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.

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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

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.

Shohei Ohtani boomerangs into spring training

Easily the most anticipated debut of the 2018 MLB season belongs to Shohei Ohtani, the two-way player from Japan who signed with the Angels as an international free agent this offseason. The twenty-three-year-old previously starred as both a starting pitcher and hitter for the Nippon Ham Fighters, a team in Japan’s top professional baseball league. During his five seasons with the Fighters, Ohtani posted a  2.52 ERA and .859 OPS. While his numbers don’t correlate directly to Ohtani’s expected performance with Los Angeles, they do suggest Ohtani could become both a very good pitcher and hitter here, something without recent parallel in the MLB ranks.

The presently ongoing spring training offers American audiences their first good look at Ohtani, who has made one appearance (1.1 IP) on the mound thus far. Can he pitch? Reader, he can pitch:

The Angels surprised many by racing to a second-place finish behind runaway success (and eventual World-Series champion) Houston in 2017, and they promise to be even more interesting in 2018, with a roster that adds Ohtani and a bunch of former Detroit Tigers (Cameron Maybin, Justin Upton, and Ian Kinsler, plus Brad Ausmus as a front-office assistant) to a group that already included Mike Trout, Andrelton Simmons, Zack Cozart, and compiler Albert Pujols.

Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup

baseball notes

Rather than my own attempt at fashioning a nugget of faux-wisdom, the purpose of this Baseball Notes post is to highlight a number of articles posted elsewhere addressing current offseason issues in the sport.

On the hot stove‘s slow burn:

An underappreciated element of the utter sameness that permeates baseball today is the number of executives who came through the commissioner’s office at Major League Baseball either as an intern or early in their careers. Jobs there aren’t just pipelines to teams. They are breeding grounds for the proliferation of commissioner Rob Manfred’s doctrine, honed during two decades as the sport’s chief labor negotiator.

How does it work? Consider the case of Tommy Hunter, the relief pitcher, who late last winter was holding out for a major league contract. On the same day, according to two sources, at least two teams called Hunter offering the exact same deal – an occurrence that in the past might have screamed of collusion. In this case, the sources said, it was likelier a reflection of how teams value players so similarly.

It’s not just the algorithms with minuscule differences that spit out the same numbers. It’s a recognition of how to manipulate the new collective-bargaining agreement. “Clubs are maneuvering to take advantage of the significant salary depressors in the CBA,” one agent said. An example: One large-revenue team telling agents that his team is wary of getting anywhere close to the luxury-tax threshold, lest it be penalized for exceeding it.

“Of course that’s what we’re saying,” the GM said. “We’d be stupid not to.”

On Julio Teheran and what happens when player-value metrics tell different stories:

At Baseball-Reference, Julio Teheran was much worse in 2017. He allowed heaps more runs than he had in 2016. It’s more complicated than that — a ton of work has gone into the calibration — but at a basic level this is what we’re talking about. By bWAR, based on runs allowed adjusted for things like ballpark and the quality of his defense, Teheran was worth 1.6 wins in 2017, close to league average.
. . .
At FanGraphs, Julio Teheran was much worse in 2017, worse even than he was at Baseball-Reference. His strikeout rate went down, his walk rate went up, and he allowed way more home runs. It’s more complicated than that, but at a basic level it’s not much more complicated than that. By fWAR, which is based on a stat (FIP) calculated with those three factors alone, Teheran was worth 1.1 wins. He pitched considerably worse than a league-average starter.
. . .
But now it gets complicated, because at Baseball Prospectus Teheran’s WARP was 3.8, identical to his 3.8 WARP in 2016. He ranked 24th in baseball, ahead of Alex Wood, James Paxton and Robbie Ray. We’ve found a story that says Teheran was actually good.
. . .
Which takes us to a third level of storytelling, observing not just what happened or what should have happened but what should have should have happened.

