2019 NLDS Braves/Dodgers Spin Zone

bill-o-reilly-the-oreilly-factor-768x432

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.

_______________________________________________________

Previously
The 2018 All-Star Game was one for the Age

 

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.

RKB: Brief 2019 Recapitulation

More to come, probably, but your dutiful scribe wanted to record these items before the playoffs got rolling this evening.

First, relative to their competition, the 2019 Detroit Tigers finished worst in all of baseball in the following categories (merely last in the American League where noted):

  • Wins (47)
  • Runs (582)
  • Home runs (149) (AL)
  • RBI (556)
  • Strikeouts (1595)
  • On-base percentage (.294)
  • Slugging percentage (.388) (AL)
  • On-base plus slugging (.682) (AL)
  • Total bases (2154) (AL)
  • Games (161; tied with White Sox)

They tied for first in triples (41), though.

It also was a bad year for the team’s putative star, Miguel Cabrera, who finished 2019 with career-worst power marks (.116 ISO; cf. Jose Iglesias at .119). Amidst the sport’s juiciest offensive environment of all time, Cabrera clubbed just a dozen homers, the fewest of any of his full seasons and fourth-most on this year’s Detroit team, behind the likes of Brandon Dixon (15), Ronny Rodriguez (14), and John Hicks (13), all of whom reached those lofty totals in significantly fewer plate appearances. By hitting twelve, Cabrera did avoid the full-on embarrassment that would have befallen had he not surpassed the eleven home runs Nick Castellanos hit in a Tigers uniform before the team traded him to Chicago. The good news for Cabrera and his legacy is that he still managed to finish the season in the black WARP-wise, his seventeenth-consecutive season of positive WARP.

Finally, in coaching news, while former manager Brad Ausmus lasted just one season in that role for the Angels, Ron Gardenhire and most of this year’s staff will be back for 2020. Notable changes include a promotion for Lloyd McClendon and a 1B/3B swap for Dave Clark and Ramon Santiago.

Enjoy the Wild Card games tonight.

______________________________________________

Previously
RKB: When the joke doesn’t land where you want it to land – 8/7
RKB: At deadline, Tigers move their best player*– 8/1

RKB: A Wild Rosenthal Appears – 7/16

Related
2019 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Miguel Cabrera in the bWAR era
Miguel Cabrera continues to shine in the DRC era
Miguel Cabrera further bolstered by sabermetric update

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.

______________________________________________

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

RKB: A Wild Rosenthal Appears

Relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal made his MLB debut in 2012 as a midseason callup for the St. Louis Cardinals. In his first full season, he was a two-WARP player, and he became the Cardinals’ full-time closer in 2014. By his third full season, 2015, he was an All Star and down-ballot MVP candidate (even though the new metrics preferred his 2013 performance). After averaging about seventy-one innings pitched across those first three full seasons, Rosenthal’s totals dropped to 40.1 and 47.2 in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The decrease in 2016 was the result of performance struggles and a six-week DL stint for shoulder inflammation. Essentially ditto for 2017, except the DL trip for Trevor Jordan “TJ” Rosenthal was for Tommy John surgery that also caused him to miss all of 2018.

That timing was especially unfortunate for Rosenthal, who became a free agent at the end of the 2018 season. The Washington Nationals quickly signed him to a one-year, $7 million deal, but things did not go well for him in D.C., where the control issues that had begun to crop up at the end of his time in St. Louis quickly reemerged. He made five appearances for the Nationals before he recorded an out, at which point his ERA dropped from “inf” to a mere 72.0. A viral infection sent him back to the DL (plus some extended spring training) for the month of May. He returned in June to provide five additional appearances that were slightly better but still too erratic for the Nationals’ taste, and the team released him on June 23. Six days later, the Tigers signed him and sent him to Toledo. He gave the Mud Hens 5.1 innings of not-great work before the big club called him up yesterday for reasons unclear:

While one would think that Rosenthal’s promotion to the big leagues is a sign that his bout with the yips has improved, that curiously doesn’t appear to be the case. In 5 1/3 innings with Detroit’s affiliate in Toledo, he’s allowed six runs on eight hits and six walks. Rosenthal has punched out nine hitters, which is a mildly encouraging.

Ron Gardenhire didn’t waste much time before taking a look at his new player, sending Rosenthal out to handle the eighth inning and hold Detroit’s run deficit at three. Rosenthal accomplished that task, fully exhibiting his two current trademark tendencies– high velocity and low command– in the process, mixing speed almost as much as location.  Continue reading

Whose All Stars?

Image result for shane greene all star

The stars were out in Cleveland last night, but whose were they? A year ago, the 2018 MLB All-Star teams played a game for the age, one so representative of these true-outcome times that all but one of the fourteen runs scored that night came courtesy of a home run. Last night was much different. The 2019 all stars scored half as many runs as their 2018 counterparts (with just two total through five innings, sinking the under), and only two of the seven runs came off of home runs, solo shots by Charlie Blackmon and Joey Gallo. (Year-to-year strikeout totals nearly were identical.) As a whole, MLB is seeing its highest-ever percentage of runs scored attributed to home runs through this point in the current season, but its ostensible 2019 stars hit like they came from 1989.

_______________________________

Last night’s ASG likely looked fairly familiar to fans of the Detroit Tigers, however, and not just because the current version of that team only scores 36.01% of its runs with homers, third-lowest in 2019. Even though Detroit had just one representative on this year’s AL All-Star team, Shane Greene wasn’t the only familiar face among the rostered invitees in Cleveland. Justin Verlander was the AL’s starting pitcher; J.D. Martinez was the AL’s starting DH (0-2); James McCann caught Greene’s perfect seventh inning; and Max Scherzer was named to the NL squad (did not play).

The Tigers currently have the second-worst win percentage in baseball– still good enough for fourth in the AL Central!– and resume their regular season schedule Friday against the basement-dwelling Royals.

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?

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.