ESPN Releases its Top 100 Players in MLB

ESPN recently came out with its top 100 players going into the 2015 season. To accomplish this ranking, ESPN assembled a panel of 60 “experts” consisting of “writers, analysts, and contributors”. Players expected to miss the season due to injury were excluded. Contracts were ignored as well. The ranking was simply determined by expected 2015 performance.

I generally have zero interest in such things. Ranking players, power ranking teams, and just lists in general serve no purpose. It’s just clickbait intended to garner attention and get fans talking about it by getting fired up and arguing over it, as if such rankings carried any weight whatsoever. I don’t need anybody to rank players for me. Thanks to, I can watch them whenever I want, and thanks to Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, I can look up any stats that I want. Getting input from others is helpful, but in this day age comparing players to one another is not something for which you need to rely on others. Team power rankings are even worse. I just don’t get it. The only way to do that well is to go into depth on each team that you ranked in order to show why they’re ranked where they are. Nobody does that because, you know, that would be work. Even if they did, it’d probably be too long for anybody to want to read. Why work hard to get clicks when you can just throw out a top 10 list with little to no explanation given and still get clicks1?

I cannot for the life of me understand why people get so worked up about these rankings. Reasonable people can disagree on certain players. As for the unreasonable people, the people who unfortunately are most likely to complain in the comment section or social media, who cares what they think anyway? For those of you who get upset over disagreeable power rankings, you know MLB isn’t the BCS, right? Forgive me for stating something so blatantly obvious, but at the end of the season the teams that win the most will get into the playoffs. Things like run differential, strength of schedule, margins of victory, and people’s opinions have no weight on who gets into the post-season.

The one exception to all of this are prospect rankings. It is not possible for fans to evaluate and compare prospects. Even if you get out frequently to amateur and minor league games, it’s still unlikely that you’re seeing every legitimate prospect in the country. Most importantly, your average fan is not a trained, experienced talent evaluator. We need media scouts in order to inform us on who’s who in the prospect world, how they project, and they compare to each other.

Please don’t reward writer laziness by clicking on these rankings. The link I provided at the beginning of this post uses a free service from a website called Do Not Link. You can use it in order to provide a link to a site without giving it credit for the click.

So how did I come to this particular ranking when I hate rankings? I came across this article by David Schoenfield stating that the BBTN 100 overrated relievers. I was intrigued, so I clicked. Schoenfield continues to demonstrate that he has a firm grasp on modern baseball analysis. It was good content, but I was horrified by how highly relievers were rated on the list. The relief pitchers who made the list are the best relievers in baseball, but as I’ve said time and time again, even the best relievers just cannot compare to starting pitchers and position players. They just don’t get enough playing time. Dellin Betances led all relievers in Fangraphs WAR in 2014 with 3.1 WAR. That elite relief he provided was the equivalent of a full season of an above average position player. Among all players in baseball, his 3.1 WAR ranked 100.

Craig Kimbrel was the highest rated reliever on the list at #26. He rated one spot ahead of Carlos Gómez. I am not making this up. This panel would rather have 70 elite innings of pitching instead of a full season of an 80 defender in center field who has had a 130 wRC+ the last two seasons and who is projected to keep that going. Not even Dave Stewart nor Ruben Amaro Jr. would rather have Kimbrel over Gómez.

Schoenfield did an excellent job of breaking all this down, so I won’t steal his thunder, and I urge you to read what he wrote. If I were to do my own top 100 list, I can’t imagine that any reliever would be on it. Again, they just don’t pitch enough innings. Furthermore, their performances tend to be quite volatile from year to year, so making a prediction on their 2015 performance could be quite risky. Keep in mind that if any of these elite relievers were really that good, they’d be starters. Remember what Wade Davis was like as a starting pitcher? He had a whopping 5.92 RA9 in 2013 as a starter! That was with that Royals defense behind him, too! As a reliever, he was a world-destroyer with a 1.00 RA9 (though admittedly he has no chance of sustaining that in 2015).

Finally, when you’re in what can be described as the third dead-ball era, that diminishes the value of relief pitching even further. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still important, just not as much as when scoring was higher.

Dan Szymborski, inventor of the ZiPS projection system, also wrote up a criticism of the ESPN Top 100. He, too, also criticized the overrating of closers, though not as in-depth as Schoenfield2. If you look at a few of the players whose ranking he objected with, you’d find that the list also underrates defense. Carlos Gómez, Josh Donaldson, and Manny Machado, who are three of the best defenders in the game, are all underrated. Those who work in the media continue to underrate the value of defense. Since it is difficult to quantify, its impact is hard to perceive. We now know that even though it will never compare to the impact of a big bat, we know how much value defense has. We’ve known for a long time. It’s tough to take somebody seriously as a baseball expert who doesn’t understand this.

It would be easy for me to rip the baseball minds at ESPN who put this list together, but I don’t think that’s completely fair. For one, I feel bad doing so because even though the network has its share of sub-par analysts, I find them all to be nice, humble people. Regardless, the problem with the list is that we have no idea who contributed to it and why they made their choices. I’m not accusing anybody of mailing it in, but think about this: If you were tasked to the same thing anonymously without having to explain your reasoning at all, how much effort would you put in to it? How much effort would most people put in to it?

The whole list is just attention seeking clickbait. Before you say that I’m a hypocrite for complaining about a list when I disapproved of doing so, my point isn’t that Player X is overrated or underrated. My point is twofold: First, lists and rankings that don’t do an adequate job of explaining how they were constructed are pointless. If you go back and check out the ESPN ranking that I linked to in the beginning of this post, you’ll see that not one word was written about the choices. The only thing that is provided is a video clip that is 2:26 long and only discusses the top 10. What on earth are fans supposed to learn from this? Why read anything if you can’t learn something from it?

As to my second point, the media continues to overvalue closers and undervalue defense. To them, the plays that are most exciting are the ones that are perceived to have the most value. It’s really just one big appeal to emotion. However, we’ve known better for a long time. The defense alone of an elite defender can be of equal value to that of an elite closer. Those who continue to fail to understand how to properly value relief pitching and defense really need to get with the times.

