Archive for November, 2017

Alex Cobb Will Be One of the Gems of This Free Agent Class

Of the pitchers hitting the free-agent market this winter, Alex Cobb is not likely to receive the most fanfare.

Aces Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta will command contracts north of $100 million. Closers Wade Davis and Greg Holland will do their best to secure four-year deals with big price tags. The whole world is watching every development in the Shohei Ohtani saga. Hell, among midmarket starting pitchers, MLB Trade Rumors predicts Lance Lynn to receive a more lucrative contract than Alex Cobb.

Cobb, who broke in as a full-time starter with Tampa Bay in 2012, has historically shown great promise and good-but-not-great results. He averaged 2.5 fWAR from 2012-2014, lost the next two seasons to Tommy John surgery, then came back with a 2.4 fWAR season in 2017. Cobb has never started 30 games in a season, nor has he ever thrown 200 innings. These facts are concerning to some, but I would argue that he is one of the wisest investments one can make this offseason.

Alex Cobb has evolved as a pitcher through pitch selection. Cobb has a great curveball. You either already know that, or you’re about to find out. He also mixes in a four-seam fastball, a splitter, and a sinker. Right now, curveballs are all the rage in baseball, resulting in tremendous success for pitchers like Rich Hill, Trevor Bauer, and Lance McCullers. They throw their curveballs so often that we can consider the breaking ball, not the fastball, to be their primary pitch. Like Hill, Bauer, and McCullers, Cobb has a quality breaking ball, so it stands to reason he should throw it more often and perhaps eschew his mediocre offerings. With Brooks Baseball, we can track the usage rate on each of his pitches throughout the season.

Look at the first couple data points for the usage rates on his pitches, and then compare them to his points at the end of the season. It’s clear that Cobb began to realize he works best by using the fastball and the curveball exclusively, so he increased his usage rate on those pitches and gradually phased out the splitter and sinker.

The question for Cobb is whether this was a good idea. In Cobb’s career, he’s only posted a strikeout-to-walk percentage (K-BB%) above 15% twice, and only ever so slightly so. He’s not bad in that regard, but it’s not where he makes his bread and butter. Fortunately for Cobb, he is one of the better pitchers in the league at inducing ground balls, which we know is favorable contact. The more grounders Cobb induces, the better he gets, and his curveball is a ground-ball machine. Consider the correlation between the rate at which Cobb increased his curveball usage and his ground-ball rate (GB%) throughout the season:

That’s a pretty strong correlation. It seems that Cobb is ready to join the Hills, Bauers, and McCullerses of the world and ride a high breaking-ball-usage rate to breakout success. Of course, it’s never going to be that easy for Cobb or anybody, but let’s go through one of his starts and parse what we can from the good and bad.

On September 4, Cobb pitched against a red-hot Minnesota Twins lineup and had one of his better starts of the season. His first batter of the game was second-half monster and fly-ball connoisseur Brian Dozier, and he managed to get him out on the first pitch.

It’s been proven that batters from the “fly-ball revolution” can be neutralized if you throw them high fastballs. These hitters are swinging up to lift the ball, but it’s difficult to put much lift on a high pitch coming in fast.

We’re going to focus on the curveball throughout this piece, but here is a fun fact about his fastball. Cobb’s heater sits at 92 MPH and had a spin rate of 2101 RPM this season, which seems pretty pedestrian. However, among starting pitchers with at least 100 batted-ball events involving fastballs, Alex Cobb’s has the 31st lowest exit velocity (87.1 MPH). To put this in perspective, that’s a better mark than James Paxton, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Jon Gray, Justin Verlander, and Luis Severino.

Cobb was smart to bait Dozier here, and he reaped the benefits with a first-pitch out to begin the ballgame.

In the second inning, we see Cobb pitching out of the stretch and unleashing a curveball that Ehire Adrianza buries into the ground. This will be the common theme today.

I mentioned earlier that Cobb doesn’t have the K-BB% of Chris Sale or Corey Kluber, so every once in awhile he walks batters. The common thought is that Cobb, who throws so many breaking balls, might end up behind in the count thanks to misplaced curves. Then, to get back in the count, he throws his 93 MPH fastball in the zone, which gets crushed by every hitter expecting it.

This would be a bad habit for Cobb to fall into, but he certainly didn’t in 2017. Consider the list of pitchers who threw the most curveballs while behind in the count this season (via Baseball Savant):There’s Cobb, in fifth place, not far behind Rich Hill himself. All five of these guys have great curveballs, so it makes sense for them to Trust the Process and continue dropping the hammer rather than submitting to doom and throwing a predictable fastball in the zone.

After walking the leadoff batter to start the third inning, Cobb knew Joe Mauer could make him pay. So rather than giving Mauer the fastball he wanted, Cobb began the at-bat by dropping a curveball for a strike that even froze the great Mauer.

This changed the whole at-bat, because now Mauer didn’t know whether Cobb would be coming at him with the curve or the fastball. Cobb took advantage of his opportunity, used the fastball to get him in an ideal 1-2 count, and then he went back the curveball and got Mauer to ground into a double play.

Cobb is comfortable throwing the curveball both behind in the count and with runners on base, so he can reap the rewards and induce quite a few double plays. That is an asset. Additionally, Cobb is comfortable throwing his curve from both the stretch (as we saw against Adrianza and Mauer) and from his big windup, as you can see here.

Eddie Rosario is a good hitter who made great strides late in the season, but even he found himself to be another ground-ball victim of Cobb’s curveball.

By the fifth inning, Cobb was almost through his second time against the Twins’ batting order. At this point, they weren’t sure whether to expect the curveball or the fastball, so Cobb was often ahead in the count. Here, he has Eduardo Escobar in a 1-2 count and throws a high fastball that Escobar swings right through.

Everyone in the park was expecting Cobb to throw the curveball to finish Escobar off. From a look at Escobar’s swing, it’s safe to say he was expecting a curveball himself. Cobb’s fastball isn’t necessarily anything special, but the way he uses it to pitch off the curveball can be.

With two outs in the inning, Cobb faced his 18th batter (which would complete his second time through against the opposing batting order). He quickly got Ehire Adrianza into an 0-2 count and then unleashed his best curveball of the night, which Adrianza pounded into the ground for another easy out.

At this point, Cobb had gone through the opposing order twice, pitched five innings, and only given up one run. Teams around the league are beginning to realize that most of their starters simply shouldn’t go out for the third time through the order, even if they are rolling. The Houston Astros just rode using Lance McCullers, Brad Peacock, and Charlie Morton in tandems all the way to the World Series. Those three guys are valuable pieces, and if Cobb is utilized liked this, so is he.

Unfortunately for Cobb, his pitch count was at 85, so his manager decided to bring him out for another inning. The Twins got their third look at Cobb, and I don’t need to cite the statistics to you about what happens at this point. Hitters are smart, so they can pick up on the tendencies of a pitcher if they see him so many times. Alex Cobb, as great at he was through five innings and two times through the order, is no exception to this rule.

Here is Joe Mauer taking an 0-2 curveball from Cobb and driving it into the gap in center for a double.

