12 August 2020

What the DiMaggio-Williams Rivalry Can Teach us About Modern MVP Voting...

Welp, here I am again, going down another JoePos rabbit hole...

Today's baseball-in-the-time -of-COVID essay details the inexplicable way in which Ted Williams managed to win his second Triple Crown in 1947 but lose the MVP by one point to Joe DiMaggio.  Posnanski attributes it to the fact that the Yankees won their division by a dozen games and the writers did not often vote for players who were not on pennant winners or at least serious contenders in those days, not for first place in the MVP running, anyway.  

He blames, perhaps rightly, the three first-place votes for the resurgent firstbaseman, George McQuinn, who had been released by the Philadelphia Athletics a year before but hit over .300 for the Yankees as they won the AL pennant running away.  McQuinn was out of MLB a year later after hitting just .248, but in the mean time it looked an awful lot like McQuinn was the reason they won.  

Personally, I thought the seven first place votes given to Yankees super-reliever Joe Page had more to do with it than that, but in any case, The Kid Lost and the Yankee Clipper won, and that was that.  

However, this McQuinn "correlation = causality" argument reminds me of the 2003 AL MVP vote.  Shannon Stewart got traded to the Twins for Bobby Kielty and a PTBNL at the All Star break.  They were 44-49 at the time, but they went 46-23 in the second half, the best record in baseball.  Stewart hit .322 with 6 homers and 38 RBI (2.6 bWAR), which made it seem like Stewart was the reason they were winning.  

In reality, the team as a whole hit almost exactly as well in the second half (779 OPS) as they had in the first (768), even though Stewart himself was markedly better than the guy he largely replaced in the lineup, Bobby Kielty, had been.  The lineup did average almost 5.4 runs per game after the break, compared to 4.6 before, but that must have been due to the timeliness of their hitting more than its overall quality.  

In fact it was the pitching staff that got its act together in the second half, pitching to a 3.96 ERA, compared to the 4.74 they had racked up before the break.  In particular Brad Radke and Kenny Rogers both pitched notably better, and Johan Santana just pitched more, as the Twins finally realized tat he should be starting every 5th day.  

At around the same time, the White Sox traded for Carl Everett, another outfielder who really picked up his game after being traded.  He hit .301 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs (2.0 bWAR) for the Pale Hose, and Chicago went 41-27 in the second half, after playing 5 games under .500 in the first half.  Simultaneously, the first-place, 51-41 Royals (!) went back in the tank for the second half (32-38) and fell to third.  

And for what it's worth, at around the same time the Blue Jays, who had traded Stewart away, also played better in the second half.  Using the same logic, then, this would suggest that Stewart's absence was the reason the Jays started winning, which is only slightly more silly a suggestion than the previous one.  

In any case, Everett didn't get a single MVP vote of any kind (nor, for that matter, did Bobby Kielty), while Stewart got three first place votes and finished 4th overall!  So, what gives?  

Well, there were two things at play here:

  1. The Twins ended up winning their division by four games over the White Sox.  In particular, they went 5-2 against Chicago in September, in the heat of the pennant race, including a three-game sweep at home that was part of an 11-game winning streak which effectively put the last nail in the coffin for the ChiSox.  They went from two games behind Chicago on September 9th, after losing to the White Sox twice in a row, to 3.5 games up on Chicago on September 18th, after that sweep.  So the optics were there, the Twins literally overtaking the White Sox down the stretch, even if Stewart himself didn't especially do anything remarkable in those particular games or in the pennant drive in particular (he hit .289 with zero homers in September).    
  2. Jayson Stark, senior baseball writer on ESPN.com and regular contributor to ESPN's various online and cable TV products, such as SportsCenter and Mike & Mike in the Morning, was lobbying hard for Stewart to get the MVP.  

Admittedly, others made this argument as well (Mark Sheldon from MLB.com, Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, who may have had a bit of a home bias) but none with as large an audience or as much clout in the world of baseball journalism as Stark. Stark has made something of a career of finding interesting looking numbers in baseball and writing about them, but of course just because they're interesting - or more to the point, just because they correlate with winning - does not necessarily mean they're meaningful or causal.  

My favorite, which I learned about in Psychology I as a freshman at Lehigh, is the Superbowl indicator.  From 1967-1997, the conference that won the SuperBowl correlated at 90% with the way the Dow Jones finished, though there is really no good causal explanation for this.  My psych professor used it to remind us that correlation never implies causality, an expression he repeated so often that I can still hear his voice in my head as I type it out, now almost 27 years later.  

Likewise, there is no more reason to believe that McQuinn deserved all the credit for the success of the 1947 Yankees than that Stewart deserved it for the 1997 Twins.  Or that the Superbowl conference winner deserves credit for the stock market finishing up (or down).  But it's an easy case to make, and harder to disprove when the optics seem to support it.  

In 1947, nobody had the kind of audience that Stark did in 2003, but writers like Dick Young or Jimmy Cannon probably had wider readership than just about anybody else out there, writing for the New York papers, and may have advocated for McQuinn's votes with their fellow writers as well as their readers.  

We'll probably never know, exactly.  But it's interesting to consider how these decisions may have been made.  None of them occurs in a vacuum, and the modern day decision makers (if indeed 2003 can even be considered "modern day" anymore) are not immune to the same kinds of flawed lines of logic.   

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30 July 2020

Missing the Markakis in the Quest for 3,000

The news today that Nick Markakis is to rejoin the Braves, having changed his mind about opting out due to concerns over COVID-19 reminded me of this article I read on MLB.com more than two years ago, in which the possibility of Markakis eventually getting to 3,000 career hits was discussed.  That article was inspired by another one from the Sporting News, which I did not read at the time.

But I read the first one with interest because Joe Posnanski wrote it, and he's like, my hero and stuff, and because it was on the official website of Major League Baseball.  If MLB says it, well, it must be worth considering!  Joe apparently either read the article in TSN on his own or was alerted to it by an editor who asked him to run with the theme of whether Markakis had a real shot at the 3,000 hit club.

The theory, at the time, basically went like this:

  • Markakis already had over 2,000 hits, and was "only" 34 years old.
  • Markakis was off to a really hot start (hitting .336 with walks and power when the article was posted online).  
  • Other players in the 3,000-hit club (Rickey, Raffy, Winfield, Biggio) were actually behind Markakis' hit-pace at that age
  • Markakis plays almost every day, so he doesn't have to be awesome to get his hits.  

The other factor, possibly, was that the original article was written by a Braves' homer with a deadline to meet.  Dave Jordan wrote that article for TSN, but I can't find anything else he's ever written for them.  He appears to have covered sports for the Brunswick (GA) News in 2015, but not since then.  His Facebook page says he did the same for the Chatsworth (GA) Times, but it is not clear when or for how long.  He appears to be now retired, though he still comments frequently on Georgia sports issues.  Old habits die hard, I guess.

The article itself is full of the kinds of meaningless tidbits you tend to see in local sports pages from home-friendly writers, quasi-analysis to justify his take (focused mostly on Markakis' durability and seemingly favorable comparisons).  That, and quotes from his manager or hitting coach about how "driven" he is or how he "never lets off the pedal", and from the player himself about how he tries not to over think things and to takes it one day at a time.

Posnanski's take on it was a little more nuanced, a little more guarded, though he exaggerated a bit:

Then Markakis settled into being, well, the sort that scouts will call "a professional ballplayer." They're all professionals, if you want to be technical about it, but Markakis was one of those guys who went out there every day and, without fanfare, without flash, without fail, just did his job. He hit around .300. You could count on him for 40-plus doubles and 20 or so homers. He played a solid outfield. One year he led the league in sacrifice flies.

Markakis was the kind of guy who would lead the league in sacrifice flies.

In reality, Markakis had not hit 20 homers in a decade by then, and had not hit 40 doubles since 2010 (though he would end up hitting 43 in 2018). The problem with saying that a player does his job "without fanfare, without flash" is that while the phrase implies that you won't see the kind of antics you see from the likes of Wille Mays Hayes, what we really mean is that the player is not excellent at anything.

He hits for a decent average.  He has modest power.  He doesn't make mistakes on the basepaths (indeed, because he rarely takes chances).  He plays solid (or serviceable) defense.  The top comps for Markakis include the likes of Buddy Bell, Cesar Cedeno, Al Oliver, and Bill Buckner.  Guys who you might describe as "pretty good for a long time" and not a whole lot more.  There are worse things to be described as than "workmanlike" but it rarely gets you to the Hall of Fame, and anyway those guys tend to peter out by age 37 or so.

Speaking of comparisons, Pos compared Markakis to the eerily similar Johnny Damon at that age.  Their numbers were nearly identical at the time, and Damon would go on to have four more productive seasons after age 33.

Then, he just disappeared.

Damon hit .222 in 61 games in 2012 and was released by Cleveland, never to play again.  He was, and will likely forever remain, 231 hits shy of 3,000 and an all-but-certain Hall of Fame election.  As it was, when his name first appeared on the ballot, he got 1.9% of the vote and was removed from the running, probably forever.  The fact that he ranks 330 (!) players better in career bWAR than recent Cooperstown inductee Harold Baines is unlikely to help him much. 

