The world's been terrible, but the Seagers have been joy.
This is a curiosity, really, more than anything else. There’s no deeper meaning to it, and you probably won’t leave this piece with a better sense of why the sky is blue, the sea deep, or the winter cold. But it’s a fun curiosity, I think, and moreover it’s possible you’ll find the 10 minutes you invest in reading the words I’m about to write a worthwhile diversion from your ongoing journey toward nonexistence. Here’s Corey Seager’s 2016 line, through games played on Monday night:
Money still buys success, but the league's payroll disparities appear to be shrinking. This is good.
Baseball fans are, I believe, somewhat self-conscious about the sport. Maybe that’s true of fans of every sport, but I don’t know about other sports, and I do know that when something monumental happens in one of those other sports, baseball fans are quick to use it to illustrate why baseball is (supposedly) supreme.
Something monumental happened in basketball last week, when Kevin Durant announced he was signing with the Golden State Warriors. This is a big deal, because the Golden State Warriors were extremely good this past year, winning the most regular season games ever and coming one game short of the championship, and because Kevin Durant is also extremely good, apparently one of the top three or so players in the game. This leads to a team that, on paper, is extremely, extremely good. (I don’t know anything about basketball.)
Basketball free agency is really different from baseball free agency, since basketball teams are limited in how much they can offer any single player. A number of teams made “max offers” to Durant, and tried to differentiate themselves from the others with various creative pitches. The Celtics crossed sports, and brought Tom Brady, a football player, to their meeting with Durant. He eventually chose the team that was staffed by tons of other incredibly talented players in the Warriors, whose pitch was probably something like “we win a lot already, and will win even more with you, and winning is super fun.” Good pitch!
We don’t have that kind of thing in baseball, with no caps on the salaries an individual player can make. Soft factors might still come into play sometimes—there were reports that some of the players the Cubs signed this offseason did so to play for Joe Maddon, and to try to break the Cubs’ championship drought—but teams can always offer more money, and that’s usually what drives the decision. So when Durant signed with the Warriors, in the baseball-centric milieu I reside in, I saw a lot of praising of baseball’s more egalitarian set-up. Players get paid, and while there’s a much larger gap between baseball’s rich and poor teams than basketball’s, the prevailing wisdom is that baseball is actually more fair. Poor teams can still win, and the elite players don’t flock together to form “super-teams” that might threaten the competitive integrity of the league.
That’s not exactly wrong, but it certainly leaves a lot out. Baseball might have a reputation for fairness, but its mostly due to the isolated successes of a few low-spending teams. It’s true, poor teams can succeed: from 2001 to 2015, about 25 percent of teams with the lowest, second-lowest, or third-lowest payroll in the league won 85 games or more, and about 15 percent won 90 games or more. The 2001 Athletics won 102 games, and had a payroll just slightly more than half of league average, the 29th lowest in the league that year. The 2008 Rays won 97 games with the 28th-lowest payroll, also about half of league average. Last year’s Pirates won 98 with the 24th-lowest payroll, at 72 percent of league average. It is clearly possible for poor teams to win. But I’d argue that for a league to be “fair,” it also has to be possible for the rich teams to lose, and that hasn’t really been the case in major-league baseball.
If an owner is willing to spend enough, he or she can basically guarantee a successful team. Over that same period, 2001–2015, there have been 14 teams with payrolls more than double the league average: the Yankees, every season from 2003–2013, and the Dodgers, from 2013–2015. They averaged a cool 95 wins each season, and broke the 100-win threshold three times. These super-rich teams win 100 games at nearly the same rate the teams with the three lowest salaries win 85 games. They never won fewer than 85 games, and only won less than 89 once.
Has all the Dodgers spending and talk about solving the injury riddle led to any real progress?
The Los Angeles Dodgers have a $250 million payroll, at least six former or current general managers stashed away in their front office, and one of the deepest staffs of numbers crunchers in the game. When they decided to tackle one of baseball’s most perplexing mysteries—The Injury—under Andrew Friedman’s watch, it wasn’t particularly surprising. In fact, the Dodgers might possess the perfect combination of dollars and smarts to best pursue an injury elixir; their front office depth chart includes a whopping 12 different baseball operations analysts—behind only Friedman’s old team in Tampa Bay—and a 12-person medical staff. The A’s, by comparison, have just a handful of full-time analysts on staff, and when prodded about the injury issue—in a seven-year-old New York Times article, coincidentally about Stan Conte and the Dodgers—Billy Beane responded, “I just don’t have the money to let someone spend all year looking into this.”
Teams only have so many resources to devote to analytics, and every minute spent on injury research is one that could be spent on the draft or on aging curves or on figuring out what to do with terabytes of Statcast data. While some teams—like the A’s, perhaps—have struggled divvying up limited resources, the Dodgers have enough money to hire multiple people to study injuries while hiring more people to study the people studying injuries. That’s what they’ve done, apparently, beefing up their front office with the partial goal of getting a better handle on player health. The resulting strategy has featured the Dodgers acquiring extreme injury risks, guys like Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson, stacking bargain-bin depth pieces next to established stars like Clayton Kershaw and Adrian Gonzalez.
Scherzer threatens another signature start, the Dodgers dip toward .500, and Whit Merrifield is a thing.
The Monday Takeaway
Few pitchers are as unhittable at their best as Max Scherzer is. The right-hander’s 20-strikeout game earlier this year can attest to that. And for a while on Monday, it seemed as though Scherzer might duplicate that effort against a Cubs lineup that looked helpless at the plate.
Scherzer struck out the side in the first, two more in the second, and another trio in the third. With his high-80s breaker darting expertly at lefties’ back feet,
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.
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
Manny Machado and Yordano Ventura take swings, Adam Duvall takes bigger swings, and Julio Urias finally does okay.
The Tuesday Takeaway
Trying to come up with a lede for a section about Tuesday night’s fracas between Manny Machado and Yordano Ventura is like trying to herd angry wolverines. Any attempt at humor will fall flat. What’s important is that what happened in Baltimore was stupid. Flat-out stupid.