26 April 2022


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16 February 2021

Bauer's Powers Questioned

Controversial pitching ace Trevor Bauer signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers last week, which was remarkable on a number of levels:

  • Bauer only secured a three-year deal, whereas most 30-year olds coming off a career year might be inclined to try to broker a deal for much longer. 
  • Bauer had talked about wanting to pitch every 4th day instead of every 5.  With a rotation that also consists of Clayton Kershaw, Walker Bueller, David Price and promising young pitchers in Jose Urias, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, it's hard to imagine the Dodgers skipping one or more of them to give Bauer an extra turn, or otherwise messing with their schedules to satisfy him.  Kerhsaw in particular is supposedly a creature of routine, and presumably has the clout needed to thwart any such plans.  
  • There had also been talk of Bauer wanting to garner distinction as the highest paid player in the game at least for this year, and possibly next.  This deal doesn't quite get him there, but Year 2 could really be a doozy in that regard.  
  • He gets a $10 million signing bonus.  In the first year of the deal he's earning $28 million, and the second will earn him $32 million.  However, his employ for 2022 remains to be seen because...
  • ...he has opt-out clauses after each year.  

There are also caveats about the team deferring his 2021 salary if he opts out after this year, and the buyouts he'd receive if opting out ($2M for 2021, $15M after 2022), so he could effectively earn $85 million for two years' work, or $102M if he sticks around for all three.  

Assuming he does well and enjoys himself in 2021, it's hard to imagine him turning down a guaranteed additional $47 million for one more year's work, but I guess you never know.  I suppose if he's lousy in 2021 he's got even more reason to stay.  

Bauer evidently does not care for long term commitments, stating that he prefers "flexibility" and not being despised by the fanbase when he's still earning huge piles of money even as his skills erode and he turns into a pitching machine in his late 30s.  I'm paraphrasing here. 

Of course, if he's lousy as soon as 2021 or 2022, he'll be plenty despised anyway.  

Was He really That Good???

And make no mistake: There is a chance that he will in fact be lousy in 2021.  Or at least that he'll be mediocre.  That may sound like an odd claim when discussing the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, but stick with me here:

Bauer won the 2020 NL CYA by going 5-4 with an NL-leading 1.73 ERA.  He had 100 K's against only 17 walks in 73 innings pitched.  He led the Senior Circuit in WHIP, Hits/9IP, adjusted ERA (5th best all-time and 3rd best since the Dead Ball Era), shutouts and complete games (2 each).  

If you clicked on the ERA+ link above, then you may have noticed another name on that list: Shane Beiber, former teammate of Bauer's in Cleveland, who won the AL CYA in 2020 and whose adjusted ERA of 281 is 2nd since the Dead Ball Era, behind only Pedro Martinez' amazing Y2K campaign.  

In fact, if you look at that list again, you'll see something very curious: Among the top 21 names/seasons on the list, four of them are from 2020.  Most are all-time greats, though there are a few anomalies, specifically:

  • Tim Keefe in 1880, who holds the top spot despite appearing in only 12 of his team's 83 games and pitching only 105 innings, and 
  • Dutch Leonard, a decent pitcher who seems to have taken full advantage of the fact that a whole bunch of AL hitting talent went to the Federal League in 1914.     

Keefe would eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame, even if he was just getting started in 1880.  The other names are almost exclusively upper-echelon Hall of Famers: Greg Maddux, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Pedro Martinez each appear twice in the top 20, as does Roger Clemens.  Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Pete Alexander, Three-Finger Brown and Keefe each show up once.  Other seasons are ones for the ages, if not by eventual Cooperstown cronies: Doc Gooden in 1985 and Zach Greinke in 2015.  

But then there are the four 2020 seasons, Bauer, Beiber, Dallas Keuchel and Yu Darvish.  Darvish and Keuchel are both fine pitchers - Keuchel won the CYA a few years ago and Darvish is actually the all-time career leader in K/9, in case you didn't know (I didn't) - but neither of them is going to get a plaque in Cooperstown someday.  

For that matter, if you look at the top 50 seasons all time in ERA+, there are five(!) of them from 2020, since Dinelson Lamet also makes the cut, tied at #39 with Greinke's Cy Young year of 2009.  Only four other seasons appear twice on that list, and only one before 2020 appeared three times: That was 1997, when Pedro, The Big Unit and the Rocket all had incredible seasons at the same time.  And we have our suspicions about how the 34-year old Clemens pulled that off...  

Seems odd, right?  We've got stats going back to 1876 - 146 years! - and 5 of the top 50 pitcher-seasons all come from this year?  Are we in some kind of pitching renaissance??  Will we all one day tell our grandchildren how we once saw the great Dinelson Lamet pitch the same year as Trevor Bauer and Dallas Keuchel????  (Well, we didn't really see them, nobody did, since we were all stuck at home all year, but you know...)  

Of course not.  

Welcome to Small Sample Size Theatre! 

