many years and I don’t know why he would act like that.”

Brewers manager Craig Counsell threw shade at Machado when asked if the play went beyond the grounds of hard play.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess they got tangled up at first base. I don’t think he’s playing all that hard.”

Machado didn’t really back down either:

“If that’s dirty, that’s dirty,” Machado said. “I don’t know, call it what you want. I play baseball. I try to go out there and win for my team. If that’s their comments, that’s their comments. I can’t do nothing about that.”

Let’s start by giving Machado the benefit of the doubt and assume, for sake of argument, that it was just a weird play. In that spirit, let’s take a few closer looks at it to see what kind of determinations we might be able to make. Here’s another angle from directly behind Machado.

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Catchers Aren’t Catching the Ball

This is a simple game.

You throw the ball.

You hit the ball.

You catch the ball.

You got it?

I didn’t have to look far and wide for the clips above. Every single one of them is from the first few games of the League Championship Series. Every team is represented, and the collection is hardly exhaustive. I’ve omitted many wild pitches and all of the postseason’s passed balls. So far, during the 2018 playoffs, there have been 24 of the former and six of the latter. Among postseasons since 2002, the current one has already produced the fourth-most wild pitches — with 10 or more games to go. Only once since 2004 have there been more passed balls than during this postseason.

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Jhoulys Chacin’s Matchup Problem

After throwing Jhoulys Chacin on short rest for the division title two weeks ago and then in Game Two of the NLDS against Colorado shortly after that, Brewers manager Craig Counsell opted to skip Chacin for the first two games of the NLCS against the Dodgers. As I noted last week, the move made sense: while Chacin functions as the club’s nominal ace, the Brewers nevertheless gained an advantage over the Dodgers by throwing two left-handed starters.

The plan very nearly worked: Milwaukee took the first game of the series, then took a 3-2 lead into the eighth of Game Two before the bullpen coughed up the victory. With the series headed back to Los Angeles, Chacin will get his first start of the NLCS after eight days of rest. The Dodgers could provide some matchup problems for Chacin.

Jhoulys Chacin has always had platoon issues. By that standard, this season was no different. Against right-handers this year, Chacin struck out 24% of batters, walked 7%, and gave up a homer to one out of every 56 batters. When at a platoon disadvantage, however, Chacin struck out just 15% of batters, walked 11%, and gave up a homer to one out of every 37 batters he faced. The Dodgers — thanks in part to lefties Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, and Joc Pederson, and also switch-hitting Yasmani Grandal — put up an MLB-best 124 wRC+ (non-pitchers) against right-handed pitching this season. It’s clear, in light of this, why Counsell might have avoided using Chacin for a few games after a heavy recent workload and a couple lefty options. Moving Chacin’s game to Los Angeles also meant moving away from Miller Park, the third-best stadium in baseball for left-handed home runs. The Dodgers do play in a park that is homer-friendly for lefties, but not to the extent of Milwaukee.

The thing to watch, in particular, will be how Chacin’s slider fares against Dodgers hitters. This season, the Dodgers have been one of the very best teams in baseball against right-handed sliders, per Baseball Savant.

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Brewers Pass Over Ace to Gain Advantage

With the presence of two analytically driven clubs in the NLCS, much of the attention paid to the series will focus on how each team responds to moves made by the other in an effort to gain the upper hand. For the Brewers, one area particularly well suited for creative decision-making is the rotation. As documented by Jeff Sullivan last week, Brewers starters recorded the highest collective ERA of all this year’s playoff teams after accounting for league and park. The weaknesses of the rotation, however — in the hands of a club willing to ask questions — also represents an opportunity for creative solutions.

Consider: in the team’s incredibly important Game 163, manager Craig Counsell opted for the team’s best starting pitcher, Jhoulys Chacin, on short rest. Then, in Game One of the Division Series against the Rockies, the Brewers piggybacked Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes before going with Chacin on short rest again for the second game of the series. Counsell bypassed Wade Miley until Game Three of the Division Series and passed over Gio Gonzalez entirely.

For the series with the Dodgers, though, those final two pitchers, Gonzalez and Miley, have been named as the starters for Games One and Two, respectively — even though nominal ace Chacin is available on full rest. In this case, however, the use of the two lesser pitchers might ultimately give the Brewers and advantage,

The Brewers employed a bit of gamesmanship with regard to their probable starters for the NLCS, waiting until just yesterday to announce their choices. How they deploy their rotation, though, could have a real effect on the starting lineup selected by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. To get a better sense of what I mean, let’s start by examining the potential lineups for the Dodgers with the right-handed Chacin on the mound versus either of the two left-handers.

