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Effectively Wild Episode 1777: Happy Francsgiving

EWFI
Ben Lindbergh and Meg Rowley banter about the Rays signing 20-year-old Wander Franco to a long-term extension, rapid movement in the starting-pitcher market (capped off by the Cardinals signing Steven Matz and Mets owner Steve Cohen tweeting out his reaction), and the White Sox inking Kendall Graveman. Then (36:41) they continue their series of discussions of Korean baseball drama Stove League by breaking down Episodes 5–8. (Note: No spoilers beyond Episode 8.)

Audio intro: Willie Nelson, "I Let My Mind Wander"
Audio outro: Lana Del Ray, "Not All Who Wander Are Lost"

Link to Dan Syzmborski on the Franco extension
Link to Ginny Searle on the Franco extension
Link to Devan Fink on the Giants’ deals
Link to story about Cohen and Matz
Link to Luke Hooper on the Graveman signing
Link to Korean report on corporal punishment
Link to “Fighting!” expression
Link to “You’ve worked hard!” expression
Link to first EW Stove League discussion
Link to Stove League teaser video
Link to Stove League review
Link to stream Stove League via Kocowa
Link to stream Stove League via Viki

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FanGraphs Audio: Ballots on the Brain

Episode 950

We bring you an early episode before the holiday with discussions on how the Cy Young ballots were filled out and how the Hall of Fame ballots were constructed.

  • To begin the show, David Laurila is joined by Alex Speier of The Boston Globe and C. Trent Rosecrans of The Athletic to discuss their Cy Young ballots. It was a tight race in both leagues this year, and Alex recently wrote on how the voting process helped him reimagine how he evaluates pitching analytics. The trio have an in-depth conversation on things like ERA, FIP, quality versus quantity of innings, and how our views on these things have evolved over time. [2:31]
  • After that, Jay Jaffe welcomes Adam Darowski, head of user experience at Sports Reference, to talk about the arrival of the Hall of Fame ballots. Jay joined Adam on his own podcast back in August to discuss the formation of the Early Baseball and Golden Days ballots, and now that those have been revealed as well, they take a closer look at the many players through history who deserve more recognition. The pair go over a number of worthwhile figures on the ballots as well as some of the complex contexts involved in their candidacies, including the fact that some are still with us today. [38:15]

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Audio after the jump. (Approximate 1 hour 14 minutes play time.)


Graveman Takes Rejuvenated Career to Chicago’s South Side

It’s a good time to be a pitcher: The market for hurlers has been ablaze with rumors and signings, and we haven’t even reached Thanksgiving. The latest move comes from the White Sox, who have signed reliever Kendall Graveman to a three-year, $24 million deal, per MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. He is already the fifth pitcher to sign a multi-year deal so far this offseason, and the sixth pitcher to come off our Top 50 free agent list, where he was ranked at No. 45.

Graveman spent his mid-20s as a starter for the A’s, posting elite ground-ball rates and minimal strikeouts — a recipe that never quite worked out, as by the time he had Tommy John surgery in 2018, he had a career ERA of 4.38, a FIP of 4.54, and a strikeout rate of only 15%. He returned to the big leagues in 2020 with the Mariners, which is where we first got a glimpse of his new form, with a 3.60 ERA and 3.09 FIP in a month of bullpen work to close out the season.

His successful transition to the ‘pen after struggling as a starter is hardly a new story, yet Graveman and his aversion to whiffs isn’t exactly the prototype you look for when trying to create a great reliever. One of the keys for him, as is often the case, came from tapping into unseen velocity when pitching shorter relief outings; what once was a 93-mph sinker now sat 96 and touched 99.

The velocity carried over into 2021, and with it, newfound run suppression, as he became a dominant closer for the surprising Mariners. By the time the trade deadline rolled around, Graveman had a 0.82 ERA, and while his peripherals (a 2.90 FIP and 3.13 xFIP) may have suggested he was closer to a good reliever than an elite one, it was still clear that the move to the bullpen had turned his career around. The Astros acquired him at the deadline to bolster their bullpen for the playoffs, and while still good, he regressed closer to what his peripherals had said all along, putting up a 3.13 ERA the rest of the way.

