On Josh Donaldson, Wade Davis, the Chicago Cubs, and the beautiful regenerative power of mistakes.
I’ve been living in Chicago since 2010, so when people ask me about the Cubs’ current run of success, it’s less because I’m a baseball fan and more because I’m the closest they have to an on-the-ground correspondent. It’s as if Anderson Cooper is breathlessly questioning me about The Baseball Spring: “After all this time, can it be true? Is the old regime truly gone? Can you comment on the peoples’ reactions to this new dawn?”
And while the Cardinals and Pirates wait in the wings to potentially shock this triumphant narrative back into the dreary everyday, they're a healthy 8 1/2 and nine games back, and there is a level of palpable optimism and confidence that I’ll admit I didn’t see for five years living, say, a block and a half from Wrigley. So when people ask, I tell them, yeah—people are really, really excited. It’s been a long time coming.
The long time coming, not the Cubs, is what I want to interrogate a bit today. Because throughout the long rebuilding process in Chicago, Cubs fans often loathed that long time and questioned it, Moses in the Desert style. It’s no fun to wander for 40 days and 40 nights, especially if that involves watching blowouts in the 42 degree Chicago spring. People on the radio questioned Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer—“I thought this was supposed to be a three-year process!” “Theo’s plan makes it a 10-year process, we’re never gonna see a pennant!”—and around, say, 2013, there was widespread pessimism. How long, the average fan asked, can I handle a 65-win team?
The answer to that question is a bit murky, if only because it’s beyond my pay grade to psychoanalyze the thousands of Cubs fans I waded through to get to my apartment or the El. But a related question we might more fruitfully pose is how many 65-win seasons can a team, or a player handle? In the era of the pre-planned tank in baseball, this is a fairly crucial question boiling down to, if you are an owner, the calculus of balancing your diminishing on-field returns with your financial bottom line. How bad, in other words, is too bad? When does failure start to cost more than it’s worth?
It seems to me there are two ways to look at this: practically and theoretically. The practical side of things is a little difficult. We all know that the “player who doesn’t have the fire of the postseason” cliché about young players on losing teams is silly. Starlin Castro has played just fine in New York; Felix Hernandez, despite being on a perpetually snakebitten M’s team remains sublime; I’m sure if Sam Miller put his prodigious play indexing abilities to work, he could find a number of tremendous, high WARP players who never had a shot on a winning team. Good players play well regardless of locale.
It also is true, at least anecdotally, that losing streaks rarely prompt the dissolution or relocation of an entire team. The Montreal Expos were, yes, abysmal through much of their later pre-Nationals tenure, but two of the three seasons prior to the move (2002 and 2003), they were above 500 and would’ve probably been in the hunt in the two-wild-card era. And many teams have suffered through monstrous losing streaks, from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays first 10 years to the 20 years of losing baseball that are finally in the Pirates’ rearview mirror, and while they have led to firings, they have rarely prompted total organizational failure. Without being able to see the actual books of MLB teams, we may never know if losing streaks really truly do put teams in jeopardy of going belly up, but my guess is that, no, simply losing for a while cannot destroy a franchise.
On trying to find space between clutch performance and coin flips.
If you spend a lot of time behind the wheel, you might have satellite radio. If you spend a lot of time behind the wheel and you’re a baseball fan, you might have SiriusXM so you can listen to home radio broadcasts of games. (This is not a commercial. This is just a statement of facts.) If you spend a lot of time behind the wheel and you’re a baseball fan, though, you can’t listen to games all day, for the simple reason that baseball is not played around the clock. So when there isn’t a game on, you might listen to MLB Network Radio, a SiriusXM station.
I sometimes spend a lot of time behind the wheel, and when there isn’t a game on, I often listen to MLB Network Radio. I like some of the shows better than others. Some have strong elements of sportstalk radio, and like all sportstalk radio, you sometimes hear things that are, well, interesting.
A while ago one of the hosts—not a caller—was talking about Rougned Odor. Odor has had a pretty good start to his season. He’s also been better with runners in scoring position (.360/.407/.600 through Monday) than not (.283/.309/.528). The host said that some batters are consistently better with runners in scoring position (henceforth RISP) than they are otherwise.
A good first step to evaluating minor leaguers? Take in a big-league game.
An unpleasant, rainy “getaway day” game isn’t picturesque baseball weather, but the cold, wet conditions meant that Nationals Park was largely empty. The game sounds from a Phillies vs. Nationals daytime tilt reverberated around the stadium. The quality of play was big-league caliber, though the atmosphere was not.
