One factor in bridging the gap between the minors and majors? Confidence. Not the 2003 Ed Burns film.
Geography isn't always the sole dictator of distance. This is particularly true in minor league baseball stadiums, especially the ones that sit almost tauntingly close to their major-league counterparts. The Kane County Cougars, single-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, play their games at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva, Illinois, an outer suburb of Chicago that lies somewhere around 50 miles from Wrigley Field—an hour drive on a good day, or a trip on two commuter trains. But sitting in either dugout and mulling how best to approach baseball players who are barely drinking age, or standing on the mound facing other players fresh out of the amateur ranks, those 50 miles become relative. Sure, they could easily make the drive or take the Metra to the Red Line and hop off at the iconic stop on Addison Street, but they’re still not really there.
Professional baseball’s minor league system is a crucible that tests the fortitude and passion of players and coaches alike, leaving only an opportune few to summit the highest peak. The hoped-for outcome of time spent there is the same for every player, but for most of them, the distance will never be closed. In stadiums where it’s as much about the spectacle as the game, where the stands usually only fill when it’s dollar beer night in the middle of summer, these players are honing a craft that they hope will get them there, even if just briefly. Getting through this crucible requires a learned humility. These players were all the best in their little leagues, the best in their high schools, even the best in their colleges. More often than not, they’re facing equal competition for the first time, and that requires something beyond just filling up a stat sheet in order to succeed. Some bloom of self-belief has to be there, otherwise the mire of team buses and bad hotels separates the wheat from the chaff.
For minor league pitchers, this self-belief can come in part from the experience of pitches that don’t often fail them and the devotion to putting in the work to ensure that that ‘go-to’ pitch is always an ally. When those things don’t work, even temporarily, a well-tested minor league pitching coach might do the trick. In Kane County, that’s Rich Sauveur, whose value comes in part from his own journey through the minor leagues, both as a player and as a coach.
The Twins phenom hits homers at a spectacular pace but strikes out at a record pace. That's not by accident, and it's not necessarily by mistake.
Miguel Sano will play the 150th game of his career tonight, which is a nice round-number place to pause and examine how one of the decade’s best offensive prospects has fared so far.
Sano has been a top prospect since 2009, when he signed with the Twins as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic following a long, controversial process that was later shown—warts and all—in the 2012 documentary “Pelotero.” He signed for $3.15 million and immediately put up big numbers in the minors, debuting on Baseball Prospectus’ annual top-101 prospects list the next year—as a shortstop, if you can imagine—at no. 35. Sano went on to crack BP’s top 15—as a third baseman, or perhaps more accurately as a hitter—in three different years.
His arrival in Minnesota was delayed when Tommy John elbow surgery knocked him out for all of 2014, but Sano picked up where he left off—finishing his minor-league days with a .565 slugging percentage in 442 games—and on July 2, 2015 made the jump from Double-A to the majors two months after his 22nd birthday. He’s been setting Twins records ever since, ranking first in team history through 150 career games in homers, walks, and strikeouts. Sano has been a revelation for a strikeout-phobic organization that has long struggled to produce power hitters.
Yesterday, ESPN’s Buster Olney listed nine improvements he would like to implement in major-league baseball. Olney touched on a number of hot topics, including the length of games and the ever-present debate surrounding home field advantage in the World Series. His list incited various levels of support and opposition, but I’m assuming that Olney endeavored less to craft an op-ed than to start a conversation. To that end, it was extremely successful. Many pundits and fans crafted their own list in response, and you can count me among those so inspired. Below, you’ll find the nine things I would change about the game if I had Rob Manfred’s power and enough time to bring my vision to baseball.*
*As a baseball fan, my interests and loyalties lie more with creating a watchable product than maximizing profits. I fully recognize that the preceding caveat turns this exercise into theoretical and unrealistic wishcasting, but why stop now?
1. Remove convenience fees on ticket purchases: We’ll start with something fan-friendly and self-explanatory. Currently, any time you want to buy tickets in advance, you have to order them from a team’s website, or a third-party service like StubHub. The third parties have their own set of baggage, but the team sites are a headache too. The biggest issue is that they charge a “convenience” fee for processing, regardless of whether you print your tickets at home, pick them up at will call, or download them onto your phone. As any fan knows, there’s no convenience associated with paying an extra $3 per ticket, particularly since the surcharge is unavoidable; it’s just a tax on buying tickets. If I was the commissioner, I would ensure that any fan buying a ticket online would only be paying the advertised price.