Posnanski cited Bill James' Favorite Toy, his milestone prediction tool, which at the time gave Markakis a 28% chance of reaching 3,000 hits.  That sounds about right, maybe even a little high.  Certainly not as optimistic as Dave Jordan seemed to be.  Posnanski talked about how Markakis would need to have a really incredible career from there on out to have a real shot at it, a Raul-Ibanez-kind of second half (or latter third) of his career, which of course are few and far between.   

For what's it's worth, I really did not buy it at the time, but the take looks particularly bad now, more than two years later.  Why?  Well, for one thing, latter-half careers like the one Ibanez had don't come around very often.  It appears that Ibanez was probably better than the Mariners realized at the time (also he was a disaster on defense), so they kept running a cavalcade of former stars out to left field instead of giving Ibanez a real shot:  Rich Amaral, Rickey Henderson, Brian Hunter, Glenallen Hill.  Finally Ibanez became a free agent and signed with the Royals, for whom "disaster" was just one of many typical adjectives to describe them, so why not!  He hit well in his first season (though he did not qualify for a batting title for the first time until he was 30) and he didn't stop hitting for more than a decade!

But Markakis has been around for a decade and a half at this point.  He's a known commodity, and therefore unlikely to suddenly "break out" as Ibanez did, because he's already had 14 years in which to prove he can be something more than "workmanlike" and has yet to do so.

Also, Markakis has a few things going against him that he did not at the time:

  • After that hot start in 2018 (he was hitting .354 with an OPS just north of 1.000 at the end of play on May 5th) he essentially went back to being the "professional ballplayer" he's always been, hitting .282/.346/.407 the rest of the 2018 season, almost exactly in line with his career totals prior to 2018 (.288/.358/.422).  
  • While his rate numbers did not suffer in 2019 (.285/.356/.420) he missed significant time last year, for only the second time in his career.  He got hit on the wrist by a pitch and missed almost two months, playing in only 116 games total, and amassing only 118 more hits, 55 fewer than he had averaged in his previous six seasons.  
  • He, like everyone else, will have missed about 100 games this season due to COVID-19.  That's probably cost him about 100 more hits, given his standard production.  
That's basically a whole season worth of games lost between last year and this, games he can never get back. 
Actually, Markakis will have missed even more, since he opted out on July 6th and has therefore not been working out with the team, and so cannot just show up at the stadium and expect to get his name in the lineup tonight like the hero in some cheesy sports rom-com.  Maybe he comes back quickly and misses, say, only 10 games total of the 2020 season.  That still means he has less than a third of a true season to play this year, maybe 50 games total. 

At his usual rate of production (assuming no deterioration of skills due to age, which is unlikely) we might expect Markakis to get about 50 hits in a little over 200 plate appearances.  That will give him a little more than 2,400 hits for his career, as he heads into his age 37 season.

But it's actually even worse than that.  The outfield crop for the Braves is pretty crowded already without Markakis:

  • Ronald Acuna, one of the bet players in the game, has center field nailed down.  
  • Marcell Ozuna is just 29, which happens also to be the number of homers he hit last season, to go with a dozen steals.  Sure, his beard is ridiculous, but the man can hit.  
  • Adam Duvall may have hit 30+ homers a couple of times, but he's basically a backup at this point in his career.  He's an ideal platoon partner, as he tends to struggle against righties while crushing lefties.  
  • Scott Schebler and Ender Inciarte are both lefty batters, like Markakis, though both with something to offer that Markakis does not.  Schebler has some pop (he hit 30 homers for the Reds in 2017) and Inciarte has speed and defense.  He's stolen 20+ bases three times, and has won three (deserved) Gold Gloves.  (Admittedly Markakis also has three of them, but he had a negative dWAR in each of those three seasons.  The Fielding Bible awards write-ups have never even mentioned him, much less awarded him anything.)  
The Braves, like everyone this year, can also use a DH, but they already have Matt Adams, a lefty hitter with 20+ homers each of the last three seasons, albeit with batting averages below .250 in two of those seasons.  Adams cannot hit lefties (no seasons above .220 since 2016) but then neither can Markakis, as we will see...

Reports suggest that Markakis is expected to be a platoon player whenever he does come back.  This makes some sense, as Markakis has not been great against lefties for quite a while, and fared particularly poorly against them last season, hitting just .245 (compared to .298 against RHPs).

In the last seven seasons, dating all the way back to 2013, Markakis has averaged .269 with about one home run a year against southpaws, compared to .286 with 9 homers per season against righties.  Still not great, but serviceable.

And therein lies the problem.  Players who are "not great, but serviceable" do not amass 3,000+ hits.  Especially when they fit that category only against right handed pitchers, and have really never gotten above that level in their whole careers.

Everyone - literally everyone - who eventually reached that 3,000-hit plateau was legitimately excellent at some point in his career, usually for quite a while, and often at more than one aspect of the game.  Thirty two different players have at least 3,000 hits and among them, they averaged more than eleven .300+ batting average seasons per career and almost three batting titles each, and none had fewer than four seasons of hitting .300 or better.

Markakis has only two such seasons, 2007 and 2008, when he hit .300 and .306, respectively.  So he has not hit .300 for a season in a dozen years, and has never come close to a batting title.

Even those in the 3K club who did not hit .300 often had incredible longevity, generally bolstered by other skills and/or their status as an icon in the game or for their particular franchise:

  • Carl Yastrzemski "only" hit .300 six times, but he also won three batting titles including a Triple Crown in 1967.  He played in an era in which batting averages were low for everyone, famously winning the AL batting title in 1968 hitting just .301, the only player in the Junior Circuit to hit .300 that season.)  He was a Red Sox icon who played for 23 seasons, was still an everyday player at age 39, and a serviceable part timer after that.  
  • Eddie Murray never won a batting title, but he led the majors hitting .330 in 1990 for the Dodgers despite not actually leading his league.  How?  Willie McGee was hitting .335 in 501 at-bats with the Cardinals when he got traded to Oakland, where he hit only .274 against American League pitchers, bringing his MLB season average down to .324.  However, he had enough plate appearances to qualify for the NL batting title already, so he won it instead of Murray.  In any case, Murray hit .300 or better seven times and amassed more than 500 homers (including 20+ at ages 39 and 40).  They called him Steady Eddie for a reason, not just the rhyme.  
  • Cal Ripken Jr. hit .300+ only four times, and never won a batting title, but he played in over 3,000 games, including several of them consecutively, as I understand it.  
  • Adrian Beltre, Robin Yount and Rafael Palmiero each hit .300 or better six times but did not win a batting title between them.  Beltre and Raffy both hit for power and almost never missed a game.  Beltre almost never walked, either, which gave him more chances for hits.  Beltre and Yount both played excellent defense at key positions (whereas Markakis is a replaceable right fielder).  Also, Yount was washed up at age 37, the age Markakis will be in 2021.  He only got to 3,000 because he was a regular at the age of 18.  
  • Craig Biggio and Dave Winfield each hit .300 or better four times without winning a batting title, but Winfield was still productive into his 40s (he hit .290/26/108 for the 1992 Blue Jays at the age of 40) and hung on for a few years as a bat-for-hire to get his 3,000th hit.  Biggio was, frankly, kind of an albatross around the neck of the Astros' offense by the last few seasons of his career, but by then he was a demigod in Houston, so he got his at-bats.
  • Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock never won a batting title, but each hit .300+ more than half a dozen times, and both were after the career stolen base record (and others, in Rickey's case) late in their careers, so they got to stick around long enough to amass 3,000 hits.  
  • Others in the 3K club who never won a batting title include Derek Jeter, Paul Molitor and Eddie Collins, but they each hit .300 or better at least a dozen times!  
  • And the rest of those 32 players?  Most of them were so good, you know them by their nicknames: Charlie Hustle, Hammer, The Georgia Peach, The Man, The Machine, Tris, Cap, Flying Dutchman, Say Hey, Nap, Mr. Padre, Mr. Tiger, Ichiro, A-Rod, Big Poison, Chicken Man.  
  • Also Rod Carew, George Brett and Roberto Clemente, who each hit .300+ more than ten times and won at least three batting titles, despite not having a good nickname.  All of them are absolute icons of MLB history, often the best player in their franchises' history.   

So there you have it:

The road to 3,000 hits is either to hit .300 early and often, or to stick around forever compiling hits based on your other skills even while that ability has declined.  Yes, everyone who has amassed 3,000+ hits is in the Hall of Fame, but as you've seen, each of those players brought something else to the table, too, often several things.  Markakis fits none of those categories.  He's never been an excellent hitter, topping out at what you might call "pretty good" more than a decade ago.  He doesn't walk a ton, or steal bases, or hit for power, or play great defense, and now he doesn't even hit lefties at all.