At the end of the day, if you find this kind of content enjoyable, then fine. I really don’t want to tell people what they should and should not enjoy. Just understand what it is and, most importantly, don’t take it too seriously.

  1. Grantland’s Jonah Keri has a weekly column called “The 30” where he ranks all the teams in baseball. The thing is that it’s really just a framework for him to go into depth on three or four teams. It’s good stuff. 
  2. When Szymborki’s article first went up, I checked out the comments against my better judgement. I found two large comments by my first ever troll! She inspired this post by claiming there is no such thing as small sample size because she believes that math is an opinion! I’ve seen her once on Hardball Talk, too. Apparently she has nothing better to do with her time than to troll smart baseball writers with terrible arguments. Szymborki mentioned WAR in passing, so according to the commenter that means that’s all the article was about and decided to write a few hundred words about the subject across two comments. It’s not unlike my mentioning WAR in passing in a post that had nothing to do with the construct that also incurred her wrath. I didn’t read the comments on Szymborki’s article because I didn’t want my brain to melt, but apparently they have now been deleted! Which is hilarious! She just won’t rest until the whole world knows that Miguel Cabrera is the greatest player who ever lived! Can somebody try writing an article that doesn’t mention WAR at all but mentions an actual historic war and see if the commenter pops up? I wonder if she has ripped WAR on some history blogs about the Civil War or something. 
Baseball Reactions: Josh Harrison and Juan Lagares Extensions, Nelson Cruz’s Hot Start

Baseball Reactions: Josh Harrison and Juan Lagares Extensions, Nelson Cruz’s Hot Start

As I mentioned in my last post, baseball writing tends to suffer a dip in quality during the first couple of months of the season as a result of writers overreacting and trying to find meaning in small sample sizes. Of course, that doesn’t mean that good baseball writing can’t be done before June. Like Joe Sheehan mentioned in a recent newsletter, one thing that is fair game for analysis is usage patterns. I’d also like to add that roster and lineup construction are also fair game. Here, I’ll cover a couple of extensions and why Nelson Cruz won’t continue on his torrid pace.

Josh Harrison Signs Extension

The Pittsburgh Pirates recently signed Josh Harrison to a 4-year, $27.3 million extension that covers this season through 2018 with a team option for 2019.

My initial reaction when I first heard about this was to balk at it. It appeared to be an overreaction to Harrison’s outstanding 2014. Last season, he hit .315/.347/.490, good for a 137 wRC+ and 5.3 WAR. He’s also a good defender or better at multiple positions. It was a huge, breakout season for him. The problem is that, while he will certainly continue to excel in the field, his offense was the product of a grossly unsustainable .353 BABIP. In the three seasons prior, he was never even a league average hitter, and he only played more than 100 games once. On the surface, his 2014 looked like a complete fluke. However, I knew that the Pirates are smart organization with a terrific analytics department, so I decided to dig a little deeper to see if I had missed anything. I did.

I checked out Harrison’s batted ball data and found something interesting. In 2014, he increased his LD% by ~5% and decreased his GB% by ~6% compared to his career rates. That would explain the boost in hitting. In other words, his BABIP is still unsustainable, but not nearly to the degree that I had originally thought. Hitting more line drives and less ground balls will lead to a naturally higher BABIP compared to the league average. Harrison also increased his his walk rate to 4.0%, which is A.J Pierzynski bad, but still better than his career 2.6 BB% going into last season. Unfortunately, that also came with a 2.4% increase in his strikeout rate compared to that of his career. He was clearly being more aggressive at the plate, as evidenced by his lower contact rates and higher swinging strikes rates. He was always a free swinger, to be sure, but last season more than ever.

Harrison clearly made some adjustments going into 2014. Obviously he decided to be more aggressive at the plate, and he might have made some mechanical adjustments, although I don’t know for sure. While it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that his BABIP wasn’t a complete fluke, just how much of it is the result of his speed and tendency to hit the ball hard?

I did a little research and found a fascinating answer. A newer stat that I only heard about last year holds some interesting insights. A stat called xBABIP has apparently been around for a few years, and has been undergoing further refinements and improvements since its introduction. It’s more predictive than BABIP because it uses batted ball data to estimate what a player’s BABIP should be. Of course it’s more complicated than just that. Click on the link above or here for more information.

According to a Fangraphs article that was written last year, Harrison’s xBABIP number states that his 2014 BABIP was not a fluke. Of course, sample size caveats apply, as a single season’s worth of balls put into play is a small sample. It’s reasonable to conclude that Harrison will still regress, but not nearly to the degree that it looks like on the surface.

When I first saw Harrison’s ZiPS projections before the season started, I thought they were optimistic. It valued him as a 3 WAR player, and evaluating him as a true-talent above-average player seemed optimistic. Well, after doing the work, I can see why ZiPS arrived at that projection. That’s why you should trust the projections.

I have to hand it to the analytically savvy Pirates. They called this one. A ~$6.8 million AAV for an above-average hitter who is a plus defender at 3rd base and can play multiple positions is a good value.

Juan Lagares Signs Extension

I don’t know if I love Lagares’ extension more as an analyst or a Mets fan. A 4-year, $23 million extension with a team option for 2020 is a very team-friendly deal for what Lagares has to offer.

Last season Lagares finally answered the question regarding whether or not he can hit enough to back up his monster defense. In fact, you can argue that he answered that question in 2013. I say that because his defense is truly phenomenal. He is a legit 80 defender in center field, and I doubt you’d find a scout that would say otherwise. When you’re that good of a defender at an up-the-middle position, the offensive bar is extremely low. In 2013, Lagares hit a paltry .242/.281/.352, which is worth only a 76 wRC+. Thanks to his defense, though, he was still a 3.5 WAR player that year!

If Lagares hadn’t improved his offense at all in 2014, I still would’ve approved of this extension. His defense alone is worth TWICE what they’re paying him. That’s not hyperbole, I’m serious. His defense is just that good and it’s a $5.75 million AAV. The fact of the matter is that last season Lagares improved his offense enough to be a league average hitter. However, that was achieved in part by a .341 BABIP. For now, ZiPS doesn’t believe that his true BABIP is that much lower than that and is projecting a .324 BABIP and an 85 wRC+ for 2015. That’s plenty of offense for the elite fielding he’ll provide.

