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Semi-Eh? Blue Jays Snag Marcus Semien on One-Year Deal

The Blue Jays had already made a splash in free agency, signing George Springer to a six-year deal last week. They added to their haul yesterday, signing Marcus Semien to a one-year, $18 million contract, as Jeff Passan first reported.

Most of the deals that have gone through so far this offseason have exceed both Craig Edwards’ projections and our crowdsourced estimates. It’s been a slow offseason, sure, but not an abnormal one when it comes to the players who have actually signed. Semien breaks that trend, and it’s worth looking back at his career to see how we ended up here.

Stop your tape after 2018, and Semien looked like a competent but unspectacular regular. His batting line was almost metronomic — 97 wRC+ in 2015, 98 in ‘16, 97 in ‘17, and 97 again in ‘18. There were glimmers of something interesting going on — his strikeout rate kept dipping, he increased his contact rate without sacrificing power, and he put the ball in the air to the pull side frequently. Still, at some point you are what you are, and Semien looked like an average hitter.

One very interesting thing happened to Semien in 2018, however. He’d long been regarded as a defensive liability, both by the eye test and by advanced defensive metrics. From 2013 to 2017, DRS pegged him as 8 runs below average at shortstop, while UZR was far more pessimistic at 20 runs below average. Worse than average (for a shortstop) with his glove, roughly average with his bat — Semien looked like a league average player, a nice but forgettable piece for the A’s.

In 2018, Semien’s defense suddenly improved. It’s possible that it was already headed that way, that opinion (and noisy statistics) lagged reality. In 2015, the A’s went full Brad-Pitt-in-Moneyball and brought in Ron Washington to teach Semien defense, and it worked. Read the rest of this entry »


Musings at the Intersection of Launch Angle Consistency and Hard-Hit Rate

If you follow the work of Alex Chamberlain at all, you’ve heard of the value of launch angle consistency. I’m not going to recapitulate his body of work on the subject, but briefly: hitters with tighter launch angle distributions routinely run higher BABIPs, and you can think of launch angle consistency as roughly a proxy for “hit tool.”

Most of this comes down to avoiding terrible batted ball outcomes. The two worst things you can do when you put the ball in play are to hit it straight down or straight up. Given that balls are, on average, hit mostly forward and with a tiny bit of loft — breaking news, I know — launch angle consistency is a great proxy for how often you avoid those, because the more -80s and +80s you put in your sample of mostly 10s and 20s, the higher the standard deviation gets.

One thing I’ve often wondered is whether this idea of consistency holds up for subsets of batted balls. Intuitively, it seems like it might. Take hard-hit balls, for example. If you’re hitting the ball 95 mph or harder, you really don’t want to squander it by hitting the ball on the ground or straight into the air. The distribution peaks at 30 degrees, but anything between 10 and 35 is a solid outcome.

With this in mind, I decided to look for batters who grouped their hard-hit balls most tightly. Having a narrow distribution seems like a great way to maximize good outcomes. Which player, you ask, has the tightest launch angle consistency (I’m just using standard deviation here) on hard-hit balls? I’m glad you asked — it’s Dee Strange-Gordon. Read the rest of this entry »


Ben Clemens FanGraphs Chat – 1/25/21

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Padres Sign Profar to Play, Well, Some Position Presumably

When the Padres traded for Jurickson Profar before the 2020 season, they had a hole at second base. By the time the season started (give or take a week), Jake Cronenworth had filled that hole. But luckily for the Padres, Profar was flexible. He played the outfield for the majority of the season, more than doubling his career innings played total on the grass, and backed Cronenworth up at second while putting together the best batting line of his career. In a shortened season with heightened injury problems, his flexibility was exactly what the team needed.

On Friday, the Padres and Profar agreed to reunite, with San Diego signing him to a three-year, $21 million deal that includes opt outs after each of the first two seasons. But while Profar is headed back to southern California, what role he’ll play there remains undecided. A Padres team without many holes has spent the offseason filling in what cracks it has, leaving precious little space for more cooks in the kitchen — or so it seems.