That same Predictor that gave him a 28% shot at it two-plus years ago?    Well, if you give him credit for, say, 45 hits this year i.e. what we might expect from his normal production but in slightly reduced playing time due to the delays and being platooned, he would have exactly 2400 hits at the end of 2020.  If we project out those 45 hits over, say 150 games (to account for the model not knowing about COVID-19), and use that in the Favorite Toy, he ends up with just a 7% chance at 3,000 hits.

And that is already giving him credit for a bunch of hits he doesn't yet have, and assumes that the 2021 season is something resembling normal, and that Markakis is playing in it.  If he misses more time this year, or spends more time on the bench because Ozuna, Duvall, Inciarte and others are all more productive, that chance can drop to zero in a hurry.  Markakis is only on a $4 million, one-year contract.  That's a rounding error for the giant banking conglomerate that owns the Braves.  They could drop him like a hot potato, and he might not catch on anywhere, like Damon.

And all that talk about how he could get to 3,000 hits would seem silly in retrospect, if it doesn't already. 

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05 March 2020

Ken Griffey Jr. and NL Gold Glove Voting Trends

One of the more fun aspects of Joe Posnanski's run-down of the 100 greatest players of all time over at The Athletic is his tendency to go down into "rabbit holes".  He'll chase something that takes his fancy and the next thing you know you've learned about all the notable players named after US Presidents, or about the Negro Leagues, or about whether Warren Spahn really threw a screwball.  Or whatever.

Also, I like that these articles often send me off into some rabbit hole of my own, usually due to some throwaway line in the article. Thrown away only because (I imagine) - with 100 of these articles to write in 100 days - Joe simply does not have time to chase down every one of these esoteric little tidbits, not because he doesn't want to.

A few weeks ago it was about how/why Robin Roberts somehow did not win the 1952 NL MVP Award.  The answer to that, the three or four of you who may have read my blog post will recall, was that the sportswriters were dumb and inexplicably voted for relief pitchers with unusually high Win totals on the merits of they'd never seen that before.

Today's rabbit hole comes from the article on player #48, Ken Griffey Jr.

Griffey was traded to Cincinnati by request just 10 or so weeks after he turned 30. He was good in his first year with the Reds — he hit 40 homers and slugged .556 — but for the first time since he was a rookie, he did not win a Gold Glove.*

*The voters, oddly, gave a Gold Glove to Steve Finley instead. Look, over his career, Griffey won several Gold Gloves that, in retrospect, look questionable, but it’s entirely unclear how he could have lost the 2000 Gold Glove to Finley, who was playing with a bulging disc in his back and had well-below-average range that year. 

So this got me to looking into the history of NL outfield Gold Glove Awards.

The first ones were given in 1957, but these were for all the major leagues.  Willie Mays won one, of course, but so did Al Kaline of the Tigers and Minnie Minoso of the White Sox.  The next year they split them up by leagues, and the NL winners were Mays, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson.

In those days they actually assigned ones to Left, Center and Right field, though that would change in 1961 when they just started giving them to any three outfielders, which meant (usually) Roberto Clemente and two center fielders.  If you were assigned to Left, it was usually because you were not a good defender in the first place.

From 1961-68, the NL Awards went to Mays, Clemente and someone else, usually Curt Flood.  Those three won them six years in a row, the longest such stretch in history.  Fifteen years earlier, White America would have never even see those three play.  Think about that for a while. 

By 1969, Mays was 38, and played in only 117 games, so Pete Rose won "his" award.  Then Curt Flood got himself embroiled in a legal controversy you may have heard of, so he was no longer playing in 1970, and Tommie Agee won that award instead, along with Rose and Clemente.

In 1971, Rose and Agee were replaced by Bobby Bonds and Willie Davis.  And that is the last time until 1995 that two new players will the NL Gold Glove in the same year, almost a quarter of a century later.

You see, I think Griffey's failure to win the 2000 NL Gold Glove comes down to what you might call "institutional inertia".  The NL GG voters - managers and coaches - evidently rarely deviated much from whomever they had voted for last year. In the AL, though the number of different players winning Gold Glove awards in the outfield is nearly identical overall, there was a lot more year-to-year change than in the NL, for some reason. 

But for the NL, between 1962 and 2005, a span of 44 seasons, only three(!) times did two of the three outfield Gold Glove awards go to people who had not won it the previous year.  The first was the one I just mentioned.  The other two:

1995: Finley, Grissom, Mondesi (Grissom, Barry Bonds and Darren Lewis had won in 1994)
1997: Bonds, Mondesi and Larry Walker (following Bonds, Finley and Grissom in 1996)

And that's the end of the list.  In the other 41 seasons, no more than one change was made from the previous year, and seven times, no changes happened at all.

I don't know if this means that those players really were that dominant or if it means the managers and coaches were just lazy and generally voted for whomever they listed last year, unless that player changed leagues, or positions or died or something.  It's just an observation of a trend.

Anyway, as for the NL Gold Glove situation in Y2K...

In 1999, Finley, Andruw Jones and Larry Walker had won the NL Gold Gloves.

Jones, was, of course, AMAZING in CF with 3.8 dWAR, not that anyone knew this at the time, since that statistic did not exist yet, but they knew he was awesome.  That easily led all NL outfielders, which is to say that he deserved the award.  Finley was 3rd in dWAR (1.9), a good distance behind Mike Cameron (2.6), but deserving, nonetheless.  Larry Walker actually had the worst defensive season of his career in 1999, -1.2 dWAR, but he also threw out 13 runners in just 114 games, and those are the kinds of things voters remember, I suppose.

In 2000, well, Finley and Jones were both still healthy and productive but Larry Walker was injured (because of course he was...) so who should the third OF award go to?

If you look at dWAR among NL outfielders in 2000 (min 130 games), the top 3 were Jones (2.7), Tom Goodwin (1.4) and Griffey (1.3), with Richard Hidalgo (1.2) hot on their heels.   Edmonds was 11th, at 0.4 dWAR.  Finley was 18th (!), at exactly zero.  But voters can be fooled by recency bias and by SportsCenter, so here we are. 

The trouble, I think, was that Griffey joined the NL in the same year as Jim Edmonds - who simply *looked* a lot more exciting out there in CF, made more SportsCenter highlights, etc.  So, even though Griffey covered more ground, made more plays, etc., Edmonds had one more Assist, made one less Error, and that's as far as anyone probably looked at the numbers at that time.  They likely never even thought much about Goodwin or Hidalgo of the fact that The Kid made 24 more Put Outs in CF than Edmonds.

In 2006, the voting started to change in character.  With the advent of better measuring sticks for defense, voters started paying more attention, doing more homework as it were, and the voting became less of a popularity contest.  In 2011 they went back to awarding Left, Right and Center-fielders separately.  In 2013 they incorporated a sabermetric element to account for 25% of the vote weight.  And it's all helped.

In the 14 most recent seasons, i.e. since 2006, only three times have the NL Gold Gloves been awarded to two or more of the previous year's winners.  Just as many times, all three winners have been someone who did not win the previous year.  And every year since 2006 has seen at least one brand new name appear on the list of awards, including eight seasons with two new names.  Not just two who didn't win last year, but two who had never won before. 

But 20 years ago, none of that was happening.  Steve Finley was winning the award despite being exactly average on defense.  Rafael Palmeiro was winning the AL GG award for first base despite playing only 28 games there.  Jermaine Dye won an AL Gold Glove that year, and he was straight up terrible! (In fact he only had a positive dWAR in a full season once in his 14-year career!)  It was chaos!

So yes, Griffey probably deserved that award in 2000.  But since the same system had allowed him to win the award with a negative dWAR of his own twice (1992 and 1999) as well as in a season in which he played only 72 games (1995) perhaps the system does not owe him anything?

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21 January 2020

Notes on the MLB HoF Voting before the 2020 Announcements

Modern technology is great.

For the last decade or so, a small group of devoted fans, led by Ryan Thibodaux, has been collecting the publicly and privately confessed Cooperstown voting results from BBWAA members  prior to the announcement of the actual vote, which is anticipated tonight at 6PM.  Far from eliminating any tension or wonder before the official announcements, this serves only to increase it, or perhaps just change its nature.  

Since we only know a portion of the voting results (they have a little over half of the ballots accounted for at this point) they also calculate the percentage and number of remaining ballots needed to make enshrinement, or to meet the 5% minimum requirement for staying on the ballot. They track not just which sportswriters voted for whom, but who they didn't vote for, if they did last year, and who they may have added to their ballot.  Additions are coded in green, retractions in red.  

Pete Abraham, for example, added Todd Helton and Billy Wagner to his ballot.  Filip Bondy removed Gary Sheffield (in his 6th year of eligibility) but added Helton, Jeff Kent, Manny Ramirez and Larry Walker, in his 10th and final year.  Bondy used all 10 of his available votes, so you can see why he would think Sheffield expendable, if it meant giving Walker one last chance at enshrinement.  

