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Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 11/19/18

12:00
Dan Szymborski: GOBBLE GOBBLE

12:01
ChiSox2020: If White Sox don’t get Machado or Harper, should they pursue Grandal? How much should the loss of a 2nd round pick factor into any FA signings?

12:02
Dan Szymborski: Honestly, I think the White Sox should be in a go big or go home mindset. Unless they get players who are build-arounds that will be around for the rest of the rebuilding process, I think they should mostly chase deals. Those mid-market FAs are better fits for the actually competitive teams.

12:02
Tony Kemp is religion: Would you ever make your long-term forecasts available? I’m sure a lot of people (including myself!) would pay a small sum to access them. Free is also OK! I really want to see Soto’s long-term forecasts with “really really big numbers!”

12:03
Dan Szymborski: I’m a bit of a data hoarder. You’ll start to see more things come out at FG, but still figuring out what’s best to make public and what’s best to greedily save for articles and such.

12:03
Jackson C.: Mondays start to get a bit depressing for me as winter approaches. Any tips for remaining sane in this cold, baseball-less time?

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Elegy for ’18 – St. Louis Cardinals

Matt Carpenter was often a bright spot in an otherwise mediocre Cardinals offense.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

For all the ups and downs of St. Louis’ 2018 season, the team finished with an 88-74 record, fully in that 85-90 win-window that forms the team’s bog-standard result. The Cardinals made it interesting over the summer after the merciful guillotining of manager Mike Matheny, but a bleak September left them a distant third in the NL Central.

The Setup

Some teams are wild gamblers, throwing caution and giant wads of money to the wind, hoping to end up as either spectacular successes or failures that are quickly forgotten as attentions shift to the next crazy scheme. The St. Louis Cardinals stand in opposition to that. They are the safe, sensible team that reminds you on nickel-shots night that you have work tomorrow and really should stop for the evening because the chair you’re talking to isn’t actually W.C. Fields.

St. Louis builds from within, signs reasonable players to reasonable contracts, and when a beloved franchise player hits free agency, won’t spend exorbitantly to chase crazy bids. Even Albert Pujols, the team’s soul for a decade, was allowed to move on when the numbers got too uncomfortably high.

That’s not to say the Cardinals don’t make moves, but rather, that they make reasonable ones. Marcell Ozuna, coming off a .312/.376/.548 breakout campaign with the Marlins, was the team’s big offseason pickup, one that didn’t demand the team’s crown jewels. And with Ozuna in tow, giving the Cardinals an easy Ozuna-Tommy PhamDexter Fowler outfield rather than the juggling act of recent years, the team felt comfortable enough to trade Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk to claw back some of the value given to the Marlins.

Another quiet move was the signing of former Padres relief prospect Miles Mikolas to a two-year, $15.5 million contract after he was reinvented as a harder-throwing Bob Tewksbury for the Yomiuri Giants. It was another sensible move compared to the prospect of overpaying for one of the multitude of third-tier starters otherwise found in a weak free agent market.

For a smart, well-run team with a knack for punching above their market size, there was always a worry on the horizon stemming from the team’s longtime rival, the Chicago Cubs. Being safe and sensible was a better playbook when the Cubs were in their Jim Hendry years or during the long rebuilding phase; there was no heavy in the division that could use cash to suffocate St. Louis’s measured approach.

But the Cubs happened, a team with the unfortunate tendency of being rich while also not being completely insane with their money. A Jason Heyward-size error would have really hurt St. Louis’s flexibility but the Cubs could seemingly say “Nah, it’s cool, bro, that wasn’t even our favorite Scrooge McDuck vault of gold coins.”

Even in a 2017 season when everything went wrong, the Cubs still won 92 games, enough to win the NL Central by six games. Could a high-floor, low-ceiling St. Louis team full of three-win players really provide a consistent threat to the Cubs? Or would the Cardinals be better served by taking a little more risk, given their division? That was the key uncertainty as the team entered 2018.

The Projection

This question was precisely what worried ZiPS going into the season. With a 94-win projection for the Cubs, ZiPS only gave the Cardinals and Brewers about a combined one-in-three shot of catching Chicago. St. Louis’ 87 forecasted wins looked a lot like the typical Cardinals season; that aforementioned 85-90 wins that has led the team to consistent contend for a playoff spot while never really being spoken of as an elite team.

The Results

The team started the season with Adam Wainwright on the disabled list with a hamstring pull, but St. Louis had already moved on from the days when they counted on Wainwright being in the rotation. Jack Flaherty, the eventual fifth-place Rookie of the Year finisher, filled in. Wainwright struggled upon his return, but the rest of the starters pitched as well as could have been expected, combining for a 3.00 ERA through the end of May, the third-best in baseball behind the Astros and Nationals.

Until the final month of the season, when St. Louis struggled in a variety of interesting ways, the rotation held up admirably, with little fault attached during the year’s doldrums. Wainwright was back on the DL by the end of April with elbow problems and Michael Wacha’s oblique strain ended his season in June, though he was set to return in September before a setback. But Flaherty was already a superior option to Wainwright and John Gant and Austin Gomber picked up most of the rest of the missing starts; the starting pitching was never really a serious problem.

The offense, on the other hand, was a regular problem. Matt Carpenter started out heat-death-of-the-universe cold, but while he heated up to a blazing MVP-like level for the middle months of the season, other pieces who were expected to contribute, like Ozuna and Fowler, largely didn’t.

Except for a brief period at the top of the division in May, after a fun week in which they swept both Chicago teams, the team hovered around the .500 mark for most of the first half. Milwaukee was the team to take advantage of Chicago not putting away the division early, which resulted in a great deal of tension surrounding St. Louis, something that’s fairly unusual for a Cardinals team.

Pham had already expressed displeasure with his contract situation before the season — the unfortunate result of being a late bloomer scheduled to hit free agency right before his age-34 season. Fowler and John Mozeliak publicly traded barbs and while the latter clarified his comments in the press, there were indications bubbling to the surface that manager Mike Matheny had lost the team.

