Author Archive

Saying Goodbye

This author has some bittersweet personal news to report: I am leaving FanGraphs. Next week, I will join the team at FiveThirtyEight, where I will continue to write about and report on baseball. While I am excited to begin a new chapter and enter into a new challenge, I will miss being a part of the FanGraphs family.

I will always be indebted to David Appelman and Dave Cameron, who took a chance on me 19 months ago as an non-traditional hire. I wasn’t an obvious choice, having taken an unusual career trajectory to FanGraphs from my work as a newspaperman.

While I hope I have provided the FanGraphs audience with some fodder for thought and distracted you from some of your day-to-day over the last year and a half, I was a mere cog in a team effort here at FanGraphs. Every day I visit the site — and I will continue to visit the site daily — I am amazed at the quality of thought, analysis, writing, and the ease of accessing the site’s wealth of information.

Yes, some FanGraphs writers have left for opportunities over the last year after an uncommonly long run of staff continuity, but each of those trends says a lot about the quality of this website. One reason to be very optimistic about the future of this website is the talent that FanGraphs attracts, apparent in the most recent hiring process, of which I was a small part earlier this year.

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Atlanta Is Betting on Kevin Gausman’s Upside

With the non-waiver trade deadline having passed — and, with it, all the sorts of analysis produced by sites like this one — it seems like a good moment to recognize what is sometimes missed in the rush to judge the merits of each trade for the two (or three or more) teams involved. Because, while it’s certainly logical to evaluate a trade based on the talents of the players changing hands, what’s sometimes overlooked is that “talent” isn’t static. Indeed, sometimes a club acquires a player not merely for what he has done but also for what, with some minor alterations, he could do.

For instance, after last summer’s trade deadline, the Dodgers got more out of Yu Darvish after pointing out to the pitcher some better ways in which to employ his arsenal. Gerrit Cole has made dramatic improvements with the Astros this season (as did Justin Verlander following his move to Houston). Corey Dickerson, meanwhile, has become a much more effective hitter in Pittsburgh.

From an L.A. Times story about what the Dodgers asked Darvish to do last August:

At the team hotel in Manhattan, Darvish met with general manager Farhan Zaidi, who advised him on how to attack that night’s hitters. Zaidi opened a laptop and revealed how Darvish could optimize his arsenal, altering the locations and pitch sequences he utilized during five seasons with Texas.

With major league players, teams aren’t just trading for recent history of performance and present skills of a player, they are digging in and seeing where they might be able to help a player improve. Read the rest of this entry »

The Wild Card Round Requires a Particular Fix

This contributor is not a supporter of baseball’s Wild Card game format.

While efforts to make a division title more meaningful are sensible and logical and while the addition of another team to the playoff field keeps more teams involved and fan bases invested during the regular season, the issue for me and many others is its one-game format. While a single play-in contest artificially creates drama and is a fun made-for-TV, web-streaming event, the notion that a team can compile a 100 wins over a season-long marathon only to fall in a single game borders on the absurd.

While the postseason is in many ways a different game from the regular season, one defined by small samples, the Wild Card raises legitimate questions about fairness (a point recently addressed by Craig Edwards) and the purpose of October baseball.

Had the Yankees lost in the AL Wild Card game last year, I suspect we would have heard much more said about revamping the system. Well, we might hear about it this next offseason. After being swept by the Red Sox over the weekend, the Yankees are almost assuredly headed to the Wild Card game again despite being projected to win 100 games. The Red Sox are on pace to win 108.

The Red Sox opened play Monday with a 91.4% chance of winning the divisions, with the Yankees at 8.6%. Entering the weekend? Those figures were at 76.6% and 23.4%, respectively. It was a devastating weekend for New York. While the Yankees could still conceivably win the division, it’s unlikely. The Yankees, the No. 3 team in baseball and the American League in run differential and 19 runs better than the No. 4 team (the Indians), are likely destined for a play-in game.

While not all fans of the sport will feel much sympathy for a club situated in baseball’s largest market, with the most flags currently flying forever, winning 100 games only to end up in a winner-take-all game doesn’t exactly seem to be in line with the most meritocratic of practices.

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Travis Sawchik FanGraphs Chat

Travis Sawchik: Happy Monday

Travis Sawchik: All three AL division leaders now have 92.5% or better division odds

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

Kiermaierkegaard: Hey Travis! Are there any broader trends we can forecast from what the Brewers are doing defensively? “Positionless” infields etc…? What Stearns and Counsell are doing seems to be working, and it’s fascinating to me.

