Author Archive

How Realignment Could Improve the All-Star Game

During FanGraphs’ editorial weekend in Denver last month, this correspondent excused himself to spend some time in the Rockies clubhouse and Coors Field press box. There I found Rockies beat writer Thomas Harding realigning baseball in his reporter’s notebook.

This contributor finds playing expansion czar to be an interesting thought exercise. Soon that afternoon, some Mets beats writers also joined the discussion, sharing their thoughts. Anytime there is a realignment-based post on this Web site or elsewhere, it tends to generate interest. Many of us like to play commissioner.

We’re almost certainly headed toward a future of 32 teams. MLB is in its longest expansion drought in the modern era. Rob Manfred has expressed a desire to expand — and preferably to add at least one international location. One of the major benefits Manfred has cited in the move to 32 teams is the ease of scheduling it would create. Namely, the game would not have to schedule a constant, rotating interleague series.

In fact, it would allow MLB to dramatically reduce the need for interleague play altogether.
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Travis Sawchik FanGraphs Chat – 7/16/18

Travis Sawchik: Happy All-Star Break, folks

Travis Sawchik: And more important, happy Trade Value Series Week

Travis Sawchik: I know who is ranked No. 1 but I can’t tell you

Mookie Betts: I have to be one of the favourites/if not the favourite for AL MVP? Right?

Travis Sawchik: You’re in the discussion but you’re actually behind Trout AND Jose Ramirez in fWAR and Lindor is not far behind you

Travis Sawchik: The AL MVP race (and Cy Young race) are shaping up to be more interesting than the actual AL postseason races, since they don’t really exist outside of the AL East

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Scooter Gennett Breaks Out the Old-Fashioned Way

CLEVELAND — As Belgium’s attempt to equalize against France fell short in the World Cup semifinal on Tuesday, this contributor witnessed Scooter Gennett morph from desperately hopeful — wanting the Belgians to show more urgency — to crestfallen in the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field. Whatever Gennett’s connection to that small European nation, it was apparently strong enough for him to take their loss somewhat personally.

While he might not have realized it at the time, it represented one of the few opportunities Gennett has had to experience genuine disappointment at a baseball park in recent years. Over the past two seasons, he’s been one of a small collection of players to transform from a marginal, contact-based hitter into a star-level bat. Gennett has never been in a better place as a professional baseball player.

After posting a career-best 27 homers and a 124 wRC+ last season, a campaign which included perhaps the most unlikely four-homer game in major-league history (as documented at SI by current colleague Jay Jaffe), Gennett has been even better this year, to the tune of a 137 wRC+. He’s recorded the 26th-best batting line amongst qualified hitters. He’s currently the 23rd-most valuable position player by WAR.

Gennett has already overcome the odds several times. He advanced to the majors after being selected as a 16th-rounder out of Sarasota (Fla.) High School in the 2009 draft. He is the rare player to enjoy remarkable success after being claimed off waivers (by the Reds last year), which FanGraphs managing editor Carson Cistulli noted last season. You could understand why Gennett, at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, might be asked for ID when he tries to enter a visiting major-league ballpark. He is one of the few physical comps to this author in the major leagues. He does not look like someone capable of hitting for much power.

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The Telephone Game in Cleveland

CLEVELAND — This author is all too familiar with cases of identification mix-ups within the confines of Progressive Field, as you might be aware of if you are a loyal listener of FanGraphs Audio.

Earlier this year, I approached Matt Davidson’s locker stall in the visiting clubhouse in Cleveland and asked Matt if he had time for an interview. Seated, Matt agreed. He was pleasant and eager, as if he hadn’t spent much time being hounded by reporters. It was in the midst of the interview, speaking with Matt — Matt Skole — when he mentioned how he played in the Nationals organization earlier in his career. I realized my mistake. I had the wrong 6-foot-4 position-playing Matt. I politely asked another question or two and ended the interview. While a surge of embarrassment struck me, at least the error was realized before, say, publication.

There was another sort of case of mistaken identity in Cleveland on Tuesday night.

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The Trade Deadline Matters Less Than Ever

Among MLB’s calendar of so-called Important Events, one finds a fast-approaching date — namely, the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline.

Historically, it is a deadline that facilitates action, that forces teams to declare whether they’re contenders or rebuilders, that compels sellers and buyers to stop negotiating and come to terms on a deal. Deadlines often force actors to make “yes” or “no” calls. This date is one of the last periods for teams with postseason aspirations to improve, for rebuilding clubs to retool. The date creates interest in the sport. This very Web site experiences increased traffic during the days leading up to to the deadline.

But the trade deadline wasn’t so packed with action a year ago, and it might be even slower this season.

The trade deadline just might not matter that much anymore.

Teams knew early last year whether they were buyers or sellers. They’ve known earlier still this season. They also know the deadline doesn’t typically provide much impact.

