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Oakland A’s Add to the Familia

Whereas the first notable reliever acquisition of the trade deadline saw Cleveland receive, in Brad Hand and Adam Cimber, two pitchers who will remain with the club for future seasons, the Athletics this afternoon have performed a swap with a more traditional rent-a-player flavor, getting Jeurys Familia from the New York Mets in exchange for right-handed reliever Bobby Wahl, third baseman William Toffey, and an unspecified pile of international slot money, the 2018 version of a player-to-be-named-later.

There’s an argument to be made that, at this point, Familia may be slightly underrated among relievers. The extra couple of walks per nine that Familia picked up in a 2017 season mostly ruined by surgery to remove a blood clots from his shoulder have disappeared in 2018. Familia’s not relying on his hard, heavy sinker as much as he has in the past — especially against lefties — but given that the A’s have an infield whose four primary players, Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien, Matt Olson, and Jed Lowrie have all been above average by UZR (Lowrie a couple of runs in the negative in DRS), I’d be happy to see him go to that well a bit more often again. Even without relying on the sinker, Familia’s pitching as well as he was in 2016, which was enough to earn him an All-Star appearance and a rather odd MVP vote. Familia is in the top 20 of relievers in WAR and among the top 30 in FIP, so it’s a real upgrade to the A’s bullpen. Blake Treinen will remain the closer, which I believe is absolutely the right tack to take.

ZiPS Projection – Jeurys Familia
Year W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
ROS 2018 2 1 3.00 25 0 24.0 21 8 1 10 25 137 0.7

Despite Sandy Alderson’s insistence earlier this season that the Mets have no plans to go full-scale rebuild, the team’s at least been listening to offers on pretty much the entire roster. Familia doesn’t necessarily indicate a stronger organizational willingness to go that route, of course, as he was likely to be traded anyway given his contract and the team’s position in the standings.

Bobby Wahl is an interesting flier for the Mets to take. It’s hard to characterize a 26-year-old reliever as some kind of top prospect — and I won’t — but Wahl throws in the upper 90s, has an effective slider (that really feels more like a slurve to me), and can change speeds at least tolerably well. His control’s been an issue at times, though not on the Bobby Witt scale, and one of the reasons he’s not been a bit higher in the pecking order is that he has a long history of injury, losing parts of most years with varying ailments, most recently surgery for a thoracic outlet issue last season. He was fine by spring training and, as far as I know, hasn’t had any significant issues along those lines since.

ZiPS Projection – Bobby Wahl
Year W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
ROS 2018 1 1 4.58 15 0 17.7 21 9 3 10 23 85 0.1
2019 3 3 4.07 45 1 48.7 37 22 6 30 71 98 0.3
2020 3 2 3.97 40 0 43.0 32 19 6 26 63 101 0.3
2021 3 2 3.85 40 0 44.0 32 19 6 27 65 104 0.4
2022 2 2 3.98 35 0 38.7 28 17 5 24 57 101 0.3
2023 2 2 4.03 33 0 35.7 26 16 5 22 53 100 0.3
2024 2 2 4.01 31 0 33.7 24 15 5 21 50 99 0.3

Prospect-watchers tend to like Will Toffey more than Wahl, and ZiPS agrees that he’s a bit above-average defensively, placing him at about two runs per 150 games better than average based on the rough estimates ZiPS makes from play-by-play data. I’m really not sold on his bat: 23 is just too old for a player not in the middle infield or catching to not be killing the ball in the California League. While there’s obviously more time for Toffey to develop into something more than Wahl, I think the latter is more likely to actually contribute to a major-league team. The Mets’ squadron isn’t that deep in relief pitching and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see him in the back end of the team’s bullpen in April (or even this year!) depending on what other moves the Mets make.

ZiPS Projection – Will Toffey
Year AB BA OBP SLG H 2B 3B HR BB SO SB CS OPS+ DR WAR
ROS 2018 189 .217 .267 .289 40 7 1 2 15 50 1 2 52 1 -0.3
2019 508 .211 .276 .297 107 19 2 7 44 138 3 5 56 2 -0.8
2020 488 .209 .280 .307 102 20 2 8 46 137 2 4 60 2 -0.6
2021 490 .208 .281 .310 102 20 3 8 48 140 2 4 61 3 -0.5
2022 486 .208 .284 .313 101 20 2 9 50 142 2 4 63 3 -0.3
2023 482 .205 .285 .311 99 20 2 9 52 144 2 3 63 3 -0.4

