Serena Symposium

We had a neighborhood block party on Saturday, and we had to work on Sunday, so we missed the women’s final at the U.S. Open and the immediate reaction thereafter. In doing so, it turned out we missed a lot, including a young player’s first major win, and a veteran player’s failed bid for an historic twenty-fourth major win. There was, as such circumstances almost inevitability present, some drama.

After dropping the first set to Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams looked to be back in the mix, down just 4-3 in the second. But she’d already been mixing it up with the match umpire, who eventually charged her with a game penalty, effectively placing the set and the match out of reach for Williams.

For those who did not watch the match, we are reliant on our trusted commentators for assistance in understanding a difficult situation. As a public service, I present two voices. The first belongs to my favorite new tennis writer, Louisa Thomas, who isn’t really new at the game, at least by internet standards. In Thomas’ estimation, the umpire, Carlos Ramos, failed to grasp the moment and severely overreacted, at least in part due to Williams’ identity– not as an all-time champion, but as a woman, and one who is not Caucasian. Public scorn shades Osaka’s ensuing championship moment. The fault, Thomas contextualizes, of Ramos, but mitigated, she explains, by the grace of Williams.

The second voice belongs to one of my favorite sports commentators, Mary Carillo, who, as ever and always, speaks with a clarity that flows from experiential authority:

In the end, reactions from commentators, however experienced or perceptive, are just that: reactions. For Osaka, this was her moment, and, whatever happens from here, no one– Ramos, Williams, the fans in Queens, or anyone else– can take it away from her. For Williams, it’s about what happens next. She’ll try to match Margaret Court’s major-championship record in Melbourne this January.

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“Atlanta” Braves seek millions more from Cobb County

The Atlanta Braves aren’t getting along well with their new neighbors. After the Cobb County government asked the team to cover $1.5 million in utility expenses the County says is due under the development agreement between the two, the Braves responded by demanding that the County pay the team another $4.6 million for various items, including:

  • $2.6 million for building permit fees the team says the County improperly assessed;
  • $1.5 million for transportation improvements; and
  • $500,000 for project-management expenses.

The development agreement requires the parties to resolve disputes through “private mediation,” and the news report indicates that they will proceed in that direction.

Cobb County taxpayers already paid $392 million to the Braves for SunTrust Park, plus more for necessary transportation improvements, and they are sending additional millions on ongoing basis for maintenance and other public services, such as police officers to assist with traffic management.

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Previously
Ted Turner on the Atlanta Braves’ move to Cobb County
2017 Atlanta Braves Season Preview
Braves finally strike a positive note in move to new stadium
The political costs of a new baseball stadium
Previewing the 2016 Atlanta Braves
The Braves are failing on their own terms
New Braves stadium project continues to falter
Georgia Supreme Court Upholds Cobb’s Braves Stadium Bond Deal
Braves Break Ground on Baseball Boondoggle
The yard sale at Upton Abbey continues
From Barves to Burbs: What’s happening to baseball in Atlanta?

Shadow of The Wind Jam

As music writer Steven Hyden’s timely and expansive new remembrance notes, today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Warren Zevon. I recommend you read Hyden’s article while listening to these selections from Zevon’s deep catalogue. The first two picks are mine, while the third is the song Hyden identifies as the artist’s best.

I enjoyed the sandwich I had for lunch today, and I hope you have the opportunity to do the same.

Queen Jam

Aretha Franklin died this week in Detroit at the age of seventy-six. Her accomplishments are too many and great to capture here in words, at least mine anyway. Remembrances from Doc Woods and Patterson Hood follow related selections from her soulful catalogue.

It was just two months ago that Franklin appeared in this space in a clip memorializing her Blues Brothers scene-mate Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who passed in June. Naturally, that scene, like any other in which Franklin appeared (e.g., supra), belonged to Franklin.    Continue reading

Tilde Talk: The Empty Ureña Suspension

Atlanta Braves rookie outfielder Ronald Acuña, Jr. has been on a tear. Entering last night’s game against the floundering Fish, he had just become the youngest player (since at least 1920) to homer in four straight games, joining Miguel Cabrera as the only two twenty-year-olds to accomplish the feat. He leads all rookies in slugging percentage. He’s amazing, and he’s a big part of the reason why the Braves have reclaimed first place in the NL East.

The Miami Marlins stink. Their new ownership group, led by Derek Jeter, has spent its inaugural year at the helm casting off virtually every remotely valuable member of the team, which has a .390 winning percentage in 2018 and is unlikely to compete in any respect for years to come. I didn’t call the Marlins franchise a tax shelter, but somebody else might.

