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.

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WTF: The case for watching the Detroit Tigers in the second half

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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

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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.

Baseball Notes: Offensive Discrimination

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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

The Last Night of the Tigers Dynasty That Wasn’t (via Baseball Prospectus)

Over the next several seasons, we’ll see the Tigers get worse before they get better. The veterans who remain will be traded or allowed to walk. Mildly youngish players like Daniel Norris and Nick Castellanos will be given more time to showcase why they should or shouldn’t be part of the future. And general manager Al Avila will likely hoard prospects as he looks to restock a bottom-10 farm system.

This doesn’t look like a Yankees rebuild-on-the-fly situation. It looks like the Tigers might be the new Reds, Phillies, or Braves. It looks like Tigers might be in the basement for a while. Memories of yesteryear rarely dull the pain of today. But still, the baseball world owes it to the Tigers to remember those early 2010s teams one more time before a new Dark Ages of Tigers baseball begins. Because dear lord, they were a lot of fun.

None of this is meant to dig up old wounds for Tigers fans. In fact, the goal is here is quite to the contrary; to remind people that the early 2010s Tigers weren’t also-rans or lucky bastards or frauds. They were really good. Good enough to win it all, if another bounce or two went their way. Good enough to win it all more than once if a half-dozen bounces went their way.

Over the next few seasons, as we watch Mikie Mahtook struggle in center field and Matt Boyd struggle on the mound and countless other journeymen, misfits, and youngens flock to Detroit, try to remember the good ole days. Remember how scary it was seeing “Cabrera, Fielder, Martinez” in the heart of a lineup. How exciting the prospect of “Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez” was in 2013. How easily the Tigers could bash you into a pulp or marginalize your best hitters. And how Dombrowski made “mystery team” mean something.

They say the journey is more important than the destination. That feels less true than ever in an era where every pitch, error, swing, and call is dissected on Twitter, debated on TV, and picked apart in online columns. But for the 2011-2014 Tigers, it has to be true. History will not remember them as winners, but we should not forget them as entertainers and craftsmen, as teams built to thrill and wow and dazzle.

That all ended officially on August 31, 2017, though we’d seen it coming for years. Justin Verlander is in Houston, Detroit is rebuilding, and time marches on. The Tigers’ watch has ended, but they are not forgotten. … Read More

(via Baseball Prospectus)

Relief from Short Relief

Not as in “relief from the burden of Short Relief.” More like, “Short Relief (at last) has provided me with some relief.” I am not a longtime reader of Baseball Prospectus the way people who truly have been reading Baseball Prospectus for a really long time casually sprinkle into digitally transmitted discourse that they are longtime readers of Baseball Prospectus, but I have been reading the site and its books and listening to its podcasts (or one of its former ones, anyway) for a few years and been a subscriber for the balance of that time, and there is no question that the temperament of the site has changed over that period. Since I have been reading it, BP has had three editors in chief: Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller, and Aaron Gleeman, its current EIC. Miller, who now writes for ESPN, has a special ability to blend the analytical and the fanciful (perhaps “imaginative” is a better word here, though neither are correct), and, by outward appearances, was a judicious editor. Baseball writers everywhere usually write about baseball in serious tones, and Miller was a breath of fresh air in that regard, if a measured one. It’s good to have outlets for some less serious baseball writing too. There used to be a whole place for that, which was called NotGraphs, but it was terminated in late 2014. Thereafter, its postmortal spirit attempted to eke out a living in an even smaller corner of the web, but that campaign fizzled.

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Although Miller never misses an opportunity to credit Lindbergh, his former boss and collaborator on two significant projects who now writes for The Ringer, as the best in the business, it’s clear to me that it’s Miller who’s left a large impression on the current version of BP. Whimsy, once reserved for sidebar Hitlist one-liners and a few player comments in the BP Annual (not unusually in the form of a Simpsons reference) everyone raced to find, photograph, and post on social media web platform Twitter.com, now abounds– or, at least, attempts to abound– at BP. This is most visible in the daily Short Relief feature, a sort of refugee camp for NotGraphs alums that typically contains three essays, or maybe poems, or maybe just a picture, that effort and imitate toward the odd and purposefully absurd.

I never read every article every day at BP, but I’ve never read less of BP than I do now (Russell Carleton and Rob Mains are musts), and I very rarely read Short Relief. I’m glad a major baseball site is trying to resurrect NotGraphs, but this take just doesn’t hit me right. It feels very unessential and often forced. A lot of that probably is due to the fact that it’s an everyday feature. It’s really hard to produce original funny, silly, odd, unusual, quirky, or whatever content on a daily deadline. It’s even harder when you’re limited to one subject area. (There’s also the part about the site’s budget crunch and probably a little friction with the idea that BP is contributing resources to Short Relief rather than its core mission, which seems noticeably understaffed at the moment.)