These are all, or at least some of them must necessarily be, a mirage of the shortened season.   Just like Keefe's truncated 1880 campaign, which has topped the list ever since there was a list of single-"season" adjusted ERA leaders, many of these appearances are here only because they were not forced to pitch a full season.  Nobody started more than 13 games in 2020.  Bauer started only 11.  It was basically a third of a season, maybe a smidge more.  As good as they are, it can be all but assured that, had they another ~20 starts to make in 2020, Some of those five pitchers would no longer have been on that list of the top 50 ERA+ seasons in MLB history.  Lamet was an unaccomplished prospect working his way back from season-ending surgery.  Keuchel had pitched to a cumulative 3.77 ERA in four years since he won the CYA.  They certainly would have fallen back to the pack if given the chance.  

Might Trevor Bauer have done so too?? 

Coming into 2020 Bauer had, shall we say, a checkered past.  Entering the 2018 season he had a fairly pedestrian 4.36 ERA, equating to a 99 ERA+, in 728 innings across six MLB seasons, including the previous four as a rotation stalwart for Cleveland.  It was a pretty good sample size, indicating that Bauer was a LAIM, but not much more.  

Then in 2018, he seemed to have turned a corner.  He was among the league leaders in Wins, ERA, strikeouts and a bunch of other stats when he got hit by a comebacker off Jose Abreu's bat in mid August and missed a month and change with a stress fracture in his leg.  Upon his return he pitched only 9.1 innings across three games, as the team didn't want to risk reinjuring him since they had basically wrapped up their division in mid-August.  Bauer pitched in relief in three postseason games, giving up three earned runs in four innings, including taking the Loss in the deciding Game 3 of the ALCS against Houston.  (That was a Cleveland home game, so presumably Houston did not get any help from the rubbish receptacles.)     

His 2019 season was more up and down.  He pitched very well in April (5-2, 2.45 ERA) then in May, hmmmnot so much (1-5, 5.50, and also 7 unearned runs) .  He was back to form in June (4-1, 3.06 ERA), was doing OK in July, and despite a few clunkers among his usual quality starts in those two months, was having a decent year.  Coming into his last start in July, he had a 9-7 record and a 3.49 ERA, with 179 K's in 152 innings, including 15 Quality Starts in 23 outings.  Pretty solid numbers, if not the type that win any awards.  

But then, this happened:

And that bit of long-toss over the centerfield fence, as you may know, was the last pitch he would ever throw for Cleveland.  This outburst, not to mention all the times he'd gotten into trouble on social media, and for berating fans who criticized him, gave Cleveland all the excuse it needed to rid itself of him.  The Tribe suspended and then promptly traded him to the Reds (with the Padres) for Franmil Reyes and Yasiel Puig, among others.    

Bauer had a few decent starts for Cincinnati down the stretch in 2019, but overall pitched to an ERA of 6.39 in a Reds uniform that year.  They skipped his last start of the season against the lowly Pirates, who finished with 93 Losses and the 11th worst average runs scored per game.  

2020 Hindsight:

Amazingly, in 2020 Bauer came back and pitched remarkably well, albeit in about a third of a full season.  You would have to assume the law of averages might have brought his ERA back up closer to his career mark in the ~4 range if he'd had the rest of the season to pitch, though it presumably still would have been a good year.  

Additionally, for the pitching he did accomplish, consider his competition.  Remember, in 2020 there really was no "National League" and "American League", not until we got to the playoffs.  The Reds played in the "Central Division" consisting of only the 10 AL & NL Central teams, and 9 of those 10 teams were among the dozen worst offenses in MLB by average Runs Scored/Game, the lone exception being the White Sox (5th best).  

Among those 11 starts, Bauer had:

  • Two against the Cubs, who despite winning the NL Central, had the 11th lowest runs scored average in MLB.  He was 1-1 with 3 runs allowed in 13 innings against Chicago.  
  • Two vs. the Tigers, the 8th worst offense in MLB.  He allowed one run in 13.1 innings and fanned 20.  
  • Three vs. the Brewers, the 4th worst offense in MLB.  He was 2-1 with six runs allowed in 20.1 innings and 32 strikeouts.  
  • One start against the Royals, the 5th worst offense in MLB (7 shutout innings, 9 K's, no balls thrown over the CF fence), and...
  • Two starts against the Pirates who had the worst offense in MLB.  He allowed two earned runs in 12.2 innings with 19K's, though he lost one of those starts due to three unearned runs.  

Alas, he did not get a chance to face his former team in Cleveland, who had the 6th worst run production in MLB last year.  The only start he had in the regular season against a team that could actually hit was against the White Sox in September.  He gave up two runs in seven innings and struck out five, but took the loss because the Reds had the third worst offense* in baseball last year by Runs/Game, and they scored no runs at all against the Pale Hose pitchers, including Keuchel.  

* In terms of batting average, the 2020 Reds were one of the worst hitting teams in MLB history.  The team's collective .212 batting average was the lowest for a "full season" by a team since the Dead Ball Era.  And it gets worse, believe it or not: Because the The Great American Ballpark is a pretty good hitter's park, their overall offense was actually helped by it!  They hit just .204 on the road with a .360 slugging percentage.  They're like a whole team of Mike Zuninos.   

