Author Archive

Brutal Trade-Deadline Travels

In terms of the baseball news cycle, the trade deadline — which passed less than a week ago, you might recall — is officially old news. But, as Wilmer Flores and the New York Mets very accidentally and very effectively reminded us, the trade deadline always has been and always will be a group of real-live human beings subjected to a gauntlet of some of the most mundane and anxiety-producing ordeals of the modern age: pursuit of a new residence, extensive travel, nagging doubts about one’s job performance.

While their trades are old news, more than a few of the players who were moved at the deadline no doubt have their heads still spinning from the unexpectedly grueling calendar that befell them. If their performance has faltered, may they have our sympathy — and if it has not, may they have our further admiration:

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Recent History’s Biggest Trades Within the Division

Here’s one of baseball’s ol’ conundrums: to trade within the division or not. On the one hand, every team, in theory, participates in a trade only because they believe their team will ultimately reap the greater bounty. So who better than to reap great bounties from, then, if not one’s divisional foe?

But then again, if one is positioned as the “seller” in the trade, receiving future prospective talent in exchange for future veteran experience, aren’t you boosting your rival’s odds of making the playoffs? Which thus raises your rival’s odds at reaping the previously unavailable bounties, i.e.: increased revenues the following season, attainment of status as a desirable free-agent destination, glorious championship booty?

But then again, if you are truly reaping the greater trade bounty, won’t these additional spoils be, in due time, gloriously available to you?

I will not attempt to answer any of these questions. Instead, with some notable shifting around within their division during this most manic of weeks — Scott Kazmir, Jonathan Papelbon, Juan Uribe — I wanted to know which intra-division deal (completed before the July 31 non-waiver deadline) of the last decade saw the most WAR changing hands in that season. I’m looking at the most impactful trade within each division, and without considering value from the trades that came in future seasons or transactions. (Also: I’m using Baseball-Reference WAR here, as B-R splits up WAR by team played for within the same season.) Ordered by the divisions that saw the least to most WAR shifting hands:

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How Many GMs See Their Amateur Free Agents to the Bigs?

Last week at Grantland, two friends of the show in Jonah Keri and Nick Piecoro had a wonderful discussion about all things Arizona Diamondbacks, including the Touki Toussaint trade that caused many a skeptical eyebrow to be raised in the Diamondbacks’ direction. While Keri and Piecoro by no means endorsed the Diamondbacks’ recent moves, they brought up an interesting perspective on Arizona’s willingness to spend big on Cuban players Yasmany Tomas and Yoan Lopez — and thus easily eclipsing their allotted international bonuses — without spending much on international free agents from other countries. The idea: there’s a relatively slim chance that Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart — or any other general manager for any other team — would still be working in their current position when today’s 16-year-old reaches the majors. While the fan no doubt cringes at the thought of a general manager romping around the front office with nary a concern for the franchise’s sustained success, one can definitely empathize with the human instinct for self-preservation.

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The Division-Deciding Match-Ups

If you look at the MLB’s gigantic 162-game gauntlet from a certain perspective, the landscape of every division is dictated by intra-divisional match-ups. For instance, in the spread-out NL Central, the Chicago Cubs (47-40 and eight games back of the St. Louis Cardinals) are serious contenders for a playoff spot, while the Cincinnati Reds (39-47, 15.5 games back) have been presumed for the whole season to be trade deadline sellers, with a close-to-hopeless chance of making the playoffs.

The shape of the NL Central looks very different if the season series between the Cubs and the Reds wasn’t played. The Cubs lead 7-2, with ten more games scheduled after the All-Star Break. Take this one match-up out of the two teams’ records and the Cubs are 40-38, and the Reds are 37-40, suddenly a weekend series away from matching each other in the standings. Read the rest of this entry »


A Case for Darren O’Day’s All-Stardom

As Craig Calcaterra correctly points out at Hardball Talk, Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost has somewhat joylessly brought ultra-utility types aboard the American League All-Star roster instead of selecting players with bigger reputations.

But can ya blame Yost? You might recall that he got wicked close to winning a World Series just nine months ago. In a Game 7 where every last doggone base was weighted with incomprehensible leverage, playing that game at home nudged forward the Royals’ chances at winning by precious, precious percentage points. With this year’s Royals actually plausible World Series contestants — as opposed to their then-implausible candidacy at this time last year — Yost has unique motivation to play the All-Star Game to win.

