Archive for January, 2018

A Steady Slog Toward Three Outcomes Baseball

During this quiet winter of baseball, I’ve entertained myself with a mild obsession with the three true outcomes (not outfits).  Dave Cameron took note of the three outcomes trend in early April 2017, only one week into the new season.

 “…while samples are still tiny for players and teams, things tend to stabilize pretty quickly at the league level. And, not surprisingly, the first week of the season was filled with the two things MLB games are becoming known for; strikeouts and home runs.”

Cameron goes on to predict a record year for the three true outcomes in 2017.  He was right.

A steady slog towards three outcomes baseball

Figure 1 is an update of Bill Petti’s analysis back in 2012.  It looks at the average rate of the three outcomes by player for each season since 1913.  The top blue line shows the proportion of plate appearances that have resulted in either a home run, strikeout or walk across seasons.  I got here pretty easily: Like Bill, for each player, I added their home runs, strikeouts and walks in a season and divided that by the number of plate appearances.  That provides the proportion of three outcomes plate appearances for each player.  Unlike Bill, I used at least 170 plate appearances in a season as my cut off (rather than 500).  Then, for each season, I found the average proportion of three outcomes plate appearances for eligible players.  I followed this procedure for home runs, strikeouts and walks separately.

The trend of the blue line is clear: players’ average rates of three outcomes have increased starting around 1920, dropping off a bit in the 70s, and continuing on through 2017.  There has been a spike in recent years, and the 2017 average rate of 33% three outcomes is clearly the highest since 1913.

It is interesting to look at each outcome separately as well.  The tremendous growth in strikeout rates is clearly a big part of this story.  Average walk rates have consistently hovered around 8 or 9 % of plate appearances after peaking just over 10% in 1948.  Home run rates are increasing, but home runs are still rare compared to the other outcomes.  Through the 1940s average home run rates per player averaged around 1% of plate appearances.  They jumped to around 2% in the 1950s, and stayed pretty consistent until the mid-1990s.  Since then they have been increasing and peaked in 2017 with an average of 3% of plate appearances.

What does this trend towards three outcomes mean for the game?  Perhaps Cameron subtly showed his feelings about it when he titled his essay, “The League’s Continuing March Towards Three Outcomes Baseball.”  A march; a steady march.  Figure 1 suggests an uphill march.  Cameron could have called it the race towards three outcomes.  Or the growing excitement of three outcomes baseball.  Even the uphill battle of three outcomes baseball sounds more engaging than a march.  Is three outcomes baseball more of a slog than it is an exciting new dynamic in the game?

The Politics of Being a Baseball Fan

Sound the alarms folks, here comes yet another take by another internet oaf centereded around the “Worst Offseason of All Time”, the 2017-2018 offseason.  Please don’t run away just yet though! This isn’t going to be an article about how front offices are colluding, or how teams are getting smarter, or how players are greedy and want too much money. What I want to try to do here is attempt to show how an individual’s politics help shape the way they perceive the game of baseball and how it affects the way they root for the team or players they love. With this in mind, I want to stress this: I am not attempting to project my personal politics on any of you, the readers. I am simply going to use my political ideology as an explanation as to why I feel the way I do about this wonderful sport, and why I think my personal views have a bit of conflict of interest in the way the game is played today.

A few weeks ago, my favorite hometown team, the Minnesota Twins, signed reliever Addison Reed to a two year, 17 million dollar deal, which came as a bit of surprise. Rumor was that Reed was seeking a 3-4 year deal for the extra security, but ended up taking a spot in the Twin Cities to be closer to his wife’s hometown. I was thrilled when I learned this. My team, the Twins, got a great deal on a quality reliever. We basically paid market value for a reliever who has a good track record, except we didn’t have to worry about him regressing near the back of a long deal. In fact, we got Reed for less than the Phillies gave Tommy Hunter, and Reed is a more proven and arguably better reliever than him! Awesome! Okay…..but hold on a minute. Let’s back this up for a second and analyze this from a different viewpoint, a political viewpoint. For me, this deal and my reaction to it has a lot of conflicting views relative to my political beliefs. I consider myself a leftist, which, for the purpose of this article, means I am very pro worker’s rights and pro re-distribution of wealth downwards. Again, my views do not reflect yours, the players, or anyone’s, nor do I think any individual needs to or should have the same views as me. Just another reminder! Thanks.

The Twins are owned by the Pohlads, a triad of large adult sons who inherited their fortune from their now deceased father, Carl. Carl Pohlad made his living through banking and investing and bought the Twins in 1984 for $36 million. His three sons now own the team together, which is valued at roughly one billion dollars. Altogether, the Pohlad sons are worth $3.8 billion. I want to make something very clear here: all politics aside, you, or anyone else on this planet, does not need 3.8 billion dollars. Hell, you don’t even need one billion dollars. The main question I have to ask myself is this: why do I get excited when I find out that my team, owned by a group of people worth nearly four billion dollars, gets a good deal on a player because they gave him .4% of their net worth ($17 million divided by $3.8 billion) instead of something like .6% of their net worth ($24 million, or eight million per year at three years divided by 3.8 billion dollars). Addison Reed and players like him are the reason I go to Target Field and watch Twins games in the first place. If the Twins don’t sign Addison Reed, their bullpen becomes actively worse, the team performs badly, and they become less entertaining to watch as a group. Watching your team win games is fun, in fact, that’s the reason we’re sports fans in the first place! The purely tribal aspect of identifying with a group, watching them perform well, and being able to bond with other people as a result is what makes sports great. The only reason teams win games is because of the players they have. They are the entertainers, the figures we bond with, and the reason we go to the stadium in the first place. Again, why am I happy that the billionaire owners saved a couple million bucks?

One of the consequences of the rise of sabermetrics is now, we as a community and fans, have the ability to microscopically analyze and value players.

Moneyball was born from the idea that low budget teams could get good players and pay them less because of their skill set, like their ability to get on base, or OBP, a stat which a lot of teams didn’t have a good grasp on how to value at the time. These organizations were applauded and their techniques were copied, and as a result, every team in the MLB now embraces sabermetrics and sucking every ounce of capital value they can out of every deal they make. As this offseason has shown, teams are now becoming weary of handing out big contracts to older free agents. Whether or not collusion is happening is an entirely different story, and beyond the scope of this article. But right now, when the Twins sign someone Addison Reed to a surprising contract, or the Astros give up much less in value that what Gerrit Cole is perceived to be worth, or the Cubs refuse to give Jake Arrieta, the 2016 Cy Young award winner, a six-year contact, we have the opportunity to log on and shower praise upon these organizations for their tactical approach to the game, and their ability to embrace analytics. Then, when players like Albert Pujols sign gigantic deals and start to decline two-thirds of the way through these massive contracts, we log on yet again to explain why the Pujols deal is a cancer on the Angels and how terrible of a decision Jerry Dipoto made by signing him.

