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.


Breaking From Breaking Ball Norms

Lance McCullers Jr. threw 24 straight curveballs in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Through his major-league seasons, McCullers has thrown that pitch a mind-numbing 47.4% of the time, a distant first among starters. In that period, Rich Hill is second. But the difference between McCullers’ curveball rate and Hill’s rate is the same as the difference between Hill and Scott Feldman, who has thrown it at the 14th-highest clip. Everybody is aware of McCullers’ crazy curve-balling. However, I think his statistical absurdity is still understated. And under-examined. There are outliers and in every category, but it’d be difficult to find someone who matches his ridiculousness in any stat.

McCullers has been at the forefront of a breaking-ball movement taking place the past few years; 2017 had the lowest rate of fastballs thrown in the Pitch Info era. This past season also had the highest slider rate and second-highest curveball rate in the era. As the run-scoring environment has shifted offensively the last few seasons, pitchers have combated that with off-speed pitches and fewer fastballs, specifically two-seamers/sinkers. That pitch has been increasingly unsuccessful and its usage has declined of late. It seems unnatural to move away from a fastball, but, when healthy, McCullers has thrived off his extreme curveball tendencies.

I would challenge some pitchers to follow in the footsteps of McCullers. I searched for starters who already heavily feature a great breaking ball, but have poor fastballs. I used run value as my evaluator for pitch quality. Not the best statistic, but I set my search to guys who have accumulated 250+ innings in the past three seasons. That should be enough sample to get a good sense of the pitch effectiveness.

Five starters fit the criteria most: Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Charlie Morton, Trevor Bauer, and Patrick Corbin. The first four throw curves as their primary breaking ball, and Corbin throws a slider. Excuse the GIF heaviness of the next part, but here are some clips just to give you an idea of each individuals pitch.

Let’s start with Nola.

Now to another Phillie – Eickhoff

To Morton, the World Series Game 7 star:

And Bauer…

Just two more…Corbin:

(sorry for the GIF exhaustion)

All these pitchers possess devastating breaking balls. It may seem ridiculous to ask these guys to increase their breaking-ball tendencies even more, considering they ranked seventh, sixth, tenth, and ninth in curveball usage this season, respectively. Corbin was third in slider usage. Interestingly, every pitcher except Morton has already dramatically increased the usage of their respective pitch, and all had significantly better results, except for Eickhoff. However, Eickhoff’s drop-off did not come from the curveball, but rather from horrendous fastballs and sliders.

They are all already league extremes with their breaking-ball usage, but I would challenge them to continue moving towards McCullers-esque extremes. Now, going full McCullers is probably too far for most; I would still press them to further increase their breaking-ball usage. They have proven they can locate the pitches, and hitters are yet to prove they can hit it. Additionally, they have not demonstrated consistently effective fastballs.

Besides McCullers and Hill, no starting pitcher has quite tested the boundaries of pitch distribution. It’s always started with the fastball. A balanced approach with three or four effective pitches is expected. Obviously, there is plenty of truth to that. No one will make it six innings with just two pitch types, regardless of each one’s effectiveness. But McCullers and Hill have proven that a breaking-ball-centric repertoire can be quite successful, given that pitch is exceptional. Nola, Eickhoff, Morton, Bauer, and Corbin all have those exceptional breaking balls. I would encourage them to build their pitching around those breaking balls.


Are GMs Hurting the Owners Long-Term?

There is some evidence that young players are getting more and more productive and the aging curve is shifted to the left, but salary distribution has not changed. In fact, the average salary since 2005 increased 1.5 times, but the minimum salary increased only 1.3 times, which means the young guys earn less despite producing more. Young guys are getting exploited by the owners. Of course there are extreme examples like Trout in 2012, who earned a little more than $500K but was worth roughly $65M using $6.5M per win, but it is pretty clear that on average the young players are getting underpaid.

Now it is pretty easy to blame the owners for that, but in reality that was by design. The union agreed to all that and they did it on purpose. The veterans have the power in the union and they were selling the young players to keep their own earnings up. Veterans in baseball are in a pretty privileged position. Baseball is pretty much the only major US sport without a salary cap, and there is also no maximum salary, and contracts are guaranteed. Basically, owners and the union had an agreement (you could almost say a collusion) in which they both exploited the young players to keep their revenue up.