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A Brief History of Non-Star All-Stars

Let the record show that I am all about Omar Infante starting the All-Star Game. As Grantland’s Bill Barnwell recently stated at the beginning of his fantastic article regarding below-replacement players who’d received MVP votes: “Baseball has a rich historical tapestry of stupidity.” May anarchy reign. Whatever.

Inspired by Barnwell’s spirit of inquiry, I wanted to discover which All-Stars finished their season with negative WAR — a destiny, it should be noted, that neither Steamer nor ZiPS project Infante to fulfill (barely). Read the rest of this entry »


Luhnow’s First Astros Draft Class Has Arrived

At a time not very long ago — actually, just a single month and a few days ago — viscount of the internet Rob Neyer wrote at Just A Bit Outside about how the Houston Astros, then as now a first-place team, had been winning games with negligible contribution from any players drafted by General Manager Jeff Luhnow. Quoth Neyer:

The 2012 draft has, so far, produced two major leaguers: pitcher Lance McCullers and hitter Preston Tucker. McCullers and Tucker have combined for zero wins and one home run (granted, the homer was a big one Thursday). The 2013 and 2014 drafts haven’t produced any major leaguers.

The final sentence of Neyer’s paragraph remains, as of this writing, true. But, in a testament to how rapidly things are changing down in Houston, the first two sentences of Neyer’s paragraph have already become dramatically obsolete. Please recall that Neyer’s post is barely one month old.

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The Braves’ NBA-Style Rebuild

Keith Law did not like this week’s trade (ESPN Insider article) that saw Touki Toussaint and Bronson Arroyo go from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Atlanta Braves. It’s not that Law didn’t like the trade from the perspective of one team or the other. It’s that he didn’t like the spirit of the trade, period: it was, indisputably, a swap of contracts instead of an even exchange of on-field talent.

What does a league look like where plenty, if not most, trades are motivated by their financial implications? Well, it’s not the end of the world: this is what the NBA has been about for years. The NBA combines baseball’s almost entirely guaranteed salaries with a soft cap, like baseball, that, unlike baseball, is restrictive enough that even mid-market teams can unwittingly bump up against it. “Expiring” contracts — or, inefficient deals with less than a year remaining on them — have been a long-coveted NBA asset: salary albatrosses are willingly taken on precisely because they will end quickly enough for the team to have an even more valuable asset — space and flexibility underneath the cap — in time for the offseason free-agent market.

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Eliminating Teams Using the Thome Corollary

In the first chapter of his (excellent!) Big Data Baseball, Travis Sawchick describes how now-Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington used an interesting bit of historical analysis to help inform a controversial roster move. Writes Sawchick:

Using the software [DiamondView], the Indians made key decisions, such as when they elected not to sign aging star Jim Thome to an extension after the 2002 season, in part because of the database, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. […] Huntington noted that the Indians found in a payroll analysis that no major league club, dating back to 1985, had won a World Series when committing 15 percent or more of its payroll to one player.

Let’s call that 15% rule The Thome Corollary.

Has The Thome Corollary held up in the years since 2002, when price tags for choice free agents and franchise cornerstones has escalated at a rate far greater than your journeyman’s/rookie’s salary? The answer is: “No, The Thome Corollary has not held up,” or, “Yes, it sure has, with some small tweaks.”

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The Astros’ Enviable Draft Position

For me, there’s been something about seeing the first fruits of the Houston Astros’ years-long rebuilding project that really gets the imagination going. This is a team that is unquestionably built for the vague future that is even more unquestionably winning a lot in the concrete now. Let’s forget, for the length of this article, that the 2015 major-league team — alternately composed of beefy sluggers and finesse worm-burner-inducers — is favored by our projections to win the American League West and is tied for the seventh-best odds to win this year’s World Series. Let’s focus, for now, on the Astros’ draft picks in next week’s draft.

And I don’t mean the specific prospects that the Astros may or may not pick, a subject that has already been discussed in impressive depth by Kiley McDaniel. I mean the team’s early draft slots: 2, 5, 37, 46. The Astros are rich, and they stand to get much richer.

