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King of Little Things 2014

My very first post at FanGraphs just over five years ago was about the King of Little Things. It might be seen as another annual junk stat-based post like the Carter-Batista Award and the reader is free to think of it that way. However, while both are in some way about the murky issue of situational hitting, the Carter-Batista Awared is about how RBI can exaggerate a player’s offensifve value, while the King of Little Things is about what might be seen (rightly or wrongly) as a hitter’s response to the overall game state beyond what is measured by traditional linear weights (as measured by wOBA, for example).

What does that mean, and who is 2014’s King of Little Things?

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The 2014 Joe Carter-Tony Batista Award

The days of having to rail against runs batted in as a particularly useful indicator of individual offensive value are long behind us. That does not mean there might not be potentially interesting research to do on situational hitting or the like, but simply that the straight-up use of RBI is not something that really needs to be debated.

Nonetheless, it is still interesting to see what sorts of hitters can accumulate high numbers of RBI, something we recognize with an award named for two players who managed big RBI numbers despite less than impressive advanced hitting metrics: the John Carter-Tony Bautista Award.

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Players Who Were Better Off Bunting

Bunts were more topical before the Royals discovered how to hit home runs in the playoffs. But bunt fever can never be cured, only controlled. Hopefully people have a more nuanced view of bunts. Jeff Sullivan recently discussed how the Royals’ bunts this year actually have not been so bad according to Win Probability Added, a tool I also use in my annual Best and Worst Bunts posts (the anticipation is building!).

While much of the positive value of bunts comes from the chances of the defense making errors. A WPA analysis takes into account the game state — at some point things like one-run strategies are pretty good ideas. Moreover some players are better bunters than others, and some players are such poor hitters that bunting might be more advisable for them than others.

Looking back at the 2014 regular season, which players were better off bunting?

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The MVP and the DH Adjustment

No designated hitter has ever won the Most Valuable Player award. Barring a surprise, that will not change this season. Victor Martinez has had a amazing year, but he is not going to be the American League MVP. (I have a feeling he does not have much of a shot at being the National League MVP this year, either.) Who knows where he will end up in the balloting, but does outside of some Twitter arguments the day the winner is announced, will anyone really care about the down-ballot voting?

According the metric everyone loves to hate, Wins Above Replacement, that sounds about right. Martinez is not even close to the top. This might really bother some people. After all, one could argue that Martinez has been the best hitter in the American League this season. The problem with WAR, from the Martinez partisans’ perspective, is the positional adjustment for the DH.

This is not a post about where exactly Victor Martinez should be in the MVP discussion this season. The question is whether anyone would really have a shot at being the most valuable player according to WAR if they DHed all season.

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The Eyes Have It: Seth Smith’s Laser Show

Seth Smith is having the best year of his career at the plate. He has slowed down during the second half of the season after a monster first half, but his overall line is still quite good. These days, .266/.370/.444 with half of the games happening in one of the league’s tougher parks for hitters is good for a 134 wRC+.

Even though Smith is having his best year as a hitter at 31, an age at which most players are expected to decline, in itself the story is not terribly interesting. During the off-season and the trade deadline, one could take about the Padres trading Luke Gregerson for him, giving Smith an extension, and electing not to trade him at the deadline (when his numbers was much more impressive) to generaet a bit of heat, but this is not exactly Trout-versus-Cabrera 2012-2013 territory. The Padres are a mediocre team (to put it kindly) in another transitional year, and Smith is only really good by their 2014 standard. He has hardly reshaped himself into a superstar. Smith is a platoon hitter whose greater level of success this year might very well be random variation.

What makes Smith’s performance this season more intriguing than it might appear at first is the possible connection to laser eye surgery Smith had late last season.

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Small Things Adding Up: Michael Bourn’s Speedy Decline

After 2013’s surprise run to the playoffs, in 2014 Cleveland is making a good show of it. However, at this point their playoff contention is mostly nominal.

Cleveland had a number of good things happen for them this year. They have both a serious Cy Young contender in Corey Kluber and (in a Trout-less world) a legitimate MVP candidate in Michael Brantley. The team has also made some free agent signings over the past couple of years, acquisitions that were supposed to be part of the team’s return to relevance. Despite the overall success, though, players like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn have mostly been disappointing. In the case of Bourn, it is not any one thing, but a number of factors that have contributed to his disappointing performance the last two years.