That system wasn’t really fair toward the young players, but it did work. The baseball union was always criticized for being weak, but they always got what they wanted; it basically was a teamwork between owners and veterans which kept labor peace preserved for almost 20 years now.

However, now that system is put in danger. GMs are getting smarter, and they try to increase their value for the dollar. Top veterans are still getting paid, and actually better than ever. There are rumors that Bryce Harper will be the the first $500M player; however, it seems like the role of the mediocre veteran is diminishing. Older non-great players seem to struggle getting contracts, especially if they are of the slower slugging variety. 30 homers used to sound good, but if by WAR the guy is only worth 1.5 wins, the GMs prefer to not give him $10M, but instead get a guy to play for the minimum who might produce only 1.2 WAR but for a tenth of the salary. That is a very smart practice by the GMs because it increases the value/$ a lot.

GMs were criticized for giving $100+M contracts to declining veterans and at times those contracts do look terrible, like in the case of Albert Pujols, who will get paid $30+million a year for a couple more years for basically replacement-level or below value. Now, those contracts are very bad (even though often they are not as bad as you think considering the current $/WAR price), but still, overall, the owners are saving a lot of money. Salaries do still go up, and faster than inflation, but since the mid-2000s the players’ share of overall revenue went down drastically. Now teams probably do invest more into analytics, staff, and player development, but still that is only a small piece compared to the huge jump in overall baseball revenue, and most of the money is pocketed by the owners.

The media and fans did help the owners a lot by painting the picture of the overpaid MLB player, but in reality that applies to only a small percentage of players. Last year 133 players made more than $10M per year, but there were well over 800 players playing, and more than half of them make less than $1.5M. You would guess that compensates the owners for paying Pujols $30M for nothing, and A-Rod for not playing at all! Basically, that slight overpaying of veterans was the fee the owners had to pay to the union for them agreeing to the system.

I’m not blaming the owners, as they invested billions, and they should make some profit out of that (as long they are not running the team on the cheap and basically make their profit just based on revenue sharing…) and I’m also not blaming the union for prioritizing the veterans, but that system might have outlived itself now. If the GMs continue to squeeze the lower-end veterans hard without giving something else back, they might force the union into another strike that nobody wants. There used to be a very delicate balance between union and owners, making sure that labor peace has now been kept for almost 20 years, making both sides very happy and rich, but that balance is in danger now. The union doesn’t want a strike, but if the players’ share continues to go down, they might be forced to do that if the owners don’t give something else back.

Of course the union is to blame for that problem too. They were thinking short0sighted by just focusing on veteran salaries, and thus making young player labor so cheap, which incentivized the GMs to target the young players so much. Short-term, the veterans made more money that way, but just like a fisherman fishing too many fish, they were hurting themselves by pricing themselves out of the market.

Now there are two possibilities for how this could end:

1. The owners could force their GMs to be market inefficient and overpay veterans more, and give more of them a job to keep the veterans happy. Of course that could only happen if all owners agree so that no single teams get a disadvantage by doing that. You could do that by agreeing to have a certain minimum number of veterans on the team, for example, or you could increase the salaries at the top end. Of course that has implications too, as that might have a negative effect on league quality (bad veterans just kept around to fulfill a quota), and it also might hurt the intra-union peace as the young guys would get squeezed even more, and that might cause them to riot.

2. The young guys could take over more power in the union, causing the earnings of the younger guys to go up. Raising the minimum salary would be a possibility, although even at like $1.5M they probably still would be underpaid. You could also increase arbitration salaries, and finally you could shorten service time requirements. A good thing probably would be to stop service time manipulation to prevent teams from getting a seventh control year. For example, instead of days of service time, you could say every year the player played in MLB is a service year (maybe except September call-ups from that). Of course that could delay some prospects that actually have the talent to play in MLB, but it would give more veterans a job, and also make things like exploiting the DL and shuttling between minors and majors more costly. Of course there are also disadvantages to that. As I mentioned, talented players would be held back for sometimes up to like 3/4 of a season (although it could also accelerate other very good prospects that are clearly ready by half a season), and shorter control also could hurt competitive balance because small-market teams can’t keep their core around as long as they used to.

