Archive for December, 2015

Hardball Retrospective – The “Original” 1997 Boston Red Sox

In “Hardball Retrospective: Evaluating Scouting and Development Outcomes for the Modern-Era Franchises”, I placed every ballplayer in the modern era (from 1901-present) on their original team. Therefore, Ron Santo is listed on the Cubs roster for the duration of his career while the Dodgers declare Steve Garvey and the Diamondbacks claim Justin Upton. I calculated revised standings for every season based entirely on the performance of each team’s “original” players. I discuss every team’s “original” players and seasons at length along with organizational performance with respect to the Amateur Draft (or First-Year Player Draft), amateur free agent signings and other methods of player acquisition.  Season standings, WAR and Win Shares totals for the “original” teams are compared against the “actual” team results to assess each franchise’s scouting, development and general management skills.

Expanding on my research for the book, the following series of articles will reveal the finest single-season rosters for every Major League organization based on overall rankings in OWAR and OWS along with the general managers and scouting directors that constructed the teams. “Hardball Retrospective” is available in digital format on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, GooglePlay, iTunes and KoboBooks. The paperback edition is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and CreateSpace. Supplemental Statistics, Charts and Graphs along with a discussion forum are offered at

Don Daglow (Intellivision World Series Major League Baseball, Earl Weaver Baseball, Tony LaRussa Baseball) contributed the foreword for Hardball Retrospective. The foreword and preview of my book are accessible here.


OWAR – Wins Above Replacement for players on “original” teams

OWS – Win Shares for players on “original” teams

OPW% – Pythagorean Won-Loss record for the “original” teams


The 1997 Boston Red Sox          OWAR: 63.7     OWS: 317     OPW%: .583

Based on the revised standings the “Original” 1997 Red Sox outperformed the Yankees, seizing the American League pennant by ten games. Boston led the circuit in OWS and OWAR. GM Lou Gorman acquired 28 of the 36 ballplayers (78%) on the 1997 Red Sox roster.

Jeff Bagwell (.286/43/135) finished third in the MVP balloting and established personal-bests in RBI and stolen bases (31). Brady Anderson followed his 50-homer campaign in ’96 with 39 doubles and 18 jacks. Nomar Garciaparra (.306/30/98) merited the 1997 AL Rookie of the Year Award as he topped the charts with 209 base knocks and 11 triples. Mo “Hit Dog” Vaughn delivered a .315 BA with 35 round-trippers. John Valentin contributed 29 two-baggers and a .296 BA while third-sacker Wade Boggs managed a .292 average as a part-timer.

Bagwell and Boggs rate fourth among first and third basemen, respectively, according to Bill James in “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.” Teammates listed in the “NBJHBA” top 100 rankings include Roger Clemens (11th-SP), Garciaparra (T-17th-SS), Vaughn (51st-1B), Anderson (63rd-CF) and Burks (77th-CF).

Brady Anderson CF 3.44 25.97
John Valentin 2B 4.45 21.03
Jeff Bagwell 1B 7.47 30.58
Nomar Garciaparra SS 4.19 25.54
Mo Vaughn DH/1B 3.2 22.31
Scott Hatteberg C 2.21 6.4
Wade Boggs 3B 1.26 11.37
Ellis Burks RF/CF 1.03 13.6
Phil Plantier LF -0.02 2.24
John Flaherty C 1.26 12.67
Tim Naehring 3B 1 8.1
Todd Pratt C 0.63 4.46
John Marzano C 0.05 2.39
Walt McKeel C -0.04 0
Jose Malave LF -0.08 0.04
Ryan McGuire 1B -0.12 3.98
Michael Coleman CF -0.27 0.11
Jody Reed 2B -0.46 1.52
Scott Cooper 3B -0.47 0.78
Danny Sheaffer 3B -0.71 0.79


Roger Clemens (21-7, 2.05) paced the Junior Circuit in victories, ERA, complete games (9), shutouts (3), strikeouts (292) and WHIP (1.030). The “Rocket” collected the fourth of seven Cy Young Awards and made his sixth All-Star appearance. Curt Schilling struck out a career-high 319 batsmen and fashioned a record of 17-11 with a 2.97 ERA. Paul Quantrill led a bullpen-by-committee, posting a 1.94 ERA along with 6 wins and 5 saves.

Roger Clemens SP 12 32.22
Curt Schilling SP 5.93 22.29
Frankie Rodriguez SP 0.93 5.97
Aaron Sele SP 0.64 6.71
Jeff Suppan SP 0.24 3.72
Paul Quantrill RP 2.64 11.66
Ron Mahay RP 0.71 3.4
Joe Hudson RP 0.42 2.93
Shayne Bennett RP 0.34 1.51
Erik Plantenberg RP 0.06 1.07
Josias Manzanillo RP -0.17 0.28
Brian Rose SP -0.17 0
Reggie Harris RP -0.22 1.37
Greg Hansell RP -0.24 0
Cory Bailey RP -0.33 0.21
Ken Ryan RP -1.09 0

The “Original” 1997 Boston Red Sox roster

NAME POS WAR WS General Manager Scouting Director
Roger Clemens SP 12 32.22 Haywood Sullivan Eddie Kasko
Jeff Bagwell 1B 7.47 30.58 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Curt Schilling SP 5.93 22.29 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
John Valentin 2B 4.45 21.03 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Nomar Garciaparra SS 4.19 25.54 Dan Duquette Wayne Britton
Brady Anderson CF 3.44 25.97 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Mo Vaughn 1B 3.2 22.31 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Paul Quantrill RP 2.64 11.66 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Scott Hatteberg C 2.21 6.4 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Wade Boggs 3B 1.26 11.37 Dick O’Connell
John Flaherty C 1.26 12.67 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Ellis Burks CF 1.03 13.6 Haywood Sullivan Eddie Kasko
Tim Naehring 3B 1 8.1 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Frankie Rodriguez SP 0.93 5.97 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Ron Mahay RP 0.71 3.4 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Aaron Sele SP 0.64 6.71 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Todd Pratt C 0.63 4.46 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Joe Hudson RP 0.42 2.93 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Shayne Bennett RP 0.34 1.51 Lou Gorman Wayne Britton
Jeff Suppan SP 0.24 3.72 Lou Gorman Wayne Britton
Erik Plantenberg RP 0.06 1.07 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
John Marzano C 0.05 2.39 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Phil Plantier LF -0.02 2.24 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Walt McKeel C -0.04 0 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Jose Malave LF -0.08 0.04 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Ryan McGuire 1B -0.12 3.98 Lou Gorman Wayne Britton
Josias Manzanillo RP -0.17 0.28 Haywood Sullivan Eddie Kasko
Brian Rose SP -0.17 0 Dan Duquette Wayne Britton
Reggie Harris RP -0.22 1.37 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Greg Hansell RP -0.24 0 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Michael Coleman CF -0.27 0.11 Dan Duquette Wayne Britton
Cory Bailey RP -0.33 0.21 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Jody Reed 2B -0.46 1.52 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Scott Cooper 3B -0.47 0.78 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko
Danny Sheaffer 3B -0.71 0.79 Haywood Sullivan Eddie Kasko
Ken Ryan RP -1.09 0 Lou Gorman Eddie Kasko


Honorable Mention

The “Original” 1912 Red Sox             OWAR: 55.1     OWS: 317     OPW%: .591

Boston sailed to the pennant by a 13-game margin over the Athletics and Senators. Tris Speaker delivered an MVP season, notching League-bests with 53 doubles, 10 round-trippers and a .464 OBP. “The Grey Eagle” batted at a .383 clip, registered 136 tallies and posted career-highs in base hits (222) and stolen bases (52). Smoky Joe Wood (34-5, 1.91) dazzled opposition batsmen, twirling 10 shutouts and completing 35 of 38 starts. Larry Gardner contributed a .315 BA and legged out 18 three-baggers. Buck O’Brien recorded 20 victories with a 2.58 ERA in his only complete season in the Major Leagues. Hugh Bedient matched O’Brien’s win total and fashioned a 2.92 ERA in his rookie campaign. Duffy Lewis rapped 36 doubles and established a personal-best with 109 ribbies.

On Deck

The “Original” 1969 Reds

References and Resources

Baseball America – Executive Database


James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York, NY.: The Free Press, 2001. Print.