Peter Gammons, on the other hand, removed Helton and Walker from his ballot, but added Kent.  Gammons has also consistently voted for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, so I guess it's OK to be a loudmouth who jokes about reporters being killed or a cheater who uses drugs to improve his results, but being an awesome hitter in Colorado is somehow no longer acceptable behavior.  Man, having his face on the $20 bill has really gone to Gammons' head.  

Other curious things to note here:

  • Derek Jeter is the only player named on every ballot so far.  With Mariano Rivera having finally broken the longstanding trend of non-unanimous voting results, writers have no good reason not to vote for an obvious Hall of Famer like Jeter except spite.  Nobody can stand any longer on the logic of, "If Joe DiMaggio didn't get in on the first ballot then nobody should!"  or, "If Babe Ruth wasn't unanimous then nobody should be!"  That ship has sailed.  There is a precedent now, and it's doubtful any of the BBWAA members want to deal with the backlash from perhaps being the ONE writer who inexplicably refused to vote for Jeter.  

Whatever his shortcomings, and this is not to say that there were none, Jeter checks EVERY box for a Hall of Famer:  He was a 14-time All Star shortstop who hit .310 over a 20-year career on the game's biggest stage, led the team to five World Championships, won five Gold Gloves, five Silver Sluggers, a Rookie of the Year award, and the MVP awards for the All Star game and the World Series.  His postseason career is like another All-Star caliber season unto itself, as he is the career leader in almost everything except homers and RBIs, not the stats you expect from a shortstop who usually hits leadoff.  (He's 3rd and 4th all-time in those, BTW.)  He's the total package, and his defensive shortcomings or perceived overratedness are no reasons to pass him up.  

  • Three voters - Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe, Anthony Reiber of New York Newsday, and former Newsday writer Steven Marcus all voted for ONLY Derek Jeter.  
    • Marcus either did not vote for anyone last year or did not have a vote, as his line shows neither greens nor reds, including the Jeter vote.  
    • Shaughnessy is a well known curmudgeon who's not above making something like this about himself and his own sense of indignation.  Last year he voted only for Mariano Rivera.  
    • The real curiosity is Reiber, who actually had voted for Bonds, Clemens, Pettitte, Ramirez, Schilling and Vizquel last year, but took those away so he could make a statement, I guess.  Maybe in the blinding light of the awesomeness that was Derek Jeter's career he saw that nobody...OK, never mind.  He's an idiot.  
  • Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are getting closer, but are not there yet.  Both have over 70%, but experience suggests that the writers who do not publish their ballots in advance or email the trackers privately about them tend to slant more conservatively in their voting, so those percentages are likely to drop a bit in the final tally.  Since both finished with about 59% last year, though, they're still poised to make a significant jump.  
    • Curiously, two voters, Jon Heyman and Christina Kahrl, have given the nod to Bonds (a 7-time MVP award winner who ostensibly started using PEDs after having already won three of them.) but not to Clemens (a 7-time Cy Young Award winner who ostensibly started using PEDs after having won three of them.)  Clemens even has the better postseason resume, often something of a tiebreaker for tossups like this.  Heyman's logic was picked apart by Deadspin a few years ago, but as far as I can tell, despite all the questions about her ballot on Twitter, Kahrl has not explained her ballot. 
  • Curt Schilling (78%) and Larry Walker (83%) are the only other players polling over the 75% required for enshrinement at this point.  
    • Walker's vote total, like those of Bonds and Clemens, dropped a little more than 11% in the final tally last year, which would put him slightly below the threshold.  Again, the more old-school voters who don't know (or care to know) how to Internet tend to discredit players whom they think received a disproportionate benefit from their home ballpark.  (Jim Rice excepted, evidently.) However, players often get a bit of a bump in their final year, and this being a less crowded ballot than in recent years, Walker may still make it.  
    • Schilling probably will not, as he's just barely over the threshold to begin with, and if he drops as much as he did last year (about 9%) he'll end up well below it, but still close enough to likely achieve enshrinement in 2021, his 9th year on the ballot.  
  • The only other players polling even close to 50% are Omar Vizquel and Scott Rolen.  This is their third year on the ballot, but they've followed very different paths here.  Vizquel started out strong, with 37% and then 43% last year.  He may even end up over 50% this year, as he and Andy Pettitte were the only two from last year who did better in the final count than the pre-announcement polling had showed.   Rolen, however, started at about 10%, then got 17% last year, so if this result holds - he's currently at 47.7% - it would be a ~30% jump in one year, which is pretty rare, I would imagine.  Evidently there is a pretty serious Scott Rolen is better than you think campaign going on somewhere, and it's working.
  • Several players appear likely to fall off the ballot for not receiving at least 5% of the vote.  In fact, several of them have only one vote to date: Cliff Lee, Eric Chavez and Jason Giambi.  
    • Not that I expected him to get elected, or even think he should be, but it surprises me that Giambi isn't getting a little more support.  He has the sort of resume that might have kept him on the ballot in the Old Days - 440 homers, over 2000 hits, an MVP award (and he probably should have won another) - but players like this have gone once-and-done on the ballot several times recently: Carlos Delgado, Lance Berkman, Mo Vaughn, Andres Galarraga, Jim Edmonds, Paul Konerko (who currently has two votes and is epected to fall off the ballot), etc.  
The unfortunate side effect of the so-called Steroid Era and all the wonderful hitters we got to watch at the time is that we don't know whose stats to take seriously, and the BBWAA tends to err on the side of caution.  Plus, Giambi has his sniveling press conference in which he apologized - sorta - for using steroids.  

And he has recency bias going against him.  That is, the way in which his career just kinda petered out over a drawn out time after his Yankees contract probably hurts him a bit, too.   He hit .212 over parts of six seasons at the end of his career, with about as many homers (44) in his last 410 games - more than half in a Rockies uniform - as he did in his MVP season alone (43).  The voters tend to frown on "padded stats" preferring guys to go out closer to their peak.  Take away those six seasons and Giambi's career (.286 batting average, 396 homers, 146 OPS+ in almost 8000 plate appearances) looks a lot like Duke Snider's or Orlando Cepeda's, but also Frank Howard's and Albert Belle's.  Not a slam dunk or anything, but maybe more than one person would have thought him worthy of a check mark.
  • Two players - Rafael Furcal and Alfonso Soriano - have not received a single vote yet.  Furcal I get: He was a pretty good player for a few years, but didn't amass the counting stats the voters like to see.  His defense bumps his overall WAR total to about 40 (Vizquel has about 45, for reference, in about 10 more seasons) which is impressive for a short career, but just not enough.  
  • Soriano, though?  He got some MVP votes, finishing as high as 3rd one season.  He hit over 400 homers, had over 2000 career hits, had a 40-40 season and just missed a second one by a single homer. You'd think someone would give him a vote.  I mean, Danny Tartabull got a single vote, for crying out loud, and Soriano hit 150 more homers!  Danny Tartabull!  
Anyway, it'll be interesting to see how this goes tonight.  I fully expect Jeter to be unanimous and Walker to just make the cut, but that should be it.  

Next year though, with all of these guys carrying over and nobody who seems particularly like a Hall of Famer being added to the ballot (Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Torii Hunter are the best of the new nominees next year) it could be Clemens, Bonds, and Schilling giving speeches on the dais in Cooperstown next July.  

It may be a good year to get cheap accommodations and tickets to the ceremonies.  To paraphrase  Yogi Berra, people will be staying away in droves.  

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16 January 2020

How did Robin Roberts Lose the NL MVP in 1952? (Hint: Not the Ladies' Fault)

The latest in Joe Posnanski's series on the top 100 baseball players of all time, over at The Athletic, is Robin Roberts.

Among the other compelling stories he tells about Roberts is this little tidbit:

The Baseball Writers of America gave out the first Cy Young Award in 1956, one year after Roberts’ historic run. So, one of the greatest pitchers ever never won a Cy Young.
He also didn’t win an MVP award, though it’s hard to see how he lost the award in 1952. They gave it Hank Sauer, who led the league in homers and RBIs. Here’s how Oscar Fraley of the United Press International responded to that vote:
“Anybody who knows the difference between a bunt and punt must be completely flabbergasted at the selection of Hank Sauer in the National League. Most of the voters obviously never heard of Robin Roberts … one theory is that they were all on vacation and the ballot was filled in by the editor of the women’s page.”
Yes, there was always time for a little misogyny in 1950s baseball writing!
But the main point was sound: Roberts went 28-7 with a 2.59 ERA, and his last 23 starts the Phillies went 21-2; both losses came when Philadelphia was shut out. By WAR, Roberts was three wins better than Sauer. And it’s not like Sauer played a significant role in the pennant race; his Cubs were mediocre non-contenders.
The rest of the story on Roberts is of course excellent and well worth the pittance you need to invest to break down the Athletic's paywall, but this got me to wondering how that could happen.  How does a pitcher who so clearly outclasses the rest of the league, who wins 28 games for a decent team,* not manage to win, or at least come closer to winning, the MVP? 

