Belated 2018 MLB midseason prediction report

baseball darts

The MLB season currently still sort of is on a break for All Star festivities, which makes this as good a time as many to check in on the status of my preseason predictions.
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WTF: The case for watching the Detroit Tigers in the second half

tigers miss

The Detroit Tigers enter the second “half” of this season 12.5 games out of first place in the American League Central, and, because that division is so poor, eighteen games out of a wild card position. I’ll spare you the various rest-of-season projections and third-order win percentages. The 2018 MLB postseason is a world that does not belong to the Tigers.

That isn’t a new piece of information, though; indeed, it’s something everyone knew before the season began. Many of us nevertheless watched with some regularity, if not with the same steadfastness as we might have just a few years ago. Miguel Cabrera still was out there, at least to start. Some of the young guys– Jeimer Candelario, Joe Jimenez– looked like they were ready to start making waves. Nick– excuse me, Nicholas– Castellanos and Michael Fulmer, at just twenty-six and twenty-three, respectively, were, by necessity, to be thrust into whatever passes in Detroit for senior leadership roles.

My suspicion is that most fans used to watching major-league-caliber talent will have a difficult time sustaining attention to a team for a full 162-game season on player-development grounds alone, especially when a number of the developing guys might be gone in two weeks. I was there for Drew VerHagen’s first start. I don’t know how many of those will be appointment-viewing this September. Cabrera’s out for the year. Victor Martinez’s farewell tour has been pretty rough.

Plenty of people watch baseball, even bad baseball, because they appreciate the sport’s routine, its rhythms and regularities. It’s a relaxing habit, a way to wind down at the end of the day. In that sense, a reduction or removal of concern about the games’ outcomes may even improve the viewing experience. Here we reach a point where the aesthetics of a team’s performance become important, and it is at this point that the Tigers have something to offer the viewing public.

Last night’s All-Star Game, in which all but one of the fourteen runs plated came by way of the long ball, was the epitome of modern baseball, which is more dinger-driven than at any point in its history. The so-called three true outcomes (“TTO”)– homers, strikeouts, and walks– prevail like never before. Home runs, the single best offensive act in the game, are beginning lose their luster. Like strikes in professional bowling, we’re approaching a point when disappointment in the absence of a home run could prevail over excitement upon the hitting of one.

Like Buckley’s conservative, the 2018 Detroit Tigers stand athwart baseball’s historic march toward its ultimate extremity and shout–or, perhaps, murmur– “Stop!” If you have TTO fatigue, these Tigers are your antidote. So far this year, no team has scored a lower percentage of its runs with the long ball than Detroit (thirty-two percent; cf. the Yankees at fifty-two percent). Sure, they don’t score a lot– twenty-fifth in runs/game at 3.94– but when they do, they find more creative ways to do it. They strike out at a below-average rate and only two teams walk less often. In short, they are a ball-in-play dream and, in 2018, that makes them an entertaining oddity worth watching.

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Previously
WTF: Which Tigers may move in deadline deals? – 7/16
WTF: Bos to the Races, Part II – 6/29
WTF: Bad Company? – 6/26

WTF: Busted – 6/13
WTF: Bos to the Races – 5/22
WTF: Welcome Back Kozma – 5/9

Related
2018 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Highlights from MLB Network’s visit to Detroit Tigers spring training

The 2018 All-Star Game was one for the age

Image result for joe jimenez all star

The American League continued its All-Star-Game winning streak last night, claiming an 8-6 victory in ten innings at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. The game included a record ten home runs, far more than the previous ASG record of six, which had been matched three times (1951, 1954, and 1971).

What’s both more remarkable and unsurprisingly typical is the fact that all but one of the fourteen runs scored last night came by way of the home run, the sole exception being Michael Brantley’s sacrifice fly that scored Jean Segura to extend the AL lead to 8-5 in the top of the tenth:

asg hr log

While absurd in its extremity, this homer-laden affair merely serves to illustrate that, across the sport, a larger share of all runs scored come by the home run than ever before.

guillen no 88-18 (asb)

Blame (or credit!) launch angles, player fitness, chicks, or the ball itself, but last night was a snapshot of the modern game’s offensive environment, as much as a single, top-tier exhibition game ever could be.

Whether you find this new reality fun and exciting or an inflationary bore, the trend seems likely to continue absent external intervention. Of all of the sport’s (seemingly) natural evolutionary developments, this is the only one for which I currently would consider the introduction of reforms with the goal of shifting gameplay away from consumption by the three true outcomes and toward a greater ball-in-play experience. It isn’t clear to me how to accomplish this, as most of the obvious changes likely wouldn’t work or raise other serious consequences, but I think this– not game time or designated hitters— is where the Commissioner should focus his energy with respect to on-field matters.