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Chris Archer Is Probably Right About All-Star Snubs

For as long as there are ballots and voters, there will be controversy about the contents of those ballots cast by those voters. Baseball, in this sense, is no exception. The Hall of Fame, end-of-season awards, and — of greatest relevance at the moment — the All-Star Game: each provides ample room for discontent.

The All-Star selection process has changed recently, with managers losing their power to select reserves last season. Fans still vote on the starting position players for each league, but players have now taken on much a larger role: overall, they’re responsible for choosing 33 of the 64 All-Star roster spots (17 reserves in the AL and 16 in the NL). The commissioner’s office then cleans up by selecting a handful of final AL and NL reserves to round out the rosters. There is then a final fan vote ballot (#SaveMuncy) that includes one more player from each league as chosen by the fans.

Anthony Castrovince wrote an excellent primer on the selection process.

Fans have long been criticized, and many times deservedly so, for their poor voting track record. But many have noted this is a game for the fans, they are the customers, so they ought to see whom they want. But interestingly, the players’ ability to assess All-Star talent is also coming into question, including by some within their own ranks. And with the wealth of information available in today’s game, perhaps the public can make as good, or better, All-Star decisions.

The day following All-Star selections, a day following any sort of selection process, is a day to evaluate who was snubbed.

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Travis Sawchik FanGraphs Chat

Travis Sawchik: Happy All-Star Snub Reaction Day

Travis Sawchik: There were many!

Travis Sawchik: The players might be worse at picking All-Stars than the general public …

Travis Sawchik: Let’s get started!

Rob: Who benefits more from Machado:  Dodgers or Brewers?

Travis Sawchik: Brewers, I think. Of each current iteration, FG projects the Dodgers to have much stronger division odds

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Another Fascinating Thing About Willians Astudillo

Willians Astudillo has captured baseball’s collective imagination — and for good reason.

In an age when the march toward three true outcomes seems inevitable and indomitable, Astudillo arrives as an outlier of outliers, an offensive peformer who never walks or strikeouts, whose batting line would make much more sense if it were produced by a 19th century hitter.

When the Twins called up Astudillo late last month, Jeff Sullivan examined his curious numbers at every professional stop. It is believed Astudillo first appeared in these Web pages as Carson’s “guy” way back in 2016.

Fittingly, Astudillo has not struck out or walked through his first 14 major-league plate appearances.

Said Astudillo of his approach to the Star-Tribune:

“Coaches try to change my approach,” he said. “It’s just who I am. I’m a free swinger.”

Said Twins baseball operations chief Derek Falvey to the Star Tribune:

“I don’t think he gets to [strike] three very often. He’s an aggressive guy. It’s not a secret. I’m not revealing anything the advance work won’t show. He attacks the ball and makes good contact. Sometimes that profile plays well off the bench when you think about different types of guys to bring in the sixth, seventh, eighth inning.”

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The Nationals Are in Trouble

The Washington Nationals have a problem. The Braves and Phillies have arrived ahead of schedule, as we know. The Nationals enter play Thursday in third place behind those two clubs, seven games behind the Braves and five-and-a-half games behind the Phillies.

While the Nationals have trailed in the NL East for much of the season, their FanGraphs playoff odds have dipped below 60% (59.4% as of Thursday afternoon) for the first time this season.

While the Super Teams are taking care of business in the American League, the NL field remains more open. And at the moment, the Nationals are the only preseason division favorite, the only so-called preseason Super Team, with playoff odds below 89.9% and division odds less than 50% (43.5%). With their loss to Red Sox on Wednesday, the Nationals fell below .500 (42-43).

While teams often go through struggles and sluggish periods in the marathon that is a 162-game season, we’re now more than halfway into this season and the Nationals have never gotten on track. It appeared that Washington might be getting right about a month ago as they moved back into first place and held a half-game lead in the division on June 10. But they fell out of first place on June 12 and haven’t been back, losing 16 of their last 21 games. Read the rest of this entry »

Steve Pearce Is on the Move, Again, in the AL East

With his trade to Boston on Thursday night, Steve Pearce has completed a personal odyssey. By joining the Red Sox, Pearce has now been employed by all five clubs in the American League East. The last leg in his tour of the division moves him from a club with little chance of making the postseason — a Blue Jays team that is beginning to think about next year (or, really, 2020) — to one that figures to be competing with the Yankees into September for a division title.

The Red Sox acquire Pearce for a specific reason: to help against left-handed pitching. The Red Sox have been below average (97 wRC+) against lefties this season, ranking 14th in baseball and eighth in the American League.