Overall, this is a very serious problem that is not going away, and eventually probably will lead to a big clash. There are possible solutions, but each of them also has some negative implications, so this is not an easy to solve problem.


The Innings-Pitched Analysis You Didn’t Need

Does anyone else have a random question just enter into their head that just can’t get out until it’s fully answered? To give an example, I had trouble sleeping last night, trying to figure out how Helen Keller learned to talk. It frustrated me so much that I caved and looked it up at like 12:30 AM. Turns out a teacher would physically move Helen’s lips and tongue to demonstrate how different sounds are made. That question has nothing to do with baseball, though. The following question, however, does.

How many teams have averaged exactly 9 innings pitched per game over a season? Not 8.999, not 9.001, exactly 9.

As you all know, it is possible for a team to pitch exactly 9 innings (this will occur in most of the team’s wins), fewer than 9 (either in a road loss or a rain-shortened game), or more than 9 (#freebaseball). All those possibilities combined over the course of an entire season will inevitably make any exact number of innings pitched per game quite a demanding task. But at some point, some teams had to have accomplished the miraculous feat of having their total innings pitched divided by the amount of games played to equal nine. I cannot emphasize enough how useless this information is, but you made it this far, so you might as well keep going.

Twenty-nine teams have done it. Awesome. When? Well, eight did it in the 1870s, the longest drought happened between 1890 and 1917, and the most recent team was the inaugural 2005 Nationals. The average winning percentage among the teams is 46.59%, which means I haven’t found the secret to winning in baseball. Here’s a table.

Season Team IP G IP/G
2005 Nationals 1458 162 9
1998 Mets 1458 162 9
1996 Red Sox 1458 162 9
1991 Dodgers 1458 162 9
1988 Padres 1449 161 9
1985 Astros 1458 162 9
1984 Angels 1458 162 9
1981 Astros 990 110 9
1976 Red Sox 1458 162 9
1971 Cardinals 1467 163 9
1966 Dodgers 1458 162 9
1966 Cubs 1458 162 9
1964 Reds 1467 163 9
1963 Yankees 1449 161 9
1963 Athletics 1458 162 9
1957 Pirates 1395 155 9
1943 Cubs 1386 154 9
1932 Athletics 1386 154 9
1918 Indians 1161 129 9
1917 Senators 1413 157 9
1890 Colonels 1206 134 9
1875 Brown Stockings 630 70 9
1875 Red Stockings 171 19 9
1875 Centennials 126 14 9
1873 Mutuals 477 53 9
1873 Resolutes 207 23 9
1873 Marylands 54 6 9
1872 Haymakers 225 25 9
1872 Nationals 99 11 9

These are some funky names here, particularly at the bottom. I didn’t know another team called the Nationals existed. Neat. Some of those same teams don’t have a ton of games played. Who are the Marylands and why did they only play six games in a season? Well, not only did they play just six games that year, but that’s the total amount of games they played as a franchise. They went 0-6 and then folded.

On the flip side, the 1963 Yankees were quite good. They won the AL by 10.5 games and won 104 games total before getting swept in blowout fashion by Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers. They scored four runs over four games in that series and never led. But at least they have the consolation of averaging exactly 9 innings pitched per game. Step aside, Stan Musial, your retirement was not the most memorable part of this season.

The 1971 Cardinals went 90-72, finishing second to the world-champion Pirates. Joe Torre won the MVP that year. They all shared a name with the St. Louis Cardinals football team, which is something I presume people thought was a good idea. Most importantly, they averaged exactly 9 innings pitched per game. Bob Gibson celebrated this after the season by melting a car with his bare hands.

You know what? We’re meant to live while we’re alive; let’s look at a couple more benchmarks in this useless stat. You might be able to guess who averaged the least amount of innings pitched per game. It was the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, famous for going 20-134 over the whole season. Going 11-101 on the road means you’re not pitching many ninth innings. They averaged 8.21 IP/G.