Designated Sitter, or, Manfred Ado About Nothing

manfred dp

For people who write about baseball, the All-Star break offers at least two things: (1) an intraseasonal oasis in which one can examine and address baseball topics over the span of a day or two without worrying that the otherwise constant barrage of new baseball events occurring that might, for example, mess up the performance numbers on which a writer had founded his or her baseball writing and (2) a probably countervailing force in the form of significant public interviews with the sport’s leaders addressing the sport’s Big Topics Of The Day.

Regarding the latter, Commissioner Rob Manfred kicked things off this morning with an appearance on Dan Patrick’s radio show. Here are my notes of the highlights:

manfred dp notes

People love to talk about the designated hitter and whether the National League will adopt it, and Manfred’s mention of the subject this morning predictably reignited the “conversation”:

I suspect that those on the fence or without a considered opinion on the subject may have found prodding from recent articles like this one Ben Lindbergh published last month illustrating the historically poor offensive numbers from current pitchers. What many of these conversants don’t do is think about this conversation from the DH side, however. There really is no doubt that a designated hitter is going to bat better than a pitcher, but the nature of the DH position is changing, both in terms of the players who are filling that role and their performance levels.

Regarding the union’s particular partiality to the DH, are David Ortiz-types really the players finding extra PAs as designated hitters? Take a look. Continue reading

The MLB Hot 100: At the 2018 All-Star Break

There are plenty of ways to win in baseball, and plenty of ways to assemble winning baseball teams. To state the extremely obvious, a team needs productive players in order to win. FanGraphs took a detailed look at the assembly and production of this year’s teams in terms of their players’ wins above replacement, with a particular focus on the Houston Astros’ ability to avoid playing negative-WAR players:

What follows here is a significantly less-detailed look at 2018 team composition and production as of today, the first day of the All-Star break and the artificial halfway point of the season. Teams have not all played the exact same number of games to this point, but the game totals are sufficiently close for a coarse-grained “analysis” like the one I’ve conducted today, which isn’t analysis so much as making a graph for you to view while there isn’t real baseball for you to view.

The idea is that teams that are poorly represented among baseball’s top-100 players, defined here as the top 100 players on the FanGraphs combined WAR leaderboard, probably are poorly represented as among the top performing teams. Too many words already spent on a simple point. To the graph:

2018 mlb top 100 and team wins

The rosters of the Blue Jays, Padres, and White Sox include none of the top-100 players of the 2018 season, and those teams have bad records. The Astros have the most top-100 players, and they have a good record. The Mets have four of the top-100 players– Jacob deGrom, Brandon Nimmo, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Noah Syndergaard– but a bad record– just thirty-nine wins– reflective of the fact that what remains is not merely mediocre but bad (check that negative-WAR graph above). Oakland maybe isn’t going to keep winning at a .567 rate in the second half.

I don’t know if this graph tells you anything you don’t know. I don’t know if it tells you much at all beyond the data it contains, which is quite simple. But, if it speaks to you, let me know.

The Home Run Derby is tonight at 8:00 on ESPN. The All-Star Game is tomorrow night at 7:30 on FOX.

WTF: Which Tigers may move in deadline deals?

The upcoming non-waiver trade deadline, July 31, doesn’t generate the same level of excitement in Detroit Tigers fans it did a few years ago, when the team was in contention and Dave Dombrowski had free reign over Mike Ilitch’s wallet. Now operating as (at least would-be) sellers in the current trade market, the Tigers don’t have any obvious candidates to ship out, which further limits the already diminished excitement that typically surrounds this time of the baseball year.

Some commentators think that’s a sentiment that’s spreading across the sport:

[T]he trade deadline wasn’t so packed with action a year ago, and it might be even slower this season.

The trade deadline just might not matter that much anymore.

Teams knew early last year whether they were buyers or sellers. They’ve known earlier still this season. They also know the deadline doesn’t typically provide much impact.
. . .
What this means is the game doesn’t need July 31st to spur action and decisions between buying and selling status. More and more, the contenders and sellers know their status earlier in the season and sometimes even before the season. Moreover, in a game loaded with rebuilding clubs, non-contenders are perhaps more incentivized to beat the market. There is incentive for activity to begin — if it is to begin — earlier. That makes for a less dramatic deadline.