The Marlins pitching staff isn’t really getting anybody out, as a -180 run differential somewhat suggests. Only the Orioles and Blue Jays have been worse in that regard, and they spend a lot of time in the AL East getting beaten up by the Red Sox and Yankees juggernauts. If you care about ERA, the Marlins have the worst such mark (4.85) in the National League.

Acuña has enjoyed an extreme degree of success, even by his standards, against Miami: .339/.433/.714 (201 wRC+). They just can’t get him out, at least as the rules of baseball define that term, especially lately. In the first three games of the four-game series with the Marlins that ended last night, Acuña reached base ten times in fifteen plate appearances, which included four home runs and a double.

The Braves’ half of the first inning last night began like this:

I’ve watched Jose Ureña’s first pitch from last night, which came in at about ninety-seven miles per hour, as well as his subsequent reaction to his pitched ball hitting Acuña on the arm, about a dozen times. There is no doubt in my mind that Ureña took the mound last night with the intent to hit Acuña with his first pitch and did what he intended to do. The umpiring crew apparently agreed and ejected Ureña after that first pitch.

For those unfamiliar with Ureña, a collection of humans that, prior to roughly twenty-four hours ago included very nearly the entirety of the human species, he is a twenty-three-year-old pitcher who has spent all four years of his major-league career with the Marlins, mostly as a starter. Among regular starters, Ureña has been one of the harder throwers in 2018, but there’s little else remarkable about him. The current season has been the best of his career so far (1.7 WARP to date), and there’s a not-unreasonable argument that he ought to be done for the season.

This evening, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred decided to suspend Ureña for six games and fine him an undisclosed amount of money. Suspensions for this sort of thing often are of the five-game variety. For starting pitchers, five-game suspensions really are one-game suspensions, because most starting pitchers only pitch once every five games. It’s a bit of a charade by the Commissioner’s office.

Manfred has not released an explanation of his somewhat unusual decision to push Ureña’s suspension to six games, but it’s reasonable to assume that he wanted to appear tougher to avoid the usual critiques of the standard five-game suspension. It’s readily obvious, of course, that, for starting pitchers, a six-game suspension suffers from almost precisely the same practical defect that attends a five-game suspension. Indeed, as reporters immediately noted, it’s a very real possibility that Ureña won’t even miss his next start.

This isn’t the first time Manfred has acted in a way he knows is purely symbolic and entirely without practical consequence. It’s becoming a bad habit of his, made all the more frustrating by the ready availability of effective alternatives. Here, if Manfred really wanted to communicate a message to players that he will not tolerate intentional, unsportsmanlike behavior like that Ureña exhibited last night, he could have done any of the following:   Continue reading

WTF: Castellanos Reality Check

When it wraps up next month, the 2018 season almost certainly will have been the best of Nicholas Castellanos’ six-year career. The twenty-six-year-old already was positioned to take on an increased leadership role entering this season, and that responsibility has fallen even more squarely on his shoulders following a season-ending injury to Miguel Cabrera in June. Castellanos is younger than many of his newer teammates, including Niko Goodrum, Mikie Mahtook, and Ronny Rodriguez, but no one– with the exceptions of Victor Martinez and Jose Iglesias (by less than a month)– on the Detroit Tigers’ current forty-man roster has a longer major-league tenure with the Tigers than Castellanos. With Cabrera out and Martinez fading into retirement (but see), Castellanos is what qualifies as this team’s veteran leader. And yes, I realize he won’t even hit arbitration until next year.

Emerging along with his clubhouse status is his bat. By whichever offensive metric you prefer, Castellanos is having a career year at the plate: 120 OPS+; 121 wRC+; .303 TAv. While his BABIP is elevated (.354 in 2018 versus a .330 career average), there is reason to believe that this level of production from Castellanos– again, just twenty-six– is real. Continue reading

It’s August 10, 2018, and football officially is back

It’s the first full week of August, which obviously means football season is upon us. The first NFL preseason game actually happened last week in Canton, Ohio, where the Bears and Ravens played in just the second first Hall of Fame Game since the great paint debacle of 2016, which surprisingly had nothing to do with Bruce Arians’ childhood.

