The week in baseball: 5/29/20

From the Increasingly Nocturnal Department:

  • I haven’t found it productive to follow each new return-to-play proposal for the 2020 MLB season in any detail, but public comments this week, especially from players including Max Scherzer and Trevor Bauer, point to the very real possibility that the entire season will be lost due to the inability of the owners and players union to reach final agreement on compensation arrangements for the year in a timely fashion. Although the calendar has not yet turned to June, keep in mind that any start date will need to allow a few weeks of lead time for pitchers to stretch out, undoubtedly among other logistical considerations. The viability of opening the season on or around July 4 therefore depends on what the sides can accomplish over the next couple of days. Of all the things Rob Manfred has screwed up in his brief tenure as MLB commissioner, the complete absence of baseball in America should other professional sports leagues find a workable way to resume action would be one of the most memorable.
  • Meanwhile, the 2020 Minor League Baseball season effectively ended this week following the announcement that teams are expected to begin releasing large numbers of players shortly. Some big-league veterans, including  Shin-Soo Choo and David Price, have responded by personally paying all of the monthly stipends of all of the minor-league players in their respective teams’ farm systems.
  • The CPBL and KBO seasons are rolling on, though a recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases in South Korea has delayed the expected return of fans to KBO stadiums. ESPN is continuing live telecasts of KBO games, often with replays on ESPN2 later in the afternoon.
  • The KBO appears to have earned itself a celebrity fan in Adam Eget, trusty sidekick of Norm Macdonald and manager of the world-famous Comedy Store, who said as much on a recent episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast. He and Rogan also discussed cults and Charles Manson, so listen at your own risk.
  • Japan’s professional baseball league, NPB, announced it will begin an abridged season on June 19. The prevalent view among those who follow foreign baseball leagues is that the NPB is the league that comes closest to MLB in terms of talent and competition levels.
  • Facing the prospect of the complete absence of MLB games this year, I’ve begun posting daily baseball landmarks that occurred on that day on ALDLAND’s twitter account. Some from the past week in baseball history, courtesy of Baseball-Reference:
    • 1904 – Dan McGann steals 5 bases in a game, a feat not matched until 1974 (Davey Lopes) or bested until 1991 (Otis Nixon, 6)
    • 1922 – Supreme Court rules baseball not subject to antitrust laws, interstate commerce regulations
    • 1925 – Ty Cobb becomes 1st major leaguer with 1,000 career extra-base hits
    • 1946 – 1st night game at Yankee Stadium
    • 1951 – Willie Mays gets his first hit, a home run off Warren Spahn
    • 1952 – Hank Aaron, then of the Indianapolis Clowns, signs with the Boston Braves
    • 1959 – Harvey Haddix pitches 12 perfect innings before an error in the 13th (“there has been never been anything like it” = more from Tim Kurkjian here)
    • 1968 – NL announces expansion to Montreal, San Diego
    • 1969 – Aaron becomes the 3rd major leaguer with 500 HR + 500 2B
    • 1976 – Pitcher Joe Niekro, batting against his brother, Phil, hit his only career home run
    • 1990 – Rickey Henderson breaks Cobb’s AL stolen-base record
    • 2004 – Mariano Rivera earns his 300th save
    • 2006 – Barry Bonds hits 715th home run
    • 2008 – Pedro Martinez, making a Single-A rehab start for the St. Lucie Mets, faces off against then-recent top pick David Price, then of the Vero Beach Devil Rays. (Price and the Rays win 2-0.) Price would make his major-league debut that September and his World-Series debut the following month.
    • 2010 – Roy Halladay pitches perfect game (ESPN is airing a program on Halladay’s career and too-short life tonight at 7:00 pm)
  • Whatever happens with baseball this year, Jersey City brewery Departed Soles wants to make sure we don’t forget what happened in the recent past, and therefore has released its newest beer, Trash Can Banger, a session IPA with a can styled after the Houston Astros’ classic 1970s uniforms. For now, the beer only is available in New Jersey.
  • Did the Astros cheat? They did. Did their cheating help? Running counter both to fan intuition and the public statements on the subject by professional pitchers, the latest look at that question, like some others before it, concludes that it didn’t make much of a difference. This analysis also set out to test Commissioner Manfred’s assertion that the Astros didn’t cheat in 2019 but was unable to reach a conclusion on that question.