I’ll use my hometown Twins as another example here. In 2010, Joe Mauer signed an eight-year, $184-million dollar extension. In my opinion, it was a great story. Mauer, fresh of his MVP campaign of 2009, signed an extension which, at the time was a lot of money. He decided to stay and play catcher for his hometown team, not to mention the only team he has known his whole life. Since then, Mauer has suffered a variety of injuries, most prominently a concussion, and has changed his position to first base. Fans were not happy. Mauer was put on blast for being too injury prone, local sports writers like Jim “Hot Take” Souhan wrote pieces calling Mauer “coddled“. Mauer’s production suffered, and he quickly became much less valuable than he once was. The contract looked horrible. A lot of people were asking why the Twins should be giving so much money to a player who doesn’t play and whose value continues to decline. Again, let’s take a step back from this for a second. For some ungodly reason, just in sports, it is OK to put someone on blast for being hurt a lot.  Mauer had a line of work where balls came flying at the general direction of his head at 100 mph. Injuries happen, and when you catch, traumatic brain injuries like concussions will happen, and when you suffer a traumatic brain injury, there will be consequences. Because of the concussion, Mauer suffered blurred vision and was unable to track pitches for nearly two years after it had happened. If you can’t see the ball, you can’t hit it, and you can’t do your job. If you were (or are) a construction worker, and you got hit in the head with a falling cinder block, and you were wearing all your protective gear but still suffered a serious concussion, your employer, fellow employees, friends, and family would never call you soft, or say things like “well he gets hurt, so he deserves to get paid less now”. The fact that this exception exists for athletes purely because they make more money than other workers is crazy to me. They’re still human beings, and they still need to live healthy lives. Mauer has remained a villain for some Twins fans to this day, simply for signing a contract where he was rewarded for doing well. He and Albert Pujols are claimed as examples as to why long-term, expensive deals are bad.

Let’s keep these expensive deals in mind. Baseball is a very different sport because of the fact that there are no salary caps, either for teams total payroll, or for players and their individual contracts. Sure, there is a luxury tax that is imposed on teams that spend over a certain amount of money, but that hardly constitutes any sort of hard cap on spending. Because of this, baseball has a unique attribute where players can get paid as much as they possibly can, yet the market still sets a value for each win a player brings in. As of right now, one win is usually worth around eight million, because, well, that’s what was decided. When teams sign players for under market value, they are applauded, and they are ridiculed when they do the opposite. But why? Why aren’t we happy when our entertainment (the players) make the most money they can? On top of this, prospects and minor league players make below poverty wages, and are often forced to take other jobs during the offseason to provide for their families. Like I’ve said before, they’re the reason we come to the ballpark. They make the game fun to watch. Now you might be thinking, “Yeah but Will, what about payroll? These teams don’t have infinite resources and they’ll have to pay the luxury tax and get penalized for spending money!” My response to this? Who the hell cares. What’s stopping the Twins from offering Yu Darvish a 5-year, $200 million dollar deal? Obviously, this is a bit outlandish, but the idea that long, expensive contracts are out of teams’ price ranges simply isn’t true. Doing some math again, a $200-million dollar deal would be 5% of the Pohlads’ net worth. Darvish would be getting paid for providing entertainment to the masses, and the Pohlads would see an increase in attendance and participation at Target Field for bringing in exciting talent.  Even for a team like Brewers or Rays, this deal is feasible based soley on the income of the owners.

Another question you might be asking is why I think the Pohlads owe me entertainment, a random person who just happens to like baseball. Why should they have to use their own money to entertain me?  Here’s the thing: they do owe me, because I helped paid for Target Field. In fact, so did the entirety of Hennepin County in the state of Minnesota. Hennepin County taxpayers paid for 65% of Target Field, which turns out to be 350 million dollars. The Minnesota Twins organization paid for $150 million. Again, I had money taken out of my pocket for a private organization to build a stadium where they then get to attempt to give the shaft to their employees by paying them as little as possible to “find value.” This same scenario comes up across the league, with an egregious example being the latest sale of the Miami Marlins by their former owner, Jeffery Loria. Marlins fans paid for 80% of Marlins Park (which was financed through Wall Street loans, which now the county is stuck with) and got absolutely nothing in return; in fact, Loria sold the team and pocketed money taken from the citizens of Miami-Dade County. When I go to the stadium that I helped pay for, I want to see an entertaining team, and I want to see my fellow workers rewarded for their talent and efforts.

The fact that owners have been able to screw over players for so long while hoarding their money is simply unacceptable. It’s time for the MLBPA to take a step back and consider the possibility of a strike. The current free agent system hurts players by not allowing them to market their talents during the peak of their careers, thus leading to teams being wary of handing out longer contracts to older players. “Small-market teams” actively treat players like currency, soaking up the years of their prime by paying them nothing, then forcefully removing them by trading to another team for promising youth, therefore starting the cycle again. The luxury tax imposed on teams discourages paying players what they’re actually worth. The way the current CBA is constructed hurts players in a way like no other league, where now, players make just a little over 40% of all revenue. It’s a month until spring training, and they 2016 Cy Young award winner does not have a team yet. That is astounding. I’m not saying it’s time to start giving out $100-million dollar a year contracts to say, I don’t know, Cliff Pennington, but it’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate why we love baseball.

We should be celebrating the success of our fellow workers, not dragging them down for being hurt or signing big contracts. Sabermetrics may be a very neat tool for analysis, but we shouldn’t use it to try to degrade the value of the people that make this sport great. We can still use sabermetrics and advanced data to help players get better by improving a batter’s swing mechanics, optimizing defensive shifts, or creating the best pitch sequencing for a pitcher to follow, while still keeping in mind that players are the reason we love baseball.

The Brewers Should Sell High on Brett Phillips

On Thursday evening Brewers have made some significant acquisitions to their outfield, notably acquiring Christian Yelich in a trade with the Marlins, and signing Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80-million deal. The Brewers have added around 7 Wins in a single day, at least according to Steamer, which has Yelich projected for 4.0 WAR and expects Cain to produce a WAR of 3.3. The point is, the Brewers have other outfielders such as Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, and Brett Phillips, whose future with the team are now unclear.

One can make the argument that Broxton is perhaps more likely a bench player than the star player he seemed to be in his brief 2016 campaign. Keeping him as a fourth outfielder would not be an unreasonable expectation. Santana is likely at least an average outfielder, if not more, so keeping him around would be a waste of his talent, so trading him would make sense. Brett Phillip’s strong showing late in the 2017 season makes him a valuable trade chip, too, especially considering that he still has not exhausted his rookie eligibility.

Rumors of the possibility of the Brewers trading the two outfielders were confirmed by Bob Nightengale:

While Santana is no doubt an interesting player worth examining, Phillips is whom this article concerns. It seems that Brett Phillip’s value could be at its peak right now, for a multitude of reasons. An overarching theme of many transactions in Baseball this winter, or lack thereof, has been the seemingly increasing value of prospects to teams. This high value may be peaking right around now. First of all, contending teams with the need for an impact veteran player at the deadline will be less concerned about trading prospects at that time. However, also as a result of the reality that next winter there will be the star-studded free agent class, which should, in turn, facilitate more transactions throughout the baseball industry as a whole.

Phillips played in 37 games last season for the Brewers, yet he is still rookie eligible and is controllable through 2023, for the next six seasons. He posted a 104 wRC+, adding 2.2 runs on the bases, while accounting for 4.5 runs saved on defense. He showed off his cannon of an arm by throwing a ball 104-mph according to Statcast, and made multiple other throws from the outfield over 101-mph.

