A narrowly focused update on Zach Britton, new New York Yankee

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Last night, the New York Yankees completed what to this point constitutes the second-most significant trade of the month when they sent three prospects to Baltimore in exchange for a few months of closer Zach Britton’s services.

The Orioles drafted Britton out of high school in 2006, and Britton debuted five years later as a full-time starter for Baltimore in 2011. By 2014, he had transitioned to a full-time bullpen role, and my earliest memories of him date to two years after that.

Britton was a key part of the 2016 Baltimore team that finished second in the AL East and made the postseason as a wild card. That was the Orioles’ last playoff appearance, and manager Buck Showalter’s decision not to use Britton as the win-or-go-home contest went into extra innings granted the game an air of infamy.

Prior to that, writer Ben Lindbergh memorably made the case that Britton, a closer who would pitch sixty-seven innings that season, merited serious consideration for the AL MVP award. As recorded contemporaneously in these digital pages, Lindbergh’s argument was based on a modification to the notion of Win Probability Added (WPA):

Earlier today, Ben Lindbergh argued that Baltimore reliever Zach Britton has a claim to the 2016 AL MVP award. To make that case, Lindbergh demonstrated that Britton had done more than any other player to help his team win games that mattered. Lindbergh did this by placing Britton’s performance in the context of the individual games in which Britton pitched– did Britton’s actions help or hurt his team’s chances of winning that game, and to what degree did they do so?– and then placing those games in the context of his team’s position in the playoff hunt. Viewed this way, Britton (excellent contributions to a good team in close contention) is more valuable than, for example, Mike Trout (superlative contributions to a bad team far out of contention). The metric that captures this contextual performance concept is called Championship Probability Added (cWPA), and Britton currently holds a commanding lead atop that leaderboard.

(Emphasis added.)

The road has been a bit rough for Britton since that 2016 season, however, as the trade article linked above summarized:

After consecutive two-win seasons in 2015 and 2016, he has missed time with the following injuries:

  • April 16, 2017 – Hits the disabled list with a strained left forearm and misses a little over two weeks.
  • May 6, 2017 – Almost immediately after return from disabled list, goes back on it with same injury.
  • August 25, 2017 – Injures his left knee and is shut down in September.
  • December 2017 – Hurts his right Achilles in an offseason workout requiring surgery.

The lefty returned to action on June 12 but hasn’t been lights out like he was before 2017, with a 4.43 FIP and 3.45 ERA thus far. He’s been a bit better of late, tossing eight straight scoreless outings, but has still produced just six strikeouts against four walks in that span. Perhaps more encouragingly, his velocity is up over his last few outings, getting closer to the 97 mph sinker he used to throw. If the velocity return is here to stay, better results might follow.

By a clear margin, Britton led all pitchers in WPA in 2016. This year, however, he’s nowhere to be found atop that list. That no team has done as little winning as Baltimore (record: 29-73) likely contributed to that shift. Still, the fact that he has a negative WPA (-0.13) for the first time since he moved into the bullpen seems worth noting in light of the foregoing.

As the block quotation immediately preceding the immediately preceding paragraph indicates, there are a number of red flags that suggest that the version of Britton the Yankees acquired (insert reference about Redcoat POWs) last night may be meaningfully different from the one who presented an intriguingly compelling case for consideration as the most valuable player in the American League in 2016.

As a closing addendum, the current leaders in pitcher cWPA for 2018 are Justin Verlander (.023) and Josh Hader (.020).

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Related
Baltimore Closer Zach Britton Isn’t Just a Surprise Cy Young Contender — He’s the AL MVP

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Designated Sitter, or, Manfred Ado About Nothing

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For people who write about baseball, the All-Star break offers at least two things: (1) an intraseasonal oasis in which one can examine and address baseball topics over the span of a day or two without worrying that the otherwise constant barrage of new baseball events occurring that might, for example, mess up the performance numbers on which a writer had founded his or her baseball writing and (2) a probably countervailing force in the form of significant public interviews with the sport’s leaders addressing the sport’s Big Topics Of The Day.