It’s interesting to see Oakland positioning themselves as buyers, at least in the bargain section. To find the last time Oakland was the team trading prospects for a veteran rather than vice-versa, you actually have to go back to the 2014 Jeff Samardzija trade, which saw the team give up Addison Russell, Dan Straily, and Billy McKinney to the Cubs for Samardzija and Jason Hammel. (They picked up Jon Lester later in that month, but you’d be hard-pressed to describe Yoenis Cespedes as a prospect.) While one doesn’t really think of the A’s as front-line, top-tier contenders, the fact is they’re essentially in a two-team race for the second Wild Card with the Mariners, a team that only has a Pythagorean record of right around .500 and likely isn’t as good as their seasonal record when you talk the rest-of-season projections. Even four games back, that it’s a two-team race is quite important: I’d rather be four games behind one team than two games back and fighting with seven other teams. But the 2018 National League is highly competitive one and the American league, the bifurcated stars-and-scrubs league, a flip of the situation a few years ago.

I’m not a believer in going all-in for a Wild Card unless it comes with a significant chance of also capturing the division title, but with what Oakland is giving up, they’re not going all-in, but simply making an incremental addition to enhance their Wild Card odds. Being less risk-averse with Familia is better in this situation than rolling the dice with Wahl would be. In all, the A’s add a significant part of their present without giving up a significant part of their future.

Wins on both sides here, with both teams getting what they need from this trade. I daresay that I’d be happier with Familia at this price than Zach Britton at the price he eventually fetches.


Are the Dodgers Now the Team to Beat?

Well before the rumors of a deal between the Dodgers and Orioles surfaced this week, Manny Machado was — as a legitimate star with an expiring contract on a team unlikely to contend — considered the prize of this year’s trade deadline. The 2018 season has done nothing so far to invalidate that notion, Machado bouncing back considerably from a surprisingly unimpressive 2017 season to hit .315/.387/.575, all three parts of that slash line representing career bests. The move back to shortstop hasn’t been quite as successful, but even a narcoleptic Jeff Blauser would have significant value with this kind of offensive contribution.

It took about 92 games longer than expected, but the Dodgers entered the All-Star break in first place, caressing a half-game lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West. Nor is it a two-team race: the Colorado Rockies sit just two games back and the team’s traditional rivals, the San Francisco Giants, are still hanging on four games behind despite a bevy of nasty surprises in the rotation this season. There are reasons to believe that the Dodgers are in better position than their slim divisional lead might suggest, their somewhat modest record due more to underperformance than any fatal flaw in how the roster is designed. Even before the Machado trade, the updated ZiPS projections saw the Dodgers as the strongest National League team in terms of the strength of roster and the likely depth-chart configuration.

ZiPS Projections, NL Roster Strength, Pre-Trade
Team Roster Strength
Los Angeles Dodgers .584
Chicago Cubs .572
Washington Nationals .542
Arizona Diamondbacks .531
St. Louis Cardinals .530
Milwaukee Brewers .528
Philadelphia Phillies .520
Colorado Rockies .515
San Francisco Giants .514
Atlanta Braves .514
Pittsburgh Pirates .488
New York Mets .472
Cincinnati Reds .466
San Diego Padres .444
Miami Marlins .409

There are areas where ZiPS produces different results than the official postseason odds calculated from the combined Steamer/ZiPS projections. ZiPS, for example, has long preferred the Braves, Brewers, and Phillies while being a bit Nationals-skeptical, but both the ZiPS and FanGraphs methodologies agree that the Dodgers had the best roster in the National League before the trade. The problem the Dodgers faced is that, while the mean projections obviously look quite favorably on their prospects, mean projections also don’t account for the uncertainty around the numbers, which can be quite significant. Even firmly believing that the Dodgers had the strongest roster in the NL West, ZiPS still called for them — after a million years of game-by-game matchups — to lose out on the division about once every three times.

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The All-Star Game Is the Worst Part of All-Star Week

Of all those 1970s disaster movies, the worst one for me has always been The Swarm. Featuring an impressive cast, with names such as Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Richard Chamberlain, José Ferrer, and Olivia de Havilland (along with many others), the film’s stars muddle their way through roughly three uninteresting hours, all the time looking like they had accidentally wandered in from other, more interesting movies. Every star gets his or her own cameo, and typically a random death, like when the bees destroy a helicopter or when the bees derail a train or when Henry Fonda decides to test a vaccine by giving himself a large dose of it and crossing his fingers. I’ll leave any connection between that last misfortune and the Orioles’ most recent offseason to the reader.

