Speculation is part of the fun of watching and discussing sports. “Seriously, if he can keeping hitting like that and the other guy gets his act together at the plate, this offense is really going to be fun to watch in the second half.” This sort of casual speculation is not incompatible with trusting the projections. The line between speculation and analysis-based projection may not always be clear, though, and there are cases when it can be crossed to fit one’s own views.
It is all part of what I call the “Regression Game.” Okay, maybe that is not a great name, but it beats something like “The Process of Filtering Through Projections And Determining Collective True Talent.” Whatever the proper name, one can find it in various forms, particularly in the middle of the season. I am not saying one should never try to take into account various scenarios, that is, to play the game. Just like baseball, though, we need to make sure we are being consistent and playing the regression game the Right Way.
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Everyone knows projections are not guarantees. Anything is possible. But even those alternate possibilities can be surprising in themselves. For example, some people, prior to the season, picked the Royals as dark horse contenders. However, how many of them said Kansas City would be on top of American League Central by midseason despite Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Billy Butler all being almost completely worthless at the plate?
Along the same lines, it was not inconceivable for Cleveland to have a pretty good offense in 2014. In 2013, Cleveland hit pretty well. But again, who would have thought that the 2014 team would have one of the better offenses in the American League about halfway through the season despite Jason Kipnis missing time with injury and (to date) not playing well, Carlos Santana hitting .193, and Nick Swisher sporting a 76 wRC+? Kansas City’s ascension and Detroit’s struggles are rightfully getting the attention, but Cleveland is hanging in there. Much of the credit has to go to two players having shockingly monstrous seasons at the plate: Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley.
Chris Getz announced his retirement yesterday. The former White Sox and Royals second baseman was outrighted by the Blue Jays after 28 plate appearances (16 wRC+). In his statement, Getz makes clear that he is ready to move on with his life. Given his performance on the field the last few years, that life probably would not be enhanced by spending a lot of time floating around Triple-A. There are worse fates than retiring from baseball at 30 after 1574 major league plate appearances, even if they were less than scintillating (.250/.309/.307, 66 wRC+ career).
Although Getz’s talents were quite exceptional relative to the world’s population, they were quite unremarkable in the context of professional baseball. There were not really any moments exciting enough to stand out to people outside of his home fanbases (and maybe not even to them). But Getz’ retirement does provide a good occasion to briefly compare his trajectory with that of the other two players involved in the November 2009 trade between the White Sox and Royals that sent Getz and Josh Fields to Kansas City for Mark Teahen. The far-less-heralded Getz somehow outlasted both Fields and Teahen as a major league player.
The main story of the last night’s installment of the Battle for Grass Creek between the Royals and the Mariners was Hisashi Iwakuma. Iwakuma shut down the (admittedly less-than-intimidating) Kansas City bats with an eight-inning effort, during which he allowed only four hits, no walks and no runs, and struck out seven. The Mariners needed all Iwakuma could bring, because the Royals themselves only allowed the Mariners one run. The Mariners’ lone run came right after Royals’ manager Ned Yost made the questionable decision to have left-handed starter Danny Duffy walk the left-handed hitting Robinson Cano to pitch to right-handed Corey Hart. The problems with that decision have been discussed elsewhere. My own short summary: some intentional walks might make sense, but this was not one of them.
Yost made another interesting decision in the bottom of the ninth. With none out, a runner on first and the Mariners’ closer, Fernando Rodney, on the mound, Yost had Norichika Aoki lay down a sacrifice bunt. Aoki did so successfully, but after an Eric Hosmer walk, the Royals made two more outs and it all came to naught. After the game, Yost explained his decision:
Because I want to take a shot at tying it. My ‘pen was strong enough where I felt like I could go ahead and go for the tie. Some nights you don’t. Some nights you play for the win.
Like intentional walks, not all bunts are bad. Sometimes they are the smart play, sometimes they are not. It is not always easy to say one way or the other. Yost’s teams have sometimes bunted in situations where it made sense. Was this one of those situations?
During a May 2 showdown with division rival Detroit, Kansas City’s ace James Shields put up a horrible start. After mostly dominating batters through the first month of the season, Shields allowed eight runs in just over six innings, a dent in an otherwise good-looking seasonal line. Without analyzing the start in detail, it is fair to say that no matter how bad it was for Kansas City, in itself it provided no obvious cause for concern with regard to Shields. Shields has been one of the top ten or fifteen starters in baseball the last few years, and one game by itself does not change that.
Still, just how bad can it get for good pitchers? Every pitcher puts up a bad start now and then, but how bad have the best been in recent years?