James, Bill, with Jim Henzler. Win Shares. Morton Grove, Ill.: STATS, 2002. Print.

Retrosheet – Transactions Database

Seamheads – Baseball Gauge

Sean Lahman Baseball Archive

Cashman Strikes Again

Brian. Cashman.

Probably one of the more unpopular figures in New York sports (for no good reason) has struck again and made a great deal for the Yankees.

I’m a Cashman defender, through and through. I think that 15 playoff appearances in 18 seasons, 6 pennants, and 4 championships is a stellar résumé, and that he doesn’t get enough credit for it, regardless of how big the payroll is, or how much control he really had early on. We’ve seen Cashman at his best these past few seasons. Sure, they haven’t been the most successful for the Yankees; anything less than a championship is a failure. That’s the Steinbrenner way, and the way it should be. But we’ve seen that Cashman can operate without an infinite payroll and can make moves other than opening the Yankee’s checkbook.

You can criticize Cashman for some free agent signings, sure. You can say he didn’t have to do much to win his first championships and inherited a great roster; that’s more than fair. You can’t, however, deny that Cashman is a master of trades, especially recently. He understands trading from a surplus as well as anyone. And he does so to acquire either low-risk, win-now pieces, or young, talented, potential-filled, cost controlled pieces.

And with this latest trade of Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan for Starlin Castro, Cashmoney has done it again!

Before we dive into this latest case of Cashman genius, let’s highlight some of his recent gems.

Catcher JR Murphy to the Twins for outfielder Aaron Hicks, November 2015- I like Murphy a lot. He seemed like a great guy, and was a good player, but the Yankees were loaded with catchers. McCann is locked in for 3 more seasons and is basically immovable with his contract. Gary Sanchez has been destroying the Arizona Fall League and seems like a legit power bat. Austin Romine is somewhat boring, but has the skills to be a serviceable backup catcher, and many are still high on Luis Torrens. He missed last season with an injury, but is still viewed as a solid prospect. Murphy was merely a commodity. Hicks, once a top prospect, is a switch-hitting 26 year old outfielder, and seemed to turn the corner last season, posting the highest average, slugging percentage, wOBA, and WAR of his career. He hits lefties very well too, batting .307 against southpaws last season. At worst, Hicks is an above average fourth outfielder who will play very solid defense, and provide speed and right handed pinch-hitting ability off the bench. At best, he has a similar career turnaround to Carlos Gomez (as Paul Sporer notes), and becomes the All Star outfielder he was once expected to be. He’s under team control through 2019.

Infielder Martin Prado and RHP David Phelps to the Marlins for RHP Nathan Eovaldi and 1B/OF Garrett Jones, December 2014- Garrett Jones was obviously a bust but this was still a great trade for the Yankees. A lot of the Yankees trades have worked out, but a good way to look at trades (or life in general if we really want to get deep here) is to not be so results-oriented. Use your resources to make the best decision possible, and let the pieces fall where they may. The Yankees traded a fringe starter/long reliever and aging utility man for a power lefty off the bench and a promising, young, flame-throwing arm. And it worked out really well. David Phelps is David Phelps, and Martin Prado wouldn’t have won the Yankees the pennant last season. Nathan Eovaldi looked like a changed man under Larry Rothschild’s guidance last season. Adding a nasty split to go with his high-90’s fastball has done wonders for him. He’s able to change hitters’ eye-levels more effectively, meaning more strikeouts and less hard contact. It paid off last season. He won 14 games and got better as the season progressed, striking out 8 batters per 9 innings, and posting a 3.67 ERA in the second half. Eovaldi looks like he’s on his way to being a solid 2-3 starter, and is under team control through 2017.

RHP Shane Greene to the Tigers, received shortstop Didi Gregorius from the Diamondbacks, December 2014– This may go down as one of the better trades the Yankees have ever made. Big statement, I know. But the Yankees traded a barely major league starter for what looks like the shortstop of the future. At the time, Greene was viewed as a back of the rotation starter at best. Fast forward a year and he posted an ERA of nearly 7, and may not have a job next season. Gregorius, meanwhile, overcame a slow start and turned into one of the Yankees most valuable assets. He hit .294 with a .762 OPS in the second half, ranked as the 4th best shortstop in baseball(!) per fWAR, and played stellar defense. Jorge Matteo is on the horizon, but Gregorius is the shortstop of the present and the future if he keeps this up. I envision a breakout season coming for the Dutchman. He’s under team control through 2019.

All 3 of those trades were low-risk deals, dealing from a surplus for high-upside guys under team control for the foreseeable future. Two have worked out very well, and the third has a great chance to.

(Side note: When I was looking through for these exact contracts, and was reminded that Jacoby Ellsbury is under contract through 2021, I almost threw up.)

Cashman, however, has also showed he can make great trades in season for win-now players. In 2014, he gave up Vidal Nuno for Brandon McCarthy. They lost McCarthy that offseason, but Nuno is no Clayton Kershaw and McCarthy was great for them down the stretch, performing at an ace-like level; he had a sub 3.00 ERA. The deal he made for Chase Headley that season was similar. While fans may be understandably upset at it now, as Solarte had a solid season last year, and Headley, for the most part, did not, it was a really good trade at the time and still could be for the future. Solarte had just a few months of MLB experience and while he started off hot, he was drastically slowing down. Headley had a 31 home run season, All Star appearance, and Gold Glove under his belt. The Yankees locked Headley up this past offseason through 2018, and will want him to improve. Solarte actually had a higher average, wOBA, wRC+, and WAR last season. Headley, though, has proven he can be an All Star player, and he should rebound this season, especially defensively. And the point is, at the time, it was a really smart move. The Yankees also included Rafael De Paula in that deal, but has done nothing of note and is still floating around the minors.

I also feel obligated to mention the Kelly Johnson for Stephen Drew trade in 2014 with the Red Sox. Probably the most hilarious trade I’ve ever seen for so, so many reasons, but I digress.

Back to the deal at hand. Warren and Ryan for Castro. A fringe starter/middle reliever and a veteran, light-hitting (to be generous), backup middle infielder for a 25 year old, 3-time All Star, once top prospect, yet still very promising middle infielder. I know that sounds too simple, but that really is what this deal is.

Brendan Ryan… let’s just get this out of the way early. This is addition by subtraction for the Yankees if we’re being honest. He’s a .234 lifetime hitter with 19 home runs in 2,872 plate appearances. I wish I was making that up, but I’m not. And for a guy who supposedly has a great glove, I saw him make/not make a number of questionable plays last season. He was wasting a roster spot. Now his role can go to someone more promising like Dustin Ackley or Rob Refsnyder.

Parting ways with Adam Warren isn’t easy, but it’s not the end of the world. Warren is a good pitcher. I liked watching him grow these past few seasons and wish the Yankees could have kept him in the rotation last season, where he was very reliable, although he did seem to also find a niche as middle/late inning reliever. Warren “knows how to pitch” to use a cliche. He doesn’t blow you away, but he works his fastball in with his offspeed stuff well, locates his pitches, and gets people out. Pitchers usually improve when they move to the NL, and with this opportunity to finally be a starter, I expect Warren to be a nice addition for the Cubs next season. He should be a solid back of the rotation starter, or reliable reliever if they go that route. Not sure Adam Warren is the key to ending their century long World Series drought, but he doesn’t hurt them, that’s for sure.

The idea that the Yankees are giving up some Cy Young caliber starter, however, is absurd. Like I said, Warren is a 4-5 starter and the Yankees just don’t have room for him. Tanaka, Severino, Eovaldi, and Pineda are all rightfully ahead of him. And Sabathia, Nova, and Mitchell are in the mix as well. Plus, it’s almost a certainty that the Yankees will add another starter this offseason, so there really was just no room for him in the rotation. He would’ve been a nice arm in the bullpen, as the Yankees need another right-hander out there so Dellin Betances can rest more, but he can be replaced. There’s always plenty of right-handed relievers available on the free-agent market, and the Yankees have some in-house candidates as well. This does, however, make trading Miller even dumber, but that hopefully shouldn’t be happening anyway. The bottom line is, while Warren is a nice pitcher, he was no more than a middle reliever/depth starter for the Yankees. Turning him into Starlin Castro is gold by Cashman.