The important question here is, “was that Cobb’s fault or just a good piece of hitting from Joe Mauer?” Of course, the answer in baseball is always going to be both, but you can see in the embedded GIF that Cobb doesn’t necessarily leave the pitch up. In fact, if you compare it to the curveball that Cobb threw earlier in the game to get Mauer to ground into a double play, it doesn’t look much different — maybe an inch or two higher, at worst. The bigger change is Mauer, who swings like a guy fighting to stay alive in the first GIF, then like he knew exactly what was coming and how to handle it in the second.

This is the “third time through the order” effect in a microcosm. Pitches that fool batters earlier in the game become cookies, so the key is to relieve your pitcher while his pitches still fool the batters. Cobb should not be penalized by us for giving up a double to Mauer there; in 2018, analytical teams will be bringing in a new pitcher in these situations.

In this sense, Cobb is the first free-agent test case for the newest pitching trend in the industry — the tandem starter — one who pitches twice through the order, hopefully gets 15-18 outs, and then gives way to someone else. The Mets, who hired progressive Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway to be their new manager, have made it clear that all starters not named deGrom or Syndergaard will be shielded from facing lineups more than twice in a game. Baseball has never experienced a shortage of five-inning pitchers in its history, but these changes in pitcher usage are leading to new premiums for these specialists.

It’s as simple as this: every team wants to stock their pitching staff with Alex Cobbs. To be clear, every team wants a Justin Verlander, but there is only one Justin Verlander; even horses Chris Sale and Corey Kluber showed significant wear and tear in October. To combat this dilemma, the Houston Astros deployed Lance McCullers, Brad Peacock, and Charlie Morton in five-inning tandems and rode them all the way to the last out of Game 7.

I expect Alex Cobb will fit into this role quite nicely for whichever team he signs with.


The Year of the Relief Cutter

Possibly the most infamous pitch from a single player in the history of the league is a cutter. Possibly the most infamous pitch from an active single player is a cutter. You can probably guess who those two players are, but, if not, they’re Mariano Rivera and Kenley Jansen. This is not a suggestion that these are the two best pitches of all time, as that is impossible to award. The combination of their extreme effectiveness and extreme usage has garnered the notoriety of the pitches. We are talking about inarguably the best closer of all time and arguably the best closer currently in the MLB, aside from maybe Craig Kimbrel.

Jansen’s and Rivera’s success derives almost wholly off one pitch. The pair rank 1st and 3rd in cutter usage in league history, respectively, although we only have pitch data on the latter half of Rivera’s career. Jansen has thrown it 81.3% of the time and Rivera 72.6% of the time, with Bryan Shaw sandwiched between the two at 73.5%. Of relievers who have thrown the pitch at least 20% of the time of their career, Rivera ranks 3rd and Jansen ranks 4th in standardized pitch value. Again, this does not include Rivera numbers until post-2006. When players as good as these two both thrive off the same singular pitch, it may suggest something about the pitch. In 2017, relief pitchers decided to embrace the cutter.

Now, not everyone went full Jansen and Rivera. But here are some cutter usage numbers from the five years prior to 2017, with the number of relievers who threw at least 100 cutters and the rate of cutters per fastball:

Year # of 100
Thrown
Cutter/FB
2016 34 7.54%
2015 33 7.00%
2014 31 7.55%
2013 30 7.01%
2012 27 6.14%
Average 31 7.05%

This past season, those numbers exploded to 47 relievers and an 8.58% rate of cutters for every fastball. Where is this cutter revolution coming from?

First, the uniqueness of cutters needs to be established. They are classified as “cut fastballs,” but they are not necessarily always fastballs. They can be fastballs, but they can also be a sort of harder half-slider, and most pitchers have a few ticks off their cutter in comparison to their four-seam. Here is a fastball cutter, thrown by Jansen:

And here is the half-slider cutter, thrown by Wade Davis:

It can be difficult to compare cutters because there are so many variations of the pitch, but cut fastball or half-slider, there are some clear advantages to the pitch.

Sinkers are dying in the fly-ball-revolution climate. It’s a low-spin-rate pitch sinking right into the upward barrels of hitters, and the pitch is suffering. Cutters have the highest spin rate of any fastball, rivaling the rate of breaking balls. Spin causes the ball to stay up and resist its natural movement. You can see it in Jansen’s cutter. There is no exaggerated movement, but the ball seems to have an unnatural path. The pitch appears to “cut” through the air, as the name suggests, staying on one path from release to the plate. It’s difficult to judge the pitch, as it moves unlike a fastball but does not break, all while maintaining the velocity of a fastball. The unique path of the cut fastball allows it to be thrown in the strike zone while also generating whiffs.

The advantages of the half-slider cutter are more obvious. The cutter we see with Davis holds near typical fastball velocity, but also has tight and late movement. With lesser break than the typical slider, the pitch can be established in the strike zone, but the combination of velocity and break makes it difficult to contact. The velocity and subtle movement make it harder to recognize than a slider.

The nature of the cutter’s movement combats the upswinging of the current MLB. The pitch has such a unique combination of in-between velocity and movement that makes it difficult to read and just as hard to contact. It dominates other fastball types in spin, whiffs, and damage on contact, but still can be thrown in the strike zone just the same. Hitters cannot lay off the pitch but also cannot make consistent contact because of its uniqueness.

There was not the same explosion in usage with starting pitchers, though. I’m not sure of the reasoning, but possibly because relievers are generally more whiff-seeking and we are living in a whiffing environment. Whatever explanations there are, it’s obvious that relievers loved the cutter in 2017.


The Nationals Could Use Zack Cozart

The Nationals again failed to win a round in the playoffs this year. Now, playoff success is pretty random and the Nats lost some series in Game 5, and they outscored the opponent in some of those series. However, we are in an era of super-teams in the NL with the Cubs, Dodgers and Nats all being loaded.

Also, the Nats’ window might be closing soon with Harper heading to free agency and several key players getting old. However, for next year they definitely should push all in since the division is ready for the taking, with the Phillies and Braves nearing the end of their rebuild but not winning yet in 2018, the Mets having lots of question marks regarding health (pitchers and also Conforto), and the Marlins tearing it down once again.

The Nats do have a really good team, but it is rather top-heavy. I wouldn’t call it stars and scrubs, because that would imply they have only 3-4 really good players when they have like 10 really good players, but the bottom of their roster is still weaker than the Cubs or Dodgers, who are using the more modern way of trying to bolster the bottom roster spots with 1 to 1.5 win players instead of zero or negative WAR players.

Here are the 10 players with the most PAs per team:

The Nats are right up there in wRC+ and WAR with the other big guys, and that was actually including the bad luck of losing Eaton for the year. The Nats clearly dominated the other two in top-six WAR and wRC+, but were quite bad with the bottom four. Now they will get Eaton back, which makes it a little better, but the top six actually included a 105 wRC+ for Michael Taylor, who is projected for just an 84 RC+ and was sporting some BABIP luck (.363 BABIP and .345 wOBA vs .294 xwOBA).

So the Nats could use some help with their lineup. However, their payroll is already pretty high, and the owners were not willing to spend much above that.