Pearce, meanwhile, has always hit lefties well. He owns a career slash line of .264/.346/.494 and 127 wRC+ against left-handers, and this season he has a .306/.358/.531 slash and a 143 wRC+ in 53 plate appearances against lefties. He has played first, left, and right field for the Blue Jays, so he gives the Red Sox options for getting his bat into the lineup. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Javier Baez Breaking Out or Is It Just Loud Noise?

Cubs manager Joe Maddon has claimed previously tha Javier Baez has a chance to become Manny Ramirez, the hitter, if he could just lay off the out-of-zone breaking ball. That’s a big claim for a player who had never recorded even a league-average line before this season. Maddon made this comp again after Baez blasted two home runs and recorded four hits against the Dodgers on Tuesday night.

“I have been saying for a couple of years, the moment he stops swinging at sliders in the dirt, he becomes Manny Ramirez and he’s getting closer,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Baez. “And I think he is a better defender than Manny was and baserunner. And Manny, I still love you.”

Baez is enjoying a breakout season. He dominated Dodgers’ pitching in the clubs’ recently completed three-game series. He left Los Angeles with a 130 wRC+ on the year. This is notable, as his top career mark before that was just a 98 wRC+. His 2.3 WAR already matches his season-best total of a year earlier. Baez has been a star for the first half of the season.

It’s easy to get swept up in making unfair comps after swings like Baez’s on Tuesday.

Like his grand slam in the sixth:

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Aaron Hicks Has Consolidated His Gains

The Yankees for so long had seemingly been the favorite to win the Bryce Harper sweepstakes. After all, the Yankees have the largest war chest to pursue one of the most coveted free agents in major-league history. The Yankees were determined to stay under the luxury threshold last winter for the first time in the tax era to restart their tax-paying status, and they were motivated to do so with an eye on this historic forthcoming class of free agents. While Harper has had some struggles this year, he is still going to be a 26-year-old free agent who has a nine-win season under his belt and is regarded as an elite talent. His left-handed swing is a natural fit for the right-field porch of Yankee Stadium II.

But now the Harper-to-Yankees match hardly seems like a sure thing. It is at least less of an obvious fit for reasons beyond just the $400-plus million. The Yankees saw an opportunity and pounced to add Giancarlo Stanton and his MLB-record contract this offseason. He’s bookended in the outfield by Aaron Judge. And for the purposes of this post, in center field, they have another asset in Aaron Hicks, who is proving his 2017 breakout is anything but a fluke.

The only major knock against Hicks last year was his inability to stick on the field, as he dealt with injury. He is also better from the right side of the plate, though he’s been above average as a left-handed hitter (119 wRC+ in 2017, 106 this season) the past two years. While Hicks is certainly not the talent that Harper is, and while he’s a couple years his senior, he’s solidifying himself as a solid regular, a three-win-type player with perhaps further upside to be extracted. Hicks, who is under club control through 2019, gives the Yankees the ability to throw $300-plus million at a free agent other than Harper this winter, a player such as Manny Machado, who is perhaps a better fit. While the Yankees infield is crowded, there’s a way to fit an elite left-side infielder on any MLB club. While Hicks remains a short- to mid-term center-field option, Estevan Florial and Clint Frazier give the Yankees longer-term, non-Harper outfield options.

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Trevor Bauer and a Month of Cleveland’s Rotation

Cleveland set a number of records last year by means of a dominant collective pitching effort. This contributor noted last summer how the Indians’ rotation was distancing itself from the rest of baseball, and on Oct. 2, Jeff Sullivan argued that the Indians might have had the best overall staff of all time. They were the best of all time by some measures, including total WAR.

Then earlier this season, remarkably, the Houston Astros appeared set to better that Cleveland staff, recording an ERA that was almost 50% better than average over the season’s first two months.

But guess what? The Indians are making another run. And while the club’s overall staff (relievers included) might not ultimately rival Houston’s, the Indians’ rotation just might be able to chase down the Astros’. Read the rest of this entry »

Matt Strahm Is Quite an Opening Act

The opener revolution originated in Tampa Bay earlier this season and has since spread to Los Angeles and San Diego.

Padres manager Andy Green, a colleague of former FanGraphs manager editor Dave Cameron, has expressed interest in continuing bullpen games. The strategy make some sense, as the Padres have one of the strongest and deepest bullpens in the game, trailing only the Yankees, Astros, and Brewers in relief WAR. The Padres have bullpenned four times in four weeks and three consecutive times through a vacant spot (Joey Lucchesi’s) in their stating rotation, most recently on Sunday at Atlanta.

Of the four bullpen games, Matt Strahm has started all of them. Strahm has taken to the role.

Since Strahm became a starter — or, more precisely, “an opener” — he’s been dominant. In his last three appearances, all technically starts, Strahm has recorded 11 strikeouts and no walks against 29 batters while conceding just three hits and a single run in 8.0 innings.

