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Wild, Wild East: The Braves Sign Will Smith

It seems like only last week, I was jamming 14 Will Smith movies into a single paragraph of free agent hype, taking an obvious joke well past its logical conclusion. What would I do when Will Smith actually signed? Use the same movie jokes again? I wasn’t too worried about it. Free agents take months to sign! The Giants had made Smith a qualifying offer. No less a reliever than Craig Kimbrel had languished on the vine until after the amateur draft in similar circumstances. The same jokes could be funny again in a few months.

Well, the joke’s on me, because Smith signed a three-year, $40 million contract with the Braves yesterday. What follows is a level-head, straightforward analysis of that transaction. Just know that, if it weren’t so close in time, I’d probably have written another article of movie names.

The Braves fit a classic archetype of team that looks for free agent help. Their young core gelled impressively in 2019. Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies keyed the offense, while Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Mike Foltynewicz provided the starting pitching. The team had veteran help, of course: Freddie Freeman chipped in his usual stellar offense, Josh Donaldson was superb in a bounce back year, and Dallas Keuchel provided much-needed innings on his own one-year deal.

They also have payroll room. With Donaldson and Keuchel re-entering free agency, they only had $100 million in expected commitments for 2020 before the Smith signing. With Acuña and Albies signed long-term to (some would say exceedingly) team-friendly contracts, it makes perfect sense to spend on the rest of the roster, maximizing their playoff chances while they have a strong foundation to build from. Read the rest of this entry »


The Pomeranaissance

If your favorite team is one of the few looking to improve itself via free agency this offseason, there’s a good chance they could use bullpen help. Every team except the Yankees could, after all, and even they could use another good reliever on the margin. There’s only one problem — the cupboard is somewhat bare.

Our list of the top 50 free agents features only one reliever, Will Smith, among the top 20 players. Miss on Smith, and the next tier is in the mid-20s: Dellin Betances, Will Harris, Drew Pomeranz, and maybe Chris Martin if you’re into that kind of thing. None of those players are the type of impact reliever fans dream of signing to turn the bullpen from a weakness to a strength.

Or at least, none of them are now. Pomeranz, who is likely a full-time reliever now after two years as a swingman, has the potential to be an absolute star, the kind of game-changing reliever you pencil in for four big outs whenever you need them, or maybe six big outs in a key playoff contest.

That would be a wild sentence to read after 2018, when Pomeranz signed a one-year contract with the Giants after a dismal season in Boston. It’s mildly less surprising after 2019, when he excelled in Milwaukee. But still, the dude had a 4.85 ERA in his good season, and he’s 31. Rather than lean too hard into a half-season of ERA in Milwaukee, let’s build a more detailed case for the Pomeranaissance. Read the rest of this entry »


The Red Sox Shouldn’t Trade Mookie Betts

The Red Sox have had a sad start to the offseason, even by the standards of baseball’s recent payroll doomsaying. While some teams have intimated that they won’t increase payroll, the Sox have gone further; owner John Henry announced that they plan on dropping below the luxury tax threshold for 2020, setting the tone for a strange winter where cutting salary might matter more than the eventual product on the field.

Viewed through that lens, it’s somehow a bad development when one of the best hitters in baseball chooses to stay on your team. J.D. Martinez was the 16th-best qualified hitter by wRC+ last year, and that was a down year. He elected not to opt out of his current contract, and is slated to make $23.75 million next season — a steal if he hits his Steamer projection, and a useful piece for a team with no other DH options. And yet, when you set artificial salary constraints on yourself, things tend to snowball.

With Martinez in the fold, things took an even weirder turn. The offseason rumor mill seems increasingly convinced that the Sox will offload Mookie Betts to save the last year of his salary and avoid an appropriately costly extension, reaping some prospects in return and cutting payroll in the bargain. I’ll attempt to quantify what this might do to the team, but let me say upfront: this seems like an obviously bad choice to me. Dan Shaughnessy hit pieces aside, Betts is probably the best non-Trout player in baseball. You don’t trade someone like that and take a step forward.

But okay, fine, let’s go through the math of trading Betts. We’ll do the grim calculus of turning player contracts into cash amounts first: if you value a win on the free market at $8 million, Betts’ 6.6 WAR projection is worth $52.8 million. If Betts earns his projected arbitration salary of $27.7 million, that works out to $25 million in surplus value. That sounds reductive, and it is. Mookie Betts isn’t an asset worth $25 million to the Red Sox; he’s one of the best players in baseball, and also a great bowler in his spare time. But if we’re doing the math, that’s the starting point. Read the rest of this entry »


Do Clean Innings Matter?