Matheny was always kind of an oddball fit for the Cardinals; an old-school style manager they hoped would embrace at least some analytics and handle the team, and especially the pitching staff, well. The latter characteristic matched his reputation as a veteran catcher.

The analytics-embracing never really happened and Matheny was a fairly poor in-game tactician, who generally ran his bullpen in a manner that could most kindly be described as slapdash. But he generally kept past teams together and had gotten results.

With the clubhouse melting down, Matheny fighting with the media, and incidents such as tacitly allowing Bud Norris to bully Jordan Hicks marring the season, the argument for keeping Matheny evaporated quickly.

I’m usually skeptical of the idea of managerial changes being a big reason for a team’s sudden improvement, but things in St. Louis calmed down quickly once Mike Shildt took over the job on an interim basis, performing well enough to lose the interim tag just six weeks after he inherited the job. The public infighting quickly stopped and the team went on a tear, going 28-13 through the end of August.

Gone was Pham, traded to the Rays at the deadline, a destination likely to please him even less from a financial perspective; Harrison Bader and his shockingly good glove were given centerfield. Also out was Greg Holland, who pitched so poorly in 2018 that even Matheny noticed and stopped using him in high-leverage situations.

In the midst of their best run of the season, Shildt showed little resistance to using the team’s secondary talents. Pitchers like Gomber, Tyson Ross, and Daniel Poncedeleon assumed more flexible roles, a drastic change from Matheny’s rigid pitcher usage.

September, though, was a tough one. The rotation had its first really weak stretch, with a 4.60 ERA and a 4.72 FIP, and the offense once again fell back to the middle of the pack, with a 90 wRC+ for the month. Carpenter dropped out of the MVP conversation almost completely, with a .170/.313/.245 line for the month. Ozuna was the only player on the team with an .800 OPS. The bullpen, though never the team’s strong suit, had shown some life tapping into the team’s Triple-A depth but regressed to a 4.99 FIP.

Going into the last week of the season, the Cardinals actually had a game-and-a-half lead over the Colorado Rockies for the second wild card spot. The team controlled their destiny, but then lost five of the last six games to the Brewers and Cubs by a 39-20 scoring margin.

What Comes Next?

One interesting thing about the Cardinals is that there’s a very real sense the team is willing to be more aggressive this winter, especially financially, than they have in the past. While they aren’t going to shout “Hey, we have $400 million, make us an offer,” I suspect that at a minimum, the team will contemplating entering the Bryce Harper or Manny Machado sweepstakes.

The Cardinals are a hard team to upgrade in that they’re just so solid in most places. The starting lineup is deep enough that, outside of Dexter Fowler, they really need to be exciting to justify the term. Taking a chance on Josh Donaldson is one of those moves that does have interesting upside, but the rest of the market’s second-tier should be rather uninteresting, at least as it concerns the lineup. It may seem a stretch for St. Louis to spend more than twice what they’ve ever spent on a player contract, but remember, they were a team connected with Giancarlo Stanton, and reportedly made a significant offer to David Price when the pitcher was a free agent.

Where second-tier free agents could prove more useful is the bullpen. While the pen has never really been as bad as advertised — many fans think the team’s relievers were Old Testament-bad — but the team could use a left-handed pitcher like Andrew Miller or Zach Britton and the stakes are high-enough that there’s an argument for overpaying a bit.

Early ZiPS Projection – Miles Mikolas

Given that Nippon Professional Baseball is a high-level league, Mikolas didn’t exactly come out of nowhere; he wouldn’t have been given a $7 million contract with a career 5.32 MLB ERA and no prospect pedigree if he had. But he’s also a pitcher who allows a lot of contact for someone who can hit 95 MPH with a slider that will be given a lot more respect the second go-around.

ZiPS Projection – Miles Mikolas
Year W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2019 12 8 3.54 29 29 175.3 176 69 19 37 138 120 3.5
2020 11 7 3.53 26 26 158.0 158 62 17 33 123 120 3.2
2021 10 7 3.67 26 26 154.3 157 63 17 33 116 115 2.9
2022 10 7 3.70 24 24 143.7 146 59 16 30 108 115 2.7

Despite the foreboding introduction, ZiPS is actually quite optimistic Mikolas’s regression still leaves him as a solid number two starter. A few more home runs come out in the projections, but ZiPS also sees a bump in his strikeout rate and top-notch control. Though not directly shown here, ZiPS also sees a lot more upside in his strikeout rate than downside; Mikolas obviously doesn’t throw as hard as Hicks, but he isn’t Jered Weaver either.

One last pedantic note: Mikolas will be a free agent after the 2019 season, not after 2022 as you would expect from a pitcher with his service time. Mikolas came to St. Louis as a pure free agent and the team agreed to him becoming a free agent at the end of his contract rather than entering the arbitration track like most three-year players. So the Lizard King gets to hit the open market fairly quickly after a terrific rookie season.


Elegy for ’18 – Tampa Bay Rays

Sergio Romo was at the forefront of the Ray’s opener strategy
(Photo: Keith Allison)

The team that made openers baseball’s hot new thing made a run at the playoffs with a blazing final act, but fell short of the playoffs thanks to the daunting win total non-AL Central teams needed to stretch the season into October.

The Setup

The Tampa Bay Rays, newly shorn of the Devil in their name, were rightly one of baseball’s darlings from 2008 to 2013, winning 90 games in all but one season and making four playoff appearances, including one World Series. That’s no easy feat in a division with the Red Sox and Yankees, the baseball versions of Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly come to life. If Tampa has an avatar, it’s more akin to Chris Farley’s plaid-jacketed motivational speaker who lives in a van down by the river.

The initial run of the Rays eventually lost steam, the team dragged down by some difficult realities they had to face. One of the biggest problems for the Rays was that the common notion that building a consistent winner will lead to increased attendance (which would in turn lead to larger revenues that could keep the team together), didn’t actually work in their case. Whether it’s the fault of the park or not, by the time of their final 90-win season, the team was welcoming barely 100,000 fans more to the Trop than they were in 2007, a 66-win slog and the team’s tenth consecutive losing season.