Payroll Flexibility Is A Lie (via Baseball Prospectus)

With news that a modified version of the Mookie Betts trade is official, the Boston Red Sox have consummated one of the most bewildering, common sense-defying trades in recent memory. Now that the dust is settling and fellow high-ranking baseball ops people are rushing to Boston General Manager Chaim Bloom’s defense, it has become clear what the true objective of the trade was. It’s not that Boston believes Alex Verdugo or Jeter Downs [are] the heirs apparent to Mookie’s crown as second-best player in baseball; the most valuable asset coming back to the Sox was actually “Financial Flexibility.”

By taking Betts and half of Price’s salary off the books, Boston stands to get under the luxury tax and put $40-$50 million back into John Henry’s pockets. It’s a coup for the already-massively-profitable corporation that owns the Sox, but past history suggests that the money they save will never find its way back to the roster. When teams have cut payroll, the “flexibility” those moves create goes right to the owners, not into the budget.

[W]hen teams trim their budgets, they don’t respond by spending more later. Sometimes, it’s the opposite: cost-cutting in one year is followed by more reduction later. … Read More

(via Baseball Prospectus)

RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – PECOTA Ed.

The rise of mechanized automation was supposed to ease our human lives. Instead, it has led to increased unemployment and longer, more laborious hours for those fortunate enough remain on the job. We at ALDLAND are here to swim against that current by compelling our metal creations to improve our earthly experiences. Rest assured, demanding readers: plenty of hand-crafted, free-range baseball coverage is on its way to these digital pages. But why wait for a man-made preview post when the computers can do the work for us?

With brevity as our computing watchword, here‘s the projection for the 2020 Detroit Tigers from Baseball Prospectus: a 69-93 record and a zero-point-zero-zero-percent chance of making the playoffs. BP’s PECOTA system sees only one other team, Seattle, with no shot whatsoever at the postseason, and only five, Seattle, Kansas City, Baltimore, and San Francisco, posting fewer wins.

On an individual basis, PECOTA expects eight Tiger players to add at least one win above the contribution expected of a replacement-level player (2019 WARP in parenthesis):

  • Matthew Boyd: 2 WARP (3.7)
  • Jonathan Schoop: 2 WARP (0.3)
  • Niko Goodrum: 1.7 WARP (1.6)
  • C.J. Cron: 1.6 WARP (1.3)
  • Miguel Cabrera: 1.4 WARP (0.3)
  • Christin Stewart: 1.2 WARP (-1.3)
  • JaCoby Jones: 1.1 WARP (0.0)
  • Joe Jimenez: 1 WARP (0.9)

Last year, only four Tigers– Boyd, Goodrum, Nicholas Castellanos, and Buck Farmer–contributed at least 1.0 WARP to the team.

On the whole, this is a very Professor-Farnsworth-good-news moment for Detroit fans. No one really anticipated seeing Tiger baseball in October 2020, but the fact that the robots think the team will win almost two-dozen more games than last season– that’s almost four extra wins every month– and feature twice as many productive-ish players is reason enough to be encouraged, at least relatively speaking.

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Previously
RKB: How does new Detroit Tiger Austin Romine relate to his teammates?
RKB: An unprecedented offseason move?
RKB: Detroit’s long, municipal nightmare is over, as Al Avila has solved the Tigers’ bullpen woes
RKB: Brief 2019 Recapitulation

RKB: Detroit’s long, municipal nightmare is over, as Al Avila has solved the Tigers’ bullpen woes

MLB’s winter meetings, an annual offseason event during which team general managers usually take an opportunity to share some of their preparatory plans for the coming season and commonly make significant player transactions, came to an end yesterday. On Monday, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila described his current approach for the team’s ondragging rebuild:

Finding a catcher is the Tigers’ No. 1 priority this offseason, according to general manager Al Avila, who also named first base, corner outfield, the rotation and . . . the middle infield as other areas of interest for the rebuilding club . . . .