One of the greatest unknowns facing NL teams is the DH rule. Will it come back next season? Opinions vary, and whether you can give an extra player at-bats changes roster construction significantly. The pre-Profar Friars straddled the gap between building for an extra hitter and for traditional rules. Ha-seong Kim, their prize position player signing this offseason, currently profiles as a super-utility player who starts on the bench. He could fill the DH position, but using a middle infielder (Kim is a shortstop by trade) there feels wasteful. Meanwhile, the team’s two corner outfielders, Tommy Pham and Wil Myers, are both mixed in the field. Either of them could slide to DH — Pham played DH during his tenure in Tampa — if the team could find a suitable defensive replacement. Read the rest of this entry »


The Seam-Shifted Revolution Is Headed for the Mainstream

Hey there! I want to give you a heads up about this article, because it doesn’t fit into a normal genre I write. Today, I won’t be telling you some new insight about a player you like, or creating some new nonsense statistic that tries to pull meaning from noise. This is a story about how baseball analysis is changing right before our eyes. A group of scientists and baseball thinkers are redefining the way we think about pitch movement, and I think it’s worth highlighting even if I don’t have anything to add to the conversation yet, because this new avenue of research is going to be front and center in Statcast-based analysis over the next few years.

“Seam-shifted wake,” as Andrew Smith, a student of Dr. Barton Smith (no relation) coined it, is a source of pitch movement that the first attempts at understanding the physics of a pitched baseball overlooked. It has already changed the way that coaches and pitchers approach pitch design, and due to recent data advances, it’s about to be everywhere. So let’s go over how we got here, to this newly observable way that pitchers deceive hitters, by starting at the beginning and working forward.

At its core, baseball is a game about one person trying to throw a ball past another person. There are other trappings — bases and baserunners, umpires, a strike zone, the mythology of Babe Ruth, and a million other sundry things. At the end of the day, though, everything starts with the pitcher trying to throw a ball past the batter.

Accordingly, baseball analysis over the years has focused on describing the flight of that ball. For a time, that simply meant describing the shape of pitches — they don’t call them curveballs for nothing. The next step was velocity — radar guns let us appreciate fastballs numerically rather than merely aesthetically.

In the past 15 years, the amount and scope of pitch-level analytical data has exploded. First, PITCHf/x quantified pitch location and movement. When we report a pitcher’s chase rate or how often a batter swings at pitches in the strike zone, it’s because the location where each pitch crosses the plate is recorded and logged. When we say a pitcher has eight inches of horizontal break on their slider, it’s because new technology allows us to measure it.

When Statcast debuted in 2015, it added another wrinkle: radar tracked the spin rate of each pitch in flight, putting a numerical value on something that had previously been only qualitative; a pitcher’s ability to generate movement through spin. Doctor Alan Nathan has written several authoritative studies discussing the value of this spin data. Read the rest of this entry »


The Astros Reunite With Old Friend Jason Castro

As the most physically demanding position on the diamond, catcher is fundamentally different than the other non-pitching positions. Combine the need for frequent rest and the higher likelihood of injury, and every team is always in search of more catcher depth. There’s a corollary to that, though: because catching exacts such a toll on the body, few catchers are truly standout stars in the same way that infielders and outfielders are. As an idle example, four catchers were worth 3 WAR or more in 2019, and 66 non-catcher position players crested that mark.

Why bring up this fact? Part of the reason is that it’s interesting to me, and I get to pick what I write about most of the time. The bigger part, though, is that I don’t always get to pick what I write about, and this one happens to be a fortuitous combination of the two: the Astros signed Jason Castro to a two-year, $7 million dollar deal with incentives that could tack on $2 million, and somebody needs to write it up.

At first glance, Castro is exactly the kind of catcher that teams always need: he may not be an All-Star (though he was in 2013), but he’s someone you can count on to punch the clock roughly every other day, delivering enough receiving, enough hitting, and enough being-there-ness to fill roughly half of a catcher platoon. Deals like this are evergreen — heck, Martín Maldonado signed roughly the same deal in Houston last year, and he’ll be Castro’s platoon partner. That said, Castro carries a few interesting notes that give him a chance to be more than just another faceless backstop.