One solution would be getting Zack Cozart. Surprisingly, he was neither traded nor giving a QO by the Reds (I don’t understand why; the front office of the Reds at least should have tried to get a marginal return for him when they didn’t give him the QO), so he probably won’t be too expensive. Now Cozart was overperforming a lot himself and isn’t expected to get anywhere near his 5 wins of 2017 (.399 wOBA vs .332 xwOBA), and he also is 32 and had some injuries in the past, but he still is projected for 2.8 wins and a 98 wRC+, which is pretty good for a shortstop — where he is also good defensively.

That would allow the Nats to put Trea Turner back in center, where he can probably use his speed even better than at short (although he isn’t bad there), and more importantly it moves Eaton to a corner, where he is elite. So getting Cozart would improve the team both defensively and offensively and makes their lineup a little deeper with one fewer almost automatic out.

You don’t want to give him a long-term contract, but if you get him for two or even three years and around $15M per year, that wouldn’t be a bad value. Using the minus 0.5 WAR per year formula for aging past 30, you get 2.8 WAR in 2018, 2.2 in 2019 and 1.7 in 2020. That would be 6.7 WAR in three years, which is worth roughly $60M at $9M per win. I do think that he can be had cheaper, and even if the Nats decide to rebuild after 2019, having him on the hook for one more year won’t cripple them.

The Nats need to do everything to win in 2018; they can worry about the future later. And getting Cozart is a good little short-term upgrade who won’t demand a long-term commitment that might interfere with a potential rebuild in the post-Harper era.


Second Half Fly Ball Escalators – Part 1

The fly-ball revolution is upon us.  We all know this; it’s been happening since the second half of 2015 and has continued through 2017.  This doesn’t seem to be a fluke or blip on the radar.  Until MLB changes the ball or does something to shift favor to the pitchers, fly balls aren’t going away.  The ratings are up and there’s a great young crop of major league players who play with a ton of passion and they are embracing this revolution.

First, let’s start with the parameters I set for this statistical analysis.  It’s easier to see which hitters change their approach year to year but I wanted to focus on players who have increased their fly balls in the 2nd half of 2017.  I split the data between the 1st half and the 2nd half of 2017 with a minimum of 200 PA in each half.  I was only going to include hitters who increased their fly-ball rates by 4% of more between the 1st half and 2nd half but it would have excluded Byron Buxton (2.4% increase) and Giancarlo Stanton (3.4%).  I want to talk about both of them, so I went a little lenient to include those two.

Now that I have my crop of fly-ball escalators, I also included Infield Fly%, BABIP, HR/FB, and Hard Hit%.  I wanted to see the increase in fly balls affected these statistics and see whether of not they make sense or if luck played a role (I mean, it’s baseball, luck is always involved).  Keep in mind, not everyone is benefiting from hitting more fly balls.  Here’s the table of players I believe should benefit in 2018 with the increase fly balls if their approach remains the same, via Google Docs.

Eugenio Suarez

Suarez had a nice little breakout year in 2017 with a wRC+ of 117.  In the 2nd half of 2017 he significantly increased his FB% while decreasing his IFFB%.  That’s huge because of course infield fly balls are essentially an automatic out.  He did all that while increasing his LD% and hard hit%!  This to me looks like a conscious change for Suarez coming into 2018.  His overall numbers look pretty good in 2017 with a triple slash of .260/.367/.434 with 26 HRs (career high), and he’ll be entering his age-26 season.  All that being said, I think there’s still upside there.  Here is his slash for the 2nd half of 2017: .268/.378/.490 with a wRC+ of 126!  For reference, here are few players with similar wRC+ in 2017: Gary Sanchez (130), Nolan Arenado (129), Domingo Santana (126), and Chris Taylor! (126) (more on him later), and Brian Dozier (124).  You get the idea.  But can Suarez do it for a full season?  If he does, we are looking at a 30-100 player in 2018 hitting 4th or 5th behind Joey Votto and Adam Duvall.  In my opinion, he’s a better hitter than Duvall and should be slotted behind Votto.

Of this group of 2nd half fly-ball surgers, Suarez is one of the more intriguing for fantasy purposes.  Suarez is and has been the starting 3rd baseman for the Reds, but he’s also one of only two players on the roster who have logged significant time at SS within the last three seasons (the other being Jose Peraza) now that Zack Cozart is gone.  Nick Senzel, who finished the season in AAA, is knocking on the door and 3rd base is his main position, but they are giving him reps at 2nd (which should tell you they like Suarez at 3rd).  This creates a logjam at 2nd with Scooter Gennett but still doesn’t solve the shallow SS position.  Maybe the Reds address it or maybe Suarez plays some shortstop and on those days, Senzel moves to 3rd.  If this happens and Suarez gains SS eligibility, he could be at top 8-10 shortstop right behind Corey Seager.

Manuel Margot

Coming into 2017, Margot was a consensus top 50 prospect and was ranked 24th overall by Baseball America.  Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs graded him at a 70 speed score out of a possible 80. So far, it checks out per Baseball Savant, as he ranks 8th in average sprint speed in all of baseball.  Something else you may notice on Margot’s FanGraphs page is the potential for a 55 raw power grade.  You can’t totally ignore the 40 game power grade, but these are the types of guys who have proved to benefit the most from the “juiced ball.”  Keep in mind that Margot played all of 2017 at age 22.  This kid is still learning the game and developing power.

That being said, his batted-ball profile leaves a lot to be desired.  He made a lot of soft contact and, of course, not a whole lot of hard contact.  However, based on the 1st half / 2nd half splits, he made adjustments with not only more fly balls and line drives but harder contact.  That’s a good sign, but yet his BABIP dropped in the 2nd half.  Sure, a speedster like Margot can benefit from weakly-hit ground balls (part of the reason Billy Hamilton doesn’t hit below the Mendoza line), but the increase in line drives should have certainly increased his BABIP.  The point is, even with the slight improvement in wRC+ between the 1st and 2nd halves, he was still unlucky.

I expect Margot to continue to make improvements with the bat in 2018.  I don’t expect him to reach the 55 raw power grade, but he’s moving in the right direction.  I also expect him to improve on the bases and utilize his speed a little more while he’s still at his peak (as far as speed in concerned).  There’s an intriguing window with young players who possess speed and untapped raw power where the speed is still at (or near) its peak and the raw power begins to materialize.  Margot will be approaching that window in 2018 at age 23, so you need to jump in now before he’s fully reached that window and becomes a premier power/speed threat that is so rare in fantasy baseball these days.  Jump in now while his ADP is around 200 and you could be rewarded with around 15-18 HRs and 20+ steals in 2018.  His upside could be somewhere around Mookie Betts’ 2017 without the runs and RBI numbers.  Will he ever reach those heights?  I can’t say for sure, but it’s intriguing.  In keeper/dynasty leagues, he’s a great asset to have at his current value.

Logan Forsythe

Forsythe was hampered by injuries in 2017; he broke his toe in April of 2017 and only appeared in 119 games.  In those games he had 439 PA, and hit .224 with six HRs and three steals.  Woof.  Why is he a thing for fantasy baseball in 2018 at age 31?  Well, first the Dodgers traded Jose De Leon to the Rays for him last off-season and exercised his option for 2018. With Utley now gone, second base is his to keep or lose.  So playing time is there unless they sign another 2nd baseman this off-season.  On the plus side, he walked at a career high 15.7% clip and had some big at-bats in the post-season, carrying at least some momentum into 2018.

