2019 NLDS Braves/Dodgers Spin Zone

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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

 

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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

It appears I hold an unpopular baseball opinion

pujols 2000 rbi

It isn’t just your imagination, Detroit Tigers fans. It doesn’t seem to matter whether either team is having a good year or a bad year: the Angels always destroy the Tigers. Since 2009, no American League team has a better winning percentage against the Tigers than the Angels.* Even by those dismal standards, Thursday’s game was a noteworthy one:

 

Albert Pujols’ home run on Thursday, a solo shot off Ryan Carpenter in the sixth inning, carried significance beyond that fun fact, of course, in that it represented both Pujols’ two-thousandth RBI and a reminder that you earn an RBI when you bat in yourself. Whatever you think of the import of RBIs, you have to admit it’s impressive that Pujols now is one of only five players ever, and three since 1920, to accumulate that many of them. It’s a testament, however circumstantial, to a long and successful career.

The home-run ball in question landed in the seats beyond left field and was nabbed by a twenty-something guy who had just arrived at the park for the day game with his friends and, I initially thought from the replay editing, immediately traded the ball for a Little Caesar’s Hot’n’Ready and a Two Hearted. An in-game interview on the telecast soon revealed that my initial thought was incorrect: he still had the ball and, in fact, planned to keep it. He has a relative who is a big fan of the Cardinals, Pujols’ prior team, and he was thinking about giving it to him. As news spread about the benchmark RBI, the story of the man who had the ball in question– and, more specifically, the fact that he had expressed an initial intention to retain that ball– got swept up along with it. Reports indicated that the man had turned down an offer to meet with Pujols, presumably for the purpose of exchanging the ball for other memorabilia. The Tigers’ public-relations team even instigated itself into the conversation in a strange and seemingly unsolicited fashion. The man subsequently reported that team officials treated him poorly. Two themes appeared to prevail in the public response: 1) the man should have taken the meeting with Pujols to exchange the ball for other items and 2) his refusal to do so would have financial consequences for him.   Continue reading

April 2019 MLB MVP: Kirby Yates?

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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.

Rapid reaction: Mike Trout’s reported contract extension

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Related
What Alex Rodriguez’s Contract Would Look Like Today

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)

#space Jam

My favorite recent PFT Commenter conspiracy theory is that Space Jam 2, which is set to star LeBron James but remains in preproduction, actually is a vehicle to allow James, newly a member of the strikingly mediocre Los Angeles Lakers, to recruit top players with salaries in excess of the league’s caps by paying them to be a part of Space Jam 2, a movie that might never actually get made. If about-to-be-free-agent Kevin Durant signs a cheap contract with the Lakers this offseason, we’ll know the foregoing is true.

Another thing that’s true is that my friend Grant Zubritsky is a musician who just released two new tracks this week that wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack for Space Jam 2. (Take a moment to remember the strength of the soundtrack to the original movie.) In light of all of that and the fact that I don’t know if these Spotify embeds are going to work, here for this week’s Jams are both of his new numbers:

Tonight’s World Series watch party is cancelled

The Boston Red Sox had the nerve to win the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers last night before I was ready to be done watching baseball for the year. I didn’t necessarily want to keep watching these two teams play each other, since Boston seemed to hold a fairly convincing edge over L.A., but that pairing was the only option here at the end.

The primary purpose of this post is to record in this digital log book the above image of an advertisement for a watch party for game one of the 1907 World Series (excuse me, World’s Championship) between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs. I like the idea that, long before teams were inviting fans into their otherwise-empty arenas to watch road championship games together, fans were gathering to watch an intern tack scribbled game updates on a “giant bulletin board” outside the newspaper office. There being no television at that time, and radio broadcasts of games still being more than a decade away, this proto-ESPN Gamecast offering was your best option if you didn’t want to wait until the next day to find out what happened. Thankfully, October 8, 1907, was a fairly warm and dry day in Detroit (high 68, low 41, no recorded precipitation), but one imagines this was no guarantee.

Speaking of a lack of guarantees, there was no guarantee that Steve Pearce even was going to play in the World Series, much less be named its most valuable player. He started the season as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, joining the Red Sox by way of a June 28 trade. He wasn’t a regular starter for Boston, and the thirty-five-year-old likely would not even have had the opportunity for significant postseason playing time but for an injury to Mitch Moreland.

My in-progress model generally supports the decision to name Pearce the MVP. In the postseason, only Yasiel Puig did more to contribute to his team’s championship chances than Pearce, and those two clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack. (A nod here to Josh Hader, whose amazing performance as the tip of Milwaukee manager Craig Counsel’s aggressive bullpen spear kept him at or near the top of the cWPA leaderboard even after the Dodgers eliminated the Brewers in the NLCS.)

And here begins the MLB offseason. This week, watch for Clayton Kershaw’s Wednesday deadline to decide whether to opt out of the last two years of his contract (in which the Dodgers would owe him roughly $35 million per year), as well as Saturday’s deadline for teams to make qualifying offers to free agents, a crop of players that includes Pearce, as well as Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson, Dallas Keuchel, Andrew Miller, Andrew McCutchen, Craig Kimbrel, Yasmani Grandal, Nathan Eovaldi, Cody Allen, Jose Iglesias, Adam Jones, Adrian Beltre, and many others.

One-Paragraph Preview: 2018 NLDS – Dodgers-Braves

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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.