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A Theory on Russell Martin’s Framing Numbers

Projection systems tend to look at reality a whole lot more soberly than us humans, who can fall madly in love with a player on the basis of aesthetic appeal alone. That’s why most offseason columns here at FanGraphs reviewing free-agent acquisitions tend to damper down instead of ramp up excitement.

So it is a meaningful testament to Russell Martin’s skills that, upon being signed by the Toronto Blue Jays to a five-year, $82M contract as a 31-year-old catcher — i.e. after Martin has already sustained several lifetimes of knee-shredding, cup-checking abuse in baseball’s most brutal position — the deal was graded positively in these pages by Mr. Sullivan.

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Chris Young is Doing the BABIP Thing Again

In the offseason after winning the 2014 award for American League Comeback Player of the year, Chris Young — that’s the exceptionally lanky pitcher Chris Young, not the merely lanky hitter Chris Young — received zero attention on the free agent market. It took until about mid-way through Spring Training until a team signed Young — on March 7, the Royals signed him to a very interesting one-year contract with a $0.675M base salary and a whopping $5.325M in incentives. That’s very little guaranteed money, though, especially compared to the 2014 National League Comeback Player of the Year, Casey McGehee, who is guaranteed to earn $4.8M from the San Francisco Giants this season despite performing below replacement level thus far.

Jeff explored Young’s lack of a market in late February, pointing out that Young is riskier than most pitchers because of both his frighteningly extensive injury history and perhaps also because of the uniquely large gulf between Young’s ERA and his FIP. Even though Young’s BABIP of .238 in 2014 was actually in line with his through-2013 career rate of .258, it also makes sense that no teams were eager to snap up a pitcher who compiled a 5+ FIP the previous season after missing the entire season prior to that. Read the rest of this entry »


Checking In on the Disaster Positions

On the eve of this season, we at FanGraphs compiled our annual Positional Power Rankings, examining the projected depth charts at every position for every team. Things are very exciting at the top of these rankings — monitoring the center field situation for the Angels, for example, will be a thrill for the foreseeable future.

Also a thrill — at least for this impartial observer — was the situation at the very bottom of the same rankings. While just about every position for just about every team has been serviceably filled by the end of winter, a few slipped through the cracks here and there. Of the dozens of major league positions amongst the thirty teams, only four were projected to produce at below replacement level. Here we will examine just how things are going for those four positions, plus starting here with a fifth position that, while projected for marginally above replacement level, lagged remarkably behind the other 29 teams:

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When the Angels Held Back Mike Trout

Boy, this whole Kris Bryant situation sure got heated fast, right?! On the off-chance you haven’t been keeping tabs on the MLB’s most philosophically layered spring training headline, I recommend reading Mike’s proposed rule changes; Nathaniel’s examination of what the Players’ Association could do next; and Jason Wojciechowski’s appeal to ethical business practices over at Beaneball.

Alas, this is not the first time a bright new prospect has been sent to the minors under, ahem, dubious circumstances. At this moment, Bryant’s saga cannot be discussed without heavy reliance on hypotheticals: questions of how his trip/sentence to Iowa will affect the Cubs’ 2015 season, the Cubs’ 2021 season, or Bryant’s lifetime earning potential are all, ultimately, unknowns. But we can learn from history and see how prior service-time-oriented decisions have played out for other teams and their marquee prospects. Up first: the consensus greatest player in the game.
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2015 Positional Power Rankings: Starting Rotations (#1-15)

What do we have here? For an explanation of this series, please read this introductory post. As noted in that introduction, the data below 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.

Yes, we know WAR is imperfect and there is more to player value than is wrapped up in that single projection, but for the purposes of talking about a team’s strengths and weaknesses, it is a useful tool. Also, 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.

2015-positional-power-rankings-SP

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Thanks for Nothing: 2014’s Worst Hitting Performances in a Win

My previous investigation of 2014’s best hitting and pitching performances in a loss was motivated by years of wondering what the vibe/conversation/protocol is in a professional locker room after such an extreme, heart-wrenching performance.