Those are all reasons why the 29 teams in baseball not named the Brewers should be high on him! He has done everything well in the Major Leagues thus far, so on the surface, there are not necessarily any real red flags in his profile. Though upon examining his brief showing in the big leagues last season more closely, there are reasons to be concerned about his ability to sustain the success he had.

Regression to the mean is always likely, and this is the essence of the story Phillips’ data is suggesting. What is so interesting about Phillips though, is that there is another player who seems to have a very similar skillset. Looking at the Major League hitters’ strikeout rates in 2017, Phillips and Drew Robinson both struck out 34.7% of the time. That is how the players were first connected by the author, which ended up being the basis for what has turned out to be a really interesting investigation.

Here are some of last year’s numbers for both players:

Player Team Games PA BB% K% ISO SLG wOBA wRC+
Brett Phillips Brewers 37 98 9.2 % 34.7 % 0.172 0.448 0.338 104
Drew Robinson Rangers 48 121 11.6 % 34.7 % 0.215 0.439 0.323 96

The performances are in a small sample, which is the primary reason to be doubtful that this comparison is necessarily very accurate. However, it is nonetheless captivating that the two players had such similar seasons in 2017. It gets better though! They both hit left-handed and throw right-handed, and take a look at how similar their swings are!



The swings are pretty similar, agreed? The finishes are slightly different, but the bat paths and leg kicks of both players are certainly quite reminiscent of each other. Phillips had an average launch angle of 13.27 degrees, while Robinson’s average launch angle was 14.29 degrees in 2017. Given such a finding, it would seem to make sense that they have relatively similar bat paths through the hitting zone. Consider the most recent tool grades given to each player by Fangraphs Prospect Analyst Eric Longenhagen:

Player Hit Raw Power Game Power Run Fielding Throw
Drew Robinson 40/40 55/55 40/45 55/55 50/55 60/60
Brett Phillips 40/40 55/55 45/50 55/55 50/55 70/70

Phillips has a better arm, and Longenhagen gave him a 45 FV, while he gave Robinson only a future value of 40 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Though one could reasonably argue that they are kind of the same player. At the very least, these are two players with very similar hitting abilities and performances thus far.

While Phillips produced a WAR of 1.0 during his 37 games with the Brewers in 2017, Robinson’s WAR was 0. What has to be kept in mind, however, is the fact that Phillips was riding a .408 BABIP, that is highly unlikely to occur again. Steamer projects both players to hit .229 in 2018, illustrating the similarities in their profiles. Phillips is expected to put up a 77 wRC+ figure, with Robinson actually having the edge with a mark of 86 wRC+ projected by Steamer in 2018.

These are two players that are similarly mediocre, in the writer of this article’s best estimation. The fact that Phillips does not have a good chance of getting any meaningful playing time in the outfield this season is already enough to justify Milwaukee trading him away.

The reality that his value is perhaps at its highest right now, as a result of a great debut performance with the brew crew in 2017, also strongly points towards the idea of trading him. Throw in the fact that he is controllable for six more years, and there seems to be little reason for his value to increase. The Brewers would do well to acquire some pitching in exchange for Phillips. The time is now to do so!

All Data used in this article was taken from Fangraphs, as well as and Statcast.

Finding Nimmo, the Mets’ New Leadoff Hitter

As we all know, this has been a long, frustrating, mostly inactive offseason for the Mets. After a 92-loss season, they have done little to improve a pitching staff that finished with the second-worst ERA in the National League last year, other than the fairly risky signing of 32-year-old Anthony Swarzak.

They have holes or uncertainties at every position in the infield to some degree and have created a five-man outfield logjam with five starting-caliber, but injury-prone outfielders outside of Jay Bruce.

There are countless paths the Mets could take to try and build a competitive roster, but that’s a topic for another time. What I want to get into is a certain player who must be given a fair chance at a starting role, and that is 24-year-old outfielder Brandon Nimmo.

A first-round pick from 2013, some considered Nimmo a disappointment due to his lack of flashy tools, despite solid numbers throughout the minors. He always maintained a healthy OBP due to his high walk rate and solid contact ability. After a great 2016 season in Triple-A where he put all his tools together to hit .352/.423/.541, he put up a sub-par but not horrible 88 wRC+ in his first 80 plate appearances in the Majors.

Nimmo started to swing the bat more that year, so while his walk rate decreased a little bit, he hit a career-best .352 and still had a spectacular .423 OBP. He also hit for the most power he had ever hit for in a minor league season, and while some of that may be attributed to the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, it was still very encouraging and suggested that Nimmo could develop into a quality Major Leaguer.

With the Mets having a rough 2017 season, Nimmo’s playing time began to increase more and more throughout the year, and he made the most of it. The main thing about Nimmo that was so impressive was his consistent ability to have good at-bats. He has an elite eye at the plate and a unique ability to lay off almost any pitch outside the strike zone.

In fact, among hitters with at least 210 PA last year, Nimmo had the fifth lowest O-Swing percent in all of baseball. He also had the 10th best walk percentage in baseball, behind names such as Joey Votto, Aaron Judge and Mike Trout, and ahead of names such as Josh Donaldson, Kris Bryant and Paul Goldschmidt. He quietly was one of the most disciplined hitters in the league.

Another encouraging sign for Nimmo is how his power developed as the year went on. Never known as a slugger, he showed very little power in his brief 2016 stint with the Mets, and that continued into 2017 as he had just one extra-base hit in his first 25 plate appearances.

His power started to rise in August when he recorded a more respectable .100 ISO while hitting his second career home run (first of the year) along with three doubles, but his power output really started to rise in September and October, when he got the chance to play every day and put up a .219 ISO, which is not only respectable but above average.

To put that into perspective, Chris Davis, Justin Turner and Jose Altuve all had ISOs lower than .210 in 2017. Now, I’m not saying that Nimmo will ever have as much power as those guys, but it’s really encouraging to see how his power developed as he got more comfortable with major league pitching, and is a sign of his potential for the future.

One thing that could be improved about Nimmo’s game is his tendency to strike out. He struck out 27.9 percent of the time, which isn’t terrible, but it is high, and improving this facet of his game would make a huge improvement overall. He didn’t strike out because he was chasing pitches or swinging wildly.

As I mentioned earlier, Nimmo has one of the best eyes at the plate in all of baseball and has a simple, compact swing. The fact of the matter is that Nimmo may have actually been somewhat too selective, as he swung at only 59.3 percent of pitches inside the strike zone, compared to the league average 66.7 percent.

In the rare times that he did swing outside of the strike zone, he made contact 7.6 percent below average. When he swung at pitches in the zone, he made contact at roughly a league average rate, so there’s some room for improvement there as well.

While Nimmo does have some strikeout problems, his are much more easily fixed than the typical young player who comes up and slashes at everything in the dirt since Nimmo already has a great knowledge of the strike zone.

Contact isn’t a huge problem, his contact rate was one percent above average, it’s really just knowing when to take a hack at a hittable pitch, which is something that can definitely improve over time, especially for a hard-working, intelligent young hitter such as Nimmo.

