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)

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)