Last night, week one of the NFL preseason officially began, with the Bills, Panthers, Bears, Bengals, Buccaneers, Dolphins, Browns, Giants, Steelers, Eagles, Saints, Jaguars, Redskins, Patriots, Rams, Ravens, Texans, Chiefs, Titans, Packers, Colts, Seahawks, Cowboys, and 49ers all in action. I didn’t realize there were that many games last night before I began typing that sentence. But there’s absolutely no denying it: football is back.

Toward an MLB MVP-Voting Rubric

[The following is an introduction to a more thorough study I intend to publish at Banished to the Pen following the conclusion of the current MLB season the purpose of which is to suggest an approach to harmonizing traditional ways of thinking about the sport’s annual MVP award with available sabermetric principles. -ed.]

Last week’s Zach Britton trade reminded me about the idea of championship win probability added (cWPA). In 2016, Ben Lindbergh made the case that Britton, then serving as the closer for the Baltimore Orioles, should win the award for the most valuable player in the American League based on the idea that Britton, at least during the regular season, had done more to help his team win the World Series than any other player had helped his own team win the championship. Britton– again, a relief pitcher who threw sixty-seven innings– finished eleventh in MVP voting. Mike Trout, the WAR leader, claimed the award, his second, and I don’t suspect many people have thought much about cWPA since then.

What should make cWPA (defined: cWPA “takes individual game win probability added (WPA) and increases the scope from winning a game to winning the World Series. Where a player’s WPA is the number of percentage points that player increased or decreased their team’s probability of winning a single game, their cWPA is the number of percentage points the player increased or decreased their team’s chances of winning the World Series.”) attractive to a broad swath of the MVP electorate is that it accounts for the traditional notion that the individual award-winner ought to have been on a winning team. When handing out performance awards for a given season, it makes sense to reward players based on what they actually accomplished, as opposed to what they should have accomplished but for bad luck, sequencing, weak teammates, strong opponents, environmental variations, and other contextual and extrinsic factors. After all, these factors work, to some extent, on all players, and just as we determine team season standings based on actual win percentage (and not a sabermetrically adjusted winning percentage), so too should we determine individual season awards based on actual results.

This is not to say that the MVP should go to the player with the best batting average or the Cy Young to the hurler with the most pitcher wins, obviously. While using cWPA as a guide will steer us toward players who are, in the conventional sense, winners, it uses accepted sabermetric principles to maneuver in that direction. Still, I think there may be some concern that cWPA, when used alone as a player-valuation measure, might be too context-dependent and inclined to reward disproportionately an otherwise unremarkable player who happened to find himself in one or two of the right places at one or two of the right times. Certainly, though, it seems likely that a player who accumulated performances in those situations often enough to find himself near the top of the cWPA leaderboard also would be a well-rounded and highly productive player in all situations.

Still, I was curious how well cWPA correlated with WAR, something it ought to do reasonably well if it’s to be available as a useful informant for MVP voters. I pulled the cWPA numbers for the current season and used FanGraphs’ version of WAR mainly because their combined WAR leaderboard made data manipulation easier.

(click image to enlarge)

I don’t have a statistics background, so I won’t comment on the significance of the correlation between cWPA and fWAR except to say that it seems sufficiently strong. If you’re curious about who’s who on this plot, here are the current top-ten players by cWPA:

There is a lot of significant, championship-relevant baseball yet to be played in 2018, and a more significant study of the above would have involved prior, completed seasons, but I think there’s something here and wanted to share what I had compiled on the current season as it moves into August and teams begin their playoff charges in earnest. I anticipate updating this information after the conclusion of the regular season and supplementing it with historical data to create an even more robust analysis. In the meantime, I welcome any input on win probability added and seasonal awards.

WTF: At deadline, Tigers move their best player

martin farewell

Today is the MLB non-waiver trade deadline, and it looked like the only news out of the Detroit Tigers camp was going to be a bummer about a season-ending injury to Franklin Perez, a pitching prospect who came to the Tigers organization in the Justin Verlander trade a year ago.

It now appears that General Manager Al Avila had a working lunch today, however, as news recently broke that the team had worked an intra-division trade with Cleveland:

In his first season in Detroit, Martín has been one of the Tigers’ top performers, and he departs sitting atop the team’s fWAR leaderboard (tied at 2.1 fWAR with Jose Iglesias and Nicholas Castellanos). Cleveland already was going to win the AL Central. Martín, who seems likely to platoon with former Tiger Rajai Davis in center field, should help them run away with it down the stretch.