It may be worth pausing here to ask why this is happening. I don’t think it’s better information that now is providing teams with knowledge of their relative positions earlier in the season. While the new analytical approach may lead teams that do trade at the deadline to act more conservatively and uniformly and avoid badly imbalanced trades, it doesn’t make sense that that would inform teams’ earlier knowledge of their contention positions. The cause should be something new, and I suspect that cause is intentional tanking. Teams used to “find themselves out of contention” by early July; now, they begin the year that way, purposely designed to fail. This is part of the method that helped the Cubs and Astros win championships, so it’s hard to be too upset about it right now. Like other copycat strategies, though, this one soon should begin generating diminishing returns, which is why I’m glad the Tigers have chosen a more traditional rebuilding model.

To the question at hand: which current Tigers might be trade targets this month?   Continue reading

[UPDATED] WTF: Bos to the Races, Part II

chris-bosio-31cf2671b0969640

While there were positive indications that the Detroit Tigers’ new pitching coach was connecting well with his charges, Chris Bosio’s tenure in Detroit already has come to an end. On Wednesday, general manager Al Avila– without consulting manager Ron Gardenhire— fired Bosio “for ‘insensitive comments’ directed toward a team employee on Monday.” It eventually emerged that Bosio’s “insensitive comments” were of a racial nature, and now we know that, according to Bosio,

he was fired because he used the term “spider monkey” in a conversation that was overheard by an African-American clubhouse attendant. Bosio insisted that the term was not directed at the clubhouse attendant, nor was it said in a racially disparaging fashion.

Bosio said the comment was made in reference to Daniel Stumpf, a white pitcher currently on the disabled list.

“I’ve got protect myself someway, because this is damaging as hell to me. . . . I’ve got to fight for myself. Everyone knows this is not me. I didn’t use any profanity. There was no vulgarity. The N-word wasn’t used. No racial anything. It was a comment, and a nickname we used for a player.”

Bosio elaborated on the “nickname” aspect:

“Someone in our coaches’ room asked me [Monday afternoon] about Stumpf,” Bosio told USA Today. “And I said, “Oh, you mean ‘Spider Monkey.’ That’s his nickname. He’s a skinny little white kid who makes all of these funny faces when he works out.

“The kid [clubhouse attendant] thought we were talking about him. He got all upset. He assumed we were talking about him. I said, ‘No, no, no. We’re talking about Stumpf.’

“And that was it. I swear on my mom and dad’s graves, there was nothing else to it.”

Stumpf has not exactly rushed to his former coach’s defense, however. He told the Free Press that he had no knowledge of the alleged nickname: “Spider Monkey is not a nickname I have been called or I’m familiar with.”

When I first heard the news, I couldn’t help thinking about the public clashes between Bosio and Gardenhire pertaining to bullpen strategy that emerged during spring training as both men adjusted to their roles with their new team, particularly in light of the fact that Gardenhire named Rick Anderson as Bosio’s replacement. Anderson is a Gardenhire man through and through, someone Rod Allen referred to as Gardenhire’s “best friend.”

Bosio has indicated that he plans to explore legal action against the Tigers. If he pursues a claim for wrongful termination, he may face an uphill battle. As a coach, Bosio is not a union member, so state and federal law– rather than any collective bargaining agreement– would govern his employment and any legal claims arising therefrom. Since 2013, Michigan is a right-to-work state, meaning that employers like the Tigers generally can terminate their employees for any reason or no reason at all. Of course, it’s possible that team policies (as might be contained in an employee handbook) or Bosio’s employment contract with the team limited the team’s ability to fire him, however. Seemingly looking in that direction, Avila stated that Bosio’s conduct violated both team policy and his contract.

Without being able to review the Tigers’ employee handbook or Bosio’s contract, it’s difficult to offer much more in the way of an assessment of how a lawsuit between Bosio and the Tigers might go. What is clear is that, with the team’s record since the Rally Goose graced Comerica Park with its feathery presence having fallen below .500 thanks largely to two consecutive series sweeps, the Tigers have found their new diversion from the quality of their on-field performance.

UPDATE: The Athletic now is reporting a new version of the event that led to Bosio’s termination, citing four team sources:

Bosio called the attendant, who is African-American, a “monkey,” according to four team sources. The remark was directed toward the young man, who was collecting towels from the coaches’ room at the time, during a post-game gripe session in which Bosio was lamenting about a pitcher.

During this exchange, Bosio made a derogatory comment about one of the Tigers pitchers and then gestured toward the attendant before adding, “like this monkey here,” the sources said. The attendant pushed back at Bosio for the comment, and an additional team employee witnessed the exchange. Bosio was provided an opportunity to apologize to the attendant after his outburst but declined to do so, according to multiple sources.