* The 1952 Phillies started out just awful.  They were 10 games below .500, at 29-39 as late as June 23rd.  Manager Eddie Sawyer - who had perhaps gotten some grace for finishing 73-81 in 1951 because he had helmed the 1950 "Whiz Kid" Phillies to their second franchise pennant ever, had run out of rope with which to hang himself.  He was fired five days after that, ironically after the team had won 4 of  5 games.  

Steve O'Neill, who had managed the Tigers to the 1945 World Series championship, took over and the team immediately improved, going 59-32 the rest of the way, and finishing "just" 9.5 games out of first.  That doesn't sound so great until you notice that they were 17.5 back when O'Neill was handed the reins.  

This was, interestingly, the third time in his career that O'Neill had taken over a team mid-season and gotten immediate improvement from it.  He led the 1950 Red Sox to a 63-32 record after the great Joe McCarthy was forced to resign, with the team at 31-28, and he led the 1935 Indians to a 36-23 record after Walter Johnson (!) had stumbled to a 46-48 record.  He's one of two managers in history with 1000 or more career wins to his credit whose teams never played below .500 ball on his watch.  The other is, ironically, the great Joe McCarthy.   

Anyway, here is, I think, how Roberts lost the MVP in 1952:

The voting - and my understanding of the reasons for it - was as follows:

#1 Hank Sauer (226 points): Led the league with 37 HR (tied with Ralph Kiner, on the last place Pirates).  Only Gil Hodges (32) was even in the same neighborhood.  Nobody else in the NL hit more than 25 that year.  Also led the NL in RBIs with 121.  Second was Bobby Thompson with 108, only three others had over 100.  Remember the sports writers LOVED RBIs in those days.  He got *8* 1st place votes. This will be important later.   

#2 Robin Roberts (211 points): Had the amazing season noted by Posnanski above.  Led the NL with 8.5 bWAR, tied with Jackie Robinson, who somehow finished 7th.  (Robinson had by then led the NL three of the previous four seasons in bWAR, but nobody knew that at the time, and anyway  the writers tend to want someone new to vote for because it makes for a better story.)  Roberts outclassed all other NL pitchers by nearly two whole bWAR (Warren Spahn was 2nd with 6.6).  Roberts received seven 1st place votes.

#3 Joe Black (208 points), a rookie reliever with the pennant-winning Dodgers.  Went 15-4 with 15 Saves* in 142 IP and led the NL in games finished with 41.  Also won RoY honors.  He, like Sauer, received eight 1st place votes.

  • * The Save Rule was not codified until 1969, and was then applied retroactively, so nobody knew this at the time, but the writers must have been aware of how frequently someone like Black was used to save (lower case) a baseball game.  

#4 Hoyt Wilhelm (133 points), another rookie reliever, this one for the Giants, who finished a close 2nd in the NL pennant race.   They were as close as 3 games back on September 17th but went 4-5 the rest of the way, losing 4 of those games to the Phillies (Two to Roberts!) and finished 4.5 out.  Wilhelm led the NL in games, ERA (2.43 in 159 innings, all in relief), and winning percentage (.833, with his 15-3 record). 

Duke Snider got the other first place vote, though he finished 8th over all.  Nobody on a losing team finished higher than 13th that year.  The writers simply wouldn't vote for players on bad teams, almost ever. 

They would, however, vote for starting pitchers.

In the years before the Cy Young award was instituted, specifically since the sportswriters had been given charge for the decision in 1931 but prior to 1952, starting pitchers had won it nine times, not quite a quarter of the time.  Carl Hubbell and Hal Newhouser had each won it twice.  Bobby Shantz won it in the American League THAT VERY YEAR.  So how did Roberts miss out?  Was it the writers' fault for allowing (gasp!) the ladies' editors to vote Sauer, as Fraley intimated? 


The writers who blamed other writers for electing Sauer were missing the mark, it seems.  Really, it was the writers who voted for relief pitchers who perhaps should have been shamed.

At the time, the relief ace was just becoming a Thing.  Prior to 1950, there had only been two pitchers to appear in 50 or more games and pick up 15 Wins without starting at least five times: Jim Konstanty - who won the 1950 NL MVP for the Whiz Kid Phillies - and someone named Mace Brown of the 1938 Pirates.

Those Pirates were a decent team, finishing in second place at 86-64.  They had a solid pitching staff (3rd in ERA) that lacked stamina (second to last in complete games).  So Brown, who was eminently mediocre (100 ERA+) but apparently perpetually available, vultured off 15 Wins from the starters.  It was more out of necessity than intent that he managed to win so many.  He also lost nine and had a 3.80 ERA.

With Konstanty, it was different.  He was intended to be the relief ace. They pitched him every other game, for a couple of innings, on average, and he led the NL in appearances, games finished and Saves (22), while racking up 16 Wins and pitching 152 innings.  He made the All Star team and won the MVP pretty handily over Stan the Man Musial, picking up 18 first place votes, while nobody else on the ballot got more than two (Granny Hamner and Eddie Stanky).  It was a great story.

So in 1952, when not one but two spectacular rookie relievers came along at the same time, and their two teams finished 1st and 2nd in the NL, with each picking up 15 Wins for them, I guess those guys vultured off a lot of the sportswriters' attention just as they vultured off credit for "Winning" games in which they had pitched two innings while someone else covered the first seven.

And Joe Black, being on the first place Dodgers, got more of the votes than Wilhelm, or, as it would happen, than the preposterously amazing Robin Roberts and his 28 (mostly deserved) victories.  Wilhelm, as a knuckleballer, may also not have been given as much credit as he deserved.  He got zero first place votes for MVP and finished a distant second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Black despite having, on paper, almost exactly the same season.

The MVP voting system follows a curious, top-heavy approach, in which a first place vote is worth 14 points, but second and beyond are worth 9, 8, 7, 6, etc. on down to 10th, worth just one point.  There are three writers for each city with a team assigned to vote, which at the time meant 24 total writers for the eight-team National League.  It's a feature, not a bug, as they want the players writers think are the best to have an advantage over everyone else.

So those eight first place votes that Black received were worth 14*8 = 112 all by themselves. His 96 other points meant that he averaged just six points each from the other writers, or a 5th place vote.  Roberts' seven first place votes netted him 98 points, which meant the average of his remaining voters was 6.65 points, almost a 4th place showing per writer.  But those five extra points for a first place vote are key, and that's where the issue lies.

If three - just three - of the voters who thought that Joe Black was the NL MVP had instead voted for Roberts, he would have gotten at least 15 extra points in the voting and tied Sauer for the award.  And that assumes that the voters who gave Roberts 9 points, for second place, voted for him first instead.  If any one of those who had given him a third place or lower vote changed his mind to recognize the absurdity of voting for Black over Roberts, Roberts would have won the award, as he deserved to do.

Instead, somehow Black received eight first place votes compared to Roberts' seven.  And this for winning slightly more than half the games (15 to 28), striking out slightly more than half as many batters (85 to 148) and walking almost as many (41 compared to 45) despite pitching far less than half of Roberts' innings (142 to 330).  Just bizarre.

Black, you may think, led the league in Games Finished! Which meant he was often on the mound for the deciding moment at the end of a game!  It's the timing, is what it is!

Which is fair...except that Roberts led the NL with 30 COMPLETE games, and also pitched in relief, finishing two other games.  Which means of course that he actually finished 32 games overall, while also starting 30 of those.  There is just no plausible way to suggest that Black was anywhere near as valuable a pitcher as Roberts was in 1952.

On the plus side, according to most sources, Roberts was such a humble and pleasant man that it probably never bothered him nearly as much as it bothers me. 

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30 September 2019

Homer-Prone Kimbrel the Impetus for Maddon's Firing

The Cubs had a really rough second half, largely owing to the ineffectiveness of their closer, Craig Kimbrel, signed to a three year contract in the middle of the season after sitting out the first half.  The Cubs had won 95 games last season, making the playoffs for the fourth straight season (a Cubs record), and much was expected of them this year, from both pundits and fans. 

And things were looking pretty good.  They were tied for first place in the NL Central on June 7th, the day they signed Kimbrel.  He was a big name, with a long track record of success, at least 30 Saves every season back to 2011, with a strikeout rate that never dipped below 13 per 9IP, and an ERA that only once exceeded the 2.74 he put up for the World Champion Red Sox in 2018.  He led his league in Saves four times in a row, winning Rookie of the Year honors in the first of those.  He won a championship with Boston last year, despite some shakiness in the winning of it.

He took a few weeks to make it up to the majors, pitching well in four outings for AAA Iowa before getting called up to the majors and debuting on the 27th of June.  He pitched well there too, but not for long.  He soon began blowing Saves left and right it seemed, taking four losses while compiling an ERA of almost seven. 

Even more alarmingly, he's surrendered nine homers in just 20 innings and change. 

This, it turns out, is fairly unique.  There have only been 14 pitchers in history who have allowed a homer rate of 3.9/9IP or more while pitching at least 20 innings. 

They're an odd bunch, and interestingly, all since the year 2000.  I guess before that anyone giving up homers so often didn't get a chance to pitch 20 innings. 