Despite the ambition of the film, what it lacked was any sense of fun, any sense of purpose for having assembled such talent. And that’s why it works as an able metaphor for the All-Star Game. There are a lot of great things about All-Star Week. The Futures Game gives the wider public what is, for many, their first look at players like Hunter Greene or Peter Alonso. As used to be the case for the All-Star Game, many of the players involved in the Futures Game are facing off each other for the first time — in this case, thanks to rosters constructed of players from across the minor leagues. That kind of unfamiliarity is rare to see at the major-league level, both because of free agency and also interleague play, the latter of which is now a daily occurrence. But my colleague Travis Sawchik has more on that!

The Home Run Derby is nonsense in a lot of ways, but it’s fun, glorious nonsense, which takes one important aspect of baseball (hitting for power), fills it with helium and cotton candy, and then sends it on its merry way. While cotton candy oughtn’t be the foundation of a every meal, it’s fine for an occasional celebration. As Jay Jaffe noted this morning, last night’s Home Run Derby captured this atmosphere perfectly. The participants were all clearly having a blast and that kind of feeling is infectious. Watching Bryce Harper come from behind in the finals, smacking nine consecutive homers to pass Kyle Schwarber is one of those Big Moments© you remember 10 years later, the kind of thing that makes watching baseball a joyful experience.

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Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 7/16/18

2:00
Dan Szymborski: And we are here!

2:00
Dan Szymborski: Maybe.

2:00
Dan Szymborski: I made the chat myself so it may not actually be working and each and everyone of you is already dead.

2:00
The Decadent Moose: Since last June…

2:02
Go A’s!: What is Miguel Sano still doing in the minors?  How is this going to shake out?

2:03
Dan Szymborski: They’re taking their time, realistically speaking the 2018 season is over, so they’re being cautious.  Really, he should be slugging 1200 or something down there!

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Five Players Who Ought to Be Traded (But Probably Won’t Be)

A Michael Fulmer deal could help the Tigers rebuild their system.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

While the result isn’t always a poor one, the decision to wait for an exact perfect trade is a dangerous game for a rebuilding/retooling team. Greed can sometimes be good, yes, but a player’s trade value can also dissipate with a simple twinge in the forearm.

For every Rich Hill who lands at a new home in exchange for an impressive haul, there’s a Zach Britton or Zack Cozart or Todd Frazier or Tyson Ross whose value declines dramatically — sometimes so dramatically that they become effectively untradable. Even when waiting doesn’t lead to disaster, such as with Sonny Gray and Jose Quintana, teams frequently don’t do that much better by waiting for the most beautiful opportunity for baseball-related extortion. Regression to the mean is real. For a player at the top of his game, there’s a lot more room for bad news than good; chaos may be a ladder, but it’s not a bell curve.

With that in mind, I’ve identified five players who might be most valuable to their clubs right now as a trade piece. None of them are likely to be dealt before the deadline. Nevertheless, their respective clubs might also never have a better opportunity to secure a return on these particular assets.

Kevin Gausman, RHP, Baltimore Orioles (Profile)

There seems to be a sense almost that, if the Orioles are able to trade Manny Machado for a great package, get an interesting deal for Zach Britton, and procure some token return for Adam Jones, then it’ll be time to fly the ol’ Mission Accomplished banner. In reality, though, that would simply mark the beginning of the Orioles’ chance to build a consistent winner. After D-Day, the allies didn’t call it wrap, shake some hands, and head home to work on the hot rod. (Confession: I don’t actually know what 18-year-olds did for fun in 1944.)

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Mike Matheny Fired by the Cardinals

“And just like that, as mysteriously as he arrived, he was gone.”

– Oscar Martinez, The Office

It wasn’t quite Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, but after the Cardinals lost to the Cardinals 8-2 Saturday night, dropping to just a skosh above .500 at 47-46, manager Mike Matheny was dismissed from his managerial duties. The Cardinals remain in the playoff race, but it’s been a tumultuous month behind the scenes in St. Louis, from normal run-of-the-mill struggles to public friction with right fielder Dexter Fowler to the latest report — written by the tireless Mark Saxon of The Athletic — of Bud Norris’s old-school clubhouse antics with rookie reliever Jordan Hicks.

