Brief Atlanta Braves 2019 NLDS Update: Your Eyes and Ears do Not Deceive You

Yesterday afternoon, the St. Louis Cardinals forced a decisive fifth NLDS game against the Braves, which will occur tomorrow evening back in Atlanta. Each of the Cardinals’ two wins came by a single run, while the Braves have claimed their wins in low-scoring 3-1 and 3-0 affairs. All of the games have been full of the sort of tension-built excitement that makes October baseball so much fun.

Atlanta was and remains the favored team and has home-field “advantage” for game five, but it’s clear that they’re going to need more from the full depth of their lineup if they’re going to top this plucky Cardinals team. If the Braves’ roster has looked (and sounded– local radio coverage > TBS national telecast coverage) consistently inconsistent this series, your sensory receptors aren’t deceiving you. Take a look at the current status of the 2019 postseason cWPA leaderboard:

playoff cwpa 10-8-19

Atlanta fans probably have been saying to each other, “Wow, Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall and Ronald Acuña and Mike Foltynewicz have been huge for the Braves this series, and, moreover, Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis have been completely useless, and Mark Melancon and Julio Teheran have been killing us!” As cWPA confirms, the analysis by those Atlanta fans has been spot on!

As good as the good guys have been, it’s difficult to imagine the Braves advancing without getting something– anything, at this point– from Freeman, whose .535 OPS in this series indicates he’s been worse at the plate than any qualified hitter in the 2019 regular season. (Even 2018 Chris Davis had an OPS of .539! Since 1988, only two qualified hitters ever have posted a regular-season OPS below .535: Matt Walbeck (.530 in 1994) and MLB Network’s own Billy Ripken (.518 in 1988).) Sure, it’s only been four games, but Freeman’s been practically invisible– just two hits, one walk, and one run scored across eighteen plate appearances in which he struck out five times in a key spot in Atlanta’s lineup– at times when the Braves really need him to shine. This isn’t necessarily news, as he entered the postseason on a cold streak, but he’s going to have to snap out of it quickly.

Game five starts tomorrow in Atlanta at 5:02 pm. Indications are that Foltynewicz, winner in game two, will start for the Braves, and Jack Flaherty, owner of a dominant second half leading into these playoffs, will start for the Cardinals.

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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: When the joke doesn’t land where you want it to land

Following his first career walk-off hit, an eleventh-inning homer against the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, July 21, Detroit Tigers right fielder Nick Castellanos shared his feelings about Comerica Park, his baseball home for the entirety of his seven-year MLB career:

This park’s a joke. It’s to the point where, how are we going to be compared to the rest of the people in the league for power numbers and OPS and slugging and all this stuff, when we’ve got a yard out here that’s 420 feet straight across to center field? We get on second base, third base, and (opposing players) looking like, “how do you guys do this?” We play 81 games here, I don’t want to hear it about your two you hit that are questionable.

There’s no reason that I hit a ball 434 feet off Anibal Sanchez and it goes in the first row. That shouldn’t happen.

Let’s just say Miggy played his whole career in Yankee Stadium or Great American Ballpark or whatever – him and [Barry] Bonds are already the greatest hitters, period, there’s no discussion – but the fact that he’s played in Pro Player Stadium, the Marlins’ old park and then Comerica Park, there’s a discussion.

We do have ways of comparing player performances independent of the parks in which they performed, of course, but that’s beside the point. Castellanos wanted the Tigers to trade him prior to this season, and he probably still wanted that to happen as last month’s trade deadline approached. If I had to guess (I don’t have to, obviously), he made this statement because he’s frustrated with the lack of interest in his services from other teams and believes his fairly average batting numbers– which, he believes, would be much better if he played half his games in a smaller park– are to blame for that lack of interest. Subsequently developed information from local media sources apparently desperate to stoke fan outrage seems to confirm this:

Castellanos almost certainly would have more homers if he played in a hitter-friendlier park, but there isn’t a single MLB team or salary arbitrator (see Art. VI, Sec. E, Part 10(c) (defining admissible statistics in salary arbitrations)) evaluating him based on his raw, unadjusted hitting numbers. As long as he’s talking about those numbers, though, this may be the point to note that his career line at Comerica Park (.287/.339/.470) is better than the one he’s posted in road games (.264/.312/.454). The fact that this year’s split is running very strongly in the opposite direction likely is fueling his current frustration, however.  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

April 2019 MLB MVP: Kirby Yates?

Image result for kirby yates

Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger just wrapped up excellent Aprils.* Yelich started very hot, while Bellinger came on very strong a bit later. The two finish the season’s first full month tied for the MLB lead in home runs (fourteen) and with a pair of gaudy offensive lines:

yelich bellinger april 2019

Unsurprisingly, these guys appear at the top of a lot of leaderboards right now, including the FanGraphs combined WAR leaderboard, by which measure Bellinger (3.0 fWAR) just completed a month tied with August 2002 Barry Bonds for the third-best month ever. You’re going to have a hard time convincing anybody that Bellinger, or maybe Yelich, wasn’t the April 2019 MVP.