In WARP’s telling, Teheran walked more batters than he did in 2016, but he pitched like somebody who should have walked fewer than he did. He allowed far more home runs than he did in 2016, but he pitched like somebody who should have allowed fewer. Specifically, given his pitch types and pitch locations, he should have beat batters who actually beat him.
. . .
There are those who complain there are multiple WAR models telling us different things about players. Stats are supposed to resolve uncertainty, we figure, not exacerbate it. But these are complicated questions. The worst thing a stat could do it mislead us about how simple baseball is, or about how much we know. It’s not simple. We don’t know all that much.

On the weekend’s big throwback trade between the Dodgers and Braves:

With five players involved, [Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, and Charlie Culberson,] this is a big trade for two teams to make. But then, if we’re going to be realistic, this isn’t about the players at all. This is a swap of money, or, more accurately, this is a swap of debt. There is short-term debt, and there is shorter-term debt.
. . .
Gonzalez is already a free agent. The Braves designated him for assignment so fast that it was part of the initial press release. Kemp is unlikely to play a game for the Dodgers, since they’re already looking to flip him, if not drop him outright. Kazmir didn’t pitch in the majors this past season. McCarthy did, but he threw just 92.2 innings. Culberson batted all of 15 times before making the playoff roster because Corey Seager was hurt. All of these players combined for a 2017 WAR of +0.7. It was all thanks to McCarthy, and his 16 adequate starts.
. . .
[H]ere’s how this works. Gonzalez’s 2018 salary belongs to the Braves now. Then his contract is up. The same is true for McCarthy, and the same is true for Kazmir. Culberson does come with some years of team control. The Dodgers are also sending the Braves $4.5 million. And Kemp’s 2018 salary now belongs to the Dodgers. So does Kemp’s 2019 salary. In each year, he’s due $21.5 million.
. . .
[T]his exchange is more or less cash-neutral. That is, neither the Braves nor the Dodgers are taking on the greater obligation. But the Dodgers are spreading it over the next two years, reducing their 2018 payroll figure. The Braves will face the greater short-term burden, and then, come 2019, there will be sweet, sweet freedom. The Braves ditch a future obligation, giving them more financial flexibility a year from now. The Dodgers assume a future obligation, but they, too, will get more financial flexibility a year from now, and beyond, because they likely won’t have to pay the most severe competitive-balance taxes. All they’re worried about is getting the overage penalties to reset. . . . Next offseason, Bryce Harper, for example, is expected to be a free agent. Manny Machado is expected to be a free agent. All sorts of good players are expected to be free agents, and, significantly, Clayton Kershaw could opt out. The Dodgers are presumably planning to spend big, so resetting the overage penalties now could and should eventually save them eight figures. All it requires is one year of dipping down.

___________________________________________________________________

Previously
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

Saving Detroit: Upton There

Today is the last day MLB teams can trade players the receiving team would like to use in the postseason. In what I am regarding as a surprise move, the Tigers have sent another outfielder to the Angels, who now are acquiring Justin Upton in exchange for Grayson Long. (Last fall, Detroit sent Cameron Maybin to Anaheim, and, probably not coincidentally, Maybin now is on his way to Houston.) Neil Weinberg has the early report on Long:

The Tigers got 23-year-old Grayson Long, a starter currently having a strong year in AA. He only threw 65 innings across three levels last year due to injury, but he does have the appearance of an innings eater if you buy into the archetype scouting. Based on the public scouting views and one source I spoke with this afternoon, Long’s fastball is solid in the low 90s but his secondary stuff is a bit questionable with opinions ranging from fringe to flashes of above average. He has a change and slider but it’s not clear they will play at the major league level to the point at which he could be a successful starter. That might lead him to a bullpen role, but he has pitched well so far in the minors and I’m a big believer in letting a player keep going until the performance tells you to stop. There’s definitely potential for something really exciting but even the floor seems perfectly fine given the cost.

Upton’s contract had a player opt-out provision effective as of the end of this season. I’ve expressed skepticism about the idea that Upton would exercise that option. Weinberg, on the other hand, called the “odds that Upton opts out . . . quite high.”