To finish off, we’ll do the most. It was the 1969 Minnesota Twins. You wouldn’t have guessed that, unless you fondly remember the Billy Martin-coached team that went to the first-ever version of the two-round playoffs, only to get swept by the Orioles. Just at a glance, you wouldn’t expect it. They went below .500 on the road and played only 19 extra-inning games. But looking closely, you’ll find four games featuring 16 or more innings, including two 18ers. They ended up at 9.24 IP/G.

What does this mean? Nothing. I wanted to answer this dumb question and it really wouldn’t be socially acceptable to go through this analysis at a party. Actually, the first person to send me proof of this being mentioned at a party gets a prize. Good luck.


Cody Bellinger’s Ability to Be Great

Cody Bellinger was called up by the Dodgers to the big leagues on April 25th of this year. Coming in at only 21 years of age, Bellinger was looking to make a name for himself. Toward the beginning of the season he would split starts between left field and first base. Eventually Adrian Gonzalez would go down to injury, giving Bellinger the opportunity of being an everyday first baseman. Bellinger rose to the occasion, cementing himself in the history books, as he will be the National League Rookie of the Year. Not only will he achieve this award, but he helped bring his team to the World Series. Before Bellinger’s arrival to the team, the Dodgers were 9 for their first 20 games. The Dodgers would go on to win 104 of their 162 games.

During the course of the season, Bellinger put up incredible numbers. He played in 132 games throughout the year, driving in 97 runs, scoring 87 times, and belting an astonishing 39 home runs, finishing only behind the powerful Giancarlo Stanton (with 59). Bellinger had a respectable .267 batting average while maintaining a .352 on-base percentage and .581 slugging percentage. He was a force at the plate, putting fear into the eyes of many pitchers. Although he didn’t walk so much — only 11.7% of the time — he still managed to have a wOBA of .380, staying in the top 30 for the MLB. On average, he would draw a walk for about every two strikeouts; not the best, but still better than most players belting over 30 homers. His plate discipline was above average for power hitters throughout the season, but come postseason, this would all change.

Throughout much of the postseason, most people were reflecting on Aaron Judge’s struggles, after having himself a historic season at the plate. Judge would break the record for strikeouts in a postseason until Bellinger would then beat this unfavorable record with 29. Through Bellinger’s 15 postseason games, he would belt three home runs, driving in nine runs and scoring 10 times while walking only three times. Most of these statistics happened during the NLDS and NLCS. His wOBA would fall to .295, with a .219 batting average, walking 4.5% of the time, while striking out in an astounding 43.3% of his plate appearances. In fact, in the World Series alone, he would achieve 17 of his 29 strikeouts. Bellinger would struggle immensely at the plate throughout the World Series, with the exceptions of Games 4 and 5.

During the series, the Astros pitching staff would focus on beating Bellinger in on the hands with curveballs falling out of the zone, and with fastballs tailing up and away. Amazingly, Bellinger during the regular season only chased pitches out of the zone 29.7% of the time. This would change immensely as the Astros pitching staff’s effective deception would often pull Bellinger’s bat out of the zone.

In Game 4, Bellinger would face Astros pitcher Charlie Morton in the top of the 5th with no outs in a 1-2 count. Bellinger’s stance is in a more upright position with his bat also in a vertical position. This makes creating torque through his hands a little more awkward, as he rolls his hands into a hitting position. When this curveball begins to spin further in on his hands, it becomes too difficult to bring his hands in further, leading to this awful swing and follow-through shown. His approach on this pitch looks as if he’s trying to hit the ball 500 feet over the right-field wall; not an optimal mindset in a 1-2 count when you know the curveball is coming. His head was nowhere near the zone; he may as well have swung with his eyes closed. This is the position we often saw Bellinger in throughout the World Series when thrown an inside curveball. However, Bellinger would use this at-bat for his next plate appearance.

Now we see later in the game Bellinger is in a 1-1 count facing Morton in the top of the 7th. He knows he’s going to see a curveball in on his hands and adjusts accordingly. His body is in a lower position with his bat in a more angled approach, with his hands staying back, anticipating curveball, looking to stay in on the ball with his hands and drive it to right field. Bellinger manages to fight this pitch off, fouling it back, showing his adjustment helped. His follow-through is also in a significantly better position, with his head staying back looking at the ball, and his body stays in a more balanced stance. This approach, showing that he’s able to make even a small adjustment to making contact with the low and in curveball, led pitchers to start targeting the outside upper half of the zone with the fastball again.

