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Playing Roulette with Danny Duffy and Wil Myers

January is notoriously slow for baseball activity, but the other week gave us two interesting extensions to digest. Wil Myers was extended for six years and $80 million, while Danny Duffy received five years and $65 million. Both of these players have had interesting careers thus far. Wil Myers has been polarizing in various ways since he was traded for James Shields. The most recent development has been his transition from playing OF to 1B, and seeing if he would be a valuable asset. As for Duffy, he spent part of the season in the Royals’ bullpen before sinker/slidering his way to potential ace status. If you look at both of their production over the last four years you see the following:

Year Duffy Myers
2016 2.8 3.8
2015 1.2 0.6
2014 1.9 -0.1
2013 0.5 2.3
Total 6.4 6.6
Average 1.6 1.7

The table above doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence paying these two individuals the approximate GDP of Qatar. Obviously, the Royals and Padres liked what they saw this past year and were ready to buy into the future. Both Duffy and Myers have youth on their side at 28 and 26 so the teams are buying recent improvements and prime years. Steamer, too, is optimistic about both players, projecting Duffy for 3.1 WAR and Myers for 2.4 WAR.

These deals are not without risk and there is real concern about the inconsistency of both players. As illustrated above, both Duffy and Myers have had years of above-average production and also years where they barely scratched replacement level. These deals may be seen as opportunistic for both player and team, but let’s take a look to see where the value may lie. First, we need to look at how much the team paid and the expected breakeven value.

 Name Contract Value Expected War War Per Year
Duffy 65,000,000 8.1 1.6
Myers 83,000,000 10.4 1.7
Assumes 8M / 1 WAR

Based on this analysis, the teams are paying these players to be exactly what they have been over the past four years. At first glance, this seems like a steep price for the pair who have had middling results but players who have shown superstar upside, even inconsistently, have immense value. A similarity both players share is signing these contracts under team control. Each presumably would have done better on the open market but decided to sell after career years.

Given the significant swings in performance, these contracts are unique because the total value of the contracts may be recouped over 1-2 years. Just this past season, Duffy and Myers were worth 2.8 and 3.8 WAR, respectively. Using the 99th percentile outcome for both these players, a 5 WAR outcome seems to be the absolute ceiling for these two players. Using the same 8M per WAR valuation, a 5 WAR season would produce a value of $40M. This would account for 62% of Duffy’s breakeven WAR and 48% of Myers’. If they were to return to their previous form and be worth 1.6 WAR each year for the remainder of the contract, the team would still enjoy a significant amount of surplus value. If you think 5 WAR is optimistic and prefer to think of their ceiling as closer to 4 WAR, the math still favors the teams’ side of these deals.

Danny Duffy and Wil Myers represent players who offer youth and inconsistency, and they have shown glimpses of stardom. Their respective contracts build both optimism and risk into the final dollar value. The unique part of these deals is quantifying the risk associated with these players. Given their inconsistencies, the teams should potentially expect to receive most of the value in one year while receiving middling results in the others. The Padres and Royals are betting on talent and recent improvements. Teams generally extend players with the idea of receiving consistent year-to-year value. Duffy and Myers portray a more boom-or-bust scenario. Generally, we have an idea of how a contract will go after Year 1; given these two players, we won’t know the result of the deal until the very end.


Looking into Differences in Exit Velocity

Statcast has revolutionized the way we look at batted-ball data. We have been spoiled with exit velocity, launch angle and so much more. After looking into this treasure trove of data, I began to wonder, how closely is a hitter’s overall production tied to their exit velocity? More specifically, I wanted to uncover whether production was tied to differences between Air EV and Ground EV. First, I calculated the difference between Air EV and Ground EV from Baseball Savant. Next, I filtered the list to only include those with at least 100 batted-ball events to not skew the sample. I also calculated AIR% by adding together LD% and FB% to see who is maximizing their contact and see who may need a change in approach.

This first chart illustrates which players have the largest difference between Air and Ground EV:

Player Difference, Air EV and Ground EV (MPH) AIR%
Byung-ho Park 17.3 58.7%
Nick Castellanos 13.6 68.6%
Brett Eibner 13.0 57.6%
Ryan Schimpf 12.9 80.4%
Mike Napoli 12.9 63.6%
Oswaldo Arcia 12.9 58.2%
Adam Duvall 12.5 66.1%
Brian Dozier 12.3 63.6%
Sean Rodriguez 12.3 60.2%
Brandon Belt 12.1 73.8%

Byung-ho Park leads the way by nearly 4 MPH, with a difference of 17.3 MPH. With the exception of Eibner, Park and Arcia, this is a list of hitters whose primary BIP type is FBs. Each of these hitters has an AIR% over 60%, with Ryan Schimpf pacing the group at an incredible 80%. With such a stark difference in EV, each these players should focus on hitting the ball in the air to maximize their overall production. For Park, Eibner and Arcia, putting the ball on the ground severely limits how often they can make harder contact. All things equal, hard contact is better than soft contact and these players should adjust their approach accordingly to maximize hard contact, which could help their overall production.