Counterintuitively, sometimes the best place to improve one’s evaluations of players at the minor league or amateur level is to watch major league games through a scouting lens. After all, that’s the level that evaluators are projecting players to, even if they’re scouting those players at a lower-rung of the game. It can be easy, at times, to think that there’s not a huge gap between the majors and the upper minors, and in terms of routine plays being made and pace of play, perhaps that’s true. From a tools standpoint, however, I always walk out of a big league stadium focused on the tangible difference between the big leagues and everywhere else.
Evaluating lots of high-minors baseball gives insight to how gifted players who carve out sustained big-league roles really are. Double-A and Triple-A baseball players deserve tons of respect—especially the veterans or organizational mainstays—as they’ve had both the talent and fortitude to ascend to a level of baseball more significant than almost anywhere else. With all due respect to those guys, the game I saw on a rainy Thursday afternoon in Washington last week wasn’t the same game you’ll see at a Triple-A park. It isn’t even particularly close.
At the major-league level, tools that would draw above-average to plus grades are abundant, if not the norm. Players are noticeably larger and more athletic than anywhere else in the baseball world. Fastballs are faster, breaking balls are sharper. Even the most routine of fly balls can tower above the field, demonstrating the type of raw power a scout would note standing out on a low-minors field. The right-handed college reliever whose fastball scrapes the upper 90s, backed up by secondary pitches inconsistent in their break or control, still draws a gaggle of amateur scouts every time he throws. That same type of pitcher permeates the back-ends of high-minors bullpens, just hoping to hold down a spot as a low-leverage reliever at the big-league level. The best-athlete-your-town-has-ever-seen outfielder with size, speed, and power quickly becomes a bench player at this level on account of his approach’s consistency (or lack thereof), another nameless cup-of-coffee player in the annals of big-league history. The major leagues are a humbling level, one where fringy tools don’t always make enough of a dent, and tools alone can’t salvage limitations of things like control, approach, and the general smaller, mental aspects of the game.
To their credit, the Phillies have strung together a fair start to the season, especially for what they’re working with. I don’t mean to rip on the Phillies—a team undeniably rebuilding—so much as I use them as an example of a likely bottom-five finisher this year, and the opportunity to understand the placement of player’s tool set that provides. A subtle scouting takeaway from watching a team like the Philadelphia is observing the toolsets of the players who make up their complementary contributors. Every team has bench players, middle relievers, and back-of-the-rotation starters, but not all of those player types are created equal. For a team like the Phillies, for instance, what constitutes as the last handful of arms out of their ‘pen might be closing games in the high-minors in an organization with a deeper big-league roster. The utility infielder here might be a Triple-A regular elsewhere; the starters in the middle infield for the big club could be the utility infielders themselves on a more competitive roster, and so on. Insofar as roster construction goes, some player roles are downgraded a notch relative to those “first division” teams at the top of the standings, and that’s actually fairly intuitive: bottom-feeding teams don’t win as many games because bottom-feeding teams don’t have as deep a talent pool to fill roles on their team with.
While one isn’t watching players likely to pepper the top of any leaderboards by honing in on smaller pieces of losing teams, doing so affords a good opportunity to understand what true “up-and-down” players look like. Identifying these types of players allows pro scouts to contribute tons of value to their organizations on a routine basis—a unique aspect of scouting the minor leagues for a team is that the best prospects one sees are rarely actually available. It’s great when you get to catch a blue-chip prospect, but what can separate one evaluator from another is properly identifying which players will be able to profile at the highest level, even as a role player.
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Yet, while the club’s offense has been better than expected—St. Louis ranks first in the NL in home runs and in OPS—the record sat at just .500 entering play Thursday. That’s because the club added Mike Leake and, in effect, Adam Wainwight, who has been healthy again after missing nearly all of the 2015 season.
Yup, it’s the upgrades who are leading the regression. Wainwright in particular has been dreadful. When he hasn’t been showing off his hitting skills , he has allowed four homers in 33 2/3 innings (after allowing just 10 in the 255 innings split he threw in 2014 and 2015). He has an ERA close to 7, a FIP close to 5, and just 4.8 K/9—the sixth-lowest in baseball, minimum 20 innings. Overall, the club’s starting rotation has a 4.38 ERA and just 7.0 K/9 as a collective this year, after posting a 2.99 ERA with 7.9 K/9 last season. What has happened to the Cardinals’ erstwhile ace?