Here we see in Game 4, Bellinger faces Astros pitcher Charlie Morton with a 1-1 count and 0 outs in the top of the 5th. Bellinger’s body is not in an effective hitting position for hitting this outside fastball. His body is falling out away from the zone, his pivot foot is not providing any power, and his hands reach out from his body too far. Bellinger would acknowledge this issue and had this to say before Game 4:

“I hit every ball in BP today to the left side of the infield,” Bellinger said. “I’ve never done that before in my life. Usually I try to lift. I needed to make an adjustment and saw some results today. I’m pulling off everything. Usually in BP I just try to lift, have fun in BP. But today I tried to make an adjustment. I needed to make an adjustment, and so I decided I’m hitting every ball to left field today.”

This is exactly what Bellinger would do.

In the top of the 9th in Game 4 with a 1-0 count and no outs, Bellinger faces Astros closer Ken Giles with runners on. Bellinger has his eyes locked in on the ball as he’s seen this pitch before. He’s using his approach from batting practice earlier to drill this ball into the gap. He keeps his body in an athletic hitting position, keeping his hands in and generating all his power through his lower half, creating torque through his strong hands. We see him drive this ball into the left-center gap, keeping his eyes on the ball the whole way and maintaining a strong follow-through. Bellinger did exactly what he said he would do and helped his team win this game. He would then carry on this adjustment into Game 5, showing people why he will be this year’s NL RoY.

Although Bellinger would fall into his old habits in Games 6 and 7, his ability to recognize where the problem is and the ability he has to adjust is what makes him an effective hitter. Through this, Bellinger will only continue to become better and will continue to become one of the most feared hitters in the league this next season. At only 22 years old now, Bellinger will become the next big star in this great sport we call Baseball.


Preller’s Impressive Rebuild

Back in 2014, the Padres had a really good farm system. It featured Austin Hedges, Matt Wisler, Trea Turner, and a few other good prospects, and Baseball America had them ranked sixth.

However, then came 2015, and A.J. Preller made an ill-advised attempt to go all-in. We don’t know whether the owners demanded him to do that, but we can for sure say it didn’t work. The Padres did improve to 74 wins, but came nowhere close to a wild-card slot, and they sent away Yasmani Grandal, Max Fried, Mallex Smith, Trea Turner, and others.

Suddenly, BA then had their farm system ranked only 24th, and the talent in the majors wasn’t great either.

Those actions really were bad for the organization.

But then came 2016, and Preller made a complete 180-degree turn. Most notably, he traded Craig Kimbrel for Javier Guerra, Manuel Margot and Logan Allen. He also selected Dan Straily and Brad Hand from waivers, and he made a lot of rule 5 picks.

Later, he traded James Shields for eventual top prospect Fernando Tatis, and swung the infamous Drew Pomeranz for Anderson Espinoza trade where Preller rightfully got criticized for not being honest about the health of his player. Preller got punished and was despised by the league and fans, but that didn’t stop him in his quest. He drafted Jacob Nix in 2015, Cal Quantrill in 2016, and MacKenzie Gore in 2017. He also signed a lot of guys on the international market, most notably Cuban Adrian Morejon.

The bottom line is that he built up a farm system in little more than two years that contains some risk but has some high upside and a lot of depth. MLB.com has seven of their guys in their top-100, and ranked their farm third midseason.

You can rightfully criticize Preller’s actions as a human being and professional, but there is little doubt about the results he got for his organization in the last two years.


In Remembrance of Roy “Doc” Halladay

Harry Leroy Halladay III was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays with the 17th overall selection in the 1995 MLB First-Year Player Draft.  He was barely 18 years old at the time.  Throughout his time in the minor leagues, the pitcher, who now went simply by Roy Halladay, was a coveted prospect, reaching as high as #12 on the Baseball America Top 100 prior to the 1999 season.  Halladay surpassed rookie limits during the 1999 season, but the following year is generally more remembered as the anecdotal beginning of an eventual Hall-of-Fame-caliber career.  Among all pitching seasons with at least 50 IP, Halladay’s 10.64 ERA (48 ERA+) in 2000 was, and still is, the worst of all time.