You would expect Forsythe’s numbers to improve in the second half due to the toe injury in April, and the numbers in the 2nd half look awfully good.  Yes, his line drive rate did drop by 2.8%, but the net positive on FB% + LD% is 12.6% and his hard-hit rate increased by 10.9% in the 2nd half!  That massive BABIP drop of 0.082 seems way out of whack to me.  That’s the reason he hit .201 in the 2nd half.  Now, I’m not saying he’s going to go nuts, but he also cut his SwStr% to 6.6% and his O-Swing% to a career-low 18.7%.  So there are a lot of potential positives with Forsythe in both the average and power departments, based on my research.  I expect the K% to go back down to about 20%, the BABIP to go up about .020 points, and the HR/FB% to be back in the double digits.  His value is going to depend on playing time.  If he platoons, he’s an NL-only bat.  If he doesn’t and gets, say, 550 PA, he could go something like .258/.339 with 14 HRs and seven steals, becoming a solid deep-league MI.

Jacoby Ellsbury

Over the last year or so I had left Jacoby Ellsbury for dead until this research piece.  All of his batted-ball data in the second half of 2017 point to improved results. While his 2nd half 107 wRC+ was an improvement on his 95 wRC+ in the 1st half, I’d argue he was extremely unlucky and it should have been much higher.

Let’s look at the positives: his K% dropped, BB% went up, FB% went up, IFFB% went down, and hard hit% went up.  So then why did his BABIP, HR/FB, and BA (albeit minimally) all go down?  I don’t know.  How’s that for an answer?  In my opinion, it can be chalked up to straight-up bad luck.

Since the Yankees are clearly moving in another direction, Ellsbury may not have a starting spot with Judge, Gardner, and now Hicks listed as starters, with Clint Frazier ready to be a full-time major-league starter when healthy.  The best chance for Ellsbury is to be traded where he can start.  Of course with his huge contract, that could prove to be difficult.  Hypothetically, though, if it happens, he’s good for 20+ steals; he was 22-for-25 last year so his speed is still there, and steals are becoming more and more infrequent.  For fantasy in 2018, he could be a solid 4th or 5th outfielder, going .270 and 10-20 next year.


The 2018 Hall of Fame Pity Vote Candidates

Oh look people, it’s Hall of Fame season, which means it’s time for tired articles about Pete Rose and Barry Bonds, impassioned pleas for Mike Mussina and Larry Walker, glowing remembrances of Jim Thome and Chipper Jones, and the hottest takes about Curt Schilling‘s Twitter account. But there is one annual piece that dares to break the trope and remember the lesser players on the ballot and decide who among them is worthy of receiving a single vote for the Hall of Fame. No rehashing Trevor Hoffman vs. Billy Wagner here, just looking at the best candidates to receive a pity vote. In previous years I have endorsed Jason Kendall, Edgar Renteria, and Mike Cameron as players worthy of a pity vote. Let’s see who meets the mark this year.

First we need to eliminate reasonable candidates. My standard has been likelihood of receiving three or more votes. Now this isn’t a perfect standard — I don’t think anyone would consider Mike Sweeney or Magglio Ordonez real candidates, but they have both gotten three votes in recent years — but it’s a good estimate of where the line between guys getting pity votes and guys who might be getting real votes lies. Of this year’s candidates, there are a number we can easily eliminate. Chipper Jones will likely get 95% or higher, and Jim Thome seems likely to get over the 75% mark this year as well. Omar Vizquel will more than likely at least hit double digits in percent, even if he was probably a worse player than Mike Cameron, who got completely shut out last year. It’s a little harder to gauge Scott Rolen, Johan Santana, and Andruw Jones. Their cases require some level of nuance, so there’s a wide range where they could end up. I’d say all three certainly deserve to stick around for at least a second ballot (personally, I’d vote for Rolen with no hesitation), and I feel pretty confidently they’ll each manage to reach double digits in total vote count.

The difficult choices for me are Johnny Damon and Jamie Moyer. Neither will stick on this ballot because neither has much of a case at all. But they might have enough of one to net more than two votes. Johnny Damon had a reputation as a great player, and he played in a lot of playoff series for high-profile teams and stuck around long enough to get some gaudy counting stats. There was even some brief talk about him possibly pushing to 3,000 hits. There hasn’t been a candidate with a super similar profile in a few years, but going back to 2014, we had Moises Alou receive six votes and Luis Gonzalez garner five. Now, I think both those players were better than Damon, but I think he’s perceived to be about the same level. While there’s a chance he doesn’t get more than two votes, he could definitely push into the 5-6 range. So I’m going to group him in with the non-pity vote guys. That being said, there’s a solid chance he only gets one or two votes.

Even more difficult to judge is Jaime Moyer. There haven’t been many pitchers hitting the ballot who had long, nice careers that weren’t real Hall of Fame candidates to compare to him. Moyer was better than Kenny Rogers, who got one vote in 2014, but he was definitely worse than David Wells, who managed five a year earlier. My made-up estimate is that Moyer will receive ~2.1 votes on average, so I’ll lean on the side of caution and not consider him for the honor of a pity vote.

Finally, let’s pour one out for Ben Sheets, who is, by a not insignificant margin, the best eligible player not to appear on this ballot. While he’s not quite the omission that Javier Vazquez was last year, Sheets was quite a good pitcher. He pitched like a Hall of Famer for one season (2004) and started the All-Star Game in another (2008). He has more WAR as a Brewer than any other pitcher, and ranks fourth overall in franchise history.


Carlos Zambrano (30.6 WAR) finished fifth in the Cy Young voting three separate times and was a fringe top-10 pitcher for three or four years, although he did walk a lot of dudes. Along with Mike Hampton and Dontrelle Willis, he was one of the good-hitting pitchers of his era. While his wRC+ was a pretty mediocre 57, his 24 career home runs (in 774 PA) are impressive for a pitcher. From 2001-2012, the length of his career, Zambrano hit 50% more home runs than any other pitcher. Yovani Gallardo and the aforementioned Mike Hampton are the only other guys in double digits. Zambrano was also known for wearing his heart on his sleeve, which just serves to make him a bit more memorable. Overall, Zambrano was a pretty good player, and a reasonably interesting one as well, but his career was rather short — he’s only 36. That being said, it’s not like an extra five years of quality pitching would turn him into a Hall of Fame candidate, or even a Jaime Moyer-level candidate.

Chris Carpenter (39.1 WAR) won a Cy Young award in 2005 and finished in the top three in the voting in 2006 and 2009. In between, he had two years lost to injury, which was a recurring theme with Carpenter. For a guy who didn’t become an above-average pitcher until he was 29, and missed quite a bit of time for injury, he had himself a nice career. In fact, if he had been able to stay healthy, he likely would have avoided eligibility for a pity vote, but alas, he’s stuck competing with these guys.