Speaking of Castro, let’s get into the real headliner of the trade. Castro will be just 26 at the start of the 2016 season. He’s been an All Star, he’s got a proven bat, and while he’s had some troubles, he seems to be trending in the right direction. He’s got a career slash of .281/.321/404. His wOBA is .316 and his wRC+ is a below-average 96. Every full season he’s played, he’s hit between 10 and 14 home runs. Now, none of these numbers set the world on fire, but there’s been very promising stretches sandwiched in there, and when you consider he’s a middle infielder, these numbers look much better.

The problem with Castro has been inconsistencies. Last season he was not very good offensively, and he wasn’t in 2013 either. But he had very promising seasons the rest of his career; 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014. Over those 4 years, his wRC+ was 99 or higher each season, he’s hit at least .283 in all of them (over .300 twice), and has averaged a WAR of 2.9 per 162 games. Those are really good numbers, especially for a middle infielder. We can’t completely discount his two poor seasons, but a change of his scenery may be all he needs, as the talent is clearly there.

Along the lines of a change of scenery is his position change from short to second in August of last season. In his 33 games at second base last year, he hit 5 home runs, drove in in 22 runs, and had a slash of .339/.358/.583. Small sample size, yes, and logically there should be no relationship between what position a guy’s playing and his ability to hit, but maybe that’s the case for Castro. If he feels more comfortable at second, it could be enough to get his mind right and allow his talents to take over. He’s still before his prime, and he’s under team control through 2020 for an affordable salary. It’s a risk the Yankees needed to and can take. Stephen Drew just had the worst year and half I’ve ever seen, and while Ackley and Refsnyder have potential, they’re not as good as Castro. Ackley can now have a utility role, while Refsnyder can perhaps be used as part of a package deal to get a frontline starter.

On a larger scale, this trade shows the genius of Cashman’s trading ability, and the Yankees’ continued win-while-rebuild mode. They’re keeping their top prospects, yet still are getting younger and more athletic by trading from areas of surplus and buying low and selling high on players. For all the talk of the Yankees being an old, veteran team, they very quietly are assembling a great, young core. Gregorius, Castro, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Matteo, Refsnyder, Hicks, Severino, Eovaldi, Pineda, Tanaka, and Betances are all either top prospects, proven players, potential budding stars or somewhere in between. Not one of them is older than 27 and all are under team control for the foreseeable future. With this young core, and a ton of money coming off the books very soon, the future is bright in the Bronx. You can thank Brian Cashman for that.

Revisiting the “Stuff” Metric

This article was co-authored by Daanish Mulla – @DanMMulla

Last month, we wrote an article on calculating a pitcher’s “stuff”. We were quite pleased with how our equation performed with respect to predicting a pitcher’s strikeout rate and his xFIP. Part of the discussion surrounding the equation was what exactly is stuff? Well, in our case, stuff can be thought of as a three-dimensional shape, where the three axes of the shape represent a pitcher’s peak velocity, a pitcher’s change in velocity between their fastest and slowest pitch, and the amount of distance that their pitches can break. In other words, it aims to represent the range in pitch velocity and movement batters must account for during any given at-bat against a particular pitcher.

However, there was still some room for improvement, and with help from the FanGraphs community, we’ve slightly modified our equation to improve various performance predictions. The first major change came from comparing faster breaking balls versus slower breaking pitches with greater movement. In our original stuff metric, pitchers with a slow, looping breaking ball received more benefit than pitchers throwing a fast breaking ball. I queried the PitchF/x database to see how swinging strike rates and batting average changed against curveballs with respect to pitch speed during the 2014 season. Pitches that were thrown for at least 1% of all pitches were included in this analysis. As you can see in the figure, swinging-strike percentage increases exponentially after 75mph, and is nearly 15% higher at 85mph than at 75mph. This encouraged us to find a better way to account for faster breaking balls.

View post on

Secondly, the original metric did not account for pitch frequency. The Pitch Arsenal metric was improved from it’s original state by accounting for this, and realistically – a pitcher should be given more credit for a great pitch that they throw frequently, as opposed to a great pitch that they rarely throw. To account for this, pitches were classified as either off-speed/breaking or fastballs. The sum of pitch uses for each of these classifications was then used to modify the values in the equation. With that in mind, here’s how we have proposed to modify the stuff equation.

For a pitch to be included in the analysis, it had to be thrown by the pitcher 100 times. Just like the original stuff equation, z-scores were determined for the fastest pitch the pitcher threw, and for the amount of movement that could be seen with respect to that fastball, from the remaining pitches.  For further analysis, only qualified starters were used (those who threw 162 innings in the 2015 season).

Furthermore, z-scores were also determined for the % change in speed between the pitcher’s fastest and slowest pitch. Another z-score was determined for the velocity of the fastest pitch, between curveball, slider, or knuckle-curve. Frequencies were determined for the proportion of fastballs thrown by a pitcher, and the remaining non-fastball pitches. The z-score for velocity was multiplied by the fastball percentage, and the remaining z-scores were multiplied by the non-fastball frequency. The z-scores for peak velocity of breaking pitch and change in velocity were used to determine “pitch strategy” – either, power breaking ball, or change in speed. Whichever z-score was greater, was used in the final stuff equation.

So, the final “stuff” equation is as follows:

View post on

To begin validation of the equation, the stuff value was then correlated with K/9 for all qualifying starters. This resulted in a predicted R value of 0.53 (figure 2), compared to the value of 0.42 from the original stuff equation.

View post on

We’ve since applied the stuff equation to all pitchers from 2007 to 2015 to try and get an idea of the range of the metric. Here’s what we found. For interpretation of this figure, if a pitcher has a stuff value of 0.90, his stuff is better than 75% of all pitchers since 2007. If the value is 2.0, they have stuff that is better than approximately 99% of all pitchers since 2007. To put that in perspective, that means their stuff is better than nearly 4000 other starting pitchers. You’ll notice that in our list of the top 30 pitchers from 2015 – all of these pitchers fall within the top 15% range of stuff. These are elite pitchers with respect to this metric.

View post on

These data have a wealth of applications, such as how a pitcher returns from injury or has even changed his repertoire between years. For example, the jump Chris Bassitt made from 2014 to 2015 – going from someone in the bottom half of the metric to the 99th %ile. Similar to the Arsenal score, there is an application of these data in determining a pitcher on the verge of a breakout (perhaps the Joe Kelly of the second half of 2015 is the real Joe Kelly).

However, we felt that it would be in our best interest to let the community decide just how useful the metric was, so we’re making our evaluation data from 2007 to 2015 available in the form of a Google sheet. Simply select the pitcher you’d like to evaluate, and their stuff scores and xFIPs will be graphed for you. We’ve also posted the entirety of stuff scores from the 2015 season.

2015 Season

Stuff worksheet

Philosophically, we feel that the stuff metric has a great benefit for advanced scouting, because it relies on measures that are solely dependent on the pitcher, and not an interaction of the pitcher and the hitter. Thanks to the FanGraphs community, r/baseball, and Eno Sarris for all of the support with this project.

Finding a Suitor for Jose Fernandez

One of the league’s most coveted starting pitchers, Jose Fernandez, had his names floating around in rumors all through the winter meetings. Marlins’ President Mike Hill was adamant that Fernandez wasn’t available, but rumors surfaced that his name was being talked about with multiple teams, notably the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Marlins were reported to be looking for five-or-six really good prospects. What kind of team can put together a juggernaut package as is being requested? Well…

First we need to understand what Fernandez’s real value is. Dave Cameron wrote a great article earlier, which concluded that the ace was worth somewhere in the area of $100 million. Now we know why the Marlins’ asking price is through the roof.

Now, for a team to desire such a player, they must be, a) a win-now team, which b) has a solid farm system, and c) needs rotation help. Clearly, the Dodgers fit the bill. The Astros and Red Sox could be fits, with the Yankees being a looser contender. Let’s speculate what a package from each of these teams would look like:


Top Five Prospects:

  1. Corey Seager, SS
  2. Julio Urias, LHP
  3. Grant Holmes, RHP
  4. Alex Verdugo, OF
  5. Jose De Leon, RHP


The Dodgers receive:

RHP Jose Fernandez

RHP A.J. Ramos


The Marlins receive:

LHP Julio Urias

OF Alex Verdugo

RHP Jose De Leon


Why the Marlins would consider this: Julio Urias is the top pitching prospect in all of baseball, and being lefty makes him all the more valuable. Six years of Urias when the Fish have an actual chance at contending, plus top prospects Verdugo and De Leon, might very well be worth Fernandez’s post-TJ seasons.