The only teams who even come close to that hitting ineptitude since 1910 are generally expansion/relocation franchises or historical anomalies:

  • In 1963, both the Mets and Colt 45's, recent expansion franchises, hit .220 or worse. 
  • The 1972 Texas Rangers, in their first year as the transplanted Washington Senators (Part II!) collectively hit .217 and had one player with double digit homers: Ted Ford with 14.  The entire AL hit .239 that year and the league owners voted to implement the DH for 1973.  Ted Williams retired permanently from managing.  
  • The 1968 Yankees hit just .214 in the Year of the Pitcher, though they were 5th in the AL in homers so the offense wasn't really as awful as the batting average would suggest.  Mickey Mantle hit .237 that year and then retired.  That roster also contained several players who would eventually find more success as a manager and/or GM than they ever did as a player, specifically Mike Ferarro, Bobby Cox, Dick Howser, Gene Michael, and the father of Ruben Amaro, Jr., but sadly none of them hit a lick that year.  
  • And...ummm...I feel like I'm forgetting somethi...
  • ...Oh! And also the 2020 Rangers, Cubs and Pirates, all of whom hit .220 or worse.  

Again, Small Sample Size Theatre!  31 teams in all of MLB history have hit .220 or worse for the season - only 11 since the dawn of the 20th century - and four of them were this past year!  So did Bauer and the others pitch so well because their competition couldn't hit?  Or was their competition simply overmatched by the incredible talent of Bauer et. al?  Chicken or egg...egg or chicken?  I suspect we won't know until we get to see another full season of baseball this year.  

Anyway, despite their historically anemic offense, by a quirk of the COVID schedule, the Reds managed to make the postseason.  Bauer pitched well in the NLDS, allowing only 2 hits and no runs in 7 innings and change, with 12 K's.  Unfortunately, the Reds lost 1-0 to the Braves in the 13th inning, and then got shut out again the next day, 5-0, becoming the only team in history not to score any runs at all in a postseason series.    

So there are technically two data points from 2020 suggesting that Bauer can succeed against stiffer competition.  

Moreover, before he got hurt in 2018, he had stretches of real brilliance.  His last 11 starts before the Abreu comebacker consisted of a 7-1 record and 93 K's in 72 innings with a 1.62 ERA, numbers very similar to those he put up in 2020, and not very different from the rest of his 2018 season to that point.  He pitched well that year against the Yankees, Astros, Twins, Rangers, Cubs and A's, all teams that could hit, in addition to beating up on the likes of the Royals and Tigers.  

Deeper Down The Numbers Rabbit-Hole...

Bauer's Statcast and batted ball data for 2020 show some interesting things.  He had the lowest line drive percentage of his career (17.8%, compared to 22% for his career) as well as the lowest pull percentage (35.4%, compared to 41.2% for his career).  He also had the highest launch angle (20.9 degrees, well above his 13.4 degree career average) and the lowest ground ball percentage of his career, 0.72, way below his career mark of 1.12, which is odd, as you would think allowing a higher percentage of fly balls would have allowed more runs, not fewer, especially in that ballpark.  His home run rate was right in line with his career marks.   

He had the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate of his career, which makes some sense when you consider that he spent most of his time pitching against teams who couldn't hit.  But more to the point of explaining how all those fly balls and line drives did not turn into runs, his batting average on balls in play (i.e. when he didn't allow a walk, homer or get a K) was a paltry .215, way below both his own career average of .294 and the MLB average of .292.  

That .215 BABiP also happened to be the second best in the majors, behind only fellow "Central Division" opportunist Kenta Maeda, who clocked in at a .208 BABiP.  Any guesses who Maeda faced the most?  That's right: 3x each against Detroit and Cleveland, 2x against Milwaukee and once against Pittsburgh.  He also faced the White Sox twice, allowing 2 earned runs in 5 innings each time.  He finished 2nd in the AL Cy Young voting.  

With Beiber, Bauer, Darvish and Maeda, the #1 and #2 spots in both the AL and NL Cy Young voting all pitched against the same (apparently) impotent competition.  Both Beiber and Darvish had only two of their 12 starts against a team that was not in the bottom ~1/3 of the majors in run scoring, the White Sox, of course.  Darvish allowed only one run in 14 innings, while Beiber allowed 4 runs in 11 total frames, getting a no-decision each time.  

All Ahead Full-Impulse Bauer!

Dodger Stadium is still a pretty forgiving pitcher's park, so it could mask any failings on Bauer's part, at least as regards his pitching.  But if he gets lit up on the road a few times (recall the hitter's parks he'll frequent in Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Houston) will we see the old Bauer's temper tantrums again?  Will the fans hold back their ire in 2022 for a man making $47 million a year if he starts serving up longballs?  Will he blow up at someone on Twitter again, alienate teammates or journalists, or otherwise make himself less than welcome during his tenure?  