All four sources who spoke to The Athletic disputed Bosio’s account.

Regarding potential legal action involving Bosio, this new report also notes:

If Bosio decides to pursue a lawsuit against the Tigers, it will not be his only pending legal action. Bosio has multiple liens and judgments against him and he continues to be embroiled in proceedings with his ex-wife, Suzanne, for whom he filed for divorce in 2012 and was granted a divorce in 2014.

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Previously
WTF: Bad Company? – 6/26
WTF: Busted – 6/13
WTF: Bos to the Races – 5/22
WTF: Welcome Back Kozma – 5/9

Related
2018 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Highlights from MLB Network’s visit to Detroit Tigers spring training

WTF: Bad Company?

american-league

Today’s article at The Hardball Times sets in print what most baseball fans already have intuited: the American League’s Central Division stinks. The article doesn’t provide much insight or analysis, but, for those who chronicle such things, its thesis statement is worth recording:

As of June 25, FanGraphs’ projected standings show the Central teams will wind up, in total, losing 88 games more than they win, with only Cleveland, as the worst of the six division winners, over .500. Since Major League Baseball split itself six ways in 1994, no division has had a worse season by that measure.

Alas, it’s nothing new. Blame it on small markets, blame it on these teams’ inability to attract the very best free agents, blame it on unwise or tightfisted ownership; heck, blame it on Midwest weather. There’s a history of this. Thirteen times in the 24 years we’re looking at, the AL Central or its National League middle-of-the-continent cousin has been the worst division in baseball. This looks like 14.

There’s more to this story, as with any other, but how much more depends upon your tolerance for a detailed observation of mediocrity. For a short-term example, I could point out that those same FanGraphs projected standings see every team in the division except Detroit playing significantly better, though still not great, over the remainder of this season. Another way of looking at that is to say that, while no one predicted greatness out of this division in 2018, the group has performed below its modest expectations to this point.

A long-term example is that, despite its collective woes, the AL Central has done a decent job of representing itself in the sport’s highest stage. Since 1995, there have been twenty-three World Series matchups. In theory, that means that forty-six different teams could have reached the playoffs’ championship round. The distribution of World-Series contenders has not been nearly so even, however. Twenty-one different teams have accounted for all forty-six World-Series openings over that span:

distribution of world series participants by team 95-17

Here’s how things look if we break down the American League’s representatives by division:

distribution of world series participants by AL division 95-17

Despite this era of AL East (really, Yankees) preeminence, the Central has managed to hold its own by representing the American League in thirty-five-percent of the World Series during that time, with four of its five teams carrying the load. To some extent, this speaks to the randomness of MLB’s playoff results, but it also isn’t exactly the picture of a division perpetually in dumpster. If nothing else, regular championship runs are a balm for the the equally regular dark days checking the summer standings.

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While we’re here visualizing some data and thinking about some 2018 projections, have a look at Nicholas Castellanos. The good news for Nick is that, according to FanGraphs, he’s already produced more value for the Tigers this season than he did all of last season. The bad news is that his offensive contributions, which are the sole driver of that production value, are trending in the wrong direction. Entering yesterday’s game, his monthly splits for 2018 looked like this:

  • March/April: 122 wRC+
  • May: 163 wRC+
  • June: 89 wRC+

(Recall that, for wRC+, 100 is average.) After going 2-5 with a double and a home run yesterday afternoon, Castellanos is back above 100 (102 wRC+) for June, but that still is a substantial tumble from his hot start. A quick glance at his other splits suggest that same-side pitching and the shift have been bugaboos for Castellanos this season, and it looks like teams are using defensive shifts on Castellanos more than ever.

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Previously
WTF: Busted – 6/13
WTF: Bos to the Races – 5/22
WTF: Welcome Back Kozma – 5/9

Related
2018 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Highlights from MLB Network’s visit to Detroit Tigers spring training

Guitar Jam

Matt “Guitar” Murphy passed on to a more soulful realm late last week. Murphy played with Howlin’ Wolf and many other blues and rock ‘n’ roll notables, including Memphis Slim, and was a member of the Blues Brothers. This week’s Jam has three parts: first, a 1963 selection featuring Murphy with Memphis Slim; second, a portion of Murphy’s appearance in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers, in which he played a fictionalized version of himself and appears alongside Aretha Franklin, who portrays his wife; and third, a 1978 live performance by the Blues Brothers that features Murphy:

Baseball Notes: Offensive Discrimination

baseball notes

Although they may continue to cite them because of their familiarity as reference points, baseball analysts largely have moved on from the historically conventional hallmarks of pitcher and batter performance– ERA and batting average (“BA”), respectively– in favor of more comprehensive metrics that provide a more accurate picture of player performance by addressing some of those traditional statistics’ blind spots.

