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.

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

tigers miss

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

Image result for joe jimenez all star

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

baseball notes

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