Probably.  But if he can keep pitching like he did in 2020, nobody in Dodger Town will mind all that much. And if not, at worst he'll be gone before Joe Biden's term in office is over.  Seems like a pretty good deal for both sides.     


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01 October 2020

Pitching Leaders and MVPs and Cy Youngs for the East, West and Central

 As I mentioned yesterday, the way MLB chose to set up its schedule for 2020 effectively means that there really was no true National League and American League.  Normally it makes sense to have the Yankees competing for a playoff spot with the White Sox and the A's and other Junior Circuit teams because they are all in the same league, and face much of the same competition.  

But with the 2020 rules, teams from the East, Central an West divisions in each league only faced each other and the corresponding division in the other league.    The Giants are sitting home this October and watching the Astros - who had the same record against the same competition - advance a step closer to the World Series.  The Twins had the best record among all the Central teams, and yet found themselves as a #3 seed, playing #6 seed Houston, which had a losing record.  It would be like allowing the 103-win 1954 Yankees to face the 111-win Indians in the World Series because the New York Giants only won 97 games, against a completely separate slate of teams.  

Anyway, the players, too, should be rewarded for leading their competition in whatever statistical categories they did.  Mike Trout, for example, should now have his first home run title to go along with all the other amazing things he's done in his career, since his 17 homers led all players in the West this year.  But alas, Luke Voit hit 22 (against all different teams and pitchers) so it's not to be.  

Anyway, we covered most of that yesterday.  

But what about the pitchers?

You surely already knew about how amazing Shane Beiber was this year, leading the "AL" in all three triple crown categories, Wins, ERA and K's.  As it happens, he led the Central "League" in all three of those as well as both Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) and and Baseball Reference WAR (bWAR).  

Yu Darvish led both the actual NL and the true Central with the same 8 Wins.  Gerrit Cole led the East with 7 Wins, and Marco Gonzales of the Mariners and Zach Davies of the Brewers also both had 7 Win for the year, which led all comers in the West.  

You may have known that Jacob DeGrom had another Cy Young-worthy year, and he indeed led the East in both ERA and strikeouts (but not Wins, because he still pitches for the Mets.)  You may not realize, however, that the leader for the West is not Clayton Kershaw or some big name, perennial superstar, but a relative unknown.  Dinelson Lamet, the Padres' pitcher who compiled a 10-13 record and a 4.37 ERA in parts of the 2017 and 2019 seasons - straddling a year-plus missed due to Tommy John surgery - led the West in ERA and strikeouts, though he went just 3-1.  Heck, even DeGrom won four!  

The Saves leaders were remarkable in that none of them ever led their leagues in Saves before.  Kintzler had been a closer in the past, but had struggled since 2017 while bouncing from the Twins to the Nationals to the Cubs to now the Marlins.  Brad Hand was the closer for the team that won the AL Central, and has been a pretty good closer for a number of years.  Liam Hendricks anchored the A's bullpen as they were the only team in the AL West with a winning record.   

And when you get to b/fWAR, again you see some familiar names: DeGrom, Lamet, Bieber, of course.  But also Zac Gallen, who went just 3-2, but fanned 82 batters in 72 innings with a 2.75 ERA while pitching half his games in the thin, hot air of Arizona.  Antonio Sentzatela ties Gallen for the lead in the West with 2.8 bWAR, which you might not guess from his decent-but-not-extravagant 5-3 record, 3.44 ERA and only 41 strikeouts in 73 innings.  

Hyun Jin Ryu (5-2, 2.69) wasn't just the best starter on the Blue Jays staff, he was practically the only good starter for them until they traded for Taijuan Walker.  And also he led all pitchers in the East in bWAR.  

The Real Awards Winners:

If the annual awards were given based on the players' actual competition instead of their traditional leagues, these are who I think might deserve them:

Cy Youngs:

DeGrom led the East in ERA, K's and fWAR.  Beiber led the Central in the same, plus Wins AND bWAR, and will likely win the actual AL Cy Young Award.  Dinelson Lamet led the West in ERA and K's, as we discussed, plus fWAR. 


Freddie Freeman led the East in Runs scored, bWAR and fWAR.  Bieber deserves all the accolades in the Central, though you couldn't go wrong giving the trophy to one of the Joses, Abreu or Ramirez.  In the west, Mookie Betts was head and shoulders above the rest.   

Rookie Pitchers:

In the East, the Braves' Ian Anderson went 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA in half a dozen starts, which normally would not be enough to garner consideration for an award like this, but this year, that was half the season.  

In the West, Tony Gonsolin made eight starts and had a 2.31 ERA to go with his 2-2 record and 46 strikeouts in as many innings.  

But the real story is Devin Williams, who only pitched 27 innings in relief, but he was amazing in all of them.  He struck out more than half of all the batters he faced - 53 K's out of 100 batters - and had a 0.33 ERA, which is the lowest ERA in a season by a major league pitcher with at least 25 innings under his belt in over 110 years!  (Someone named Earl Moore allowed zero earned runs in 26 innings for the Phillies in 1908.)  

So there you have them, the leaders and awards if life were fair, which it is not.  