2. Eliminate barriers to ticket exchanging/re-selling: This isn’t an issue for much of the league, but anyone following the Yankees-Ticketmaster snafu can probably feel which way the winds are blowing. To summarize a long story, the Yankees have made it very difficult for fans to get into the stadium without buying their tickets on Ticketmaster; purchasers are no longer allowed to print their own tickets, which limits everyone’s ability to buy seats from friends, scalpers, or on a website like Craigslist or StubHub. While important looking people in suits will dress these decisions in fancy rhetoric laden with ridiculous phrases like “safer ticketing experience,” the reality is that these policies make it more difficult for fans to attend games affordably. It’s always unseemly when a multi-billion dollar industry squeezes every last cent out of its paying customers, and as commish I would put the kibosh on the practice before it spreads throughout the league. You should be allowed to download your tickets, sell them to friends or fellow Craigslisters, and pay less than face value for tickets to a game with thousands of available seats. Criminy.
3. Remove metal detectors from stadiums: There’s no evidence that metal detectors make attending a baseball game any safer. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, however, that the long lines outside of metal detectors can make you late for first pitch. There’s also no history of people bringing weapons to ballgames with the intent to cause mayhem, and even if an enterprising terrorist saw fit to do so, the metal detector wouldn’t necessarily impede his plan; instead of bringing a weapon into the stadium, he could instead wreak havoc outside the gates, where he'd find scores of immobile fans helplessly stuck in line while they waited to march through a metal detector. Ultimately, metal detectors are security theater, and if we’re going to trade freedoms for enhanced security, the security should actually be enhanced, damn it.
With DRA, solving BABIP--and other reasons to be excited about what we're measuring.
As many of you know, we updated the formulation of Deserved Run Average (DRA) once again for the 2016 baseball season. We gave you the overview of the changes here, discussed the innards here, and talked about the new run-scaling mechanism here.
This last article deals with arguably the most important question of all: What, exactly, is DRA trying to tell you? And what does it mean?
Last year, DRA was focused on being a “better” RA9. After running one overall mixed model to create a value per plate appearance for each pitcher, we ran a second regression, using multi-adaptive regression splines (MARS), to model the last three years of relationships between all pitcher value rates and park-adjusted pitcher linear weights allowed. The predictions from this second regression took each season’s mixed model results, forced them back into a runs-allowed framework, and then converted PAs to IPs to get DRA.
This approach did succeed in putting DRA onto an RA9 scale, but in some ways it was less than ideal.
First, having moved one step forward with a mixed model, we arguably were taking a half step back by reintroducing the noisy statistics—raw linear weights and, effectively, RA9—that we were trying to get away from in the first place. The results were generally fine: Good pitchers did well, bad pitchers did poorly, and there were defensible reasons why DRA favored certain pitchers over others when it disagreed with other metrics. But, the fact that something works reasonably well is not, by itself, sufficient to continue doing it.
Second, this approach forced us to make DRA an entirely descriptive metric with limited predictive value, since its yardstick metric, RA9, is itself a descriptive metric with limited predictive value. This did allow DRA to “explain” about 70 percent of same-season run-scoring (in an r-squared sense), which was significantly more than FIP and other metrics, but also required that we refer readers instead to cFIP to measure pitcher skill and anticipated future production.
On Aristotle and the ethics of the trade deadline.
I’m in the middle of a move this week, and almost to the half-dreaded, half-anticipated moment where I unbox all of my books and get them back on their shelves. Unlike a lot of the staff at BP, my background is less in baseball and more in literature, so while I have the requisite classics—Cobb, Moneyball—on my shelves, much of my collection is literature, philosophy, and weird ephemera. And it was during the sorting of a lot of the ephemera of the ancient Greeks that I started thinking about the upcoming trade deadline. How, I wondered aloud likely to the shock and dismay of my cats and anyone else awake at 1:30 a.m., would the ancient Greeks judge the value of MLB trades?
It sounds like a silly question until you remember that the Greeks judged most everything on whether or not it was edifying and appropriate. While Gorgias, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Patrick Dubuque would all be quick to remind us that the Greeks had their weird side as well, the staid evaluative practicality of Aristotle looms over their philosophical tradition, particularly over the aesthetic side of things. Aristotle’s Poetics, for instance, takes a typically Platonic view of art, arguing that art’s value lies primarily in its ability to imitate life honestly. To narrow down what could be a seminar on early aesthetic theory: Plato exiled the poets from the Republic because of their ability to convincingly lie; Aristotle argues that only bad poets would do such a thing in the first place. Both philosophers agree on what makes art good and bad, but Plato would legislate art while Aristotle is content in judging its quality.
In a way, Plato’s position must have been pretty similar to the writers who had to deal with the Wild West of early baseball. The deadline itself was instituted in 1923 as a response to teams’ attempts to game competition by buying and selling players up until the World Series. And one can imagine that watching the New York Yankees and Giants buying up talent before World Series runs would make anyone hostile to the very idea of player mobility, even if one could still imagine a “good” or “bad” trade. But after the implementation and finessing of the modern trade deadline, coupled with the modernization of player salaries and contracts, the balance of trade has shifted to the point where judgment trumps legislation. No one is trading anyone of any moment without giving up something more fungible than cash, namely talent. Now the question isn’t “how do we stop all of this?” but “how do we know if the trade was good or bad?”