As we move on, the next chart displays players with the smallest differences in Air and Ground EV:

Player Difference, Air EV and Ground EV AIR%
Billy Burns -2.4 46.8%
Melky Cabrera -2.2 56.9%
Max Kepler -1.5 52.8%
Matt Szczur -1.4 57.4%
Martin Prado -1.2 52.6%
Jose Peraza -1 56.5%
Lorenzo Cain -1 52.7%
Ryan Rua -0.9 47.9%
Miguel Rojas -0.7 46.0%
Tyler Holt -0.5 48.0%

The speedy Billy Burns tops this list, complemented by a group of players no one will mistake for sluggers. This group comes with considerably less ceiling and overall production. Of this group, only three guys managed to post a league-average or better wRC+ (Prado, Cabrera and Peraza). Lorenzo Cain has been better in the past but was hampered by injuries this past year. Cain and the three previously mentioned provide the blueprint for how this profile can work. By spraying the ball and making enough contact, these guys maximize their limited power but have a razor-thin line between their bats being productive and unplayable.

As an aside, there was only one player who had zero difference in his EVs. The culprit? Nick Markakis, which for some reason makes perfect sense. Anyways!

So now that I have shown the extremes we can begin to answer the original question: does EV difference even matter for overall production? To find out, I ran a couple different tests. First, I took the data and divided them evenly into quarters. The results look like this:

Group Average EV Difference Average wRC+  

Best Hitter

Top 25% 9.4 102 Joey Votto
25-50% 6.3 100 Mike Trout
50-75% 4.5 95 Miguel Cabrera
Bottom 25% 1.8 94 Daniel Murphy

The top 50% of hitters with large differences in EVs hit average or slightly better. Meanwhile, hitters in the bottom 50% produced slightly below average. To give each group a face, I took the best hitter by wRC+ and here we have four elite hitters. So far we have a very minor indication that says players with larger EV differences hit better than those with smaller differences. What we do not have is a concrete reason to disqualify a hitter from being elite based on their EV differences.

Next, I took the data and plotted players’ EV Differences and wRC+ to see if there was any correlation.  The graph is about as random as it gets with an R squared value of .022. This shows that there is a relationship between EV differences and overall offensive production but nothing significant.

All things equal, you probably take the guy with the larger differences but that does not guarantee any kind of success. We now know that their differences of how hard they hit balls in the air or on the ground do not preclude them from being elite. Hitting is both art and science and what we have learned today only reinforces that hitters can have very different profiles and still have excellent results.


Travis Jankowski and a Sub-Optimal Approach

The Padres have had an interesting year both on and off the field from the GM getting suspended for hiding medical information to trying to convert Christian Bethancourt into a Swiss Army Knife. One of the least interesting things about the Padres was the on-field product. In Year 2 of Prellermania, the Padres lost 94 games and spent time stocking the farm for 2018 and beyond. At present, there are few players of interest on the Padres. The one I find most interesting, however, is Travis Jankowski.

Jankowski just delivered 2.1 WAR playing in 131 games, primarily in CF, making him a useful player. A majority of this production comes from his defense and base-running, where he racked up 8 DRS and 3.1 BsR to make up for a below-average 82 wRC+. With that said, I believe Jankowski has additional upside that teams looking to upgrade in CF could target. Jankowski has some interesting metrics once you look past his surface stats that indicate there could be more upside than initially meets the eye.

This past season, Jankowski rated sixth in GB% at 58.4%, putting him in the company of Dee Gordon and Eric Hosmer. Jankowski also paced the league in going the other way, with an Oppo% of 39.1%. It seems obvious that Jankowski’s approach is to smack the ball the other way and let his 70-grade speed do the rest. Diving into Statcast, we find that Jankowski had an average launch angle of 2.4 degrees, and an average exit velocity of 86.2 MPH, backing up what we know about Jankowski’s groundball tendencies.