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29 September 2020

2020 Playoff Teams and Batting Champs, by Region Instead of Leagues

This was a weird year.  

In an effort to minimize travel, and thereby minimize potential exposure to COVID-19, Major League Baseball implemented an odd, 60-game schedule that allowed teams only to play the other four teams in its own division and the five teams in the corresponding geographical division in the opposite league.  This means, for example, that the Yankees played both the Atlanta Braves and the Miami Marlins, but not the Tigers or the Indians, who are both obviously a lot closer, not to mention in their actual league.   

Additionally, as another concession to the disease and its effects on us all, we have a new, 8-team-per-league postseason format in which the winners from each division and their runners up all make the postseason, plus the two teams with the next best records.  This gives us not one but two teams with losing records (the Brewers and the Astros) who actually have a chance to win the World Series.  

Which sucks.

The decisions on who makes the playoffs are, in themselves, somewhat nonsensical.  Here are the three actual in-practice regional quasi-leagues this season (East, Central and West) and how they stack up against each other.  The teams in bold are the ones going to the actual playoffs.  

You can probably see a couple of things wrong with this picture right away.  Almost everyone from the Central got in (7 of 10 teams), while the Phillies, for example, have almost as good a record as the Astros and Brewers, whom they never played.  If MLB had chosen instead to take, say, six teams from each regional league, and give two teams a bye for the first round or something like that, instead of doing it the way they did, Philly might be in the playoffs right now instead of one of those teams.  Not that they would deserve to be, but still.  

Furthermore, the Giants had the exact same record as the Astros, against the same competition, but did not make the playoffs.  Granted, their head to head records (Houston won two of three) would likely have given the advantage to the Astros anyway, but if MLB had chosen instead to take the best five teams from each region, plus one more to round out the 16  - which probably would have been more fair -  then the Giants would have been in and the Brewers out.  And the Phillies would still be watching the playoffs from their couches, as they should be.  

As it is, in this reality, the teams will all play a three-game series, entirely at the home stadiums of the higher seeded teams in the first round.  Then, if they get past that, they will play the ALDS and NLDS at neutral sites in California and Texas, as shown below.  As a result, we have a playoff picture that is murkier that it has ever been, heading into the first day of competition.  

Another problem with this format is that the seeding was done based on division winners and runners up getting the highest seeds, rather than by best overall record.  So the Twins are a #3 seed, even though they had the best record among the teams against whom they actually competed. They're playing the Astros, who had a losing record, but are seeded above both the White Sox and the Jays, both of which had winning records, because the TrAshtros finished second in the AL West, which was pretty awful outside of Oakland.  

Part of the reason for this format is that the shortened season and limited competition sort of inhibits our ability to tell how good a team is.  Sure, Gerrit Cole seems to be the ace the Yankees signed for a bajillion dollars in the offseason, but he was 5-1 with a 1.69 ERA against teams that did not make the playoffs (Phils, Sawx, O's and Nats), and 2-2 with a 4.10 ERA against teams that did (the Braves, Rays and Jays).  How would he have fared against the A's, or the Twins?  We may never know, especially if the streaky Yankees can't advance past the first round.  

But I was curious to see who would have led their respective "regional leagues", and more important perhaps, who might have "won" the awards if the players were being compared to their regional peers this year instead of to players they never faced until the postseason, or maybe not at all.  I'll look at the position players today and will save the pitchers for tomorrow.

Position Players:

So here are your hitting leaders!  

Luke Voit and DJ LeMahieu would still have their respective crowns, but Tim Anderson and Donovan Solano would also have won batting titles.  

Interestingly, LeMahieu takes the title over Anderson in real life this year, the reverse of 2019, which marks the first time since 1956-57 that the same two players have finished #1 and #2 in the AL batting title race, albeit not in the same order each year.  

At that time it was Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams, and of course Mickey won the Triple Crown in 1956, including his only batting title and the first of his three MVPs.  Williams hit .388 a year later and won the "slash line triple crown" (leading the AL in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) but finished 2nd in the MVP coting for the 4th time, each time losing to a Yankee (twice to DiMaggio, once to Mantle and once to Joe Gordon).  

Good times!  Anyway, back to 2020...

Manny Machado would have led the West in RBIs!  Mike Trout in homers!  In the Central, Jose Abreu would have two of the three triple crown pillars all to himself, instead of the just the AL RBI crown.  

Donovan Solano seems to have followed the Gio Urshela path to becoming a major league regular.  Both were signed as amateur free agents as teenagers from Colombia.  Both bounced around multiple organizations for many years, primarily as a glove-first backup infielder.  And both somehow just learned how to hit in their late 20s.  Urshela famously filled in for the injured Miguel Andujar, and has hit .314 with 27 homers in 650 plate appearances the last two seasons, while remaining a plus defender at the hot corner.  Solano, meanwhile, has hit .328 with 28 doubles and 7 homers in over 400 at-bats the last two seasons, and by rights should now have a batting title to his credit.  

