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.

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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)

Miguel Cabrera continues to shine in the DRC era

Last month, I wrote about the substantial change in the way Baseball Prospectus is measuring hitter value and the significance of that change to Miguel Cabrera’s statistical legacy. Yesterday morning, BP announced “updates” to its hitter-value metric, DRC+. The description of the updates is pretty technical, and I commend you to the linked article if you want to get into the nuts and bolts, to the extent BP exposes them to the public. The short story seems to be that the original version of DRC+ undervalued two types of players: 1) those who play many of their games in “extreme ballparks” (Coors Field is the only one I’ve seen mentioned in the early DRC+ critiques and the update article, but I assume others are included) and 2) “extreme”-output hitters who do one thing really well (the examples I’ve seen discussed usually include singles hitters like Tony Gwynn and Ichiro Suzuki).

For Cabrera, the update credited him with even more productive value, adding almost two wins to his career total. The following chart, which I’ve adapted from the one I created for the BttP article, compares Cabrera’s career and season-by-season win totals under three different WARP regimes: a) TAv-based WARP; b) the original DRC+-based WARP; and c) the updated DRC+-based WARP.

cabrera warp drc update

(Notes: TAv-based WARP isn’t available for 2018, which affects the WARP totals in the bottom row. Orange highlighting signals seasons in which TAv and original DRC+ disagree about whether Cabrera’s offense was above or below average. Updated DRC+ was consistent with original DRC+ in that respect.)

Looking first at the table’s seventh column, the DRC+ update added to Cabrera’s totals, not infrequently by double digits, in every season save two minor decreases in 2007 and 2014. Looking next to the table’s final column, though, there isn’t really a consistent correlation between either the direction or magnitude of the update’s DRC+ adjustments and WARP; indeed, in 2008 and 2012, the update resulted in increases in Cabrera’s DRC+ but decreases in WARP. As the totals in the bottom row indicate, however, overall, the DRC+ update boosted Cabrera’s career WARP total by 1.8 wins. Not bad.

Here I will add the same caveat I included in my previous article on this subject, which is that I don’t have a deep enough understanding of DRC+, a proprietary metric, to explain with any further detail why this happened. (I also will note that, because BP does not archive its statistical reports from prior metric regimes, the foregoing is reliant on data previously captured by Archive.org’s Wayback Machine and me.)

What outsiders like us can say is that the Deserved-Runs-Created era has been good to Cabrera, from validating his MVP wins over Mike Trout to restoring all of his season-by-season WARP numbers into the black to, following yesterday’s update, increasing his career WARP total. None of this is likely to stir any concern on the parts of Al Avila or Chris Ilitch that Cabrera suddenly is on track to challenge for MVP votes in 2023 such that his $30 million option for his age-forty-one season in 2024 will vest, but the growing– even if by very small amounts– recognition of Cabrera’s past achievements is nice to see.

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Previously
Miguel Cabrera further bolstered by sabermetric update
Trout vs. Cabrera, and Aging with DRC+ (via Baseball Prospectus)

Miguel Cabrera further bolstered by sabermetric update

A recent update to the way Baseball Prospectus evaluates offensive production already has resulted in the retroactive revision of one of baseball’s biggest conversations in favor of Miguel Cabrera. Could there be other aspects of Cabrera’s track record that shine more brightly after this update? Yes there could, I explain in my latest post at Banished to the Pen, which looks at Cabrera’s standing among the game’s all-time elite.

The full post is available here.

2018 Rapid Review

The year 2018 was a year. Here are some of our favorite things from the year that was 2018.

  • Atlanta United winning the MLS Cup, at home, in their second year of existence.
  • America’s women’s hockey team beating Canada to win gold at the winter Olympics.
  • Phish summer tour. My first time seeing them three nights in a row. That they never repeated a song during that stretch was notable but not terribly surprising. What was remarkable and never received the treatment at this site that it deserved was the overall quality of the performances, especially on Friday, August 3 but really consistently throughout the weekend, where a wide array of songs from across their thirty-five-year catalogue provided launching pads for fresh, collaborative jams time after time. It feels like the band has reached a new level.
  • Hamilton College’s Francis Baker, the American hockey goalie who stood up to Hitler. This was your most-read story posted on this site in 2018.
  • Steve McNair: Fall of a Titan. This, from Sports Illustrated, was my first foray into the true-crime podcast genre. The gist: what we were told was an open-and-shut case probably has a lot more to it than what the investigating police department allowed to meet the public eye. Story had some additional resonance for me because I had been living in Nashville at the time.
  • Maryland-Baltimore County beating Virginia to become the first-ever sixteen seed to beat a one seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
  • Justify‘s dominant Triple Crown achievement.
  • Baseball Hall of Fame adding Alan Trammell. Still no Cooperstown spot for teammate Lou Whitaker, though.
  • The Supreme Court clearing the way for states to authorize sports wagering.
  • J.R. Smith delivering the most memorable moment of LeBron James’ final series with Cleveland.
  • Shohei Ohtani making his major-league debut.
  • The Vegas Golden Knights reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their first year of existence.
  • Vanderbilt beat Tennessee in football again. The Commodores have won five of the last seven games in this series. (If you’d lost track of him, Derek Dooley’s currently working as the quarterbacks coach at Missouri.)
  • Baseball Prospectus revised its flagship bating metric and now concedes that Miguel Cabrera, not Mike Trout, deserved the 2012 and 2013 AL MVP awards.
  • Tiger Woods winning the PGA Tour Championship at East Lake.
  • In personal news, I published my first article at Baseball Prospectus, which took a look at whether MLB teams were colluding to depress player wages.
  • In memoriam:

Thank you for your readership this year. Look for more great content here in 2019.