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BUT. Today’s Short Relief I did read, and today’s Short Relief I did like. It contains two entries, both by former owners of NG bylines. The first, from David G. Temple, once the managing editor of TechGraphs, is a short story about baseball cards that really hit home for me, as anyone reading ALDLAND’s late-night tweets earlier this week might have guessed. The second, from Short Relief coordinator Patrick Dubuque, provides a short metacommentary on the Short Relief series itself that resonated in light of the above-transcribed feelings about the Short Relief series. I commend both to your screen and eyes.

Baseball’s growth spurt, visualized

baseball notes

Baseball is a sport that is susceptible to, and, indeed, has subjected itself to what most regard as extremely fine-grain analysis. For example, in just a few clicks, you can pull up the spin rate of the ball on any pitch thrown in any MLB game last night. Whether we’re examining something, like baseball, for which we have relatively precise analytical tools, or something our ability to probe is more limited, we necessarily operate with certain assumptions practically taken for granted. Gravity. Air. Taxes. The general inflation of the value of U.S. currency over time. The general improvement in human health over time. While we need to monitor these somewhat ambient, environmental facts and trends, it usually doesn’t make sense to address them with great frequency and detail. We all generally know that Al Kaline’s $35,000 rookie signing bonus probably was a lot of money in the 1950s even if it doesn’t sound like a lot by today’s standards, just like we generally know 6’2″, 215 lb. Babe Ruth probably was a lot bigger than his peers, even if he wouldn’t appear out of the physical ordinary today.

On this last point, of course, we’re aware that medical and nutritional advances have resulted in general improvements in human health. Humans today live longer and grow larger than they did in the past, and baseball players are no exception.

That growth hasn’t occurred at a steady rate, however, at least as far as the population of baseball-playing humans is concerned. Here’s a graph from Russell Carleton’s article yesterday at Baseball Prospectus showing the median (50th percentile), 70th percentile, and 90th percentile Body-Mass Index (BMI) of all players who appeared in the majors between 1900-2016:

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As Carleton remarks:

We see that in the mid-90s, something (*cough*something*cough*) happened that caused an inflection point in MLB. After most of a century of the same body types, players started getting bigger. Mostly, they got heavier, although players today are also taller than they had been. The median player in MLB right now would be larger (in terms of BMI) than 90 percent of players who played in any year before the 1990s.

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Saving Detroit: Soft in the Middle Now

The subtitle of this post nearly was “Weakness Abounds,” since the Detroit Tigers are in a real rough spot right now, and, until last night (and even including most of last night, really), it seemed like nearly everything that could go wrong for this team was going wrong, but then I thought of a much better and more accurate one that also allowed me to lead with that music video. The Tigers have fallen to a 24-29 record, four games out of the division, and, while all is not lost, it’s becoming quite easy to feel that way. A thing that happens sometimes when you focus on putting out the various fires– like the bullpen, as a ready example– popping up on a team struggling to hold it together is that you can take for granted the team’s presumed consistent strengths, however minor, and forget to keep an eye on them too. With the offense collectively slumping as bad as it has been and the entire pitching staff acting like it was playing for the opposing teams, this was easy to do.

One of those good things the Tigers thought they had on lock was their up-the-middle defense. When your pitchers are giving up a lot of contact, a double play can be a life-saver. Shortstop Jose Iglesias’ bat hasn’t held up this season, but we always knew he was in the lineup for his defense, and it was just last year that we were beginning to discuss Ian Kinsler’s dark-horse Hall-of-Fame candidacy. At least as far as defense was concerned, these were two guys the Tigers didn’t have to worry about.

And yet, when their pitchers most needed bailouts, the defense has faltered. Baseball Prospectus tracks double-play percentage (DP%), defined as the number of times a team converts double-play opportunities into double plays. Obviously this is a coarse measure for evaluating a particular double-play tandem for a number of reasons, including the fact that it operates on a team level, and, in this case, Iglesias and Kinsler didn’t play every single game together. Double plays also commonly involve the other infielders too. Still, the DP% numbers paint a stark picture for the Iglesias-Kinsler era in Detroit.

det dp percent

Iglesias and Kinsler have been the Tigers’ starting shortstop and second baseman, respectively, since 2015. In the first two seasons of the current tandem, 2015 and 2016, the team did a very good job of converting double-play opportunities. As a team, the Tigers were, at very best, average when it came to overall defense during this period, but Iglesias and Kinsler were supposed to be the glue that made the whole fielding operation passable. When it came to completing double plays, they held up their end of the bargain. Something (or somethings) aren’t right so far in 2017, though, and the dramatic dropoff in DP% hardly could come at a worse time for Detroit’s floundering pitching staff.

Tonight’s game is about to start, so I’ll leave things here for now, but this may be a thing– among a great many, to be sure– to keep an eye on as the Tigers turn toward summer and begin to evaluate their team-level strategic direction.

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Previously
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief – 5/8

Related
2017 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Is the next Mike Trout already in Detroit?