With an improved strikeout rate, I could see Nimmo hitting for a higher average in 2018 even if his BABIP dips, which would add to his already impressive OBP.

But now to get to my main point, which is that the Mets need to give Nimmo a chance at an everyday role despite having five capable outfielders on their team. In his 215 PA last year, he hit .260/.379/.418 with a 117 wRC+.

Granted, he did have a somewhat high .360 BABIP that will likely regress, but Nimmo is someone who has been able to post high BABIPs in the minors, so maintaining an above-average BABIP is certainly feasible.

His .158 ISO is only slightly below league average, and the improvements he showed throughout the season suggest that he may even be able to add a little power in the future. Add league-average power to a great OBP, decent baserunning and passable defense, and you’ve got a starting caliber player.

Something that I think is getting overlooked, however (besides his surprisingly not-awful power), is just how valuable his ability to get on base is, and why the Mets need this guy at the top of the lineup consistently.

His 117 wRC+ was identical to Carlos Santana, Trey Mancini and Yasiel Puig, and was just one point behind Jay Bruce and Francisco Lindor. It was also higher than players such as Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Neil Walker, Lucas Duda and Ryan Braun. Getting on base is one of if not the most valuable skill there is to have as a hitter, and it is something in which Nimmo excels.

Watching him for the past couple years now, he seems to be constantly improving, leading us to believe that there is more in store for the soon-to-be 25-year-old. His 1.1 WAR stretched out to 550 PA equates to a 2.8 WAR, which is above average for a starter and greater than what the recently re-signed Bruce put up last year in 619 PA.

In fact, an argument could be made for starting Nimmo over Bruce, due to the fact that Nimmo provides much better value on the bases and in the field, where he can play all three outfield positions.

Regardless, the Mets need to realize that they have a quality player developing here, and in my opinion, it would not be wise to trade him considering his potential and five years of control left. If I were the Mets right now, I would have him be my Opening Day center fielder.

The Mets need to play Nimmo, and they need to bat him leadoff. Michael Conforto is a great hitter, but he’s not a leadoff hitter. Amed Rosario is not a leadoff hitter. Asdrubal Cabrera is not a leadoff hitter. Nimmo, however, is the embodiment of an ideal leadoff hitter which is someone who works the count consistently and gets on base.

They may platoon him with Juan Lagares, which is understandable considering Nimmo has struggled against lefties so far in his career and Lagares brings elite defense to the table, but no matter what, Nimmo has done more than an adequate job of proving that he is someone worth giving a chance to. Let’s hope for even more improvement from Nimmo in 2018.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this article, you can follow me on Twitter for Tweets about all things baseball, largely including but not limited to the Dodgers and the Mets. I am also a writer for, and The K Zone, where this article originally appeared.

An Inquiry Into The Efficacy of Differing Pitching Philosophies

A philosophical question many people have likely pondered is the decision of whether it is more beneficial to be daring and to take risks, or to simply remain content with the status quo and use a more risk-averse approach. Being audacious requires a willingness to leave the comfort of society’s praise and expectations, and this ambition is too often discouraged. As a Baseball fan, one can relate these themes to styles of pitching and philosophies for being successful as a pitcher.

In the age of the juiced ball and home run spike, it would seem safe to say that the most prevalent style of pitching involves throwing lots of pitches towards the low-outside corner of the plate. If one thinks about the last time they watched a Baseball game, they would very likely remember the number of times they saw the catcher set up his target on the edge of the lower part of home plate. The idea is to basically throw the baseball as far away from the hitter as possible, while barely catching the plate. One would imagine that the idea is to generate ground balls and induce strikeouts, when pitchers throw to this location. Throwing pitches up in the zone is typically associated with allowing hitters to elevate the ball and get to more of their power.

Can one reasonably fight fire with fire, or should they simply use water? In Baseball terms: Is the art of ground-ball induction a worthwhile endeavor for pitchers, or should they challenge hitters more aggressively with their pitch locations?

Visually, these are the two examples that help one understand the essence of what the differing pitching philosophies entail:

Marcus Stroman painting the low-outside corner:

Chris Sale blowing hitters away with high heat:

Chris Sale was arguably the best pitcher on the planet last season; he was honestly chosen as an example for this piece because his statistics are a part of the data being analyzed here. Marcus Stroman’s numbers are also a part of the data being interpreted; his ground-ball rate of 62.1% ranked highest among all qualified starting pitchers in 2017. Sale, on the other hand, recorded the ninth-lowest ground ball rate among qualified starters, at 38.7%.

This investigation is going to look at the twenty starting pitchers across Major League Baseball who were best able to induce ground balls this past season, as well as the other twenty who generated the fewest number of them. To start, it is apt to examine the durability and effectiveness of the two different kinds of pitchers being evaluated. Below are two tables showing the ground-ball rates, games started, and innings pitched by two very different kinds of pitchers:

Ground Ball Artists’ Durability Statistics:

Rank  Name GB% GS IP
1 Marcus Stroman 62.1 % 33 201
2 Luis Perdomo 61.8 % 29 163.2
3 Clayton Richard 59.2 % 32 197.1
4 Mike Leake 53.7 % 31 186
5 Sonny Gray 52.8 % 27 162.1
6 Carlos Martinez 51.3 % 32 205
7 Luis Severino 50.6 % 31 193.1
8 Patrick Corbin 50.4 % 32 189.2
9 Jimmy Nelson 50.3 % 29 175.1
10 Zach Davies 50.2 % 33 191.1
11 Aaron Nola 49.8 % 27 168
12 Michael Fulmer 49.2 % 25 164.2
13 Masahiro Tanaka 49.2 % 30 178.1
14 Jhoulys Chacin 49.1 % 32 180.1
15 Andrew Cashner 48.6 % 28 166.2
16 Tanner Roark 48.2 % 30 181.1
17 Michael Wacha 48.0 % 30 165.2
18 Clayton Kershaw 47.9 % 27 175
19 Alex Cobb 47.8 % 29 179.1
20 Martin Perez 47.3 % 32 185
   Average 51.4 % 29.9 180.2

Leading the ground ball pitchers above is Marcus Stroman, who is the model for all pitchers striving to generate weak contact. Also included is Carlos Martinez and his impressive 9.53 K/9 last season, as well as Yankees ace Luis Severino. One can never forget Clayton Kershaw, of course. Martin Perez and Luis Perdomo do not appear to be much more than league average starters, and Andrew Cashner’s drop in strikeouts does not inspire confidence moving forward. Aside from those three players though, the rest are some very accomplished and talented pitchers.

