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A Saber-Slanted Baseball Community

Updated: 2017-12-12T11:00:01-05:00


Who killed the DH?


Was 2017 a one-year blip, or a sign of a downward trend? On May 30, Michael Salfino published a piece for FiveThirtyEight titled, “Who Needs A DH? The NL Is Outhitting The AL, Somehow.” The piece noted that through the first two months of the season — despite the fact that, you know, pitchers have to hit in the National League — the Senior Circuit was outstriping the Junior Circuit by a five-point OPS edge (.739 for the NL; .734 for the AL). Salfino included a chart that showed this would have been the first time since the inception of the designated hitter in 1973 that the NL would have outhit the AL (the two tied with an OPS of .681 in 1976). The American League has had a stranglehold on the title of “Most Offensive League” since 1973, which makes perfect sense, given that (again) they get to replace the pitcher with a hitter of their choice. Since 1973, the AL has posted a .262/.328/.419 slash line, compared to .257/.326/.408 for the NL. That’s a five-point wRC+ gap. Now, the American League ended up bouncing back by the end of the season to restore order to offensive supremacy in baseball. In fact, by the end of the season, they once again had a five-point wRC+ advantage over the NL. That’s the beauty of baseball — the season is long enough that the numbers typically track back to the mean. However, it is interesting to note just how the AL made up that ground. Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of how batters fared in 2017: I included the FanGraphs WAR positional adjustments to give a feel for where hitting is most expected from. The general thought is that if a player is at a tougher defensive position, then there can be a little leeway on just how strong the hitter is. (Quick baseball history sidenote: It’s interesting that, throughout baseball history, second base and third base have alternated just how much has been expected from the position offensively. Rogers Hornsby and Eddie Collins were offensive juggernauts in an age when third baseman were mostly slap hitters. Now, third base is seen as a position for the likes of Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, etc. while second base is more often filled with less-powerful hitters like Dee Gordon or even Robinson Cano. FanGraphs WAR has the two at the same level for positional adjustment, but personally: it seems like historical baseball may have been of the right mind — third base seems a lot harder to field than second, with the exception of the pivot in the double play, so it would make sense to expect less hitting from third basemen.) Nearly each part of the chart lines up. Catcher is the most challenging defensive position, and it had the lowest wRC+. First base is the easiest on-field position, and it had the highest wRC+. Second base and shortstop are up-the-middle positions that are thought to be of high defensive value; they finished with the second- and third-lowest wRC+ totals. Right field, again: easy defensive position, second-highest wRC+. [Stephen A. Smith voice] How-evah, there is one position that stands out: DH. The position that is dinged the most by defensive value (which makes sense, considering a player doesn’t actually play defense as a DH) ended up with the fourth-lowest wRC+ across the whole sport in 2017. As a whole, designated hitters hit below-league average in 2017. Every outfield spot and both corner infield spots contributed more to their teams with their bats than the position that is quite literally designed to contribute with the bat. How rare is that? Here’s the wRC+ for DHs in each season this millennium: Before 2017, the collective DH wRC+ had dropped below 105 only twice this century, and, both of those times, it was still comfortably above 100 (104 in 2004 and 104 in 2009). The last time there was a significant drop in DH production (2008-2010), there was kvetching, as Dave Cameron penned a piece entitled “Is the DH Dying?” for FanGraphs. He lamented how teams were planning to use the DH as more of a utility spot to give position players days off, or to give their ro[...]

What do the Cubs see in Alex Cobb?


