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Blake Treinen Sinks, Cuts, and Slides Back to the Dodgers

In 2018, Blake Treinen had one of the best relief pitching seasons of all time. A year later, his strikeouts went down, his walks doubled, and batters were getting the ball in the air and out of the ballpark. Oakland opted to non-tender Treinen after that 2019 season rather than pay him around $8 million. The Dodgers had no problems forking over $10 million in free agency and were rewarded with a solid season, including the final three outs of Game 5 of the World Series. Los Angeles liked what it saw from Treinen, and the 32-year-old righty appeared to have enjoyed his experience, as the parties reached an agreement on Tuesday on a two-year deal with an option for 2023.

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Did Payroll Matter in 2020?

In previous seasons, I have taken a look at Opening Day payrolls and team win totals in August to see how closely the two figures correlate. Given that the 2020 regular season was just a few weeks old in mid-August, I didn’t write that piece then, and since the season was only 60 games long overall, I wouldn’t have been able to make the same type of comparison as in past seasons. Sixty games means more randomness and not as much of an opportunity for the good and bad teams to create separation between each other. It should come as no surprise, then, that the relationship between payroll and wins was not strong last year. The difference between the Dodgers and the Pirates last year was just 24 wins, but if you pro-rated their win percentages over 162 games, it would be a 65-win gap.

It isn’t really the top and the bottom that bunched teams together, though, relative to each other. Sixteen teams finished with a win total from 26 to 34, an eight-game spread. In a normal year, those winning percentages would be the difference between a 70-win team and a 92-win team. Typically, we can be confident that the 92-win team is significantly better than the 70-win team, since the amount of luck required to close a gap of that size is enormous. In a 60-game season, though, that confidence erodes a bit. For example, the Mets and Cubs finished with the same 31–29 BaseRuns record, but Chicago won the NL Central with a 34–26 mark, while New York missed the playoffs at 26–34. The Diamondbacks and Marlins had the same 24–36 BaseRuns record, but Miami finished two games above .500 and made the playoffs, while Arizona was 10 games below .500 at 25–35.

Comparisons between teams were made even more difficult by the unbalanced schedule. Teams played 40 games in their own division and another 20 games against the same directional division in the opposite league. The wins in the West, Central, and East all even out, but the pre-pandemic average payroll for the 10 West teams was around $157 million, followed by $147 million in the East and $122 million in the Central.

With all of that out of the way, here’s how the wins and payroll numbers shake out for 2020.

When it came to winning baseball games last year, payroll was not a significant factor. It’s worth noting that if we used BaseRuns standings, the correlation coefficient (r) moves up to .3, which is in line with what it was for actual wins and payroll for most of the last decade. Here’s a year-by-year look at wins and payrolls over the years.

On its face, last year’s correlation is the lowest since before baseball’s strike. As with much of 2020, the lack of a full season tends to distort the numbers and our ability to get value from them. Would the Marlins and Astros have maintained their roughly .500 trajectories, or would they have moved more toward their projected status? Looking at BaseRuns shows a significantly higher correlation between expected wins and projected payroll, and it’s likely that a full season would have resulted in a much stronger relationship, but the shortened season limits certainty.

In past years, I’ve discussed the relationship between wins and franchise valuations as well as looking at payroll and wins over multiple seasons. There doesn’t seem to be as much fruitful ground to cover beyond what I’ve previously written given the way the 2020 season turned out, though I will note that going back to 2014 puts the relationship between payroll and wins at .52 with the Forbes valuation and wins over that period at .56. Even with the 60-game season, the overall trend remains the same: Money, in terms of payroll or organizational worth, has a strong relationship with how much a team wins.

While I performed this exercise mostly out of habit, it is good to see the intuition of 2020 randomness supported here. Given a shortened season, we would expect to see a weaker relationship between payroll and wins, and that’s exactly what we got. The more games, the more likely we are to see talent win out, and talent is often acquired in exchange for significant sums of money. There isn’t much reason to think the dynamic that has existed in previous seasons has undergone significant change, and 2020 will simply provide an asterisk-laden blip in history. We will see how 2021 turns out for payroll and wins, but I would expect that most teams will continue to be rewarded for higher payrolls while exceptions like the Rays and A’s succeed despite their competitive disadvantage when it comes to player salaries.