The next season was much kinder to Halladay, as he posted a 145 ERA+; in 2002 he made his first AL All-Star team.  The first of two Cy Young awards “Doc” would receive came in 2003, when he pitched 266 innings and had a 3.23 FIP, along with an rWAR of 7.55.  The next two seasons were injury-plagued for Halladay, and he pitched a mere — by his standards — 274.2 innings in them combined, while running a 142 ERA+.  Fully healthy over the next four years, Halladay averaged 233 IP, never contributing fewer than 220 in a season.  In that stretch, only CC Sabathia produced a higher fWAR than Halladay, who was also first in IP, sixth in ERA, and eighth in FIP among all qualified pitchers in that span.  Halladay was performing at an elite level over a huge volume of work.  Doc Halladay was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 2009 season.

This is where everything becomes more personal to me.  As a Phillies fan, I can clearly remember my middle-school self watching Halladay start many games for my favorite team.  The fondest of these memories is from the 2010 season, May 29 to be exact.  On that night Halladay took the mound opposing then Florida Marlins ace Josh Johnson.  Johnson was excellent that season, leading the NL in ERA and the MLB in FIP.  My 10-year-old self knew the game would be something spectacular.  Indeed, the game was spectacular.  The Phillies won 1-0 behind a complete game with 11 Ks from Halladay.  He had pitched a perfect game.  Later that season came an even more famous performance from Halladay.  He tossed a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in Game 1 of the NLDS, only the second postseason no-hitter in history.  Sure, the Phillies would later fall in the NLCS, but the magic of Halladay’s season never was forgotten.  He won his second Cy Young that year.

However great 2010 was, my clearest memory of Roy Halladay pitching comes from 2011.  United with Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt, Halladay led the Phillies to 102 wins that season.  Unfortunately, what I remember best is Game 5 of the NLDS.  With the series tied at 2 games apiece, the Phillies handed the ball to Halladay for the deciding Game 5.  The Cardinals countered with one of Doc’s best friends, Chris Carpenter.  In total, just one run was scored in that game.  Rafael Furcal led off the game with a triple, and scored when the next batter, Skip Schumaker, doubled.  No more runners would cross the plate.  All told, both pitchers had incredible games.  Halladay had a game score of 72, 44% better than a league-average start.  The bitter portions of the memory are linked not to Halladay, but to the futility of the Phillies offense.  Roy Halladay could transcend even the bitterest of memories.

Time and age eventually caught up to Doc, and he did not pitch well in 2012 or 2013, seasons that were riddled with DL stints.  He retired following the 2013 season, and consensus in the industry was that he would be standing in Cooperstown giving a speech five years following this.  Additionally, some predicted that he would return to the game in some manner, as a pitching coach or something of the like.  First, however, he would take a few years to himself to pursue other interests.  Unfortunately, one of those interests was piloting, and, as fate would have it, he will never give a Hall of Fame speech.  Halladay loved flying planes, often tweeting about it.  Hauntingly following the advice of a quote attributed to several people, what he loved killed him.

In a 16-year MLB career, Roy Halladay compiled 2749.1 IP, 2117 K, a 65.4 rWAR, a 3.38 ERA, and a 3.39 FIP.  But does that really matter?  What matters is how Doc touched the lives of people around him.  It is cliché to say someone was a better person than they were a player, but he really was, and that’s saying something with his résumé.  Whether it was taking care of his family, being a good friend, providing a strong role model, or going to the Philadelphia Zoo with a persistent fan, Halladay improved the lives of those around him.

Goodbye, Roy “Doc” Halladay.  You truly did make the game better for all of us.  We are all so lucky to have been witnesses to your career and life.  You will be sorely missed.


If the Marlins Trade Stanton, They Need to Trade Everyone Else

The Jeter Group hasn’t been lazy and has made a lot of moves already. Now the rumor is that the payroll should be cut back to $90M and Stanton (and Gordon and Prado) should be traded, but the other stars like Yelich and Ozuna should be kept.