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Nationals Get Going on 2019, Marlins Look to 2023

The vast majority of our focus right now is on the playoffs, and rightly so. Dan Szymborski is writing postmortems on the teams whose seasons effectively ended in August or September, while Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel are doing prospect stuff. Other than that, we’ve been writing about the events we have literally waited all season to watch. But due to some pummeling in the Division Series, we’ve all been robbed of playoff games for a few days, and the Marlins and Nationals attempted to fill that void with a trade.

Nationals Receive

Marlins Receive

  • International Bonus Pool Money

A year ago, international bonus pool money was traded at a pretty frenzied pace. There were a lot of teams unable to spend that money due to restrictions from prior spending, and there were a lot of teams trying to create as much space as possible in an effort to sign Shohei Ohtani. The Marlins’ motivation to obtain bonus pool space now is pretty obvious. Yesterday, the club hosted Cuban prospects Victor Victor Mesa, Sandy Gaston, and Victor Mesa, Jr. According Eric and Kiley’s report yesterday, the Marlins are the favorites for Victor Victor Mesa; they had the following to say about the young Cuban:

Mesa hit some balls out to his pull side during batting practice, showing 50-grade raw power, but he has a linear, contact-oriented swing that we think will lead to below-average power output in games. There’s no question he can hit, defend, and add value on the bases, but there’s real doubt about the game application of his power. In aggregate, it looks like an average to slightly below-average offensive profile on an above-average defender at a premium position. Scouts think Mesa is a low-risk, moderate-impact prospect who should be ready for the big leagues relatively soon. He garners frequent comparisons to Cubs CF Albert Almora. There’s a chance Mesa has a three-win season or two at peak, but expectations are more of a solid 1.5- to 2.0-win type player. He’s a 45+ FV on our July 2nd version of THE BOARD, which would be somewhere in the 130 to 175 range overall in the minors.

Mesa presents Miami with an opportunity to obtain a prospect cheaply, and obtaining more signing bonus money increases their chances to do so. As for the cost, Barraclough is an interesting reliever. You might remember him as a guy who struck out 37% of batters and gave up just a single home run in 75 MLB appearances. That version of Barraclough was really good, but that version is from three seasons ago. You might also remember him as a slightly less effective pitcher who struck out 30% of batters and put up a decent 3.66 FIP and 3.00 ERA. That version is now two seasons in the past.

All versions of Barraclough have featured a roughly 14% walk rate, and his most recent season featured a 25% K-rate and eight homers in 55.1 innings. That’s a below-replacement-level season. Worse still, five of his eight home runs happened in 13.1 second-half innings. After a smoke-and-mirrors first half where he put up a 1.00 ERA despite a 3.66 FIP and looked on pace to repeat his 2017 season, Barraclough had 13 strikeouts and 11 walks in the second half, which included a stint on the disabled list for back stiffness. Some combination of a high asking price plus a very poor July resulted in the Marlins holding on to Barraclough at the trade deadline, likely hoping that he might recover some lost trade value over time.

The Marlins opted not to see if Barraclough could recover any of that value and traded him away at a very modest cost. The righty is projected to make $1.9 million in arbitration, a cost even the Marlins would reasonably absorb if they believed Barraclough would be better next season.

Everything has trended worse over the past few seasons. Hitters have been more patient on offerings out of the zone, and when they do swing, they make more contact.

As a result, he’s had to make more hittable pitches in the zone.

That’s meant fewer swings-and-misses.

It isn’t as though the league has caught up to Barraclough. It’s actually the opposite; he has pitched down to the league level as seen by his drop in fastball velocity.

Batters have learned to lay off the slider, due perhaps in part to having just a hair more time to react to the fastball. Two seasons ago, Barraclough was getting swings on his slider outside of the zone around 40% of the time, and batters swung and missed on those pitches more than two-thirds of the time, helping him to a whiff rate of more than 20% on the pitch. This past season, he induced swings out of the zone closer to 20% of the time and his overall whiff rate has been cut in half. He has used a changeup a little bit more and it has been fairly effective, but the overall outlook isn’t good unless he can get hitters to chase that slider.