There is more to Graveman’s ascension than merely adding velocity. If you’re a reader of David Laurila’s Sunday Notes, then you may already know about the development of his slider. Prior to last season, Graveman’s breaking ball was slow and lackluster, but with coaching and instruction from Seattle, he started throwing it like a fastball. That helps explain why the breaker he threw 17.9% of the time this year came in about seven mph harder than the ones he threw in Oakland.

This new pitch is something Graveman can consistently get whiffs with. He had a 20.1% SwStr% on the pitch this year, making it even better than a league-average slider at delivering whiffs (16.2%). That was the first season he had a SwStr% over 7.6%, and he ran it all the way up to 10.7%. He certainly has some characteristics of an elite reliever now that he carries a high 90s fastball and a whiff-inducing slider; combined with his ability to get grounders, he becomes a fascinating addition to this White Sox bullpen.

Speaking of that bullpen: If you’re keeping track at home, Chicago now has three guys that spent large chunks of the 2021 season as a closer, accumulating a combined 72 saves: Graveman; Liam Hendriks, who was signed last offseason to a four-year deal and finished eighth in the AL Cy Young voting; and Craig Kimbrel, who was acquired at the deadline after having a bounce-back first half as the Cubs’ closer. For now, Graveman would likely be setting up those two, as well as the left-handed Aaron Bummer, in what currently looks to be a very formidable ‘pen.

White Sox Projected Bullpen (2021 Stats)
IP ERA- FIP- K% BB%
Liam Hendriks 71 59 54 42.3% 2.6%
Craig Kimbrel 59.2 53 55 42.6% 9.8%
Aaron Bummer 56.1 82 67 31% 12%
Kendall Graveman 56 42 76 27.5% 9.1%
Garrett Crochet 54.1 65 64 28.3% 11.7%
Ryan Burr 36.2 57 96 21.9% 13.9%
José Ruiz 65 71 91 23.2% 9.2%

Last season, Chicago’s bullpen had the best K-BB% in baseball, as well as the fourth best FIP, but finished 12th in ERA; there were clearly a lot of talented arms even if the run-suppression didn’t quite stack up. Adding Graveman to that bullpen may seem like overkill, but the White Sox haven’t been shy about their interest in dealing Kimbrel after picking up his $16 million option for the 2022 season. His acquisition didn’t come cheap for the Sox, who traded away Nick Madrigal and reliever Codi Heuer, and Kimbrel faltered in his new home, putting up a 5.09 ERA and 4.56 FIP. If they can pull off a trade in which the other team takes on all $16 million owed to him, they could theoretically replace his production with Graveman’s at half the cost. Of other note is the role that Michael Kopech will play in 2022. After sitting out the 2020 season, he was used as a reliever last season to manage his workload but is expected to join the rotation in place of departed free agent Carlos Rodón, creating another potential bullpen hole to fill.

Regardless of what happens with Kimbrel, or how Kopech is used, Graveman provides a unique look for a bullpen flush with guys pumping high-90s four-seamers.

White Sox Projected Bullpen (Characteristics)
Throws Release Height (Ft.) Fastball Type Fastball Rate Breaking Ball Type Breaking Ball Rate GB%
Liam Hendriks R 5.91 Four-seam 68.9% Slider 21.6% 32.6%
Craig Kimbrel R 4.84 Four-seam 59.3% Curve 40.7% 30.3%
Aaron Bummer L 5.46 Sinker 62% Slider 29.6% 76.1%
Kendall Graveman R 5.71 Sinker 63.3% Slider 17.8% 54.9%
Garrett Crochet L 6.46 Four-seam 64.3% Slider 27.8% 40.2%
Ryan Burr R 6.56 Four-seam 50.3% Cutter 40.1% 57%
José Ruiz R 6.19 Four-seam 59.5% Curve 35.8% 41.8%

No bullpen threw more four-seam fastballs than the White Sox last year, at over 50%, and they also had the eighth-lowest sinker usage rate. That led to a bullpen that was second in strikeouts but middle of the pack in grounders. Graveman should step in nicely as a right-handed complement to Bummer, as both can come into the late innings and get grounders while throwing strikes.

