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

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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

A narrowly focused update on Zach Britton, new New York Yankee

blern

Last night, the New York Yankees completed what to this point constitutes the second-most significant trade of the month when they sent three prospects to Baltimore in exchange for a few months of closer Zach Britton’s services.

The Orioles drafted Britton out of high school in 2006, and Britton debuted five years later as a full-time starter for Baltimore in 2011. By 2014, he had transitioned to a full-time bullpen role, and my earliest memories of him date to two years after that.

Britton was a key part of the 2016 Baltimore team that finished second in the AL East and made the postseason as a wild card. That was the Orioles’ last playoff appearance, and manager Buck Showalter’s decision not to use Britton as the win-or-go-home contest went into extra innings granted the game an air of infamy.

Prior to that, writer Ben Lindbergh memorably made the case that Britton, a closer who would pitch sixty-seven innings that season, merited serious consideration for the AL MVP award. As recorded contemporaneously in these digital pages, Lindbergh’s argument was based on a modification to the notion of Win Probability Added (WPA):

Earlier today, Ben Lindbergh argued that Baltimore reliever Zach Britton has a claim to the 2016 AL MVP award. To make that case, Lindbergh demonstrated that Britton had done more than any other player to help his team win games that mattered. Lindbergh did this by placing Britton’s performance in the context of the individual games in which Britton pitched– did Britton’s actions help or hurt his team’s chances of winning that game, and to what degree did they do so?– and then placing those games in the context of his team’s position in the playoff hunt. Viewed this way, Britton (excellent contributions to a good team in close contention) is more valuable than, for example, Mike Trout (superlative contributions to a bad team far out of contention). The metric that captures this contextual performance concept is called Championship Probability Added (cWPA), and Britton currently holds a commanding lead atop that leaderboard.

(Emphasis added.)

The road has been a bit rough for Britton since that 2016 season, however, as the trade article linked above summarized:

After consecutive two-win seasons in 2015 and 2016, he has missed time with the following injuries:

  • April 16, 2017 – Hits the disabled list with a strained left forearm and misses a little over two weeks.
  • May 6, 2017 – Almost immediately after return from disabled list, goes back on it with same injury.
  • August 25, 2017 – Injures his left knee and is shut down in September.
  • December 2017 – Hurts his right Achilles in an offseason workout requiring surgery.

The lefty returned to action on June 12 but hasn’t been lights out like he was before 2017, with a 4.43 FIP and 3.45 ERA thus far. He’s been a bit better of late, tossing eight straight scoreless outings, but has still produced just six strikeouts against four walks in that span. Perhaps more encouragingly, his velocity is up over his last few outings, getting closer to the 97 mph sinker he used to throw. If the velocity return is here to stay, better results might follow.

By a clear margin, Britton led all pitchers in WPA in 2016. This year, however, he’s nowhere to be found atop that list. That no team has done as little winning as Baltimore (record: 29-73) likely contributed to that shift. Still, the fact that he has a negative WPA (-0.13) for the first time since he moved into the bullpen seems worth noting in light of the foregoing.

As the block quotation immediately preceding the immediately preceding paragraph indicates, there are a number of red flags that suggest that the version of Britton the Yankees acquired (insert reference about Redcoat POWs) last night may be meaningfully different from the one who presented an intriguingly compelling case for consideration as the most valuable player in the American League in 2016.

As a closing addendum, the current leaders in pitcher cWPA for 2018 are Justin Verlander (.023) and Josh Hader (.020).

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Related
Baltimore Closer Zach Britton Isn’t Just a Surprise Cy Young Contender — He’s the AL MVP

From Detroit to Cooperstown: Approaching Hall-of-Fame-induction weekend 2018 with a quick note

The MLB HOF is a manifestation of writer opinions, so it’s a shame to see even the local press minimizing Whitaker as they attempt to garner clicks on Trammell features as we approach induction weekend. There’s a surplus of outrage, genuine and otherwise, on the internet right now, and I’m not saying that every article has to be a protest piece or that Trammell doesn’t deserve the attention in his own right, but it strikes me as a fairly significant injustice by the relevant standards that the longest-tenured double-play pair in the game’s history will be separated at the gate to the sport’s hall of honored memories.   Continue reading