Why the Dodgers would consider this: Jose Fernandez is under team control for three more years. The Dodgers, searching for their first title since 1988 when Kirk Gibson hit the walk-off homer in Game One, are thirsty for another one. Fernandez would continue the legacy that Greinke left for $200 million – the best 1-2 punch in baseball. AJ Ramos complements Kenley Jansen, solidifying a bullpen that has been shaky in the recent years.



Top Five Prospects:

  1. Alex Bregman, SS
  2. Mark Appel, RHP (note: now outdated, but doesn’t change the general idea)
  3. Daz Cameron, OF
  4. Kyle Tucker, OF
  5. A.J. Reed, 1B


The Astros receive:

RHP Jose Fernandez

RHP A.J. Ramos


The Marlins receive:

SS Alex Bregman

RHP Mark Appel

2B/OF Tony Kemp


Why the Marlins would consider this: Alex Bregman was drafted in 2015, yet he is already a top-25 prospect in baseball. Bregman has outstanding bat speed, and unparalleled mastery of the strike zone at such a young age. Mark Appel, first overall draft pick in 2013, has a fastball that hits the upper-90s and two above-average secondary pitches to round out his arsenal. Tony Kemp is another valuable piece to help the Marlins in the future

Why the Astros would consider this: With Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa blocking out second base and shortstop (respectively) for years to come, Bregman and Kemp have no space to crack the majors under. Bergman is a major talent that would fit well in any organization, but Carlos Correa seems to be a lock for the future. Pitching prospects can be extremely volatile, so giving up Mark Appel to get a bonafide ace to bolster the rotation seems to be a steal. A.J. Ramos fills the void left by Tony Sipp, who departs via free agency.


Red Sox

Top Five Prospects:

  1. Yoan Moncada, 2B
  2. Rafael Devers, 3B
  3. Brian Johnson, LHP
  4. Andrew Benintendi, OF
  5. Michael Kopech, RHP


The Red Sox receive:

RHP Jose Fernandez

RHP A.J. Ramos


The Marlins receive:

LHP Brian Johnson

OF Andrew Benintendi

SS Deven Marrero

RHP Ty Buttrey


Why the Marlins would consider this: With Marcell Ozuna’s departure seeming imminent, Andrew Benintendi is a prospect who can fortify their outfield as soon as September 2016. Brian Johnson is the top-prospect pitcher to replace Fernandez in future years. 6-foot-6 Buttrey generates a ton of swings and misses with his mid-90s heater and nasty knuckle-curve. Marrero is a likely future Gold-Glover, with his range and arm both being near-impeccable.

Why the Red Sox would consider this: Just as with the Astros, Benintendi and Marerro are both being blocked by stars already at the major-league level, i.e. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. And just like the other fifteen teams trying to emulate the Royals’ three-headed monster in the bullpen, A.J. Ramos latches on to Carson Smith and Craig Kimbrel to shorten the game for the Sox.

All in all, I’m not sure any of these trades would be enough to quench the immense thirst of the Marlins. I’m not sure they’ll ever get enough to have their prized jewel withdrawn from them; especially when he’s a guy just coming off Tommy John. It’ll be interesting to see how these next few weeks play out, but as of now, I think the ace in orange…stays in orange. At least for the time being.

Silly Money and What Our Society Values

The Boston Red Sox recently signed starting pitcher David Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract. That works out to $31 million per year. Not to be outdone, the Arizona Diamondbacks then signed pitcher Zack Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million contract. Using straight division, Greinke’s contract calls for an average of $34.4 million per year, but the deal includes $60 million in deferred money that will be paid out in the five years following the end of the contract, so Greinke won’t be making $34.4 million next year. No matter how you look at it, though, these are big money deals.

There are many comparisons you can make with this. For starters, each time David Price heads out to pitch next season he will be making around one million dollars. David Price has averaged 217 innings pitched over the last six seasons. If he pitches 220 innings next year, he’ll make around $140,000 per inning. At 15 pitches per inning, that’s more than $9,000 per pitch. David Price will make as much money for throwing six pitches next season as the average public school teacher makes in a year.

In the world of Major League Baseball there are good arguments to be made that Price and Greinke will be worth the cost of their contracts. The most likely scenario for a long-term, big-money contract is that the player provides surplus value in the first few years of the deal but ends up overpaid in the last part of the deal. Baseball is flush with money right now for a number of reasons, including strong attendance numbers, but the big drivers behind the current economic strength of the game are cable television contracts and Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM). Baseball has done a very good job of establishing an online presence through MLBAM, which allows fans to follow their teams on assorted electronic devices beyond TV and radio.

Also, the way people consume entertainment these days is a big factor. More and more people have an on-demand mentality when it comes to their entertainment choices. No longer do we have to be in front of the TV at nine o’clock on Wednesday night to watch Modern Family. We can just record it and watch it later. If we miss the first few seasons of a popular show, we can binge-watch past seasons and catch up. We can record a week of Jeopardy! shows, then watch five in a row on a Saturday afternoon.

Sports are different. Most people want to watch sports live and this gives baseball (and other sports) a huge advantage. Sports fans have to be in front of the TV—or watching on a smartphone, a tablet, or a computer—while the sport is happening. We want to talk about it with friends, tweet about it on Twitter, and complain about the refs on Facebook. This strong desire to watch sports live makes sport programming a highly desirable commodity for networks and results in the big money TV contracts that baseball teams are signing.

So when you read about David Price or Zack Greinke signing a contract that will pay them $30 million or more per year, you have to understand that teams have enough money to pay them. They wouldn’t dish it out if they couldn’t afford it. These contracts aren’t unreasonable in the context of the game. As much as Price and Greinke are making, the owners of their teams are making more. Getting paid $30 million per year is not so ridiculous in the context of Major League Baseball in 2015. This is the going rate for a top pitcher these days.

As a matter of fact, Major League Baseball players are earning a much lower percentage of league revenues than they did a dozen years ago. Back in 2002, MLB player salaries were 56% of league revenues, but it’s been dropping steadily ever since. Their share dropped below 40% in 2014. That’s a significant decrease. Imagine how much pitchers like Price and Greinke would be making if the players’ share of league revenue hadn’t declined so much in that time period. Where is that money going now? In the pockets of the owners, of course. Baseball is flush with money these days and player contracts reflect that, but they could actually be making much more than they are now. Instead, the owners are making it.

In the world where most of us reside financially, it seems ridiculous to have a professional athlete make that much money, especially when compared to a teacher, a construction worker, a police officer, or any other job where people put in a good day’s work to make enough money to pay their rent and feed their family. This is where it can be frustrating for fans. Most of the people sitting in the stands or watching the games on the electronic device of their choice will never come close to making the annual salary of a major league rookie (around $500,000).

And it’s not just sports. There are plenty of other high-income fields with ridiculous salaries. According to, movie star Robert Downey Jr. will make $80 million in 2015. Jackie Chan will make $50 million. Vin Diesel will make $47 million. On the small screen, Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, makes $29 million per year. His TV roommate, Leonard, played by Johnny Galecki, makes $27 million. Even smarmy Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and his awkward buddy Raj (Kunal Nayyar) will each make $20 million.

Howard Stern earned $95 million between June 2014 and June 2015, with $80 million of that coming from Sirius XM satellite radio. Ellen DeGeneres made $75 million in that time span. Thanks to his long-running talk show and the release of his 13th book, Dr. Phil McGraw made $70 million. Kim Kardashian nearly doubled the amount she made from the previous year thanks to her role-playing app Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. She made $52.5 million from June 2014 to June 2015.

The simple fact is, athletes and entertainers are making million and millions of dollars because we spend our money to watch them. It’s very easy to say that a famous athlete or actor shouldn’t make 500 times as much as a schoolteacher, but we all make choices in how we spend our money and those choices dictate how much the athletes we love to watch will earn. We go to the games, we watch the movies, we subscribe to cable or Netflix so we can watch our favorite shows. Every time we choose to spend our money on entertainment, we’re contributing to the high salaries these people are making.