Travis Sawchik: I suspect the Brewers are concerned with cramming as much power into their infield as possible and taking advantage of a strikeout environment that has eroded defensive changes by 20% over the last decade. It is interesting!

ZZ Bottom: AL wildcard race the most compelling story rest of season?

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The Dodgers Finally Get Brian Dozier

The Dodgers have seemingly courted Brian Dozier for years. Last offseason, they seemed to settle for Logan Forsythe to fill their second-base needs. But the desire lingered and, in the final hour leading up to Tuesday’s 4 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline, the Dodgers and Dozier finally got together.

The price of Dozier on Tuesday was cheaper than it was two years ago when the Twins refused an offer of Jose De Leon, who was later shipped to the Rays for Forsythe. To acquire Dozier, the Dodgers sent Forsythe and minor-league pitcher Devin Smeltzer and corner bat Luke Raley to the Twins. Neither was ranked by FanGraphs among the Dodgers’ top 21 prospects in the spring.

While the cost came down, Dozier, 31, is nearly two years older and perhaps not the same player. He’s also headed to free agency after the season. Still, this is a trade about today for the Dodgers. Second base is a real need for Los Angeles, and even a subpar Dozier, whose 91 wRC+ represents a six-year low, is a real upgrade.

Dodgers second basemen have produced an anemic .213/.303/.287 slash line to date, ranking 28th in the majors in wRC+ (66) and 27th in second base WAR (-0.3). Forsythe (55 wRC+), Chase Utley (84 wRC+), and company were just not getting the job done, producing a drag effect on the lineup.

The Dodgers have ridden the game’s macro-level trends about as well as any team in recent years. They’ve manipulated the 10-day DL, have employed an opener, limited pitchers’ trips through lineups, and were willing to give more dollars and years than any other club to Rich Hill’s unconventional pitch mix two winters ago. (Hill’s usage is now becoming more and more conventional.) Justin Turner has preached the power of the air ball to teammates like Chris Taylor. In Dozier, they get another hitter with natural loft and pull-side power.

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The Divide Between the Best and Worst Is Growing

There’s room for debate over whether the present mix of super teams and tanking teams is good for baseball.

On the one hand, the Astros-Dodgers World Series last fall — as well as many of the matchups that preceded it — made for compelling theatre. The Astros featured one of the best offenses in MLB history. The Indians’ rotation was the definitely the best by some measures. There’s something to be said for appreciating rare performances in real time. And the field of elite clubs likely to participate in this coming October’s postseason — especially in the American League — promises more of the same.

Meanwhile, teams at the other end of the spectrum are operating rationally. Clubs are best positioned to win by acquiring premium long-term, cost-controlled assets. The best way to do that is by loading up on early draft picks and bonus-pool dollars. Even with the addition of the second Wild Card, few clubs seem interested in sustaining mediocrity.

Still, there can be consequences if too many teams are simply not competitive and the best teams are dominant.

Fans might be responding at the gate already. Earlier this year, two million fans were missing. Now, through July 23rd, 2.55 million fans are missing.

While a frigid April had something to do with attendance woes, gate receipts are still down nearly two million fans, or roughly 5%, from last April 15 through July 23 compared to the same period last season.

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Did the Yankees Just Win the Wild Card Game?

There’s a reason some have connected starting pitchers to the Yankees.

According to ERA- and WAR, the Yankees’ rotation ranks behind that of the other AL elites like the Astros, Indians, and Red Sox, which rank 1-2-3 in ERA-. The Yankees rank sixth (95), just better than league average.

Only Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and Fringe Five alumnus Jonathan Loaisiga project to produce ERA and FIP marks below four the rest of the way, according to FanGraphs Depth Charts. While Severino is an ace, playoff contenders typically always want more starting pitching. Even Yu Darvish wasn’t seen as a luxury item to the pitching-rich Dodgers last season.

But on Tuesday, the Yankees continued to do what they’ve done since last deadline season by adding to the game’s best bullpen — according to ERA, WAR and ERA- — with the addition of Zach Britton.

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Neil Walker Is Worried About This Winter

CLEVELAND — In early March, Neil Walker was confronted by the most bizarre of sights. At the grounds of the quiet IMG Academy baseball complex in south Bradenton, Fla., he found himself surrounded by acres of farm land, a sprawl of housing developments, and some 25 fellow free-agent ballplayers. They had all authored long, successful careers. None had a contract for the coming season.

Last winter was an unusual one, historically unusual, as readers of this Web site well know.

At the end of February, still unemployed and with little if any clear interest from major-league teams, Walker left his offseason home in the north hills of Pittsburgh and reported to the free-agent camp. The camp at IMG had enough players for three- and four-inning intrasquad games. The free agents there also competed against a Japanese minor-league team, Walker said.

