Author Archive

Adventures in Playoff Leverage and Win Probability Added

Playoff baseball is interesting as a concept. After a regular season of 162 games to determine the game’s best teams, the sport’s champion is then determined by a few best-of-five and best-of-seven series. It’s not unlike asking the top 10 finishers of a marathon to run a 5K in order to decide who should receive first place. The sprint-like nature of the postseason is baseball’s Theatre of the Absurd (especially where small sample sizes are concerned): entertaining and a bit preposterous at the same time.

One of the areas where the effect is most pronounced is in the realm of Win Probability Added (WPA) and Leverage Index (LI). Championships are on the line and the lens of the postseason only serves to magnify what would be tense moments even on a quiet night in July. A big WPA day turns a player into a legend, while going the opposite direction turns a player into the goat. But not every intriguing event with a high WPA or LI is a starring turn. With that in mind, let’s look at a few of the stranger WPA- and LI-related things we’ve seen during the League Championship Series.

Caleb Ferguson and Playoff Stress

Caleb Ferguson was a 38th-round pick out of high school for the Dodgers in 2014. A starter through his whole minor-league career — he recorded only three relief appearances in the minors prior to this year — he found a home in the Dodgers’ bullpen this year. While he doesn’t have an incredible arsenal — Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel graded his fastball as a 50, curveball as a 45, and changeup as a 45 — he put up solid numbers as a reliever, striking out over 30% of batters and produced a 2.55 xFIP. After that solid rookie season, Ferguson joined the playoff roster as one of three lefties — the other two being Alex Wood and Julio Urias — in the Los Angeles bullpen.

Generally speaking, he didn’t pitch in high-leverage situations this season. With an average leverage index of 1.08 (Overall average is 1), he ranked 123rd in baseball for relievers with at least 30 innings pitched. In the League Championship Series, however, things have been a little different.

2018 LCS Leverage Index Leaders
Player pLI WPA/TBF
Kenley Jansen 2.48 0.031
Caleb Ferguson 2.14 0.017
Jeremy Jeffress 2.09 -0.026
Junior Guerra 1.87 0.004
Ryan Brasier 1.66 0.018

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The Brewers Outfield Combating Coors

With their win in the divisional tiebreaker on Monday, the Brewers took home the National League Central title, their second Central crown and third division title in their 49-year existence. By winning, besides avoiding the scramble of the winner-take-all Wild Card game, they get to face the Colorado Rockies. This is surely preferable for the Brewers for many reasons. For one, the Rockies offense is significantly less potent than either the Cubs or Dodgers — the Brewers’ other potential opponents — putting up an 87 team wRC+ compared to 100 for the Cubs and 111 for the league-leading Dodgers. The Brewers also (albeit in rather small samples) took five of seven from the Rockies this year, compared to three of seven from the Dodgers and nine out of 20 from the Cubs.

Despite the optimism, there is one catch to playing the Rockies; eventually, you have to go to Coors Field. Coors can be a tricky place to play, as many NL West players could tell you. From the elevation to the humidor, there are many factors that come into play once you travel to Denver. However, the Brewers are uniquely situated to combat one of Coors Field’s most difficult attributes.

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The Two Rookies Who Drive the Braves’ Bullpen

This past Saturday, the Braves defeated the Phillies by a score of 5-3, earning their 87th win on the season and clinching the National League East title. Needless to say, this was unexpected back in March, when the Braves entered the year with a 3.2% chance of reaching the playoffs. Then again, there were a lot of unexpected developments in Atlanta this year. It was clear entering the season, for example, that Ronald Acuna possessed considerable talent; it was less obvious, however, that he’d become one of baseball’s best so soon. It was perhaps even more unlikely that a 34-year-old Nick Markakis would earn his first All-Star selection, although that happened as well. The list of surprises goes on. Johan Camargo, Mike Foltynewicz, and Anibal Sanchez: each of these actors played an important role in the Braves’ early arrival on the national stage.

Now the minds of both fans and the players themselves turn to October baseball. While there are some legitimate reasons to regard the Braves as a long shot — the Astros, the Dodgers, the Indians, the Red Sox, you get the idea — they do still have a 2.9% chance of winning the World Series. Throw in the fact that playoff baseball can be especially random, and we could be sitting here in a month lauding World Series MVP Kevin Gausman.