The problem relates to what had historically been his greatest weapon. And that, ladies and gentlemen, leads us to the biggest question of all: What do Adam Wainwright’s curveball and a chained-up Chihuahua have in common? All bark, no bite.
The curve has long been Wainwright’s out pitch, with a career whiff rate of 17 percent—and, with two strikes, 21 percent. This year, the whiff rate is at 9 percent overall, and 11 percent with two strikes.
The same team that employed Willy Aybar, Josh Lueke and Josh Sale has also made a number of positive contributions to the cause--which is unusual for major-league baseball.
For Jake Odorizzi, Rays pitcher, husband, father, the decision to step up to fight domestic violence was so easy.
Sometimes it’s seemed, rather obviously, that there’s a code players follow about such things. Players will donate their time, money and voices to other causes in need of resources and attention. MLB has championed many causes that are woven into the fabric of the baseball experience, particularly research and funding to fight ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). That work has been admirable and helped improve many lives. But when it comes to relationship violence, well, we’re getting into a tricky area, aren’t we?
Many in baseball have been accused of domestic violence and sexual assault, and prior to this season the policy for punishing players for those actions was weak or absent. Players weren’t going to criticize teammates. The silence through the years has been stunning and shameful.
But when Odorizzi was presented with an opportunity two years ago, there was no code of silence he felt the need to adhere to.
He was motivated by the relationships that ground him, and he put into action the idea that fighting domestic violence isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s a human rights issue and it’s an issue for a family man. For him, it’s just as important for men to stand up for women who are suffering or who have suffered. And when he was approached to take the REAL (Relationship Equality & Anti-violence League) Promise at the University of South Florida, at the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, he was quickly on board.
“[The Promise] is typically designed toward men. Long story short, do the right thing,” Odorizzi said before a game last week. “Treat everyone with respect, and at no point should you raise a hand to a woman. It’s more in depth than 'be polite.' For many, even that’s hard to do. I don’t understand bringing yourself to hurting your wife or girlfriend or child’s mother. I believe everything I said.”
Analytics all but demands paying the lowest wages the market will bear, even for its analysts. Why smart teams will ignore that demand.
One of the things that really got me into baseball around 2009, when I was enjoying my first season watching literally every Phillies game I could, was reading old columns at Fire Joe Morgan. I expect that blog doesn’t need much of an introduction for this audience, but just in case: Fire Joe Morgan was a blog that ripped apart the mainstream sports media of the early-to-late 2000s, exposing it—actually, no, I was right, it doesn’t need an introduction. It was and is wonderful.
One of the major misunderstandings the blog tried to correct was sports media’s systemic inability to understand what the book Moneyball was about, and, consequently, what the general philosophy of Moneyball actually was. More often than not, commentators and journalists, particularly the titular Joe Morgan, would argue that Moneyball meant teams being cheap, privileging walks over batting average, and losing in the playoffs like the Oakland A’s. As Ken Tremendous and company would insist over at Fire Joe Morgan, though, the idea behind Billy Beane’s strategy as documented by Michael Lewis in Moneyball was the exploitation of market inefficiencies. Especially for teams that did not have the capital to spend like the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers, Beane’s philosophy—which Lewis gave the shorthand of “Moneyball”—was essentially a leveling technique, a way of attacking a hopeless mismatch by finding a completely different resource to pursue. No money? No problem!
This philosophy is very appealing in the abstract. You can imagine yourself as a kind of treasure hunter, finding players who would have never gotten a chance in previous years, and showing how they can be productive major leaguers. The bad body types, the too-patient hitters, the light hitting defensive center fielders: analytics have rehabilitated all of these kinds of players at one point or another. I would argue that the Jack Custs or the Jarrod Dysons of the world would not have had nearly the shot they have had if not for Beane’s emphasis on market inefficiency, and that’s all for the good.
But the dark side of sabermetrics also has to do with labor. On the players’ side, this is something of a necessary evil in modern baseball. With the number of analytical tools at the disposal of major-league teams currently, teams will know how risky any player is, his upside and, more importantly, his downside. So when GMs offer “team-friendly” long-term contracts to very young players, these are necessarily “player-antagonistic” as well. (With the possible exception of that overlap in each party's interest created by each party's different incentives.) The player can gamble on his own upside against his downside, but he can only ever do so knowing that the team has run the actuarial and statistical math to determine exactly where the monetary limit of their risk is. The team has run the simulations, and the player gets to bet on himself against the numerical odds or accept a contract that, while sizable, is a fraction of future potential earnings.