First and foremost, Castro is a lefty. That’s not exactly breaking news — stop the presses, I watched a Jason Castro at-bat and found something new — but it’s indisputably valuable. There simply aren’t many left-handed catchers, even if you count switch hitters; lefties made 1,399 plate appearances at catcher in 2020, as compared to 5,272 right-handed plate appearances. That’s a 21% share of PAs, as compared to a 43% share for lefties in the league as a whole. Read the rest of this entry »


Padres Acquire Musgrove To Further Bolster Pitching

On (day of week), the Padres acquired (talented pitcher) from the (spendthrift team) in exchange for a seeming pittance, including (name of decent but not overwhelming Padres prospect). Now, surely, AJ Preller is done. Or is he?

Oh, hello there! Sorry about that. That’s actually the Mad Libs-esque form that I normally use to cover Padres pitching transactions. Today, I’ve got some details for you. It’s Joe Musgrove heading to the best weather in baseball, Hudson Head and Endy Rodriguez highlighting the group headed out (in a three-team trade involving the Pirates and Mets), and Andrew Friedman gently whispering words of affirmation to himself: “We’ll still win the long game, we’ll still win the long game, the Dodger Way can’t be beat.”

Musgrove isn’t an ace, at least not in the way that new teammates Yu Darvish and Blake Snell are. He would have been Pittsburgh’s number one starter this year, which isn’t the same thing. In San Diego, he’ll slot in as the Padres fourth starter. Let the words of Anakin Skywalker speak for the rest of the NL West: “This is outrageous! It’s unfair!”

Seriously, take a look at our Depth Charts predictions for the Padre rotation:

Padres Rotation (proj. 2021)
Pitcher IP ERA FIP WAR
Yu Darvish 184 3.52 3.56 4.0
Blake Snell 166 3.45 3.56 3.5
Dinelson Lamet 150 3.61 3.60 3.1
Joe Musgrove 171 4.11 4.01 3.2
Chris Paddack 103 3.96 4.05 1.6
MacKenzie Gore 84 4.22 4.39 1.1

There simply aren’t other teams throwing out pitchers like Musgrove after a whopping three other pitchers. We think that the Padres, Yankees, and Mets will accrue roughly equal value from starting pitchers next year, but the New York teams are doing it with Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom, the consensus best two pitchers in the game. Yu Darvish is nice, but not that nice. The Padres are building their own Death Star rotation, and they’re doing it with volume. Read the rest of this entry »


League Expansion, Interest Rates, and Other Fun Friday Topics

Earlier this week, Ken Rosenthal reported that owners are unlikely to pursue expansion plans in the near future. At first, that sounds strange. Why would owners who are experiencing a cash crunch turn down a quick cash infusion, reportedly nearly $70 million per team? As it turns out, the math is straightforward. Let’s talk about perpetual cash flows, debt equivalence, and other fun stuff like that.

Per Rosenthal’s reporting, owners would stand to make an aggregate $2 billion from expansion fees, or $1 billion per new team. Split 30 ways, that amounts to $66.7 million per team, which would go a long way for clubs who are acting phenomenally cash-light. In exchange, however, they’d give up a small share of a lucrative enterprise that makes owning a baseball team a cash cow.

Again per Rosenthal, the league projected to make $2.4 billion in central revenue in 2020 before the pandemic laughed in the face of advance planning. Central revenue is everything generated by MLB rather than by individual teams — national TV contracts, national sponsorships, streaming revenue, consumer product sales, and assorted other line items, with TV contracts comprising the lion’s share of the money.

That works out to $80 million per team, and adding two teams to the mix would dilute teams’ share of the pie. With 32 teams, each team would only get $75 million in central revenue per year. That might not sound like much — $5 million over time weighed against $67 million in cold hard cash right now — but big enterprises like baseball teams don’t need to act to maximize their liquidity. They instead seek to maximize net present value, which is a financially stylized way to consider the value today of money you might receive in the distant future.

This is going to get annoyingly math-y, but I’ll try to keep it in somewhat relatable terms, so bear with me. Say your friend offers you the choice of $100 today or $200 in a year. Presumably, you’d prefer the $200 — it’s twice as much money! Things get trickier, however, if it’s a choice between $100 today or $110 in a year, or between $100 today and $200 in 20 years. Read the rest of this entry »


A Quick Note on the Liam Hendriks Contract

On Tuesday, Liam Hendriks signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox that will pay him $54 million. Craig Edwards covered the signing, and Tony Wolfe took a look at the South Siders’ new bullpen, which is now one of the best in baseball. But there was something confusing about Hendriks’ contract. It will pay him $54 million, but how many years he’ll play to earn that money isn’t yet set.