Martín’s contract with Detroit was a one-year, $1.75 million deal (apparently with a team option for 2019), and I don’t have any problem with the team trying to move him for value right now. Two weeks ago, during the All-Star break, I tagged him as one of the Tigers likely to be on the move this month:

The Tigers’ new outfielder (and new U.S. citizen), already a veteran of eight MLB seasons at age thirty, is having far and away his best season at the plate in 2018. His offensive numbers (.257/.327/.431, .271 TAv, 104 OPS+, 106 wRC+) make him essentially an average hitter, which is way better than what he’s been in the past. Coupled with a strong arm and the ability to cover center field, this makes Martín an attractive pickup for a contender looking to add robust depth. He’s on a one-year contract ($1.75 million plus incentives) with the Tigers and is eligible for salary arbitration next year, so he’s cheap. He’s also hurt. A left hamstring injury sent him to the disabled list on July 1, and the team has not issued a definite return timetable, but they have indicated they’re hoping he’ll be back late this month. Prior to that, he had been Detroit’s best player this season by fWAR. If they receive a good offer for Martín, the Tigers should listen.

Was the offer a good one? I don’t know anything about Willi Castro, but early reactions from MiLB reporters suggest he’s a decent infield prospect:

From MLBTR:

Castro, a shortstop signed five years ago out of Puerto Rico, earned a 50 overall grade from MLB Pipeline.  Currently at Double-A, Castro is a switch-hitter with an above average bat and a good chance to stick at shortstop, according to MLB Pipeline and Baseball America.

The Tigers also are sending pitching prospect Kyle Dowdy to Cleveland as part of the trade. Dowdy was a twelfth-round pick in 2015 and, at age twenty-five, has split this season between Erie and Toledo in a part-time starting role.

Acknowledging my lack of knowledge, I think this is a good move for the Tigers, who get what looks like a decent infield prospect in exchange for a couple months of Martín, who gets to spend them with a contender instead of playing out the string in Detroit, and a minor-league pitcher who, it doesn’t appear, did not have a significant future with the Tigers at the major-league level.

I will supplement this post with any further significant analyses or reactions that emerge in the coming days.

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Previously
WTF: The case for watching the Detroit Tigers in the second half – 7/18
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

Quick observations on the occasion of the latest Cole Hamels trade

When the Phillies traded Cole Hamels to the Rangers in 2015, it felt like a big deal. Texas was in the playoff hunt, and Hamels went 7-1 in twelve starts for them down the stretch. The return for Hamels (plus Jake Diekman) was voluminous in that it was comprised of six players. If you squint or are a dedicated Phillies or Rangers fan you might recognize a couple of those names.

Last night, the Rangers, decidedly not a contender just three years later, chose to ship Hamels up to the Cubs. The teams have not officially confirmed the deal, but reports indicate that the return includes minor-league pitcher Rollie Lacy, a second pitcher who is “not a prospect,” [UPDATE: Eddie Butler, a pitcher who’s split time between the majors and Triple-A for the past four or so seasons; cash considerations also provided] and a player to be named (even) later.

What are the Cubs getting in the oft-heralded Hamels? In short, a starting pitcher in decline. Hamels had an excellent run with Philadelphia, but he’s been something a little less than excellent since. His 2017 (4.20 ERA, 4.59 FIP, 5.47 DRA) was his worst MLB season to that point (0.2 WARP), and he’s been even worse in 2018 (4.72 ERA, 5.22 FIP, 6.26 DRA, -0.2 WARP).

As news of the Hamels trade was breaking last night, some people contended that things would be better for Hamels in Chicago because Wrigley Field’s friendly confines are friendlier to pitchers than the Rangers’ home in Globe Life Park. There’s not nothing to that idea: offense played up in Arlington more than anywhere else in 2018. Wrigley hasn’t exactly been a run suppressor, though, as it too favors hitters. Hamels may see some comparative venue-based benefit as he moves north, but it likely will be negligible over a couple months.  (One possible estimation of the magnitude of the difference is the difference between his FIP (5.20 on FanGraphs) and xFIP (4.18) in light of the slightly wider spread between Globe Life and Wrigley looking just at home runs, though Wrigley still is playing hitter-friendly in that regard.) And, of course, metrics like DRA and WARP (which, for pitchers, is based on DRA) already account for park factors.

Another thing I noticed last night as news of this transaction began to leak out was that Hamels is allowing a 23.2% line-drive rate, almost 4.5% over last season and a career high. That isn’t something that is park-specific, nor is it something for which Hamels really can share responsibility with his teammates. Hitters are squaring him up this year.

Continue reading