The White Sox don’t seem like a team that’s done making moves, even as their projected payroll is now $35 million higher than last year’s. They have a strong need for a second baseman, and who knows what will happen with a potential Kimbrel trade. It’s possible that by the time the postseason is over, the acquisition of Graveman will be long overshadowed, but the crucial innings he’ll be throwing over the next few seasons should continue to bring him back into the spotlight.


Wander Franco Lands A Monster Deal

How good was phenom Wander Franco’s rookie season in 2021? So good that it actually compelled the Tampa Bay Rays to spend money. Just before Turkey Day, the team and Franco came to an agreement on a massive deal that could reach 12 years and $223 million.

Since this is baseball, this isn’t one of those NFL deals in which someone lands a comma-laden top number but, when you read the finer details, it turns out that a huge chunk of that money is a roster bonus due in four years that will never be paid off. Eleven years and $182 million of Franco’s deal is guaranteed, with the bulk of the rest coming from a $25 million club option for 2033 and a little more in incentives that kick in for finishing the top five in the AL MVP voting starting in 2028.

This deal is the new all-time record for a player with less than a full year of service time; the previous no. 1 was Ronald Acuña Jr.‘s extension worth up to $100 million, an agreement that this one essentially laps. Fernando Tatis Jr.’s contract is a larger one at 14 years and $340 million, but he was also a player who had cleared two years of service time when he signed on the dotted line, giving him more financial leverage over the Padres.

Franco finished “only” third in AL Rookie of the Year voting, but this was largely due to the fact that voters give a heavy penalty to a great player with less playing time, something I have direct experience with. The winner, his teammate Randy Arozarena, bested him in WAR, 3.3 to 2.5, but he needed twice as many games to get that far above replacement level. There was little question Franco was ready, as he hit .313/.372/.583 in 40 games for Triple-A Durham. These weren’t flash Albuquerque or Las Vegas numbers either; ZiPS translated that performance as a .281/.328/.473 line, not all that different from the actual .288/.347/.463 line he put up for Tampa Bay.

In case it already wasn’t clear after years of him being the consensus best prospect in baseball, the ZiPS projection for Franco is also that of a young star.

ZiPS Projection – Wander Franco
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .282 .333 .464 500 78 141 28 9 15 67 38 8 120 4 3.9
2023 .289 .345 .497 481 79 139 29 10 17 70 40 9 132 4 4.6
2024 .292 .351 .510 486 82 142 30 11 18 73 43 8 137 4 5.0
2025 .292 .353 .523 486 84 142 30 11 20 76 45 8 140 4 5.2
2026 .291 .356 .532 481 84 140 29 12 21 77 48 8 144 5 5.5
2027 .291 .358 .533 478 85 139 29 12 21 78 49 8 145 5 5.5
2028 .287 .356 .531 463 82 133 28 11 21 75 49 7 144 4 5.2
2029 .287 .357 .530 449 80 129 27 11 20 73 48 7 144 3 5.0
2030 .286 .354 .532 434 76 124 25 11 20 71 45 6 143 2 4.7
2031 .281 .348 .520 417 71 117 23 10 19 66 42 6 138 1 4.1
2032 .274 .337 .497 398 65 109 21 10 16 60 38 5 129 0 3.3
2033 .273 .336 .479 363 58 99 19 7 14 52 34 4 124 -1 2.7

Obviously, the potential exists for him to hit higher numbers in his peak seasons; bottom-line projections are 50th-percentile projections and will naturally be much less volatile than what actually happens. But when I ran the 2022 projections for all the likely subjects, thanks to Acuña’s ACL injury, the only player that ZiPS projects to accumulate more WAR than Franco over the rest of their respective careers is Juan Soto.