Trout vs. Cabrera, and Aging with DRC+ (via Baseball Prospectus)

MLB: All Star GameIt was about as clear as these things get, and the writers got it wrong. In fact, they got it wrong twice. That was the consensus, in our sabermetric corner of the internet, when Miguel Cabrera stole consecutive MVP awards from Mike Trout in 2012 and 2013.

Cabrera was a lumbering first baseman, shoved across the diamond only because the Tigers decided to force-fit Prince Fielder onto their plodding roster. He was a great hitter, but he added no value beyond that hitting. Trout, at the tender ages of 20 and 21, lit up the field in ways Cabrera couldn’t. He robbed home runs in center field, stole bases both often and efficiently, was one of the most consistent hitters in baseball, and according to the best information we had at the time, he was also Cabrera’s equal (or very nearly so, or perhaps even his superior) at the plate.

Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs each had Trout about 3.0 WAR better than Cabrera in 2012, and about 1.5 WAR better than him in 2013. We had the gap slightly smaller in 2012, but slightly larger in 2013. When such a clear gap between the best player and the field exists, it’s rare that the award goes to the “wrong” one. In this case, though, more or less everyone with a stat-savvy bone in their body espoused the belief that it had happened.

We were, all of us, deceived. … Read More

(via Baseball Prospectus)

Two kinds of Braves reunions

MCCANN

The Atlanta Braves made MLB offseason headlines yesterday with two short-term free-agent acquisitions that find the team taking calculated chances on former stars.

First, with Kurt Suzuki leaving in free agency, the Braves sought out a familiar face in Brian McCann to serve as a veteran backup to presumptive starting catcher Tyler Flowers. McCann made his major-league debut with the Braves in 2005 and quickly and consistently achieved success, earning all-star honors in all but one of his eight full-time seasons in Atlanta and tacking on silver-slugger recognition five times and down-ballot MVP votes once. As one would expect, McCann did this by being one of the best offensive and defensive catchers in baseball over that stretch. The following table notes his yearly offensive (by wRC+) and defensive (by FRAA) rankings among fellow catchers from 2006-2013.

mccann braves ranks

A pretty nice run indeed. McCann’s departure after the 2013 season, which marked Atlanta’s last appearance in the postseason before this year’s surprise early return, marked the beginning of the Braves’ dismantling of their last promising, young, cheap core. (Remember when Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, the Upton brothers, Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, and Alex Wood all played for the same team?)

Now Atlanta has another promising, young, cheap core to which McCann returns to provide his brand of veteran leadership. His bat settled down to “decidedly average” status during his five years away (three in the Bronx, then two in Houston), still nice for a catcher, though his 82 wRC+ in 2018 marked a low point in his career, and his 216 plate appearances were his fewest of any season save his ’05 debut, a reflection of his new, backup status. McCann also hasn’t been an above-average defender since 2016. At one year and $2 million, though, the Braves probably aren’t too worried about those trends and instead are banking as much on McCann’s perceived intangible contributions as they are on those that register more explicitly in modern stat books.

Baseball Prospectus sees good things on the horizon for McCann as a backup in his return to Atlanta, and FanGraphs also is optimistic, though it reminds us about the two months McCann missed last season as a result of a knee injury. For the team and the player it seems that this signing came down to a mutual desire for a homecoming:

Here’s hoping it’s a happy return.

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The bigger news from yesterday was Atlanta’s Josh Donaldson signing. It too was a one-year agreement, though for about ten times as much money ($23 million, to be exact), and a reunion of sorts, though not with the Braves per se but their general manager, Alex Anthopolous, who previously brought Donaldson to the Blue Jays. As they are with McCann, the Braves are banking on a rebound by Donaldson, who fell apart last year, just three seasons removed from an MVP-winning campaign. Predicated on that perennial proviso, “if healthy,” BP likes the gamble:

Donaldson offers a much more dynamic risk profile, but a simpler one. If he stays healthy, there’s no reason not to expect him to rake. Even when he played last year, his power was seriously sapped (a still-impressive .203 ISO represented a major step back from the .274 he averaged in his first three seasons with the Jays), and that presents a real risk that simple projection systems will underrate. However, if the Braves believe that decrease in pop stemmed from the compromised state of Donaldson’s lower half, and if he’s going to be healthy going into 2019, then he could easily bounce back in that department.

He’s no longer a plus with the glove or on the bases, and he’s not going to be the MVP again. There’s tons of room, though, between his decidedly average 2018 and his peak performance, which is why BP ranked him as the no. 3 free agent available this offseason. If healthy, he fits nicely into the middle of the Atlanta batting order.

The Braves still have more money to spend on 2019 payroll, and they already look to be in excellent shape to contend in what again should be a competitive division. (It is as I foretold.)

One-Paragraph Preview: 2018 NLDS – Dodgers-Braves

ozzie

The Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves begin their best-of-five National League Divisional Series tonight at Chavez Ravine. There are dozens of articles on reputable baseball websites previewing this series, all of which will leave you with the impression that the Dodgers are the superior team and probably but not definitely will prevail in this round. I write separately for the sole purpose of highlighting a conflict in the literature. Baseball Prospectus’ projection system, PECOTA, gives Los Angeles a solid (57%/43%) advantage. Interestingly, a postseason-prediction formula sabermetric forefather Bill James originally developed in 1972 that Rob Mains recently updated likes the Braves in this round. My own view is that it’s difficult to find an exploitable weakness in any phase of the Dodgers’ game, but I can’t count the Braves out in a competitive developmental environment that, more and more, seems to run on Coughlin Time. First pitch is set for 8:37 pm on MLB Network.

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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