Good play on the field is not just indistinguishable from the qualities of the people playing, but homologous to it.
In a fit of writer’s block, I asked a friend what he wanted to read about baseball. My friend, who’s a pretty incisive guy, tells me to write against the sabermetric orthodoxy and argue for the importance of personalities and character on baseball teams. Basically argue against the stats-for-all approach to team building and management and make a case for the oft-beleaguered “character” types.
I thought about this for a while and at first I was going to go in a different direction, because I think the baseball community has pushed back against some of our earlier blindspots about the human element. Managers like Joe Maddon have shown the power of not only solid game planning, but also good people management. (Writers like Russell Carleton have shown the power of those managers.) And the rise of fun, young players that galvanize and characterize teams—think, for instance, of Jose Fernandez’ smile or Trevor Story’s precociousness—have shown us that, even if they can’t be quantified in terms of “wins,” players’ characters matter to the overall aesthetics of the game. So it isn’t like we haven’t grown some nuance as a group: We no longer, to paraphrase the Great Old Man of the game Joe Morgan, root for computer numbers.
But we still have our biases and it might be worth reconsidering how we think about things like character and personality, about “the human element” as opposed to the pure optimization of efficient team-building. As I suggested in my piece on international free agents, these are in fact people being drafted, signed, used, and released by our favorite teams, and there is a story behind all of them. One reaction to this realization is digging into these stories, trying to put more of a face on the game; this generally leads to depression or despair, a lack of true alternatives to recognize the mass of humanity that makes up baseball. What’s that second option, then?
Fielder for Kinsler was supposed to be the fix for both teams' surpluses, but the 2016 season has put the clubs' returns in stark relief.
Three offseasons ago—November 20, 2013 to be exact—Detroit and Texas made a rare one-for-one, star-for-star trade between contending teams, with the Tigers sending five-time All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder to the Rangers in exchange for three-time All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler. In addition to the obvious star power involved, this particular trade had some interesting money-related factors and featured the analytical juxtaposition of a traditional slugger with shiny RBI totals and negative defensive value being swapped for an up-the-middle defender with less of a bat and a far more varied all-around game.
Three-and-a-half years later the trade looks like a blowout victory for the Tigers, to the extent that they added one of the best all-around infielders in the league and saddled the Rangers with a bad player on an albatross contract that runs through 2020 at an annual salary of $24 million. All of which is much different than things appeared around this time last year when Fielder, not Kinsler, was chosen for the All-Star team on the strength of his .339/.403/.521 first half that seemed to be proof of a full recovery from the neck surgery that halted his first season in Texas after 42 games.
Fielder’s production fell off in the second half, as he hit .264/.348/.394, and this season he’s been arguably the worst everyday player in baseball. WARP sees him as producing the sixth-worst overall value, with all five of the lower-WARP players—A.J. Pierzynski, Mark Teixeira, Dioner Navarro, Ryan Howard, Chris Coghlan—playing part-time or sitting on the disabled list. Fielder has started 67 of 72 games for the Rangers, hitting .203/.273/.325 with his usual bad defense and poor baserunning, which is how he’s the lone big leaguer with more than 200 plate appearances and a WARP worse than -1.0. Dating back to last year’s All-Star break Fielder has hit a combined .235/.313/.356 in 140 games.
Did groundball pitchers have the same impact in the past that they do today?
I am a Bill James fan. You might not be. That’s okay. For my money, if there’s no Bill James, I’m probably not writing this.
So it caused some dissonance on my part when I wrote that I thought James’ antipathy for groundball pitchers is misplaced. One of my general rules in life is that if you come to a conclusion that’s seriously at odds with conventional thinking, you could well be right, but to be safe, be sure you can answer in the negative the question Am I doing something stupid?
I really don’t think I am. I found that groundball pitchers may—may—allow a few more walks, and they get a handful fewer strikeouts, but by allowing a lot fewer homers, they allow fewer runs. That’s true in terms of both outcomes (ERA) and process (FIP). Here’s the relationship:
Five years ago this summer, Jered Weaver signed a deal that would keep him in Anaheim through the rest of his prime.
Throwing hard has never been part of Jered Weaver’s success. His fastball topped out in the low 90s when he debuted with the Angels as a 23-year-old in 2006, and from 2007-2011 he consistently averaged 90. During that five-year stretch Weaver logged more than 1,000 innings with a 3.40 ERA, held opponents to a .240 batting average and .678 OPS, and finished runner-up for a Cy Young award. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball and did a lot of things very well—deception, command, movement—but he never threw hard.