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The Cardinals Offense and the Failure to Live Up to 2013

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Cardinals were just behind the Brewers in the National League Central. Just over a week ago, the Cardinals pulled just barely ahead of the Brewers. Today, after taking three of four against Milwaukee, including yesterday’s 9-1 crushing, the Cardinals are five games up on the Brewers, who are actually now in third next to the Pirates. Over the last week the Brewers’ rotation has not exactly made its defenders look good.

While one could go on about the Brewers’ fall, the Cardinals are the main story. They have never really been out of it. At the beginning of the season, St. Louis was a solid favorite to win their division. Two months ago, when they were four games behind the Brewers, the Cardinals’ chances of winning the division were roughly the same as the Brewers. Today, they are overwhelming favorites.

The 2014 Cardinals are not clearly dominant in either pitching or hitting. In particular, on the offensive side they have not hit nearly as well as the 2013 team. Yet they again are poised to win the division. In many ways, the regression was predictable. But does that mean the Cardinals made mistakes when preparing for 2014?

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Aceless in Milwaukee

With two losses in a row to the Cubs, the Brewers have fallen out of first place in the National League Central. The National League West looks a lot like the American League West: Whichever team of top two teams in the West does not win the division very probably will be a very good first Wild Card team. If the current standings hold, the Brewers would be the second Wild Card team.

The second Wild Card spot is not nearly as desirable as winning the division, of course, but it is still much better than sitting at home during the playoffs. Moreover, the Brewers are just one game behind the Cardinals. A roughly one-in-three shot at winning the division (and one-in-two of making the playoffs) is not bad at all.

Milwaukee was not projected to be terrible, so this year has not been totally out of nowhere. Like the Royals, for example, they projected to be a roughly .500 team in a division that was not terribly strong. Still, the Brewers’ long stand on top of the Central this season was pretty surprising. As with all teams, there have been various surprise performances (on balance good for the Brewers).

One particularly intriguing aspect of the Brewers’ success in 2014 is their lack of an obvious “ace” – which is sometimes said to be necessary for a team to be successful – in their starting rotation. Read the rest of this entry »

The Second Wildcard Spot and the Unquantifiable Element

Not long ago, it looked like the As were running away with the 2014 American League West. Things have changed. After Sunday night’s game, the Angels are in first place by one game and the As are the first wildcard team at the moment. Whichever team ends up winning the division, barring a shocking twist, the other team will be a very tough matchup for the second wildcard team.

The prospect of facing such a particularly tough opponent in the wildcard game might lead some to think that the second wildcard spot is not all that valuable this season. Not only is the opponent likely to be very good (arguably better than the other division winners), but they will be playing at home. The second wildcard gives a team a chance at advancing, but it does not look like a very good chance. This is probably true most seasons, but it seems particularly clear this year.

Taking that all into account, the question arises as to how much value teams should place on that second wildcard spot. Sure, any team would take that spot over not making the playoffs, but should it really alter a team’s plans with regard to the future budget, trading away prospects, or making other “win now” moves? Is this something that can be quantified?

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Adam Jones’ Historical Plate Discipline Peers

What Mike Petriello wrote in July, continues to be true in August: the Orioles are tough to figure out. What is objectively true is that Baltimore is leading the American League East by a substantial margin, and that it unlikely to change.

As Mike noted in July, the Orioles are doing this despite many things not going as expected. However, one player is pretty much the same as he always: Adam Jones. From 2010 to 2013, Jones’ cumulative wRC+ was 116. To date in 2014, his wRC+ is 115. Jones’ offensive production so far this season may be a bit down from his 2012 and 2013 performances, but he is still pretty much the same hitter: good (not great) production based on average and power despite a low walk rate.

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Playing the Regression Game the Right Way

Speculation is part of the fun of watching and discussing sports. “Seriously, if he can keeping hitting like that and the other guy gets his act together at the plate, this offense is really going to be fun to watch in the second half.” This sort of casual speculation is not incompatible with trusting the projections. The line between speculation and analysis-based projection may not always be clear, though, and there are cases when it can be crossed to fit one’s own views.

It is all part of what I call the “Regression Game.” Okay, maybe that is not a great name, but it beats something like “The Process of Filtering Through Projections And Determining Collective True Talent.” Whatever the proper name, one can find it in various forms, particularly in the middle of the season. I am not saying one should never try to take into account various scenarios, that is, to play the game. Just like baseball, though, we need to make sure we are being consistent and playing the regression game the Right Way.