Talk about burying the lede – the bullpen is cured! The Tigers’ lack of an operational bullpen has been as legendary as the complete absence of defense in Big XII football, but no longer. Avila, in identifying as rebuild focal points literally every single component of a baseball team roster except for the bullpen (and center field; somebody call JaCoby Jones’ agent, I guess?), clearly has telegraphed to the league and fanbase that bullpen at last is rock solid and in need of no further improvement whatsoever.

Later today, an update on how the GM addressed his top offseason priority in fighting fashion. Until then, Avila has indicated that there definitely is no need at all to peek in any form or fashion at who exactly comprises Detroit’s current relief corps.

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Related
Detroit’s Tank is Anything but EmptyBaseball Prospectus

Previously
RKB: Brief 2019 Recapitulation

2019 NLDS Braves/Dodgers Spin Zone

bill-o-reilly-the-oreilly-factor-768x432

Last night, both National League Divisional Series went to decisive fifth games, and, in both games, the teams favored to win the series lost in dramatic fashion. For the Atlanta Braves, the drama came very early, while it arrived late for the Los Angeles Dodgers (I assume; I went to sleep when they were up 3-0). Of course, the only question today for both teams is: Whose fault is this?

For the Braves, you might think it had something to do with the disappearance of its star hitter or team’s failure to address sufficiently its lack of pitching depth and experience. For the Dodgers, it would seem to make clear and natural sense to point the accusatory finger at Clayton Kershaw, who totally and perennially stinks in October.

Obviously, those thoughts, which involve the teams’ players, coaches, and front-office management, are wrong thoughts. That’s because the blame actually lies at the feet of MLB itself and Commissioner Rob Manfred.

The Braves and Dodgers are successful teams built to succeed in the sport’s current era, the defining factor of which is the baseball itself. Changes to the baseball have driven massive increases in home runs, and the two NL favorites heretofore thrived in this extreme offensive environment.

What, then, to make of a report out this morning that the baseballs used during postseason play are radically different than those used during the regular season such that the playoff baseballs effectively suppress home runs to a significant degree? In light of that news, can it be a coincidence that the NL playoff teams that were the most homer-reliant during the regular season were the losers last night?

NLDS guillen # 2019

Commissioner Manfred, whatever you have against the cities of Atlanta and Los Angeles (to say nothing of poor Milwaukee), you are reminded that it is not a crime to ask questions.

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Previously
The 2018 All-Star Game was one for the Age

 

The current argument against Mike Trout, MVP

Mike Trout has been an All Star in each of his seven full MLB seasons. He led the American League in fWAR in five of those seven seasons (four of seven by bWAR; led AL hitters in WARP in three of seven). During that period, he finished in the top two in AL MVP voting every season save his injury-shortened 2017 and won the award twice.

So far, 2019 looks like another MVP year for Trout, who received his eighth-consecutive All Star nod and has a commanding (roughly two-win) advantage atop all AL WAR(P) leaderboards. That Trout will win the award feels like a foregone conclusion, and it has for some time. Early in his career, though, Trout’s MVP candidacy was a contentious flashpoint for the battle between the respective adherents of “new” performance-valuation metrics and “traditionalists.” That conflict came to a head in 2013, when Miguel Cabrera repeated as AL MVP and Trout again finished second. Cabrera’s .348/.442/.636 line led the majors and represented an across-the-board improvement over his line in 2012, when he became baseball’s first triple crown winner in over forty years. On the other hand, Trout’s WAR mark clearly bested Cabrera in 2013 (10.2 versus 8.6 fWAR; 9.0 versus 7.3 bWAR), just as it had in 2012 (10.1 versus 7.3 fWAR; 10.5 versus 7.1 bWAR).