Jonathan Villar is also an interesting case: He was traded from the Marlins to the Blue Jays for a PTBNL in mid-season, and stole a total of 16 bases.  (The Jays sent Griffin Conine to Miami to complete the trade, apparently having decided that having four sons of former MLB or international baseball stars on their roster was enough.)  On paper it looks like Villar amassed fewer than 10 steals each in the AL and the NL, but in reality, he stole more bases than anybody he played against in the eastern "League".  His 16 steals were one more than Trevor Story had, and yet Story has some black ink on his ledger, for leading the Senior Circuit, whereas Villar does not get credit for the second time he led his competition in steals (he had 62 in 2016 with Milwaukee, which easily led the NL).        

I have also listed the Wins Above Replacement leaders from both Baseball Reference (bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR) as well as the position players who I thought might be considered the Rookie of the Year for each region.  In this case, the bWAR and fWAR in two of the three regions both agree on Freeman and Betts.  Mookie Betts leads both WAR types, both in the NL and in the "west" thanks largely to his stellar defense in addition to his excellent hitting and base running skills.  Despite not leading the West in any of the individual stats (he hit .292 with 16 HR and 10 steals), he appears to have been the best overall player, in his or any division or league.   

As for the Central, if the BBWAA were deciding they would probably give it to Abreu, who led middle America in both homers and RBI.  But Jose Ramirez essentially carried the entire Cleveland offense, and played stellar defense at the hot corner to boot (or, you know, not to boot, which is what you're trying to do when you play third base), so I might give the MVP to him if I had the chance.  

And Now for the Rookies...

EAST: Alec Bohm did not play the whole year but when the Phillies called him up, he hit .338 in 44 games with gap power (11 doubles, 4 HR) and didn't totally embarrass himself on defense.  Only one MLB rookie with at least 160 at-bats has hit better than that in a season since Ichiro burst on the scene hitting and AL leading .350 in 2001.  (Trea Turner hit .342 in 307 at-bats in 2016.)  Maybe if the Phillies can upgrade some of that dumpster fire of a bullpen of theirs, they'll have something to build on next season.  OK, probably not.  

CENTRAL: Luis Robert hit just .233, but keep in mind that the major leagues as a whole hit just .245, the lowest mark since 1972 (.244), which was so terrible that half of the owners voted to implement the DH and old people have been whining about it ever since.  Also keep in mind that Robert hit 11 homers and 8 doubles, stole 9 of 11 bases in just 202 at-bats, and played stellar defense in center field.  Extrapolate that out to a full season and you're talking about a Gold Glove rookie knocking on the door of the 30-30 club.  

WEST: Kyle Lewis is another rookie centerfielder, albeit not as good defensively as Robert.  He also hit 11 homers, and hit .268 and took a walk more than once every other game, giving him the best OBP among rookies in the AL.  

Tomorrow I'll look at the pitchers and see who I think should win the MVP and Cy Young awards for each region.   

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27 September 2020

The 2020 Yankees: So Streaky, Even Facing the Twins May Not Save Them...

People sometimes talk about a team being "consistently inconsistent," meaning that they never seem to string together a winning (or losing) streak of more than a few games.

The 2020 Yankees are, I think, better described as "inconsistently consistent," i.e. that they seem consistent for a while, and just when you think you know who they are, they do a 180.  

Here is a schematic of their season results:

Green markers, above the reference line, are Wins, and red ones are Losses, with the margin of victory (or defeat) indicated by the size. The bar is capped at 10 runs, so the Yankees' 20-6 win against the Jays looks just like their 13-2 win the next night and their 12-1 win earlier this week.  

You can see the problem.
  • They won 8 of their first 9.
  • Then they lost 5 of the next 7. 
  • Then they won six in a row.  
  • Then they lost seven in a row.  
  • Then they won 4 out of 5. 
  • Then they lost 7 of 8.  
  • Then they rattled off 10 straight wins(!), which included sweeping Toronto, outscoring them 43-15 in a 3-game set, and setting a new record with 19 homers in a series. 
  • And now they've lost five of their last six, despite having most of the team back and ostensibly healthy.  

Somehow, despite finally enjoying the presence of Gleyber Torres, and Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton, and Urshela and LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks - all players who have spent some time on the injured list this season, some more on it than off - the Yankees still have not been able to stave off either the Blue Jays or the Marlins.

The Jays, despite being four games over .500, have actually been outscored a little this season (292-303). Similarly, the Marlins are two games over .500 but have actually been outscored a LOT this season (254-293). Two teams that not only shouldn't come close to making the playoffs in a "normal" year, but probably shouldn't even have winning records this year, have both clinched a playoff berth at the Yankees' expense in two consecutive nights.  It was hard to watch.

I dunno what any of this means, but I find it interesting, and a little disconcerting heading into the playoffs. How can a team that can't even beat the Marlins, let alone the Tampa Bay Rays, an actual good team, win a championship? 

I mean, obviously the Dodgers would have to be the favorite, but the Dodgers have notoriously choked in several postseasons since their last World Series win in 1988, and especially with the bizarre way the playoffs are set up this year, you would have to think it's anybody's game.  