The Braves do enter October with questions beyond their youth. Most of these questions relate to their pitching, especially their bullpen. In terms of both run prevention (19th in adjusted ERA) and peripherals (18th in adjusted FIP), the relief corps has been middling. The midseason acquisitions of Brad Brach and Jonny Venters for international bonus money have yielded some returns, as the two veterans have put up a combined 0.8 WAR. However, if the Braves hope to slow down baseball’s best offenses in the late innings, they’ll be relying on two rookies with very similar arsenals.

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Jeff McNeil and Rewarding Boldness

This has been an exciting year for rookie performances. Juan Soto has looked like the best teenage hitter in history, Ronald Acuna has helped lead the Braves to a (surprising) lead in the NL East, and Shohei Ohtani has short-circuited our understanding of player value with his two-way achievements. Rookies have always been a key component to baseball’s excitement, and this year’s crop is no exception.

Now, quick: what player leads rookies in second-half WAR? If you guessed Acuna, congrats! Acuna has caught fire, putting up a 190 wRC+ and 3.4 WAR since the break — second-best in baseball behind Matt Chapman’s 3.7 mark during that timeframe.

Let’s continue, though. Who’s second amongst rookies since the break? Soto? Sorry, no. Ohtani? Nope, not even after accounting for his contributions on all sides of the ball. It’s not the workman-like Brian Anderson, nor is it defensive wizard Harrison Bader. No, second among rookies in WAR during the second half is New York Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil. For some, perhaps that makes sense. For many, though, the likely response is, “Who?”

That’s understandable. Unless you’ve watched a Mets game since July 24th — and let’s be honest, why would you if you lived outside the New York MSA? — you’ve probably not heard of McNeil. Even if you were a prospect hound, McNeil could have evaded your eye. He didn’t appear on prospect lists for the Mets here at FanGraphs, at Minor League Ball, or Baseball Prospectus. At FanGraphs, only the enigmatic Carson Cistulli mentioned McNeil in an early July edition of the Fringe Five.*

*Since this article came out, it has come to my attention that several articles focused on or mentioning Jeff McNeil have been written by several authors. Among them include the Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Prospectus Mets prospect writers Jarrett Seidler (May 2018), Jeff Paternostro, and Alex Rosen (May 2018). Jeff’s coverage of McNeil in particular goes back as far as McNeil’s second season in 2014. This oversight was completely accidental on my part and not meant to disregard or disparage their work or the work of anyone else who has written about McNeil in the past

For a Mets fanbase that has observed the front office regularly block prospects in favor of flawed veterans — at least they finally freed outfielder Brandon Nimmo — it has to be mildly gratifying to see a young player getting reps in the waning days of the season. McNeil is not only second in WAR amongst rookies in the second half, he is 13th among all hitters by the measure.

Given McNeil’s lack of obvious tools, there’s still reason to doubt that he can put together a substantive major-league career, let alone sustain the pace he’s established since July. Despite these concerns, however, it’s encouraging that the Mets have continued to give McNeil — and Amed Rosario and Nimmo — sufficient playing time to earn a place on the big-league club.

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Shane Bieber Completes the Indians’ Dominant Rotation

This time last year, Jeff Sullivan posited that the Indians might have assembled the best pitching staff in baseball history, a distinction that unsurprisingly included one of the best collections of starting pitchers ever. Even though the club wasn’t able to translate their success into October glory, it would be hard to pin whatever shortcomings the team exhibited on the rotation, the worst regular member of which, Josh Tomlin, recorded “only” a league-average FIP. It was an impressive season.

Perhaps surprisingly, the 2018 campaign has seen the Indians repeat that success. The rotation as a whole leads baseball with 19.9 WAR, with its four best starters — Trevor Bauer (6.0 WAR, fourth in baseball), Corey Kluber (4.9 WAR, ninth), Carlos Carrasco (4.1 WAR, 11th), and Mike Clevinger (3.9 WAR, 12th) — ranked among the top 12 of the league by that metric. That quartet has already exceeded their combined WAR from 2017 by half a win with a month to go. Notably, that isn’t even the only way in which the rotation has improved.

