Author Archive

Let’s Have Fun With Non-Neutral Games Contexts

As I was browsing through Baseball Twitter a few days ago (terrible habit, I suggest you avoid it), I came across an interesting question:

My brain loves puzzles and answering questions, so I decided to vote. The obvious choice is Player C. He’s the best hitter, and I want my best hitter in the most important situations. The point of the exercise has to be to dunk on fans who think Player A is clutch, right?

Well, essentially yes. The players in this question are 2019 DJ LeMahieu, 2014 Giancarlo Stanton, and 2017 Aaron Judge. Yankees fans were really into LeMahieu in 2019, to the point of advocating for him as MVP, and while he was certainly a good hitter, he’s not Aaron Judge.

But don’t stop the analysis there, because something important is missing. Picking the best hitter is easy — as long as you define best correctly. For example, ISO shouldn’t enter into your decision at all. With the bases loaded and two outs, there’s not much difference between a single and a home run, and there’s definitely no difference between a double and a home run. Power stats aren’t relevant here. Read the rest of this entry »


Marcell Ozuna is Headed to Atlanta

In 2019, the Atlanta Braves were the class of the NL East, buoyed by the star tandem of Ronald Acuña Jr. and Josh Donaldson. But the division is hardly locked up for 2020 — the rival Nationals won the freaking World Series, and the Mets and Phillies are no pushovers. With Donaldson stocking up on winter clothing, the Braves had a hole in the lineup to fill. The early signings of Will Smith, Travis d’Arnaud, and Cole Hamels were nice enough, but they didn’t replace Donaldson’s WAR or his lineup-anchoring bat.

Well, the Braves came closer to replacing the Bringer of Rain’s production yesterday, signing Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million contract. The details are straightforward: one year, no options, and no incentive bonuses. As the Cardinals offered Ozuna a qualifying offer, the club will forfeit their third round draft pick (having forfeited their second round pick to sign Will Smith), though they’ll receive a slightly earlier pick back (after Competitive Balance Round B) due to Donaldson’s declined offer.

At surface level, this deal is a tremendous win for the Braves. The NL East, as mentioned above, is wildly competitive. Our Depth Chart projections peg the team as roughly a win behind the Nationals and Mets, the part of the win curve where additional talent is most valuable. And the Braves are making a clean upgrade; before signing Ozuna, their likely outfield consisted of Acuña, a diminished Ender Inciarte, a whatever-is-past-diminished Nick Markakis, and if you’re being generous in your definition of major leaguers, perhaps Adam Duvall.

Ozuna is better than all of those non-Acuña guys, and better by a lot. ZiPS projects him for 2.8 WAR in 2020:

ZiPS Projection – Marcell Ozuna
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2020 .281 .346 .504 470 70 132 23 2 26 94 46 104 7 119 3 2.8

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Carlos Martínez Epitomizes Contextual Value, and Other Business School Buzzwords

In recent years, moving a middling starter to relief and discovering a stud has become something of a baseball trope. Spare Andrew Miller or Drew Pomeranz on your hands? Chuck them in the bullpen and they’ll improve. Wade Davis doesn’t thrill you as a starter? Let him relieve and he’ll add velo and win you a World Series.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should simply make every starter a reliever. The gains you would get from making Max Scherzer a reliever (An even higher strikeout rate! Even more velo! Even more grunts!) don’t come close to the losses in innings pitched. When you have a great pitcher, it’s key to give them as much playing time as possible, even at the cost of efficiency. Reliever Scherzer might be untouchable, but then you get 60 innings of him and 150 innings of starts from Joe Triple-A.

This logic brings us, unerringly, to Carlos Martínez. Martínez is an excellent test case for the boundaries of starter-to-reliever conversions. As a reliever, he’s been spectacular — he had a 3.17 ERA, 2.86 FIP, and sparkling strikeout and walk numbers out of the bullpen in 2019, and was similarly good there in 2018. At the same time, he’s an above average starter. He boasts a career 3.36 ERA (and 3.61 FIP) in the rotation.

So where should the Cardinals use him? There’s some chance the decision is made for them — in 2019, he started the season on the Injured List and the team prioritized getting him back to the majors over getting him stretched out for starting. But in 2020, it will come down to a philosophical question: would you prefer an effective starter or a phenomenal reliever?