Now, I do think trading Stanton is a good idea. He has been great but also injury-prone, and he has a huge salary and opt-outs to make it worse. However, Stanton still is about a 4-5 win player and those wins have to be replaced. The Marlins are already a top-heavy team, with only six hitters and one pitcher with a WAR of 2 or better, and thus losing one star would hurt a lot. To make it worse, they only have three players between 1 and 2 WAR; the rest are below 1 or negative. Also, there is little help from the farm to be expected, which is ranked one of the worst in MLB by most sources.

So realistically, where does trading Stanton, Gordon, and Prado lead you? Gordon had a good season, but it was heavily fueled by BABIP; he isn’t really a good hitter and his trade value is limited. Stanton has trade value obviously, but the contract and opt-outs make him less appealing. Prado has zero value. So realistically trading the three gives you two top-100 prospects and maybe 2-3 more decent ones (40-45s). That is a good return, but we are talking about a terrible farm here, that according to Eric Longenhagen only had one top-100 guy pre-2017. So you lose about five wins from Stanton and maybe two from Gordon, and your team still is top-heavy and the farm is slightly better but still below average.

If the Marlins try to retool by trading Stanton and Gordon and keep everyone else, they are honestly in the same situation as the White Sox were before last year, a stars and scrubs team. Now, Yelich and Ozuna have long contracts, so they don’t necessarily need to go immediately, but without a farm system and trade chips it will be hard to build around them.

If the Marlins are serious about competing anytime soon, they need to either keep Stanton and spend big (which IMO is stupid because stars and scrubs teams hardly work anymore), or sell everyone and try to build a top-5 farm system as fast as possible. The Marlins aren’t in a bad spot to do that, although unfortunately their value is mostly hitters, and not ace pitchers, for whom the market currently is better.

But still, if you trade Stanton, Gordon, Yelich, Ozuna, Realmuto, Straily, and one or two of the relievers, you should easily be able to get back like seven top-100s, plus 6-7 more 40+ prospects, and that would immediately make them a top-5 farm system. Now, that would be a huge sell-off, but if you take Stanton away from such a top-heavy team, IMO that is the best thing that you can do.

I really hope Jeter is not just a popular head to sell an even more greedy owner. If the Marlins would trade the expensive guys and then try to retool around the cheap guys, that would be a very bad signal, because with that farm system, that likely would mean they keep being stuck in between. So unless the new group wants to spend $180M+, they better trade the high surplus value guys too.

Now, if there isn’t a good offer for Yelich and Ozuna, they can afford to wait a little like the White Sox did with Quintana, but ultimately the two need to be traded if the Marlins want to rebuild the team. Half-way rebuilds rarely work, at least if you don’t have a good farm system and good depth in the back end of the roster already.


A Few Candidates To Be The Nats’ Fifth Starter

The Nationals head into the offseason without a fifth starter. The plan was for Joe Ross to be a member of the rotation for 2018 and years to come, but he is likely to be out for the season after Tommy John surgery. The next-best in-house option is A.J. Cole. He is generally ineffective, however. In addition, both of these pitchers’ struggles against left-handed hitters may indicate that they are better suited to relief. Eric Fedde is the best pitching prospect on the farm. Although he may be ready to produce come June or July, it is probably better for his development for him to start the season on the farm, and then get called up when Stephen Strasburg inevitably has to sit out for a month.

The Nats have a good rotation headlined by Max Scherzer and Strasburg, so there is no need to go after the best free agents like Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish, or even mediocre options such as Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb. The Nats don’t need high quality innings; they need a high quantity of innings.

Even though Jayson Werth’s hundred-million-dollar contract is coming off the books this offseason, much of that money will be devoted to arbitration raises to Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Tanner Roark. The Nats will be searching for a cheap workhorse, and those don’t get exchanged in trades. Mike Rizzo will have to explore the free-agent market to find 160 innings, and I would like to highlight a few candidates.