Instead of Tomlin, the Indians have turned to rookie starter Shane Bieber since the end of May. In 15 starts, Bieber’s has produced a 4.66 ERA but has also posted an incredible 3.23 FIP and 2.0 WAR in a mere 85 innings. He strikes out over a batter an inning (9.21 K/9) and has excellent control of his pitches, as evidenced by a top-10 walk rate (4.2%). Putting those figures two together, Bieber’s 5.8 K/BB is exceeded by only six pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched. Some impressive names are counted among those six, including Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, and Bieber’s teammate, Kluber.

The Indians seem to have struck gold with Bieber. While the team doesn’t seem to need it this year — thanks to the remarkably weak AL Central — Bieber is a key piece for the Indians in the future. His repertoire, ability to deploy his pitches, and command make him an especially valuable (and foundational) starter.

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Welcome Back, Hector Neris

A little less than four weeks ago, I wrote about Phillies rookie Victor Arano. Originally expected to play only a minimal role (if any role at all) with the club this season, Arano has paired with Seranthony Dominguez to lead a Philadelphia bullpen that has aided the club’s surprising pursuit of a division title. Arano’s opportunity to provide meaningful innings would not have been possible had certain other relievers for the Phillies not fallen by the wayside. Tommy Hunter (0.5 WAR) and Pat Neshek (0.6 WAR) have certainly been serviceable, but they’ve fallen a little short of expectations. As for projected closer Hector Neris, he’s fallen well short of them, putting up a 6.90 ERA, 6.39 FIP, and -0.7 WAR through the end of June before earning a demotion to Triple-A.

Neris was recalled to Philadelphia on August 14th and has looked like an entirely different pitcher since his return. In the smallest of samples, Neris has struck out 16 batters, walked one, and allowed three hits in 26 batters faced. This performance — one of the best two-week stretches by a reliever this season — would have been entirely unexpected given his first half. His return comes at a time when the rest of the Phillies’ bullpen performance has been flagging, and his continued excellence will be a necessity if the team wants to emerge from a crowded Wild Card field.

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Zack Wheeler’s Future Is Bright Again

The New York Mets are currently not a good baseball team. This isn’t news, and it can also be the source of occasional amusement. In the future envisioned by Futurama, the New New York Mets are the worst team in baseball’s successor, blernsball. But the humor provided by the Mets isn’t solely confined to the future; it provides comedy in the present as well. Upon Wednesday’s announcement of the 2019 MLB schedule, our own Dan Szymborski got in a dig at New York’s second-favorite team.

This current state of Mets-dom is unlikely to change anytime soon. That said, the Mets are actually having a decent August. At 12-11, with three series wins and one split in six series against admittedly weak competition, August represents a major improvement over the months of May through July (27-51 combined record).

The underlying numbers back up this August run. Most important of all is the fact that the Mets have put up the third-highest pitching WAR for the month, trailing only the Indians and Braves in that timespan. Their staff has been led by Jacob deGrom (1.7 WAR, best in MLB in August), Noah Syndergaard (0.8 WAR, 17th-best), and Zack Wheeler (1.0 WAR, eighth-best). While this level of performance isn’t out of the ordinary for deGrom or Syndergaard, Wheeler’s appearance alongside them is little surprising, at least relative to expectations. Prior to the season, the projection systems placed Wheeler at around 1.2 WAR, with all three of ZiPS, Steamer, and Depth Charts projecting him to be worth less than Jason Vargas.

That’s not to say that Wheeler’s talent level was expected to be worse than Vargas’s. It was just hard to know. After 2015 and 2016 seasons wiped out by Tommy John surgery and then a poor 2017, there was little sense of what to expect from the former top prospect. However, Wheeler has rebounded in 2018 to the tune of 3.3 WAR, 15th-best among pitchers in all of baseball. This turnaround has come at a beneficial time for the Mets, a club now looking to build for 2019 and beyond.

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The Basepath Misadventures of Jose Pirela

As baseball analysis has grown, the advanced metrics have begun to find their way into television broadcasts more regularly. Announcers will occasionally mention win probability in terms of game context. Pitcher FIP will be brought up alongside ERA. The slew of batter statistics — wOBA, wRC+, ISO, et al — will be used to shed further light on hitters. Even fielding metrics like UZR and DRS have slowly started creeping their way into viewers’ homes, at least from national television broadcasts.

The one quantifiable area of the game that seems to get a little less sabermetric coverage from broadcasters is baserunning. Stolen bases are of course referenced, and Statcast sprint speeds are a relatable number that does occasionally get mentioned. However, the concept of baserunning runs (BsR) has not made its way to television in the way that its fielding counterparts have.