And that’s fine, as these things go. I’m fairly far left on the ol’ economic issues, so if I had my druthers, labor would have a lot more power over things like arbitration and pre-arbitration salaries, but that’s all for another article down the line. In terms of my issue here, inefficiency, the difficult position in which players find themselves in the negotiating room is directly related to the information that teams now have access to. It’s difficult to turn back the clock on that, and in order to argue against the proliferation of that data (outside of a stronger union or abolition of the free market), one would have to problematically argue for less knowledge. And so, players will unfortunately be more under- than over-paid until they reach free agency, which is becoming further and further away. Teams win; labor takes an admittedly survivable loss.
So, despite the curmudgeon class railing against data in defense of gut instinct and feel, data continues apace because it makes teams money. Furthermore, if you’re the owner of a team, you have to at some point start wondering how far this particular line of thinking can go. Are there market inefficiencies everywhere? Can you put together an entire working team on the cheap that can win the World Series? Are there stadium inefficiencies? Fan giveaway inefficiencies? And, most tempting, could there possibly be front office inefficiencies? Could the guys who get the most money outside of the players themselves be streamlined and made cheaper and more efficient?
Dominican and Venezuelan players are often mistaken on a baseball field; they share the Spanish language so they are generally together, they have that Latin swag that is identifiable from miles away, and they also usually have names that challenge the diction of every single one of the American announcers.
What did we learn about various players and teams this month? Less than we'll learn in the next one.
Early season baseball is full of articles about “What we’ve learned so far” after a week, or two weeks, or a month of play. You can’t really blame the sportswriters and TV sports producers and podcast hosts who come up with these pieces. They have to talk about something, and there aren’t any pennant races or awards competitions to discuss in April.
As Russell Carleton has demonstrated, though, most measures of baseball performance take far longer than a week or three to stabilize. Drawing conclusions from a 10- or 20-game sample is akin to statistics problem sets involving drawing balls from an urn. A really, really big urn. With lots and lots of balls in it. When you draw a few balls from a really, really big urn with lots and lots of balls in it, you don’t get a good picture of what’s really in the urn.
We can look at the relevance of April numbers by correlating them to players’ full-year figures, and comparing the correlation in April to that of May, June, July, August, and September. (Throughout this analysis, April includes a few days of March play in the relevant years, and September includes a few days of October games.) To do this, I selected batting title and ERA qualifiers from each of the past 10 seasons and compared their monthly results to their full-year results. I had a sample of 1,487 batter seasons with corresponding monthly data in about 87 percent of months and 850 pitcher seasons with corresponding monthly data in 86 percent of months.
Admittedly, there’s a selection bias in April data, and it applies mostly to young players. Since I’m comparing monthly data to full-year data for batting title and ERA qualifiers, I’m selecting from those players who hung around long enough to compile 502 plate appearances or 162 innings pitched. If you’re a young player who puts up a .298/.461/.596 batting line in April, as Joc Pederson did last April, you get to stick around to get your 502 plate appearances, even though 261 of your plate appearances occurred during July, August, and September, when you hit .170/.300/.284. On the other hand, if you bat .147/.284/.235 in April, as Rougned Odor did, you do get a chance to bat .352/.426/.639 in 124 plate appearances spread between May and June, but you get them in Round Rock instead of Arlington. So there’s a bias in this analysis in favor of players who perform well in April (giving them a chance to continue to play) compared to those who don’t (who may get shipped out). This shouldn’t have a big impact on the overall variability of April data, though, since the presence of early-season outperformers like Pederson who get full-time status on the strength of their April is canceled, to an extent, by early-season underperformers like Odor who don’t.
So is April more predictive than other months? Here’s a chart for batters, using OPS as the measure, comparing the correlation between batters’ full-year performance and that of each month.
A second, totally different look at your favorite prospect.
Who was your favorite prospect bust? It’s not a really fun question, kind of the spiritual cousin of “What was your most heartbreaking romantic rejection?” and “What would you say is your greatest personal and professional regret?” But it is a question that I think is more likely to come up than the other two, if only because there are so many prospect busts to choose from and so many prospects tantalizing with what-will-ultimately-become-false promise. So, since we’re all friends here, I’ll ask again: Who’s your favorite prospect bust?
