For two decades, innings-per-start has been relatively stable across major-league baseball. Not this year.
Last month, Sam Miller argued in favor of changing the minimum innings qualification for the ERA title from 162 to 130 innings pitched. The reason is that starting pitchers today make fewer starts and pitch fewer innings per start than their counterparts decades ago. In 1969, the first year of divisional play, there were 79 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title, or 3.3 per team. Last year, the number of ERA qualifiers was almost identical, 78, but with 30 teams, the number of qualifiers per team was just 2.6. Sam’s proposal would have given us 3.5 per team.
This being Baseball Prospectus, Sam’s column did not elicit howls of outraged commenters complaining that modern starting pitchers are soft, pitching ever-fewer innings and relying on their bullpen to bail them out. There are two reasons we don’t see much of that here. First, I think most of us agree with Sam when he wrote:
…[P]itchers today throw fewer starts and fewer innings per start, but they throw more pitches in each inning, because evolving strategies (on offense and defense) require them to; and they throw with more effort on each individual pitch, because evolving strategies ask them to.
Nobody takes the brunt of trade deadline season like the fungible minor-leaguer.
As of the moment I’m writing this article, the hot stove is still largely simmering. Outside of the Cubs’ trade for Aroldis Chapman—which, let’s be clear, is fraught and distressing and weird and better handled by a bunch of women online than by me—the trade deadline has approached with more anticipation than action. Yes, Melvin Upton went to the Jays, and yes, we’ve seen the annual Struggling Reliever Swap happen as Drew Storen and Joaquin Benoit switched places, but so far none of the prospects that we cherish—pace, Gleyber Torres—have moved away, and most of the stars remain in place. And so we’re set to receive approximately 8,000 articles debating the relative merits of trading or keeping prospects, about the nature of team development, and about whether veteran rentals are overrated or not.
Thankfully, this is not one of those articles, though I’m sure that if you find any of those debates that break new ground, they’ll be here at Baseball Prospectus. What I’m mostly interested in here is breaking down what makes prospects such valuable chips, why elite prospects and non-elite prospects alike are treated like poker chips at this time of year. As far as I can tell, there are three reasons for why prospects are treated as fungible value: 1) They are largely forgotten by the players’ union; 2) They are out of sight and out of mind for a major-league club; and 3) They have no real say in where or when they are employed. All of these factors combine to make minor leaguers what Karl Marx might call the surplus labor army of Major League Baseball, the collection of underpaid, talented workers that help maintain management’s profitability. So, yes, before you ask, this is a bit of a polemic.
The polemic quality of this article was probably predicted by the first point in my list above, the critique of the Players Association. I actually think that the MLBPA is one of, if not the best player unions in the big four sports, if only for two provisos that make baseball its own unique animal when it comes to player salaries: the lack of a salary cap and guaranteed contracts. That’s huge, and only the NHL really comes close to getting as good a deal for its players. But the dark secret of the MLBPA is that it is a veterans-first organization. Minor leaguers have long lobbied for better working conditions and more competitive salaries, and in response MLB has scuttled their class action lawsuits and defined them as seasonal interns as opposed to employees (largely in contradiction to their own press on MiLB websites, but that’s another issue). And the union has stayed silent. The union that has successfully defended 5-and-10 rights, that has embedded the DH so fully as to be all-but-eventually translated to the NL, and the union that has spit in the face of reports of reduced team profit has refused to speak up for its most roundly trampled members. And, so, minor leaguers are paid relatively nothing past their bonuses, and are set to make relatively nothing for their first six minor-league years.
And let’s be clear, major-league baseball teams can afford to pay their high priced vets and their minor leaguers fairly; I find claims to the contrary laughable. But minor leaguers are just not considered a priority for the union, and, fittingly perhaps, they are not considered a priority for the big-league club either. Recall the then-panned James Shields for Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi trade: the veterans in the Royals clubhouse didn’t know Wil Myers from Adam, and they knew James Shields was an (at that time) ace. Maybe Eric Hosmer or some of the very young players who remembered him from the minors shed a tear for their friend leaving, but by and large, any major-league clubhouse will trade any number of minor leaguers for a shot at a pennant or a World Series. The larger issues of abuse aside, I expect that no one in the Cubs’ clubhouse is mourning even the deeply talented Gleyber Torres now that they have a stronger bullpen. And this is natural, of course—minor leaguers are developing while you’re playing a game a day and trying desperately to keep up with the grind of the season. You’re of course not going to relate easily with them.