While the introduction of Statcast sprint speeds to the public is a step forward in understanding how good a baserunner is, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Rather, it tells something more akin to the potential baserunning value that a player can bring. Activating that potential involves no small amount of baserunning instincts for basically anyone who lacks Billy Hamilton’s speed. Looking at one player in particular from 2018 clearly shows us why in explaining runner ability, broadcasts need to go beyond sprint speed.

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The One Thing Freddie Freeman Does Better Than Everyone

If you haven’t heard, Freddie Freeman is good at baseball. He’s currently second among first basemen by WAR and wRC+, behind only Matt Carpenter in each case. Since 2016, he’s recorded a 150 wRC+, good for sixth-best in baseball over that span. Nor is his more recent success unprecedented. Freeman ranks 29th in career WAR for active hitters, with only five players having produced a greater WAR figure than him (30.0) in fewer plate appearances (4,793): Josh Donaldson (35.6 and 3,757), Paul Goldschmidt (34.8 and 4,521), Mike Trout (62.6 and 4,547), Giancarlo Stanton (37.7 and 4,613), and Buster Posey (39.1 and 4,658). (All numbers current as of Wednesday.)

This news isn’t exactly earth-shattering for anyone who frequents the pages of FanGraphs. We have known this since Freeman’s breakout season in 2013. Despite that, however, it seems like there’s an increase in Freddie Freeman appreciation recently. Some of this is likely due to the fact that the Braves are — somewhat unexpectedly — fighting for a playoff spot. The Home Run Derby also helped his nationwide notability, even if he didn’t perform particularly well. Google seems to confirm the newfound recognition, as Freddie Freeman searches are up notably the past two years.

As noted, though, Freeman has been an extraordinary talent for a while now. He hits for average and power, is a good fielder (he ranks third in UZR for first basemen since 2013), and is a good runner for a first baseman (fourth-most baserunning runs since 2015). However, to add to all these skills, there is one thing that Freeman does better than anyone else in baseball, and it’s this one thing that helps put him in position to succeed.

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Victor Arano and the Power of Movement

It’s August 3rd, and the Phillies are still in first place in the National League East with a 60-48 record. They’ve slid a bit off of their June 1st pace, but that’s not totally unexpected. Despite this, they still remain in good position among teams in the playoff hunt. According to our playoff odds, they have a 45.3% chance of winning the division and a 59.9% chance of making the postseason in general.

One key that has helped drive the Phillies to their first-place position is the success of a few rookie relievers in a bullpen that has already exceeded preseason projections and generated 3.5 WAR with 55 games to go. The group was expected to be led by Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, and Hector Neris — projected to put up 1.1, 0.8, and 0.6 WAR, respectively. But these three relievers have combined for just 0.4 WAR so far, with Neris demoted to Triple A. Instead, it’s two rookies who have been the premier relief options for the team. Seranthony Dominguez has been discussed here before, and has ascended to the closer role since Neris’s demotion. However, it’s the emergence of Victor Arano that has put the Phillies bullpen in a position to help push the team toward the playoffs.

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Kyle Crick’s Return to Relevance

Growing up, the closest minor-league club to me was the Richmond Braves. This was the late 90s and many top prospects who would go on to major-league careers came through town for a season. My scorebook from those years is filled with games that included former major leaguers Andruw Jones and Bruce Chen, along with lesser luminaries such as Wes Helms and Odalis Perez. The Braves moved to Gwinnett after the 2008 season, and the Flying Squirrels — the Giants’ Double-A affiliate — would move to Richmond in 2010.

The parade of prospects slowed a bit after the Flying Squirrels arrived. Buster Posey skipped Double-A, Brandon Belt’s 2010 breakout helped propel him to a top-100 prospect. However, without question, the biggest prospect who stayed in Richmond for any length of time was Kyle Crick. He arrived in 2014 as the 32nd-best prospect in baseball according to He proceeded, however, to stay in town for three seasons without being promoted or demoted. Needless to say, his prospect light dimmed during that period.

When Crick was promoted to Fresno in 2017, it was more out of a need to see if he had any chance of reaching the majors that season, as he was eligible to become a minor-league free agent at the end of the year. He would eventually make it to the Giants’ bullpen and then, later, to Pittsburgh as part of the Andrew McCutchen deal.