I have friends who are continually shocked by the big contracts that baseball players sign. They think it’s ridiculous. When I get into a conversation with these people about this topic, I always think about this quote by Bill James from the book, The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball (2006):

“One of the unwritten laws of economics is that it is impossible, truly impossible, to prevent the values of society from manifesting themselves in dollars and cents. This is, ultimately, the reason why we pay athletes so much money: that it is very important to us to be represented by winning teams. The standard example is cancer research; letters pop up all the time saying that it is absurd for baseball players to make twenty times as much money as cancer researchers. But the hard, unavoidable fact is that we are, as a nation, far more interested in having good baseball teams than we are in finding a cure for cancer.

That pool of money which we pour into athletics makes it inevitable that athletes are going to be better paid than cancer researchers. Dollars and cents are an incarnation of our values. Economic realities represent not what we should believe, not what we like to say we believe, not what we might choose to believe in a more perfect world, but what our beliefs really are. However much we complain about it, nobody can stop that truth from manifesting itself.”

I live in Washington state, one of only seven states that does not have a state income tax. During the Great Depression in the early 1930s, Washington came very close to instituting a state income tax. Times were very hard back then and people were struggling just to put food on the table. Voters first voted to change the constitution to allow an income tax, then voted to approve the tax, with 70% in favor. An income tax was more popular among the voters than bringing back the sale of beer.

Local business owners could see where this was headed, so they challenged the tax in court. In 1933, this challenge reached the Supreme Court in Olympia and was voted down 5-4. Since then, a state income tax has come up for a vote seven times and voters have rejected it every time.

A measure was on the 2010 ballot that would have created an income tax on earnings over $200,000. This tax would affect fewer than 70,000 people out of the state’s 6.7 million residents and would provide money for education and health care. It was rejected by 65 percent of the voters. A dozen years before, voters had approved funding for the construction of CenturyLink Field, home of the Seahawks, even though the Seahawks’ Paul Allen is the NFL’s richest owner, worth $17.5 billion. I’m sure if you ask residents of Washington which is more important, education and health care or professional sports, they would say education and health care. But how they chose to spend their money says otherwise.

Income inequality has been and will be a big topic in the news over the next year. Not to get into the politics of the issue, but the statistics are clear. There is a growing disparity between what the majority of people in this country earn and what the richest people in this country earn.

In the most simple terms possible, the rich are getting richer. We often hear about the growing disparity between what the top 1% earns compared to the other 99%. It’s true; the gap has grown significantly over the last 30 years. Looking at the difference between the top 1% and the other 99% doesn’t tell the full story, though.

This IRS report showed the top 1% had an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $434,600 or more in 2012. The MLB minimum salary in 2015 was $507,500, which means every player in the major leagues is in the top 1%. It’s the level above the top 1% where the disparity is even greater and the gap is growing more quickly. The top .01% of tax returns in 2012 had an AGI of $12 million or more. Of the roughly 750 players in Major League Baseball in 2015, 121 made at least $10 million, which is about 16%. We could estimate that 10-15% of MLB players are in the top .01% of income earners.

The top .001% of tax returns had an AGI of $62 million. No player is in that range yet, but Bryce Harper will be a free agent heading into his age-26 season in 2019. With Zack Greinke having just signed a contract worth $34.4 million per year, will Bryce Harper be baseball’s first $50 million per year player in three years? If he stays healthy, we all know he will sign a record-setting contract. When he does, it’s very likely that our friends who don’t grasp the economics of Major League Baseball will lament the fact that a baseball player is making so much money. Then they’ll go to the theater and spend $15 to watch a movie starring an actor making $60 million and think nothing of it.

The 2016 Hall of Fame Pity Vote Candidates

On this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, there are 15 newcomers who the BBWAA has never gotten a chance to vote for. Only four of these guys, Ken Griffey Jr., Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner, and Jim Edmonds, have a reasonable chance of garnering the 5% of votes required to survive until next year’s ballot. But of course, ever year, there is that one voter who for whatever reason thinks that Aaron Sele or Armando Benitez was a Hall of Famer. Yes, the dreaded pity vote.

Now, there are some standards for a pity vote. It’s not just about falling off the ballot after one year. Despite not managing to get the necessary 5% last year, Carlos Delgado did not get 21 pity votes.. He was too reasonable a candidate with a significant amount of support. Hideo Nomo in 2014 was also not a pity candidate, despite only getting 6 votes, good for 1.1% of the picks. That’s more support than any third party had in the 2012 presidential election. We’re talking about guys that get 2 votes, maximum. Any more than that and it’s a trend, and we’re too edgy to vote for any mainstream candidates. So who are the deep-cut candidates of the 2016 Hall of Fame election?

There is Mark Grudzielanek, who is probably the guy least likely to get a vote. He was not particularly memorable nor did he stick around very long with any one team. If you feel like trolling the system, then just pick David Eckstein who was the exact same player with more gritty-gamer-clutch-Harold Reynolds-scrappy-played-the-game-the-right-way narrative working for him. Of course, Eckstein may get too much support. Would it shock you to see Eckstein get 3 votes, either from the old fogey crowd or from some edgy troll voting ironically?

Including Eckstein, there are a lot of 2002 Angels’ championship team on this ballot, which is funny because there are no legitimate Hall of Fame candidates from that roster. Troy Glaus was legitimately a star for a few seasons, so I could see an Angels beat writer or someone tossing him a vote. Same could be said for Garret Anderson, except he was much less good than Glaus.

Speaking of Anderson, let’s play a fun game! Here are two mystery players from 2002:

Player A hit .344/.354/.516.

Player B hit .306/.332/.539.

You probably guessed that one of them is Garret Anderson, and you would be right? You may have even guessed that he was Player B.

You probably did not guess that Player A was Mike Hampton.

Hampton is mostly remembered as a disappointment because of his poor, injury-muddled play after signing the largest contract in baseball history. He was probably a better player than either Garret Anderson or David Eckstein, but I doubt he’ll get a vote. I also doubt that Mike Sweeney will get a vote, mostly because I cannot recall anything interesting about him. Maybe he’ll get thrown a bone by some masochistic Royals writer longing for the good ol’ days of 2001, lamenting the current success of the franchise.

Randy Winn played like a Hall of Famer for like 2 months after being traded by the Mariners to the Giants in 2005. He wasn’t really special aside from that stretch. Luis Castillo and Mike Lowell combined to win 5 World Series rings, including one each with the 2003 Marlins. Good players. Lowell did win World Series MVP honors in 2007 with the Red Sox, so maybe he gets one vote for that. Other than that, I doubt any of these guys will manage to get pity. Brad Ausmus is probably the worst player on the ballot. He was the guy you were trying to upgrade from, not the one you actually wanted to start. Unless he made quick friends with someone in the Detroit press, he’s not getting a vote.

No, the best candidate would be Jason Kendall. He has at least some of the intangible goodness that Eckstein has wrapped up in a player who was actually pretty good. Kendall was a prototypical lead-off hitter who played catcher. A weird combo, but an interesting one. Kendall led off 50 times in 5 different seasons. No other catcher since deadball has done that even once. Kendall was actually a good lead-off hitter too. Had the Pirates utilized good players elsewhere in the lineup, he would have been batted in many times by them. Kendall may have had a real Hall of Fame case had he continued what he was doing for like a decade more instead of falling off a cliff. Alas, it was not to be.

So, if you happen to have both a Hall of Fame ballot and a desire to rebel against the conformity of the system and vote for someone unique, Jason Kendall is probably your man. Or maybe Troy Glaus, who was probably about as good, but less much interesting.

Or just vote for ten guys who actually, you know, deserve to be in the Hall. That’d be good too.

Losing My Religion: Changing Approach and Changing Results

Every year, we hear about batters taking a new approach at the plate that they expect to generate better outcomes. But, as has often been shown, a lot of player tendencies are hard-wired. Players generally don’t change that much. What happens when they do?

In June, I looked at hitters who were pulling the ball a lot less or a lot more than they had in 2014. The conclusion was that it didn’t really make much of a difference, in aggregate, on offensive performance, although some players did markedly better and some did markedly worse. Now that the full season’s in the books, I decided to take another look at the comparison to see how a change at the plate affects hitting.