You probably remember Livan Hernandez (34.5 WAR) pitching a boring game for or against your favorite team. I’m not sure how, but I’m pretty sure Livan Hernandez pitched every inning for both the Padres and the Pirates in their July 29-31 series in 2004. Yeah, Baseball-Reference might say that Josh Fogg and Kip Wells and the other Adam Eaton and Brian Lawrence pitched those games, but those players all had the spirit of Livan Hernandez in them. In his career (1996-2012) Livan Hernandez officially pitched 3189 innings, which is 200 more innings than second place (Jaime Moyer!). Unofficially, I’m pretty sure he pitched about 55,000 innings and counting.

I mostly remember Carlos Lee (27.5 WAR) for signing a big contract with the Astros that just never seemed to end. Lee could rake with anyone, hitting both for power and for average, and he was generally pretty durable, but his poor defense kept him from being very valuable. There are two things in his favor as a pity vote candidate. For one thing, his top Similarity Score from B-R is Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda. Yes, Cepeda is an iffier Hall of Famer, and yes, Andres “The Big Cat” Galarraga is third on that list, but that’s something. Carlos Lee also ranks seventh all-time in career grand slams. Well, he’s tied for seventh, with Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams. Of the players ahead of him, three (Lou Gehrig, Eddie Murray, and Willie McCovey) are Hall of Famers, two (Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez) would be if not for steroid drama, and one (Robin Ventura) is Robin Ventura. That’s some pretty good company, The Big Cat included.

Kevin Millwood (46.2 WAR) was almost certainly better than you remember him being. He ranks 22nd in WAR among starting pitchers since 1995, which places him immediately ahead of Johan Santana and Cole Hamels. Of course, Millwood first achieved success as the Braves’ fourth starter behind Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine, so it’s not hard to look bland compared to those guys. But Millwood garnered some legitimate accolades in his career. He threw a no-hitter, he led the AL in ERA in 2005 despite having a losing record, and he finished third in Cy Young voting in 1999. Even with that, I must say he had one of the more boring careers of a pitcher of his caliber.

Aubrey Huff (17.1 WAR), amazingly, is still one of the Rays’ franchise leaders in WAR among position players. He ranks tenth with a staggering 9.9 WAR, placing him among other Rays legends like Matt Joyce and Jason Bartlett. All joking aside, Huff was a fine, well-rounded hitter who couldn’t field a lick. Possibly the strangest aspect of his career, though, was his 2010 campaign for the Giants. He had a truly moribund season in 2009, and I mean it in the literal ‘about to die’ sense. But in 2010, at age 33, he decided to be good at everything baseball-related he possibly could be. His walk rate skyrocketed to 12.4%, well above his typical 8-9% range, and he hit 26 dingers, which is really like 47 when you account for the fact that he was hitting left-handed in AT&T Park. Even his defense, not traditionally one of Huff’s strong suits, was pretty solid, both at first base and in corner-outfield positions. Overall, he was good for 5.8 WAR and finished seventh in NL MVP voting. If this had been the start of some sort of late-career resurgence, Huff would have been an excellent pity vote candidate, but it turned out to just be a last gasp in a dead career, as he only survived for two more godawful seasons.

Orlando Hudson (21.1 WAR) was a solid all-around player — good defense, average offense. The type of guy who bats seventh on a pennant winner. He won four Gold Gloves and made a couple of All-Star games, but really, he wasn’t a particularly special player in any way. Cool guy, but really, a boring player.

It’s incredible to think that Kerry Wood (23.7 WAR) was in the majors as recently as 2012. I mean, he was basically broken by 2004, but still managed to limp along for nearly a decade. Well, I shouldn’t really say limp, because he did have a solid year in relief in 2008, but for the most part it was limping. To be honest, looking back on Wood’s career, it wasn’t exactly incredible in terms of value. While he did strike out anything that moved, he was also rather walk-prone — 4.34 per nine innings for his career. He never again matched his 4.4 WAR as a rookie and only crossed the 200 inning mark twice, and only one of those was during Dusty Baker’s tenure, so don’t blame him. Of course, I can’t continue without mentioning the 20 strikeout game, because, well, he struck out 20 guys in nine innings.

Brad Lidge (11.6 WAR), like Kerry Wood, struck out a lot of guys. In 2004, with the Astros, he struck out 42.6% of batters he faced. At the time, this was the third-most strike-out-iest season by a reliever ever, behind only Billy Wagner‘s 1999 season and Eric Gagne‘s 2003 season. Now it’s been passed by some Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman nonsense, bu that shouldn’t diminish from Lidge’s dominance. Lidge was also fantastic with the Phillies in 2008. They won the pennant and he came in fourth in Cy Young voting and eighth in MVP voting. Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Lidge gave up a whole lot of walks. And he was hilariously awful in 2009. I mean, pitcher wins and ERA are pretty blunt tools for a reliever, but they tell a story here — Lidge went 0-8 with 7.21 ERA. What’s particularly impressive is that he actually sustained that ERA for months. Despite consistent usage, he never dropped below a 6.75 ERA for a day after April. Still got those 31 saves though.

I’m not actually going to do all the legwork, but I can say with some degree of certainty that Jason Isringhausen (11.2 WAR) is the best player ever drafted and signed in the 44th round. He was a good closer for the Cardinals for a few years. Made a pair of All-Star Games. He’s in a three-way tie for 26th in all time saves, which doesn’t sound that impressive. But one of those guys he’s tied with is Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter! And the other one is…Fernando Rodney.

Hideki Matsui (12.9 WAR) is probably the best non-Ichiro position player to come out of Japan. He won the MVP for the 2009 World Series, and he made a pair of All-Star Games, and he was remarkably durable, not missing a game for his first three years in MLB. That being said, Matsui’s bat was just good and not great, and his lack of quality glovework made him just a nice player. He only once reached 3 WAR in a season, which is less than even Orlando Hudson. Notable player, but not a particularly good one.


Now we come to the hard part. Who deserves a pity vote? Well, I can quickly eliminate Hudson, Huff, Matsui, Lidge, and Isringhausen. No offense to any of those guys. All were quality players. But if one of them were missing from the ballot and say…Adam Kennedy were in their place, I don’t think I would have gone through the effort to mention them as a snub. Sorry y’all. I think I’m going to eliminate Kerry Wood from consideration as well. While one particularly good game may be enough to get Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame, I don’t think it’s enough to earn a pity vote. And Carlos Lee, while a better player than any of the above group, isn’t exactly screaming out for further recognition.

That leaves us with four pitchers. Of them, I’d say Carpenter has the most impressive peak, Millwood has the most impressive full career, and Zambrano has the most impressive bat. But my choice has to be the one and only Livan Hernandez.

The way I see it, a pity vote is supposed to do one of two things. You should either shine a light on a good player, who is clearly not a Hall of Famer, but shouldn’t be forgotten. Or it should be to remember and acknowledge a guy who represented something to a generation of fans. Livan Hernandez definitely falls into the latter of these two. Livan Hernandez represents every Livan Hernandez-type pitcher who has ever done Livan Hernandez-type things. Joe Blanton. Carl PavanoJason VargasBronson Arroyo. Gil Meche. Freddy GarciaKevin Correa. Kyle Lohse. Brad PennyJason Marquis. Sidney PonsonAaron Harang. Jeremy Guthrie. Ian Kennedy. Jon GarlandMatt MorrisErvin Santana. Jeff Suppan. Mike Leake. Randy Wolf. Jake Westbrook. Livan HernandezLivan Hernandez.