In Pittsburgh, Crick has become a serviceable bullpen option, combining with Richard Rodriguez and Felipe Vazquez to helm a bullpen unit that ranks among the league’s top 10 in K/9, FIP, and xFIP. The success of all three has been unexpected — Crick included, despite his prospect pedigree. By leaning on his long-held strengths and gaining a modicum of control over his weaknesses, Crick has been able to end his long minor-league odyssey and has found success in the majors, albeit in a role which he had hoped to avoid.

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The One Ball Keon Broxton Didn’t Catch

On July 10th, the Brewers were in Miami to face the Marlins in a game that didn’t seem to have anything of note going into it. Jhoulys Chacin was facing Pablo Lopez, there were no stats leaders in the game, and playoff spots weren’t directly at stake. After both teams put up a run in the first inning, J.T. Riddle stepped in and whacked a slider in the middle of the zone to center field.

Okay, “whacked” might be an exaggeration. It exited the bat at only 71.1 mph and, with a launch angle of 30 degrees, represented a pretty standard short fly ball. Fortunately for Riddle, it was well placed and landed in front of the center fielder for a single. Despite Starlin Castro coming around to score and giving the Marlins an early 2-1 lead, it would ultimately go for naught: the Brewers put up four in the top of the second and went on to an easy 8-4 win.

Seems like a throwaway single in a relatively meaningless game, right? On the one hand, yes. On the other, there’s something interesting in that moment, and it has nothing to do with Riddle or the Marlins. Rather, it’s an interesting event for Brewers center fielder Keon Broxton. “But why?” I hear you say. “He didn’t catch the ball. Sure, it looks like he considered diving there for a brief second, but he didn’t and let the ball land.” However, the fact that the ball landed is what’s notable. That bloop single is the only ball hit to Broxton in 2018 — with a catch probability greater than 0% — that he didn’t catch. And he was only a couple of strides from reaching it at that! In a part-time role, necessitated by his poor hitting and the Brewers’ very crowded outfield, Broxton is putting up an unprecedented defensive season.

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Ryan Borucki and Baseball’s Newest Plus Pitch

For most of 2018, any positive noise about the Toronto Blue Jays has been oriented to the future. Teoscar Hernandez — picked up for Francisco Liriano last July 3 — has proven to be a solid piece for the team. The farm system boasts four prospects in the top 100, led by baseball’s No. 1 prospect in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. While injured currently, Guerrero has posted video-game numbers at Double-A, and even the slightest possibility of his call-up to Toronto has sent fans into hysterics. With the AL East pretty well set for the playoffs, looking ahead is an entirely realistic plan for the Blue Jays.

Two weeks ago, another young Blue Jay made his major-league debut. Ryan Borucki comes from a baseball family: his father played 600 games in the minors and was a one-time teammate of Ryne Sandberg’s. The younger Borucki was a 15th-round pick in 2012 and signed for $426,000 to forego his commitment to Iowa. After a rough start to the career — including Tommy John surgery and shoulder pain that led to lost 2015 campaign — he turned it around after a demotion to Low-A in 2016 and shot up three levels to Triple-A in 2017. After a middling start to the 2018 season in Triple-A, Borucki got called out to fill out a rotation plagued by struggles and injury.

In his first three starts, Borucki faced the Astros, Yankees, and Tigers. Despite the quality of those first two clubs, Borucki conceded only five total runs in 20 innings while recording a 16:6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Nor does it get any easier: Borucki is scheduled to start tonight against Boston.

At first glance, Borucki’s arsenal doesn’t seem like the sort capable of thwarting two of the league’s highest-scoring offenses. His sinking fastball averages around 92 mph and his slider is generally seen as pedestrian. However, he does have one weapon that could become one of the best pitches of its kind in the majors.

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Brian Anderson and Hope for the Marlins

This image represents an exception to the rule of Anderson’s outfield defense.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Not every franchise is in a position to enjoy the present. Each year, 10 clubs qualify for the postseason, meaning 10 fanbases experience some form of pleasure. The supporters of the other 20 teams, however, are necessarily forced to contend with various levels of discontent. Some are able to recall recent success, if not much hope for the near future. Those who follow the Giants and Royals belong to this category. Others, like those in San Diego or the south side of Chicago, endure the present while waiting for an Astros- or Cubs-style turnaround. For these fanbases, “[The] Past and to come seem best; things present [the] worst.