A quick overview: over the first three years of his deal, Hendriks will receive $39 million. After that third year, the White Sox have a team option to bring him back for a fourth year with a $15 million salary. If they don’t want to pay him for that year, they can pay him a buyout instead, a common structure in contracts with team options. Here’s the rub: that buyout is for $15 million, the same amount as the option salary. It’s deferred over multiple years, so it isn’t exactly the same, but Hendriks will get $54 million in cash, and he’ll do so whether he plays for the Sox for three or four years.

Why design such a strange tax structure? It’s in pursuit of one of the oldest American pastimes — tax avoidance. Let’s quickly walk through how Hendriks’ contract works in Chicago’s favor, and take a quick jaunt through other contract structures while we’re at it.

When the league came up with the CBT, they put some thought into working around loopholes. Consider, for example, a team who has plenty of room under the tax level in 2021 but projects to go near it in 2022. Now imagine that they sign Trevor Bauer to a two-year, $80 million deal. If they paid him $40 million in each year, it would look like this:

Hypothetical Tax Implications ($ millions)
Year Payroll Bauer Total
2021 130 40 170
2022 190 40 230

Assuming a tax threshold of $210 million, they’d be $30 million under the line in ‘21 and $20 million over in ‘22. Why not, then, pay Bauer $60 million in year one and $20 million the next year?

Hypothetical Tax Implications ($ millions)
Year Payroll Bauer Total
2021 130 60 190
2022 190 20 210

Why not? Because the league doesn’t fall for that nonsense. For the purposes of the CBT, salaries are spread out evenly across the term of the deal. Design wild roller-coasters all you want; a two-year deal for $80 million will count for $40 million each year, no matter when the actual checks go out.

Next, let’s consider a different way around the tax, and a different way the league closed that loophole. Consider a team going for it this year. They’re right up against the tax in this hypothetical world, and they’d prefer not to pay it. Instead, they offer a different deal, this time to a hypothetical closer. In year one, he’ll receive $10 million. Year two is a team option with a salary of $30 million. Should the team decline the option, they’ll pay a $10 million buyout.

One of two things will happen: either our closer will make $40 million for two years of service, or he’ll make $20 million for one year. That feels like a reasonable contract for both sides — and if the league didn’t look too hard at it, they might give the team a tax number of only $10 million in year one.

Let’s make it more absurd, though. What about a one-year deal for $5 million, with a team option for a second year at $60 million and a $15 million buyout. Now the team will certainly pay the buyout. Our pitcher still gets his $20 million over one year. Would anyone think that’s really only a $5 million salary in year one, though?

The league doesn’t. Buyouts of team options are treated as part of the total salary paid in guaranteed years. What does that mean? Let’s take a look at Ronald Acuña Jr.’s contract to explain it. His contract looks like this:

Ronald Acuña’s Contract Extension
Year Salary ($mm)
2019 1
2020 1
2021 5
2022 15
2023 17
2024 17
2025 17
2026 17
Total 90

That’s $90 million over eight years. After that, there are two team options, the second of which we’ll ignore (given that it only kicks in if the team exercises the first one, CBT math ignores it). The first team option is for $17 million, with a $10 million buyout. That brings the total guaranteed money in the deal to $100 million over eight years — $90 million in salary plus the buyout. What’s Acuña’s CBT number in each year? $12.5 million, or $100 million split evenly over eight years.

Should the Braves exercise Acuña’s option, they’ll pay him $17 million in 2027, but $10 million of that will already have counted against their tax numbers in previous years. How does that hit the salary cap? The league has left it purposely ambiguous, but one interpretation is that the tax number will be lower to account for that previous hit. In Acuña’s case, he has another $10 million buyout the next year, so it’s hardly a lock, but we’re just using him as an example. Again, we don’t know exactly how the league accounts for buyouts — but in my mind, there’s a decent chance that having the cost of the buyout on previous years’ CBT numbers decreases the number the league uses in the option year.