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Jonathan Loaisiga and the Yankees’ Player Development Machine

I first learned of the existence of Jonathan Loaisiga via the scouting service that is the Fringe Five, proudly produced by Carson Cistulli.

Entering 2018, very few non-baseball scouting professionals knew much of anything about Loaisiga, which is pronounced lo-AYE-siga. There’s been so much trouble with articulating his last name that Loaisigia is OK with “Johnny Lasagna” as a moniker.

Loaisiga basically came out of nowhere. He was absent from all preseason top-100 prospect lists, though he did come in at No. 12 on Eric and Kiley’s Yankees preseason organizational list.

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You Might Not Recognize Kirby Yates

Kirby Yates entered the 2018 season as one of the league’s most quietly interesting relievers.

He posted an elite 29.9-point K-BB% last year, ranking seventh among all pitchers who threw at least 40 innings. Only Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, and James Hoyt bettered his 17.4% swinging-strike rate last season.

Yates ranked 24th in whiff-per-swing rate on his four-seam, high-spin fastball (31.7%), according to the PITCHf/x leaderboards at Baseball Prospectus. His split-change (45.7%) and slider (44.0%) also produced above-average swing-and-miss rates per swing. Selected off waivers from the Angels last April, Yates was quite a find.

Entering the season, then, the Padres appeared to have another potential difference-making bullpen arm to complement Brad Hand. In fact, the Padres appeared to have the makings of one of the better bullpens in the game — and it has been one of the better bullpens in the game. San Diego ranks fourth in relief WAR (3.5), trailing only the Astros, Brewers, and Yankees.

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Travis Sawchik FanGraphs Chat

Travis Sawchik: Howdy

Travis Sawchik: I hope all the fathers in the audience enjoyed their day

Travis Sawchik: Let’s get started, shall we?

Paul: If you were in Alex Anthopoulous’ position, how would you handle the deadline?

Travis Sawchik: I wouldn’t trade away too much of tomorrow, too much future surplus value … but I’d try and make some marginal improvements

Bernie: I saw your article on the attendance numbers, specifically AL, trending down. Any word on the NL attendance numbers?

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Two Million Baseball Fans Are Missing

Rob Manfred, MLB owners, players: we have a problem. Some of your ticket buyers are missing. In fact, nearly two million of them.

As we approach the official beginning of summer and the midpoint of the baseball season, attendance is down by about 2,000 per game, or 6.7%, relative to a year ago.

MLB attendance has generally and gradually been declining since its peak of 79.48 million fans in 2007. That was 32,696 per contest. The average per-game figure fell below 30,000 last year for the first time since 2003.

Of course, this year’s numbers were deflated early in the season, when April brought brutally cold weather to much of the country. Through the first two-plus weeks of the campaign, baseball was drawing about 2,700 fewer fans per game — or about 8.9% compared to the previous April, as noted by Jeff Passan.

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The Blue Jays Should Plan for 2020

Entering play today, four American League teams have better than a 94% chance of making the playoffs. You are probably aware that those teams are the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, and Astros. The Yankees (99.9%), Red Sox (99.6%), and Astros (99.8%) are projected as locks for the postseason barring a series of catastrophes. The Astros (+138), Red Sox (+103), and Yankees (+91) also rank Nos. 1-2-3 in the majors in run differential. In 2016, only five clubs in baseball produced 100-plus run differentials. In 2015 and 2014? Only four.

The only postseason races that appear likely to provide compelling theatre later this summer are the battle for the AL East crown (the Yankees and Red Sox ought to be aggressive buyers) and the second Wild Card. But with Shohei Ohtani’s right UCL apparently hanging on by a thread, and Andrelton Simmons also on the DL, the Mariners are in a seemingly strong position to capture the second Wild Card — though their modest run differential (+27) casts some doubt over their staying power, leaving open the door open for the Twins and Angels. The Mariners, with what remains of the farm system, also ought to try and strengthen their grasp of a playoff position.

Still, the Mariners (73.5%) are the only other AL team with better than coin-flip odds of making the postseason. In fact, the Mariners and Angels are the only other two teams with double-digit odds of making the playoffs.

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The Reds Should Find a Place for Billy Hamilton to Run

Back in March, this contributor presented Billy Hamilton with an idea that he described as the “stupidest thing” he had heard in his life. I didn’t think it was so bad and neither did his spring-training clubhouse neighbor, Scooter Gennett. Today, this author thought he’d revisit the subject.

Hamilton is one of the game’s fastest players — he ranks third in sprint speed this season. He is one of the game’s best outfield defenders and most efficient baserunners. But his bat has eroded his value throughout his career and is doing so again this season. The idea I presented to Hamilton basically was this: to artificially increase his on-base percentage — to get Hamilton and his game-changing speed on the bases more often — Hamilton should be employed as a pinch-runner very early in games and then remain in games to take advantage of his outfield defense and speed.

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