If the Mets believe that Lagares is going to be a league average hitter, then they’re going to be disappointed. Fortunately for them, though, Lagares as he is now will return a tremendous amount of value for the Mets. Remember, also, that defense doesn’t slump. It’s the one thing you can count on in the random, chaotic game of baseball.

Oh, and as to my first statement, who am I kidding? I definitely love the extension more as a Mets fan.

Nelson Cruz Off to Another Hot Start

Really, it’s been a hot one week. Through his first five games, Cruz hit .200/.200/.350 with only 1 HR and no walks. Then he turned into a destroyer of worlds. Since the weak start, he has hit .464/.531/1.214 with 7 HR. That brought his current season line to .354/.404/.854 with 8 HR. He currently leads the league in home runs and slugging. He has already accumulated 1.1 WAR, which is really impressive when you remember that he’s a poor defender in right field1.

I hope that it’s obvious that I’m only bringing this up to show how unsustainable it is. Waving it all away with small sample size (SSS) is enough to defend that argument. If that’s not good enough for you, I would love to hear why you think that Cruz will continue to be 2001 Barry Bonds2, especially in spacious Safeco Field. Anyway, even though SSS is good enough, I’ll strengthen the argument even further.

Last season, Nelson also enjoyed a great start where he was significantly outperforming his true talent level through the first two months of the season. His .313/.379/.662 line with 19 HR through May was a function of a .324 BABIP and 27.9 % HR/FB. From the rest of the season on, he hit .249/.308/.451. In other words, he turned back into Nelson Cruz.

His hot start to this season is really just one awesome week, and in baseball anybody can have an awesome week. During this Bondsian week of his, he’s had a .429 BABIP and 53.8% HR/FB. I cannot put into words how grossly and ludicrously unsustainable that is. Do you really think over half of his fly balls are going to continue going over the fence? Do you really think the man with a career .299 BABIP is going to continue with a .429 BABIP? Crazy stuff like that is commonplace when you’re talking about minuscule sample sizes of one week. Also, the list of the pitchers off whom Cruz has homered can be found here. There are three lefties on that list and Brandon McCarthy was having a strange night when he gave up 2 HR to Cruz3.

Make no mistake about it, though, that Cruz has been a tremendous help to the Seattle Mariners so far. They may only be 5-7, but if not for Cruz’s performance they’d probably have one or two less wins. He’s already added 1 WAR to his preseason projections. While I still don’t like the signing for the Mariners, (remember that he’s 34 and signed to four years) if he turns back into Nelson Cruz today, he will have returned good value for the team. For this season, anyway.

  1. He already has a -3 DRS
  2. That’s not intended to be a steroids comment. 
  3. That night, McCarthy surrendered 4 HR in pitcher-friendly Dodgers Stadium, yet struck out 10 and walked nobody. Like I said, quite strange. 

Stop Overreacting to Small Sample Sizes!

We’re one week into the 2015 season and here are all the conclusions that are reasonable to draw about teams and players so far:

Yeah, that’s a whole lot of nothing.

The first 1.5-2 months of the season is when you see baseball writing at its worst. Even writers who should know better will try to draw meaning from small sample sizes (SSS). Nothing that has happened so far has any meaning whatsoever. Calling one week SSS is being too kind. It’s noise.

I was at the Angels game last night and overheard a gentleman nearby griping that Albert Pujols was only hitting ~.100. ZiPS projects Pujols to hit .274 this season and he hit .272 last year. I’m sure that had I asked the gentleman if he truly believed that Pujols’ current average was representative of how he will hit this season, he would’ve said no. Yet, his statement is representative of the kind of thinking we see all the time early in the season before the stats stabilize.

Even in his prime, I’m sure there were five game periods where Pujols hit .100 or less. Same can be said about Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Tony Gwynn, or any prolific hitter. Baseball is crazy random and you can do amazing things with arbitrary endpoints.

The same thing is being done with team performance. ESPN’s Buster Olney, a writer who I like and respect very much, tweeted out his power rankings earlier today. I’ll discuss how little I think of power rankings in general another time.

Nationals at 9? If they were the best team in baseball heading into the season, then they still are one week into the season. I don’t care that they’re 2-4. Like with Pujols before, I’m sure there are many, many instances in major league history when the best regular season team had a six game stretch where they went 2-4. It probably happened more than once in a season!

Olney ranked the Braves at 10 because they’re 5-1. The Braves are going to be terrible this season. One good week doesn’t change anything. Their success so far can be attributed to an unsustainable .308 BABIP and a ludicrously unsustainable line of .405/.457/.571 with RISP. Like with the points I’ve already made, there are countless times in MLB history when a bad team went 5-1 over a six game span.

I don’t want to breakdown the entire list, so I’ll finish by saying that the Royals at 2 is baffling. So what if they’re 6-0? They are not going to continue to have the second best offense in baseball. They are benefitting from a ridiculous .340 BABIP, a 13.3% HR/FB, and a line of .355/.394/.677 with two outs and RISP. Remember, this team had a below average offense last season. To think that they’ve improved that drastically because of the result of six games is completely illogical.

If I had an editor that forced me to do power rankings, this is what I would do: I’d rank all thirty teams before the season started and, short of major injuries, not even think about changing anything until late May at the earliest. You just cannot logically conclude that teams are anything other than what they were projected to be without a significant sample size of games. Obviously I had to look up some stats for the purpose of this post, but normally I don’t check stats or standings until June.

As for player performance, trust the projections and trust the scouting. The great thing about scouting, especially, is that it is small sample size independent. It’s qualitative analysis so it’s not a slave to sample size like statistics are. Just remember that there’s a big difference between the eye of fan and that of a trained, experienced scout. I always defer to a scout.

It’s not completely fair to blame writers for this. It’s not like they can take April and May off during the season. Editors always need to fill column inches and get clicks. However, writing good pieces is still very possible, albeit more challenging. My next post will have such content.