If you watched any baseball at all this postseason, the topic of using starters as relievers probably came up. The Nationals used the tactic frequently, and the Cardinals, Dodgers, Braves, Yankees, Twins, Astros, and A’s all had at least one pitcher who was primarily a starter appear in relief. And when those pitchers came in, the same concern was always raised. “Hey,” the concern roughly goes, “this team should put the starter in at the beginning of the inning to put him in the best position to succeed.”

Teams mostly stick to this advice. But I’ve never been one to take rules like this for granted. After all, plenty of other baseball aphorisms turned out to be nothing but high-minded nonsense. Bat your best hitter third. Bunt runners into scoring position. Focus on batting average. The list goes on.

Some of those are nonsense. But there’s a kernel of logic to using only starters with a clean start to an inning. Starters are creatures of habit, with complex pre-game routines designed to get them to peak readiness just in time for the start of a game. Take them out of this environment, ask them to get ready on a moment’s notice, and they might not be completely up to speed when they step on the mound.

It’s not that starters can’t handle having runners on base, in other words. After all, starters pitch with runners on base all the time. Instead, the issue is that with runners on base, the first batter a pitcher faces is sure to be important. Could it be that starters simply aren’t throwing at 100% for the first batter they face when they’re coming into the game in relief?

To test this theory out, I looked at every instance of a starter pitching in relief in the playoffs over the last five years. It’s inherently a limited sample, but starters pitch in relief in the regular season in very different circumstances, and I deemed them different enough that the playoff data would be more relevant. I bundled mid-inning appearances and start-of-inning appearances together; after all, my theory is that insufficient warmups cause pitchers to underperform against the first batter, regardless of the base/out state. Read the rest of this entry »


Zack Wheeler is Good, But Not as Good as He Could Be

Any day week month now, Zack Wheeler is going to sign a contract that compensates him like a very good pitcher, and he’ll deserve it. He’s been consistently above average the past two years, the kind of guy you’d love to have as a No. 2 starter and one who can fake it as a No. 1. In short, he’s been what the Mets hoped for when he was a highly regarded prospect, after a brief detour into arm-injury-land.

But I think there’s still more there. Zack Wheeler, as currently constituted, does everything a bit better than average. He strikes out a few more batters than average, walks a few less, and suppresses hard contact just a smidge. That makes for an above-average pitcher, of course. But it doesn’t make for a world-devouring ace, the kind who opposing batters fear and hometown fans assume will never lose.

In 2019, Wheeler struck out 23.6% of the batters he faced, which placed him 45th among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last year. That’s high enough to be effective, especially considering his excellent walk rate — Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and José Berríos all posted lower K% and were All-Stars — but it’s a rate with plenty of room for improvement.

It’s also a surprising number in light of Wheeler’s arsenal. His fastball sits around 97 mph, and he’s topped out above 100 mph in each of the past two years. He throws it with more horizontal break than your average four-seamer (it has three more inches of horizontal break and one less of vertical break than Jacob deGrom’s four-seamer), but gets excellent movement nonetheless. Read the rest of this entry »


Will Harris Played Well, Didn’t Get Rewarded

When Will Harris entered Game 7 of the World Series, the Astros were in the driver’s seat. There was only one out in the seventh, and Houston was up by a lone run, but teams in that position usually win — per our Win Expectancy chart, that situation ends in victory 68.7% of the time.

68.7% is notably not 100%, however. When Harris threw Howie Kendrick an 0-1 cutter, Kendrick demonstrated why:

The game wasn’t over after that home run, but it proved decisive nonetheless. The Nationals never relinquished the lead, tacking on insurance runs in the eighth and ninth, and sharked their way to a World Series title. Harris gave up a single to Asdrúbal Cabrera before Roberto Osuna replaced him; after the game, he became a free agent, and may never pitch for the Astros again. Read the rest of this entry »


Toward a Unified Theory of Baby Shark

Gerardo Parra reached base only one time in the World Series, a walk against Josh James in Game 4. It wasn’t a key moment in the series — the Nationals were down 4-0, and while Parra scored, the Nats lost 8-1. When he reached first base, he was downright businesslike:

But businesslike isn’t normally a good description of Parra’s time on the Nationals. He’s widely regarded as a great clubhouse guy, ambushing Stephen Strasburg with hugs and keeping things light over the long grind of a season. He also, you may have heard, uses “Baby Shark” as his walkup music, a song that Nationals fans and players alike have rallied around.

If you’re curious, here’s a handy guide of the hand signals the Nationals make after hits:

Read the rest of this entry »


Bullpens Helped Decide the World Series

Just as we all predicted in the run-up to the World Series, relief pitching had a hand in determining the outcome. Though starting pitchers contributed admirably to relief efforts (two-thirds of a scoreless inning for the Astros, six scoreless for the Nationals), real relievers had to take the stage occasionally. And after you strip out those innings by starters, a trend emerges.

