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The Joy of a Kind of, Sort of Old Baseball Game

First of all, thank you for continuing to make FanGraphs a part of your day in this difficult time. In an ideal world, or really just a normal one, you’d be diving into a Positional Power Rankings post, or reading a few notes from the field, or perusing something else to get you jazzed for would have been Opening Day on Thursday. Eleven days ago, I had plenty of ideas for that type of content. Suffice it to say, an article about an old ballgame I found on YouTube wasn’t one of them. Still, you’re here, and you’re probably seeking some small semblance of normalcy; I want nothing more than to do the sorts of routine, mundane things I normally wouldn’t have given a second thought. Something like a mid-June baseball game between the Colorado Rockies and the Miami Marlins. That’s some normal, forgettable stuff right there.

So let’s make the best of it. Let’s climb on the way-back machine and travel to a simpler time: June 11, 2015. You remember all the way back then? The ball hadn’t yet been juiced. The Royals were the best team in the American League. Donald Trump was still a few days away from riding down his golden escalator. Matt Harvey was one of the best pitchers in baseball. An age, and just five years, ago.

On that night, the Rockies visited the Marlins. There is nothing remarkable about this game. These were two bad teams already buried in the standings. David Phelps and Chris Rusin were the starting pitchers. There were something like 500 people in the crowd, each going through the motions of a typical early summer evening at the park.

A big part of the fun when you watch an old game is the disorienting collision between what we know now and what we knew then. This game was played the year after Giancarlo Stanton had his face fractured by an up and in fastball. I remember the incident well, as you might. I also knew, but had totally forgotten, that for a time, he wore a personalized helmet with a wire flap in the shape of a “G” meant to protect his jaw. A very slim fraction of the baseball-playing population could pull that off without looking like a dork, but Stanton happens to be just such a player. Read the rest of this entry »


COVID-19 Adds Obstacles for Minor Leaguers

Last Wednesday night, the day before MLB shuttered spring training and delayed the start to its season, I was texting with a baseball operations employee in a National League front office. We discussed the likelihood of cancellations, the chaos that would inevitably follow, and the repercussions for players and teams. At one point in the conversation he speculated, “minor leaguers will be absolutely shafted.”

It appears that he was right. With one notable exception, minor leaguers, already unpaid during spring training and the offseason, will not collect paychecks for any games missed due to the spread of COVID-19. So far only one team, the Tampa Bay Rays, has announced plans to pay their minor league players during the delay. While not covering anyone’s salary directly, the club plans to give everyone $800 to help with expenses while they’re unable to play ball. It’s a step in the right direction, even if $800 is considerably less than the monthly salaries these players were set to earn before the disruption.

Still, it’s money that players elsewhere around the league would love to have. Most minor leaguers were just weeks away from solidifying their in-season accommodations, and now find themselves without a place to go or a buck to pay for it once they arrive. The situation has caused affected players considerable distress.

“It sucks,” says one pitcher in a National League farm system who, like other players interviewed for this piece, preferred to remain anonymous. “I’m fortunate enough that I can come home and live with my parents and not pay any rent. But I have a lot of teammates who either have a kid or are married and don’t have the opportunity to go home and have their parents pay for everything.” Read the rest of this entry »


The Smart and Safe Thing Is to Postpone the Games

Wednesday was not the first time that COVID-19 cracked the headlines, but it was the day the disease made its most significant impact yet on American culture. Early that morning, Washington governor Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people in the state’s three most affected counties, urging citizens to practice social distancing in an effort to limit the virus’ spread and, by extension, all but ensuring that the Seattle Mariners season opener will not be played as scheduled. By day’s end, the federal government had implemented significant travel restrictions, Tom Hanks tested positive for COVID-19, the NCAA announced plans to restrict attendance at its events, and the NBA suspended its season. Finally, belatedly, the novel coronavirus hit the sports world.

COVID-19 is a deadly disease. The latest estimates project that more than 120,000 people have contracted the virus, and that nearly 4,500 of those infected have died. For a variety of reasons, we don’t know what the precise fatality rate is, but the World Health Organization recently trotted out 3-4% as a crude mortality ratio estimate. That’s a very high number, particularly considering how easily this coronavirus spreads. The virus is transmitted by fluid-to-fluid contact, and it’s a resilient bug, capable of living on metal surfaces — the kinds we touch on buses and in elevators and stadium handrails — for hours, or possibly days. Worse, people who do have it are contagious for long periods of time, and have ample opportunity to pass it off even after they’ve started feeling better.

Sporting events are prime places for the virus to thrive. Because the disease gives some carriers very mild symptoms, you can bet that plenty of sick people will shrug off what they perceive as a routine cold to support their team in person. Once at the game, they’ll eat, drink, shout, and share space with thousands of other people. In these dense quarters, COVID-19 will inevitably spread. Read the rest of this entry »


Notes From The Field 3/10/20: Royals, White Sox, Mariners

March 8: Kansas City vs. Chicago

Kris Bubic is a 22-year-old lefty with prototypical starter size, who snuck onto the back end of Eric’s 50 FV tier after a strong year in High-A.