The same thing happens every year. It’s only natural to want to glean some meaning from so little data. Writers and fans need to understand that you can’t learn anything new so early in the season. Curious about when the variation stabilizes in the numbers? It’s dependent on what stat it is. Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus researched this topic and you can find the results here. Click on that link if you’d like to learn what constitutes a significant sample size for many relevant stats.

Don’t concern yourself with the performances of any teams or players right now. There’s nothing to learn so early in the season. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy watching the greatest game on earth.

San Diego Padres Make Puzzling Trade, Atlanta Braves Clean Up

San Diego Padres Make Puzzling Trade, Atlanta Braves Clean Up

Happy Opening Day, everyone! I hope you’re all as excited as I am for a new baseball season!

The San Diego Padres made a bizarre trade today with the Atlanta Braves. They traded CF Cameron Maybin, OF Carlos Quentin, prospects RHP Matt Wisler and CF Jordan Paroubeck, and the 41st overall pick in the draft. In exchange, the Braves sent Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton. In short, this is a great trade for the Braves and a terrible one for the Padres.

As I wrote before, the Padres have had a great off-season. They’ve greatly boosted an offense that badly needed it. Last season, the team’s pitiful .283 wOBA was the worst in all of baseball, even when you account for park effects. Despite the good moves, the Padres still had holes to fill. This trade did nothing to fill those holes and took on a net $56.35 million in contracts in the process1. For example, the best hitter in the infield is C Derek Norris, who ZiPS projects to be a .321 wOBA hitter, which is roughly league average. Their shortstop, Clint Barmes, while easily the best defensive player on the team, is a terrible hitter. He has a career 71 wRC+. They badly need infield help, and instead they get an upgrade in the bullpen that they don’t need and a new center fielder when they had a cheaper, better option in-house.

Craig Kimbrel is arguably the best reliever in baseball. He has bucked the trend of volatility in relief pitching by being an elite reliever for four straight years now. He is undoubtedly an upgrade, but at most it’s only a 1 win upgrade. As good as Kimbrel is, Padres manager Bud Black is some kind of sorcerer when it comes to bullpens. His experience as a pitching coach shows when he can consistently put together effective bullpens from anyone he’s given. Why on earth would you take on the $33 million left on Kimbrel’s contract when you have a manager that can churn out good bullpens from cheap, readily available talent? Especially when you play in the most pitcher-friendly stadium in the league? Furthermore, as a reliever, Kimbrel’s effectiveness could plummet at anytime.

As for the artist formerly known as B.J. Upton… oh boy. He is the recipient of the richest contract that the Braves have ever given out, and as you probably know, Melvin Upton Jr. has been one of the worst players in baseball in the two years since then. He has combined for a catastrophic 66 wRC+ and -1.6 WAR. I highly doubt that a change in scenery is going to make a significant impact. They’re also retrying the Braves experiment of uniting him with his brother, Justin Upton. I sincerely hope that the Padres do not believe that reuniting the Upton brothers is going to make them play better. These feel good sort of actions may work in sports movies, but not in the real world. Even if they did, we already know that this didn’t work in Atlanta.

At worst, Cameron Maybin would’ve been no worse than Upton and for $31 million less. He’s a better defender, and ZiPS projects him to be roughly equal to Upton offensively at an 88 wRC+, although that assumes an awfully big bounce back for Upton. They did do well in unloading Carlos Quentin, who is often injured and for whom the Padres had no room. The Braves are expected to cut him, which is the best decision. He’s DH only at this point in his career, so obviously an NL team can’t use him. He can still hit, however. An AL team would do well to pick him up.

Since Melvin Upton is now the team’s only viable center fielder, it may be interesting to try to play him full-time there and move Wil Myers to first base. Myers is a significant upgrade over current 1B Yonder Alonso, and if Upton can be even a 1 WAR player, it could be an overall net positive for the team.

To top this all off, the Padres also gave up a couple of B-level prospects and a draft pick2. I don’t understand why the team would take on all this money AND give up prospects. For what they got back it should’ve been one or the other.

Of course, since this is such a bad trade for the Padres, it’s a great trade for the Braves. It’s exactly the kind of move that a rebuilding team needed to do. Bad teams don’t need closers, and no teams at all need to be paying $15 million AAV to one of the worst players in baseball. They unload a bunch of money and boost the farm system in the process. It’s a fantastic transaction by new Braves GM John Hart, who is showing that he is a better man for the job than his predecessor.

As good of a job as Hart has done in beginning the rebuilding process, the off-season signing of Nick Markakis continues to be puzzling. Why spend $44 million when you’re rebuilding, especially on Markakis? He’s roughly a league average hitter at this point in his career. He has a reputation of being a good defender, but it’s more arm than range. As a free agent signing, he’s not eligible to be traded for a few more months, but the Braves should try once he is. Although I believe the contract is an overpay, it’s not that much money, and he could fill a need for a team in need of outfield help.

The Padres had a great off-season, but in their desperation to improve even further have panicked into a terrible trade. The Braves, on the other hand, successfully exploited the situation and made some great strides in their rebuilding process. Obviously, on an objective level I abhor this deal for the Padres, but since I’ll be at the Padres game on Tuesday and Friday, I’m happy about possibly getting to see Craig Kimbrel pitch in person!

  1. The $80.35 million in guaranteed salaries to Kimbrel and Melvin Upton minus the $24 million guaranteed of Quentin and Maybin. 
  2. The sandwich round picks (aka competitive balance picks), which are between the 1st and 2nd round, unlike all the other picks, are actually tradable. 
Kris Bryant is Ready But Chicago Cubs Making the Right Call

Kris Bryant is Ready But Chicago Cubs Making the Right Call

So there’s this Chicago Cubs über prospect named Kris Bryant. You may have heard of him. He was drafted 2nd overall in the 2013 Draft, and then went on to be a destroyer of worlds in the minors. His career stats in the minors are .327/.448/.666 with 52 HR. He has basically been Miguel Cabrera except with a high strikeout rate.