For the sake of this post running longer than 105 words and maybe illuminating something beyond the obvious, another one of the leaderboards Yelich and Bellinger also top is the cWPA leaderboard:

cwpa through 4-30-19

I like using cWPA (defined: championship win probability added “takes individual game win probability added (WPA) and increases the scope from winning a game to winning the World Series. Where a player’s WPA is the number of percentage points that player increased or decreased their team’s probability of winning a single game, their cWPA is the number of percentage points the player increased or decreased their team’s chances of winning the World Series.”) in MVP analyses because I think it should be attractive to a broad swath of the MVP electorate in that it accounts for the traditional notion that the individual award-winner ought to have been on a winning team. When handing out performance awards for a given season (or some subset thereof), it makes sense to reward players based on what they actually accomplished, as opposed to what they should have accomplished but for bad luck, sequencing, weak teammates, strong opponents, environmental variations, and other contextual and extrinsic factors. After all, these factors work, to some extent, on all players, and just as we determine team monthly standings based on actual win percentage (and not a sabermetrically adjusted winning percentage), so too should we determine individual monthly awards based on actual results.

If you followed the cWPA leaderboard over the course of the last month, you would’ve seen Yelich hanging out at the top most days, eventually joined at the top by Bellinger thanks to the latter’s strong, late surge. You also would’ve seen Kirby Yates consistently hanging around the second or third position for much of the month. Who is Yates, and how did he come to join Bellinger and Yelich in the clear top echelon of early season cWPA accumulators?

Yates currently is:

  • a right-handed relief pitcher
  • playing for the San Diego Padres
  • in his sixth major-league season
  • thirty-two years old
  • a native of Hawaii
  • leading MLB in games finished in 2019 (fifteen)
  • leading MLB in saves in 2019 (fourteen)

The Padres closer certainly has gotten off to a hot start, but it’s important to remember that he’s only thrown sixteen total innings in 2019. He’s probably going to give up a home run at some point, for example, and eventually seems likely to allow more than one run per sixteen appearances.

It also bears noting that relievers commonly experience a greater share of their playing time in situations of elevated leverage, so it isn’t totally surprising to find a reliever hanging out near the top of this group (cf. 2016 Zach Britton), though it of course is a double-edged sword for WPA-based metrics.

Finally, even if Yates’ hand remains steady, his team’s situation over the course of the season may not put him in a position to boost championship win probability. The Padres currently are 17-13 and tied for second in the NL West, but they’ve allowed more runs than they’ve scored, which isn’t what you’d like to see if you’d like to see the Padres competing for a playoff berth and a World Series championship in 2019.

Cody Bellinger probably deserves player-of-the-month honors for April, but Yates has, at a minimum, made a case with his own April performance that he is a guy to watch, which is pretty good for a Padres reliever in 2019.

* Statistics and information contained herein current through April 30. Spoiler Alert: Bellinger won the April player-of-the-month award for the National League.

MLB’s David vs. Goliath: Will Daniel Descalso outhit Giancarlo Stanton this year? (via ESPN.com)

Here’s a hot-take kind of question: Who was the better hitter in 2018, Giancarlo Stanton or Daniel Descalso?

Stanton, the highest-profile acquisition of the previous offseason, was very good for the Yankees: 38 homers, .852 OPS and a 127 wRC+, meaning he was 27 percent better than the league’s average hitter. He was on a couple of MVP ballots. Descalso, paid $2 million after the Diamondbacks picked up his option in November, was pretty good, too: 13 homers and a .789 OPS, with a 111 wRC+.

So that was easy. Stanton hit better, assuming the point of hitting is to get on base and hit the ball far.

But, of course, it’s not. The point is to score runs, and for scoring runs, some hits are worth more than others. Descalso hit .270/.372/.541 with men on base, while Stanton hit only .236/.315/.429. Descalso drove in 17 percent of the men who were on base when he came up, while Stanton drove in only 14 percent. Of course, Stanton drove himself in 38 times, 25 more times than Descalso did — but now the question is close. By RE24, a stat that also credits a batter with the runners he advances with his hits, it’s a virtual tie. That’s assuming, at least, that the point of hitting is, rather than “get hits,” to create runs.

But it’s not. The point is to win games, and for winning games, some runs are more important than others. We call the hits that drive in those runs “clutch.” In 2018, Daniel Descalso was the fourth-clutchest hitter in the majors, according to FanGraphs’ metric. And Giancarlo Stanton was, using that same measure and that same term, the fifth least-clutch. In high-leverage situations — those situations where the game is most likely to be materially affected — Descalso was far more effective, with a .591 slugging percentage to Stanton’s .462, and a .378 OBP to Stanton’s .313. By win probability added — which measures the hitting team’s chances of winning before a player bats and after he bats, crediting the change to the batter — Descalso was one of the league’s most productive hitters last year:

  • Descalso: 3.10 wins added, 23rd in the majors
  • Stanton: 0.95 wins added, 106th in the majors

So that turns out to be not that easy of a question: Descalso, Daniel Descalso, was apparently quite a bit better than Stanton, and also better than Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado. It’s a hot take, but you can actually stand behind it. But now here’s the really hot-take question: Who will be the better hitter in 2019, Giancarlo Stanton or Daniel Descalso? … Read More

(via ESPN.com)

Rapid reaction: Mike Trout’s reported contract extension

passan trout

trout new k

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Related
What Alex Rodriguez’s Contract Would Look Like Today

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.)