To look at this, I selected hitters with 350 or more plate appearances in both 2014 and 2015, corresponding roughly to at least half-time play. There were 173 such players. Using that sample set, I evaluated three observations you hear a lot about modern hitters:

  • They pull too much, allowing infielders to get extra outs by shifting. If they’d hit to the opposite field, they’d do better.
  • They try to hit everything into the seats, resulting in too many infield flies and lazy fly balls to the outfield instead of hitting sharp grounders that can become singles.
  • They’re too passive, getting behind the count by watching pitches.

I looked for changes in pull tendency, ground vs. air batted balls, and aggressiveness at the plate, measured by net pull percentage (i.e., percentage of balls pulled minus percentage hit to the opposite field), ground ball/fly ball ratio, and swing percentage as proxies. To gauge the impact of the changes, I looked at change in wRC+, since it is a park- and season-normalized comprehensive measure of hitting.

It’s important, I think, to make a distinction between a change in outcomes to a change in approach. Take pulling the ball. If a batter pulls the ball less from one year to the next, it could be because he’s consciously trying to spray the ball over the field more in order to become less predictable and therefore harder to defend. Mike Moustakas comes to mind. But a batter may pull less because of the effects of age and/or injury, making his bat slower and unable to turn on inside fastballs. Since we can’t divine approach from full-season statistics, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with outcomes. Among the 173 players in the sample, Victor Martinez had the largest decline in hitting the ball hard, and his wRC+ decline of 90 points was similarly the largest in the group. That doesn’t mean that he went into the season deciding to hit the ball softer, and that his strategy backfired. Rather, it was a reflection of Martinez’s health. A change in outcomes isn’t necessarily reflective of a change in approach.

I ranked the 173 players by their change in pull tendency, ground vs. air batted balls, and aggressiveness at the plate, and divided them into quintiles based on plate appearances. As an example, for pull tendency, the quintiles were players who went the opposite way a lot more (net pull percentage down 7.5% to 25.9%), those who went the opposite way somewhat more (net pull percentage down 3.6% to 7.4%), those who hit about the same (net pull percentage down 3.5% to up 0.1%), those who pulled somewhat more (net pull percentage up 0.2% to 5.0%),and those who pulled a lot more (net pull percentage up 5.0% to 17.8%). I also selected examples of players whose wRC+ was considerably better or worse in 2015 for each quintile. Generally, these were the players at the top or bottom of the rankings, though I did ignore obviously injured underperformers like Martinez and Jayson Werth.

In the tables I’m going to display, there are a lot of negative numbers for change in wRC+. The reason is that among the 173 players with 350 or more plate appearances in 2014 and 2015, the average wRC+ declined by 5.2 points (from 109.6 to 104.4), or 4.3 points (110.9 to 106.6) weighted by plate appearances. While that may be a topic for future research, it’s not a shock, given aging curves, regression, and the emergence of young talent in the majors.

Players who pulled a lot more or went the other way a lot more in 2015 than in 2014 did better than their peers. (Again, the average player’s wRC+ declined by 5.2 points, or 4.3 weighted by plate appearances). Those who went the opposite way a lot more improved relatively, and those who pulled a lot more improved both relatively and absolutely. If there’s a benefit to hitting to the opposite field for pull-happy sluggers who make too many outs by hitting the balls to shifted infielders, we’d see the change in wRC+ decline as the net pull percentage increases. That’s not what happened. Bryce Harper, Chris Davis, and Shin-Soo Choo, among others, benefited from pulling more, not less.

Players’ ground ball tendencies, similar to their pull tendencies, resulted in positive variance at both extremes. Players who hit the ball on the ground a lot more improved relative to their peers, and those who hit it in the air a lot more improved relatively and absolutely. Harper’s an outlier again—he pulled a lot more, hit the ball in the air a lot more, and produced a lot more runs. It’s amusing to see Red Sox teammates Xander Bogaerts and Hanley Ramirez as prime examples of what can go right or wrong if you hit a lot more ground balls.

 The outcomes for players who changed their pull tendency or proportion of balls hit on the ground were equivocal: Players did better at the extremes, but not in the middle. That wasn’t the case for aggression at the plate. In aggregate, batters who swung more did worse than batters who swung less. However, there’s a considerable outcomes vs. approach component here. The players in the bottom quintile—those who swung a lot less in 2015 than 2014—didn’t always have complete choice in the matter, as pitchers rationally chose to pitch more cautiously to hitters like Harper (percentage of pitches in the strike zone declined from 45.0% in 2014 to 41.5% in 2015) and Eric Hosmer (42.7% to 41.1%). But others in that lowest quintile, including Manny Machado, Curtis Granderson, and even A.J. Pierzynski, saw more pitches in the strike zone in 2015 than 2014, but chose to swing less, in and out of the zone, with improved results.

This project turned out to be murkier than I would’ve liked. Did batters who pulled a lot less, or those who it the ball on the ground a lot more, do better in 2015 than they did in 2014? Yes, but so did those who pulled a lot more and hit the ball in the air a lot more. And those are only aggregate figures; in every quintile, there are examples of batters who were a lot better or a lot worse. And we can’t completely tease out the change in approach from the change in a batter’s health or age or the way he’s pitched. About the only thing that seems to be safe to say is that swinging more is a dubious strategy. If a player goes into spring training talking about getting more aggressive at the plate and taking a lot more hacks, we might hope that his batting coach can talk him out of it.

First Blood, Retaliation, and Piling On

Pirates pitchers hit more batters than any team in the majors this year, 75. They also led in 2014. And 2013. That’s unusual. The only teams to have lead the majors in hit batters for three or more seasons since 1901 are the 1921-23 Phillies, 1930-32 Cardinals, 1938-40 Senators, 2002-04 Rays, and the 2013-15 Pirates.

The Pirates also got hit more than any team in the majors this year, with 89 hit batters. On one hand, that makes sense, given baseball’s Book of Exodus stance: A hit batter for a hit batter. On the other hand, and more significantly, it’s been a rare occurrence. Since 1931, only 14 teams have led their league in both pitcher and batter hit by pitches (1943 Giants, 1947 Dodgers, 1955 Dodgers, 1963 Reds, 1966 White Sox, 1968 Astros, 1980 White Sox, 1982 Angels, 1983 Expos, 1996 Astros, 2009 Phillies, 2012 White Sox, and 2013 and 2015 Pirates). Only 8% of teams in that time span have led their league in both hitting batters and getting hit. Pure random chance would put that figure above 9%. It just doesn’t happen very frequently.

I should interject that I fall in the anti-hit batters camp. I don’t like seeing anybody getting hit by pitches. Sometimes they shake it off. Sometimes they miss time. Sometimes it’s horrifying. But when you consider that there were 1,602 batters hit last year, 844 on fastballs, and the average fastball velocity is 92.1 mph—well, they’ve all got to hurt. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, some hit batters are clearly accidents, often occurring when a pitcher, ahead in the count, comes inside on a pitch and misses. But some undoubtedly are a form of message-sending, with the message coming as a hard object thrown at a speed that would constitute assault were it not on a baseball diamond. (A notable case occurred when Cole Hamels hit Bryce Harper in 2012, then justified it on the grounds of “that old-school prestigious way of baseball.”) Intentionally throwing at hitters to exact some sort of vengeance, sorry, is dumb. But how often does it happen?

The Pirates provide a good test case, since by leading the league in hit batters on both offense and defense, they provide a decently large sample size. Here’s how large: Pirates batters were hit 89 times, tying them for 11th among the 1,926 team-seasons since 1931. Their pitchers hit 75 batters, tying them for 43rd. If you saw a lot of Pirates games, you saw a lot of batters getting hit.

And you heard a lot of excuses. The Pirates encourage pitching inside, drawing the ire of other clubs. But Pirates backers also point to the large number of Pirates batters who get hit, and the need for the pitchers to “protect” Pirates batters. You hit my Andrew McCutchen, I hit your Joey Votto. That sort of thing.