Now of course, that is scouting the stat line, which isn’t scouting. The industry consensus indicates that Bryant projects to be a 55 hitter and already has 70 power. He’s not going to be adding any value on the basepaths, but he does have a plus arm. His fielding is one of the questions about him, however. At 6’5”, 215 lbs., he’s awfully big for a 3rd baseman. At that size he lacks the agility needed to field the position well. He has not looked good there at all in spring training. Of course, he’s not a finished product, and there’s no reason to believe that he can’t be a least a fringe average defender there. Worst case scenario is that he has to move to right field. His bat will play anywhere, but moving to right field would result in a decrease in value.

Despite his electrifying spring, Bryant still has room for development with his bat. Although he projects as a 55 hitter, he’s not there yet, and is more likely a 40-45 hitter at present. He has a long swing that causes him to struggle with velocity, especially on the inner half of the strike zone. He has been a high strikeout hitter in the minors, and will probably always be that way to some extent. However, if he wants to max out the effectiveness of that monster power of his, he’s going to have to close the holes in his swing.

Bryant has been lighting the baseball world on fire in spring training, which is causing all kinds of discussions and controversies about whether or not he should be on the opening day roster. Of course he should, and I’ll delve more into that subject shortly, but it has absolutely, positively nothing to do with his spring training stats. Let me be absolutely clear:

Spring training stats are completely and utterly meaningless. They have ZERO predictive value. You should never, ever, ever draw any conclusions based on spring training numbers. 

Yet, fans, the media, and even some front offices keep making the same mistake year after year by drawing conclusions based on spring training results. Stop it! There are many instances in baseball history when a player excelled in spring training but sucked during the regular season, or vice versa. First and foremost, spring training stats suffer from small sample size. Furthermore, there’s a fair amount of inferior competition with players that have little to no shot at making the major league squad. Even the good players tend to test out tweaks to their mechanics/swings/pitches/etc. that usually result in diminished effectiveness. Why not experiment if you know that you’re assured of making the team?

So far this spring, Bryant is hitting .406/.472/1.313 with 9 HR, which leads the majors. However, that’s in a minuscule sample of 36 PA, which is roughly 5% of the plate appearances a player gets over the course of a full season. Call me crazy, but I also don’t think that Bryant will continue homering in 25% of his plate appearances either. In fact, other than Félix Hernández, the eight other pitchers who have surrendered a home run to Bryant are a rather underwhelming group. Here are their career numbers and 2015 ZiPS projections.

G GS IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR Proj. ERA Proj. FIP Proj. WAR
Kevin Correia 353 216 1405.1 5.71 2.98 4.59 4.52 6.7 3.69 3.63 0.2
Matt Lindstrom 469 0 420.2 7 3.29 3.68 3.47 4.4 4.60 4.52 0.1
Drew Pomeranz 54 40 205.2 7.83 4.2 4.24 4.44 1.6 4.07 4.50 0.3
Jesse Hahn 14 12 73.1 8.59 3.93 3.07 3.40 1.1 4.19 4.35 0.5
Trevor Bauer 34 34 186.1 8.26 4.3 4.44 4.39 1 4.29 4.07 1.4
Cesar Ramos 186 10 246.2 7.22 3.79 3.90 3.95 0.5 4.22 4.32 0.0
Evan Scribner 71 0 87.2 7.19 2.36 4.11 3.78 0.2 3.61 3.65 0.1
Brett Marshall 3 0 12 5.25 5.25 4.50 7.13 -0.2 6.53 5.65 -1.3

Not exactly a murderer’s row, huh? Baseball Reference has a metric that measures the quality of competition faced in the majors during spring training as a result of the number of minor leaguers who see action. Every player gets a rating based on the level in which they played the prior season. If you want to learn more about it, click here. The quality of competition that Bryant has faced so far this spring comes in at 8.7, which means that the pitching that Bryant has been facing averages out at Triple A quality. We already knew that Bryant could destroy Triple A pitching. So if spring training stats are so unreliable and misleading, what’s the argument that Bryant is ready for The Show?

The scouting. Trust the scouting. A scouting report is the only thing that has any kind of predictive value in spring training. It’s the only thing that organizations should be using in order to make the final decisions on minor leaguers and players without a significant track record in the majors. Check the scouting information on Bryant that I relayed earlier, or any report you can find online. He could’ve been a September call-up last season had the Cubs been contending. As you can see below, all the prospect rankings have him as the best or one of the best prospects in baseball, and these rankings came up before spring training.

Keith Law, ESPN 1
Baseball Prospectus 5
Baseball America 1 2
Kiley McDaniel, Fangraphs 1

Any professional scout who has evaluated Bryant would’ve told you he was major league ready six months ago.

It is common knowledge among baseball fans that the Cubs intend to start Bryant off in the minors for 12 days in order to delay his service time by one year. Cubs fans especially are upset by this. Of course, Bryant and his agent, the infamous Scott Boras, are also frustrated by this service time manipulation because delaying Bryant’s free agency by one year delays the big payday that Bryant is likely to see someday.

First, let’s address the baseball issues. With Bryant in the minors, the Cubs will likely turn to Mike Olt to fill in at 3rd base. Olt is excellent defensively, but has not shown any signs of being able to hit yet. He has struggled with injuries, including a vision problem at one point, so it’s possible that he can improve offensively. Honestly, his defense is so good that he doesn’t have to hit much, but a 60 wRC+ isn’t going to cut it. Regardless, there isn’t enough of a difference between Olt and Bryant that him missing ~9 games will have any effect on the standings. ZiPS projects that Bryant will be worth 4.2 WAR this season. Even if you want to be optimistic and say he has the upside to deliver 6 WAR, which certainly wouldn’t surprise me, keeping Bryant down in the minors will only cost the Cubs half of a win. Moreover, the Cubs are likely still one year away from truly being contenders1.

It just doesn’t make any sense to accelerate Bryant’s service clock in order to gain half a win in a season where the coin flip game is the likely best case scenario. The case for sending him down is even further strengthened given that his agent is Scott Boras. If Bryant turns into the player he is projected to be, then Boras is probably going to ask for ~$225 million in free agency. It would be crazy to not want to delay that, especially since Bryant will still be in his prime. Oh, and Boras does not do extensions because they result in less money. If he did, the Cubs probably would’ve already extended Bryant, not unlike what the Astros did with George Springer and Jon Singleton.