On Monday, Bubic worked up to 93 with the fastball, but sat lower and was in the upper-80s at times. He also mixed in a cutter, a roundhouse 11-5 curve with long but sharp break, and a fading changeup. Against one of the best lineups he’s ever seen, Bubic wasn’t sharp and paid the price. He nibbled a bit with the fastball and fell behind in counts too often. His change and curve had hitters on their front foot when in the zone, but didn’t miss any bats even when they were located well. He had trouble getting a feel for his change early, throwing four of his first five low and well outside to righties. At their best, both offerings were above average.

We shouldn’t make too many judgements from one spring start, particularly a game where Bubic didn’t catch a lot of breaks: He was charged with a questionable balk and gave up a couple of hits on slow bouncing grounders that went to the wrong places, which extended innings and fluffed up his pitch count. That said, he’ll need to find a way to miss a few bats, and if nothing else, this game helped illustrate why he’ll have to battle finer margins than most hurlers on our Top 100. Read the rest of this entry »


A Brighter Future in Miami?

“We feel like we’ve got starting pitching depth, we have impactful championship caliber players at every position that will allow us to compete for multiple championships.” — Marlins president Michael Hill

***

This isn’t a bad time for Marlins fans. There aren’t many organizations you could credibly make that claim about following a 105-loss campaign and consecutive last place finishes, but this is Miami, where the standards are comparatively low.

Much of the positivity stems from an absence of negatives: Jeffrey Loria isn’t the owner, there’s no fire sale in progress or on the horizon, no scam contract extension on the books, no stars desperate for greener pastures, no silly stories about management bilking fans out of their premium parking spaces. This franchise usually trades in disappointment, and there are comparatively few sources of it right now.

There are also a few actively good signs. The club has cobbled together a functional pitching staff from spare parts, and have turned Brian Anderson and Sandy Alcantara into, if not building blocks, then at least the kind of productive players who wouldn’t look out of place in a contender’s lineup. The farm system itself seems rejuvenated: The Fish landed seven prospects on our most recent Top 100 list, most of whom already have Double-A experience. The organization as a whole is teeming with depth for the first time in ages, and they’ll add more impact talent in June’s draft. Read the rest of this entry »


Let’s Dole Out Some Twists of Fate, National League Edition

Black swan events are a defining feature of each baseball season. Like any good sport, the contours of the game elicit a comfortable and familiar warmth. But also like any good sport, the details that make up the fabric of a particular contest or campaign are essentially unpredictable. It’s the round ball, round bat game: Weird stuff happens all the time.

Once they happen though, unexpected events have a way of enmeshing themselves in the game’s broader narrative as if they were just another ad on the outfield wall. Our brains struggle to handle surprises, and so we rationalize them. For a time, it was very weird that Lucas Giolito suddenly looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball; by the time the Cy Young ballots were tallied, his breakout season was just another event from 2019, a feel-good moment and a developmental win but no longer a curiosity. Lucas Giolito is now good and we accept this for what it is.

But there’s so much more fun to be had with unexpected events. They’re worth celebrating on their own merits. In one form or another, they happen every day and to every team and we should remember the most notable of those surprises. More to the point, one of these is coming for your club in 2020. Like a birthday present waiting to be unwrapped, each team is just a month or so away from discovering something weird about itself. Today we’re going to use recent history as a guide to imagining what that will look like. Read the rest of this entry »


Rob Manfred Speaks to the Media

On Sunday afternoon, commissioner Rob Manfred held a press conference at Atlanta’s spring training facility in Florida. Per the typical protocol, the league tried to keep the news relatively muted. The conference was not broadcast on MLB Network — Bull Durham aired instead — nor did it stream on MLB.com. Whether this reflects a continuation of the league’s misguided damage control policy or a misunderstanding of the scandal’s resonance to fans, it was a strange way to downplay the commissioner’s remarks on such a topical issue.

Manfred’s comments themselves will likely not please any of those already skeptical about his ability to manage the biggest scandal the sport has seen in a generation. He again defended the league’s response while offering few fresh details. Listening to his remarks, one gets the impression that the league will remain in reactive mode perpetually as new details emerge, and that Manfred himself wants nothing more than to reach the other side of this. At one point he clumsily exclaimed “we’ll have baseball in 2020!” We’re all excited too, Rob.

Here are some takeaways from his press conference: Read the rest of this entry »


Let’s Dole Out Some Twists of Fate, American League Edition

Black swan events are a defining feature of each baseball season. Like any good sport, the contours of the game and its season elicit a comfortable and familiar warmth. But also like any good sport, the details that make up the fabric of a particular contest or campaign are essentially unpredictable. It’s the round ball, round bat game: Weird stuff happens all the time.