How often does that happen? Is protection–really, retaliation–a significant factor in batters getting hit? To try to answer, I classified every hit batter in Pirates games last season—164 in total—into three different categories:

  • First Blood: Named in honor of the great American thespian Sylvester Stallone, the standard by which actors have been judged. (The New York Times memorably described Arnold Scharzenegger as “the thinking kid’s Sylvestor Stallone.”) First Blood (the initial work in Stallone’s Rambo oeuvre) occurs when a batter is the first one hit in a game or series.
  • Retaliation: As a follow-up to First Blood, Retaliation occurs when a batter is hit by the pitcher whose teammate was last hit.
  • Piling On: This occurs when a team, having already had a batter hit, suffers another, with no intervening Retaliation.

(I realize that I’m ignoring hit batters as retaliation for things like inside pitches, hard slides, and being Bryce Harper. Those don’t show up in game summaries, and besides, that’s more two-eyes-for-an-eye and therefore less acceptable.)

The timeframe is important here. Hit batters occur in the context of a game, but the casus belli can stretch out longer. Al Nipper hit Darry Strawberry with a pitch in spring training of 1987, allegedly in retaliation for Strawberry taking a slow trot around the bases after hitting a home run off Nipper in the prior year’s World Series. So I looked at hit batters in three settings:

  • The game being played
  • The series between the teams, to see whether retaliation carries over from one day to the next
  • The season series, to capture longstanding grudges.

For example, on July 12, the day before the All-Star break, the Pirates’ Arquimedes Caminero hit the Cardinals’ Mark Reynolds with a pitch in the tenth inning. The next time the two teams played was on August 11. The Cardinals’ Carlos Martinez hit Pirate Aramis Ramirez in the first inning. That’s First Blood for the game and series, but Retaliation for the season series, since the prior hit batter, albeit a month earlier, was a Cardinal. Two days later, Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli was hit by a pitch from Lance Lynn in the first inning. That was First Blood for the game, but Piling On for both the series and season series, as it followed his teammate getting hit. The next time the teams played, on September 4, Pirates reliever Jared Hughes hit Reynolds with a pitch in the ninth inning. That counts as First Blood for the game and the series, Retaliation with respect to the season series. The following day, the Pirates’ Starling Marte was hit by Jaime Garcia in the second inning. That was First Blood for the day, Retaliation for both the series and the season series. In the bottom of the second, Charlie Morton hit Jon Jay. That’s Retaliation in the context of game, series, and season series.

(Another aside: I am opposed to the use of plunked as a synonym for hit by pitch. Plunk is what happens when you’re rearranging books on your bookshelf and a paperback falls from a high shelf and hits you in the shoulder, or when you’re walking in the woods and an acorn hits your head. A 92.1 mph fastball is not a plunk.)

You may be thinking: This is pretty stupid, categorizing hit batters, what’s the point? The point is that if the Pirates pitchers are hitting opposing batters for some sort of tribal/protection/vengeance thing, we should see a lot of Retaliation. If that’s nonsense, it’s not the case.

Say a team plays 19 opponents, as the Pirates did (every National League team, plus the American League Central). Let’s also assume that the team’s pitchers hit 75 batters, as the Pirates did, and the team’s batters were hit 89 times, again as the Pirates were. If hit batters are random, we’d expect the team to be throw 19 x 75 / (75 + 89) = 8.7 First Blood pitches and get hit by 19 – 8.7 = 10.3 such pitches in season series. Thereafter, the odds of a hit batter being Retaliation or Piling On would be 50/50, subject to the distributional difference between 75 and 89. So the team would log 33.2 Retaliation and Piling on hit batters, and get hit by 39.3 of each type of pitch. Again, this assumes that hit batters occur completely randomly.

Here are the actual totals:

This kind of refutes the self-defense argument, doesn’t it? A Pirates batter was hit by a pitch before an opponent was in 61 games, accounting for nearly 70% of the team’s hit batters. But Pirates pitchers drew first blood in 56% of their games as well. Overall, retaliation accounted for only 20% of batters hit by Pirates pitchers in games. Over the course of a series, when my hit batter today can result in your hit batter tomorrow, retaliation explains only 32% of Pirates opponents hit. Even with the most liberal definition of retaliation, when it can be spread over the weeks or months of a season series, it still accounts for just 43%, less than half of batters hit by Pirates pitchers. Not that it was different on the other side: Pirates hit in retaliation accounted for only 15% of hit batters in games, 33% in series, and 39% in season series. The majority of hit batters occurred without seeming provocation.

Let’s compare the results of the Pirates games to those of the random distribution presented above. For Pirates pitchers, a random distribution would be 9 First Blood, 33 Retaliation, and 33 Piling On. Actual figures: 9, 32, 34. For Pirates batters, a random distribution would be 10 First Blood, 39 Retaliation, and 39 Piling On. Actual figures: 11, 35, 43. Those distributions (1) are pretty close to random and (2) feature less retaliation than a random distribution would suggest.

So what does it mean? Well, retaliation definitely does occur. We saw it the National League wild card game, when Pittsburgh reliever Tony Watson pretty clearly hit Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta on purpose, in response to Cervelli and Josh Harrison getting hit by Arrieta, resulting in the silly spectacle of the benches clearing. But the example of the Pirates’ regular season, when there were a lot of hit batters, shows that retaliation isn’t as common as either code-of-honor defenders like Hamels nor hand-wringers like I might think. The numbers instead suggest that hit batters are, in fact, pretty random. Which would seem to make intentionally hitting batters a really uninformed idea as well as a bad one.

Could Greinke Have Hit in Boston?

When I started this piece the Red Sox were going hard for David Price, but they hadn’t signed him yet, and it still wasn’t anywhere close to being a guaranteed deal. Now Price has signed with the Red Sox and Greinke is headed to Arizona (who saw that coming), so this piece is no longer realistic (as though it ever was). I still think it is interesting to think about however, so here you go.

Situation: Price signs elsewhere and the Red Sox are forced to pursue Greinke. As some have hypothesized, Greinke is inclined to stay in the National League so he can continue to hit. To sign him, the Red Sox will have to overpay by a significant margin. Either that or let him hit?

Okay, first a clarification: Greinke would not be the new DH (could you imagine replacing Ortiz on his retirement tour with Greinke). No, he would be given the opportunity to bat, say, in twenty-five of his starts next year (in the contract it would then be determined, the number of games Greinke would get to hit the following years, based on how he hit in the previous year). A few of those starts will be inter-league games, possibly a couple of them would be to give Ortiz a day off, but mostly Ortiz would hit for another player on the field. You might say that wins are money and that since this would cost you wins you should just cough up the money to get Greinke to come to Boston. But what if this would hardly cost you any wins at all? What if the team could be just as good when Greinke hit?

The first thing to do is to find out how good Zack Greinke has been at hitting. In hit National League career he has a wRC+ of 67, though over the last three years he has seemed to improve, hitting to a wRC+ of 87. To give a comparison, Madison Bumgarner, known as a very good hitting pitcher who has even pinch-hit on occasion, has a career 49 wRC+ and a 73 wRC+ over the last three years. It does seem like Greinke has improved, hitting-wise, lately, but he is a pitcher, and you can’t expect too much out of him, so we will take his median wRC+ over the last three years, 74, as a reasonable true talent. So this was a starting point to compare this to other players.

The first name that seems interesting is Ryan Hanigan. Unlike some other Red Sox players who haven’t hit that well of late, no one really expects him to improve. Over the last three seasons he has a wRC+ of 75. This is basically equal to Greinke’s prescribed true talent, so it seems as though we could break even. Against righties however, Hanigan had a wRC+ of 69 over the three-year span, and it was even worse last year at 62. So, it seems that against righties, Greinke, whose wRC+ hardly drops in his three-year sample size, might even be the better hitter. Additionally, Greinke is actually the better baserunner as well. Over the last three years, Greinke is the best baserunning pitcher in baseball, with a BsR score of 0.5, slightly above average. He joins only four other pitchers as above-average baserunners over that time period. Hanigan on the other hand is a below-average baserunner, with a BsR of -4.0 over the last three years. This is just another reason for Greinke to hit instead of Hanigan.

If Hanigan really was the backup catcher, then, assuming Greinke was the better hitter against righties, the Red Sox would already be close to working out a good way for to hit Greinke. Hanigan would become Greinke’s personal catcher, and Greinke would hit instead of Hanigan against righties. Hanigan though is only the backup catcher until Vazquez is healthy. While he has had a setback in playing winter ball, he is expected back early next year. So Greinke hitting for Hanigan may only be an option for around a month.