The big question out there: is the contract fair to both parties? After all, one can make the argument that Franco may have earned much more by simply playing his way through baseball’s salary process and hitting free agency after the 2027 season.

To that question, I’m in the “yes” camp. The Rays have a great deal of financial leverage with Franco two seasons away from his first arbitration year, assuming that he would achieve Super Two status after the 2023 season at two years, 104 days of service time. But by the same token, I don’t expect the Rays to pay him as if he were a free agent, either. What I personally like to see is a contract that reflects the risks that both parties take in a long-term deal without being grossly weighted in one direction or the other. Call it actuarial fetishism, but a contract like Ozzie Albies‘ seven-year, $35 million contract offends me as an analyst in a way that this deal does not.

I’m not sure why I haven’t built this into the standard ZiPS model (I probably will after this ZiPS season is over), but I constructed a small simulation for how much Franco could make going year-to-year and then signing a mega-deal relative to what he will actually get. In the 50th-percentile projection, with near-minimum salaries in 2022 and ’23, arbitration projections, and free-agent contract projections, ZiPS estimates $297 million over the next 12 years. This is well above the $223 million he can max out at, but that’s not the whole story, either. The upside isn’t tremendously high, with the 90th-percentile projection going up to $360 million. Franco could figure out how to pitch like Jacob deGrom this offseason, and he’ll still get relatively paltry sums of money for the next few years; arbitration awards don’t scale up linearly for superstars. And the downside is significant. His 10th-percentile result ends up with him making less than $20 million over his career, and in 35% of the simulations, he falls short of $182 million. By comparison, at the time of their signings, Acuña falls short of his guaranteed deal only 17% of the time, and Albies does worse only 9% of the time. Another natural comparison is when the Rays signed Evan Longoria a week into his major league career to a contract worth a guaranteed $17.5 million over six years; ZiPS only had him doing worse than that contract in 11% of the simulations.

The future is a very uncertain thing, as demonstrated by the very weak 2021 seasons from Cody Bellinger and Gleyber Torres. Those young stars would probably be better off right now if they had signed $150 million contracts after their rookie campaigns. Since every Mets fan is born with a genetic catalog of tales of sadness and loss, ask someone in Queens their feelings about Gregg Jefferies, who put up an OPS over 1.000 as a 19-year-old for Double-A Tidewater and a .961 OPS in his first cup of coffee before settling into a respectable, but disappointing, 20-WAR career.

No matter what happens with Franco, he’s basically a fifth of the way to becoming a billionaire before the taxman gets involved. The Rays leveraged their position — as you expect people to do in salary negotiations — but not in a grotesque way. If I were an agent and Franco were my client, I’d raise no fuss about him taking this deal. He’s one of baseball’s bright young stars, one MLB would be wise to market around, and now he can afford an entourage worthy of his abilities. Thumbs up all around from me.


JAWS and the 2022 Hall of Fame Ballot: Todd Helton

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2022 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2019 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Baseball at high altitude is weird. The air is less dense, so pitched balls break less and batted balls carry farther — conditions that greatly favor the hitters. Meanwhile, reduced oxygen levels make breathing harder, physical exertion more costly, and recovery times longer. Ever since major league baseball arrived in Colorado in 1993, no player put up with more of this, the pros and cons of playing at a mile-high elevation, than Todd Helton.