Focusing here on hitters, some of BA’s most notable blind spots include walks; the fact that each park has different dimensions; and the significant variance in the values of different types of hits (e.g., a single versus a home run). As they have with WAR, the three main baseball-analytics websites each offer their own improved versions of BA: Baseball Prospectus’ True Average (“TAv”); Baseball-Reference’s adjusted on-base-plus-slugging (“OPS+”); and FanGraphs’ Weighed Runs Created Plus (“wRC+”). Visually, TAv looks like a batting average but is scaled every year such that an average hitter has a TAv of .260, while OPS+ and wRC+ are scaled to an average of 100.

If you’ve read baseball articles here or at those websites, then you’ve seen those metrics cited, sometimes seemingly interchangeably, in the course of an examination of hitting performance. As BP’s Rob Mains notes in the first part of a recent two-part series at that site, there’s good reason to treat these three metrics similarly: they all correlate very strongly with each other. (In other words, most batters who are, for example, average according to TAv (i.e., .260) also are average according to OPS+ and wRC+ (i.e., 100).)

There are differences between the three, however, and those differences arise because each regards the elements of batting performance slightly differently. As Rob explained:

How the three derive the numbers themselves, including their respective park factors, is pretty small ball. Bigger ball, though, it what goes into them.

  • OPS+ incorporates the same basic statistics as OPS: At-bats, hits, total bases, walks, hit by pitches, and sacrifice flies.
  • wRC+ weights singles, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, and HBPs, with the weighting changing from year to year. For example, a home run had a weight of 2.337 in 1968 but only 1.975 in 1996, reflecting the scarcity of runs in the former year. Additionally, wRC+ considers only unintentional walks.
  • TAv also weights outcomes, including strikeouts (slightly worse than other outs) and sacrifices (slightly better than other outs). TAv also includes batters reaching base on error and incorporates situational hitting[, which refers to hitting that occurs only when runners are on base: Sacrifice hits, sacrifice flies, and hitting into double and triple plays].

So while all three measures look at the same thing—hitting—they’re not doing it quite the same. For OPS+, a walk is as good as a hit, from an OBP perspective, and a home run is four times as good as a single, per SLG. FanGraphs’ wRC+ weights them, but it doesn’t weight outs, as TAv does. Only TAv considers situational hitting.

When applied to players who are especially good or bad in those areas where the three metrics diverge, the result is a lack of correlation between the three with respect to that player. (Cf. the divergent views of the three WAR metrics with respect to Robbie Ray.) Mains’ second article examines some of those players of whom TAv, OPS+, and wRC+ take different views (e.g., Barry Bonds, Kris Bryant, Ian Kinsler, and David Ortiz) before explaining a few general conclusions:

[TAv, OPS+, and wRC+ are] very similar. You can use any of them and feel confident that you’re usually capturing the key characteristics of a batter.

If you want to drill down, though, here are the differences I found:

  • The lack of weighting in OPS+ means that it gives slightly less weight to singles and slightly more weight to home runs and walks than TAv and wRC+.

  • TAv’s inclusion of situational hitting means that batters who are extremely good or bad at avoiding double plays are going to get rewarded or penalized. (Situational hitting also includes bunting, but nobody does that anymore anyway.)

  • The black box factor in these calculations is park factors. Each of the three sites calculates them their own way. They can account for some changes, though not in a predictable or transparent way like high walk totals or low GIDP rates can.

I expect I’ll continue to use these three metrics somewhat interchangeably in articles at this site, although my preexisting (mostly uneducated) preferences for TAv and wRC+ likely will continue. Articles like Rob’s serve as both an important reminder that, at the edges, these updated metrics aren’t exactly the same and an entry point into thinking more precisely about what we ourselves value in the process of evaluating hitter performance.

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Previously
Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup
Baseball Notes: Baseball’s growth spurt, visualized

Baseball Notes: The WAR on Robbie Ray
Baseball Notes: Save Tonight
Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup
Baseball Notes: The In-Game Half Lives of Professional Pitchers
Baseball Notes: Rule Interpretation Unintentionally Shifts Power to Outfielders?
Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection
Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit
Baseball Notes: Looking Out for Number One
Baseball Notes: Preview