Low Ground-Ball Rate Pitchers’ Durability Statistics:

Rank Name GB% GS IP
1 Marco Estrada 30.3 % 33 186
2 Dylan Bundy 32.8 % 28 169.2
3 Justin Verlander 33.5 % 33 206
4 Dan Straily 34.2 % 33 181.2
5 Jeremy Hellickson 34.9 % 30 164
6 Max Scherzer 36.5 % 31 200.2
7 Matt Moore 37.7 % 31 174.1
8 Jason Hammel 38.0 % 32 180.1
9 Chris Sale 38.7 % 32 214.1
10 Rick Porcello 39.2 % 33 203.1
11 Julio Teheran 40.0 % 32 188.1
12 Ricky Nolasco 40.1 % 33 181
13 Jason Vargas 40.3 % 32 179.2
14 Robbie Ray 40.3 % 28 162
15 Yu Darvish 40.7 % 31 186.2
16 Ervin Santana 41.2 % 33 211.1
17 John Lackey 41.2 % 30 170.2
18 Jeff Samardzija 41.5 % 32 207.2
19 Chris Archer 42.0 % 34 201
20 Kevin Gausman 42.7 % 34 186.2
  Average 38.3 % 31.7 187.5

Taking a look at the individual pitchers who generated the lowest percentage of ground balls, it is notable to see the back-to-back National League Cy Young Winner, Max Scherzer. Also included is Chris Sale, whom the writer of this article thinks was the best pitcher in Baseball last season. However, it is imperative not to forget about the man at the top of the table, Marco Estrada. He has actually been a very good player throughout the past couple seasons for the Blue Jays. It is simply hard to feel good about the future outlook of the man nicknamed “Estradabien” with his 89.8 mph average fastball velocity, who generates the least number of ground balls among qualified Major League starting pitchers. The point is really that there are varying levels of talent and performance in the group of pitchers in the table, which is a part of what makes this investigation so captivating.

If a pitcher is getting hitters to pound the ball on the ground, he is seemingly more likely to be efficient with his pitch count, and should theoretically be able to stay in the game longer. Though this theory does not hold true in the case of the pitchers being evaluated here. The qualified starting pitchers with the lowest ground ball rates averaged almost two more starts comparatively with those who had the highest ground ball rates in 2017. The same low ground-ball rate pitchers also pitched approximately seven more innings than the ground-ball artists threw this past season.

This finding begs the question: Are pitchers who are less interested or talented at generating ground balls more durable than the pitchers who are more successful in doing so? Half of the twenty ground ball inducing pitchers (10) went on the 10-day Disabled List last season at least once, while only twenty percent of the pitchers with the lowest ground-ball rates (4) required time on the Disabled List. It would appear based on this data, that ground-ball pitchers are more injury prone comparatively with pitchers who seem less interested and able to induce ground balls.

Staying healthy is obviously a significant part of being a successful player, especially in the case of pitchers. The table below, however, shows the important stats one is usually looking for when comparing these two different kinds of pitchers:

2017 Performances of High and Low Ground-Ball Pitchers

Pitching Philosophy K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP WAR
High Groundball 7.88 2.72 1.04 3.92 3.1
Low Groundball 8.73 2.80 1.40 4.28 2.7

This data slightly favors the high ground-ball pitching philosophy, which is quite an interesting development. Yet at this point it is still not necessarily clear whether one approach is favorable to the other. The data representing the results of both pitching philosophies is simply too similar to come to a sound conclusion thus far.

Thus it would be prudent to view the 2018 projections for both kinds of pitchers, to have an idea of what pitching philosophy is potentially going to make the players more successful moving forward. Steamer projects the High ground-ball pitchers to produce an average WAR of 2.65 in 2018, with the Low ground ball pitchers expected to produce 2.35 WAR on average. Again, there is a slight inclination to lean towards the ground-ball approach, yet the difference in projected performance from both types of pitchers is marginal. At this point it would seem like a good idea to simply accept that there are different ways of pitching, and depending on the pitcher’s skillset, he should pitch to his strengths.

Taking a look at how the two different styles of pitching fared in 2016 is also important. The high ground ball rate pitchers produced an average WAR of 2.72, in comparison with the 2.65 WAR put up by the pitchers with the lowest percentages of ground balls. Given that there has not been a significant difference in production between the two different styles of pitching over the last two seasons, could this be related to the home-run spike and juiced baseballs?

Despite suspicion that these themes could have been related to how pitchers have performed and approached their location of pitches to hitters, the fact that there was not a significant difference in performance between the two different ground ball rates does not provide evidence for them being a real factor in this investigation. While it would be more satisfying to say that throwing the ball up in the zone is preferable to painting the low-outside corner of the plate, or vice versa, there simply is not sufficient evidence for either being truly better than the other.

In this case the answer seems to lie in the middle – aces like Chris Sale and Max Scherzer are clearly having success with high heat up in the zone to hitters. Marcus Stroman is keeping hitters from making quality contact by keeping the ball down and throwing a great sinker. Luis Severino is using some of the best velocity of any starter in the Major Leagues to generate ground balls. Perhaps this was always too binary of an exploration of what is an inherently open-ended question. Hopefully, this article has at least helped advocate for pitchers who challenge hitters up in the zone, without criticizing the admirable approach of keeping the ball down in the zone and inducing ground balls.

All data used in this piece was taken from Fangraphs.

The Pirates Are Probably Better (This Year) After These Trades

Are the Pirates actually worse after trading Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole? Probably not. The trades addressed their weakest spot on the field, even though they caused sore spots off the field.

It’s usually doom and gloom when big names leave, and small names come back in return. But, the value of the smaller players can add up. In this situation they do.

The most important thing is to understand the context of who the Pirates are. The Pirates were not a World Series contender before the trades, or even strong playoff contenders. They were, and still are, a team that needed things to break the right way in order to compete for a playoff spot in a division with the Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers. 

However, a small market team can compete on the fringes, and the Pirates are doing that.

The Pirates weakest spot in 2017 was the 7th inning. Their starters had a 7.08 ERA in 47 innings pitched after the 6th. The team, as a whole had a 5.00 ERA in the 7th inning. The Pirates were nearly a whole run worse than the league in the 7th inning, which posted a 4.19 ERA. Over 162 innings that’s 14.58  (let’s call it 15) runs. Overall, the Pirates were an above average pitching team, but the 7th inning was their downfall.

 Inning Pirates ERA League ERA Difference
1st 5.17 4.8 0.37
2nd 3.67 3.97 -0.30
3rd 4.67 4.51 0.16
4th 3.72 4.62 -0.9
5th 4.28 4.53 -0.25
6th 4.11 4.45 -0.34
7th 5.00 4.19 0.81
8th 3.28 4.1 -0.82
9th 4.05 3.87 0.18

The mid-game struggles are further highlighted by the Pirates inability to keep up with the league average when entering the 6th and 7th. Teams that entered the 6th with the lead won 82.8% of the time; those who entered the 7th with the lead won 87.1% of their games. The Pirates only won 77.3% and 86.4% of those games, respectively.

League       Pirates
Inning W L W% W L W%
Wins Below League Average
6 1762 365 0.828 51 15 0.773 3.6
7 1872 278 0.871 57 9 0.864 0.5

On average, teams that entered the 6th inning tied won 50% of their games. The same applies to teams entering the 7th inning tied. The Pirates won 52% of the time when tied going into the 6th inning. They only won 45.8% of the games in which they were tied going into the 7th inning.

League       Pirates
Inning W L W% W L W%
Wins Below League Average
6 303 303 0.5 13 12 0.52 -0.5
7 279 279 0.5 11 13 0.458 1.0

Moreover, the Pirates were less adept at making comebacks than other teams. The league average winning percentage for teams trailing entering the 6th inning was 17.2%, and 12.9% when trailing entering the 7th inning. The Pirates ended the season with a 15.5% and 9.7% winning percentage in each respective situation.