Six of the 14 were in their first or second major league season.  Five others were in their final or penultimate MLB season.  (Three of them qualify as both, owing to short careers.)  Only three of the 14, other than Kimbrel, have had a modicum of success in the majors after a season like this, though the jury is still out on a few of them.  The details of each are as follows: 

  • Mike Lincoln, age 25 in 2000, had a couple of years of growing pains when he first got to the majors with the Twins, and got released before the Pirates picked him up and helped him figure... something out.  He had a couple of decent years as a useful bullpen cog for a couple of forgettable Bucs teams, compiling 112 innings with a 2.96 ERA at the height of the Steroid Era in 2001-2002.  He struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness for the next half dozen years, with an ERA over 5.5 while pitching just 166.2 innings total over that span.  He was out of baseball in 2010.  
  • Jim Parque, age 27, had been a first round draft pick in 1997 and had won 13 games for the White Sox in 2000, but by 2002 he was still trying - unsuccessfully, it would prove - to regain his prior form after a shoulder injury and surgery had derailed his career.  He surrendered 11 homers in 25 innings of work that year, for an ERA of almost 10, and would pitch only 17 more innings in the major leagues, for the Rays, in 2003.  He was out of organized ball after the 2004 season, and his comeback attempt in 2007 lasted only 11 games with Seattle's AAA team.   
  • Tim Worrell, by 2006, though he had amassed over 950 innings already in 13 previous MLB seasons, he was 38 years old and proving that pro baseball is a young man's game.  His nine homers allowed in 20.1 major league innings showed the Giants that he clearly did not belong in a MLB uniform anymore, and they released him at the end of June.  
  • Anthony Vasquez, well, you could be forgiven if you don't remember him.  He's the only guy on this list who was only in the majors for a single season, which is a little surprising.  He only spent about five weeks in the majors, for a Mariners team that lost 95 games in 2011.  Amazingly, Vasquez was only in seven games, but got the decision in all of them, going 1-6.  That, as it happens, is the most games for any pitcher who has gotten a decision in every game of his career in over 100 years.  He's kicked around the minors and foreign winter leagues ever since, played for five different organizations besides Seattle, but has never gotten the call back up to the big leagues.  
  • Brett Myers had already won 97 games in the majors and compiled 40 Saves from 2002 to 2012, but by 2013 he was apparently toast.  He gave up 10 homers in 21 innings, pitching parts of four games, and was released by the Tribe.  He's been out of baseball ever since.  
  • Kirby Yates was only in his second year in the majors with the Rays, having had a fairly successful rookie year in 2014 (3.75 ERA in 36 IP), but he had one heckuva sophomore slump.  After surrendering 10 homers in a shade over 20 innings that year, the Rays sold him to Cleveland in November, and then they sold him to the Yankees in January, before he had ever thrown a pitch for them.  He was not particularly good for the Yankees either, who waived him in October.  The Angels did the same in 2017 and he went to San Diego, where he has put together three good seasons, gotten promoted to be their closer, and they're now discussing a long term deal.  So good for him.  
  • John Moscot, Dillon Overton and Erik Johnson were all in their mid-20's in 2016 and either in their first or last year in the major leagues.  
    • Moscot, a smart, polished college pitcher from Pepperdine, made his MLB debut at 23 in 2015 but a year later could not keep the ball in the park, surrendering 22 runs in 21 innings, including ten homers, which is a lot, even for a Reds pitcher. He took a couple of years to rehab after Tommy John surgery, and has not pitched professionally since, working for the Reds as a coach or instructor or something.  He is now pitching for and helping to promote Israel's Olympic baseball team, which is pretty cool.    
    • Overton was another polished college pitcher, drafted by Oakland in the second round in 2013 - who worked his way back from a mid-2013 Tommy John surgery and still managed to get batters out despite reduced velocity.  He climbed the A's ladder quickly, earning a call up to the majors just two years after his minor league debut, but was rocked for a dozen homers in just 24 innings of work, and was designated for assignment and traded to Seattle shortly thereafter.  He pitched poorly for Seattle and its minor league affiliates for a couple of years, then got picked up by the Padres.  Still just 26 years old, he pitched well in 2018 (8-2 with a 2.90 ERA in almost 100 innings) but was, alas, accomplishing it all with smoke and mirrors, having fanned just 48 batters in over 80 innings in the PCL.  The decision to use the Titleist-like major league ball for the highest level of the minors in 2019 was disastrous for Overton, who allowed 25 homers in 115 innings, for a 5.46 ERA, though somehow he still managed to go 10-5.   
    • Johnson, another polished college pitcher drafted in the second round, out of Berkley in his case, had impressed enough over the course of his minor league career to keep getting called up to pitch for the White Sox, albeit only for 5 or 6 games a year, every year from 2013 to 2015.  In 2016 he was traded along with Fernando Tatis, Jr. to the Padres for James Shields.*  Anyway, for Johnson, that 2016 season was a doozy, in which he gave up 14 homers in 31 innings and change before blowing out his elbow.  He missed all of 2017 rehabbing after (stop me if you've heard this one...) Tommy John surgery.  He pitched 40 decent innings as a reliever for the Padres' AA and AAA affiliates in 2018, but did not pitch professionally this year.  Interestingly, Johnson is the only one on this list who pitched for more than one team in the season in which he gave up homers at such an alarming rate.  That means the Padres watched him surrender 5 homers in just 11 innings of work in 2016 after allowing 8 in 35 innings in 2015), and decided they wanted him anyway.  They were rewarded by seeing him pitch even worse, and this in the best pitcher's park in the majors.  He surrendered 9 more homers in less than 20 innings for the Padres, and has not thrown a pitch in MLB since.  His Wikipedia page says he's a free agent, which, I guess if you're using that to advertise your services, you may be on the way out.  
* Now there's a trade I imagine the Pale Hose will regret for a long time, though not for the loss of Johnson.  Shields went 16-35 with a 5.31 ERA over three seasons for them and Tatis tore up the minor leagues for a couple years, then leapfrogged AAA entirely and played like a Rookie of the Year candidate before he got hurt in August. 
  • Shawn Kelley had already compiled a record of 19-19 with four Saves and a 3.67 ERA in parts of seven MLB seasons for three different teams by the time 2016 rolled around, which is to say that he'd been decent-but-forgettable.*  He parlayed one good season with San Diego into a three-year deal with the Nationals, and rewarded them with his best season yet in 2016, with a 2.64 ERA and 80 K's in 56 innings, including three Wins and seven Saves.  He was however the pitcher who gave up the two-run triple that Justin Turner hit in the deciding game of the NLDS  against the Dodgers that year, and reportedly had some arm "discomfort" when he was removed from that game, and suffered through various ailments in 2017, which might help explain how that became his worst season.  He compiled a Boeing ERA (7.27) while serving up a dozen homers in just 26 innings of work.  In 2018 he had been pitching pretty well (3.34 ERA in 32.1 innings) but earned the ire of basically everyone in Washington when he threw a temper tantrum after allowing a homer in a game in which the Nats had been leading 25-1 at the end of July.  He was DFA'ed a few days later and the Nats evidently thought so little of him that they traded him to Oakland for International Bonus Slot Money.**  Anyway, he was tried as the closer and setup man for the Rangers this season, and still allows too many homers (12 in 47 innings in 2019) but not like he did two years ago.  

* I, for one, entirely forgot that he pitched for the Yankees for two years, in 2013 and 2014, though in my defense, those were two of the more forgettable Yankees teams in recent memory, the only time they've missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since the Wild Card was implemented in 1994.

**Which isn't even a real thing.  I mean, forget being traded for cash, this is being traded for permission to spend your own cash, something the A's don't actually have in the first place.

  • Andrew Heaney, a first-round draft pick by the Marlins in 2012, was sent to one LA team (the Dodgers in the Dee Gordon trade) in December 2014 and then, five hours later, to the Angels, straight up for Howie Kendrick.  He looked like a legit prospect in 2015 but got hurt and needed (surprise!) Tommy John surgery in 2016, and was not yet particularly effective when he made his comeback in 2017, allowing 12 homers in not quite 22 innings.  He made it all the way back, logging 180 innings of league average work in 2018, including a one-hitter on his birthday, which must have been cool.  He suffered from more injuries this year, logging only 95 innings in the majors, one of many reasons the Angels were not as competitive as they had hoped to be in 2019.   
  • Drew Gagnon is still technically a rookie, having logged only 35 innings for the Mets over parts of the 2018 and 2019 season, but his performance did not exactly inspire much confidence in the Mets' staff or its fans, I would think.  He pitched to a 2.33 ERA, allowing only 12 homers in 89 innings at AAA Syracuse, but then surrendered 11 homers in just 23 innings in the majors.  It's not like was serving them up to just anybody, either.  Other than Odubel Herrera, who hit his only homer of the season off Gagnon (turns out he's better at hitting girlfriends than baseballs...) everyone who homered off him had at least 12 dingers on the year, and the group averaged almost 25 homers for the year, if you include Freddy Freeman twice.  He's not super young, at 29, but is still under team control, for whatever that's worth.  Maybe he'll pan out after some growing pains, or maybe he'll benefit if they go back to using baseballs that don't immediately turn and fly away screaming at the sight of a baseball bat.    
  • Dan Straily is an 8-year veteran, a journeyman who has won 10 or more games in the majors three times, and no doubt the woeful Orioles hoped he would provide some stability in the rotation.  However, after 47 innings, during which he had allowed an AL-leading 22 homers, even Baltimore had seen enough.  He got DFA'ed and then traded to Philly in June where he languished in AAA for the rest of the season.  Only 30, and with a dozen decent starts for Lehigh Valley, he presumably feels like he can still contribute in the majors, but that remains to be seen.
  • And last, but not least, Craig Kimbrel.  😒
Easily the most expensive, highest profile guy with the greatest track record on this list, Kimbrel perhaps just seemed a little rusty when he got called up in late June, but that rust never got scraped off or painted over, and he's a large part of the reason the Cubs are not playing for the Wild Card right now. 