Diving deeper is where it gets interesting. I found that Jankowski had an average EV of 83.5 MPH on balls above 10 degrees compared to 90.8 MPH on balls below 10 degrees. In simpler terms, Jankowski makes a majority of his hard contact on the ground. Given his status as a lefty-hit / righty-throw guy, this makes some sense as a guy whose bottom, more dominant hand pulls the bat through the zone early, making it more difficult to get the ball up in the air. Still intrigued, I wanted to find hitters with similar EVs on launch angles below 10 degrees and came up with the following:

Name Exit Velocity 2016 wRC+
Jason Heyward 91.52 72
Ben Revere 90.99 47
Tyler Saladino 90.88 93
Travis Jankowski 90.84 82
Xander Bogaerts 90.69 113
Jace Peterson 90.56 95
Alexei Ramirez 90.44 63
Cesar Hernandez 90.4 108
Martin Prado 90.35 109
James Loney 90.26 89
J.T. Realmuto 90.25 107
Denard Span 90.24 96
Average 90.6 90

 

This is an interesting group of players, headlined by superstar Xander Bogaerts and the solid Martin Prado, and yet it also includes the disappointing Jason Heyward and the DFA’d Alexei Ramirez. If anything, it shows how razor-thin the margin is for players with this type of profile.

Next, I looked at the same group’s batted-ball profile and took the average of their hit type and hit distribution to compare to Jankowski’s and came up with the following:

 Name LD% GB% FB% PULL% CENT% OPPO%
Jankowski 26% 58% 16% 24% 37% 39%
Average 22% 51% 27% 38% 36% 27%

 

Looking at their batted-ball distributions, Jankowski stands as somewhat of an outlier in this group. Most notable is his how he rarely pulls the ball in favor of going the other way. With these tendencies, Jankowski is actually depressing his own value with the bat. When Jankowski goes the other way, he has an average EV of 84.5 MPH. Compare this to pulled balls, where his average EV is 89.1 MPH. In most cases, pulled balls are always going to be hit harder, but for someone as extreme as Jankowski, the opposite-field approach may be suppressing his overall offensive production. If Jankowski shifts his approach to drive more balls with authority to the pull side, he could push his bat closer to the league-average mark. As noted, Jankowski is a 70 runner and the additional chances on base would only serve to increase his base-running value. With these changes we are looking at a potential league-average bat from a guy who already has above-average defensive and base-running skills. This would be an insanely valuable piece. As we have seen, the trade market does not value defensive value the same as offense, so the acquisition price shouldn’t be prohibitive.

To have maximum value, Jankowski has to play CF, but with top prospect Manny Margot about ready to take over the position full-time, the Padres may deem Jankowski expendable. For teams not willing to pay the prospect price for Charlie Blackmon or not wanting to see Yoenis Cespedes play CF again, Jankowski represents an under-the-radar acquisition that could be had for a reasonable price. Given his skillset, Jankowski shouldn’t rack up the traditional counting stats rewarded in arbitration, and he could provide excellent value throughout his years of control. The Padres as a whole may not be very interesting but they have an interesting player in Travis Jankowski, who could provide immense value to a team with the foresight to acquire his services.


The Case for Alex Avila

With the offseason in full swing, there are a number of contenders looking to fill their vacancies at catcher. After surveying the market, the most common names featured have been Brian McCann and an injured Wilson Ramos. After that, you hear rumblings of the Athletics dangling Stephen Vogt and another exercise in how teams value pitch-framing with Jason Castro. There is a player, however, I feel is being overlooked and could provide value to a contender. Alex Avila isn’t the sexiest name on the free-agent market but could be a sleeper candidate for a team willing to roll the dice.

When combing through the free-agent leaderboards, I discovered a couple of interesting data points that show how Avila could break through with the bat. First, I calculated “Good Contact %” by adding together Medium and Hard Contact %. Alex Avila was the leader at 91.3%. Other notable players on this list include Justin Turner, fifth at 87.9%, and the recently-signed Kendrys Morales, seventh at 87.2%.

So we have a 29-year-old left-handed-hitting catcher who makes good contact and plays the toughest position on the defensive spectrum. So why isn’t there more chatter about Alex Avila? The two biggest culprits lying in the stat line would be his groundball and strikeout tendencies. In 2016, Avila ran a 52% groundball rate and a 37% strikeout rate. Even then, Avila still managed to produce a 104 wRC+ which, given the low bar for catchers, is excellent. Diving into Statcast, we find that Avila had an average exit velocity of 92 MPH, which groups him in the same bucket as J.D. Martinez and Chris Davis. The disclaimer here is Martinez and Davis had over 300 batted balls and Avila had fewer than 100.

This is where there may be hidden value waiting to be unlocked. Avila has an average launch angle of 7.5 degrees, which is suboptimal for a slow-footed catcher. Given his exit velocity, if he could increase his average launch angle into the 15-30 degree range he could exponentially improve his offensive production. If he shifted his approach to drive balls in the air to his pull side, he could unlock additional power and maximize the contact he does make. Last season, Avila ran a pull percentage of 38%. Given his left-handedness and groundball tendencies, he is easily shiftable, which depresses the value of his bat. Avila only managed to hit seven homers last year, but with an offseason to work on a change in approach, I firmly believe he could unlock additional power.