As things stand now, the Yankees could face the Twins in the first round*, which under normal circumstances would be a guaranteed win. For one thing, the Twins have not won a playoff game since 2004, which was three presidents ago. It was so long that Destiny's Child was still together. So long that the iPhone was still almost three years away. So long ago that Hilary Duff was the most searched name on AOL. Also, AOL was still important.   

*Sorry, I wrote most of this before the final couple of games of the season, and it now looks like the Yankees will have to face the Indians in the first round.  So, take the rest of this post for what you will.  Maybe the Twins will somehow beat the Astros and the Yankees can face them in the ALDS or something.  

Second, in case you hadn't heard, the Yankees have owned the Twins for the better part of the last two decades. The Yankees are an astonishing 119-39* against Minnesota since 2002, including 16-2 in the playoffs, spanning five different series and a Wild Card game. They have won more than 75% of their games against the Twins, which is the best record any team has against anybody over that span, and might be the best record any team has ever had against another team over so long a time. To be fair, the Yankees and Twins have not played each other this year because of the weird COVID rules, so it's hard to know how they match up in 2020. But still.  Winning more than 3 out of every four contests for 18 years???

 How dominant is that? Here are two comparisons:

1. The 1936-53 Yankees vs. Browns 

Back in the so-called Golden Age of Baseball (really just the Golden Age of New York, specifically New York Yankee, Baseball), the St. Louis Browns were a perennial doormat in the Junior Circuit. During their last 18 years in St. Louis, they won barely 40% of their games overall, and that includes three winning seasons, so you can surely imagine how awful they usually were in the other ones. They were so terrible that the owners thought they could make more money in Baltimore, which had not had a franchise since 1902. They lost 100+ games five times and 90+ games six other times. 

Sure, they went to a World Series in 1944, but that was still during WWII, when a lot of the best players were wearing olive and khaki uniforms instead of pinstripes or gray flannels. That team only won 89 games in the regular season, and had only two players with double digit homers, one who hit .300, and one with 100 RBIs.  

Other than Vern Stephens at shortstop, the lineup was pretty forgettable, as was the pitching staff.  About half of the players were out of MLB by 1945 or '46, pushed out by the players returning from military service. Many had never been in MLB before the War, or had only come out of retirement when younger, healthier and better players were conscripted to fight the Nazis. 

In 1945, the Browns were so desperate they tried a one-armed outfielder named Pete Gray.  Later, with Bill Veeck at the helm, they hired a midget for one game, as a promotional stunt, to try to boost attendance. They once played a game with the fans giving managerial advice via placards that were handed out at the gate, and they brought 45-year old Satchel Paige out of retirement.  All of that happened in 1951.  Within about a month.  They were bad. 

Small in stature...but also in attendance. And winning percentage. 

Meanwhile, in that same 18-year span (1936-1953) the Yankees won 13 AL pennants and a dozen World Series. They developed eleven future Hall of Famers, not to mention many other stars.  They had a winning record every year, and finished lower than third just once, in 1945, when the likes of Tuck Stainback  and Mike Garback manned CF and catcher instead of Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra, who were in the service.  But otherwise, they were a perennial juggernaut, and a regular winner.  

Imagine almost two decades in which the same team won, on average, two out of every three World Series. That's baseball (Suzyn) in the "Golden Age". 

Anyway, those Yankee teams faced the lowly Browns 22 or 23 times per season - there were only eight teams in the AL at the time - and regularly trounced them, amassing a 272-124 (68.7%) record against them in that time. And even that winning percentage is well shy of how dominant the Yankees of the 21st century have been against Minnesota - which has actually had some pretty good teams - since 2002. 

B. The 1998 & 1927 Yankees vs. The Field

Or, to look at it another way, the 1998 Yankees, widely considered one of the greatest baseball teams of all time, went 114-48 in the regular season and 11-2 in the playoffs, winning the first of three straight championships. If there is another claimant to the title of Greatest MLB Team ever, it is perhaps the Yankees' 1927 Murderers Row squad, who went 111-44 in the regular season and then swept the Pirates, 4-0, in the World Series. And even those teams "only" won 71.4% and 72.8% of their games, respectively, including their postseason heroics.

The Twins are at the bottom of the pile, obviously.

The Yankees' winning percentage against the Twins since 2002 (75.3%) would equate to a 122-Win regular season team, which no team in history has come close to achieving. So the 2002-2019 Yankees have actually been better against the Twins than either the 1927 Yankees or the 1998 Yankees were against, well, everybody.  

Of course, this Yankees team is neither those.  The 1927 team famously used only 25 players on its roster the entire season.  Literally nobody got hurt, ever, whereas these 2020 Yankees can't seem to stay of the injured list for more than a week.  The 1998 Yankees lost more than three in a row only once all season (they had a 4-game streak in August), and only lost three in a row three times all year.  