It appears the Tigers came to the same conclusion, because the only way this trade makes sense is if Detroit was treating Upton as if he was on an expiring contract just like J.D. Martinez and Alex Avila and needed to get something for him now before he leaves in the offseason.

After watching Upton play here in Atlanta with his older brother as members of the Braves, I have been tracking his time– a bad dip with a fierce, late recovery in 2016, followed by a very solid 2017– in Detroit on this site with some care, and I will watch how the market responds to what I now agree will be his likely free agency this offseason. While he may not get a raise, he’s likely to wind up with a team with greater playoff odds than those of the Tigers or Angels, who, against many of those same odds, remain in the American League wild card hunt. Most of all, I’m happy to see Upton have such a strong rebound. Detroit’s fans didn’t deserve him anyway.

______________________________________________

Previously
A bad time for a bad season – 8/29
Jordan Zimmermann takes tennis lessons – 8/20
Tigers Notes, 8/8/17
– 8/8
Decoding the Upton Myth
– 8/2
Even the umpires just wanna go home
– 7/21

Yo, a J.D. Martinez trade comp – 7/19
Martinez trade triggers premature referendum on Avila – 7/19
Michael Fulmer has righted the ship
 – 6/27

Tigers in Retrograde – 6/19
Fixing Justin Upton
 – 5/31

Soft in the Middle Now – 5/30
Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Reliever Relief – 5/8

Related
Catching Fire: It Don’t Come Easy
Catching Fire: Checking in on Justin Upton
Catching Fire: Night of a thousand feet of home runs
Catching Fire: Heading for the exit velocity

ALDLAND’s full Justin Upton archive

Man vs. Machine

pujols cabrera

The great Miguel Cabrera is thirty-four years old. His team, once a surefire contender, is stuck in neutral, and Cabrera, their ostensible offensive engine, has only been slightly above average at the plate (108 wRC+, which would be the worst of any of his seasons since his rookie year (106 wRC+)).

It looks like we are seeing the beginning of Cabrera’s inevitable decline, which has observers taking stock of Cabrera’s likely legacy and projecting his place among the greats once he puts that magic bat down for good. For example, Yooper David Laurila included this observation in a recent edition of his Sunday Notes column:

Lou Gehrig had 8,001 at bats, 534 doubles and 493 home runs. Miguel Cabrera has 8,028 at bats, 533 doubles, and 451 home runs.

The day before, conversation on Fredi the Pizzaman’s Pizza Cave Podcast turned to Cabrera as the panel debated whether he would join Albert Pujols in the 600-home run club. (Pujols, whose major-league debut came two years before Cabrera’s, passed that milestone on June 4 of this year.) That discussion prompted a broader one about both players’ achievements and legacies.

Here’s a quick graph to introduce and orient this comparative analysis:

chart-2

By aligning the two players’ offensive performances (measured by wOBA) to their individual age-seasons, we can develop a rough snapshot of their careers at the plate. This graph illustrates a couple of significant trends. First, it’s easy to identify the clear tipping point in Pujols’ career, which very clearly has two distinct halves. Second, Pujols came out of the gate hotter than Cabrera, who needed a couple years to ramp things up. Both achieved production levels that make them generational talents, but when it comes to counting statistics (like career home run totals), the gap in those early years may be what will end up separating these two in the final analysis. All players eventually decline, but that just means it’s going to be tougher for Cabrera to make up for his comparatively slow start now.

pujols cabrera hr career

Again, this graph compares Pujols and Cabrera by aligning their career seasons. Even though they’ve accumulated homers at a similar rate, merely keeping pace in that regard likely won’t be enough for Cabrera in light of Pujols’ head start unless Cabrera has more years left in his tank than Pujols has in his. And right now, that first part– keeping pace– isn’t looking so sure for Cabrera. Here’s the same graph as the one above expanded to include 2017 numbers:

pujols cabrera hr career

This comparison to Pujols thus suggests that Cabrera is unlikely to reach the 600-homer benchmark for two reasons: 1) a slow start and 2) what looks to be an early– relative to Pujols– decline. None of this is to say that Cabrera can’t or won’t reach 600 home runs. Comparing him to the most recent guy to do it suggests that, absent some change, he’s unlikely to get there.