THE RELIABLES

Jhoulys Chacin

Chacin is quietly coming off a great year for a back-of-the-rotation arm. He pitched 180 innings and managed to keep his ERA below 4. Behind that 3.89 ERA, though, was a 1.79 home ERA and a 6.53 away ERA. That may be off-putting to any non-Padre suitors, but there is no way that Chacin can be Clayton Kershaw at Petco Park and Anibal Sanchez everywhere else. Those two numbers are bound to converge somewhere around 4.0 in 2018. Plus, those splits may scare away a number of rivals for Chacin’s services, making his price palatable.

John Lackey

You may be initially repulsed at this name because his ERA increased by a whole run this season, but the reality is that he will probably be too expensive for the Nats. He pitched 170 innings this season, and the last time he pitched fewer than 160 innings was 15 years ago. (That is, aside from missing all of 2012.) The quality of those innings decreased drastically, but the baseline for that comparison was his career ERA+ of 110.

R.A. Dickey

The knuckleballing vet continues to produce. He made good on his one-year, $8-million deal with the Braves by pitching 190 innings of roughly league-average production. His FIP was right in line with that ERA. In addition, since velocity isn’t critical to his success, age shouldn’t and hasn’t rendered him ineffective. That being said, he could regress a bit and still produce 180 innings at around a 4.5 ERA next season. The caveat here is that the Braves have an option on him for this next season for the same price as 2017, so he might not reach free agency.

All of these players are probably in line for contracts like the one Bartolo Colon and Dickey received last offseason — one year, about $10 million. If Big Daddy Lerner wants to splash the cash, then the Nats can probably sign one of these players on a one-year deal. However, that is unlikely. If the Lerners don’t increase payroll, the Nats may be forced to truly scavenge the scrapheap.

 

WILD CARDS

Bartolo Colon

Speaking of veterans…Colon may have been DFA-worthy for the Braves last season, but I think he’s still got it. The manifestation of Jabba the Hutt on the pitcher’s mound rebounded with a 3.4 ERA in August with the Twins, and didn’t have the ominous drop in velocity that many veterans undergo. There is a worry that NL East hitters will have seen him enough to know how to destroy the 90mph fastballs he could throw in a game, but given the drastic roster turnover in Philadelphia and New York over the past year, and the pending teardown in Miami, the only worry is Freddie Freeman, and he seems to destroy any pitcher wearing a curly W on his chest. The 44-year-old may able to squeeze a little more magic out of his arm.

Ubaldo Jimenez

I know. I know. The Orioles’ rotation was trash, so why would the Nats want to sign someone from the rivals just up 95? Jimenez could easily rebound from his disastrous 2017. His ERA was 6.8, but his 4.5 xFIP paints a different picture. His ERA was bloated because of an almost impossibly high 2.08 HR/9 — well above the normal HR/9 of 1 that he sported for most of his time in Baltimore. That number is bound to fall much closer to his career average, and a move from Camden Yards to Nats Park would only help that. In addition, both his strikeout and walk rates were better last season than his career averages. Maybe a reunion with Matt Wieters would cause Ubaldo to return to what he was from 2014-2016 — an inconsistent, but capable, back-of-the-rotation arm. If his price tag is low enough, he could be a steal.

Chris Tillman

Let’s just pretend 2017 never happened. Tillman was the staff ace on a team that made the playoffs two out of the last three years. His 2017 season was ugly. Negative WAR ugly. However, that lackluster performance was likely due to the shoulder issues that forced him to miss half the season. Tillman proved from 2011 to 2016 that he is a more than capable pitcher. His FIP- was basically league average every year during that span, and he cracked 200 innings twice and 170 on two other occasions. The Nats should take a peek at Chris Tillman.

Clay Buchholz

Buchholz does not fit the mold I described in my introduction, but the Nats should be intrigued by his upside. He was a quality number two worth 3.2 WAR as recently as 2015, and provided 2.8 WAR to the Red Sox in 2013. Buchholz has been nothing but mediocre in his other seasons. He has the highest potential of any pitcher on this list, but he has proven NOT to be durable. He hit 189 innings in 2014, and 170 in the preceding and following even years; however, for the most part, Buchholz has thrown between 100 and 150 innings per season for his career. He basically missed this entire past season, but he is on track to be ready for spring training. If his right arm looks good, the Nats should give him a hard look.