But this 2020 team' propensity for being maddeningly unlike, well, itself from one week to the next could spell doom for them in the playoffs.  They'll likely be on the road against the Twins for that 3-game series, were they have only a 11-18 record (compared to 21-8 at home).  Moreover, the Twins are 23-6 at home this season, so this could be the year the curse of Tom Kelly (??) is finally broken.  

Or, the fact that the Yankees have been pretty terrible this week might indicate that they're ready to go on a tear, and sweep through the early rounds of the playoffs.  It's anybody's guess.  That's why they play the games.  


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18 August 2020

Tatis' Grand Slam, and Writing about Unwritten Rules


I dunno if y'all heard about this one, but Fernando Tatis hit two homers! The second one when his team was already leading by quite a little piece! A lot of people were really upset about this, apparently. Fernando Tatis owes the pitcher an apology! The nerve! Hitting a grand slam - his second homer of the game! - when his team already had a significant lead! How *dare* he??

Oh, wait, No, not last night.

*This* game, from 1999.

In that game, Fernando Tatis SENIOR hit two homers, actually two grand slams, IN THE SAME INNING, both off Chan Ho Park of the Dodgers. In Sr.'s case, they had a 7-2 lead in the third inning - due largely to his first grand slam of the inning - and would go on to win 12-5.

Actually, now that I think of it, nobody told him he should have laid down and coasted after that first homer. MLB actually celebrates it! Someone writes a story and shows the video every year on the anniversary. Sure, it was a smaller lead, earlier in the game, and he swung at a 3-2 pitch (his first one came on a 2-0 pitch), but still. The parallel is there at some level.

OK, it's weak, I admit, but I'm trying to make a point here:

Fernando Tatis The First had easily his best season in 1999. In January, his son was born, which was probably pretty exciting. After floundering with the Rangers for a couple of seasons, he'd been traded to the Cardinals at the deadline in 1998 and played well enough down the stretch and in spring training in 1999 to win the starting 3B job outright.  

He rewarded the team by hitting homers in each of his first three games that year, and he continued to hit. The two-grand-slam game was bracketed by games with homers before and after, and by early May his average was over .300, and he was on a 66-homer, 192 RBI pace. Obviously he cooled down after that, but overall, he would hit .298 with 34 homers, 104 Runs and 107 RBI as a 24-year old. He even stole 21 bases and walked 82 times!

All would turn out to be career highs, as he was never fully healthy again. Sad face.

He played only parts of the next four seasons, hitting just 37 homers *total* from 2000 to 2003, then missed two whole years, then played a few games with the 4th place Orioles in 2006, then missed all of 2007, and then caught on as a part timer with some forgettable Mets teams (...or anyway I had forgotten them.) in the late 2000s. He won the dreaded Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year award in 2008, but even at that, he hit 11 homers in 92 games and was already 33 years old. His star had passed.

In short, Fernando Tatis The Younger should hit 'em while he can. Life is too short. Baseball careers are too short. For every Ken Griffey or Barry Bonds, a good player whose son would turn out to be one of the all-time greats, there are probably a dozen Tim Raines Jrs and Josh Barfields and Sean Burroughs and Kyle Drabeks who never make much of a mark in the majors, despite the accomplishments of their parents.  Tatis and Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette all look like wonderful young players, the future of MLB. All three have already spend time on the injured list. Anything can happen.

The real problem with these unwritten rules comes out in the quote from Rangers' manager Chris Woodward: 

“I think there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game. I didn’t like it, personally. You’re up by seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game.”

Except we were not all raised that way.  Apparently in Woodward's home territory in Southern California, and for that matter in Padres' manager Jayce Tingler's original stomping grounds in Missouri, maybe kids are raised not to ever swing at a 3-0 pitch. Even when it looks like a meatball and you've got the bases loaded. Or not to try to hit homers when your team is already winning by several runs.  

Kids in Latin America aren't raised that way. Those cultures tend to be a little less stuffy, a little less concerned about showing each other up. People get that it's a game, and that they're playing ball for a living, and that it's OK to find that exciting. The alternative for so many of them is destitute poverty, so why not get a little psyched if you've found a way out of that??

But suburban American white kids often have it drilled into their heads that they should be calm and dignified and that they should not show up the opposition and that they should "act like they've been there before" even if they haven't. You hit your homer and keep your head down and trot around the bases - not too slow, not too fast - or he'll drill you (or worse yet, your teammate) in retaliation.

Well, Tatis hasn't been there before, and he wasn't "raised in the game" that way. (Plus, apparently he missed the "take" sign. :-/ ) He's 21, and he'd never hit a grand slam in the majors before. He'd never homered on a 3-0 pitch before. When you're that young, it's all new, and when you're that talented, you should be allowed to explore the depths of that talent.

Not for his sake, or anyway not just for his sake, but for ours. The fans. We're the whole reason he's here, he has this job to entertain us. And we want some damn excitement once in a while! This friggin' pandemic is hard enough on all of us without having to suffer through watching a talented youngster take a get-me-over fastball down the pipe on 3-0 with the bases loaded. Take a chance and enjoy it while you can! 

And let us enjoy it a little too.

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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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