Ironically, Baseball Prospectus, long a leading publisher of work by adherents to “new” performance-valuation metrics, recently reversed course on the 2012 and 2013 AL MVP races after it incorporated changes made to its batting metric into its WAR model (i.e., WARP), acknowledging now that Cabrera really was a more valuable player than Trout in ’12 and ’13. Of course, these days, the fight between “traditionalists” and “sabermetricians” is over. In 2019, no one is arguing that Michael Brantley or Rafel Devers, the current respective AL leaders in batting average and RBI, deserve the league’s MVP award, for example. Part of that comes from the broader appreciation of the usefulness of advanced metrics, and part of that is because Trout is leading many of the traditional categories– at the moment, homers (42), OBP (.435), and SLG (.649)– too. Even if the analytical environment around baseball hadn’t changed, old-fashioned voters would have a hard time denying Trout his due in 2019. Does that mean that Trout has every vote locked up this year?

Stated otherwise, the question is whether there’s a good reason why someone would not vote for Trout as this year’s AL MVP. WAR isn’t everything, of course, but the current difference, by fWAR, between Trout and second-place Alex Bregman is Tim Anderson, or Whit Merrifield, if you prefer, or Blake Snell, last year’s Cy Young winner, all of whom currently have 2.5 fWAR. And Trout’s leads in homers and OPS fortify his position, with his positive contributions on defense and the basepaths rounding out a seemingly unassailable case. What more could he do?

The traditional MVP consideration never was just about individual numbers like batting average and RBI; voters also seemed to care about team-level winning. After all, baseball is a team sport in which the goal is for teams to win games and championships, and there is a conceptual sensibility to the notion that a player deemed “most valuable” would be one who translated his individual value into some significant measure of team value. Recall for example that, in 2012 and 2013, Cabrera’s Tigers were division-winning playoff teams that made deep runs while Trout’s Angels missed the playoffs and waffled around a .500 win percentage. If all of Trout’s good isn’t really doing the Angels any good, is he really the type of player we think of as an MVP? We can appreciate a superstar toiling in competitive obscurity, but does it make complete sense to bestow upon him or her the game’s highest individual honor?

Consider how infrequently postseason MVP awards go to players from losing teams. When it comes to formulating an MVP-award rubric, one can both prefer reliance on metrics that better account for individual performances and believe that the rubric should account for both team-success and individual-statistical components. In other words, the sabermetric revolution need not change what we’re looking for in an MVP even if it has changed how we decide if a candidate meets our criteria.

The good news is that there is a sabermetrically sound method to building an MVP-award analysis that accounts for both individual and team aspects. Continue reading

RKB: At deadline, Tigers move their best player*

A year ago yesterday, on what may have been MLB’s last-ever non-waiver trade deadline, the 2018 Detroit Tigers made one move, trading Leonys Martín, then their best player of that season, to Cleveland. Yesterday, depending on how you look at it, they marked that anniversary by doing the same thing again. Shane Greene was the 2019 Tigers’ only All Star, and he led the team in cWPA, a metric I’ve contended should drive MVP-type analyses. By some other measures, Greene was not the 2019 Tigers’ best player, but, in holding a steady hand on the closer’s tiller, he gave the team something for which it desperately had been seeking, particularly in its competitive years. [insert sweaty joaquin benoit face.jpeg] Now, Greene, a thirty-year-old who hasn’t hit arbitration eligibility, likely will receive his first chance to close games in the playoffs, assuming he and the Braves hold it together down the stretch.

The “modest” return the Tigers received in this trade was comprised of two “prospects.” One, Joey Wentz, is a lefthanded pitcher the Braves picked out of high school in the first round of the 2016 draft. He spent all of 2019 to date at Double-A Mississippi, where he posted a 4.72 ERA (4.36 FIP, 116 cFIP) in twenty starts. Wentz missed substantial parts of 2018 with oblique and shoulder problems, which is not what you like to hear. On the other hand (but the same hand, actually, since we’re talking pitchers), maybe he throws his fastball like Clayton Kershaw throws his?

The second, Travis Demeritte, is a hitter the Texas Rangers picked out of high school in the first round of the 2013 draft. He reached Triple-A for the first time this year in the Braves’ system, all of which he spent in Gwinnett, posting a .286/.387/.558 line in 399 games. Baseball Prospectus credits the jump in his power numbers to the introduction of the major-league ball at the Triple-A level, which, yeah. (We actually have covered Demeritte at this site before. Three years ago, he starred alongside Dansby Swanson in the 2016 MLB futures game before the Rangers traded him to the Braves for two pitchers who both appear to have exited professional baseball soon thereafter.)

