Archive for November, 2015

Where Jordan Zimmermann Is Trending Up

With Jordan Zimmermann, it’s so easy to focus on the downside. You’ve got a pitcher, coming up on 30, who’s already had Tommy John surgery once. He just posted a second-half ERA north of 4 despite playing in a woeful division, and he just lost a bunch of strikeouts, and he also just lost some fastball velocity. Every pitcher has red flags, and Zimmermann might have one or two more than usual. We’re all to some extent risk-averse, so it might not immediately seem like a great idea to guarantee Zimmermann $110 million over five years. In an ideal world, you’d like a bit more certainty.

Not that there’s ever such a thing as certainty. Someone as certain as, say, Carl Crawford dropped 8 WAR in between leaving the Rays for the Red Sox. Certainty is a lie, and beyond that, it’s not like Zimmermann wasn’t most recently good. By whatever measure, he had a three-win season. It was his fifth in a row. Zimmermann does actually seem fairly steady, even if you figure he peaked in 2014.

And underneath, Zimmermann has something going on. Most people are concerned with what’s physically going on. And, admittedly, what I’m going to highlight has an unclear link to ultimate performance. But Zimmermann has been changing himself, and in one way, he continued something he began two years ago.

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With Happ, Blue Jays Complete Purely Cromulent Rotation

With the signing of J.A. Happ to a three year, $36 million contract, the Blue Jays seem to have turned the corner on their 2015 ace, David Price. So in that sense, for Blue Jays fans, the Happ signing is not a Happ-y occurrence… Has everybody left? Okay! Time to get down to business. While we are all focused on the big-name free agents, like Price, picking their new and surely happy homes, the almost-AL Champs north of the border have been somewhat quietly going about the business of doing lots of business, and that business has been assembling a rotation that can take advantage of their offense.

Happ is the third starting pitcher the Jays have brought in or back since the season ended. Recall that they re-signed Marco Estrada to a two year deal, and then traded Liam Hendriks to Oakland for Jesse Chavez. Now they bring back Happ, a member of the Jays as recently as 2014. With R.A. Dickey and Marcus Stroman, that’s five starting pitchers under team control for next season. While Happ represents likely the last and largest free agent outlay by the Blue Jays organization for a starting pitcher this offseason, that doesn’t mean the team is completely done. With Happ, the team has $92 million committed to seven players in 2016 and none of those seven are Josh Donaldson, meaning adding an eighth player will make that figure meaningfully larger. Last season Toronto spent $137 million, their highest payroll ever, and though reports are a bit conflicting, they don’t seem likely to go much beyond that if at all for 2016. Assuming that’s all true, fitting David Price’s salary in would have meant cutting some muscle from the payroll, and doing that likely would have meant cutting muscle from Toronto’s greatest strength, their offense.

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The Worst Opposite-Field Hitter on Record

The Red Sox signed one of the Chris Youngs — the one who can hit. Terms haven’t yet been announced, or at least, terms hadn’t yet been announced when I first heard about this, and I haven’t bothered to check again since. It doesn’t really matter. He’ll get some millions over some years, and it will be neither great nor terrible, and whether Young is a success will probably come down to about five or ten swings per season. If they’re doubles or homers, terrific. If they’re outs, bad investment. So it goes with the role players. So it goes with everybody.

It’s fun that there are multiple Chris Youngs. It’s all the more fun they’re both weird and exceptional, extreme representations of ordinary profiles. The pitcher is unusually tall, and he throws unusually slow, and he generates an unusual amount of fly balls. The outfielder is also strange, and here’s a plot of part of his career profile:


Young hits a ton of balls in the air. A relative ton of those remain close to the infield. Young pulls the majority of his balls in play. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Young is sitting on a pretty low career BABIP, despite having a good amount of footspeed. Young isn’t the most difficult hitter to defend. You tend to know where the ball’s going, and then it’s a matter of covering as much of that limited ground as possible.

So, yeah, both Chris Youngs are fly-ball machines. They both get pop-ups and run low BABIPs. These are neat and coincidental fun facts. But let’s focus on that pull rate. Also, on the inversely-related opposite-field rate. Young does his damage hitting to left and left-center. He’s the worst opposite-field hitter we have on record.