A quick aside on Boras: He is seemingly reviled among fans and front offices. I have to admit that I don’t have a good impression of him either. You have to remember, though, that Boras is an advocate for his clients. It’s not his job to be objective. His job is to get every last dollar he can for his clients. Baseball is a business. You don’t have to like it, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with what he does. Think of it this way: Wouldn’t you rather that as much money as possible goes to the players? The guys who actually provide us with the product we enjoy so much? Because if not them, then the money goes to the owners. They are far more replaceable than the players.

By starting Bryant in the minors they’re gaining an extra year of control and probably saving a bunch of money in the process. As much as we would all love to see Bryant make his major league debut on Sunday Night Baseball on April 5, the decision really is a no-brainer.

The problem isn’t the Cubs. The problem is the rule that makes it advantageous for the Cubs to make this decision. It’s worth revisiting next time the CBA is opened up, but creating a system that is fair to both sides is a lot easier said than done. Keith Law suggested a one year restricted free agency, similar to what the NBA has, for players with six years of service time who were called up on opening day. It’s not a bad idea, really, and it’s not like I have a better one. The problem is that it further complicates the system. At the end of the day, if there’s a loophole, somebody will exploit it.

I don’t blame Boras, Bryant, or Cubs fans for being unhappy with the situation. Heck, I’m unhappy with the situation. Bryant deserves to start the season with the big league club. You can bet that I’ll be firing up to tune into the Cubs when Bryant does make his debut. To his credit, Bryant has handled the situation with class and maturity. The one good thing that will come out of this is that it will make Bryant Super Two eligible, meaning that he can apply for arbitration one year earlier than normal. That’s one less year in which he’ll be forced to make the league minimum. If Bryant becomes the player we expect him to be, it’s going to be A LOT more than the league minimum, too.

Kris Bryant is a tremendous talent. It’s a shame that the current rules make it so that the Cubs are most benefited by starting him in the minors. In the end, Bryant will make his money. As for the fans, think of it as further building up the excitement for his debut.

  1. Don’t get me wrong, though, because they might be able to snatch a wild card slot this year. 
New York Mets Pitcher Zack Wheeler to Undergo Tommy John Surgery and Thoughts on the Tommy John Epidemic

New York Mets Pitcher Zack Wheeler to Undergo Tommy John Surgery and Thoughts on the Tommy John Epidemic

It was recently announced that New York Mets RHP Zack Wheeler will be undergoing Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2015 season. It’s sad news about the 24-year old who was starting to develop into the star he was projected to be.

Wheeler showed a significant amount of improvement in 2014. His fastball and curveball were always plus pitches, but his changeup had needed some work. He then succeeded in developing that into a plus pitch as well. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he also added a slider to his repertoire that’s at least plus. Although I believe that a pitcher should just focus on one type of breaking ball, Wheeler makes it work1. Four plus pitches can make you an ace.

Even though Wheeler was worth only 1.8 WAR last season, he showed significant improvement in multiple areas. He raised his strikeout rate by 4.1% to a good, solid 23.6 K%. His RA9 was slightly worse, but that’s likely due to some bad BABIP luck, which was .304 last season. More importantly, he lowered his 2013 4.17 FIP to a 3.55 FIP in 2014, thanks largely to that improvement in K% and keeping the ball in the park. Something that I found to be especially promising is that his groundball rate improved drastically from 43.2 GB% to 54 GB%2. The one thing that was holding him back from being a true ace is his control. His 10.7 BB% in 2013 was pretty bad, and it only improved slightly to 10.0 BB% in 2014. Obviously, it’s difficult to succeed when you’re allowing a lot of baserunners. Before news of the injury, ZiPS had projected for Wheeler to have a 2.4 WAR season. That being said, he probably had the upside of a 4-5 WAR season.

I felt terrible for Wheeler when I heard the news, but as a lifelong suffering Mets fan, I didn’t feel so bad for my team overall. The Mets have ridiculous pitching depth. Oh, and I’m not talking about Dillon Gee. He was a replacement level pitcher last year, and the year before that was his best season ever at just 1.1 WAR. He doesn’t walk people, but he doesn’t strike them out either. He’s home run prone as well, which is especially bad given that he pitches at Citi Field. I’m sorry my fellow Mets fans, but he’s just not good. Fortunately, we have pitchers coming up who are!

Noah Syndergaard is ready to go right now. He’ll probably be held down for a couple of weeks to push back his service clock (more on that in the next post), but missing a few starts won’t have a dramatic effect on the team. Although scouts have been divided on just how good LHP Steven Matz will be, he also has the potential to upgrade the rotation. Regardless of how long before Syndergaard is called up, Jon Niese and even Rafael Montero would be better replacements for Wheeler than Gee.

The Tommy John epidemic in the past year have had some people questioning the value of pitch counts. Some even say that the epidemic is the result of “babying” pitchers, since it used to be that pitchers were allowed to pitch on shorter rest and pitch in a game for as long as they were effective. The faulty reasoning continues by saying that back when the pitchers were allowed to throw without any pitch count restraints, you didn’t see them break left and right like we’re seeing now. Tom Seaver once made this argument, too. Forgive me for such blasphemy, my fellow Mets fans, but Seaver is wrong. This argument is guilty of the questionable cause logical fallacy, more specifically cum hoc ergo propter hoc, which is Latin for “with this, therefore because of this”.

The reason why this is a relatively recent phenomenon is because we didn’t used to have the medical advances that have allowed us to be able to fix damaged shoulders and elbows. As a result, when such a thing happened to a pitcher, he was done. Those pitchers are lost in history because they were either forgotten or never heard of in the first place. Who knows how many career would have been saved and prolonged had we known about pitch counts from the beginning.