As the Winter Meetings open, chatter surrounds the Northsiders and a former Ray. The most glaring difference between the 2016 and 2017 Chicago Cubs was a decided starting pitching deficiency. Last year, they were third in pitching WAR (17.4), first in ERA (2.96), and fifth in FIP (3.72); those numbers fell to 12th (11.8), 7th (4.05) and 10th (4.27), respectively, this year. Jake Arrieta had a disappointing contract year, Jon Lester was a bit off, Kyle Hendricks had a bad first half, and they had no depth. Even getting Jose Quintana couldn’t staunch the bleeding. Now with Arrietta gone and Lackey too old, they to rearm the rotation. As Winter Meetings approach, John Heyman of FanRag Sports has reported their interest in Rays pitcher Alex Cobb: Cubs seem focused on alex cobb for last rotation spot at present. Cobb and cubs pitching coach jim hickey are very close from TB. Among others eying cobb: rangers, yanks, jays, o’s. Popular with al east teams.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 10, 2017 To see the visualization in its fullest form, head here. PHASE ONE: ROUNDS 1 - 2A Phase one is the first day of the draft, from the first overall pick, Royce Lewis, all the way through pick number 75, J.J. Matijevic. This phase sees bonuses slide down exponentially through the end of the night, eventually landing at Matijevic’s $700,000 bonus, less than 10 percent of the highest, Hunter Greene’s $7,230,000. Because of the large numbers involved, the ranges on the first day of the draft are the most difficult to predict. Players will sign for $1 million under-slot or $1 million over-slot, depending on the circumstances. These giant variations simply aren’t seen in the later rounds because the bonuses are so much smaller. Circumstances rule why players don’t get the assigned slot values for where they were picked. The selecting team usually has little to do with it. Rather, injuries, age, and - the trickiest to measure - draft expectations, determine the residual, the delta between a player’s expected signing bonus and what they actually signed for. Clarke Schmidt, the Yankees first-rounder who signed for more than a $1.2 million under-slot, had recently undergone Tommy John surgery to repair a torn UCL. Still, he showcased elite potential beforehand that warranted a selection this high. Therefore, the Yankees decided the additional injury risk, talent level, and ability to manipulate their bonus pool blended into the right drafting scenario at pick 16. PHASE TWO: ROUNDS 3 - 5 The second phase of the draft is closely related to the first, but begins to see bonus amounts level off. The first few picks are almost always dotted by high-upside high school prospects, as was the case this year with Blayne Enlow ($2 million), Nick Allen ($2 million), and Freddy Tarnok ($1.445 million). Bonuses then take on a gradual slope descending to about $500,000 through the fifth round. Teams continue to select highly-ranked prospects and upside plays as they amass talent, which differs from the phases to come. In the graph below, the expected bonus figures (from the piecewise regression) are marked in blue, whereas the actual bonus amounts are in red. The gap between the end of day one and the start of day two is most clearly exemplified by Matijevic and Enlow. The Twins’ third round selection, Enlow, received $2 million, largely because of pre-draft expectations. Now, this concept of expectations basically means the player’s true talent level, as evaluated by the industry as a whole. One way to prove that talent demands higher bonuses than an actual pick position is to use the Baseball America 500. BA’s player rankings correlate more strongly with the bonus a player received (0.80 R^2) than where the player was picked with their bonus (0.65 R^2). Eventually, the first senior comes off the board. In 2017, it was Wyatt Mills, the Mariners’ third round pick at 93 overall. Mills signed for $125,000 despite his assigned slot value being listed at $579,800. The pick stunne[...]

Joe Morgan and the categorical imperative


What would Kant say about steroids? Last week, Joe Morgan appealed to voters for the Baseball Hall of Fame on whether known PED-users should be allowed into the museum. With his letter, Morgan managed to rekindle the debate on whether players like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens are deserving of a plaque in Cooperstown. Keeping such players out of the Hall seems counterintuitive for two reasons. First, the Hall is a museum and, as such, should house the entirety of baseball history, both the good and the bad. If history is censored, then what are we safeguarding? Should we slowly begin to accept the ideals of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel 1984? The second reason is that there already is a known PED user enshrined in the Hall: Mike Piazza. Piazza admitted to taking the drug androstenedione in his autobiography; a substance which MLB banned in 2004. If voters disregarded this information when Piazza was elected then keeping players like Bonds and Clemens out is sheer hypocrisy. Despite all this, Morgan seems to be both correct and incorrect. Steroids — and other drugs — have no place in the current iteration of the game, but this should not bar players who [might] have used them from being enshrined. In Immanuel Kant’s The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), he presents the Categorical Imperative (CI), an argument that can be used to describe whether an action is purely moral or not. With this argument, we can make a case for accepting and rejecting steroids. Simply put, the CI states that a person should act only in accordance with a maxim which he can will it to become a universal law while maintaining rationality. In other words, the only actions a person should be ready to accept are those he considers as universally moral. For example, taking a life is morally wrong and should always be rejected. Morgan is correct, then, if we talk about steroids within the game. By accepting Kant’s CI, steroids should be avoided as they can give a player an unfair advantage over his competition. Thus no player should use PEDs. Therefore, if a player knows that he -– and others -- will gain an immoral advantage, he should reject them absolutely. Then again, suppose a player is thinking beyond the scope of the game; he is thinking about his legacy, paycheck, and team success. If steroids help him gain all these, and he is willing to accept other players using them, then he could posit that PED-usage is morally acceptable and he and every other player should (and probably must) use them. Players should then be ready to police themselves, readily accepting or rejecting, as a group, whether steroids should be a part of the game. Then again, this leads to a who watches the watchmen scenario which brings us right back to where we started. Assuming Morgan is thinking solely of the first part, then he is right – albeit from his perspective. However, with regards to history, he is incorrect. PEDs are already an infamous part of the game and, like it or not, should be accepted. The key part of Kant’s CI is rationality when accepting a universal maxim otherwise, we end up debating non-stop over where to draw a line regarding morality -- which can actually be a fun debate. Currently, the Hall is fighting a bout of irrationality. By inducting Piazza, it would be irrational to neglect other alleged steroid users into the Hall. Why should one be admitted while others are rejected? Furthermore, the Hall already houses other morally questionable people. By documenting the exploits of players who were known racists, misogynists, or hardcore-drug users, keeping PED users out seems like drawing an arbitrary line in the sand. Why embrace players who have participated in other immoral acts while rejecting PED users? This does not seem in accord with what museums should stand for. It is illogical for an entity to reject part of its history while readily accepting other murkier aspects of it. No one likes to deal with their skeletons, but they’r[...]