For a team payroll that has never even come close to nine digits to compete in the AL East, the Rays absolutely have to have an assembly line of prospects, a continual cycle of replacement of talent. The team has always shown a knack for trading or letting players depart before their collapses rather than after, but that isn’t enough by itself.

What failed the team was largely the amateur drafts, starting around 2008, not providing enough quality to replace the departures. Entering 2018, only a single player drafted by the Rays over the previous decade had established himself as an impact player in the majors, Kevin Kiermaier. Let’s put in this way: The Rays made 14 first-round picks from 2008 to 2017 and the second most-accomplished player after Tim Beckham of that group is likely Ryne Stanek or Mikie Mahtook. (I’m talking players taken in the first round proper; the Rays got Blake Snell as a supplementary pick.)

The virtuous cycle of rebuild-invest-push-repeat failed to work for the organization for whatever reason and without a steady flow of prospects, the fact that the Rays have only had one season in which they fell below 70 wins is a testament to the front office’s scrounging abilities. Running the Rays is a bit like being asked to turn straw into gold and oh yeah, you don’t actually have the budget to buy straw.

Trading Evan Longoria, Brad Boxberger, Steven Souza, Corey Dickerson, and Jake Odorizzi before the season didn’t do wonders for the team’s reputation among fans, either. It could rightly be argued that most of these moves made sense from a baseball perspective — almost all of these players were at the height of their value, with the obvious exception of Longoria — but the problem with always making the cheap move is that your fanbase will come to believe that even the good, cheap move was done purely for reasons of thrift.

Not helping the Rays coming into 2018 season was the revelation that every pitcher the Rays had, ever had, or ever will acquire, required Tommy John surgery before the season started. OK, that’s what they call a “lie,” but it felt a bit like the truth when Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon, both pitchers who the Rays hoped to count on, needed elbow surgery within just a couple weeks of each other.

The Projection

While the projections didn’t adopt quite the same panicked tone many writers displayed regarding the team over the winter, I can hardly claim ZiPS was predicting greatness with a 76-86 projection and a 6% chance at making the playoffs. The computer felt that pretty much every player Tampa Bay traded would have a worse season than with the Rays, but also predicted that with the loss of Honeywell and De Leon, the pitching was stretched too thin, and it was hard to see the Rays improvising enough of a lineup to make up for these losses.

The Results

THE TAMPA BAY RAYS BROKE WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT!

Sometimes things just need capital letters. If you made a movie about the 2018 Rays, it would be impossible to craft a trailer that didn’t heavily mention the “openers,” possibly with some hoary An Experiment So Crazy That It Just May Work cliché booming over Ryan Yarbrough striking out batters to an 80s rock anthem.

For those curiously still unaware of this concept, beginning with Sergio Romo’s one-inning, three-strikeout “start” on May 19th, the Rays started using relievers to open games; they would quickly give way to a long “reliever,” who would pitch several innings. The general idea was that with a thin pitching staff — the Rays didn’t engage in any such shenanigans with the Blake Snell or Chris Archer starts — there was a benefit to being able to play matchups early in the game and get guaranteed innings from relievers, who are easier to find than a starter with an identical ERA.

As for breaking WAR, starters and relievers are pegged to different replacement levels, reflecting the better quality of free or cheap talent among relievers than starters. But what happens to WAR when relievers are being used as starters and vice-versa? A pitcher like Yarbrough ends up getting pegged relative to the higher replacement level of relievers even though he’s been given the workload of a starter. If these changes become pervasive, it will likely require a reimagining of how we categorize starters and relievers for these purposes.

In the end, the Rays had “relievers” who went five innings 31 times in 2018, the fourth-most going back to 1908 (the limit of Baseball-Reference’s Play Index). The entirety of baseball in 2016 and 2017 only had 37 such games combined. The last team with even ten five-inning relief stints was the 1991 Orioles and that wasn’t so much by design as due to the fact that the team’s rotation was a terrifying Lovecraftian amalgamation.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, however, and none of this would have persisted if the Rays didn’t get results. In the five-inning “relief” stints, the team (Yarbrough was the most notable, but the team also used Austin Pruitt, Yonny Chirinos, and Jalen Beeks prominently in this pseudo-starter role) combined to throw 170 2/3 innings with a 3.48 ERA, sort of like a weird J.A. Happ chimera to join the A-Rod centaur among baseball’s mythical menagerie.

After starting this opening strategy, the Rays went 69-50, a 94-win seasonal pace, and after receiving quick boosts from midseason trades for Tommy Pham and Ji-Man Choi, the team went 36-19 in their closing kick.

Unfortunately, this was the wrong year for that kind of thing. The AL and NL have reversed roles the last couple of years, with the NL becoming wide-open and the AL the league bifurcated into essentially two leagues, one with super-teams, the other with rebuilders.

AL Win-Loss Records After May 18th
Tm W L PCT
Red Sox 78 39 .667
Astros 74 42 .638
Athletics 74 43 .632
Yankees 72 48 .600
Indians 70 49 .588
Rays 69 50 .580
Mariners 64 54 .542
Twins 60 62 .492
Angels 55 62 .470
Blue Jays 51 66 .436
Rangers 49 67 .422
White Sox 51 70 .421
Tigers 44 74 .373
Royals 44 74 .373
Orioles 33 85 .280
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

What’s depressing from the point of view of the Rays is that the team still would have missed the playoffs by two and a half games if the standings reset on the morning of May 19th.

If the Rays had won 94 games instead of their actual 90, it would have been enough to take the AL East in 2017, 2016, and 2015, while earning a wild card appearance in 2014, 2013, and 2012. The last time 94 wins didn’t get October baseball for an AL team was 2010, when there was only one wild card spot; the Yankees went 95-67 that year. Whether 94 or 90 wins, it was only enough in 2018 to make the Rays the last team eliminated from the playoffs in the American League.

What Comes Next?