Regarding the latter, Commissioner Rob Manfred kicked things off this morning with an appearance on Dan Patrick’s radio show. Here are my notes of the highlights:

manfred dp notes

People love to talk about the designated hitter and whether the National League will adopt it, and Manfred’s mention of the subject this morning predictably reignited the “conversation”:

I suspect that those on the fence or without a considered opinion on the subject may have found prodding from recent articles like this one Ben Lindbergh published last month illustrating the historically poor offensive numbers from current pitchers. What many of these conversants don’t do is think about this conversation from the DH side, however. There really is no doubt that a designated hitter is going to bat better than a pitcher, but the nature of the DH position is changing, both in terms of the players who are filling that role and their performance levels.

Regarding the union’s particular partiality to the DH, are David Ortiz-types really the players finding extra PAs as designated hitters? Take a look. Continue reading

Braves finally strike a positive note in move to new stadium

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My opposition to the Atlanta Braves’ departure from their downtown home in Turner Field is well-documented in these digital pages, and it’s unlikely that we’ll make it to many games once the team moves to the corner of I-75 and I-285 (not exactly Michigan and Trumbull or 1060 West Addison). In the event we do hack our way through the asphalt jungle and make it to Cobb County, though, there’s good news. No, the team’s not likely to be much better next year, but at least Turner Field organist Matthew Kaminsky will be joining the Braves’ suburban exodus.

I didn’t know his name back then, but I remember Kaminsky’s work from my first Braves game, back in 2013. I even wrote about him here, in my post about that game:

It was good that we were closer to the game, too, because the Royals and Braves, who were off on Monday, were celebrating a belated Jackie Robinson day by having everyone wear uniform number 42 in his honor. This made it difficult to keep track of the players, particularly hitters and pitchers, a difficulty the apparent lack of an active stadium announcer compounded. Swinging hard in the other direction, though, was the overly detailed digital scoreboard in straightaway center that had almost too much information on it to be readily intelligible. Mitigating all of this, thankfully, was an organ player who kept the whole scene loose and made me smile by playing his or her own version of “Call Me Al” every time K.C.’s Alcides Escobar came up to bat.

Kaminsky’s signature is his musical puns or references played for the opposing batters’ walk-up songs, creating a fun game within the game for fans trying to follow his thought process. Other memorable selections include “Take Five,” a Dave Brubeck recording composed by saxophonist Paul Desmond, for Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, and various fish-related songs for Angels outfielder Mike Trout.

Kaminsky was a guest on a recent episode of The Ringer’s MLB podcast, hosted by Ben Lindbergh, which you can stream below. He discusses how he first was hired for the job; how he prepares for, envisions, and executes his role during games; and the particular musical equipment he uses. As mentioned above, he also discloses the news that he will be a part of games at the Braves’ new park next year, and that, as part of the move, the team will be supplying him with a real organ.

The segment with Kaminsky begins at roughly the halfway point, and is preceded by a Statcast conversation with Daren Willman (Baseball Savant) and Tom Tango (The Book) that also may be of some interest.

Kaminsky, who also plays for college teams (including Georgia Tech, Georgia, and Auburn), performs in a salsa band and a jazz band, and teaches music, takes suggestions for his baseball selections on Twitter.

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Previously
The political costs of a new baseball stadium
Previewing the 2016 Atlanta Braves
The Braves are failing on their own terms
New Braves stadium project continues to falter
Georgia Supreme Court Upholds Cobb’s Braves Stadium Bond Deal
Braves Break Ground on Baseball Boondoggle
The yard sale at Upton Abbey continues
From Barves to Burbs: What’s happening to baseball in Atlanta?

[UPDATED] Catching Fire: Mike Drop

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UPDATE: Approximately seven minutes after we published this post, the Tigers took our advice and traded Aviles to the Atlanta Braves.

It’s reassuring to know that General Manager Al Avila has joined Brad Ausmus as an ALDLAND reader. If you would like to peer inside the mind of the Tigers GM, the original post remains below.