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Chisenhall, Brantley, and Regression Games

Everyone knows projections are not guarantees. Anything is possible. But even those alternate possibilities can be surprising in themselves. For example, some people, prior to the season, picked the Royals as dark horse contenders. However, how many of them said Kansas City would be on top of American League Central by midseason despite Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Billy Butler all being almost completely worthless at the plate?

Along the same lines, it was not inconceivable for Cleveland to have a pretty good offense in 2014. In 2013, Cleveland hit pretty well. But again, who would have thought that the 2014 team would have one of the better offenses in the American League about halfway through the season despite Jason Kipnis missing time with injury and (to date) not playing well, Carlos Santana hitting .193, and Nick Swisher sporting a 76 wRC+? Kansas City’s ascension and Detroit’s struggles are rightfully getting the attention, but Cleveland is hanging in there. Much of the credit has to go to two players having shockingly monstrous seasons at the plate: Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley.

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Chris Getz Retires, Outlasting Teahen and Fields

Chris Getz announced his retirement yesterday. The former White Sox and Royals second baseman was outrighted by the Blue Jays after 28 plate appearances (16 wRC+). In his statement, Getz makes clear that he is ready to move on with his life. Given his performance on the field the last few years, that life probably would not be enhanced by spending a lot of time floating around Triple-A. There are worse fates than retiring from baseball at 30 after 1574 major league plate appearances, even if they were less than scintillating (.250/.309/.307, 66 wRC+ career).

Although Getz’s talents were quite exceptional relative to the world’s population, they were quite unremarkable in the context of professional baseball. There were not really any moments exciting enough to stand out to people outside of his home fanbases (and maybe not even to them). But Getz’ retirement does provide a good occasion to briefly compare his trajectory with that of the other two players involved in the November 2009 trade between the White Sox and Royals that sent Getz and Josh Fields to Kansas City for Mark Teahen. The far-less-heralded Getz somehow outlasted both Fields and Teahen as a major league player.

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The Royals Bunt to Not Win, Succeed

The main story of the last night’s installment of the Battle for Grass Creek between the Royals and the Mariners was Hisashi Iwakuma. Iwakuma shut down the (admittedly less-than-intimidating) Kansas City bats with an eight-inning effort, during which he allowed only four hits, no walks and no runs, and struck out seven. The Mariners needed all Iwakuma could bring, because the Royals themselves only allowed the Mariners one run. The Mariners’ lone run came right after Royals’ manager Ned Yost made the questionable decision to have left-handed starter Danny Duffy walk the left-handed hitting Robinson Cano to pitch to right-handed Corey Hart. The problems with that decision have been discussed elsewhere. My own short summary: some intentional walks might make sense, but this was not one of them.

Yost made another interesting decision in the bottom of the ninth. With none out, a runner on first and the Mariners’ closer, Fernando Rodney, on the mound, Yost had Norichika Aoki lay down a sacrifice bunt. Aoki did so successfully, but after an Eric Hosmer walk, the Royals made two more outs and it all came to naught. After the game, Yost explained his decision:

Because I want to take a shot at tying it. My ‘pen was strong enough where I felt like I could go ahead and go for the tie. Some nights you don’t. Some nights you play for the win.

Like intentional walks, not all bunts are bad. Sometimes they are the smart play, sometimes they are not. It is not always easy to say one way or the other. Yost’s teams have sometimes bunted in situations where it made sense. Was this one of those situations?

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The Worst Starts in Great Seasons

During a May 2 showdown with division rival Detroit, Kansas City’s ace James Shields put up a horrible start. After mostly dominating batters through the first month of the season, Shields allowed eight runs in just over six innings, a dent in an otherwise good-looking seasonal line. Without analyzing the start in detail, it is fair to say that no matter how bad it was for Kansas City, in itself it provided no obvious cause for concern with regard to Shields. Shields has been one of the top ten or fifteen starters in baseball the last few years, and one game by itself does not change that.

Still, just how bad can it get for good pitchers? Every pitcher puts up a bad start now and then, but how bad have the best been in recent years?

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Great Months in Terrible Seasons

Earlier this week I looked at some notably terrible months by hitters in seasons that otherwise turned out to be very good. As I said there, while we might know that it is too early in the season to be worried about individual hitters who are slumping, it is difficult not to let extreme early season lines get to us. Some players are smoking the ball unexpectedly at this point as well, and although the point can be made either way, looking at some individual cases in which hitters had great single months during otherwise horrible seasons might also be interesting.