The Rays will remain misers for the foreseeable future if they don’t finagle their way into a new stadium. Even with the recent success, the team will have to continue to find values on a shoestring budget, something that is harder to do than it used to be with the general inflation of smartness in front offices over the last 15 years.

From a general baseball standpoint, it also remains to be seen how the opener strategy will affect pitcher salaries if more teams adopt this for their lesser pitchers. I don’t believe that in the end it’ll make a big difference; teams are far less likely to care about a starter’s win totals or a reliever’s saves than even ten years ago. But I’m naturally cynical, so I expect to still be watching this closely.

The really good news for the Rays is that they’ll return almost the entire core of the roster in 2019, with only Vidal Nuño, Carlos Gomez, and Sergio Romo hitting free agency. The 2017-2018 bloodletting has resulted in a roster that, even with everybody tendered, has only a single player making $5 million (Kiermaier) and a payroll that can stay short of $50 million.

I suspect we won’t see the Rays shedding much in the way of 2019 talent this winter; if they were close to doing that, I don’t see them adding Mike Zunino, now the team’s veteran in terms of service time. A Kevin Kiermaier trade strikes me as very unlikely, both because he’s coming off a down year full of injuries and because they just traded Mallex Smith. Nor would Austin Meadows be a candidate to make such a trade practical as he’s the probable right fielder.

The very early projections, based solely on what the Rays have on the roster right now, see a team in the mid-80s for wins, with diminished expectations on the De Leon/Honeywell returns. The Rays are a clever organization, however, and with the farm system recovering over the last few years from the doldrums of the early-mid ’10s to once again be in the top tier, I suspect this team can continue to punch above its weight class, even if in miserly fashion.

Preliminary ZiPS Projection, Blake Snell

I think that Snell is likely to be the AL Cy Young winner when the award is announced this afternoon, and with his performance being a key factor in the team’s revival, avoiding serious regression is crucial for Tampa. ZiPS saw an improvement for Snell in 2018, projecting a 3.70 ERA and 186 strikeouts in 175 1/3 innings, enough to just about the hit the three-WAR mark (with a four-to-five win peak), but it didn’t see the Cy Young breakout.

ZiPS Projection, Blake Snell
Year W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2019 14 9 3.05 30 30 165.0 131 56 16 67 199 134 3.9
2020 14 8 3.10 29 29 159.7 127 55 15 65 192 132 3.7
2021 14 8 3.03 29 29 157.7 124 53 15 64 190 135 3.8
2022 13 7 3.06 26 26 144.0 114 49 13 58 173 133 3.4

No 219 ERA+ repeats there, but those are legitimate ace numbers, and ZiPS is being surprisingly un-grumpy about downside risk outside of innings in future seasons. ZiPS sees enough talent in Snell to compensate for the inherent fragility of pitchers and the skewed risk you see in all great players (there are simply larger downsides than upsides). It’ll be interesting to see if the Rays can sign Snell to a similar contract to the recently departed Archer.


Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 11/12/18

12:00
Dan Szymborski: It’s a’ me, Mario!

12:00
Dan Szymborski: OK, not really.

12:01
Dan Szymborski: I’m going to hold off the off-topic questions until we get to the Lightning Round.

12:01
Ginny: do you think “extremely available for trade”  Kole Calhoun has a market? and does the Angels trying to trade him give indication of their actions in the FA market?

12:02
Dan Szymborski: I think he has *some* market, but I think it’s wishful thinking on the Angels if they think someone’s going to pay as if the first half of 2018 never happened.

12:02
Dan Szymborski: I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense for the Angels to trade him.

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Elegy for ’18 – Arizona Diamondbacks

AJ Pollock’s injuries have made things difficult for the D-backs in the NL West.
(Photo: Hayden Schiff)

The Phillies weren’t the only playoff contender to drop off the face of the earth in September. The land of the chimichanga fared no better in late-season play than the cheesesteak republic, leaving a foul aftertaste to what had been a solid season.

The Setup

Arizona went a new direction after 2016, replacing the general-managerial meanderings of Dave Stewart with the more modern approach of Mike Hazen, formerly under Dave Dombrowski and Ben Cherington with the Red Sox.

Hazen worked quickly, acquiring Ketel Marte and Taijuan Walker from the Seattle Mariners for Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura, and prospect Zac Curtis. But the 2017 season was largely based around the previous core, with Arizona signing several role players — but no big difference-makers — in free agency.

The inherited rotation combined for a 3.61 ERA and 18.8 WAR, that total ranking second in baseball behind only the Indians. Hazen did make one gigantic contribution in the form of J.D. Martinez, acquired from the Tigers in July.

As in-season trades go, the Martinez swap went just about as well as anyone could have expected. The primary starter in left field, Yasmany Tomas, had gone on the disabled list in June with a groin injurym and in truth, the team was already on the verge of giving up on him as a starter. The team’s lack of outfield depth was already glaring, with A.J. Pollock out and Arizona resorting to a Gregor Blanco/Rey Fuentes timeshare in center.

So correctly identifying the team’s biggest problem, Hazen closed a deal on the solution and Martinez paid off, hitting .302/.366/.741 for the team, with a ludicrous 29 home runs in 232 at-bats. The fact that the team’s OPS only improved by seven points in the second half of the season even with Martinez should be a fairly good indication as to the straits in which the offense would have found itself without the pickup. That Hazen managed to bring in Martinez without eviscerating the already suffering farm system was a coup.

The winter of 2017-18 presented the team with a significant problem in the form of contracts. With 16 players in their salary-arbitration years and five in arbitration for the first time, the roster was set to become more expensive without actually improving all that much.

In the end, the 2018 team would cost $40 million more than the 2017 version, and that’s with under $20 million of total spending in free agency, primarily in the form of Alex Avila and Jarrod Dyson.

Going into 2018, the primary questions about the team were whether the offense could survive J.D. Martinez’s departure with only Steven Souza added to the roster and how much 2017’s rotation would regress the following season.