In Defense of Secret Hall of Fame Ballots

As a baseball nerd, I enjoy reading Ryan Thibodaux’s (Thibodaux’?) yearly tally of Baseball Hall of Fame ballots. I participate in the yearly gnashing of teeth at Murray Chass’s intentionally blank Hall of Fame ballot.

But one thing I’m not behind is the push for mandatory public Hall of Fame ballots. (The Hall rejected the BBWAA’s vote to make every ballot public.) Secrecy in balloting among private citizens is a value worth defending, even if the votes themselves are based on malice or stupidity.

A brief history:

The English tradition was to vote with one’s voice, as evidenced by Virginia’s early voting methods:

As each freeholder came before the sheriff, his name was called out in a loud voice, and the sheriff inquired how he would vote. The freeholder replied by giving the name of his preference. The appropriate clerk then wrote down the voter’s name, the sheriff announced it as enrolled, and often the candidate for whom he had voted arose, bowed, and publicly thanked him.

Even as ballots shifted to paper ballots, the votes themselves were publicly displayed, often counted in plain sight of the public. But as should be unsurprising, the public ballot meant that public pressure could be exerted on any person’s vote. Bribes and threats were frequent.

Eventually ballots were printed by local party bosses. The secret ballot soon began to gain steam as a potential innovation in England and Australia. In England, intimidation was pervasive:

He referred the intimidation exercised by landlords on tenants . . . , by employers on the employed, by customers on shopkeeper. . . .  He had known half a congregation leave their parson and set up another place of worship on account of his vote, thus depriving him of a considerable part of his income.

(Boycott by Hall of Fame ballot would admittedly be fun.) Brazen vote purchasing was common in American politics, with the 1880s producing multiple tainted national elections.

By the 1950s, the secrecy of the ballot was a core American value, as seen in Twelve Angry Men:

JUROR SEVEN: Who was it? I think we have a right to know.

JUROR ELEVEN: Excuse me. This was a secret ballot. We agreed on this point, no? If the gentleman wants it to remain secret…

JUROR THREE: What do you mean? There are no secrets in here! . . .

. . . .

JUROR ELEVEN [omitted in film version]: Please. I would like to say something here. I have always thought that a man was entitled to have unpopular opinions in this country. This is the reason I came here. I wanted to have the right to disagree. In my own country, I am ashamed to say that.

Why have a secret ballot? The primary goal is that a voter is protected from public pressures. As a party boss, I wouldn’t know if you voted for my candidate or another one, so threats and bribes have no guarantee of success. And as a sports fan, I wouldn’t know if you voted for Roger Clemens or not, regardless of what your public posturing on steroids may have been.

(There were plenty of reasons why the printed secret ballot had negative consequences on turnout, namely imposing a quasi-requirement of literacy, but the secrecy of the ballot was not the problem there.)

So where does this leave us with the Hall of Fame ballot? Do these reasons of secrecy apply to the BBWAA? I don’t think we have to worry about vote buying (Deadspin notwithstanding), but I guess my position relates to first principles of the Hall of Fame ballot. With this vote, we want an honest accounting of whether a supermajority of voters believes said player belongs in the Hall. We may have problems with the percentage necessary, or the number of votes on the ballot or the composition of the electorate itself, but the purpose of the Hall is to see who the electorate believes is a Hall of Famer in their hearts, not in the face of public scrutiny. Unless we just want to have a JAWS cut-off and eliminate the electorate entirely, there must be something ineffable about the Hall of Fame, something that comes from a private evaluation of one’s emotions. The sportswriters are not elected by us, nor are they supposed to be “accountable to the public.”

There are of course strong arguments against anonymity in voting. Yoav Fromer argues that the secret ballot allows people the luxury of voting for positions that are publicly unpalatable. Without needing to defend their choices, voters can simply hide behind the secret ballot and avoid public accountability. Similarly, John Stuart Mill worried that in private people would be more prone to bias or dishonesty: “People will give dishonest or mean votes from lucre, from malice, from pique, from personal rivalry, even from the interests or prejudices of class or sect, more readily in secret than in public.”

But part of the reason the Hall is built around these secret ballots is the belief that we do want the raw honest truth from the voters. We don’t want their public opinions; we want to know what they believe in their dark hearts. And if they really can’t quite stomach voting for a “steroid guy” or they think Jack Morris just feels like a Hall of Famer, we want those flawed, messy and private emotions packed into their vote.

Furthermore, it’s not clear that Fromer and Mill are correct in practice when it comes to the BBWAA ballot. As it turns out, many people are quite willing to hold unpopular public opinions, and the publicity of ballots has not made Murray Chass or Dan Shaughnessy behave like any less of a dolt. In 2017, only five ballots were anonymous anyways.

If people want to reveal their ballots, more power to them. And kudos to Thibodaux for asking for ballots and to those voters who disclose their reasons for voting. These efforts undoubtedly add to our public discourse on what the Hall is and means.

I understand that I’m probably standing against the tide of history on this one. But we should not be quite so quick to force the disclosure of private votes simply because they may be unpopular positions.


Altuve vs. Judge: Should Awards Be Based on Skill or Results?

Last week, before the awards, Bill James argued on Twitter that Altuve should be the MVP because Judge had the highest run value, but Altuve had the highest win value, because Judge had lost a couple wins by being un-clutch. Tom Tango supported him some in that argument.

We know that clutch exists and it does affect real-world wins. Stats like WPA try to cover that; however, we also know that the year-to-year correlation of clutch is pretty weak, at least with hitters, so it could be considered pretty random. For that reason many people in the Twitter discussion rejected Bill’s argument and said we should go with run-based values.

I thought like that too, but then again, we do often use results-based metrics.

For example, in pitching, many still use ERA or ERA+ to judge pitchers even though that is heavily affected by factors like luck and defense. Because of that, people have started to use context-independent stats like FIP with pitchers, although the writers are still split on this (although it starts to lean more the FIP way as evidenced by the Scherzer vs. Kershaw vote). We know a small part of FIP under- or over-performance is skill, but most is pretty random.

With hitters that is very different. While people see batting average as a stat that might be affected by luck, the more advanced hitting stats like OBP or wRC+ are usually seen as a hard skill, even though they are affected by randomness. Of course one factor is actual over-performing that is not sustainable (we know that a guy hitting 27% liners likely won’t repeat even if he really did it and thus his BABIP was earned), but there is also random BABIP luck, as well as HR/FB luck. But still, unlike pitching, the existing consistent independent stats like xwOBA are not used yet. Of course there are some good reasons for that, as ERA is also affected by team defense while hitters face a mix of defenses, so that hitting is a little less random, but still randomness can make a big difference. For example, Marwin Gonzalez and Chris Taylor were only expected to be a bit above league average by xwOBA, but their actual results were great. This not only affects their wRC+, but also their supposedly objective WAR.