Avila would definitely benefit from being the strong side of a catching platoon. If I am Dan Duquette and the Baltimore Orioles, I am moving to sign Avila to be the strong side of a catching platoon in hopes he could undergo a Trumbo-esque transformation by maximizing contact in a hitter-friendly environment. At present, Steamer projects Avila for 1.2 WAR in 2017, which on the open market should garner a commitment of just under $10 million on a one-year deal. If nothing changes, Avila can still be a serviceable option in a platoon, but if these changes were to take hold, we could be looking at the steal of the offseason.


2017 Team WAR Projections and Playoff WAR Targets

Now that the World Series is over and the offseason upon us, our view of baseball begins to shift. For the last six months we have been laser-focused on the outcomes on the field. Now we begin to focus on the process of team-building and the chase to taste October Glory.

This exercise is an attempt to figure out how close teams may be and what they need to add in in the offseason to reach the playoffs. To do this, I looked at the latest FanGraphs depth charts, and the WAR landscape looks something like this:

Team 2017 Projected WAR

Cubs 50.1
Dodgers 48.7
Nationals 45.3
Indians 43.2
Red Sox 42.5
Giants 41.1
Astros 40.2
Cardinals 39.1
Angels 38.3
Mets 37.5
Mariners 37.2
Yankees 36.9
Pirates 36.6
Tigers 34.2
Rays 33.8
Rangers 33.5
Blue Jays 32.5
Marlins 32
Orioles 31.9
White Sox 31.1
Royals 30.7
Athletics 30.7
Diamondbacks 30.3
Rockies 27.7
Twins 27.7
Reds 26.5
Phillies 26.1
Padres 23
Braves 22.9
Brewers 21.6

To the surprise of no one, the Cubs lead in projected WAR due to the excellent core in place, with the Dodgers and Nationals taking second and third, respectively. The Indians and Red Sox rank fourth and fifth on this list and represent the top of the American League.

Now, to get a feel for what it is likely going to take to make the playoffs in 2017, I approximated how much team WAR will be needed to make the 2017 playoffs by averaging the WARs of playoff qualifiers going back to 2012 and came up with this:

AL WAR Target: 42.0
NL WAR Target: 44.6

American League teams, when assessing whether they are a realistic playoff contender, should project for a team WAR of 42, and National League teams thinking the same should project for closer to 45. Next, I took the projected WAR from each team and subtracted it from the respective league’s WAR target to determine how close teams may or may not be:

Team Target WAR +/-

Cubs 5.5
Dodgers 4.1
Indians 1.2
Nationals 0.7
Red Sox 0.5
Astros -1.8
Giants -3.5
Angels -3.7
Mariners -4.8
Yankees -5.1
Cardinals -5.5
Mets -7.1
Tigers -7.8
Pirates -8.0
Rays -8.2
Rangers -8.5
Blue Jays -9.5
Orioles -10.1
White Sox -10.9
Royals -11.3
Athletics -11.3
Marlins -12.6
Diamondbacks -14.3
Twins -14.3
Rockies -16.9
Reds -18.1
Phillies -18.5
Padres -21.6
Braves -21.7
Brewers -23.0

We see that only five teams exceed the arbitrary threshold of projecting above an average playoff contender. For a team like the Astros and Giants the decision to go for it is obvious. The Giants and Astros have payroll available and solid player development. Interestingly enough, the Angels are closer than one might initially think, but that has more to do with Mike Trout than the cast around him.

Moving toward the middle of the graph is where things begin to get intriguing. With the cost of 1 WAR on the open market approximately $8 million and the trade market expected to be active and expensive, teams need to be realistic with how much they are willing to spend, in cash or prospects, in order to reach the projected WAR threshold. Fringe contenders like the Pirates, Blue Jays and White Sox need to look in the mirror and recognize the uphill battle they have. The Blue Jays are losing key pieces to free agency and they could potentially cripple their flexibility with ill-advised moves. The Pirates are staring up at the Cubs dynasty in the making and you wonder if it is time to shop Andrew McCutchen and other short-term pieces. Lastly, the White Sox have Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier and other quality pieces around the diamond. Given the AL Central, the Sox could blow it up and return to contention sooner rather than later, with the Royals and Tigers’ windows closing and the Indians representing the class of the division.

As we know, it rarely plays out this cleanly on the field, but from a pure projections standpoint, this serves as a gauge to where teams currently are. Some teams have very easy decisions and the choice to contend or rebuild is obvious. For other teams, the decision is less clear, and failure to capitalize could leave them stirring in mediocrity. The Cubs and Indians will fortify their rosters to chase down another pennant. For teams like the Pirates and White Sox, it just might be time to hit the red button.