Three of his four losses came against NL Central contenders, one against Milwaukee in July and then two in three days against the Cards in September, leaving the Cubs three games out with seven left to play. Save just those two games and Chicago is still within one game of the Wild Card with a week left in the season. 

Instead, Joe Maddon never used him again.  Unable to trust his bullpen, he tried to stretch Yu Darvish the next day, an ill-advised gamble to say the least.  Darvish had not pitched more than eight innings in a game since June 11th.  Of 2014!  Five years and two long DL stints (including one for Tommy John surgery) ago.  He has only two complete games in his entire career and the other "complete" game was a 4.1 inning rain-shortened affair against the Yankees in July of the same year.  So this was a Bad Idea, and the Cardinals made him pay for it.

Then the Cubs somehow allowed themselves to get swept by the Pirates, who lost 93 games this season.  By the time the Cardinals hosted them and dropped two of three in the season's final series, it no longer mattered.  They finished five games behind the Brewers for the second Wild Card (and two behind the Mets and one behind the Diamondbacks, just to be fair) but perhaps with Kimbrel not turning from one of the premier closers in baseball into a walking dumpster fire in less than a year, they might have made a late push and gotten themselves into the playoffs again. 

And Joe Maddon might not be out of a job. 

The irony there being that Maddon is not the one who signed Kimbrel.  

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25 September 2019

Why Not Use Aroldis Chapman in a Tie Game on the Road???

The 2019 Yankees have lost five games on walk-offs on the road this year, and their best relief pitcher, Aroldis Chapman, has appeared in exactly none of them.

These games were:

1. Yankees Lose 8-7 to Kansas City in the 10th on May 26th

Domingo German had stunk up the joint for five innings, allowing 7 runs, but then Nestor Cortes Jr. inexplicably turned in four scoreless to keep the Yanks in the game while the offense chipped away at the Royals' soft underbelly, the bullpen. To be fair, it turned out that all of the Royals' bellies were soft, since they've now lost 100 games, but this one particularly so. Their collective 5.40 ERA is the 4th worst in MLB.

Jonathan Holder entered this game to start the bottom of the 10th, got a strikeout, but then walked Billy Hamilton, who hit just .211 for the Royals before being released, and is not known for his patience at the plate, having walked on average about once every 14 plate appearances throughout his MLB career. Naturally Hamilton stole second, then scored on a walk-off single by Whit Merrifield.

Why No Chapman???

The Yankees had played a doubleheader the day before, and most of the bullpen had worked, including Jonathan Holder, though he had thrown just nine pitches. Chapman had thrown 21 pitches, but had not pitched at all the day before so he was technically available. We have to presume that Aaron Boone was preserving him to either save the game if they got a lead or for the next day's game.

2. Yankees Lose 4-3 to the Rays in the 9th on July 6th

With CC Sabathia both literally and figuratively on his last legs right now, it's easy to forget that for a while this summer he looked like a pretty darn good pitcher. This outing, his longest of the season (7 IP, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K) fell right in the middle of his best stretch of pitching in a while, four straight Quality Starts, totaling 25 innings and just nine runs allowed. Three of those came against Tampa Bay. (Unfortunately he's 0-4 with a 7.82 ERA since the last game of that streak.)

After Adam Ottavino pitched his typical scoreless inning in the 8th, they gave the ball to Chad Green, who seemed at first like he would continue his excellent streak of scoreless innings (he had not allowed a run in a month), getting Kevin Keirmaier to ground out on the first pitch and then striking out Willy Adamaes looking on four pitches. But then Travis D'Arnaud* came up and hit the first pitch he saw into the seats.
Which made Chad Green a Sad Green. :-(

* D'Arnaud may seem like a fluke, hitting 16 homers this season in part time work, after being released by the Mets and playing just one game with the Dodgers before they decided they had seen enough, but he was once a pretty highly regarded prospect. He was a first round draft pick by the Phillies in 2007, and was used in the package that pried Roy Halladay out of the Blue Jays' hands, and then (along with Noah Syndergaard and others) RA Dickey away from the Mets. Though he'd never done much in the majors, he's hit over .300 at both AA and AAA and has slugged over .500 in AA and over .600 in AAA in parts of several seasons, adding up to about one year's worth of at-bats in each. Its like his career was just waiting for the 2019 Rabbit Ball to happen.
Why No Chapman???
Chapman had thrown 17 pitches in nailing down a Save the night before, and 29 pitches in blowing one the day before that, so he really was unavailable. The Yankees have not used a reliever three nights in a row all season, either because of policy or because their bullpen is so deep that they don't have to, but either way, that was not going to happen.

And Green had been mostly great for the two months before this outing, since returning from a minor league stint (1.99 ERA in 22.2 IP with 34 K and just 2 walks since returning from AAA). Sometimes you throw a 95-mph fastball on the outer half to try to get strike one and the the guy fists it into the opposite field stands. You tip your cap and move on.

3. Yankees Lose 12-11 to the Tigers in the 9th on September 10th

Boone managed this game as though he almost didn’t want to win. Nestor Cortes, Jr., with his 2019 ERA over 5.00, and an ERA of almost 9 in his previous eight outings spanning a month, started and gave up 4 runs (2 earned) in 2+ IP. He now has an ERA of 7.40 since the start of August, surrendering at least one run in 13 of his last 18 appearances, including seven in a row. He's gotta have some pretty incriminating photos of Aaron Boone if he's gonna make the 25-man postseason roster... :-/

Other pitchers who will be able to enjoy October form the comfort of their own couches followed, including Luis Cessa, Cory Gearrin, Jonathan Loaisiga and Ryan Dull (who was released shortly thereafter). Those last three had just joined the team a few weeks before, one after an injury stint, the other two after having been waived by their former teams.

The offense also included a lot of second-stringers. Tyler Wade, Clint Frazier and Mike Ford started. Aaron Judge and D.J. LeMahieu never entered the game, Luke Voit only as a pinch hitter. Though there was only one official Error, a dropped double play ball and other miscues led to five unearned runs, the most the team has given up in a game since April 10th. Of 2018. This was not a typical Yankee game.

When the Yankees tied it up and went ahead, Boone used Ottavino and Britton in the 7th and 8th, but then with the game tied again in the 9th, Boone called not on Chapman or Tommy Kahnle or Chad Green, but on Chance Adams.

Chance. Frikking. Adams.
Adams now has 15 total appearances in his burgeoning MLB career and has given up at least one run in 11 of them. Clearly, this game was not that important to Boone.

Adams struck out Travis Demerritte but then allowed a double to someone named Grayson Grenier, who it turns out is not a character in a 50 Shades... novel but rather a third string catcher who was hitting a buck-seventy-five coming into that game. Willi Castro pinch ran for him and then Jordy Murcer hit a 2-2 pitch to right to walk it off.

Why No Chapman???

No idea. Chapman had not pitched in three days, and only once in the last two weeks. Even if you think the game is meaningless, you'd think you'd want to get your closer some work to help keep him sharp for the playoffs. This was a Tuesday game, and they had one scheduled the next day, though it got rain delayed into a doubleheader on Thursday, they didn't know that would happen at the time. Still, it was the 100+ loss Tigers, and they needed a closer only in one of those two games, it would turn out.

4. Yankees Lose 6-5 To the Blue Jays in the 12th on September 13th

Masahiro Tanaka was not particularly sharp, but he bulldogged his way through five innings and after a 5-run fifth by the Bronx Bombers, went to the showers with a slim lead. The bullpen blueprint was followed to plan, with Kahnle, Ottavino and then Britton, except this time Ottavino suffered from some pretty bad luck in the 7th.

He allowed a single, then a wild pitch allowed the runner to advance, then walked the next batter on a borderline pitch that he felt he should have gotten. You could see it frustrated him. He induced a grounder toward first for an "easy" 3-6-1 double play, but was late covering first and had to settle for a fielder's choice at second, leaving runners on first and third.

Then he balked home the tying run.