The reason our brains know without hesitation that borderline starters make good conversion candidates while moving Scherzer makes no sense is an intuitive application of marginal value. The value of a bullpen conversion comes down to two things: how much run prevention the pitcher provides relative to the next available pitcher in each role, and how many innings they can pitch in that role. Read the rest of this entry »


The Hot Corner’s Hot Stove

Before the offseason started, it looked like a fine time to be in the market for a third baseman. Want to shop at the top of the market? The top position player to reach free agency, Anthony Rendon, calls third base home. The second-best position player in free agency does too. In the market for a Honda rather than a BMW? Mike Moustakas, Eric Sogard, and Starlin Castro all spent time at the hot corner in 2019. Looking for a fixer-upper? Take a gander at Travis Shaw, Maikel Franco, or Brock Holt.

Even if you weren’t going to sign someone out of that group, the trade market seemed open as well. Kris Bryant, who can play a lot of places but is most comfortable at third, was rumored to be available. Nolan Arenado could be had if you could whisper the right words in Jeff Bridich’s ear — presumably words involving the names of a few prospects and maybe a negotiating class about the value of opt-outs. You could have Zack Cozart for cheaper than free (act now and receive a bonus Will Wilson!) if you wanted to bet on an improbable rebound.

But the heady days of third basemen flowing like wine are gone. When Donaldson signed with the Twins, he took the last obvious move away from teams looking to upgrade at third. Rendon is in Anaheim, the mid-tier options have all accepted deals, and Holt and Brad Miller are probably the best two third basemen available. Even the trade markets have cooled; Cozart is now available for free (rather than at a pickup), but Bryant’s market never got going and the Cardinals appear to be Arenado’s only suitor.

For teams still missing a third baseman, it’s looking grim. Because while it felt like there was a tsunami of available talent, baseball is a zero-sum game. Short of some new prospects to fill the ranks, Anaheim’s gain is Washington’s loss, and so on. Yes, there were a lot of third basemen available this offseason, but there were even more teams looking.

There are six teams that can credibly be called contenders and still need help at third base. Let’s walk through each of their situations and see what’s likely to shake out. Read the rest of this entry »


The Best (Expected) Secondary Pitches of 2019

Yesterday, I put every fastball thrown in baseball last year into a giant spreadsheet to come up with expected pitch values. Well fine, it was a small snippet of code, not a giant spreadsheet. But the output came in a giant spreadsheet! In any case, the idea is pretty straightforward: look at a player’s pitches, substitute in xwOBA-based contact numbers instead of actual results, and call it a metric.

Today, I’m completing the set. Well, I’m kind of completing the set; I ignored knuckleballs because there aren’t enough of them, and secondary offerings are more complex. Due to differing classification systems, I scraped breaking balls (sliders, curveballs, knuckle curves, and even cutters) and offspeed pitches as a single pitch type. Otherwise, we might end up with something like Nick Anderson — classification systems can’t decide if he throws a curve or a slider.

One more thing: the system is heartless. No human could argue that this wasn’t the best curveball of the year:

Or if not that one, then this one, with bonus Eric Lauer bewilderment and Greinke sprinting:

Slow curves are undoubtedly the best curves, results be damned. But the soulless calculation robot doesn’t agree with me on that, caring about “whether the opposition hit it” and “whether it gets strikes” instead of “whether Ben audibly giggles when the pitch is thrown.” To each their own, I suppose. Read the rest of this entry »


The Best (Expected) Fastballs of 2019

If you’re into FanGraphs’ linear pitch values, there was a many-way tie for the single most valuable pitch of the year. As the pitch values are context-neutral and count-adjusted, the best pitch you can throw is a 3-0 pitch that retires a batter. 3-0 is the worst count you can be in as a pitcher, and an out is the best possible outcome. Here’s one:

Wait a second. That doesn’t look like a very good pitch at all! Yasiel Puig got robbed there; that’s a 400-foot laser beam, at pretty much the optimum home run angle. He just happened to catch the deepest part of the park, and Starling Marte is fast.

Yes, linear weights aren’t perfect. We all know that. Many of their problems are nearly impossible to fix; if a pitcher’s fastball helps set up his slider, should it get credit for some of the slider’s effectiveness? If he’s staying away from Juan Soto with first base open and a man on third, should we dock those pitches for being outside the strike zone? Pitch values have their fair share of problems.