What to make of Anthony Swarzak in free agency


Anthony Swarzak’s breakout season was well-timed, coming right before he entered free agency. Should teams in need of relief help bet on the late-blooming righty? We all like lists. Top prospect lists, power rankings lists, and, come this time every year, comprehensive lists of the top available free agents. Sometimes it’s a straightforward list, but occasionally these things are broken down into tiers. Personally, I enjoy a good tier-based system with an individual ranking inside of each tier; the Inception of lists, if you will. If a list gets deeper into the weeds and is separated by position, even better. Recently I was perusing the available right-handed relief pitching on the free agent market — with the tier system in mind — something became immediately clear; the separation between tier one and tier two is pretty clear cut. Wade Davis, Brandon Morrow, and Greg Holland are the three arms at the top of the heap, and it’s a mix of a bunch of other guys who clearly belong in a hypothetical tier two. Names like Addison Reed, Mike Minor, Pat Neshek, and Tommy Hunter jumped out as surefire second tier options, all are more than solid relief options who’ll have plenty of suitors this winter. But then I saw a name that left me scratching my head: Anthony Swarzak. What the hell are we to make of Anthony Swarzak? At first blush, based on his exceptional 2017, 32-year old Anthony Swarzak belongs in tier one. In 77 1⁄3 innings he compiled a 2.33 ERA and a 2.71 FIP while striking out 30 percent of opposing hitters, that’ll get the job done. But like the brooding protagonist who shows up to a small town out of nowhere at the beginning of a movie, Swarzak has a past, and that past is rife with inconsistent performance. If you’re a team weighing whether or not to sign Swarzak to bolster your bullpen this offseason, how much should his inconsistencies before 2017 factor into your decision? Was his 2017 dominance a fluke or can it be maintained going forward? If we look at Swarzak’s year-to-year outcomes, there is plenty of cause for concern. A fact that this simple representation of his career ERA and FIP fluctuations makes abundantly clear. Graph via FanGraphs Swarzak was tremendous last season, but his 2016 was dreadful. If you’re looking to add a reliever in free agency, a modicum of consistency would be nice, after all, we’re only talking about the last 24 months. The good news for potential suitors is that the jarring spike in the chart above tells only a small part of Anthony Swarzak’s story. First off, Swarzak’s 2016 only consisted of 31 innings, so even as a reliever his numbers are best looked at with a small sample size disclaimer. In those 31 innings Swarzak recorded a 27.8 home-run-to-fly-ball rate. That number represents the highest rate that any pitcher with a minimum of 30 innings has recorded in the past 10 seasons. Even without his 2017 improvements that number was sure to regress. And if it hadn’t, Swarzak would’ve quickly found himself pitching in non-affiliated ball. The inflated home-run-to-fly-ball rate explains Swarzak’s high FIP, which is a stat based exclusively on a pitcher’s walks, strikeouts, hit batters, and home runs. Looking at Swarzak’s DRA (Deserved Run Average) — the proprietary pitching metric from Baseball Prospectus that takes more factors into account than FIP — tells a different story as the right-hander posted a 3.96 DRA in 2016. That season was hardly Swarzak’s best, but it certainly wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Last May, Jeff Sullivan wrote about the early stages Swarzak’s 2017 breakout for FanGraphs. That article focused on Swarzak’s improvement in getting hitters to chase pitches out of the zone and his improved consistency of location. Quoting from that piece: Swarzak works righties away, all the time. He works lefties inside, all the time. He throws his fastball to the glove-side, and he throws his slider to the glove-sid[...]