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The clock is ticking louder than ever on the Detroit Tigers’ 2016 season, and, just at the very moment the team needs to be putting its best foot forward in an effort to win crucial games that will determine whether they make the playoffs, they are running out some of the worst lineups they’ve used all season.

Injuries are largely to blame for this untimely suboptimal roster utilization, as Detroit currently is without Cameron Maybin, Nick Castellanos, Jordan Zimmermann, Jose Iglesias, Shane Greene, and (sigh) Mike Pelfrey. In addition, Miguel Cabrera left last night’s game with what appeared to be a left shoulder injury, and his status is uncertain. Manager Brad Ausmus, facing this many significant losses, obviously is handcuffed– he has little choice but to lean, undoubtedly more heavily than he would prefer, on his reserves, backups, and alternates.

Modern MLB roster construction, with its emphasis on relief-pitching specialization, leaves little room for backup position players. The Tigers, like most American League teams, essentially have three: a backup catcher, and two other “utility” fielders, who can play a variety of positions whenever a regular starter needs a break, or as a defensive replacement late in games.

For Detroit, those two guys are Andrew Romine and Mike Aviles, and they aren’t very good. Back in June, when Iglesias was struggling, I wondered whether Romine, who appeared to be a very solid stand-in at short when given the opportunity, should take over the job? Nope. Back in March, before the season even started, I was worried about the scouting report on Aviles, which was starkly negative:

Aviles is no longer useful in a baseball sense[, and] his inability to reach base (.279 OBP from 2013-15) makes him a complete zero on offense, while what’s left of his defensive and baserunning abilities have become liabilities.

Harsh and, so far, accurate. Unsurprisingly, when both Aviles and Romine are in the starting lineup, Detroit almost always loses.   Continue reading

The only rule is you have to listen

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You don’t have to if you don’t want to, of course, but if you would like to hear me on the latest episode of the Banished to the Pen Podcast, listening is required. Baseball discussion topics include my recent research on switch hitters and the defensive shift, as well as the new book from Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, The Only Rule Is It Has To Work.

The podcast episode is available for downloading or streaming here.

The moral implications of StatCast

moralitycastIf your neighborhood baseball nerd is nerding out a little more than usual today, it’s probably because Pluto’s in retrograde right now or something, and it definitely doesn’t have anything to do with tonight’s television broadcast debut of StatCast, which will go far beyond showing balls and strikes by tracking things like player movements and batted-ball data. Ben Lindbergh has a good preview of the technology and its chief implications for expanded baseball analysis here.   Continue reading

Baseball Notes: The In-Game Half Lives of Professional Pitchers

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Early in Victor Martinez’s career-renaissance season, that being the 2014 Major League Baseball season, I expounded– in a manner so brief it likely took less time to read than the length of an average Martinez plate appearance– upon one component of the (i.e., Rod Allen’s, colloquially) notion of Martinez as a “professional hitter”: Martinez’s ability to extend his plate appearances. I contended that one of the team benefits of Martinez’s approach is that it pushes pitchers to reveal more of their arsenal earlier in the game.

In looking for general evidence of this beneficiary concept by inverting the point of focus from hitters to pitchers, I found Ben Lindbergh’s recent analysis of pitcher performance. The broad, basic point: within a game, pitchers perform worse each subsequent time they face a batter.

pitchingthroughtheorderThus, if batters benefit from increased exposure to a pitcher, it would seem to make sense that, assuming they’re paying attention in the dugout, Martinez’s teammates would benefit further from the disproportionately lengthy plate appearances Martinez induces. Lindbergh’s conclusion confirms this:

The times-facing-hitter penalty isn’t as much a fatigue effect as it is a familiarity effect that compounds as hitters have time to study their prey.

(His article goes on to discuss pitchers’ attempts to strike back against this trend.)

While many will be watching Martinez for the wrong reasons this season, keep an eye on him and his ilk to see whether they can continue to help their teammates in secondary ways, regardless of what happens to their own primary production.

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Previously
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