“I was thinking something isn’t right,” Walker told FanGraphs. “Typically, you think about about the consistency of the player [in free agency]. Maybe there’s factors that go into the middle tier of free agents not getting years or something along those lines, but to not get either the years or the figures… that was somewhat alarming. I’ve had a few injury things over the last couple of years, but it’s nothing that they could say… is going to cause me to keel over as a 32-year-old. It was alarming, not just for myself but for a lot of people.”

Walker represented the middle-class tier of player that has been squeezed in recent offseasons. Because of his experience, and with the beginning of the next offseason just four-plus months away, FanGraphs recently approached Walker when the Yankees visited Cleveland. Walker’s fear is that the trend for the middle tier of player like himself will only continue.

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Travis Sawchik FanGraphs Chat — 7/23/18

Travis Sawchik: Greetings

Travis Sawchik: We’re 100 games into the season….hard to believe

Travis Sawchik: Let’s get to it

Dave: Do you think this hot streak is going to keep Pittsburgh from selling? They’re not out of the wild card yet.

ballsandgutters: if Pirates somehow take 2/3 from Indians I’ll get excited.  Expecting 0/3.   Regardless,  I’m wondering if Hamels would OK a trade to Pittsburgh.  He’s from San Diego AND really intelligent… just like Williams, Brault and Musgrove.

Travis Sawchik: The Pirates’ FG playoff odds have jumped tp 13%. It’s still a long shot

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The Easiest and Hardest Rest-of-Season Schedules

Not all opponents are created equal, nor has that ever been truer than in baseball’s current era of imbalanced schedules and interleague play. While strength of schedule can be a modest factor for a club, it has the potential to influence rest-of-season results. Now, with the All-Star break about to conclude, seems like an appropriate time to check in and see which teams can expect scheduling headwinds and tailwinds in the second half.

Many in the audience are probably familiar with FanGraphs’ projected standings and playoff odds. Many might also wonder what the difference is between the two. Briefly stated, the latter accounts for strength of schedule, while the former is presented independently of scheduling. The projected standings attempt to measure true talent based upon projections and our best guesses at playing-time distributions. Art and science. Click here for a full explanation of the secret sauce.

To understand what kind of bump teams can expect from schedule strength in the second half relative to their present level of talent, we can simply calculate the difference between the rest-of-season, projected-standings wins and rest-of-season projected wins from the playoff odds. That difference is presented in the following chart. (Note: data doesn’t reflect the Manny Machado or Brad Hand trades, so numbers might vary slightly now.)

While these projected-win advantages are relatively modest and most strength-of-schedule adjustments don’t exceed a single win in either direction, scheduling often has a bigger impact on second-half performance than any trade-deadline addition. The impact of the trade deadline is often overrated. The deadline quite possibly matters less than ever. There have been only seven players traded over the past five seasons who have added two or more wins to their new clubs in the second half. Not all of them are negligible, of course. The addition of Justin Verlander last fall was integral to the Astros’ world-championship season. The quality of competition is typically a significant factor, however.

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The Indians Did What They Had to Do

On the Tuesday prior to the All-Star break, at a game which this author observed from the Progressive Field press box, Trevor Bauer left his start after eight innings with the Indians holding a 4-0 lead. Then a call to the bullpen, complete with a miscommunication error, followed. Dan Otero faced Joey Votto. The Indians lost. It was not necessarily a great surprise: so often something has gone amiss for Cleveland this year after such calls to the bullpen.

As readers of this Web site are likely aware, the Indians’ bullpen has struggled mightily this season, sitting in the bottom quartile by many notable bullpen skill metrics.

The group ranks 28th in WAR (-0.9), 23rd in WPA (-1.07), 29th in ERA (5.28), and 29th in FIP (4.85). There has not been any positive regression, either. Over the past 30 days, the Cleveland relief corps has posted a 4.87 ERA, a 5.10 FIP, and a -0.15 WPA.

Bullpens are fickle beasts. The Indians’ 27th-ranked left-on-base percentage (68.7%) suggests some poor first-half fortune was bound for second-half positive regression. Oliver Perez and Neil Ramirez have been useful finds, with Ramirez perhaps building on his physical talents by learning more how to harness his high-spin fastball and breaking ball in concert. But the Indians had a clear manpower shortage in their bullpen, particularly with Andrew Miller still sidelined and out for much of the first half.

As the All-Star break approached, it felt like the Indians had to do something. Baseball knew the Indians had to do something, so if the Indians were to do something, it was not going to be done cheaply. And on Thursday, the Indians did something.

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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 »