Would it have been nice for the Tigers to receive some more exciting players from Atlanta’s fairly deep system in exchange for Greene? It would have. It also is hard to be picky when it comes to trading a closer whose BABIP and ground ball rate are way out of whack with his career norms. Greene always seemed like a nice and thoughtful guy, and I suspect the native Floridian will appreciate the opportunity to work a little closer to home.

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Previously
RKB: A Wild Rosenthal Appears – 7/16

Related
Have the Atlanta Braves discovered the secret of the ooze?
Whose All Stars?
2019 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Miguel Cabrera in the bWAR era
Miguel Cabrera continues to shine in the DRC era

Whose All Stars?

Image result for shane greene all star

The stars were out in Cleveland last night, but whose were they? A year ago, the 2018 MLB All-Star teams played a game for the age, one so representative of these true-outcome times that all but one of the fourteen runs scored that night came courtesy of a home run. Last night was much different. The 2019 all stars scored half as many runs as their 2018 counterparts (with just two total through five innings, sinking the under), and only two of the seven runs came off of home runs, solo shots by Charlie Blackmon and Joey Gallo. (Year-to-year strikeout totals nearly were identical.) As a whole, MLB is seeing its highest-ever percentage of runs scored attributed to home runs through this point in the current season, but its ostensible 2019 stars hit like they came from 1989.

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Last night’s ASG likely looked fairly familiar to fans of the Detroit Tigers, however, and not just because the current version of that team only scores 36.01% of its runs with homers, third-lowest in 2019. Even though Detroit had just one representative on this year’s AL All-Star team, Shane Greene wasn’t the only familiar face among the rostered invitees in Cleveland. Justin Verlander was the AL’s starting pitcher; J.D. Martinez was the AL’s starting DH (0-2); James McCann caught Greene’s perfect seventh inning; and Max Scherzer was named to the NL squad (did not play).

The Tigers currently have the second-worst win percentage in baseball– still good enough for fourth in the AL Central!– and resume their regular season schedule Friday against the basement-dwelling Royals.

Miguel Cabrera in the bWAR era

miguel cabrera 2003

I have been monitoring the effects of Baseball Prospectus’ recent modifications to its wins-above-replacement metric, WARP, on Miguel Cabrera’s career valuation numbers, and, on the whole, the results for Cabrera have been positive.

On Monday, former Baseball Prospectus editor in chief Ben Lindbergh discussed the ways in which WAR metrics always are in some state of flux as they incorporate newly available information and adapt to significant changes in game strategy and play:

In a sense, it’s unsettling that WAR is always in motion. Batting average may not be an accurate indicator of overall (or even offensive) value, but barring an overturned ruling by an official scorer or an unearthed error in archaic records, it always stays the same. Ted Williams will always have hit .406 in 1941, but his FanGraphs WAR for that season was 11.9 in 2011, and today it’s 11.0. That’s one reason why WAR values may never achieve the emotional resonance of evocative stats such as .406, 56, or 755, or even milestones like 3,000 hits or 500 homers.

WAR reminds us that objective truth tends to be slippery. And the metric is likely to get more unstable before it someday settles down. None of the big three versions of WAR(P) currently incorporates Statcast data. Thus far, MLBAM has drawn on that data to quantify aspects of player production without generating one unified number, but Tango describes it as “inevitable” that “eventually they will get rolled into one Statcast WAR metric.” He acknowledges that WAR’s amorphousness may make some fans more hesitant to trust it. Even so, he says, “Our focus should be on representing the truth as best we can estimate it. And it’s the truth that will attract the people.”

Baseball-Reference founder Sean Forman has responded to criticism of WAR’s mutability—not to mention its multiple implementations—by comparing it to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), another complex statistic that also changes retroactively and comes in more than one form. WAR works the way all science does: Discoveries are scrutinized, assumptions are examined, errors are rooted out, and breakthrough by breakthrough, we learn.