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JABO: Honoring the Minor League Home Run King

Usually, the retirement of a 37-year-old journeyman who spent the vast majority of his 20-year career in the minor leagues is not a cause for reflection by most fans of major league baseball. A cause of wonderment, perhaps, at the drive of a player who would, year after year, continue to play past the point at which a full-time major league dream seemed out of reach. That assumes, however, that the player wasn’t incredibly accomplished, and just this past season set the minor league record for home runs. All of it assumes the player isn’t Mike Hessman, the modern-day embodiment of Crash Davis.

Hessman’s is a true baseball life – not that of a storied major league slugger, or a fire-balling ace who won 300 games – but a player who epitomizes the never-say-die attitude at the heart of many a great sports story. That perseverance deserves recognition, and today, we’re going to highlight Hessman’s career through a few key facts and graphics to try to capture just how special and zany it was.

First, the easy one: the home runs. Hessman hit a lot of them. Out of a total of 454 professional dingers, he hit 433 in the minors, 14 in the majors, six in Japan, and one while playing in Venezuela. Take a look at his career home runs by level:


It took Hessman almost six years to make it to Triple-A after being drafted by Atlanta out of high school, but when he arrived, he stuck around. While he would compile 109 games in the major leagues with the Braves, Tigers, and Mets, his most permanent team was the Toledo Mud Hens, the Triple-A affiliate for the Detroit Tigers. He spent five years bashing a combined 140 homers for them between 2005 and 2009; in 2015, he reunited with them to add on another 16, including his record-breaking 433rd, a fitting go-ahead grand slam to left:

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Effectively Wild Episode 775: The Happ/Zimmermann Contract Conundrums

Ben and Sam discuss the perplexities of the J.A. Happ and Jordan Zimmermann signings.

Tigers Sign Perfectly Fine Zimmermann to Perfectly Fine Deal

For four consecutive years, the Detroit Tigers sat comfortably atop the throne of the American League Central Division. Last year, they relinquished that reign and did so in dramatic fashion, fielding the franchise’s worst rotation since the 119-loss Tigers of 2003 while plummeting to last place in the division.

Clearly, the Tigers were going to add a pitcher or three in the offseason. The question was, would it be a series of band-aids to stop the bleeding, or something bigger to put them back on the attack? On Sunday, that question was answered, when the Tigers agreed to terms with Jordan Zimmermann.

Those terms, precisely, are five years and $110 million, which is less than the 6/120 that our crowdsourcing project predicted. In past years, the crowd has tended to err on the low side, especially with high-profile free agents, so any time a guy signs for less, it looks good for the team.

In fact, if you start with Zimmermann’s +3 WAR Steamer projection for 2016, assume he ages somewhat well and factor in inflation, Zimmermann’s contract comes out as a carbon-copy of what would be considered the fair, market price:

Jordan Zimmermann’s Contract Estimate — 5 yr / $109.4 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Value
2016 30 3.0 $8.0 M $24.0 M
2017 31 2.8 $8.4 M $23.1 M
2018 32 2.5 $8.8 M $22.1 M
2019 33 2.3 $9.3 M $20.8 M
2020 34 2.0 $9.7 M $19.4 M
Totals 12.5 $109.4 M
Value: $8M/WAR with 5.0% inflation
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.25 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.5 WAR/yr (> 37)

What the Tigers are paying for here is consistency. This is a team that gave 147 innings to Buck Farmer, Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan, and Randy Wolf last year, and a team whose only qualified pitcher was Alfredo Simon. Even at the top of the rotation, there’s former workhorse Justin Verlander, who looked like his old self once returning from injury but still needs to prove he can throw 200 innings again; Anibal Sanchez, who has either been hurt or ineffective each of the last two years; and Daniel Norris, who’s never thrown more than 150 innings in professional ball and just had a cancerous growth removed from his thyroid.

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The Best Young Pitcher in the World

This post was written by the team behind NEIFI, a projection system and systematic evaluation methodology about which you can read more at their site. They also tweet @NEIFIco, and have started their own blog as well.

We’re NEIFI. We build decision systems for teams, systems that produce both evaluations and valuations. Increasingly, there’s a need for such systems to work globally, both in the literal and metaphorical sense of the word; decision makers must be able to intelligently compare the relative values of draft picks, Korean free agents, a prospect, and 30-year-old big leaguer with two years and $30 million left on his contract. We’ve now been working explicitly with international leagues for about five years, and for much longer with domestic evaluations and valuations. We believe our methodology helps to put players from wildly different contexts on a neutral playing field for cross-comparison.