Once they happen though, unexpected events have a way of enmeshing themselves in the game’s broader narrative as if they were just another ad on the outfield wall. Our brains struggle to handle surprises, and so we rationalize them. For a time, it was very weird that Lucas Giolito suddenly looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball; by the time the Cy Young ballots were tallied, his breakout season was just another event from 2019, a feel-good moment and a developmental win, but no longer a curiosity. Lucas Giolito is now good and we accept this for what it is.

But there’s so much more fun to be had with unexpected events. They’re worth celebrating on their own merits. In one form or another, they happen every day and to every team and we should remember the most notable of those surprises. More to the point, one of these is coming for your team in 2020. Like a birthday present waiting to be unwrapped, each team is just a month or so away from discovering something weird about itself. Today, we’re going to use recent history as a guide to imagining what that will look like.

Below, I’ve recounted the most unexpected thing that happened to each team from last year — with a twist. Instead of simply reflecting on what happened, I’ve assigned that very same outcome to a different, random team in 2020. For example, the Cleveland Indians saw one of their cornerstones play like Triple-A flotsam for three months, for no apparent reason. What would that look like if it happened to the Rays?

This is the longest article I’ve ever written for FanGraphs, so Meg (sensibly) made me break it into two pieces. Today, you get the American League teams; the NL will follow early next week. Read the rest of this entry »


Taijuan Walker and the Mariners Connect Again

The Mariners are bringing former top prospect Taijuan Walker back to the Northwest. Yesterday afternoon, the right-hander signed a one-year contract worth a base salary of $2 million, with incentives that could push the deal up to $3 million. As with Kendall Graveman earlier this winter, the Mariners have done well to round out their thin rotation with a low-cost option that could plausibly produce a significant return on their investment.

Unlike with Graveman, there’s plenty of sentimental value here, too. For most of the early part of the decade, Walker was the player Mariners fans salivated to see. Prior to Seattle’s current crop of farmhands, Walker led the vanguard of exciting Mariners prospects, the jewel in a class that also included Danny Hultzen, Brandon Maurer, and James Paxton. Stories of Walker’s athleticism and skill spread quickly as he blitzed through Seattle’s system — my personal favorite is the time he wrote “Tai was here” on a piece of athletic tape and then showed off his NBA-esque vertical by jumping and sticking the tape too high for anybody else to reach — and many pinned their hopes of a Mariners resurgence on his powerful shoulders.

But just when Walker looked ready to make his mark in Seattle, he suffered a few incremental setbacks. He needed the better part of two years of seasoning at the upper minors before reaching the big leagues for good in 2015, and then ran into plenty of bumps that first season. His secondaries backed up between Double-A and the show, and big league hitters routed his pin-straight fastball and sloppy secondaries over the first two months of the year — a period during which a promising Mariners club imploded in part because of Walker’s 7.33 ERA in his first nine starts. Read the rest of this entry »


Mookie Betts Trade Underscores NL West Imbalance

On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts and David Price. Assuming the parties involved can hammer out the details, the deal obviously makes the Dodgers a better baseball team, both in the here and now and, to a lesser extent, in the future. For Los Angeles fans tired of October flameouts and agonizing World Series defeats, this is fantastic news: Betts alone is something like a five-win upgrade and he’ll make a long lineup that much more daunting come the playoffs.

As far as simply reaching the playoffs goes though, Betts barely moves the needle. Of all the teams in baseball, it’s not like this one “needed” to get better, at least when it comes to maximizing its playoff chances. Dan Szymborski took great pains to express that the ZiPS projections he’s cooking up are still under-baked and not yet fit for public consumption; that caveat aside, he has the Dodgers projected to win the NL West by 12 games without Betts. With him in the fold, that jumps to 16. Los Angeles has already won the division seven times in a row; with a loaded roster, and a deep farm system, their streak wasn’t in any jeopardy this year and won’t be for some time yet.

Whether or not the trade looks redundant in a competitive sense for the Dodgers, it must feel like just another body blow in Phoenix, Denver, and San Diego. Through the realities of geography, vagaries of expansion, and a league-wide desire to limit travel costs, four other franchises are stuck perpetually competing with the West Coast’s foremost superpower. The Giants have the resources to remain competitive in spite of their southern rival, but the other three teams have looked comparatively hapless. The Giants and Dodgers have captured all but one division title since 2007. In that period, the Padres, Diamondbacks, and Rockies have only reached the playoffs five times combined, never escaping the NLDS. For the little three, the Dodgers are an immovable barrier blocking any real chance of sustained success. That’s a problem in a league that emphasizes postseason glory first and foremost, particularly in a sport that is primarily consumed locally. Read the rest of this entry »