But if we can’t fix all of those problems, we can at least tackle one. When a ball is nailed like Puig did with that one, it’s usually a hit. Since 2015, we’ve had access to xwOBA, which (roughly speaking) considers the speed and angle of a given hit to assign it a value. Rather than look at the result on the field, it looks at the results of all similar batted balls. It has its shortcomings (largely related to spray angle), but it sure beats calling that Jordan Lyles pitch a good one. Read the rest of this entry »


Ben Clemens FanGraphs Chat – 1/13/20

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Dodgers Sign Alex Wood, Human Lottery Ticket

On July 5, in his last start before the All-Star game, Alex Wood was dealing. The Diamondbacks couldn’t touch him with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole. Over seven dominant innings, he struck out 10 batters, walking only two in a scoreless outing. Wood didn’t start the All-Star game, but he could have; his 2.04 FIP, 30.9% strikeout rate, 1.67 ERA, and 10-0 record had something for every stripe of fan. As he walked off the mound, the crowd at Chavez Ravine roared.

Wait — Chavez Ravine? Oh. Yeah. I left something out. That was July 5, 2017. It’s been a minute since Alex Wood was at his world-devouring best. In the second half of that season, he was ordinary, potentially sub-ordinary. His strikeout rate fell 12 points, his FIP more than doubled, and the Dodgers started managing his workload. The culprit? It can often be hard to pin one down, but in this case, well:

Not what you like to see. The Dodgers skipped his spot in the rotation once, hoping he’d recover, but never put him on the IL. He averaged 90.4 mph on his fastball in the playoffs, and while he was mostly effective, the early-season magic never came back. Read the rest of this entry »


Rays and Cardinals Go Back to the Well

Imagine, if you will, running the Rays. As you ponder your next fleecing acquisition, a lackey rushes in. “Sir! I’ve found a new undervalued talent to acquire!” Before you can even ask, he continues. “He’s on the Cardinals, and his name is Randy Ar–.”

“The Cardinals?!?” You thought you’d trained your lackeys better. “They probably won’t even take our phone calls. They hate us! They never forgave us for that time we sent them Revelation Cabrera.”

Génesis, sir. And I’ve got that angle covered. We’ve been working on our player operations department, as you know. And Kean, the new recruit we released to bring us back information from other clubs? He already has a mole.”

Of course, this isn’t how major league front offices work. They all have each other on speed dial. They go to the same conferences, hire people back and forth, and value players using roughly similar frameworks. One bad trade isn’t enough to jam up the works; teams understand that baseball players have unknowable and variable outcomes, that sometimes Tommy Pham is a key cog and sometimes he hurts his hip.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk details. Thursday night, the Rays sent Matthew Liberatore, Edgardo Rodriguez, and a Competitive Balance Round B pick to the Cardinals in exchange for Randy Arozarena, José Martínez, and a Competitive Balance Round A pick. That’s a lot of moving parts, so we’ll break them down one by one before talking about the overarching strategy behind it. Read the rest of this entry »


Which Types of Teams are Signing Free Agents? An Update

Last month, I set out to investigate whether the 2019-2020 offseason was a sea change in terms of teams outside the playoffs signing free agents. I can save you the click on that link — it wasn’t. At the time, things were leaning toward the less-egalitarian end of the spectrum; weighted by WAR, the average free agent was joining a team with a .545 record in 2019.

But that was a month ago, and many more signings have happened since then. All kinds of bad or in-the-middle teams have been getting into the act; the Blue Jays signed Hyun-Jin Ryu, the White Sox continued their bonanza, and the Diamondbacks signed Madison Bumgarner. There were smaller moves as well — Tanner Roark also joined the Blue Jays; Julio Teheran is an Angel now. Even the Tigers signed a few veterans.

Of course, playoff teams from 2019 added free agents as well. The Nationals fortified their bullpen with Will Harris and Daniel Hudson (plus bonus Starlin Castro action), and the Twins added Rich Hill and Homer Bailey. The point is, it’s not obvious whether the haves or have nots have done better since then.

Let’s look at a quick update first. First, there’s the rough cut; the total wins acquired in the offseason so far. Playoff teams are still acquiring more than half of the WAR available in free agency: Read the rest of this entry »