Contributing an excellent performance in a loss is far from the only for emotional dissonance to work its way into the clubhouse. Like: what about players who perform very badly on a given day — but on days when their team manages to pull a victory out of the rubble? Baseball orthodoxy declares that players who perform exceptionally in a loss must still mumble about how it was all for not, what with that L in the standings. The player who performs dreadfully in a win, though: he can’t really take any satisfaction about the W his teammates put together, right? But: surely there is some relief in everybody being in a good mood and perhaps being willing to overlook a golden sombrero.

Here are 2014’s five worst individual hitting performances in a win, as listed by WPA. The key to appearing on this list is to get lots of plate appearances in leverage-laden extra innings, and then to make a mess of all of those plate appearances. Magnificently, a player who is renowned for adding some WPA for his team in the most crucial of moments is responsible for two of these five performances. The list:

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The Last Expo Standing

The Washington Nationals — who once earned exactly 59 wins in consecutive seasons (2008-09) and who are presently one of baseball’s most-feared, most-bankrolled teams — are entering their eleventh season playing their home games in America’s capital. That means it’s been more than a decade since the Montreal Expos played their final season in Canada, in front of an average of about 9,000 fans a game. A decade is basically a few generations in baseball-time — Ben Sheets and Jim Edmonds were Top-10 in WAR during the Expos’ last year — and so we are inching ever closer to a sad milestone for nostalgic Quebecers: some time very soon, the Major Leagues will be down to their very last ex-Expo.

At the moment, there are only five ex-Expos who are currently under contract with Major League teams, and also two ex-Expos who appeared in the Majors in 2013 who have not officially announced their retirements, and are conceivably candidates for Scott Kazmir-ian comebacks. Let’s meet our seven remaining ex-Expos, listed in alphabetical order. (Note: I am excluding players who were drafted by the Expos but who never actually appeared in a Montreal uniform, for no other reason than that list includes Ian Desmond, and safe money is that Desmond’s career will last significantly longer than any of the players we are about to meet.)

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Noble Failures: 2014’s Best Hitting Performances in a Loss

Last time, I looked at 2014’s five best pitching performances, by WPA, in a losing effort. This time we take a gander at the five best offensive performances that came in a loss. Just like the pitching performances we looked at earlier, there is one very specific way to appear on this list: have a career day during a close game, and then watch your bullpen mess the whole thing up.

It should be noted that the single greatest individual game in baseball history — which would be a whopping 1.503 WPA, or more than Ben Zobrist, Salvador Perez, or Yan Gomes provided all of last season — came from a hitter in a loss. The date was August 12, 1966, and the man was Art Shamsky, who would ultimately contribute 6.8 WAR during his eight seasons as a utility outfielder. On August 12, 1966, Shamsky did not even receive the start, but was allowed to chill in the dugout for the first seven innings before being brought in on a double-switch as a defensive substitution in the top of the eighth.

In the bottom of the eighth, Shamsky cranked a two-run homer to give his Cincinnati Reds a one-run lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates would tie the game in the top of the ninth, sending the contest to extra innings. The Pirates scored one run in the top of the tenth, which Shamsky answered with a solo homer. The Pirates then scored two runs in the top of the eleventh, which Shamsky answered with — duh — a two-run homer. In the top of the thirteenth, the Pirates scored three runs off of the impeccably named Billy McCool, and the other hapless Reds went down in order in the bottom of the 13th, leaving Shamsky in the hole on the game’s concluding pitch. We recognize you and mourn with you, Art Shamsky.

On to 2014:

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Noble Failures: 2014’s Best Pitching Performances in a Loss

I’m always curious about what goes on inside a player’s head, post-game, when they’ve delivered a monster performance — but then their team ends up losing. Yeah, yeah: half-naked at the locker most every ballplayer will preach that none of it matters without that W. But, I mean, some of these individual performances are really good, and it takes some significant unraveling on the part of the other 24 players for the team to still end up with the L.

Here are profiles of the 10 best individual games in 2014, by WPA, that ended up in a loss. This time I’ll look at the five best pitching performances in a loss and next time I’ll look at the five best position player performances in a loss. Read the rest of this entry »


Teams Who Have Tightened the Belt

As an MLB team, it’s awful hard to reduce your payroll. All those long-term contracts you agreed to years ago come equipped with incremental annual raises, and then the free agent market inflates every year in the meantime. Cutting payroll can’t happen by accident: it’s a shift in organizational direction across all tiers of the operation.

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