Earlier this week I looked at some notably terrible months by hitters in seasons that otherwise turned out to be very good. As I said there, while we might know that it is too early in the season to be worried about individual hitters who are slumping, it is difficult not to let extreme early season lines get to us. Some players are smoking the ball unexpectedly at this point as well, and although the point can be made either way, looking at some individual cases in which hitters had great single months during otherwise horrible seasons might also be interesting.
Even good hitters go through a cold streaks at some point. If they want to avoid fan panic, though, they need to make sure and save those week or month-long slumps for later in the season. When slumps happen at the beginning of the season, they sandbag the player’s line, and it takes a while for even a good hitter’s line to return to “normal.” Most FanGraphs readers are familiar with the notion of small sample, and thus are, at least on an intellectual level, hopefully immunized against overreaction to early season struggles of good players.
Nonetheless, at this time of the year it is often good to have some existential reassurance. Intellectually, we know that just because a cold streak happens over the first two weeks or month of a season it is not any different than happening in the middle of the year. Slumps at the beginning of the year simply stand out more because they are the whole of the player’s line. One terrible month (and we are not even at the one month point in this season) does not doom a season. Rather than repeat the same old stuff about regression and sample size, this post will offer to anecdotal help. Here are five seasons from hitters, each of which contain (at least) one terrible month at some point, but each of which turned out to be excellent overall.
Yunel Escobar apparently is not into playing hard to get. He reportedly “commandeered” Andrew Friedman during spring training to begin extension talks. Those talks led to the contract extension announced this past weekend: $5 million for 2015 — which replaced the $5 million club option from his prior contract — $7 million in 2016 and a 2017 club option for $7 million, with a $1 million buyout. Given the apparent rise in the price of wins, the deal is almost a no-brainer for the team. It almost sets aside the question whether Escobar fits into the team’s future depth chart while simultaneously raising some curious questions about the value of clubhouse chemistry.
What do we have here? For an explanation of this series, please read this introductory post. As noted in that introduction, the data is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position. The author writing this post did not move your team down ten spots in order to make you angry. We don’t hate your team. I promise.
Also, keep in mind that these lists are based on rosters as of last week, so weekend transactions are not reflected in the rosters below. In some cases, teams have allocated playing time to different reserves than these depth charts show, but because they’re almost always choosing between near-replacement level players, the differences won’t move the needle much if at all.
And now, for the last crop of position players. Or position-less players, I guess.
Given the various uncertainties of projections, there is not much practical separation between the number seven team and the number 13 team on this list. One could even say there is not practical separation between the number five team and the number 15 team. Superstar DHs (in terms of actual value, rather than perception and marketability) are a rarity. It is not impossible for DHs to reach that level. David Ortiz (more on him in a bit) had a couple of superstar seasons years ago, and hitters like Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez made careers as superstar DHs.
Some have argued this is because teams are not utilizing their DH spots properly. While that may be true to an extent, it seems a bit too simplistic. Finding a player who is worth two wins above average (which would make him a roughly average player as a DH) just on offense is hard enough, and finding one on the free agent market who is willing to not play the field (even if he should) is even more difficult. Moreover, even teams who have money often have older players signed to long-term deals who are no longer really able to play the field every day, and thus need some of the time at DH. This makes it impractical to commit to one player at DH. It is an advantage when teams are able to do so, but it is easier said than done.
It would be hard to call Livan Hernandez’s retirement surprising, but some people such as myself were probably a bit taken aback because we assumed he had already retired. That is not meant as a slight. Hernandez is in his late thirties (some would say he is even older), did not pitch at all in 2013, and was dreadful when he last pitched in the majors in 2012. Our own Paul Swydan ranked Hernandez’s 2012 as one of the worst final seasons among pitchers having similar careers.
Beat writers and fans of Hernandez’s numerous teams will have all the best stories and reflections on his career. It would be hard to top Grant Brisbee’s (understandably) Giants-centric farewell to Hernandez, so I am not even going to try. But Hernandez drew attention, even late in his career, for other, non-fan-centric reasons. In 2011, Jeff Sullivan (who today [Livan Day at FanGraphs!] also posted about Hernandez and the strike zone) mentioned that Hernandez had a pretty bad slider in 2011. Yet after that same 2011 season, Swydan noted gave Hernandez an honorable mention for his incredibly slow, but amazingly curvy curve in 2011. Robert Baumann also got in on The Joy of Livan.
Rather than getting into every little statistical detail of Hernandez’ career, let’s look at three different moments from the roughly the beginning, end, and middle of his career.