It’s possible Barraclough was just a little hurt as the season wore on and a full offseason of rest will get him back where he needs to be. Relievers are a volatile bunch, as seen by both Barraclough’s rise in 2015 and 2016, and his fall this year. We probably don’t know what he will offer next season until at least March of next year. For a Washington club that has had issues with its bullpen in the past, he’s worth a flier to see if the old version of Barraclough shows up.

The Nationals aren’t acquiring a proven closer, a guy they can expect to handle the seventh inning, or a guy that can come in and shut down the opposition. That was Barraclough a few years ago. What the Nationals are getting now is a lottery ticket, a chance to hit on the old dominant reliever might still be in there. To truly remake the pen behind closer Sean Doolittle, the club should probably make three or four more moves like this one in order to find a solid arm for later innings.


The Yankees Have a Lot of Payroll to Use

The Yankees’ 2018 campaign came to a disappointing end on Tuesday. After a 100-win regular season that, under normal circumstances, would have won them the division, they were forced to face the A’s in the American League’s Wild Card game. And while they managed to get past Oakland, New York ran into trouble against a Boston club that produced 108 victories, losing the final two games due, in part, to rookie manager Aaron Boone’s reluctance to utilize his bullpen.

Now the focus for the Yankees moves to 2019, when the team will be forced to compete not only with the Red Sox but also the lofty standards set by the club’s 2018 season.

In a sense, 2018 was a transition year for the New York. On the one hand, yes, they began the season by trading for the National League MVP and ended it with 100 wins. On the other, though, rookies — most notably Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres — accounted for 1,528 of the club’s plate appearances, the highest total for the franchise since 1969, when Bobby Murcer became a full-time starter. The club’s 5.7 WAR from rookie position players is the third-highest total in the past 30 years behind only last season (due solely to Aaron Judge) and 1989 (when Alvaro Espinoza, Bob Geren, and Roberto Kelly were rookies).

As part of their “transition,” the team finally reduced their payroll by a sufficient amount to avoid the competitive-balance tax and reset the penalties associated with it. From 2014 to -17, the Yankees spend an average of $256 million per year in payroll and penalties combined, per Cot’s Contracts. This season, they are likely to end up around $195 million. The Yankees, in other words, just cut payroll by $60 million. And not only that: because they drew 300,000 more fans than last season and also face a more modest revenue-sharing burden under the new CBA, New York likely ended up with $100 million more in 2018 than previous seasons. In light of that, it’s unsurprising to find that the organization is reportedly planning to buy back the YES Network from Disney when the latter sells it off to acquire part of FOX’s assets. The Yankees are awash in cash, and they shouldn’t have any limitations in free-agent spending this offseason.

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The Meaningless Cycle

Brock Holt had a fun night on Tuesday, recording four hits in the Red Sox’ commanding 16-1 victory over the Yankees in Game Three of the ALDS. Even more notable than the number of hits recorded by Holt was the type. He followed a fourth-inning single with a fourth-inning triple with an eighth-inning double with a ninth-inning home run. Put all those together and the result is the first cycle in postseason history.

A cycle obviously isn’t the most potent collection of four hits a batter can record. Replacing the single with a double would technically represent a “better” night at the plate. Replacing all the hits with four home runs wouldn’t be so bad, either. A cycle is fun, though. It’s impressive for its offensive impact and unusual for the distribution of hit types.

Brock Holt’s cycle, specifically, occurred in a blowout, so most of the component hits had little bearing on the Red Sox’ win. We’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s take a look at why there have been no playoff cycles before this one.

For baseball to facilitate 100 years of postseason play without producing a single cycle seems odd. Consider, though, that the modern MLB season features around 2,400 games and that those 2,400 games have yielded only about three cycles per season this decade (and fewer in earlier eras). Meanwhile, there have been only about 1,500 playoff games. In other words, using historical averages, there’s still about a one-in-three chance of no cycles occurring across the entire swath of postseason history. Limiting the calculus to playoff games since 2010 — or roughly 300 postseason contests — there’s a two-in-three chance of zero cycles.

While Holt’s was the first official cycle, history has produced a number of close calls. A few searches of Baseball-Reference’s Play Index reveals 152 player games in which a batter finished one hit short of the cycle. Those hits are broken down as follows:

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