Let’s get this out of the way here: All trades are kind of bad for the minor-league talent moving. The fact that minor leaguers are attractive to teams because they’re affordable for many years, regardless of their talent, is a bit of a kick in the pants to any young player. Teams know they don’t have to pay you fairly for six years, and you can be moved from city to city without much if any warning. But that’s another column (maybe next week’s column!). And true, the veterans traded are often happy to move on to a team in contention, but there are many who would rather not leave and who haven’t earned the five and 10 rights that would let them choose to stay. So there are trades that are bad for all involved, regardless of fairness or agreeability.
For anyone who isn’t a minor leaguer or a frustrated veteran, though, trades have complex criteria for their quality. Fans, as we know, are bad analysts of trades, as they are too attached to their team’s prospects or overvalue their veterans: Every fan thinks its front office sold too low on their future stars or didn’t get enough for its star players. But outside of fan circles, (relatively) dispassionate observers are seemingly more concerned with something close to what Aristotle was: the imitation of expected reality. No one likes, say, when a Shelby Miller nets a huge package after a decent-but-not-elite season; and similarly people are perplexed when top prospects are sold low, as in the Mark Appel deal of last winter. Not that the teams were wrong to make these trades or simply blinkered, but that the fans did not see the trades as pleasing. They were wrong, dissonant or confounding.
And why? Well, I’d suggest it’s because they don’t look like trades we as fans would propose ourselves hypothetically. They seem unfair one way or another, or they seem otherwise unsuited to the players involved, at least as we as fans understand them and their value. What we want to see are deals like the recent Drew Pomeranz-for-Anderson Espinoza deal. We see a high-performing young starter with question marks traded for a high-upside, risky pitching prospect and we all kind of nod and say “That’s probably what I’d have asked for/what I’d have offered.” We can go back and forth about whether or not one team overpaid or underasked, but we don’t find the concept of the trade dissonant. It makes sense within the genre of the form.
The free agent compensation system adds even more uncertainty to the trade deadline.
The current system for free agent compensation incentivizes impending free agents to get themselves traded, as any player dealt during a season is not eligible to receive a qualifying offer the following offseason. For top-level free agents that distinction matters little, since teams are gladly willing to forfeit a draft pick to sign them, but for mid-level free agents, hitting the open market with draft pick compensation attached can suppress their value so much that otherwise interested teams don’t even enter the bidding. It’s a badly flawed system that takes millions of dollars from veteran players looking for their first (and in some cases, only) big payday. Maybe the next collective bargaining agreement will eliminate the flaw; until then, we talk about it.
Not only can the qualifying offer crush a free agent’s market during the offseason, it can influence decisions made by teams at the trade deadline, as front offices look ahead to the offseason. For instance, when asked about Rich Hill thriving on a one-year deal and the perception that Oakland definitively plans to trade the 36-year-old left-hander, with free agency around the corner, A’s front office boss Billy Beane recently told Peter Gammons: “We would have no problem making him a qualifying offer.”
That certainly benefits the A’s, who can now bring additional leverage into trade negotiations by knowing they’d either be able to re-sign Hill to a one-year deal or snag a draft pick if he departs as a free agent. However, it does anything but benefit Hill, who would be forced to pick between accepting the qualifying offer to remain with the A’s on a one-year contract or taking his chances in free agency with the draft pick compensation weighing his market down. For a 36-year-old who has bounced around a ton and is looking for his first multi-year contract, that stinks.
The Twins finally change course, firing longtime GM Terry Ryan and perhaps setting the club up for its first real philosophical change in decades.
In a move that’s somehow simultaneously a long time coming and shocking, the Twins fired Terry Ryan after two stints and 18 total years as general manager. Ryan’s teams won four division titles in five years from 2002-2006, but that success was limited to the regular season and bookended by ineptitude. Overall with Ryan as GM the Twins had a .474 winning percentage and were 149 games below .500, including a 318-421 (.430) record in his second stint. Their lone postseason series win under Ryan was 15 years ago and they haven’t won a playoff game in 13 years.
Few, if any, teams would have stuck with a GM for that long given the limited amount of winning amid 11 losing seasons in 18 years, but for better or worse Ryan—old school, conservative, loyal, and ultimately not all that successful—has represented everything about the Minnesota Twins for two decades. In firing Ryan the Twins named his longtime right-hand man Rob Antony as interim GM and it speaks to the culture of inertia and in-house loyalty that there’s legitimate reason to worry he may given the full-time job after 30 years in the organization.