Remember, generally speaking, pitching doesn’t damage arms. Pitching tired damages arms. Tired pitchers suffer breakdowns in mechanics that put more stress on the shoulder and elbow. Of course the eye test is important in determining the level of fatigue in a pitcher, but you can’t discredit the value of an objective measure like pitch counts. Furthermore, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not like pitchers started pitching once they reached the majors. They’ve likely been pitching since they were kids. Their little league and high school coaches may or may not have abused their arms, but it’s possible. It’s much more likely in the college game, however. It’s criminal how some college coaches use their pitchers. They have no qualm over sacrificing their pitchers’ future and earning potential. After all, the coach’s objective is to win games. If he destroys a pitcher in the process, it’s not his problem. It’s awful. The NCAA needs to give these pitchers some rights in order to protect them3.

Pitch counts work. They matter. They’re important. There’s good science to back this all up, and once science has confirmed something it’s no longer up for debate. The American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) has made many great contributions to our understanding of how pitching affects the body and how to best prevent injuries. If you’re interested, I recommend checking their Tommy John Position Statement and Youth Baseball Position Statement. Those links have tons of references to publications in peer-reviewed journals if you want further evidence. They even have some thoughts on the Tommy John epidemic. Those links have tons of references to publications in peer-reviewed journals if you want further evidence.

Jeff Zimmerman wrote a great article for the Hardball Times a few months ago in which he analyzed disabled list data for 2014. He had a very interesting graph in it shown below.

Shoulder injuries are down from 7,000 days lost on the DL in 2008 to 3,000 days in 2014. That’s amazing. While I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of having to undergo Tommy John surgery, the fact of the matter is that it has a high success rate and pitchers can return to action in a year. Shoulder injuries, on the other hand, are career killers. The fact that they are on such a steep decline is great news.

Of course, it would be inappropriate to claim that the decline in shoulder injuries are all thanks to pitch counts. I’m sure that it’s a factor, but it’s not the only one. For the small percentage of pitchers who have had Tommy John, getting to take a year off likely did wonders for their shoulder health. Also, as Zimmerman noted in his article, shoulder conditioning has gotten better. The shoulder is a muscle, after all, so learning how to better strengthen it might lead to fewer injuries. More emphasis on good mechanics is a factor as well. ASMI even offers a biomechanical pitching evaluation for pitchers.

My best guess as to why we’re getting so many torn UCLs is that pitchers are throwing harder than ever. ASMI states in its Tommy John Position Statement that higher velocities lead to increased risk of injury. Another theory I have is that before we learned how to better take care of shoulders, all these pitchers who are tearing their UCLs would have injured their shoulder first. If the shoulder injury didn’t flat-out end their careers, it would’ve at least given the elbow time to rest and heal. Upon return, the rehabilitated shoulder might result in decreased velocities, which in turn would be better for the elbow. Again, I’m just speculating here.

Zack Wheeler’s injury is awful and I wish him the best in his recovery. However, because of the Mets absurd pitching depth, the team should be able to weather his loss. Pitch counts are not the culprit. In fact, it’s likely that everything we now know about how to keep pitchers healthy is what kept Wheeler from getting hurt sooner or more seriously.

  1. Clayton Kershaw also has two great breaking balls…but he’s Clayton Kershaw. 
  2. Those numbers do give you pause when you consider how poor the Mets infield defense is. Pitchers better hope a lot of balls are hit to David Wright. 
  3. I won’t hold my breath. The NCAA is the biggest joke of an organization. It’s a scam. A legalized cartel. It sees its “student-athletes” as dollar signs and nothing more. 
Kansas City Royals Likely to Regress in 2015

Kansas City Royals Likely to Regress in 2015

The defending American League champions had a season for the ages last year. They had their best record since 1985, and, coincidentally, made it to the playoffs for the first time since that year. They had an epic Wild Card game that will go down as an all-timer. Despite Ned Yost managing the game so poorly that you’d think he was a mole for the A’s, the Royals won in spectacular fashion. As I’m sure you know, Yost finally learned how to manage a bullpen, they then went on to sweep the ALDS and ALCS, and then came within one game of winning the World Series.

So how can a team that performed so well not be expected to perform similarly the following year? Well, they had a lot of luck last season. A lot of things broke their way. For one, they outperformed their pythagorean expectation by five wins, making them the third luckiest team in the majors last season. In other words, they won 89 games but should’ve only won 84. They just didn’t score a lot of runs. They ranked only 10th in the AL in offense with a .306 wOBA. They succeeded on the back of their elite bullpen (that Yost frequently mismanaged) and elite defense. As a result, the Royals may not have overperformed as much as the their pythagorean expectation indicates. On the other hand, that calculation does not take into account the manager.

The effects of a manager on his team’s record has never been conclusively proven. A good manager is said to add a couple of wins to his team, while a bad one will add a couple extra losses. I’ve even seen some people go as high as five extra losses for the worst of the worst managers. Sadly, Ned Yost fits that bill.

While I’m on the subject, I find it incredibly disturbing that Yost came in 3rd place in last season’s Manager of the Year voting. I’m even more disturbed that he came in 2nd in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance voting. That last one is especially disappointing, since I’ve been so happy with being part of a group that did a great job on all the other awards and the Hall of Fame voting. It just goes back to my point that the game of baseball does not lend itself to a coach of the year type award. I don’t understand how if a team overperforms, it is automatically concluded that it must have been because of the manager. Anybody paying attention to the Royals last year should be able to see that they won DESPITE Yost, not because of him. The excessive bunting, bullpen mismanagement, poor lineup constructions, not giving Salvador Pérez enough days off, and just general incompetence with in-game tactics easily lost the team 2-3 games. Easily. The argument can be made that it was even worse than that. It’s especially bad once you consider that the Royals lost the division by only one game.

I don’t think the Royals front office receives nearly enough criticism for allowing Yost to continually make bad decision after bad decision. Like with any place of work, when an employee is constantly performing poorly, it reflects badly on his manager. The team has a great analytics department too, and Yost must make those poor guys pull their hair out.

Yost should be fired. I don’t care how well the team has done the last couple of seasons because he clearly had nothing to do with that. It just doesn’t make any sense. We don’t do this with players. If a great team can cut a terrible player, then they do so. They don’t automatically assume that he must be worth keeping since the team did well.