The Projection

ZiPS didn’t see Arizona matching their 93 wins from 2017 but still saw them as the biggest threat to the Dodgers, with a projected 86-76 record and 13% chance of winning the division. The projections were generally optimistic about the rotation staying one of the top groups in baseball, but was much less sanguine about the offense, seeing it as a below-average unit despite Paul Goldschmidt’s best efforts.

The Results

In an abstract sense, Arizona had four seasons in 2018 rather than one, each with a different character and a grossly different set of results.

The Sprint (24-11)
The team started out absolutely blazing, not losing consecutive games until the back end of a four-game split with the Dodgers in May. The pitching went 20-8 with a 2.96 ERA and 280 strikeouts in 255.1 innings, almost looking like a Randy Johnson Cy Young campaign (though, technically, with fewer strikeouts).

There was one giant hiccup, though, in that the pitching was basically propping up the offense. The team won 24 of 35 because of that staff, but were hitting only .228/.311/.407 for the season, ranking 19th in OPS and 17th in runs scored. Those rankings were despite Goldschmidt’s .900 OPS and A.J. Pollock’s 1.021 OPS through the end of April.

What would happen to the offense without Goldschmidt and Pollock, even if they could maintain Cy Young-level pitching for an entire year? As you no doubt realize, I’m asking this question for a very specific reason.

The Wile E. Coyote (2-15)
One of the frequent gags in Wile E. Coyote cartoons features that same coyote — having just endured some mishap with an Acme-brand product — walking off a cliff into thin air and remaining aloft momentarily before realizing his predicament and plummeting to earth.

Pollock broke his thumb on the 15th, leaving the Diamondbacks again to scramble for a center-field replacement in-season. Fortunately, unlike past Diamondbacks teams, this one had prepared for such an event with the signing of Dyson the previous offseason.

It didn’t do the team any good in the end. Dyson didn’t hit at all, leaving a problem in center that wasn’t really resolved until Pollock’s return. But the larger problem was that nobody else hit, either. During these 17 games, the team slashed .182/.248/.291, and even Goldschmidt wasn’t much help.

Normally, there needs to be a lot of suck to go around when losing 15 of 17, but the pitching was absolutely fine. Not at April levels, but pretty good. The 2-15 record and 3.87 ERA they produced has a similar look to Jacob deGrom’s full-season line.

The Surprisingly Normal Period (48-35)
After a carnival-ride first two months came a decidedly normal stretch of the season. The rotation ranked 10th in ERA during this period, a little below where ZiPS pegged them, but amply compensated by the 3.44 ERA from the bullpen.

Even the offense showed a pulse. While Pollock struggled after his return from his thumb injury, hitting .234/.276/.318 through the end of August, the team had six players with at least 100 plate appearances and an .800 OPS in this mini-season: Goldschmidt (1.087), David Peralta (.978), Ketel Marte (.858), Steven Souza (.819), Daniel Descalso (.818), and Eduardo Escobar (.813). This was enough to rank Arizona eighth in runs scored, behind only the Dodgers, the Coors-inflated Rockies, and the Cardinals among NL teams.

The September Collapse (8-19)
On the morning of September 1st, Arizona was still leading the NL West by a single game. This was their last lead of the season, however — and, by the time they went to bed on the 2nd, they were in third place. On only one occasion did Arizona win consecutive games in September, helping the Rockies catch up to the Dodgers in the last week, but long past the point at which they could help themselves in any meaningful way.

Arizona hit .214/.287/.374 in September, Ketel Marte representing the team’s only bright spot at .301/.373/.562. The bullpen collapsed, allowing a .795 OPS en route to a 5.52 September ERA. As before, the starting rotation largely held up its end of the bargain — with the exception, at least, of Zack Godley, admittedly the rotation’s weak point most of the season.

What Comes Next?

The biggest problem the team faces is that the fundamental problems still remain. They still need to improve the offense while navigating significant payroll constraints. The farm system will take years to repair, so they can’t look for many quick fixes from that source.

Arizona already starts with a roster that’s somewhere around $140 million after the re-signing of Eduardo Escobar. This will come down somewhat with Shelby Miller almost certain to be non-tendered and Brad Boxberger a probability to follow Miller to free agency.

Even if we call it a $120 million payroll for the same team as last year but without Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock, that’s a dreadful place to begin an offseason.

The general feeling around baseball, one Arizona has done little to rebut, is that the team is headed for a rebuild. Goldschmidt is unsigned past 2019, and aging first basemen have a tendency to result in terrible contracts for the signing teams. Greinke’s survived the loss of velocity on his fastball, but he’s also a very expensive 35-year-old on a team without much payroll flexibility.

A lot of people are unhappy about the prospect of Arizona and Seattle entering rebuilding phases right now after their competitive 2018 campaigns, but they both share a similar set of problems: payrolls near their maximum willingness to spend combined with minor-league systems that can’t bridge the short-term gaps. Arizona can’t afford even to re-assemble the exact 2018 roster that finished barely above .500.

I don’t expect a full rebuild for the team to be as painful as these sometimes go. The club does have players that can be part of the future around which they build, including Marte, Walker, Robbie Ray, etc. Rebuilds like Houston’s are especially difficult because they weren’t started until after everything of value was gone.

Whether Arizona chooses to go the “let’s call a contractor” or the “cool, check out this WWI-era flamethrower we found!” path, the team is likely to finish 2019 with fewer wins than 2018.

Way-Too-Early Projection – Paul Goldschmidt

It’s not 2019 that’s possibly scary for Arizona and Goldschmidt; the short-term is not the question. What is scary, if Arizona did extend Goldy rather than trade him, is what his decline phase looks like. Age hasn’t been brutal to Joey Votto, but it’s taken a lot of star first basemen very quickly — and not just average guys, but legitimate mega-stars like Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera.