A Knoxville native whose career path initially led to the gridiron, ahead of Peyton Manning on the University of Tennessee quarterback depth chart, Helton shifted his emphasis back to baseball in college and spent his entire 17-year career (1997–2013) playing for the Rockies. “The Toddfather” was without a doubt the greatest player in franchise history, its leader in most major offensive counting stat categories. He made five All-Star teams, won three Gold Gloves, a slash line triple crown — leading in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in the same season — and served as a starter and a team leader for two playoff teams, including Colorado’s only pennant winner. He posted batting averages above .300 12 times, on-base percentages above .400 nine times, and slugging percentages above .500 eight times. He mashed 40 doubles or more seven times and 30 homers or more six times; twice, he topped 400 total bases, a feat that only one other player (Sammy Sosa) has repeated in the post-1960 expansion era. He drew at least 100 walks in a season five times, yet only struck out 100 times or more once; nine times, he walked more than he struck out.

Because Helton did all of this while spending half of his time at Coors Field, many dismiss his accomplishments without a second thought. That he did so with as little self-promotion as possible — and scarcely more exposure — while toiling for a team that had the majors’ sixth-worst record during his tenure makes such dismissal that much easier, as does the drop-off at the tail end of his career, when injuries, most notably chronic back woes, had sapped his power. He was “The Greatest Player Nobody Knows,” as The New York Times called him in 2000, a year when he flirted with a .400 batting average into September.

Thanks to Helton’s staying power, and to advanced statistics that adjust for the high-offense environment in a particularly high-scoring period in baseball history, we can more clearly see that he ranked among his era’s best players, and has credentials that wouldn’t be out of place in Cooperstown. But like former teammate Larry Walker, a more complete player who spent just 59% of his career with the Rockies, Helton’s candidacy started slowly. He received just 16.5% of the vote in his first year, 3.8% less than Walker did in his 2011 debut, but thanks to a less crowded ballot — and perhaps Walker’s coattails, as he jumped 22 percentage points and was elected in his final year of eligibility — Helton rose to 29.2% on the 2020 ballot, and to 44.9% in ’21; those gains were the fourth- and second-largest among all candidates, respectively. While he still has a ways to go before he can join his former teammate in the Hall of Fame, he has a very good shot this year at crossing the 50% threshold, above which every candidate besides those currently on the ballot has been elected, save for Gil Hodges.

2022 BBWAA Candidate: Todd Helton
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Todd Helton 61.8 46.6 54.2
Avg. HOF 1B 66.9 42.7 54.8
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2,519 369 .316/.414/.539 133
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

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In One Day, Giants Bring Back Two Key Starting Pitchers

Even coming off of a 107-win season and the NL West title, the Giants found themselves in a rather difficult position entering this offseason. A starting rotation worth a combined 16.5 WAR last season — good for fifth highest in the majors — found itself at risk of losing four mainstays who combined for 610.2 of the 831.1 innings that it logged last season: Kevin Gausman (192 IP), Anthony DeSclafani (167.2), Alex Wood (138.2), and Johnny Cueto (114.2). On Monday, the team brought two of those hurlers back into the fold, striking a three-year, $36 million agreement with DeScalafani and a two-year contract worth more than $10 million annually with Wood. Within one hour, the Giants brought back 40% of their 2021 starting rotation and solidified a potential weak point.

As with most of their teammates, DeSclafani and Wood had near-career years in black and orange last season, and they cashed in with nice new contracts before the calendar hit December. The former came in at No. 36 on our top 50 free agents list, with Ben Clemens projecting a two-year, $20 million contract and the median FanGraphs reader estimating two years and $19.5 million. Clearly, the Giants had to go an extra year to get that done. Wood, meanwhile, was unranked on our list, though Ben noted that he had considered slotting him at No. 50, and that the crowdsourced projection had him earning a three-year, $33 million deal. Read the rest of this entry »


A Conversation With Milwaukee Brewers Prospect Joe Gray Jr.

Joe Gray Jr. possesses some of the best raw talent in the Milwaukee Brewers system. A second-round pick in the 2018 draft out of Hattiesburg (Mississippi) High School, the 21-year-old outfielder is coming off a season where he slashed .252/.355/.499 between Low-A Carolina and High-A Wisconsin. Augmenting those numbers were 23 stolen bases, 22 doubles, nine triples, and 20 home runs in 479 plate appearances. Called “a high-risk/reward prospect” by Eric Longenhagen earlier this summer, Gray Jr. capped off his 2021 campaign by competing in the Arizona Fall League with the Salt River Rafters.