I feel we don’t have a consistent stance here. In some cases we use context-dependent stats (like WAR for hitters or RA9 WAR for pitchers) and in other cases we use context-independent stats like FIP (although even that isn’t true as FIP is dependent on HR/FB luck to some degree – which could be corrected by using xStats-based HR rates). And if we want to base our awards based on results, then Bill James is correct and we probably should use context in our value metrics (WPA for example), but if we want to go by skill we need to ignore that. But we probably also need to change how we evaluate WAR, wRC+, and other supposedly objective stats.

Of course there is also a third way: we can accept that there is no one objective way to judge awards, and everyone has their own set of criteria. To me, that is a very valid solution, although it is not really appealing to me personally because if we argue like that, why not go with triple slash again? (That was a rhetorical question — I would hate that.)


How Do You Hit 30 HR While Being the Worst Hitter in Baseball? Ask Rougned Odor

On the surface, Rougned Odor had a pretty decent 2017. He got paid $1.3 million, was healthy the whole season, and on top of it all, he hit 30+ home runs for the second straight season. That’s about it as far as good things go — Odor posted the single worst wRC+ and OBP of 2017 among qualifiers, and barely hit above the Mendoza line. Yes, someone who hit 30 home runs was worse at the plate than Alciedes “What’s an extra-base hit?” Escobar.

The fact that Odor hit such a milestone while being so terrible places him in unique company. Of all the sluggers who hit 30+ home runs this season, here’s where he ranks in wRC+.

Single Season wRC+ with 30+ HR (2017)

Single Season wRC+ with 30+ HR (2017)

Ouch. Almost every single player who hit 30+ HR in 2017 posted a wRC+ that was at least average, but Odor was 39 points below average.

If you’re reading this, Odor, please stop, because it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Actually, I lied, it doesn’t get better. It only gets worse.

Here’s how Odor’s season ranks historically among all seasons with 30+ home runs.

Single Season wRC+ with 30+ HR (All-Time)

Single Season wRC+ with 30+ HR (All-Time)

Words escape me. Hitting 30+ HR is typically a recipe for success. We’ve seen 1,292 individual seasons of 30+ HR, and in those seasons, 98.3% of those hitters posted a wRC+ of at least 100. In 99.9% of those seasons, those hitters posted a wRC+ of at least 70. Odor only barely broke 60, posting a wRC+ of 61.

Every single hitter who hit 30+ HR in a season posted an SLG over .400 — except Odor (.397), who finished 20 points behind the second-lowest SLG in a 30+ HR season, Dave Kingman’s 1985 season (.417).

Across individual seasons with 30+ HRs, hitters posted an average wRC+ of 143. Odor is about -3.45 standard deviations from the mean. For context, Babe Ruth’s 1921 season, where he hit 59 home runs, drove in 168 RBIs, and posted an OPS of 1.359, was +3.41 standard deviations from the mean.

In other words, Odor’s 2017 was a historical oddity.

Single Season wRC+ with 30+ HR (All-Time) Histogram

Single Season wRC+ with 30+ HR (All-Time) Histogram

How was Odor so brutally bad, in spite of hitting 30 home runs? Jeff Sullivan identified an issue with Odor back in June in that Odor was hitting too many pop-ups, leading to poor production. Compare Odor’s batted-ball data from 2016 to 2017. Odor’s batted balls didn’t change that much, aside from his infield pop-up rate almost doubling.

Rougned Odor Batted Ball Data, 2016-2017

Rougned Odor Batted Ball Data, 2016-2017

Essentially, Odor was still squaring up and hitting dingers, but the rest of his fly balls weren’t leaving the infield at the same rate that they were in 2016. Odor recorded 16 fewer extra-base hits in 2017 than he did in 2016 despite appearing in 12 more games.

Sullivan predicted that Odor wouldn’t finish “all that close to a wRC+ of 54” because Odor would adjust and correct his infield pop-ups. And yes, Odor did manage to adjust, dropping his IFFB% a good amount during the second half (first-half IFFB% of 20.6%, third-highest in the MLB, second-half IFFB% of 9.4%, 67th in the MLB), but Odor didn’t get that much better.

Rougned Odor's 15-Game Rolling IFFB%

In fact, Odor actually got worse in the second half — Odor posted a wRC+ of 69 in the first half, but only 50 in the second half. Despite cutting down on his biggest issue, Odor struggled even more.

Maybe it was just bad luck. Odor saw his BABIP drop by 46 points (.244 to .198) and his wOBA drop by 27 points (.284 to .257) from the first half to the second half despite his batted-ball data staying roughly the same, and his xwOBA dropped only from .288 to .281.

The portion of Odor’s production that relied upon home runs was still intact, but the rest of Odor’s production was practically non-existent. Odor doesn’t rely on walks, and the balls that he puts in play tend to run low BABIPs. So Odor’s non-home-run production is extremely BABIP-reliant and therefore extremely volatile, so when BABIP turned against Odor, the only form of production he could fall back on was home runs.

Odor’s 2017 resembled that of a three-true-outcomes hitter who doesn’t walk. For example, if we gave Odor’s BB% rate to his teammate, Joey Gallo, Gallo’s 2017 wOBA would drop from .364 to .296, which resembles Odor’s 2017 wOBA of .272 (the difference between the figures can be accounted for by Gallo’s higher HR/PA).

Take this as evidence that Odor could be a productive hitter. If, all other things held equal, he walked as much as Gallo did, his fly-ball-happy approach wouldn’t be so problematic. But he doesn’t, so Odor will need to radically change his approach at the plate to achieve consistent production.


So You Have a Future Franchise FA on Your Hands

When it comes to the offseason before their franchise player becomes a free agent, teams face a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. Trade a player, and you risk alienating a fan base that has fallen in love with said player and wanted you to give him the $200MM contract he was probably demanding. Keep him, and unless you win a World Series to appease your fans, he will likely be snapped up in free agency and you are left with an emptier stadium and nothing else.

The 2018-2019 free agency windfall is one short year away, but five teams are already starting to sweat. Let’s look at their situations and play the game of “which rabbit hole should you go down?”

Washington Nationals (Bryce Harper): Harper’s WAR over the last five seasons has been a (disappointing) 23.1. STEAMER projects him to post a WAR of 5.8 this upcoming season, bringing his six-year production to 28.9. Granted, if you value a win at $6MM that would mean he will have been worth $28.9MM per year over the last six seasons. There have been talks that Harper will set the record for largest contract in MLB history and that he will get “at least” 10 years and at least $400MM. Some have said he may get over $500MM. Assuming it’s 12/$400MM, Harper will need to produce a 5.6 WAR PER YEAR over the next dozen years. He’s only produced a WAR above that once (in his absurd MVP season). Am I the only one who thinks this is a monster overpay? I don’t put much stock in the managerial switch this offseason, because even if Harper loved Dusty Baker, he won’t be taking a hometown discount.

In any case, this point is moot. The Nats are going for it. They may try to get a contract done this offseason, but that probably will not happen. Verdict: Hold and watch Harper become a Yankee.