League       Pirates
Inning W L W% W L W%
Wins Below League Average
6 365 1762 0.172 11 60 0.155 1.2
7 278 1872 0.129 7 65 0.097 2.3

Juan Nicasio left the team in free agency this off-season. His stellar 2017 is the reason for the Pirates’ great 8th inning performance last year, but the Gerrit Cole trade addressed this loss through the acquisition of Michael Feliz, who will likely, at least in part, take over Nicasio’s 8th inning role. The Cole trade also alleviated the loss of Cole himself, as the Pirates acquired Joe Musgrove, who Steamer projects to have a nearly identical season, if not better season than Cole himself. (Editor’s note: Steamer has not yet accounted for Musgrove’s projected switch from the bullpen to the rotation in regard to his rate stats).

What about the 7th inning? This is what the McCutchen trade addresses. Kyle Crick may seem underwhelming, but he may be exactly what the Pirates need in order to extend and bolster their bullpen.  Crick will be relied upon to team up with A.J. Schugel, George Kontos and Daniel Hudson to address the 7th. The four of them are unlikely to be dominant, but the Pirates will be well-served if the four players can mimic, or slightly exceed the league average. More important, the group will need to provide Clint Hurdle with enough confidence to remove his starters by the 6th inning. The group is ill-equipped for the final third of games, but they are seemingly capable of providing average to above-average performance in the first 6 innings of a game.

Kyle Crick and Michael Feliz may not inspire passion in a fan base that lost a face of the franchise, and head of their rotation, but those are the types of players the Pirates need to stay competitive, with or without Cole and McCutchen.

This doesn’t address the loss of McCutchen on offense, but there’s a reasonable expectation that players on the team will be able to patch together those losses in the form of a healthy Starling Marte (Steamer 2018 Projection: 3 WAR, 2017 1.2 WAR), a healthy Gregory Polanco (Steamer 2018 Projection: 1.8 WAR, 2017 0.5 WAR), a more developed Josh Bell (Steamer 2018 Projection: 1.2 WAR, 2017 .8 WAR), etc.  The team will also need to add a veteran outfielder to hedge against a likely Adam Frazier regression and to provide time to figure out where Austin Meadows fits into the 2018 Pirates.  However, the picture as a whole suggests that this team is no worse off in the field than it was with the 2017 version of Andrew McCutchen (3.7 WAR).

The Pirates rightly buried the memories of the past to focus on the present and the future. They addressed their weakest spots by picking up players that will contribute now, and provide them a cost-controlled future. McCutchen and Cole were not the right places to invest for the future, therefore the Pirates rightly divested now, and they are, at worst, not worse off for it.

It’s going to be really hard for the Pirates to win 90+ games again. This was the case with Cole and McCutchen. It’s also the case without them. But, they may actually have a better shot now than they did before the trades. Bullpen depth isn’t sexy, but it’s necessary.  Particularly for this team.

***All stats in the tables above were taken from All Steamer projections and 2017 WAR citations are from Fangraphs

This Year’s Free Agency, or Lack Thereof, Visualized

As basically anyone who follows baseball has noticed this years free agency has dragged on through today January 24th with really nothing of note happening. It’s frustrating for the fans, the media and most of all the players. I decided to look back at the last six years to the 2012-2013 offseason and compare the money spent on all free agent contracts of three years or more as most of the best players get some sort of lengthy deal. To this point this offseason less than half of the top 50 free agents according to have signed and only one of their top 10, Wade Davis. Only 8 free agents among FanGraphs’ top 20 have signed.

Let’s start with the obvious, the number of deals this offseason is extremely low to this point in the winter. I looked back at all the deals each year and verified the date the deals were announced and sorted by month. Here though is the total number of deals three or more years in length as of January 20th in each of those years.

As you can see this year teams just aren’t wanting to commit to longer-term deals hardly at all. Currently this offseason there have been just nine deals of any real length. Three of those were signed by the Colorado Rockies alone with the signings of Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee. Every deal of three or more years this offseason has been for just three years, no longer deals have been signed as of yet. At this point in the year the number of deals is for all intents and purposes half, or less than halfof what has been normal in recent years so everyone is right to think this year’s Hot Stove is quite cold.

So what kind of money are teams committing?

Again as seen here, for this point in the year the $ spent are incredibly low as well. These figures will surely rise when/if the top free agents start to sign but as they sit currently the low level of spending is almost mind-blowing. Four of the five previous years by January 24th teams in MLB had committed either very close to well over a billion, yes with a b, dollars to free agents on long term deals. This year’s total currently sits at $415 million. To put that in perspective in the 2015 offseason David Price and Zack Greinke combined for more money than that at $423.5 million between them. So what’s different this year? Has the free agent spending bubble burst? It’s most certainly not the qualifying offer and the loss of a draft pick holding teams back anymore.

Here you will see the total spent as the months passed in previous offseasons. What is obviously missing this year is all the big names signing in December like most years. Now the biggest question is when will those names sign? Will it be before the end of January… February… Spring Training? We are only 20 days away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training and the picture of this offseason is not pretty.

J.D. Martinez Will Be Productive in Six Years (And Maybe Seven)

While baseball fans wait for the free agent market to finally unthaw, J.D. Martinez waits for a contract offer enticing enough for him to sign. Early reports suggested that Martinez and his agent, Scott Boras, set an early asking price at seven years, $210 million. Clearly, nobody has taken the bait. Among Martinez’ likely suitors, many have moved onto other options; the Cardinals traded for Marcell Ozuna, and the Giants traded for Andrew McCutchen, seemingly leaving the Red Sox as Martinez’ lone serious suitor.

The latest report, from Buster Olney, is that Martinez has an offer on the table from the Red Sox worth five years, $100 million. Taking the reports at face value (although Boras himself has simply declared the report “inaccurate”), the offer obviously comes up short of Martinez’ demands, which is why this article is being written in late January to begin with. To that end, here’s an excerpt from Jeff Passan’s recent column at Yahoo Sports on baseball’s economic system:

Recently, one of the best free agents available this offseason met with a friend, and he admitted something shocking: He was preparing to sit out until the middle of the season. The market for his services this winter was so thin, the offers so incompatible with his production, that he worried he was going to need an external force to compel teams to pay him what his numbers say he’s worth. Maybe it would take a playoff race.”

Can we assume that the hitter in question is Martinez? Of course not, but considering the discrepancy between his asking price and the reported Red Sox offer, it wouldn’t be an outlandish guess. While I understand that the Red Sox have leverage in that they presumably don’t have anyone to bid against, I will argue that Martinez will be well worth a contract in excess of 5/$100M.

From 2014-2017, his Age 26 through  Age 29 seasons, Martinez posted an astounding 149 OPS+ (my apologies for not using wRC+ in this column!), with a low of 139 and a high of 166. To that end, I researched players from the DH era (circa 1973) that posted an OPS+ between 140 and 160 in their Age 26 through Age 29 seasons. Presumably, these players would make for suitable Martinez comps as we attempt to project his offensive production over the next five to seven years. Of course, some of these players are still active and haven’t played enough to give me complete data, such as Ryan Braun, so they have been eliminated from the dataset. I was left with 38 comparable players, which is a large enough sample for our purposes today.