This leads to the third point, that both the union’s disinterest in and the players’ distance from minor-leaguers plays to management in general, and ownership in particular. Because for the team itself, minor leaguers represent a unique win-win scenario: keep them, and you have cheap talent even if they just fill a spot on your bench or even if they fill a spot on your Triple-A team; trade them and you can add to a playoff run without really losing anything that will impact you until a year or more down the pike. And no minor-league player has the ability to say no to a trade; you won’t hear about Yoan Moncada or Julio Urias holding up trade talks because they need to be convinced to drop their no-trade clause. And even if a prospect is traded into a worse situation—a hitter traded to San Diego, or a pitcher traded to Colorado—they simply have to suck it up and try to succeed in a worse spot. Prospects are truly fungible, from a financial standpoint and from a personnel standpoint.
Ownership depends on this flexibility of labor to maintain its profit margins. While I still maintain that ownership could pay minor leaguers what they deserve and still pull a profit, it’s undeniable that whatever profit they would pull would be less than it is now. And as MLB is run to be profitable first and foremost—though the exceptions to that would make for an interesting article themselves—there’s no real incentive for ownership to make things more comfortable for minor leaguers. Even management has little incentive, as flexibility in the labor pool allows them to make moves to win now and win later. And even major-league players are conditioned into thinking of the minor-league group of players as other than them, non-veterans, or even as unwanted competition. And so minor leaguers remain as the remainder in the system that helps grease the wheels of MLB; spare a thought for them this trade deadline. As fans, we probably owe them that much at least.
On May 25th Ryan Garton got the call that he’d waited his whole life to get. The Tampa Bay Rays needed his help. The 26-year-old reliever had started the season with Triple-A Durham, pitching in 15 games before The Call. The responsibility of finally reaching the majors can weigh heavily on some players, who want so badly not to get sent back down that it becomes a distraction. Demotion is failure, and there is a great challenge to living in the moment.
“Whatever they decide to do, that’s their job,” said Garton. “When my name gets called, I need to get three outs. That’s all I worry about. I keep the same work ethic.”
Taylor Motter had arrived for his own big-league debut just a few days earlier, and the utility-infielder quickly gained popularity with Rays’ fans for his long hair and fun-loving personality. He spent the second half of May, and then all of June, as a big leaguer. But by the end of the month a batting average south of the Mendoza Line had worn out its welcome, and he found himself headed back to the Bulls again. Garton, meanwhile, shuffled from Tampa to Durham, then back up to Tampa a couple days later, before yet another return trip to Carolina barely three weeks later.
Welcome to life on the taxi squad.
The life of a Triple-A player is not stable; at a moment’s notice any player can get The Call to perform his craft in front of tens of thousands, knowing all the while that another moment can just as easily rob him of the big-league lights and send him hurtling back to the purgatory of the high minors. Rosters are a curious mix of veterans playing out the string—some have worn major-league uniforms, others have been so close for so long that it just feels like they never will—alongside the up-and-coming future of the game. It’s a motley crew, really. And the patience of the players is routinely tested.
Though neither Garton nor Motter rank high on any prospect lists—neither received a mention on our pre-season Tampa list—they both have their value. Motter fills a role as a utility guy that can add some power and speed off the bench. Garton provides always-needed bullpen help, with some situational versatility to boot. I asked him if he has a preferred role, to which he emphatically replied that he does not. He wants to do whatever the Rays ask of him. It’s the answer every club wants to hear, and it’s the only answer a guy like Garton can give.
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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.
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.
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:
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.)
Brian Kenny takes a victory lap for sabermetrics, but still treats the world as too simpleminded for it.
"If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works." -- inscription on the statue Ozymandias
In 1817, Percy Bysshe Shelly started his famous poem "Ozymandias," a reflection on the impermanence of dogma and its artifacts in the face of the withering golem of Time. About two centuries later, Brian Kenny began writing his own artifact, albeit one intended to strike a blow against dogma and advance novel baseball concepts. This book, "Ahead of The Curve," is neither novel nor non-dogmatic and had me wondering for whom, exactly, this book was intended.