WTF: Castellanos Reality Check

When it wraps up next month, the 2018 season almost certainly will have been the best of Nicholas Castellanos’ six-year career. The twenty-six-year-old already was positioned to take on an increased leadership role entering this season, and that responsibility has fallen even more squarely on his shoulders following a season-ending injury to Miguel Cabrera in June. Castellanos is younger than many of his newer teammates, including Niko Goodrum, Mikie Mahtook, and Ronny Rodriguez, but no one– with the exceptions of Victor Martinez and Jose Iglesias (by less than a month)– on the Detroit Tigers’ current forty-man roster has a longer major-league tenure with the Tigers than Castellanos. With Cabrera out and Martinez fading into retirement (but see), Castellanos is what qualifies as this team’s veteran leader. And yes, I realize he won’t even hit arbitration until next year.

Emerging along with his clubhouse status is his bat. By whichever offensive metric you prefer, Castellanos is having a career year at the plate: 120 OPS+; 121 wRC+; .303 TAv. While his BABIP is elevated (.354 in 2018 versus a .330 career average), there is reason to believe that this level of production from Castellanos– again, just twenty-six– is real. Continue reading

Toward an MLB MVP-Voting Rubric

[The following is an introduction to a more thorough study I intend to publish at Banished to the Pen following the conclusion of the current MLB season the purpose of which is to suggest an approach to harmonizing traditional ways of thinking about the sport’s annual MVP award with available sabermetric principles. -ed.]

Last week’s Zach Britton trade reminded me about the idea of championship win probability added (cWPA). In 2016, Ben Lindbergh made the case that Britton, then serving as the closer for the Baltimore Orioles, should win the award for the most valuable player in the American League based on the idea that Britton, at least during the regular season, had done more to help his team win the World Series than any other player had helped his own team win the championship. Britton– again, a relief pitcher who threw sixty-seven innings– finished eleventh in MVP voting. Mike Trout, the WAR leader, claimed the award, his second, and I don’t suspect many people have thought much about cWPA since then.

What should make cWPA (defined: cWPA “takes individual game win probability added (WPA) and increases the scope from winning a game to winning the World Series. Where a player’s WPA is the number of percentage points that player increased or decreased their team’s probability of winning a single game, their cWPA is the number of percentage points the player increased or decreased their team’s chances of winning the World Series.”) attractive to a broad swath of the MVP electorate is that it accounts for the traditional notion that the individual award-winner ought to have been on a winning team. When handing out performance awards for a given season, it makes sense to reward players based on what they actually accomplished, as opposed to what they should have accomplished but for bad luck, sequencing, weak teammates, strong opponents, environmental variations, and other contextual and extrinsic factors. After all, these factors work, to some extent, on all players, and just as we determine team season standings based on actual win percentage (and not a sabermetrically adjusted winning percentage), so too should we determine individual season awards based on actual results.

This is not to say that the MVP should go to the player with the best batting average or the Cy Young to the hurler with the most pitcher wins, obviously. While using cWPA as a guide will steer us toward players who are, in the conventional sense, winners, it uses accepted sabermetric principles to maneuver in that direction. Still, I think there may be some concern that cWPA, when used alone as a player-valuation measure, might be too context-dependent and inclined to reward disproportionately an otherwise unremarkable player who happened to find himself in one or two of the right places at one or two of the right times. Certainly, though, it seems likely that a player who accumulated performances in those situations often enough to find himself near the top of the cWPA leaderboard also would be a well-rounded and highly productive player in all situations.

Still, I was curious how well cWPA correlated with WAR, something it ought to do reasonably well if it’s to be available as a useful informant for MVP voters. I pulled the cWPA numbers for the current season and used FanGraphs’ version of WAR mainly because their combined WAR leaderboard made data manipulation easier.

(click image to enlarge)

I don’t have a statistics background, so I won’t comment on the significance of the correlation between cWPA and fWAR except to say that it seems sufficiently strong. If you’re curious about who’s who on this plot, here are the current top-ten players by cWPA:

There is a lot of significant, championship-relevant baseball yet to be played in 2018, and a more significant study of the above would have involved prior, completed seasons, but I think there’s something here and wanted to share what I had compiled on the current season as it moves into August and teams begin their playoff charges in earnest. I anticipate updating this information after the conclusion of the regular season and supplementing it with historical data to create an even more robust analysis. In the meantime, I welcome any input on win probability added and seasonal awards.