He got Vladdy Jr. to fly out, then intentionally walked the next batter and struck out Randall Grichuk to end the inning, but without the lead. Zach Britton pitched a scoreless 8th, followed by two scoreless from Luis Cessa. Then in the 10th, Boone brought in Tyler Lyons, a lefty the Yankees had just picked up less than a month before because he'd been released by the Pirates. If the last-place Pirates couldn't find a use for this guy, it begs the question of what the heck the Yankees want with him, but Boone had him on the roster so he figured he ought to use him, I guess.

Lyons did not disappoint, at first, getting a strikeout, a lineout and a foul pop for a perfect 11th. But then Bo Bichette took him deep on his third pitch of the 12th to end the game. Bichette Happens, right?

Except it didn't have to.

Why No Chapman???
Boone could have taken the scoreless inning from Lyons, thanked his lucky stars, and then brought in his closer to pitch the 12th. Chapman had pitched on previous night, but had thrown only 13 pitches, getting two easy outs against Detroit to nail down a 6-4 win. He was surely available, since that was only the second time he'd pitched all month. Again, tie game on the road and all that, I know, but these are the Blue Jays. Their bullpen is actually decent overall, but they had already used nine pitchers to this point in the game. The good ones were basically gone by now. The remaining five guys in the bullpen who were not tabbed for the starting rotation had a collective ERA of almost 6.00! The Yankees would have gotten to them soon. Alas, we'll never know because Lyons served up that gopher ball instead.

And finally, (I hope)...

5. Yankees Lose to Tampa, 2-1 in the 12th on September 24th

Another 4-hour, 12-inning marathon ends in a walkoff loss with the Yankees' best reliever not even warmed up. Yes, the Yankees have already clinched their division, but they still have home field advantage to play for, which will matter if they have to face Houston again. (Recall that in 2017 both teams won all their home games in that 7-game ALCS.) The Rays are still trying to win a Wild Card. This is not a meaningless game.

But it was managed more like an audition for the playoffs than a meaningful in-season game. Boone used 11 pitchers, only one for more than an inning, Jordan Montgomery who started and went two. Stephen Tarpley allowed a homer in the 5thbut otherwise the Rays were held hitless from the 4th inning on. Cory Gearrin, however, allowed a homer to Ji-Man Choi, suffering his third loss of the season, and giving the Rays a tenuous half-game lead on the Indians for the second Wild Card.

Why No Chapman???

Again, Chapman was surely available. He had not pitched since the 19th, and has pitched just three times this month. The Rays' bullpen is not as thin as Toronto's, but the Yankees have some pretty good hitters, and might have taken advantage of a mistake or two if Boone had not made his own first by allowing Gearrin to pitch in the 12th instead of Chapman.

So, there you have them. Five losses, four of which may have been prevented or at least delayed by using Chapman. Instead, you have losses attributed to Chad Green and four guys that most people who aren't Yankee fans would not even know were on the roster: Chance Adams, Cory Gearrin, Tyler Lyons and Jonathan Holder. The four of them have a combined ERA of 6.35 in 85 innings of work for the Yankees this year, compared to Chapman's 2.28 ERA in 55 innings. They have one more strikeout than Chapman does, 83 to 82, though it took them 30 more innings to get them. They've also allowed 18 homers in those 85 innings, compared to just three for Chapman.

The real concern here is - it has to be - whether Boone will manage such games this way in the postseason. Those teams - who might include Tampa, who has beaten the Yankees twice in this manner - all have better bullpens than the Royals or Tigers or Jays, but they're not unlimited. The Yankees have to be willing to put their best pitcher out there in a tie game in extra innings if it comes to that, or else risk losing the game with a sub-optimal option out there on the mound.

Chapman has pitched in consecutive games 15 times this season, so he's certainly capable of it. But will Boone allow it? Will he live up to it? At least if they beat Chapman, you can stand up tall and say you had your best out there and they just got to him. Yankee fans will never forgive Boone if he ends up blowing the ALCS or the World Series with Jonathan Holder or Cory Gearrin on the mound.

The old adage about not using your Closer in a tie game on the road (because who will then protect the lead if you get one?) seems to me a bit of old wisdom that is frankly not so wise.

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16 September 2019

Talking Tanking: Why Are So Many MLB Teams So Terrible???

In case you were as yet uncertain of the State of Things in Major League Baseball, i.e. whether teams were really tanking in order to try to A) be more competitive in the future, or 2) make more profit in the meantime, I submit the following:

In the entire history of major league baseball, there has, I think, been only one season in which four teams finished with 100 or more losses. That was in 2002, which if you recall, was right in the thick of several MLB owners crying poor all the time and insisting that if the players union did not accept a salary cap immediately, if not sooner, they would need to contract two teams. The Twins and the Expos were most often cited, though also occasionally the then-Florida Marlins, as examples of teams the sport could better do without.

Ironically, none of those teams were the ones that lost 100+ games in 2002. Those teams were in fact: Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Tampa Bay. The last two of those also had their names bandied about as possible contraction options, though not as much as Montreal and Minnesota.

This year, there are already two teams in MLB with 100+ Losses, Detroit and Baltimore, and two more (I know, I know...) on a pace for 100 or more.

The 2019 Miami Marlins, with a baker's dozen worth of games left to play, will face only teams with winning records the rest of the way. They have three games each against Arizona, Washington and Philly, and four against the Mets. Only the games against the Nationals - who currently lead the NL Wild Card race - are at home for them, not that they have much of a home-field advantage, with the third worst home record in MLB.

Believe it or not (Phillies Phans sure do :-/ ) The Marlins actually have winning records against The Diamondbacks and the Phillies, but are a combined 7-24 against the Nats and the Mets. :-( They could reach their 100th loss before payday this week! Unless you get paid on Tuesdays for some odd reason.

The other potential 100-loss team, the Royals, currently sit at 95 losses, with 12 to play, but again they face only winning teams for the last two weeks of the season. They play three at Oakland, who has one of the best at-home records in MLB, then four at Minnesota, who's good at home, but better on the road. Then the Royals host a two-game series (two games??) against the NL East winning Braves, who have the third-best road record in MLB, followed by a season ending three-game set against the Twins...who actually do have the best road record in MLB.

This is, I believe, will be the only time other than 2002 when four teams lose 100 or more, as I mentioned above.

Not that there haven't been a couple of close calls.

In 1985, three teams (out of 26 total) lost 100 or more: the Giants, Indians and Pirates, and the Rangers may very well have joined them had they made up a rain out. They finished 62-99, and could very well have lost their 100th to the Brewers if they'd played all 162 games in their proposed schedule, though the Brew Crew was no slouch in the Losing Games Department that year either, finishing 71-90 themselves.

The Giants and Pirates at the time were in the midst of a couple of down years, but both were about to get really, really good, at least for a while. The Tribe was always a mess in those days, which is hard to imagine now, but they had only one season with a winning record between 1981 and 1994, and even that was just an 84-win season in 1986 before returning to 100-loss form in 1987.

The other close call was 1969, an expansion year with 24 teams in MLB  That year, two teams lost 110(!) games - the expansion Expos and Padres, of course - and two others lost 99 (Cleveland and Philly). Again, with a shortened season, Cleveland missed its chance for 100 L's, finishing 62-99. Philly went 63-99.

So, in short, there has never been a season in which four teams finished with at least 100 losses if they were actually trying to win. It's worth noting that some of the examples of times when it has happened or has come close to happening, come with extenuating circumstances.

In 1969, for example, two of the 99+ loss teams were hamstrung by the slim pickings available from an expansion draft. Given a variety of options, I promise that you would not choose to start off the first Canadian MLB franchise with the likes of Bobby Wine and Gary Sutherland and a 36-year old Maury Wills, quite literally on his last legs (or so he seemed, until he went back to the Dodgers).

Or a San Diego franchise with Jose Arcia and Tommy Dean and what used to be Johnny Podres, whom I'm pretty sure the Padres just picked up because they thought it would be a good marketing ploy or something.

In 2002, the Devil Rays were only in their 5th season, right in the middle of a decade of not just not winning, but losing at least 90 games every season. That team took a while to get its footing. Mostly it took new owners.

The Royals in 2002 had their first 100-loss season in history, but they had been bad for years under the Foundation ownership group that took charge of the team after Ewing Kauffman died in 1993. They would have a winning season in 2003 before sinking even lower into the depths, with three straight 100-loss seasons. Similar to the Astros of a decade ago, those terrible teams helped lay the foundation for the teams that would eventually appear in two World Series, and even win one.

And that's really what this all comes down to. The Marlins, Orioles, Royals and Tigers are essentially cutting everything unessential out, tanking on purpose to try to get better draft picks, and more of them, to win in the future, while still making profits now. They're doing what Houston did a decade ago, and even then some people could see it, as Sports Illustrated famously predicted in 2014 that the 100-loss Astros would win the 2017 World Series.  I can't say it doesn't make business sense, but I can tell you this:

All four of them cannot win the 2022 World Series.

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