At the very least Antony is now tasked with making several key decisions about veteran players leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. Ryan spent the past month saying repeatedly that he planned to be active at the deadline, uncharacteristically making public pronouncements about how the Twins couldn’t afford to stand pat when they’ve typically done just that in recent years. His departure two weeks before the deadline raises eyebrows, as does putting an interim GM in position to immediately make significant trades.
Down the rabbit hole of just how good the fifth-best pitching prospect in baseball is, historically speaking.
There’s no more fun certainty on #BaseballTwitter than the certainty that exists about which prospects are going to be awesome. We’re all guilty of it at some point, myself included. It gets even worse when a fanbase brands a group of players together, like Generation K or the Killer B’s, so when one departs or fails, there’s an overwhelming sense of “hey you’re breaking up the band.” It starts earlier and earlier, with Boston’s “Big Four” the latest example. And with Anderson Espinoza heading across the country to meet up with the rest of his former Red Sox farmhands, there is now just a “Big Three.”
But rather than view Espinoza as the member of this future foursome who would transform the organization, let’s view him as part of a similarly arbitrary group to try to get a sense of the historical significance of what the Padres are getting and the Fightin’ Dombrowskis are losing. The right-handed fireballer was the fifth-best pitching prospect in baseball as of last week, when we released the mid-season top 50. And while some slight eligibility discrepancies exist between the mid-season list and The 101, they are mostly muted because the pitchers who have pitched fewer than 50 innings, but were in the majors at the time of publish, are both likely to lose their eligibility prior to the season’s end. So who have the fifth-best starting pitching prospects been in the 10 years we, at Baseball Prospectus, have been setting Top 101s ablaze into the ether? And how have they performed before hitting free agency? No, put your phone away.
2016: Tyler Glasnow (0.1 WARP; 4.05 DRA; all but one start left)
There’s almost nothing we can draw from Glasnow’s last six months that will leave us more or less confident about what he’ll be through the duration of his service time. So let’s just move on.
Diving deep into Jonah Keri's best-seller looking for secret messages from the future--or, at least, ominous foreshadowing.
You'll recall Jonah Keri's The Extra 2% as a peppy history of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ growth out of their gross adolescence and into their handsome manhood as the Rays, but it ends with an omen:
The idea behind the extra 2% -- finding ways to gain that little, but essential, edge on the competition -- will always exist, in baseball as in business. It just won’t always belong to the Tampa Bay Rays.
And then you close the book. No, wait. There’s an epilogue:
The Twins are uncharacteristically vowing to be sellers this July. Makes it easier to say 'so long' when these are the parts you have to sell.
The first half was a mess for the Twins.
Offseason optimism that followed last year’s surprising climb over .500 gave way to a 0-9 start, and any notion of contending for the division title (or even a wild card spot) all but vanished by the end of April. Their record is an AL-worst 32-56, which just narrowly avoids the worst mark through 88 games in team history and makes a fifth 90-loss season in the past six years inevitable. Pitching continues to be a disaster, as the Twins have again allowed the league’s most runs after ranking dead last in ERA from 2011-2015, and the young lineup that was supposed to be a strength has instead scored the league’s 10th-most runs.
There’s no saving this season, and the stink of 95-100 losses would make it difficult to believe in the Twins’ ability to bounce back as contenders next year, which would be Year Seven of a rebuilding process that started with a collapse in 2011. However, the second half is crucial for the Twins as they try to figure out exactly where the franchise is headed and whether longtime but increasingly ineffective general manager Terry Ryan should be the one leading them there. There are a dozen veterans who conceivably could be moved by the trade deadline, and at least as many prospects who need roster spots and playing time to be evaluated for 2017 and beyond.
In search of reverse Lirianos in the batter's box.
In this article, I explained that batters are swinging at pitches outside the strike zone less frequently this year, reversing a fairly steady recent trend, and that this has particularly hurt pitchers whose strategy has been to pitch outside the zone, inducing weak contact. It’s also affected teams (notably the Pittsburgh Pirates) whose pitching staffs focus on getting batters to swing outside the strike zone.
So if pitchers who depend on inducing swings outside the zone are the victims of this shift, what kind of hitters are the beneficiaries?
In the earlier article, I listed the pitchers with the lowest Zone Rate (percentage of pitches in the strike zone) in 2015 and how they’ve fared this year. (Short answer: Worse.) Zone Rate might seem like a proxy for control, but it isn’t. Well, it might be for a pitcher called up for a couple weeks who can’t throw strikes, but pitchers who accumulate a lot of innings with a low Zone Rate are doing it strategically. They’re trying to get batters to chase pitches outside the strike zone. The leaders last season included Liriano, Dallas Keuchel, Jon Lester, and Felix Hernandez, good pitchers all. (At least they were last year.)