I wish some GM would come along with the guts to change how the system works. I would love to see a GM fire a terrible manager coming off of a great season. Yes, it would be difficult to do, and the media and the industry would probably react harshly. But it’s the right thing to do. Hopefully some day that precedent will be set.

Ok, back to the Royals. They’ve always been a team that was built to win in the postseason, not the regular season. The defense and the bullpen work well when in the playoffs since there are so many off-days. They just don’t have the offense to be competitive in the regular season. Worse yet, their starting pitching and defense, as well as their offense, are all primed to take a step back this season.

Their defense is sure to still be excellent this season. Last year, by Fangraphs’ Defense metric, the Royals easily led all of baseball. Even then, they had regressed slightly from the year before. All the players on the team are now a year older as well. Defense is one of those things that peaks early and slowly diminishes. Still, I suspect that the defense will make a strong contribution, even if it’s not the same as the last couple of seasons.

It’s no secret that the starting rotation was dealt a blow by losing James Shields. However, Kris Medlen was a nice buy low candidate who ZiPS projects to be a solid 2.3 WAR pitcher in 2015. That projection should come with a grain of salt, though, because he is just coming off of Tommy John surgery.

The rest of the rotation looks okay. The Royals are really going to need Yordano Ventura to pitch like an ace, or at least a number two. Having a 98 MPH fourseam fastball is great, and it does have good late life, but as a result of his short stature, it lacks downward plane. A flat 98 MPH fastball is not the weapon that it appears to be. To paraphrase something Orel Hershiser once said, major league hitters can time a bullet. His sinker is only half a mile slower than his fourseamer, which is odd, but a good thing. According to Brooks Baseball, Ventura uses his sinker half as much as his fourseamer. A 97-98 MPH pitch with movement is devastating. He needs to use it more. A league average 20.1 K% is disappointing given his velocity. He also needs to further develop his control, as his career 8.9 BB% is on the high side.

Daniel Duffy, Jason Vargas, and Jeremy Guthrie all project to be to be mediocre or better starting pitchers according ZiPS. The same cannot be said, however, about Edinson Volquez, the team’s free agent acquisition, who is projected to deliver only ~1 WAR. I really don’t understand the logic behind signing him. He was worth 1 WAR the last two seasons combined! He’s only ever had one season with more than 1.1 WAR, and that was in 2008. His 3.04 ERA last season is quite deceptive. First of all, when you include unearned runs, which you should always do, it adds half a run to his ERA, resulting in a 3.50 RA9. Furthermore, he benefited from a fluky .263 BABIP. His HR/FB was also 2.3% below his career rate. The Royals have an excellent analytics group, so either GM Dayton Moore didn’t consult them, or he ignored their advice. A 2-year, $20 million deal isn’t much money, but the Royals are not exactly flush with cash. They’re paying Volquez twice what he’s worth in both dollars and years.

The bullpen is still going to be awesome. ZiPS has the entire pen projected for 5 WAR this season. Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera are expected to regress slightly, which makes sense given the volatility of relievers. However, Holland has been fairly consistent for four seasons now, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he continued to be just as good. After all, he’s only 29 years old. Wade Davis, unfortunately is projected to have the biggest regression. Depending on the projection system, he is expected to have a 1-1.5 WAR season. That’s down from 3.1 WAR last year. As amazing as he was in 2014, he’s not going to turn in another season with a 1.00 RA9 and 0 HR. It’s not going to happen. His .264 BABIP is likely to regress as well.

The biggest problem with this team will be the offense. They were only 9th in runs scored per game in the AL last year. I don’t see that getting any better. Last season, of the players who amassed at least 500 PA, only three players were above average offensively: Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Nori Aoki. Aoki was just barely above average and is no longer with the team anyway. Although Cain has always had high BABIPs, it’s not going to be .380 again. He’s projected to be a slightly below average hitter this upcoming season. Gordon and Eric Hosmer are the one players projected to hit above average according to ZiPS.

So what about the Royals free agent acquisitions, Kendrys Morales and Alex Ríos? I do not understand the reasoning behind signing them in the least. Perhaps the analytics department knows something that I don’t. Why on earth would you spend $28 million to sign two players that combined to come in below replacement level? They’re projected to bounce back, but if they deliver 2 WAR combined I’ll be surprised.

I was shocked that Morales got signed at all, let alone to a 2-year deal. He was one of the worst players in baseball last year. If he meets his projections he’ll be a league average hitter, but that’s not good enough for a DH, even for his relatively low AAV. Worse still, I would hesitate to put him at first even in emergency situations. He’s also among the worst baserunners in baseball. Ríos is projected to be a slightly below average hitter, but at least he can field a position. He wasn’t the defender he once was, and his glove doesn’t hold a candle to that of Gordon’s and Cain’s, but it’s serviceable.

Why didn’t the Royals just spend $2 million more and sign back Billy Butler? He is certain to bounce back this season and is likely to deliver the same amount of value as Morales and Ríos combined, with a much bigger upside too. Sure, they would’ve still needed a right fielder, but it would’ve been a better problem to have as opposed to overpaying two players to struggle to produce the same value as one average player.

This all highlights what a poor off-season the Royals had. I understand that they are a small market club, but after coming within one game of a World Series title, this was the year to spend money. Between Volquez, Morales, and Ríos, why spend $48 million on below average players who could be as bad as replacement level? Instead, they should’ve opened up their wallets and pay James Shields the $75 million that he got. It’s significantly more money, but they would’ve received much better value in return.

One last note on Salvador Pérez: Yost needs to give him more time off from catching. Now this is pure speculation on my part, but it’s entirely possible that the offensive deterioration he suffered in the second half last season was the result of being overworked. It wasn’t a small drop off either. He had an enormous 78 point drop in wOBA going from the 1st half to the 2nd half. Even if that was just the result of randomness, he is certain to get hurt if Yost keeps pushing him this hard. The Royals cannot afford to break Pérez.

I am sincerely very happy for Royals fans for getting to enjoy such a special season last year1. It was a blast watching them in the playoffs. The fact of the matter is that a lot of things broke right for them for that to happen. Unfortunately, even had they made better moves this off-season, they’d still be primed for regression.

  1. Hopefully my Mets can do the same for me some day!