Baltimore Orioles (Manny Machado): Dan Duquette and Buck “Smiles” Showalter are entering the final year of their contracts and possess possibly the best all-around player in the game not named Mike Trout. Problem is, the O’s are more than a few pitchers away from having a starting rotation. Even though Machado had the worst season of his career with a 2.8 WAR, that was caused by a poor offensive season, one that looked worse due to a .265 BABIP which will likely not repeat itself. STEAMER thinks Machado will return to being a 6 WAR player next year, which he has done three of his other four years in the majors (the lone exception being his injury-shorted 2014 season). His stock will not be affected by this down year. Considering Machado is worth over $36MM per season right now, and will command that much on the open market, I don’t think Baltimore is going to be able to sign him next season. The O’s are stuck in purgatory right now. If Duquette can’t get something done at the winter meetings to nab some starting pitching and go on one last glory run, I wouldn’t be surprised if Machado gets moved. They won’t get equal value, but they can accelerate the rebuild. The Cardinals are looking for a bat and they have some mighty good pitching prospects, like Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver. Verdict: Sell.

Toronto Blue Jays (Josh Donaldson): Quick. Name the player with the highest WAR from 2013 to 2017. OK fine it’s Mike Trout by a landslide. Name the second-highest WAR. If you guessed Josh Donaldson, you win! He has put together a WAR of 35.6. That’s 7.1 wins per season. Now I’m not saying JD is worth $42MM right now on the open market due to his age, but the guy is definitely looking at a contract next offseason in the $30MM+ range, for 5-7 years. That’s something I think the team will pay, based on the salary that is going to be shed once Jose Bautista and Russell Martin are off the books (Bautista is gone, Martin will be at the end of 2019). The Jays are going younger with guys like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette on their way up and they won’t need to get paid until JD is long gone. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins are going to re-sign Donaldson, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a deal gets done this offseason. Verdict: Re-sign.

Colorado Rockies (Charlie Blackmon): Projection systems don’t seem to like Charlie Blackmon. They say his WAR next year will be 2-3. Here’s probably why:

2017:

Home: .391/.466/.773, 24 HR, 60 RBI
Road: .276/.337/.447, 13 HR, 44 RBI

COORS!

2016:

Home: .335/.399/.540, 12 HR, 47 RBI
Road: .313/.363/.563, 17 HR, 35 RBI

Wait, what?

2015:

Home: .331/.390/.500, 7 HR, 35 RBI
Road: .238/.300/.395, 10 HR, 23 RBI

That’s better.

Based on his age, average defense, and the fact that he has played half his games at Coors Field, Blackmon may not get even $20MM annually because in any other park, he’s a 2-3 WAR player. However, if he has a good 2018 away from Coors and puts up home/road splits similar to what he did in 2016, Charlie Blackmon will get a five-year/$125MM contract easily. Even after his “monster” 2017 season built on a breakout 2016, 2018 is a show-me year for Blackmon. If he struggles away from home again, the Rockies will be able retain him on the cheap. But if he’s a 162-game terror, Blackmon is gone.

Verdict: Hold and see.

Los Angeles Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw): I debated writing this piece, because the thought of Kershaw not being a career Dodger is silly. Whether he gets a new contract now or next year is the only real debate here. But let’s try to guess how much money the greatest pitcher of this era is going to get.

More than the $31MM annually that David Price got. Price signed his seven-year/$217MM contract before the 2016 season when he was in his age-31 season. Kershaw will be going into his age-31 season in 2019. Even though Price did not have the injury concerns Kershaw has now with his back, a dinged-up Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball over the last five seasons and will undoubtedly command more than what Price got.

More than the $34.4MM annually that Zack Greinke got. Greinke was going into his age-33 season when he signed his deal. Even though Greinke was coming off his ridiculous 2015 season with the Dodgers, he had not in his career proven able to replicate seasons like that consistently. Even after his Cy Young 2009 season in KC, Greinke posted an ERA a full two runs higher. Kershaw has not posted an ERA over 2.91 since his rookie season.

So how much will Kershaw get? The Dodgers may understandably try to keep the deal in the 5-7 year range due to his injury history. But Kershaw will want the record for the largest salary given to a pitcher in history. I say seven years/$250MM.

Verdict: Dodgers hand Kershaw a blank cheque.


The Problem With the Shift

The concept of “the shift” has become more widely used throughout major-league baseball. While some teams shift more than most, others are shifted against more than most. The Shift Era is still relatively new as teams dive deeper and deeper into the analytical realm to increase winning percentage. However, is using the shift actually effective?

I believe that there are certainly situations where the shift should be utilized. Players such as David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Brian McCann, etc. generally are the style of players to shift against. Older players generally rely more on pulling the ball because they are able to generate more power. These styles of pull-only hitters are usually prime targets for shifting against. My question is, why haven’t these players adapted their swing against the shift?

When learning swing mechanics, you’re taught to square up the baseball and drive the ball where it’s pitched. When shifting, pitchers are forced to make very selective pitches to avoid batters driving the ball the other way through the shift. This is hard for pitchers because it takes away some of their effectiveness. Hitters are beginning to find ways to beat the shift and steal easy hits. If a batter is in a shift situation, they can essentially eliminate pitches towards the outside half of the plate. Knowing the pitcher’s pitch arsenal, the batter can then be selective in his approach. Depending on the count, the batter can determine the next pitch, whether it’s offspeed or a fastball. Obviously a tailing fastball in on the hands is hard not to roll over into the shift, but that’s just good pitching.

Batters are finally beginning to grasp that they can beat the shift by simply putting down a bunt down the line. Or, they can create longer bat lag from their hands letting the ball travel deeper in the zone and taking the ball to the opposite field. The best hitters in baseball are those who can hit to all areas of the field. Charlie Blackmon was shifted against 121 times this year; he hit .412 against the shift. Why in the world would teams shift against him 121 times? Kris Bryant was shifted against 210 times; he hit .364. Players like this who are able to adapt their swing progressions at the plate should not be shifted against this often. Teams are simply giving them easy hits, which lead to runs. The whole point of the shift is to avoid baserunners, right?

Again, there are some batters against whom shifting works. Brian McCann was shifted against 248 times and still hit .243 against the shift, which is still pretty good considering it’s towards the bottom of the league. Lucas Duda was shifted against 241 times, hitting .243; still not terrible. Again, there are situations you can get away with shifting. The only time teams should shift should be with no runners on, strict pull hitters, and with a pitcher who’s comfortable with pitching inside.

When teams shift with runners on, I believe it’s a terrible strategy. It’s considerably difficult turning a routine double play with players out of their positions. Also, it’s difficult to catch runners stealing when you have a third baseman trying to find the bag and make the tag. Players like Dustin Pedroia have taken advantage of teams using the shift with runners on to take the extra base with the third baseman out of position. Players are beginning to find holes in the shift and are taking advantage, leading to runs.

When shifting, I believe the best option is to leave the shortstop between 2nd and 3rd, the second baseman shaded up the middle towards the bag, and the third baseman moving into right field between 1st and 2nd. With the third baseman in this position, he can create the same angle to 1st as when he’s at 3rd. This way players are in more comfortable standard positions, keeping the double play a more viable option. Shifting works in certain situations, but teams need to be more careful as hitters begin to adapt their approaches and steal easy hits, using the shift against the enemy.