With that explanation out of the way, let’s get back to Hendriks. He’s due $39 million over three years, an average of $13 million per year. After that, there’s his buyout, which also counts against the tax. It’s for $15 million deferred over time. The league discounts deferrals slightly, and without getting into the exact math there, let’s assume that they treat Hendriks’ buyout as worth $13 million in present-day terms. That means he’s due $52 million over three years for the purposes of the tax.

Should he remain with the team for a fourth year, the deal has only $2 million in “new money” — the difference in value between a deferred and present-day $15 million. That makes for big tax numbers in the first three years — roughly $17 million per year — and a minuscule $2 million hit in the fourth year. Again, I’m not certain that this is how options are treated — but it’s a reasonable guess, at the very least, and one of the best reasons I can see for structuring a contract in such a strange way.

Why would a team want to do this? The Sox are no dummies. They’re nowhere near the CBT threshold in 2021 — they check in around $160 million even after Hendriks’ contract. Will they be so far below the threshold in three years? It’s far less clear! Lucas Giolito will need a new contract by then. Nick Madrigal, Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech, and Codi Heuer, just to name a few, will be in their arbitration years. If they’re planning on keeping Lance Lynn, he’ll surely earn more than this year’s $9.3 million salary.

By taking a bigger tax hit now, the White Sox are setting themselves up to avoid paying taxes in the future. Are they actually considering declining the option? Almost certainly not. Why would they? Short of Hendriks being out for the season with an injury, they’ll keep him, because the difference between $15 million now and $15 million over 10 years simply isn’t much in the grand scope of things.

One thing worth monitoring: I’m not actually sure if the league is going to allow this nonsense. I feel reasonably confident that they wouldn’t have allowed a $15 million team option with a $15 million buyout if there were no deferrals involved. Even including that fig leaf, I don’t think there’s much confusion about what’s going on here. The league can treat vesting options that are very likely to be triggered as guaranteed, and it wouldn’t shock me if they did that here. For now, though, it sounds like Hendriks’ contract counts as $54 million over three years in the eyes of the tax man.

In other words, Hendriks signed a four-year, $54 million dollar contract this week. It won’t be reported the same way everywhere — it’s a complex contract, after all. At the end of the day, however, the White Sox wanted to pay Hendriks $54 million to secure his services for the next four years. They did just that — with a little financial chicanery thrown in for good measure.


The Costs and Benefits of Six-Man Rotations

Planning a starting rotation for 2021 carries innumerable pitfalls. Nearly every pitcher in the league saw a reduced workload last year, and they did it in strange circumstances to boot. It’s not merely that the short season set everyone’s innings back — though that’s a huge component. A large number of cancelations and postponements also meant more doubleheaders and more cobbled-together games, another way to throw pitchers off their rhythm.

Put it all together, and protecting arms sounds like an appealing plan for 2021. The Mariners announced that they’ll use a six-man rotation next year, a continuation of the plan they leaned on for all of 2020. The Red Sox are talking workload management. Since initially publishing this piece, Jeff Zimmerman pointed out that the Tigers will use a six-man rotation as well. Is an embiggened rotation the solution to this universal problem? Let’s do the math.

It depends, first of all, on what you give up. The innings tradeoff of a six-man rotation is straightforward. Giving your pitchers an extra day off limits their workloads, naturally enough. The math on that is straightforward if you assume it doesn’t affect their in-game workload. Take a pitcher who averages six innings per start. In a five-man rotation, that’s 192 innings of work. Adding a sixth pitcher to the rotation cuts that down to 162 innings.

How much do those 30 innings of work matter when it comes to health? I’ll level with you — I’m not sure. We simply don’t have the data to say with any amount of certainty, because the number of comparable situations is so small. Pitchers have light workloads all the time, but in most cases it’s due to age or injury. Looking at what a 21-year-old pitcher did in first building up stamina probably can’t tell us much about how many innings Jake Odorizzi, to pick a random example, should throw in 2021. Likewise, a pitcher’s workload in his first year back from Tommy John surgery can’t tell us how many innings Trevor Bauer can be effective for. Read the rest of this entry »