In this chart, I condensed the sample into averages because 40 rows and 9 columns doesn’t embed so cleanly. These are Martinez’s comps for their age-26 through age-29 seasons, their offensive production for the next five years (through age-34, which is Martinez’ floor value at this point) and then their production in the sixth and seventh following years (ages 35 and 36, which represent Martinez’ ceiling value at this point).

J.D. Martinez Age 26-29 Comps Through Age 30-34, 35, and 36
Age Average OPS+ Average PA/Season Sample Size
26-30 147 637 38
30-34 134 559 38
35 124 512 36
36 117 447 33

The average player from my sample posted a 147 OPS+ in their age-26 through 29 seasons, which matches up neatly with Martinez’ 149 mark. You’ll first notice the drop off in production for these players in their age-30 through 34 seasons. There are several reasons for this. Yes, natural decline was at work, but the original search for Martinez comps included a 2000 plate appearance minimum; this means I was guaranteed to be given players both as good and as healthy as Martinez in their Age 26-29 seasons without the same guarantee they would be healthy in the years that followed. This also means players like Mark McGwire (146 OPS+ in 1913 PA) were excluded from the sample because he was injured, despite the 189 OPS+ he would put up in 3462 plate appearances through Age 36.

Nevertheless, it’s a reasonable regression one can expect for players entering their 30s, and the good news is that they were, on average, very productive (134 OPS+) and very healthy (559 PA). This is what the Red Sox believe to be worth 5/$100M, but I would argue that this data shows they should be willing to tack on a sixth year without blinking. Of the original 38 player sample, 36 players played their age-35 seasons; they were still very productive (Khris Davis has been producing along these lines the past two years) and healthy enough to play a full season.

The real question surrounding Martinez is – or at least should be, if the market weren’t so cold – whether he should be given a seventh year or not. From his comps, the sample size drops significantly for the first time down to 33, the average playing time falls below the league qualifying minimum for the first time, and the production drops below what you’d want from your DH (the reference point here would be Miguel Sano from the last couple of seasons).

At face value, I would absolutely give Martinez the sixth year, and absolutely not give him the seventh. At the same time, we should dive into our sample a little deeper and discover why some players did well and why others tanked in their 30s; perhaps there is something we can correlate with Martinez so we can get an even better projection. From the original sample, here are the twenty best performers in their age-36 seasons (based on a combination of plate appearances and OPS+).

Twenty Age-36 Producers
Rank Player OPS+ PA Rank Player OPS+ PA
1 Rafael Palmeiro 141 714 11 George Brett 123 528
2 Mike Schmidt 153 657 12 Robin Yount 102 629
3 Dave Winfield 159 631 13 Wade Boggs 142 434
4 Chipper Jones 176 534 14 George Foster 121 504
5 Carlos Delgado 128 686 15 Brian Giles 110 552
6 Jim Thome 150 536 16 Dave Parker 92 647
7 Bobby Abreu 118 667 17 Alex Rodriguez 111 529
8 Fred McGriff 110 664 18 Vladimir Guerrero 98 590
9 Eddie Murray 115 625 19 Ken Griffey 99 472
10 David Ortiz 173 383 20 Bernie Williams 85 546
Average 140 610   Average 107 543

The reason I picked the twenty best rather than the top and bottom ten is that the bottom ten would be littered with folks such as Cliff Floyd or Dale Murphy, who only came to the plate 17 and 63 times respectively during their age-36 seasons. Using the ten best players captures those who were magnificent offensive performers with full playing time. Using the next ten players captures those who were mediocre in full playing time. This looks good to me.

This would be the time for me to explain why I haven’t mentioned WAR in this piece: J.D. Martinez has been horrible on defense!

He was best suited as a DH years ago, but being on a roster with Victor Martinez and then being traded to the National League forced him to play right field, which depressed his value. If Boston signs him, he’ll see absolutely no time in an outfield that will be covered by Jackie Bradley, Mookie Betts, and Andrew Benintendi for the foreseeable future. As a DH for the rest of his career, Martinez will be solely judged by his offensive production and ability to stay on the field.

Again, our question is whether Martinez receiving a seventh year is justified. More specifically, this boils down to “In seven years, will Martinez be in the left column or the right column?” Both sides of the list contain incredible players, but there’s a way to make a reasonable projection. Here’s the same list, but instead of rank, you’ll see the positions these players spent significant time. Those who had significant time at 1B/DH are highlighted in gold.

Twenty Age-36 Producers (By Age)
Position Player OPS+ PA Position Player OPS+ PA
1B/DH Rafael Palmeiro 141 714 1B George Brett 123 528
3B/1B Mike Schmidt 153 657 CF Robin Yount 102 629
RF Dave Winfield 159 631 3B Wade Boggs 142 434
3B Chipper Jones 176 534 LF George Foster 121 504
1B Carlos Delgado 128 686 RF Brian Giles 110 552
DH Jim Thome 150 536 RF Dave Parker 92 647
RF/LF/DH Bobby Abreu 118 667 3B/DH Alex Rodriguez 111 529
1B Fred McGriff 110 664 DH Vladimir Guerrero 98 590
1B Eddie Murray 115 625 CF Ken Griffey 99 472
DH David Ortiz 173 383 CF/DH Bernie Williams 85 546
Average 140 610   Average 107 543

In this exercise, let’s consider 1B/DH to be significantly less stressful positions than the others. After all, there is a significant correlation between time spent in the field and sustaining an injury that leads to decline. While players like Brian Giles, Dave Parker, and Ken Griffey Jr. saw injuries and offensive decline catch up to them after years chasing down balls in the outfield, players like Rafael Palmeiro, Carlos Delgado, and Jim Thome aged extremely well by not exerting the same stress in the field.

Martinez is almost certain to spend no time in the field at Age 36. Hell, he might not spend much time in the field ever again. So I consider him a slam dunk to be placed in the group on the left. Referring to the averages from the first chart in this article, I’ll the over on Martinez when the time comes. To be clear, I donJD’t necessarily think he should be given the seventh year outright – an option would probably be most appropriate – but I think this data solidifies my comfort in giving him a sixth guaranteed year.

In a winter in which the market is changing in ways we have never seen before, it’s difficult to predict what  Martinez will earn. It’s important to remember that dollars are a construct; we can’t assume Martinez will get $150 million from the Red Sox because Adrian Gonzalez did after amassing similar numbers. Teams like the Red Sox are wary of contracts like the one given to Gonzalez, who will earn $21.5M from that deal this year. In this market (or lack thereof), it’s impossible for me to put dollars or years on Martinez, but I do know this: Martinez is a special hitter, and he’ll age especially well.

He will be a productive hitter for the next six or seven years, and there’s no dollar amount that can change that.

Yet Another Eric Hosmer Red Flag

I don’t need to sell this all that hard. You come to FanGraphs. You’ve seen the articles about Eric Hosmer, his wildly fluctuating value, and how that stacks up next to his big free agency ask. The horse is dead already — rest in peace, horse. And yet, here it is. Another caution label to throw on Eric Hosmer, who is beginning to look more caution label than man now.