The Nationals bullpen was bad. That’s no shock — they were bad all year, and they were facing one of the best hitting teams of all time. Strip out Patrick Corbin’s four innings of lights-out relief, and Joe Ross’ two scoreless innings earlier in the series, and the balance of the bullpen recorded a 5.51 ERA, with as many walks as strikeouts. They allowed four home runs in only 16 and a third innings. Fernando Rodney’s line looks like a work of comedy — two innings, no strikeouts, six walks. It was more or less what every Nationals fan feared going into the series.

But if the Nationals bullpen was bad, the Astros bullpen was a full-fledged disaster. When the Astros needed relief innings, one of the best bullpens of the regular season simply wasn’t up to the task. Over 21 and a third innings, they recorded a 5.91 ERA and a 5.37 FIP. They kept their heads above water on the non-contact front, with 24 strikeouts and only 13 walks, but also gave up four home runs. Eight Houston relievers appeared in the series, and seven of them allowed runs.

But even that grim statistical record undersells things. Houston’s bullpen also allowed three unearned runs, while Washington’s pen allowed none. That leaves the Astros with a 7.17 RA/9 out of the bullpen, a number that almost doesn’t look like a baseball statistic. The Astros bullpen put together a 3.75 ERA in the regular season, and a 4.24 FIP. As recently as the ALCS, they’d looked like a cohesive unit, with a 4.12 ERA and 4.80 FIP — not great, but enough to get by against the fearsome Yankee offense. In the World Series, it all crumbled. Read the rest of this entry »


When Should Teams Press the Advantage?

When the Nationals took an early lead in the World Series, there was a popular cry for the team to knock the Astros out while they could. Expend resources you were planning on saving for later in the series, turn Patrick Corbin into a reliever, maybe bring back some starters on short rest: what does it matter if you hurt your chances of winning Game 7, the thinking goes, if Game 7 never happens?

A softer version of this came up as the Cardinals walloped the Braves in Game 5 of the NLDS. The game was already decided. Why not pull Jack Flaherty so that he could pitch Games 1 and 5 of the NLCS rather than Games 3 and 7? It’s not an identical situation, but it relies on the same logic: earlier games happen more often, so get your pitchers into those.

Tomorrow night, there will be yet another version of this discussion. The Astros are a win away from ending the series. If the game goes into extra innings, say, or Justin Verlander gets knocked around but the offense keeps the team in it, would Houston use Zack Greinke in an attempt to end things right then and there? And should they?

While these questions are similar, they’re not identical. Does this reallocation of win probability matter? The answer, as it often is, is “it depends.” I believe the answers to these three questions are “not much,” “not at all,” and “more than you’d think,” respectively, and I’ll attempt to lay out why I think that is the case here.
Read the rest of this entry »


Patrick Corbin, Reliever

In Game 1 of the World Series, the Nationals found themselves with an interesting decision. They were up three runs on the Astros, but Max Scherzer had labored mightily to hold Houston to two runs. After five innings, he’d thrown 112 pitches. He wouldn’t be heading back out for the sixth.

The Nationals don’t really trust their bullpen. Sure, they could get innings from Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, but they had four innings to cover. Tanner Rainey? Break glass in case of emergency only, and that still leaves an inning. Here is a list of all the relievers the Nationals had used this postseason (as of Game 1) who aren’t Rainey, Doolittle, or Hudson:

Slim Pickin’s
Player IP Reg Season ERA Reg Season FIP
Fernando Rodney 2.2 5.66 4.28
Hunter Strickland 2 5.55 6.3
Wander Suero 0.1 4.54 3.07

Yeesh. Strickland wasn’t on the World Series roster, Suero only made the NLCS roster as a replacement during Daniel Hudson’s paternity leave, and Fernando Rodney — well, we all know the Fernando Rodney Experience. Rainey is no great shakes, either — he was fine this season but uninspiring. Javy Guerra would later pitch an inning in Game 2, but the cupboard was pretty bare.

But Dave Martinez had an answer. Patrick Corbin stepped to the mound to start the sixth. He did his job admirably, striking out two Astros on his way to a scoreless inning, the only blemish a single to Yordan Alvarez. And then he was gone, replaced by Rainey.

Rainey wasn’t good (his four batters: homer, strikeout, walk, walk), but Hudson and Doolittle held on, recording four outs each as the Nationals won 5-4. Martinez squeezed just enough out of the bullpen to make it through the game. Corbin’s inning loomed large: the final margin was one run, and while it’s not automatic that a lesser pitcher would have given up a run in his place, his inning was important. Read the rest of this entry »