A few weeks ago, members of the Baseball Writers Association of America chose Jake Arrieta as the recipient of the 2015 NL Cy Young Award, even though it’s generally agreed upon that Clayton Kershaw is currently the best pitcher on the planet right now. NEIFI has little interest in awards voting (or the subsequent debates), but we do enjoy estimating the future. Here’s how our system projects the top 10 overall talent levels among starting pitchers going into 2016, simply on a rate basis. This uses the ERA scale; league average is fixed at 4.00, and an average SP is around 4.13:

Top SP Projections for 2016
Name 2016 Age
Kershaw, Clayton 2.35 28
Fernandez, Jose 2.75 24
Sale, Chris 2.87 27
Arrieta, Jake 3.01 30
Scherzer, Max 3.03 32
Otani, Shohei 3.08 22
Keuchel, Dallas 3.13 29
Kluber, Corey 3.15 30
Price, David 3.15 31
Strasburg, Stephen 3.16 28
Darvish, Yu 3.19 30

So we actually cheated: there are 11 pitchers included there, because as you may notice, one of them is not currently pitching in Major League Baseball. Shohei Otani’s dominance may not be groundbreaking news if you follow Japanese baseball to some degree, but we find that it’s still interesting to put his projectoin in this context. And for the sake of corroborating his gaudy ranking above, consider Darvish, who actually played for the same team in Japan.

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The Obstacles for the Underpowered First Baseman

Last Monday, Eno Sarris published a post here examining the possibility — based on some reasonable questions regarding the positional adjustments which inform WAR — that giant, large slugger-types are more valuable than our typical assumptions about the market have previously indicated. Eno’s conclusion: they’re still probably not (more valuable, that is). For whatever benefits these sluggers might receive from a revision of those positional adjustments, it probably doesn’t compensate for the other deficits generally tied to this type of player.

Eno’s work rests largely on this thread of logic: first basemen (and designated hitters) aren’t particularly great long-term free-agent investments because power tends to age poorly. There is, one finds, an assumption embedded within this claim — i.e. that the value of first basemen is tied strongly to power. And the assumption is supported by evidence. Regard: in 2015, first basemen and designated hitters produced the highest isolated-power figure (ISO) among all position types. In 2014, first basemen and designated hitters also produced the highest ISO among all position types. The year before that, in 2013, first basers and DHs produced the highest ISOs. This is very probably the case for every other season, as well. Nor is this a surprising development: in order to compensate for the runs they’re unable to save on the defensive side of the ball, first basemen have to produce more runs on the offensive side of it. Compiling extra bases is the most expedient means of doing that.

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KATOH’s Top 100 Prospect List for 2016

Please note that this is not the most recent list. An updated version can be found here.

Last week, I published a 2,000-plus word primer on the KATOH projection system I use to forecast prospects. Most notably, I discussed the improvements I made to the model and also explored how well individual minor league statistics can predict big league success. Today, I’m back with the end result of all of my math: KATOH’s top 100 list.

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Sunday Notes: Cecil Fielder, Wagner, Firpo, Ducky, more

Four players propelled baseballs over the left field roof at old Tiger Stadium. Frank Howard, Harmon Killebrew and Mark McGwire did so in visiting uniforms. Cecil Fielder was the lone Detroit Tiger to achieve the feat.

Mammoth power was required to reach that rarefied air. The left field fence was 340 feet from home plate, and the roof above the second deck was 94 feet high. Those dimensions were in effect from 1938-1999, a time period that encompassed nearly 10,000 games.

Fielder donned the Olde English D from 1990-1996, and he loved home cooking. The jumbo-sized slugger averaged 35 dingers in his time as a Tiger, and he was especially productive at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. In 514 career games at Tiger Stadium, he had a .514 slugging percentage (how’s that for symmetry?).

“It was my place,” Fielder told me recently. “Great backdrop, great fan base. That ballpark was tailor made for me.”

Tiger Stadium was a relatively cozy 325 feet to right field, but it was no bandbox for right-handed hitters. Along with being 340 to left, it was a hefty 440 to straightaway center. That didn’t matter to Fielder, who could clear fences at Yellowstone, and in any direction. Read the rest of this entry »