Mine is probably Brody Colvin. I’m a Phillies fan, and the “Baby Aces” period of farm system watching might be too particularized to be a communal memory, but you probably get the gist: There were three or four pitchers on the Phillies’ farm who looked like they might be future aces. As is wont to happen, only one, Jarred Cosart, has made the major leagues in any sustained way, and he’s currently languishing on the Marlins’ Triple-A squad. Colvin was even more disappointing. An overslot signee from the seventh round of the 2009 draft, Colvin never overpowered with strikeouts, but pitched to a 3.39 ERA/3.55 FIP at 20 years old in Single-A in 2010. There was so much to dream on there—maybe he’d put on muscle and velocity! Maybe he’d be the Roy Halladay replacement the team would need! Maybe he’d team up with Cole Hamels and solve mysteries!
Or maybe he’d be out of baseball entirely in 2014. Such are prospects, as we know all too well. I could rattle off 20 prospects, Phillies and non-Phillies alike, who I thought would be surefire major leaguers and got summarily drummed out of the prospect corps, while afterthoughts like Adam Eaton or Khristopher Davis wandered into the major leagues and hit enough to earn a full time job over a number of years. Or while pitchers like Jacob deGrom and Corey Kluber managed to shake their non-prospect status and become truly elite in a way that the Brody Colvins of the world could only dream of.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, though. Prospects are weird. They develop weirdly, their minor-league numbers translate weirdly, and their potential often isn’t valued properly until it’s all but determined. Don’t worry, I’m not about to go on a “prospects are just prospects” rant, like a 2005 screed being eviscerated on Fire Joe Morgan. No, I’m going to be arguing that, figuratively speaking, what we understand as a prospect has never existed. I’m taking my cue here from Jean Baudrillard’s provocatively titled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. In this book, which encompasses three essays, Baudrillard – famous for his theories of “hyper reality” and “simulacrum” which described the anomie and detachment of postmodern, contemporary culture – is not literally arguing that the Gulf War of 1992 never happened. Rather, he is arguing that the Gulf War as we imagine we experienced it never happened: There was no “war” as we might expect, but a series of shock and awe styled attacks that overwhelmed and destroyed the enemy before war could really happen. That it is considered a war at all, Baudrillard would say, is all thanks to concerted media repackaging after the fact. In that way, glossing the politics here for the sake of brevity and sanity, the Gulf War (Such as We Imagined It) Did Not Take Place.
And in the same way, Your Favorite Prospect Bust Did Not Take Place, and also what’s more, Your Favorite Prospect Success Story also Did Not Take Place.
Brody Colvin, for instance, was not who I imagined he was. He was not some sort of saving grace for a thin-ish Phillies system; there were no “baby aces”; Roy Halladay wasn’t going to be replaced or even going to be pitching past the first month of 2012. Much of what I still understand about Brody Colvin’s life as a prospect is part of this narrative I wrote about him through the lens of my own fandom. In reality, he’s a 25-year-old dude, going on 26, who is on at least his second career, not of his own choice, and probably not because of anything that he or we can pinpoint.
In the fourth inning, Donaldson walked again. Bautista followed with a 6-4-3 double play.
In the sixth, Michael Saunders singled, and after Donaldson lined out, Bautista grounded into a 4-3 double play.
Three at bats, three GIDPs. How far was Bautista from a single game record? Pretty close, it turns out. A quick check from Baseball Reference’s Play Index indicates that the record is four, held by Joe Torre, back when he was a Met.
That struck me as odd. Not that Torre held the record—you’d figure it’d be set by a slow right-handed batter--but that it had been achieved only once. There’ve been over 210,000 major league games played since 1876, with 18 or more individual lines for each one of them. More precisely, there have been nearly 176,000 games played since the Retrosheet era, for which we have fairly complete (and Play Index-able) records, began in 1913. And in that time, Joe Torre, on July 21, 1975, is the only player to have had a day like this:
· First inning, following a single by Felix Millan, runner on first with one out: 1-4-3 double play
The thesis, antithesis and synthesis for what's fun about baseball in the Papa Slam era.
As spring sets in, and the soft breeze cools us during a pleasant evening turning into night, our biological clocks click in unison and we all know what time it is: It’s the time when Fun In Baseball becomes A Thing again.
Inexorably, like the salmon returning to spawn, the baseball writers of America and the young fans of the game stop whatever they’re doing to examine player actions and determine what’s so fun about watching a baseball game anyway. Is the Papa Slam fun? Is Dellin Betances fun? Is this fun?