And then his fastball started shedding velocity. Initially it didn’t seem like a big deal because most pitchers threw harder at 23 than they do at 28 and, really, who cares about dropping from 90.1 mph to 88.7 mph when Weaver was also winning 20 games with a 2.81 ERA and finishing third in the Cy Young balloting? That was 2012. Then his velocity kept vanishing and his results began deteriorating as well. Weaver was still having some success, but beginning with 2011 his average fastball basically lost 1-2 mph each year and his secondary numbers got progressively worse.
Zach Eflin and Jaimeson Taillon's stories began this month, and we all fill in the plots.
On Tuesday, June 14th, Phillies starter Zach Eflin made history. Well, history of a sort. Against the Toronto Blue Jays—an offense that, you may have heard, is pretty good—Eflin pitched 2 2/3 innings, giving up eight runs on nine hits, three of which were home runs. He did strike out three, but also walked two, leading to a pretty rough first night. Here are some sparknotes to help historically contextualize Eflin’s very first start as a major leaguer:
As Ichiro steps on Pete Rose's record, we deep-dive into his Japanese years to consider what he would have been like as an American prospect and young major leaguer.
As he’s done so many times before, Ichiro Suzuki led off Wednesday’s game with an infield single. This particular hit—a dribbler up the first-base line that didn’t make it more than 50 feet from home plate—was his 2,978th in America, which combined with 1,278 hits in Japan gave him a total of 4,256 to tie Pete Rose’s all-time record. He then broke Rose’s record a couple hours later by lining an off-speed pitch into the right-field corner for a ninth-inning double and his 4,257th hit.
Of course, that’s not how the major-league record books work. By this point no one should question the high quality of baseball played in Japan—or the many hitters, pitchers, stars, and role players who’ve thrived in America—but that doesn’t change the fact that different leagues have different record books. To consider Suzuki’s hits in Japan part of his MLB total would open all kinds of doors. Do we then similarly count, say, Jackie Robinson’s hits in the Negro Leagues or Minnie Minoso’s hits in Cuba or Julio Franco’s hits in Mexico? And how do we treat Sadaharu Oh and his 868 home runs or Satchel Paige and his (literally) countless wins? You get the idea.
I’m not clutching my pearls arguing that doing so would ruin the sanctity of MLB’s record books as much as saying it would just be really, really hard to thoroughly account for. And in this specific case, counting hits outside of the major leagues would increase Rose’s total. Rose debuted with the Reds at age 22, but before that he played three seasons in the minor leagues and batted .317 with 427 hits in 354 games. You can argue all day about how Japanese baseball in the 1990s compared to the American minor leagues in the 1960s, but to view Suzuki as having 4,257 “professional” hits likely also means viewing Rose as having 4,683 of the same.
A year ago today, Francisco Lindor was recalled. Since (roughly) that day, the position has gone from a dead spot to historically great.
Eleven months ago Alcides Escobar was voted into the All-Star game as the AL’s starting shortstop. Escobar is an oft-praised defender with plus speed on a Royals team that was coming off a World Series loss and headed for a World Series win, but he also ended the first half with a modest .699 OPS and finished the season with a .614 OPS that nearly matched his .636 career mark through age 28. Alcides Escobar, All-Star starting shortstop just seemed a little lofty.
Royals fans stuffed the ballot box so much that second baseman Omar Infante and his .555 OPS nearly got voted into the game as well, but in Escobar’s case the story wasn’t so much about an undeserved selection as no other AL shortstops standing out as clearly deserving. In other words, don’t blame Escobar or Royals fans for his being in the starting lineup alongside the biggest stars in the league. None of the AL shortstops had an OPS above .750 at the All-Star break. The chosen backup was light-hitting Jose Iglesias, another glove-first player whose career OPS is .680.
Eleven months later, the AL’s shortstop landscape has changed so dramatically that the position as a whole has a higher collective OPS (.709) than Escobar had at the time of the All-Star break last year (.699) and Escobar has been the worst-hitting shortstop in the entire league. Xander Bogaerts is hitting .359/.405/.527 for the Red Sox. Manny Machado, who shifted from third base to shortstop following J.J. Hardy’s foot injury, is hitting .308/.376/.600 for the Orioles. Francisco Lindor, who made his debut exactly one year ago today, is hitting .304/.360/.450 for the Indians. Carlos Correa, the reigning Rookie of the Year, is hitting .256/.351/.423 for the Astros.
Which offensive stat is most important to a hitter’s value? Not the one you may think.