While Matheny’s role in the Norris-Hicks situation probably wasn’t the main factor behind his dismissal, I have few doubts that it was a contributing factor. Saxon received a lot of pushback publicly about his reporting on the issues, but these types of wagon-circling denials from teams when a story becomes embarrassing isn’t just common, it’s practically de rigueur. That doesn’t necessarily negate the veracity of the original reports.

In the end, though, it usually comes down to winning. Like most managers, Matheny lived by the win before he died by the win, the extremely successful Cardinal seasons at the start of Matheny’s tenure making him as unassailable at the time as he was vulnerable by 2018.

In a piece for ESPN in 2013, Anna McDonald reported on the relationship between the analytics-friendly front office headed by then-general manager John Mozeliak (who’s since been promoted to team president) and the more traditional Matheny.

“I believe how [Matheny] puts a lineup together is that he is utilizing things we give him from upstairs, but we don’t want to bury him with having to overthink things. Most importantly, we hire a manager to make that lineup. I do think one thing that Mike and his staff have done a very good job of is embracing anything we can put together as far as advanced scouting for them. Trying to eliminate small sample sizes and make them accept larger ones for probabilities has been helpful. Mike, he is a young manager that is very interested at looking at the best ways to be successful, so that’s always a good sign when you have that in an employee.”

Few analytics types, myself included, really thought much of Matheny as an in-game tactician. But that’s only part of the job of a manager. I’ve talked a lot about admiring Joe Torre as a manager for the Yankees not because of his in-game acumen but simply because, unlike a lot of managers, he didn’t stand in the way of his team’s success. Sometimes, keeping the team from killing each other is what a manager is there for, which is why I praised Dusty Baker’s hiring by the Washington Nationals as the right move at the right time for that particular club.

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The First Sixteenth of the Hosmer Deal Is Complete

The 2017-2018 offseason was not one of the more exciting winters in memory, to put it mildly. A large part of that, no doubt, was the result of a relatively undistinguished free-agent class and the absence of some larger clubs from the market, teams saving their ammunition for the likely more exciting 2018-2019 period. Add into that the hard-to-gauge effects of more unanimity among front offices in how to evaluate veteran players and the whispered rumors of the collusion poltergeist, and it was a formula for not a lot happening. And not a lot happened.

For about three weeks around the holidays, the only news in town was the rumbling surrounding Eric Hosmer’s new home. Now, in most offseasons, Eric Hosmer wouldn’t be one of the marquee free agents, having been a rather up-and-down first baseman with some high points, but also some low ones, enough so that he entered the 2018 campaign having never strung together consecutive years of one or more wins. The 2017 season was one of the highlights, however, with Hosmer avoiding those half-long slumps that doomed 2014 and 2016 to sub-mediocrity. It was a legitimately excellent season, Hosmer hitting .318/.385/.498, to the tune of a 135 wRC+, and reaching that four-win mark that serves as an informal threshold for an All-Star season.

In the end, the Royals attempted to retain Hosmer, though the truth of whether he was actually offered $147 million, as the rumors went, will probably be lost in history unless Scott Boras writes a tell-all book after his retirement. San Diego, a team in the middle of their own rebuild, signed Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million contract, with an opt-out clause exercisable by Hosmer, allowing him to forgo the last three years and $39 million for free agency. To get an estimate, here are the full ZiPS projections for the Hosmer contract at the time.

Eric Hosmer, ZiPS Projections, Preseason
Year BA OBP SLG G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO OPS+ DR WAR
2018 .275 .344 .447 155 582 86 160 27 2 23 90 62 116 116 -2 2.6
2019 .277 .349 .452 148 553 83 153 27 2 22 86 62 110 118 -3 2.7
2020 .276 .347 .449 144 537 79 148 26 2 21 83 59 104 117 -3 2.4
2021 .270 .340 .439 138 519 75 140 24 2 20 78 56 99 113 -3 2.0
2022 .267 .336 .428 131 495 69 132 22 2 18 71 52 90 109 -3 1.5
2023 .265 .332 .415 120 453 61 120 19 2 15 62 46 76 104 -4 1.1
2024 .261 .326 .398 104 394 51 103 16 1 12 52 38 62 98 -4 0.5
2025 .259 .320 .386 84 324 40 84 12 1 9 41 29 46 93 -3 0.2

One thing to note is that there is a bit of a discrepancy between the zWAR (ZiPS WAR) and FanGraphs WAR figures, as we haven’t always used the exact same park and league factors for future seasons and have utilized a slightly different methodology. For next year’s ZiPS, I hope to report both zWAR and fWAR to reduce this occasional confusion. But for right now, I’m still figuring out how to not break FanGraphs.