One club that is forced to dwell only on the past and future is the Miami Marlins. They certainly have past glories: they’ve won the World Series in their only two playoff appearances. Their present, however, is just as certainly is bleak. Since 2011, the club has endured a spending spree that went nowhere; the resulting sell-off; the death of a bright, young talent; another firesale; a deteriorating relationship between management and their best player; and… yeah… it’s rough for the Marlins.

That said, there are some reasons for hope in Miami. All those sell-offs and losing seasons have allowed the club to acquire some promising prospects. In the low minors, the upper minors, and even at the major-league level, there are players in the Marlins’ system about whom analysts and fans can get excited. Going into the season, the two players expected to have spend the most time with the Marlins were Lewis Brinson and Brian Anderson. Brinson has struggled thus far, to the tune of a .188/.231/.347 slash line, a 54 wRC+, and -0.4 WAR (All-Star campaign notwithstanding). Brian Anderson has had a more successful debut, however, giving Marlins fans their first taste of hope for a brighter future.

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Yoshihisa Hirano and Deceptiveness in Action

Baseball is often simultaneously a kind and cruel sport. In 2018, nothing could’ve been kinder to us as fans than the Shohei Ohtani experience. We marveled at his ability on the mound and at the plate as we watched a level of complete player unseen since the early days of the sport. But Ohtani was also placed on the disabled list with a UCL sprain, an injury that could rob the game of his gifts for an extended period. And now, because of that, we’re forced to search elsewhere for what the kind side of baseball has given us.

Well, how about looking no further than one of Ohtani’s most experienced opponents? One who has seen Ohtani step into the batter’s box 15 times over their respective careers and has dominated the Angels’ superstar, to the tune of seven strikeouts and only one measly infield single allowed?

You might be able to guess — given the number of plate appearances against this pitcher — that this would likely have to be another former NPB player. However, rather than a big name such as Masahiro Tanaka or Kenta Maeda, this Ohtani kryptonite is Yoshihisa Hirano, a name that probably isn’t too well known in America outside of Phoenix. With Archie Bradley looking slightly more human and Brad Boxberger having had trouble with the homer, the 34-year-old Hirano has been a key component for a D-backs team that, despite a merely average relief corps, leads the NL West.

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Are Young Teams More Likely to Fade After Hot Starts?

Heading into the 2018 season, the NL East picture appeared to be pretty clear. The Washington Nationals — while having just one more year of Bryce Harper — entered the campaign as presumptive favorites. The Mets, despite possessing a talented roster, were conducting their affairs in an all-too-familiar way, while the Marlins were conducting their affairs in a way that made their roster much less talented.

In Atlanta and Philadelphia, meanwhile, the future was on the horizon. The Braves boasted a stable of young arms, Freddie Freeman, and the best prospect in the game (mon-Ohtani division). The Phillies supplemented their equally impressive young core with the signing of Jake Arrieta, announcing that they were ready to end the rebuild and begin contending. It only seemed a matter of time before the division would be theirs.

A couple months into the season, the picture is somewhat less clear. Indeed, it seems as though the future has arrived a little early in the NL East. As of this morning, the Braves sit atop the NL East at 35-25, with the Phillies just a couple games behind in third. (The Nationals sit in second.) The two teams have gone about things in different ways: where the Braves — led by Ozzie Albies, the aforementioned Freeman, and a surprising Nick Markakis — boast a top-five offense, the Phillies have benefited from a top-five pitching staff.

Whenever a young team makes this sort of run, it’s inevitably accompanied by discussions concerning the importance of experience. Experience, so it is said, leads to more staying power over the course of a long season or playoff run. Young teams are then expected to fade or fall short, thus earning some “much needed experience” and checking off that box on their development path.

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Tommy Pham Is Continuing His Breakout

Last year was one of many great stories for baseball. Leading the way was the ascendance of the Houston Astros, fulfilling the prophecy made three years earlier. Max Scherzer attempted to wrest the “Best Pitcher” title from Kershaw, and Aaron Judge obliterated pitches on the way to giving baseball one of its most exciting new faces in years. Yet, despite all of this, possibly the best story on the year was the breakout of St. Louis outfielder Tommy Pham, rising from being blocked at all three outfield positions to being the best player on the Cardinals.