On Wednesday night, this image created a small Twitter sensation. Mind you, it was a small sensation. On a night that featured noteworthy pitching performances ranging from Yu Darvish’s injury to Jameson Taillon successful debut to James Shields to Snoop Dogg, there wasn’t room for a large sensation. But this screenshot during the Houston broadcast (in a game in which the Astros actually beat the Rangers in Arlington!) caused some of us to drop our slide rules in amazement:
Bill James is not a fan of groundball pitchers. This is not new news; he’s written about them in the past on his site, Bill James Online. His most recent thoughts on the subject came last month in an essay entitled Two Bits, Four Bits. He addressed four separate topics:
1. The oddity of teams’ no. 1 starter being referred to as “not a true number one starter” when one never hears, say, a cleanup hitter being referred to as “not a true cleanup hitter”
2. The value of groundball pitchers vs. flyball pitchers
3. Whether facing a knuckleball pitcher screws up opposing hitters’ timing in the following game
4. How the ascendancy of Donald Trump indicates a challenge for the Republican Party
The uncomfortable feeling of hoping your favorite team will save money signing Latin teenagers.
We’re at the point in the season, as you may have heard a few times now, where we can begin to judge who is and who is not a contender for the playoffs. Some teams are in a no-doubt playoff push even in these early June days, and teams like the Chicago Cubs and the Washington Nationals are looking ahead to the trade deadline to see who they can pick up to bolster their runs. Then there are teams like the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, or the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox, who find themselves in a dog fight, and who can look forward to several months of local columns debating the plusses and minuses of “selling the youngsters” and “adding experience.” But what about the already-also-rans like the Atlanta Braves or the Minnesota Twins? What can they look to in the doldrums of uncompetitive June? Well, July 2nd, of course.
July 2nd marks the date that amateur free agents from outside the United States can officially enter into deals with major-league clubs. It is basically a moment when, somehow leaping the bounds of even our most prestigious wishful prospect thinking, teams sign 16-year-old kids from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and any number of other (mainly Latin American) countries while the teams’ fans wonder if these kids will be able to help in 2018. It’s an exciting day, marking the start of a new crop of hope in the minor leagues, a kind of second draft to pump excitement into even the most moribund fanbase. It’s fun, basically.
The reality of the day, however, outside of its hopeful pomp, is a bit more complex. Many of the free agents that will “sign” on July 2nd have been under handshake deals for far longer than that. Kevin Maitan, the Venezuelan shortstop who supposedly defends like Andrelton Simmons and hits like Miguel Cabrera and rides a stallion of white gold named Juan de Cortez onto the field, apparently has an unofficial agreement with the Atlanta Braves. This is, of course, illegal, but the deal exists in the odd gray area of plausible deniability and indeterminate rules that exist for Major League Baseball’s international free agents. Indeed, while spending caps introduced to the 2012 signing period have made the international market not quite the Wild West free-for-all it used to be, “July 2nd” can stand in metonymically for the massive business of finding, courting, and underpaying the 16-year-olds who will win you a championship seven years down the line. And this business sees teams bending and breaking the rules as a matter of course, as the cost of playing the game in the first place.
And MLB has been attempting to curb this rule bending, mainly by introducing newer and more exotic rules. Handshake deals and communication with free agents prior to 16 are frowned upon and forbidden, if not always explicitly. Spending caps, tied to draft position, have been levied on each team, and going over that cap carries the penalty of not being able to select any players on the following July 2nd deadline, along with a (probably far more onerous) financial penalty. To give you an idea of how labyrinthine these rules can get, here’s an excerpt from a Ben Badler column from 2014 on a then-new rule change:
The archetype of the slugging first baseman is over. After trending downward, this year's cold corner is the worst it's been in at least six decades.
It started, like most things in my life do, with an argument about Joe Mauer.
In trying to figure out the Twins’ best (or perhaps more accurately least-worst) option to be the mandatory All-Star rep for a last-place team I noticed that Mauer ranks third among American League first basemen in OPS+ and fourth in WARP despite a modest-looking .281/.388/.409 line in 56 games. Basically, only Miguel Cabrera and Eric Hosmer have clearly been better than Mauer this season.
I never pass up a chance to paint Mauer in a positive light, but that surprised me. He’s having a good, solid season—and taking a big step in the right direction after back-to-back rough years following a career-altering concussion—but the notion of a first baseman with a .409 slugging percentage and sub-.800 OPS ranking among the league’s best is hard for my brain to comprehend.