ZiPS Projection – Paul Goldschmidt
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS OPS+ DR WAR
2019 .276 .385 .512 547 94 151 30 3 31 94 93 158 12 4 132 4 3.7
2020 .271 .377 .501 527 87 143 31 3 28 88 87 151 11 4 127 4 3.2
2021 .268 .371 .483 507 80 136 28 3 25 81 80 141 10 3 121 4 2.6
2022 .264 .364 .462 481 72 127 26 3 21 72 72 127 9 3 114 4 2.0
2023 .260 .354 .443 454 64 118 23 3 18 63 63 112 8 3 107 3 1.4
2024 .257 .342 .412 413 54 106 18 2 14 52 51 94 7 3 96 2 0.5

The projection highlights the quandary Arizona’s in. Goldschmidt has been — with the exception of a brief appearance from J.D. Martinez — the centerpiece of the D-backs offense. Losing him would be really tough. On the other hand, if Arizona’s internal projections are anything like ZiPS, they probably can’t sign him either — unless he’ll agree to a Carlos Santana-type deal rather than an Eric Hosmer one. So the idea of Goldschmidt starting 2019 wearing new threads is not far-fetched.


Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 11/5/18

12:01
tb.25: “The only FanGraphs chat that lets you obnoxiously spam emotes.” AKA the best FanGraphs chat.

12:02
Dan Szymborski: Good aftermorninevening!

12:02
Euan Dewar: Hey Dan! No question, just hope you’re doing well and enjoyed the Blizzcon festivities. Was fun to look at twitter and realise a baseball analytics person I like was also chopping it up in WoW on the regular :)

12:03
Dan Szymborski: For the Horde!

12:03
Matt: Have you ever thought about the ramifications of your non-inclusive chili ideology on the bean people?

12:04
Dan Szymborski: People who use beans can still eat it fine, ti’s just not chili.

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Elegy for ’18 – Seattle Mariners

Seattle will likely have to replace the bat of Nelson Cruz.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

One would think that setting a 15-year record for wins would feel more satisfying than it ultimately did for the 2018 edition of the Mariners. Alas, the world is as cruel as the Wheel of Fortune suggests: consonants are free but you have to pay for vowels. The A’s finished ahead of the M’s, giving the former club a place in the Wild Card Game.

The Setup

One of the defining features of the Seattle Mariners during the Jerry Dipoto regime is that the payroll has increased — from among the bottom 10 in 2012-13 to the back of the top 10 in 2018 — even though the club hasn’t been particularly active in free agency or signing young talent to long-term extensions.

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Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 10/29/18

12:00
Dan Szymborski:

12:00
Dan Szymborski: Greetings everyone!

12:00
david s: Where in the hell are the 2019 ZiPS, Dane?

12:01
Mark: Dan, can you give me a quick ZiPS projection on when I can care about baseball again.

12:01
Matt: Kinda weird how infatuated with the Yankees the Red Sox fans seem to be, eh?

12:01
Dan Szymborski: You can still care about baseball! Stuff is happening.

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Elegy for ’18 – Washington Nationals

Yogi Berra once said “if you see a fork in the road, take it.” While that may be typically less-than-helpful, the Nationals find themselves at a crossroads, with one of those big, franchise-altering decisions regarding their still-young star slugger, Bryce Harper, before them. 2018 may have muddied more than clarified the situation.

The Setup

To a large degree, the Nationals have had it easier in the regular season than any contender in baseball, with the possible exception of the Cleveland Indians. With the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies rebuilding, the Miami Marlins doing their usual cry-pauper schtick, and the New York Mets being the Mets and Metsing up a few seasons, Washington entered every season since 2012 as the divisional favorite.

The 2017-2018 offseason was relatively quiet for Washington, with no follow-up trade like the one that brought Adam Eaton to the team. Nor was there a major free agent signing, though this was largely due to the fact that there were few significant free agents available last offseason and even fewer that fit the team’s needs. (Catcher was a position in obvious need of an upgrade, but there was nary a great free agent catcher to be found, and a trade for JT Realmuto failed to materialize.)

Sure, I liked Lorenzo Cain, but considering the team’s minor league talent, would that have been the most efficient signing? The Nationals did at least dip their toes into the Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta markets, but given the disaster of a year Darvish had and with Arrieta being merely solid, it’s hard to say there was much in the way of regret there.

For a team that didn’t expect to have to worry about the Braves and Phillies — yet — and faced a luxury tax threshold beckoning and an uncertain future after the short-term, there’s a very good argument that this was the right way to play the offseason. If the team had dough they were absolutely dying to spend, putting it towards a future Harper contract, if the team went that way, made more sense.

While Washington has had above-average payrolls, it’s not a team that historically has dipped that deeply into the free agent market. They spent aggressively to bring in Max Scherzer (as they should have) but otherwise haven’t spent $50 million on a single free agent player since Jayson Werth.

The team was active, but low-key, picking up a number of role players like Matt Adams, Jeremy Hellickson, and Howie Kendrick. These constituted depth pieces for a contender rather than foundational talent.

Much was made about the team moving on from Dusty Baker, but similarly, I felt it was the right move at the time. Dusty’s challenge in 2016 and 2017 was to take a veteran team, keep them from murdering each other, and guide them along on cruise control. That’s Baker’s specialty. But a the team that had reached the possible end of the Bryce Harper era and now faced the challenges of transitioning to a new core, whether by retool or rebuild? That’s not something I was as keen on having Baker handle.

The Projection

ZiPS still saw the Nationals as the class of the NL East, but with an 89-73 record, they were the only projected division winner with a median win guess under 90 wins. The projections didn’t see this as the year that it was more likely than that the Braves or Phillies took a step forward, but it was still a 1-in-3 chance (32.4%) that a non-Marlin team toppled the team.

The Results

While the season started off strong with a sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, an 11-16 April left the Nationals spending a good chunk of the early part of the season in fourth place, behind the Phillies, Braves, and the surging Mets.

Things seemed to have righted themselves in that lusty month of May, but while Washington ending May in first place, with a 33-23 record, it had become clear that the Braves and Phillies had shown real improvement, not simply an early-year mirage.

The team was in first place and largely hadn’t even yet seen the full benefits of phenom Juan Soto in the lineup (43 PA through the end of May). The only player who wasn’t really hitting at that point was Michael A. Taylor, who was already on borrowed time with Adam Eaton’s return expected.