What Pham did was virtually unprecedented. It took him eight years to reach the majors, and he became a regular player 11 years after his draft season. Then he put up over six wins’ worth of value in that first campaign of regular at-bats. Over the offseason, the Cardinals traded for Marcell Ozuna, envisioning him to be their new best position player. Despite this, with a quarter of the season done, we still see Pham leading the Cardinals offense. He has built on his breakout 2017, continuing onward with an astonishing consistency.

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Juan Lagares and the Power of Perception

As Opening Day approaches, many team’s rosters have rounded into place. However, there is some slight tinkering to be done. With this in mind, let’s consider the careers of two players, blindly — one of whom is a mainstay for his team and the other who used to be.

Blind Resume
Name PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Offense Defense WAR Peak WAR
Player A 2180 6.6% 19.4% .248 .298 .334 71 -31.2 63.5 10.6 3.7
Player B 1770 4.6% 19.9% .257 .297 .366 84 -27.1 68.0 10.1 3.9

Both players converted from shortstop to center field. They’re almost the same age. Player A was once a top-25 prospect, however, while Player B was a relatively unheralded signing out of the Dominican. Now, Player A is his team’s unquestioned starting center fielder, while Player B is on the trading block.

Player A is Billy Hamilton, noted speedster, while Player B is Juan Lagares. Recent reports suggest that the Mets have received interest in Lagares and that the club is motivated to move him.

Now, this could be the case for a variety of reasons. Lagares hasn’t hit particularly well this spring, going just 7 for 36 so far with 13 strikeouts. While spring stats only correlate so well to regular season, Lagares hasn’t made an overwhelming case for an expanded role. Lagares also makes $6.5 million this year and $9 million next year, and the Mets have supposedly been interested in shedding some payroll. Finally, there’s the fact that Lagares — one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball — is buried on the Mets’ outfield depth chart by a bevy of corner outfielders masquerading as center fielders. The fact that he is available should pique the interest of many teams, just as much if Billy Hamilton was available.

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The Adjustment to Revive the Final Boss

This post begins with a friendly reminder — specifically, that there are five teams in each of baseball’s six divisions. Given the noise around baseball for much of the offseason, one could be forgiven for thinking there were only four clubs in the American League East. Much of the chatter regarding the AL East this winter has centered around the formidability of the Yankees’ roster, the Red Sox’ (now successful) pursuit of J.D. Martinez, the imminent close of Baltimore’s competitive window, and the Rays’ sort of, kind of, not really teardown. It isn’t that the Blue Jays have done nothing — they’ve made several good trades and taken low-cost risks — it’s just that there have been a few more prominent stories and louder fanbases.

The most recent move out of Toronto continues the club’s offseason trend of reasonable, low-cost acquisitions. For a price of just $2.5 million, the signing of Seung-Hwan Oh — a player who, in 2016, recorded nearly three wins out of the bullpen — seems like a potential bargain.

Of course, he would not be available at this time of the offseason and at this price if he didn’t have some warts. He is coming off of a mediocre 2017 campaign, falling from one of the leauge’s top-10 relievers to barely replacement level. Of possibly greater concern is the fact that the Rangers nixed a potential deal after expressing concerns with Oh’s physical. Despite these warning signs, there is reasonable optimism for an Oh turnaround, one that would benefit the Blue Jays in either a playoff chase or as a deadline trade chip.

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Farm Systems Are Cyclical

Everything in life is cyclical; just look it up. Depending on your subject of interest, you can likely find some meditation on the cyclic nature of events in that particular field. Politics, history, sociology — heck, even opera has cycles. Baseball is no different. Whether it’s the dynamic between pitchers and hitters, strategic trends, or the success of individual teams, each side of the coin will come up eventually.

One key area in baseball that exhibits this cyclic nature is in the relative strength of organizational prospect talent. Every year, we see various outlets publish their rankings of the league’s assorted farm systems, thus giving hope to downtrodden franchises everywhere. Baseball America just released their list, while Baseball Prospectus and John Sickels will surely follow soon with their own. As all these lists are published, it’s worthwhile to consider how clubs tend to navigate the crests and troughs of such rankings, and what that movement implies for a team’s future.

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