The focus of Lindbergh’s article was on the ways in which teams are straying from the traditional sequencing of starting and relief pitchers– frequently referred to as “the opener” strategy– are affecting WAR calculations, particularly Baseball-References bWAR.

An obstacle I encountered in analyzing changes in Cabrera’s WARP is that BP doesn’t keep a public record of statistical changes. By contrast, as Lindbergh helpfully noted, B-R does keep a public bWAR index, which effectively permits the tracking of changes to individual players’ seasonal bWAR totals on a daily basis since March 29, 2013.

In light of my prior documentation of the recent set of changes to Cabrera’s career seasonal WARP totals, I decided to take a quick and very rough look at how Cabrera’s seasonal bWAR totals had changed over the last six years. What I found was that, at least through 2012 (covering the first ten years of his career, which was all that was included in the March 29, 2013 data set), the difference was negligible. Some years’ bWAR numbers had increased a bit, some had decreased a bit, and some didn’t change; in total, the aggregate difference was -0.13 bWAR over those ten seasons. Doing a similar thing for the next six seasons by using the bWAR value from the first available date on the calendar year immediately following the completed season yielded a similar mix of results, with an aggregate difference of +0.38 bWAR. Combined, the total change is an increase of 0.25 bWAR, basically a negligible amount. Coincidentally, “negligible” also describes the value over replacement blog post (VORBP) of what you’ve just read.

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Previously
Miguel Cabrera continues to shine in the DRC era
Miguel Cabrera further bolstered by sabermetric update
Trout vs. Cabrera, and Aging with DRC+ (via Baseball Prospectus)

Average Hit Band: Photograph of the DRC Era’s New Normal

This MLB offseason, while arguably a bit chilly by hot stove standards, did offer baseball fans a hot new hitting metric in Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Runs Created Plus (DRC+). In the words of its creators, DRC+ is “designed to parse out more accurately . . . batters’ expected individual contributions — separate from all other player and environmental factors — to their teams’ offensive production.” (My summary of that introductory article, which was nominated for a SABR research award, can be found through here.)

Unlike traditional, rate-based hitting metrics such as batting average (BA) and on-base percentage (OBP), DRC+ is an index statistic, meaning that it’s arranged to indicate the degree to which a player is above or below average, where 100 represents average. As part of its DRC+ rollout, BP published an homage to rate statistics (link and summary available through here) that touts their simple approach to delivering contextual information.

This undoubtedly is a user advantage for metrics like DRC+, but, by placing the focus so squarely on the average reference point, the initial transition from the rate-stat world of BA/OBP/SLG to the index-stat world of DRC+ can be a little bit rough. To help smooth things, I thought it would be beneficial to illustrate the translation with a quick look at all of the hitters who had “average,” according to DRC+, seasons at the plate in 2018.

Last season, eleven batters finished with at least 275 plate appearances and DRC+ marks of 100. As their traditional slash lines illustrate, they got to that point in a variety of ways.

The ranges for these eleven on each of the traditional hitting rate statistics are:

  • BA: .224 – .280
  • OBP: .294 – .351
  • SLG: .359 – .484

Obviously, because of the multitude of factors DRC+ considers, including both player-performance factors and environmental factors, these rate bands only serve as rough guidelines for fans making the mental shift from the rate world of BA/OBP to DRC+ that want a little help finding their bearings. (Also keep in mind that these “average” slash-line bands will vary from year to year. For example, in 1998, there were four players with at least 275 PA who posted DRC+ marks of 100, Matt Williams, Devon White, Luis Alicea, and Robin Ventura: BA between .263 and .279; OBP between .327 and .372; and SLG between .425 and .456. For reference, Mark McGwire, .299/.470/.752, led MLB with a DRC+ of 211 that year.)

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Previously
Miguel Cabrera continues to shine in the DRC era
Miguel Cabrera further bolstered by sabermetric update
Trout vs. Cabrera, and Aging with DRC+ (via Baseball Prospectus)

Related
The Best Baseball Research of the Past Year (2018)