Then the team’s pitching largely collapsed. At the end of May, Washington’s 3.45 FIP was the second-best in baseball, behind only the Houston Astros. Over the rest of the season, it was 4.52, 24th in the majors. While Scherzer was more or less his usual self, the rest of the rotation combined for a 5.35 ERA.

By the time the trade deadline rolled around, there were a lot more arguments for the Nationals being sellers than buyers. While the team was theoretically still on the outskirts of both the Wild Card and NL East races, they were only hovering around .500.

The team wasn’t major seller until after the post-waiver deadline, only then moving players like Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzalez who were unsigned past the end of the season.

The Dodgers claimed Bryce Harper on revocable waivers, but the Nationals never seriously discussed trade terms with Los Angeles. It was one of those instances in which you heard a lot of behind-the-scenes rumors. I wonder if we’ll ever get a full, true story about what happened. Did the Dodgers not make a serious offer, taking advantage of their disappointing win total at the time, hoping to keep Harper from a rival? After all, it wasn’t a Randy Myers situation where Washington would just say “fine, he’s yours” so there was little risk in a block.

Or were the Nats owners, primarily the Lerner family, simply not interested in trading Harper when push came to shove? I think it far more likely they were a roadblock to a possible trade than team president Mike Rizzo. Remember, Harper was in a different situation than Manny Machado was, where there was actually a good chance that the owners of his current team would re-sign him in free agency.

Washington ended the season in second place in the division, but that was due more to the Phillies deciding to stop winning games ever than to any impressive late-season surge from the Nationals.

What Comes Next?

The Bryce Harper question is of course the one that will dominate this offseason. Spending $300 million (and maybe more) on a player who has just one MVP-type season in his portfolio is a major risk. But Washington may feel they need to retain him just to keep pace with the Braves and Phillies, one of which has a far better farm system and the other of which possesses a deeper bank account.

Harper’s not the only pending financial decision, either. Anthony Rendon is a free agent after 2019 and it wouldn’t take a crazy-good year from Stephen Strasburg to make him think he could beat four years and $100 million after next season or three years and $75 million after 2020.

The good news is that whichever way the team goes, they do have impressive build-around talent in Soto, Victor Robles, and Trea Turner. But given their division, Washington may be in trouble if they resort to half-measures. In fact, if they want to spend $300 million, Manny Machado is likely a better fit on the roster than Harper, with the added bonus that they can stick it to their rival up the B-W Parkway.

Way-too-Early-Projection – Victor Robles

Ha, you thought this was going to be Juan Soto, didn’t you? Just picture a whole bunch of really big numbers. There, you have the Soto projection.

In essence, a Harper-less Nationals outfield would likely be best configured with Soto, Eaton, and Victor Robles. So with Robles the least established as a major leaguer right now, we’ll go with him, certainly no chopped liver as a consensus top-ten prospect coming into 2018.

ZiPS Projections – Victor Robles
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO HP SB OPS+ DR WAR
2019 .251 .319 .395 474 58 119 26 6 10 53 36 99 13 28 98 7 2.3
2020 .256 .327 .421 461 59 118 28 6 12 56 38 95 12 25 107 6 2.7
2021 .255 .331 .425 463 61 118 28 6 13 58 41 100 13 26 109 6 3.0
2022 .254 .334 .427 464 62 118 29 6 13 58 44 103 13 23 110 6 3.0
2023 .254 .335 .423 461 62 117 29 5 13 58 45 104 13 21 110 5 3.0
2024 .251 .333 .424 458 61 115 28 6 13 57 45 104 13 19 109 5 2.9

Not the flashiest projection around, but ZiPS anticipates Robles to be a contributor in the majors very quickly. If Robles is your third-best outfielder, it makes the “pay Bryce Harper $35 million a year” case harder to make for the team.


Elegy for ’18 – Pittsburgh Pirates

They’re contenders! Or wait, they’re not. No, they actually are! And… it’s gone. In 2018, the Pirates experienced a season of dramatic highs and lows only to end up with basically a .500 record, as if Odysseus had endured war and other dangers simply to end his journey at an Olive Garden.

The Setup

In a lot of ways, the Pirates are a bit of a cautionary tale for rebuilding teams. You can be smart, careful, forward-thinking, but if too many things go unexpectedly awry or you don’t push ahead at the right moment, your team’s peak can still be rather short-lived.

That’s not to say the Pirates are without accomplishment, having made three straight playoff appearances from 2013 to -15, the team’s first since they were giving a regular paycheck to a prime-age slugger by the name of Barry Lamar Bonds. The team of Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington largely reversed the effects produced by 15 years of mismanagement from the Dave Littlefield and Cam Bonifay eras. Even when the team struggled in 2016-17, they never descended to the level of hapless joke, as had previously been the case.

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Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 10/15/18

12:00
Dan Szymborski: Noon: A Time for Chats

12:00
Bear32: Buxton?  What’s going on?

12:01
Dan Szymborski: Well, besides injuries, I don’t have the foggiest clue.

12:01
Jim Leyland Palmer: With taking a step back in his second year and his colossal struggles this postseason, has your outlook on Cody Bellinger changed?

12:02
Dan Szymborski: Tempered slightly (the year, not the small sample of six specific games), but not really changed.

12:02
Dan Szymborski: Nobody thought that 143 OPS+ was a baseline that he’d only go up from. A step back was expected.

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Elegy for ’18 – Philadelphia Phillies

“I love September, especially when we’re in it.”

Willie Stargell

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

– Albert Camus

“@*%(#*&%.”

— Phillies fans, 9/18

The Setup

What precisely makes a dynasty is a point of some contention. Many believe that, however strong a run a team produces, if that run ends in something less than multiples titles, then the result can’t possibly be considered dynastic. I’m a little more liberal with the term than most, however, and I think the late-00s and early-10s version of the Phillies can rightly be regarded as a dynasty, simply for the length of time for which they remained one of the best clubs in the league. As for championships, they claimed just the one, but it’s also a lot easier to win the World Series when only two teams qualify for the playoffs, as was the case in baseball for a long time.