Currently Milwaukee’s No. 12 prospect, per The Board, he discussed his development during the penultimate week of AFL action.

———

David Laurila: To start, who are you as a hitter?

Joe Gray Jr.: “I’d say I’m still figuring it out. I’m still young and learning to let my body work how it works and not be restricted. That’s what I’m trying to do right now. But I know what I can do. I’m a guy who can drive the ball when I get a pitch out over the plate. I’ve just got to play to my strengths. As I get older and more experienced, through repetitions and at bats, I know it will come.

“Again, I can’t necessarily put too much into ‘who I am.’ I’m not going to put pressure on myself, trying to make sure I’m down with it tomorrow or even next week. This is my first full season, so I’m still trying to figure myself out.”

Laurila: Can you say a little bit more about learning your body, and not restricting yourself? Your level of athleticism is obviously high. Read the rest of this entry »


Chin Music, Episode 41: Drinking Milk and Eating Cherries

Let’s do a quick podcast, I said to Jon Tayler. We’ll just do listener emails and give people a little something going into the holidays, I added. More than two hours later, here we are. We talk about the breaking news of a Wander Franco extension, give a quick labor update, and then it’s your emails — 17 of them to be exact. From free agent decisions, to Total Bases Ball updates to difficult music decisions, we ramble on and on, while hoping that said ramblings help get you through an enjoyable and safe holiday. We’ll be back next week with a more normal episode, whatever that means.

As always, we hope you enjoy, and thank you for listening.

Music by Kowloon Walled City.

Have a question you’d like answered on the show? Ask us anything at chinmusic@fangraphs.com.

You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Warning One: While ostensibly a podcast about baseball, these conversations often veer into other subjects.

Warning Two: There is explicit language.

Run Time: 2:10:52


Effectively Wild Episode 1776: How Can You Not Be Romantic About Baseball?

EWFI
Ben Lindbergh talks to baseball writer and romance novelist KD Casey about Unwritten Rules, her new romance novel about catchers and catcher framing, focusing on her history as a fan and writer, the intersection of sports and romance fiction, fictionalizing MLB teams, delivering details about baseball without alienating readers who aren’t fans, the ethics of dating a teammate, why MLB still hasn’t had a publicly out active player, the legacy of Glenn Burke, whether it’s harder to write baseball scenes or sex scenes, picking the cover model for a baseball romance novel, calibrating readers’ romance expectations, and more. Then (1:08:22) Ben brings on Baseball Prospectus author Gerald Schifman to discuss his latest research into whether shadows creeping across the field actually affect offensive performance.

Audio intro: Julian Lennon, “Kiss Beyond the Catcher
Audio interstitial: Dion, “In and Out of the Shadows
Audio outro: Great Lake Swimmers, “Catcher Song

Link to Unwritten Rules publisher page
Link to Unwritten Rules Goodreads page
Link to KD’s website
Link to all of KD’s books
Link to KD’s social media landing page
Link to KD on Jewish families
Link to vote in Reads Rainbow Awards
Link to Ben’s 2013 framing piece
Link to most-read Goodreads baseball books
Link to Goodreads baseball romance books
Link to Emma Span on baseball slash fiction
Link to Billy Beane/Theo Epstein story
Link to podcast about Pitch
Link to retrospective Pitch piece
Link to EW episode with Billy Bean
Link to story about Burke
Link to Burke bio Singled Out
Link to excerpt from Burke bio
Link to Andrew Maraniss on Burke
Link to True Blue LA interview about Burke
Link to The Athletic interview about Burke
Link to Moneyball “romantic” scene
Link to Gerald’s first shadows study
Link to Gerald’s second shadows study
Link to Stove League teaser video
Link to Stove League review
Link to stream Stove League via Kocowa
Link to stream Stove League via Viki

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