Statcast has been wonderful in both expanding the breadth and the depth of baseball analysis among both professionals (unlike myself) and hobbyists (hey, like myself!). Where PITCHf/x allowed us deep inside the world of pitching, many aspects of hitting were largely a black box until recently. With the aid of launch angles, exit velocity, and xBA we can judge not only the hitter’s results, but the process by which he arrived at them — is the hitter making quality contact? For Hosmer, his 25 home runs in 2017 might lead you to believe that he is. Statcast, as we’ll see, respectfully disagrees.

When it comes to types of contact, barrels are the crème de la crème. MLB’s glossary has the in-depth details, but in short — hit ball good, ball do good things. Statcast captures every batted ball event and allows us to take a closer look at who’s clobbering the ball on a regular basis. The leaders in barrel rate (Barrels per batted ball event, min. 200 batted balls) — Aaron Judge (25.74%), Joey Gallo (22.13%), and J.D. Kong (19.48%). Nothing out of place here. The laggards will surprise you just as much as the leaders did (in that they will not surprise you at all) — Dee Gordon (0.18%), Darwin Barney (0.36%), and Ben Revere (0.37%).  Hosmer’s 6.99% barrel rate ranks 121st out of 282 players, just above the average of 6.83%.

This not-terrible barrel rate is being masked by a well-above-average home run rate. Hosmer’s 22.5% HR/FB% ranks 30th in that same sample of 282 players. How do barrel rate and HR/FB% correlate?

Very well, actually. It seems my “hit ball good” theory has legs. Highlighted in red is Hosmer, and from a glance, it’s clear he’s pretty outlier-y. Using the equation from the best fit line and plugging in Hosmer’s barrel rate yields a pedestrian 14.34% xHR/FB%. The difference between his HR/FB% and xHR/FB% ranks 3rd out of 282. Yikes.

You might be wondering if HR/FB%-xHR/FB% even means anything. What good is knowing the difference if we don’t know the standard deviation or the distribution of the sample? Let the following bell curve assuage your concerns. Highlighted in red, again, is Hosmer.

I don’t have a very good conclusion for this. I’ve seen people mention his worm-killing tendencies. I’ve seen concerns about his defense. I’ve seen mentions of his BABIP-inflated career year. What I hadn’t seen yet was just how out of line his power numbers looked to be with his contact quality, and for a player seeking as much money as he is, that’s one more thing to be concerned about.

The Pirates and the Value of Being Around .500

I was at first very critical of the Pirates trades. I didn’t think the surplus value is bad, but I didn’t like getting older prospects with lower ceilings who are MLB-ready instead of higher-upside guys who are farther away. My thinking was that the Pirates can’t buy upside, and while those good depth pieces help them to stay around .500, they don’t make them a great team. However, what if that is what the Pirates want? I thought it might make sense to tank completely and rebuild for a couple years, but maybe there is value to being an average team in the two-WC era.

So first I looked at what is needed to win a WC.

Year NL AL
2017 87 85
2016 87 89
2015 97 86
2014 88 88
2013 90 92
AVG 89.8 88

So roughly 88 wins are needed, and you have a chance with 85+.

I compared last year’s projections (average of PECOTA and FG) with the actual results and calculated the absolute distance (eliminating negative numbers to make the math easier) and the difference (found the projections here).

The average difference to the projection was 7.1 wins. Those differences don’t mean projections are bad; there is always under and overperformance, unlikely breakouts as well as injuries. Also just Pythagoran luck or bad luck can easily make up 3-4 wins or more. Of course this goes both ways — an 81-win team can easily have a 71-win season, but there definitely is a chance.

As you can see in the upper graphic, usually around 88-89 wins get you a WC, although you sometimes can get one with 85 or sometimes 90+ is required. So a .500 team needs to make up like seven games to get into the postseason. With a little bit of overperformance, one or two Pythagoran luck wins and one or two wins picked up in deadline trades, that is quite possible. Actually 30% of the MLB teams last year were plus-7 or better. That means a .500 team might have around a 30% chance to get (actually half) a playoff spot. That isn’t great, but if you are a .500 team for six years, that would mean two WC game appearances.

Now of course that is not ideal. Ideally you want a talent-oozing rebuild like the Cubs, White Sox, or Braves. But other teams now also have recognized the value of cheap controllable talent, and are much stingier with their top prospects. Also, currently many .500 teams have given up and prefer to start a rebuild or at least do nothing. That means, if anything, it might become a little easier to make a WC, because the emergence of the super teams might cause the in-between teams to push the reset button to become the next Cubs or Astros.

Maybe that is really what the Pirates were thinking. The Dave Stewarts are gone, and usually those plus 50M surplus-value trades that made rebuilding so attractive don’t happen anymore. Now you have to fight for every million of surplus value, as any intern or even hobby sabermetrist can easily get a pretty good guess of the surplus value of a trade. So maybe the Pirates are trying to use a little game theory here and go against the trend to try finding a market inefficiency. It is a little like with poker. If you play beginner levels, you don’t need to worry about game theory and out-thinking the opponent — you just play the plus-EV hands, occasionally make a bluff to keep them off balance, and then you win. But at higher levels, everyone plays the correct hands, and game theory and out-thinking the opponent like a chess player becomes more important. The early sabermetric age was a bit like beginner-level poker, and you just needed to make mathematically correct calls because enough Dave Stewarts were feeding you. But now there isn’t that much difference between analytical departments, so that for smaller-market teams, even less than optimal plays can become profitable if they catch the market off balance. A team like the Dodgers doesn’t need to do that; they just need to play the mathematically correct hand and avoid mistakes to let their resources do the work, as they just start with pocket aces more often.

But a cash-constrained team like the Pirates might need to do more to out-think opponents and go against the trend, because they can’t do what anyone else does with half the resources and expect to beat them. Sure, they would have preferred a GM giving them a Shelby Miller trade, but it just wasn’t available, so maybe they re-evaluated and chose a path of sustained mediocrity to chase the second WC.

The Pirates version isn’t sexy, just like the 2000s A’s way wasn’t sexy. People love to dream. They don’t want the bird in the hand — they want the two in the bush. Fans don’t want an outlook of “we can be an 83-win team for a couple years and maybe make a WC or two,” they want to dream about becoming the next juggernaut. Fans are extremely emotional about their prospects. They want to believe anyone is the next Babe Ruth and getting a couple of 25-year-old prospects doesn’t really elicit that dream. The Pirates fans don’t want that — they want to be the White Sox and have all those studs coming up. But then again, that is no guarantee, as just one or two years ago they had those studs themselves in Glasnow and Meadows and it didn’t work out that well (for now, of course — they could still break out).

At first I hated the trades, but maybe it is good that a team chose to actually value mid-80s wins rather than tanking like anyone else. Sure, it isn’t nice that their owner has tight pockets, and you would have wished for more, but a future where we just have super teams and tankers is really boring. Maybe that tanking hype is already self-correcting currently. Anyone might’ve wanted to be the next Cubs, but as more try it and at the same time the buyers get stingier with their prospects, that becomes increasingly harder to do, and maybe as a consequence teams start to value those half-playoff spots more. Baseball really needs a middle field or the regular season will become a long and boring spring training for the postseason (which admittedly has become really great with all those super teams).