Padres Give Up Prospects for Yu Darvish While Cubs Give Up

After trading for Blake Snell on Sunday, it was fair to wonder just how far away the Padres are from the World Series-winning Dodgers in the NL West. That gap has narrowed even more if not closed entirely after their latest blockbuster, with Yu Darvish going from Chicago to San Diego on Monday night in a seven-player deal. As for the Cubs, the self-inflicted wounds continue as they cut salary and get worse heading into the final years of team control for the core members of the 2016 championship team.

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Rays Get Miked Up at the End of the Alphabet

A week ago, the Rays’ 40-man roster had a single catcher on it: Ronaldo Hernández, a 23-year-old prospect who had never played above High-A. Fast forward to Friday, and Tampa has doubled its collection of backstops after re-signing Mike Zunino, who has been with the team the past two seasons. That was not the only move the club made, though, as the Rays also signed free-agent pitcher Michael Wacha. Both deals came in at $3 million, with Zunino’s total figure including a buyout on a 2022 option. The deals make sense, though it is worth noting that the two players combined for 0.1 WAR last season, so the Rays must see something beyond their recent performances to justify even a modest investment.

The Rays need a bunch of innings behind the plate, and Zunino, who turns 30 in March, should supply some of them; just don’t expect much out of them. The last two seasons, he’s been one of the worst hitters in baseball, with his 49 wRC+ ranking 337th out of 342 players with at least 300 plate appearances. Zunino does have some power, with a career ISO around .200, and he bested that number in 84 plate appearances last season, but he just doesn’t get to it enough to make himself anywhere near a decent hitter. Even his walk rates, which were double-digit levels back in his good offensive years with the Mariners in 2016 and ’17, have dropped below league average the last three years. Zunino has always swung and missed a lot, with a 35% career strikeout rate, and he whiffed 37 times last year while putting the ball in fair territory on just 38 occasions. He’s average to maybe slightly above average at throwing out runners, but last season, he was below average in framing for the first time in his career. There are reasons the Rays declined Zunino’s $4.5 million option at the end of last season, and it isn’t because they’re cheap.

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Craig Edwards FanGraphs Chat – 12/17/2020

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Two Easy Ways To Make Baseball a Better Game

Baseball is great, but it can be better. While earlier versions of this piece had an overwrought and overly long intro on the delicate balance between the intimacy of the pitcher-batter matchup and the frenzied multi-actor action across beautiful acres of wondrous expanse resulting from a ball put in play, let’s just get to my suggestions to improve the play on the field.

Shrink the Strike Zone

One of the unfortunate side effects of the balls-in-play discussion is that strikeouts and walks tend to get lumped together. In reality, walks are a pretty static feature through baseball history, while strikeouts have fluctuated. Here’s a graph showing walk and strikeout rates over the last 50 years.

Over the last 50 years, the average walk rate has been 8.6%, which is the same as it has been the last five years, and over the last 10 seasons, it is 8.2. Whatever hitters and pitchers are doing in recent history, it hasn’t caused more walks. Strikeouts, though, have soared, and on average, there are about 26 fewer free passes per year over the last decade as opposed to the previous 40 years, compared to an additional 352 whiffs per team per year over the same time frame. While you can argue that the increase is due to changes in hitting philosophy, the average fastball has gone from 89 mph in 2002 to 93 mph last season, while pitchers throw more and more offspeed pitches and fewer pitches in the strike zone. It’s not batter philosophy causing the rise in strikeouts; it’s the pitching just getting better and also being better aided by an increase in the size of the strike zone of about 10%. Read the rest of this entry »

Mets Go Long With James McCann

Going into the offseason, the Mets had a huge hole at catcher, and with Steve Cohen taking over as owner, they also had a lot of money to spend. Those two forces have apparently combined, resulting in free-agent catcher James McCann making his way to New York. Robert Murray indicated a four year-deal was likely two weeks ago, last week Andy Martino reported talks were serious, with Ken Rosenthal reporting the sides were close to a four-year deal. On Sunday, it was Rosenthal who first reported a deal in the range of $40 million, pending physical, with Jeff Passan saying the deal was just over the $40 million mark. But while McCann is certainly an upgrade for the Mets at the position, the deal is curious given the years involved and J.T. Realmuto’s continued availability.