Vazquez, Castillo and Bradley are all other options to hit for against righties. Bradley and Castillo have had 65 and 69 wRC+’s against righties, respectively. These would seem like great options to pinch hit for, except for the fact that they are supposed to be good candidates to improve. Depending how they do early in the year, both could be able to be hit for by Greinke, though it wouldn’t be great for their confidence. Vazquez actually hit slightly better against righties in his very limited tenure in Boston, though that could reverse itself, since he is right-handed. So it seems as though the Red Sox can piece together 10-15 games where, because of personnel or days off, it makes enough sense to have Greinke hit against righties. They still need 10-15 more starts however.

This brings us to facing lefties, and Pablo Sandoval. Last year was a bad year for Sandoval, but even before that he was bad against lefties. Over the last three years he has had a wRC+ of 61 against lefties. Last year it was even more horrendous, however, as he had a score of 21. Pair this with his -15.1 Def rating last year, and it seems obvious he should not be playing third base with a righty on the mound. The Red Sox may sit Sandoval against lefties anyway, but this could be an opportunity to hit Greinke and get better defense. If the Sox were planning on having Greinke hit, they would do well to try to find a cheap, good-fielding third baseman. If the Red Sox could find someone like Gordon Beckham, who is an inexpensive, above-average defender at third base, that would be a big upgrade on defense. He had a positive 5.5 Def rating playing mostly third last year, and cost the Braves only $1.25 million plus incentives. There are probably countless others, though, that could fill this role.

Sandoval had a wRC+ of 99 against righties last year, so it doesn’t seem like he would be hit for against righties, but if his defense or hitting doesn’t improve, he could be a candidate to be hit for once in a while, even against righties. This is especially the case, given the importance of third base defense when Greinke is pitching. Looking at Greinke’s batted ball spray chart, you see a lot of ground balls. Focusing on those ground balls, you can see third base got a decent amount of attempts, especially ranging left and right, which is Sandoval’s weakness. So, at the rate Sandoval played last year, though he is expected to improve at least slightly, Greinke could hit for him all the time, with a good defender at third.

One other thing that should be mentioned is what will happen once Greinke leaves the game. When bullpen pitchers come in, they would then occupy Greinke’s batting spot. This is not as big an issue as it may appear, because bullpen pitchers will usually get pinch-hit for, but it would force Farrell to manage more of a National League game. It is unfortunate that the DH cannot be moved around in the batting order like every other position, but the Red Sox would just have to make use of their fairly deep bench.

Additionally, since 2010 the National League has only scored around six fewer runs per year than the American league from the seventh inning onward. This is the time in the game when the starter is generally out of the game, so National League teams can pinch-hit for their relievers. Since Greinke would only bat in 1/6th of the games, this averages out to be a run per year, or about 1/10th of a win. It could be even less than that since the Red Sox have a quality bench. So the disadvantage of having bullpen pitchers with lineup spots seems to be incredibly minuscule, even almost unnoticeable.

On average, around a third of pitchers are lefty. If the Red Sox try to line up Greinke against lefties, you can probably assume that it will happen around a dozen times. If Greinke gets six starts in April, he will probably face a righty in about four of those games. Greinke will bat for Hanigan on those occasions and for Sandoval against lefties, leaving nine more batting days for Greinke. The Red Sox could probably find nine more days to both take the defensive upgrade and have Greinke bat, rest a slumping player, or simply give starters a day off here and there. These might be slight disadvantages for the team, but could possibly be neutralized with the possible upgrades when Greinke bats for Hanigan and Sandoval.

Overall, if Greinke continued to be the great pitcher he is, a great offense would not be as important to the Red Sox on his pitching days. While on the whole it is probably a slight disadvantage to have Greinke bat, it seems to be very small, and not worth shelling out a few more tens of millions of dollars. The biggest question mark in this is Greinke’s true batting talent. While he has hit well in his career, he has totaled less than 400 plate appearances over his entire career. Anything could happen in this small sample size, so it is hard to know. This probably will never happen, but it is interesting to think about. For now though the Red Sox have Price, and the Diamondbacks just shelled out $206 million for Greinke, so the Red Sox are just as well not even thinking about him hitting in Boston.

We might as well wait until 2020, when Bumgarner will hit the open market, until we think about this again.

Breaking Down the Astros’ 2015 Offensive Changes

The Astros were baseball’s biggest surprise of the 2015 season. Few will dispute that. This was, however, preceded by some of the worst seasons in Houston history. They posted three consecutive 100+ loss seasons from 2011-2013 followed by a somewhat bounceback 2014 campaign, posting a 70-92 record. Although they were not quite back to the winning tradition that ‘Stros fans enjoyed during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, young potential began to show, headed by silver slugger Jose Altuve. The combination of young talent with free agent and trade market moves led to an unexpected 86-76 season and the first playoff birth since 2005 (where they eventually got swept by the White Sox in the Fall Classic). Part of this success was due to a new-found, solid bullpen and front five led by Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel. However, the more exciting part of their success — at least for the average fan — was the explosive offense.

Houston’s 2015 opening day lineup included four new players to the organization: Luis Valbuena, Jed Lowrie, Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis, all of which had 15+ home run seasons in the past. These lineup changes were complemented by a new hitting coach in Dave Hudgens, who preaches that being aggressive in the zone leads to a higher OBP, harder hit balls, and more runs scored. This proved to be a highly successful match, as the Astros posted impressive power numbers. They were second in the league in ISO, SLG, and home runs (all behind the Blue Jays), according to Their team wRC+ of 105 was 4th best in the league and was the best wRC+ since back in 2000 – the first year of Minute Maid Park. The most recent yearly changes have been the most impressive numbers, however.

From 2014 to 2015, they had the biggest increase in all three aforementioned categories of any team in baseball, adding 67 home runs, .046 ISO, and .054 SLG. They also increased their Z-swing% by 3.5% to 70.2%, the highest in the league and right in line with Hudgens’ approach. Surprisingly, they did this while decreasing their K% (albeit only by 0.9%). This leads to the question of how big of an impact Hudgens had on the organization and its multitude of young power hitters.

There were 11 Astros who had double-digit home runs, all who are younger than 30 years old. Five of those players broke the 20-home-run mark (Gattis – 27, Rasmus – 25, Valbuena – 25, Chris Carter – 24, Carlos Correa – 22). This is not including 29-year-old Carlos Gomez who was acquired in the latter half of the season, who only hit 12 home runs throughout his injury-plagued 2015 season. With so much raw power and youth in the organization, an active hitting coach is crucial to develop successful hitting approaches and general consistency at the plate. Hudgens seems to have been very successful in extracting the most out of his hitters in his first year.

Many of these hitters took strides to becoming more balanced at the plate. For example, slugger George Springer who posted a miserable 33.0% K% in his 2014 rookie campaign came down to a more reasonable 24.2% in 2015 while posting an above-average ISO of .183. The biggest surprise in this is that that is his lowest strikeout rate of any full year in his baseball career, including rookie and high-A ball. Another highly noticeable change is the power numbers of All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve. Known for being more of a contact hitter, the 5’6″ Venezuelan hit 15 home runs (the first double-digit home run season for Altuve) and improved his ISO from a below-average .112 in 2014 to a career high of .146. Teammates Luis Valbuena and Colby Rasmus also posted career highs in ISO at .214 and .236, respectively.

The good news for Astros fans is that this offense appears sustainable. The BABIP numbers of these Astros hitters slightly decreased for the most part. The glaring exception is George Springer, who had a BABIP of .342 compared to his rookie year’s .294 (but with his strikeout rate decreasing 8.8% and OBP increasing by .031, only time will tell if he can continue his impressive numbers at the plate once pitchers adjust and approach him differently). The Houston front office has built an offense around around younger hitters with a lot of raw power. This is not to mention their speed, as they ranked 3rd in stolen bases last year. So although the AL West has shown to be unpredictable in recent years, the way the Astros have built their team may very well provide some sustainability for them moving forward.

Side note – don’t expect the Astros to remain quiet in the off-season just because of their youth-heavy core. They have already begun shopping Jake Marisnick after retaining Colby Rasmus with a 15.8MM qualifying offer.