That change could come in the form of a late-career rejuvenation. Cabrera’s capable of ripping off amazing offensive tears, and he certainly could do that again. It always has felt a bit odd to think of Cabrera as unlucky, but there continues to be evidence that Cabrera’s offensive numbers should be even better than they already are based on the quality of contact he makes. A third change could be a positional one. Just as David Ortiz extended his career by becoming a full-time designated hitter, the thought is that Cabrera could alleviate some of the strain on his body by being relieved of his defensive obligations.

All of this is relative, of course. Failure to accumulate 600 home runs is no indictment on a player or his legacy. Only nine players ever accomplished that feat, and three of them are Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa. Three more of them are Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays.

 

While we’re here, two concluding notes on the overall comparison between Pujols and Cabrera. The first, which came up on the podcast episode linked above, involves postseason success. As a rookie, Cabrera was a member of the Florida Marlins team that won the World Series in 2003. Pujols was a member of the 2006 Cardinals team that swept Cabrera’s Tigers in the World Series, as well as the 2011 World Series team that beat the Rangers in seven games. Pujols also has been a better hitter in the playoffs, though both have been significantly above average (164 wRC+ vs. 136 wRC+). Postseason appearances are significantly team and context-dependent and involve small samples (seventy-seven games for Pujols and fifty-five for Cabrera), but it’s something to mention.

The second is a total career assessment. Neither player is retired, obviously, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a peek at what their legacies look like right now. One way to do that is with JAWS, an analytical tool designed to assess Hall-of-Fame candidacy. Its creator, Jay Jaffe, explains:

JAWS is a tool for measuring a candidate’s Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined. It uses the baseball-reference.com version of Wins Above Replacement to estimate a player’s total hitting, pitching and defensive value to account for the wide variations in scoring levels that have occurred throughout the game’s history and from ballpark to ballpark. A player’s JAWS is the average of his career WAR total and that of his peak, which I define as his best seven years. All three are useful for comparative purposes, as Hall of Famers come in different shapes and sizes. Some—Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson—dominated over periods of time cut short by injuries, military service or the color line. Others such as Eddie Murray, Don Sutton and Dave Winfield showed remarkable staying power en route to major milestones. While it’s convenient to believe that every Hall of Famer must do both to be worthy of a bronze plaque in Cooperstown, they can’t all be Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or Willie Mays, or the institution would merely become a tomb, sealed off because so few have come along to measure up in their wake.

For the purposes of comparison, players are classified at the position where they accrued the most value, which may be different from where they played the most games, particularly as players tend to shift to positions of less defensive responsibility—and thus less overall value—as they age. Think Ernie Banks at shortstop (54.8 WAR in 1,125 games there from 1953 to ’61) as opposed to first base (12.8 WAR in 1,259 games there from ’62 to ’71). A small handful of enshrined players, including pioneers and Negro Leaguers with less than 10 years of major league service, are excluded from the calculations; Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin, for example, had major league careers too short to use as yardsticks for non-Negro League players.

By JAWS, Pujols and Cabrera both are clear Hall of Famers even if neither ever played another game, but there’s a clear separation between the two. JAWS has Pujols as the second-best first baseman ever, trailing only the aforementioned Gehrig, while Cabrera currently slots at the eleventh position, right next to Jim Thome (another one of those 600-HR guys). Pujols has two more years under his ample belt than does Cabrera, and neither is done playing. (This probably is a decent place to note contract details: Pujols has four more years on his current contract, while Cabrera has at least six.) As with the home-run chase, so too with overall career value: Cabrera has a good bit of work to do if he’s to catch Pujols.

The book is not closed on either of these two great baseball stories. Pujols and Cabrera have yet to author their final chapters. The balance of their works likely are complete, however, and from that we can make educated predictions. Both have their high points and distinct achievements, but it looks like Pujols’ early peak will prove a little too high and too long for Cabrera to close the gap. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.