In our Top 50 Free Agents, I ranked McCann 33rd and expected a contract in the range of two years and $14 million; the average crowdsource numbers were in that same ballpark. Over at ESPN, Kiley McDaniel ranked McCann higher at 14th, but expected a modest deal of two years and $21 million, while Keith Law left McCann off his top-40 at The Athletic entirely. In his write-up for us, Jay Jaffe went over McCann’s plusses and minuses:

Quality catchers aren’t easy to come by these days, and for teams that can’t afford to offer a nine-figure deal to Realmuto and are loath to invest in a 38-year-old [Yadier] Molina (or simply aren’t the Cardinals), McCann offers a reasonable alternative. Admittedly, his track record for above-average play isn’t a long one; he was 0.7 wins below replacement as recently as 2018, and netted -0.1 WAR from 2014-18, that while hitting for just a 75 wRC+. Even so, his 3.8 WAR over the past two seasons is tied for fifth among catchers, while his 116 wRC+ is eighth. Read the rest of this entry »

Craig Edwards FanGraphs Chat – 12/10/2020

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Lance Lynn Heads North to the South Side

Looking at the pitchers in the RosterResource Free Agent Tracker and sorting by projected WAR, we see 10 starters with a projection of at least two wins. The group is topped by Trevor Bauer and his 3.8 WAR projection and $100 million contract aspirations. Of the next nine pitchers, six have already signed contracts for next season. Two, Corey Kluber and James Paxton, come with significant injury concerns. That means that for teams in the market for solid production from a starting pitcher next season either need to pony up for Bauer, go after Masahiro Tanaka and his three projected wins, or look elsewhere. The White Sox opted for that last option yesterday when they traded for Lance Lynn, with Joel Sherman, Jeff Passan and Ken Rosenthal reporting on the players involved. Here’s the deal:

White Sox Receive:

  • Lance Lynn

Rangers Receive:

No matter the metric you use, Lynn has been one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball over the last two years. His 8.3 WAR here at FanGraphs puts him fifth while his 8.6 RA9-WAR is sixth. He’s second at Baseball-Reference with 9.8 WAR. He followed up a fifth-place finish in the 2019 AL Cy Young voting with a sixth-place spot this season. For those more inclined to traditional stats, he’s first in the majors in innings and sixth in strikeouts. For those using Statcast, his xwOBA over the last two seasons is .285 and ranks 15th among the 108 pitchers with at least 2,500 pitches thrown, right behind Walker Buehler, Hyun Jin Ryu, Mike Clevinger, and Charlie Morton, and just ahead of Noah Syndergaard, Shane Bieber, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and Yu Darvish. Factoring in innings easily pushes Lynn into the top 10, if not the top five, of pitchers over the last two seasons. Read the rest of this entry »

The Current State of 2021 Team Payrolls

With Qualifying Offers decisions made, the non-tender deadline at our backs and free agency still just getting started, it’s a good time to check in on every team’s payroll before the offseason reaches full bore. With this year’s 60-game season came a substantial reduction in revenues as well as player pay. How much owners plan to cut team payrolls for next season is uncertain, but substantial reductions are expected. To get a sense of where current major-league payrolls fall, here are our projections from our RosterResource payroll pages:

There are a few things to keep in mind here. First, these figures are salaries for 2021, not the average annual value numbers used for the competitive balance tax payroll, which we’ll get to in a bit. In addition, these figures don’t include buyouts for this past year or next season, which stand at around $40 million total potentially owed as of the end of the season. These numbers do include estimates for arbitration-eligible players, as well as an expected number of minimum-salaried players to make it through a season. They do not include the roughly $2 million per team that will be spent on players on the 40-man roster who aren’t in the majors, or the roughly $15 million per team that will be spent on player benefits. Both of those figures will be included in the competitive balance tax numbers below.

The defending champs top this list by a healthy margin with an expected payroll of roughly $190 million if the season started today; they also seem to be well-equipped for another run next season, as they are about five wins clear of every other team in our Depth Charts. The Dodgers could still conceivably add to their infield, bring Justin Turner back, or add some depth to the rotation or bullpen, but by signing Mookie Betts to a contract extension earlier this year, they ensured the best potential free agent in the game will call Los Angeles home next season. Read the rest of this entry »