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Elegy for ’18 – San Francisco Giants

With the Giants’ core likely entering its decline phase, a rebuild may be in the cards.
(Photo: Ian D’Andrea)

Goodnight, moon. Goodnight, even-year World Series wins. Goodnight, bowl of mush. Goodnight, even-year playoff appearances. Goodnight, Jeff Samardzija’s arm…

In 2018, the Giants beat out the Padres in the NL West. Unfortunately, they didn’t do much else.

The Setup

With three World Series championships over the decade and a fourth playoff appearance, it’s hard to have that much pity for the Giants, who have won more than their share of trophies.

Having aggressively spent after the 2015 season, signing Johnny Cueto and Samardzija in free agency just a week apart, the Giants can’t be blamed for lack of effort. The $251 million invested in the team that offseason was third in baseball. And it paid off, too, with Cueto and Samardzija combining for over 400 innings and 8.1 WAR, in addition to Madison Bumgarner, who had yet to start suffering a freak injury at the start of consecutive seasons.

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Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 10/8/18

11:59
Dan Szymborski: Noon: A Time for Chats

12:00
Dan Szymborski: Let’s have some fun travelling an hour farther on the road between the cradle and the grave.

12:00
J: Wander Franco: the next Juan Soto?

12:00
Dan Szymborski: How did this Wander Franco meme start?

12:00
Matthew: What teams do you think do the best scouting amatuer talent?

12:01
Dan Szymborski: It’s a difficult question as I’d be judging more results than the individual abilities of the scouts on each team. I’m not as connected with individual scouts, I think that’s a McDongenhagen question.

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Elegy for ’18 – Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays’ future is about to become the Blue Jays’ present.
(Photo: Tricia Hall)

Toronto flirted with contention in the early stages of the season, staying on the edges of the AL East race through the end of April. But then April showers brought May flowers — lilies — to the pitching staff and while the Jays never lost at the amusing rate of the Orioles, the patient was already in rigor mortis by midseason.

The Setup

The Blue Jays had high expectations going into the 2017 season. Not even expectations I can make fun of, given that the ZiPS projection system had them at 87 wins going into the regular season. Even with the benefit of hindsight, it still doesn’t seem like thinking the Jays had a good shot at the playoffs in 2017 was all that ludicrous a proposition.

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Elegy for ’18 – New York Mets

The Mets had expectations coming into the season, but they whiffed on most of them.
(Photo: Arturo Pardavila III)

Some fanbases regard themselves as the best in baseball. Others pride themselves on their ability to hate anything, including Santa Claus. Still others are just a group of eight people cowering in the shadows of a creaky, nightmare-inducing home-run feature. But no fanbase does self-immolation like Mets fans, whose experience is one mostly of mind-numbing frustration peppered by only the occasional highlight.

That staring-into-middle-distance sadness is, of course, justified given the team’s history — and, more relevant to this post, the ups and downs and ups of 2018.

The Setup

New York’s 70-92 record in 2017, during which almost everything went wrong, was bleak enough to obscure the club’s recent success, including a World Series appearance in 2015 and return to playoffs in 2016.

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Elegy for ’18 – Minnesota Twins

It was a rough season for the former No. 1 pick, but the talent remains clear.
(Photo: Andy Witchger)

With nothing expected of the majority of the AL Central teams in 2018, the Twins were the main hope for making Cleveland’s season inconvenient. Like a Star Wars prequel, this new hope failed to materialize in a satisfying way.

The Setup

The Twins were one of the more successful regular-season teams in baseball during the aughts, making the playoffs in six of nine seasons, but also going 6-21 in the actual postseason. With the core of the team fading quickly after 2010, Minnesota spent several years wandering around as one of baseball’s few remaining (relatively) “pure” old-school franchises.

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Elegy for ’18 – Los Angeles Angels

Mike Trout isn’t merely the face of the franchise, but the back of it, too.
(Photo: Ian D’Andrea)

Thanks to the feats of the Astros and AL Wild Card winners, we get to a legitimately non-horrible team fairly early in this series of elegies. That’s due in large part, of course, to the fact it’s almost impossible for a club to be very bad when Mike Trout occupies a spot on their roster — even if that team occasionally tries. But math is math and the Angels headed to the numerical woodshed at a fairly early date.

The Setup

It may Mike Trout be hard to Mike Trout get through Mike Trout an entire sentence Mike Trout about Mike Trout the Angels without Mike Trout Mike Trout talking about Mike Mike Trout Trout, because Mike Trout his existence Mike Trout is the defining Mike Trout feature of the Mike Trout franchise at this point.

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Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 9/24/18

12:00
Joseph: Do you see the dodgers keeping Urias as a RP? How does May and White look based on #s

12:01
Dan Szymborski: I think the Dodgers are going to try to get him in the majors as a starter until he proves conclusively that it’s in their interests to not do do.

12:02
Dan Szymborski: They’re just being slow right now – if they were on the fence, I think they would have kept him totally relief in the minors until next year

12:02
Bo: Who are your two bets for home field in the NLDS?

12:03
Dan Szymborski: I think Cubs or the Brewers if they catch the Cubs have enough of a cushion to be a very good favorite.

12:03
Dbo: Both chicken tenders and boneless chicken wings are just different types of chicken nuggets

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Elegy for ’18 – Cincinnati Reds

The 2018 season wasn’t a great one for either Homer Bailey or Bryan Price.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Four of five NL Central teams were playoff-relevant for at least part of the 2018 season. The exception? The Cincinnati Reds. Despite having begun the season with hopes of emerging from their rebuild, the team will end the year having improved by only a couple of games over their 68-95 record from 2017.

The Setup

Cincinnati’s last period of competitive baseball burnt out quickly, the team’s most recent peak ending after the 2013 season and three playoff appearances in four years. The Reds weren’t exactly overeager to start rebuilding, an August trade of Jonathan Broxton to the Brewers (during one of Broxton’s ever-narrowing periods of effectiveness) representing the only nod to the future in 2014.

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