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Getting the Orioles and Royals to 120 Losses

Great teams may dream of winning 116 games in a season, but for losers, whether of the lovable or non-lovable stripe, 120 is the number at which they gaze, gimlet-eyed. The 1962 Mets, with their inaugural band of cast-offs, left behind a legacy of being great at being not-so-great, losing 120 games and planting their flag in the Mt. Everest of Terrible.

Yes, 120 losses isn’t actually the MLB record, that feat being accomplished by the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, who lost 134 of their 154 depressing games. But it took a bit of chicanery to reach that sum. Frank and Stanley Robison owned both the Cleveland Spiders and St. Louis Perfectos and transferred most of the good 1898 Spiders over to St. Louis in an attempt to build one superteam and one comedy legend. Cleveland was doomed by design, though the Perfectos failed to be a superteam.

Incidentally, the Brooklyn Superbas pulled this off more successfully, looting the Baltimore Orioles to put together a 101-win roster (though I’d have penalized them a few wins for the confusing team name, which was swiped from an acrobatic act of the time and awkwardly made into a plural noun).

The 1962 Mets earned their infamy on the square and now serve as the gold standard for seasonal ineptitude. But as we head towards the trade deadline, we have two teams trying to make it interesting, the 25-66 Baltimore Orioles and the 25-65 Kansas City Royals.

Both teams stand slightly behind the Mets’ fierce pace, with winning percentages that round to 45-117, tantalizingly close to bleak greatness, but not quite there. Like when a batter tries to hit .400 over the course of the season, you want to have a cushion over the mark, since the natural course of regression will stamp down on the extremes.

But there’s at least a chance, which is really all that matters. What fun is a record if it’s likely to be surmounted? And it gives an additional layer of excitement to losing seasons when you need a break from wondering in what wacky way the Baltimore Orioles will mess up a Manny Machado trade or being astounded that the Royals actually advertise that it took them years to spare the roster from even a single game of Alcides Escobar’s services.

Powering up the ZiPS SuperComputer (it’s really just a regular computer), I cranked up the old simulations to get the latest probabilities that either the Royals or Orioles pull off the 120-loss feat.

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Joining the Fray

Journalism is necessarily a job in which many need to act as mercenaries, but as mercenaries go, I make a rather poor one. Going back to 2001, there are only two places for which I’ve primarily written: ESPN.com and Baseball Think Factory née Baseball Primer. I joined both of these places not just because they were interested in my work or, in the case of the former, also wanted to give me money, but because I believed in their mission statement.

Starting today, I’ve taken a new role in another project I believe in, joining the FanGraphs team as a full-time, senior writer.

I’ve always been a fan of FanGraphs and, even more importantly, the group of people that David Appelman has assembled over the last decade. (Even Carson, at least until I find the rest of his horcruxes.) I haven’t had the opportunity yet to meet everyone involved — baseball analytics is a much larger world than when I first became involved 20 years ago — but I consider many of the FanGraphs writers personal friends and all of them valued colleagues.

What cemented FanGraphs for me in my mind as a great place to work was at Sabermetrics Day for the Staten Island Yankees in 2016. For those who weren’t around or just don’t remember, the Staten Island Yankees had a special theme day in June of that year, inviting Carson, Dave Cameron, Jonah Keri, Ben Lindbergh, Meg Rowley, Emma Span, and myself for a panel and a barbecue. Apples brought the whole crew along, so while I was familiar with FanGraphs writers, many of whom I had known for a very long time (20 years in the case of D-Cam), I had never seen FanGraphs work together as a unit.

One thing I noticed was how much this group of writers enjoyed working with each other, respected each other, and even if they don’t all come to the party with the same point-of-view, have this incredibly collaborative vibe. My traveling companion, who is not at all into baseball and has never quite figured out what it is I do — a full story for another time, but she was once under the mistaken impression that I was part of a composite of characters that Jonah Hill played in Moneyball — came into that weekend feeling a bit of an outsider. Despite this, the FanGraphs crew made a real effort to make her feel included in the festivities, completely unasked, something which has always touched me.

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