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Terrible Months in Good Seasons

Even good hitters go through a cold streaks at some point. If they want to avoid fan panic, though, they need to make sure and save those week or month-long slumps for later in the season. When slumps happen at the beginning of the season, they sandbag the player’s line, and it takes a while for even a good hitter’s line to return to “normal.” Most FanGraphs readers are familiar with the notion of small sample, and thus are, at least on an intellectual level, hopefully immunized against overreaction to early season struggles of good players.

Nonetheless, at this time of the year it is often good to have some existential reassurance. Intellectually, we know that just because a cold streak happens over the first two weeks or month of a season it is not any different than happening in the middle of the year. Slumps at the beginning of the year simply stand out more because they are the whole of the player’s line. One terrible month (and we are not even at the one month point in this season) does not doom a season. Rather than repeat the same old stuff about regression and sample size, this post will offer to anecdotal help. Here are five seasons from hitters, each of which contain (at least) one terrible month at some point, but each of which turned out to be excellent overall.

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Yunel Escobar and the Value of Chemistry Revisited

Yunel Escobar apparently is not into playing hard to get. He reportedly “commandeered” Andrew Friedman during spring training to begin extension talks. Those talks led to the contract extension announced this past weekend: $5 million for 2015 — which replaced the $5 million club option from his prior contract — $7 million in 2016 and a 2017 club option for $7 million, with a $1 million buyout. Given the apparent rise in the price of wins, the deal is almost a no-brainer for the team. It almost sets aside the question whether Escobar fits into the team’s future depth chart while simultaneously raising some curious questions about the value of clubhouse chemistry.

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2014 Positional Power Rankings: Designated Hitter

What do we have here? For an explanation of this series, please read this introductory post. As noted in that introduction, the data is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position. The author writing this post did not move your team down ten spots in order to make you angry. We don’t hate your team. I promise.

Also, keep in mind that these lists are based on rosters as of last week, so weekend transactions are not reflected in the rosters below. In some cases, teams have allocated playing time to different reserves than these depth charts show, but because they’re almost always choosing between near-replacement level players, the differences won’t move the needle much if at all.

And now, for the last crop of position players. Or position-less players, I guess.


Given the various uncertainties of projections, there is not much practical separation between the number seven team and the number 13 team on this list. One could even say there is not practical separation between the number five team and the number 15 team. Superstar DHs (in terms of actual value, rather than perception and marketability) are a rarity. It is not impossible for DHs to reach that level. David Ortiz (more on him in a bit) had a couple of superstar seasons years ago, and hitters like Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez made careers as superstar DHs.

Some have argued this is because teams are not utilizing their DH spots properly. While that may be true to an extent, it seems a bit too simplistic. Finding a player who is worth two wins above average (which would make him a roughly average player as a DH) just on offense is hard enough, and finding one on the free agent market who is willing to not play the field (even if he should) is even more difficult. Moreover, even teams who have money often have older players signed to long-term deals who are no longer really able to play the field every day, and thus need some of the time at DH. This makes it impractical to commit to one player at DH. It is an advantage when teams are able to do so, but it is easier said than done.

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Livan Hernandez: Beginnings, Ends, and Middles

It would be hard to call Livan Hernandez’s retirement surprising, but some people such as myself were probably a bit taken aback because we assumed he had already retired. That is not meant as a slight. Hernandez is in his late thirties (some would say he is even older), did not pitch at all in 2013, and was dreadful when he last pitched in the majors in 2012. Our own Paul Swydan ranked Hernandez’s 2012 as one of the worst final seasons among pitchers having similar careers.

Beat writers and fans of Hernandez’s numerous teams will have all the best stories and reflections on his career. It would be hard to top Grant Brisbee’s (understandably) Giants-centric farewell to Hernandez, so I am not even going to try. But Hernandez drew attention, even late in his career, for other, non-fan-centric reasons. In 2011, Jeff Sullivan (who today [Livan Day at FanGraphs!] also posted about Hernandez and the strike zone) mentioned that Hernandez had a pretty bad slider in 2011. Yet after that same 2011 season, Swydan noted gave Hernandez an honorable mention for his incredibly slow, but amazingly curvy curve in 2011. Robert Baumann also got in on The Joy of Livan.

Rather than getting into every little statistical detail of Hernandez’ career, let’s look at three different moments from the roughly the beginning, end, and middle of his career.

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