Everybody Signs an Infielder Tuesday concluded with the Twins reaching agreement with Andrelton Simmons on a one-year contract worth $10.5 million. Originally a Brave until a 2015 trade for Erick Aybar and prospects sent him to the West Coast, Simmons hit .297/.346/.356 over 30 games for the Angels in 2020. Unless something incredibly bizarre happens, he will become Minnesota’s starting shortstop, prevent a bunch of runs, and assist the Twins in their quest to win their first playoff game in forever.
Let’s start with the least fun part of this article: the grumpy caveat. Back in May of 2019, Simmons injured his left ankle trying to beat out a grounder and, after a misstep, was unable to put weight on it. It landed him on the injured list for a month, and he missed another month later in the season with an injury to the other side of the same ankle. In the first week of 2020, he did it again, spraining his ankle in a July game against the Athletics, costing him nearly half of the abbreviated 2020 season. Leg and foot injuries are no laughing matter for a middle infielder: There have been plenty of aging second basemen and shortstops who had their careers dramatically waylaid by such injuries. Jose Offerman is the first example that comes to mind; when his legs started being an issue, he went from a .391 OBP second baseman to out of baseball in a blink of an eye.
Simmons hasn’t been fully healthy in two years, and a player with his skill set is more reliant on having healthy feet and legs than a plodding slugger at first base or DH. But $10.5 million is practically peanuts, and the Angels are getting even more of a discount than the associated risk entails. Over 2017 and ’18, he hit .285/.333/.419 to go with his typical sterling defense, enough to combine for over 10 WAR. The Twins may not get that player, but they’re also not paying for that player; if you pay 2018 Andrelton Simmons on merit, $10.5 million would be long gone before you even get to the All-Star break.
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On Tuesday afternoon, the Phillies answered one of the biggest questions of their offseason in decidedly positive fashion, reportedly coming to terms with J.T. Realmuto on a five-year, $115.5 million contract. A physical is still pending, but the contract will keep Realmuto in Philly until the end of the 2025 season assuming all goes well. The number-one free agent in our offseason top 50, Realmuto’s signing removes the best option for anyone looking to make a race-changing upgrade at catcher.
The Philadelphia Phillies and JT Realmuto are in agreement on a 5 year $115.5 million dollar contract. Pending physical. Per source.
— Craig Mish (@CraigMish) January 26, 2021
The Philadelphia Phillies and JT Realmuto are in agreement on a 5 year $115.5 million dollar contract. Pending physical. Per source.
— Craig Mish (@CraigMish) January 26, 2021
It’s hard to overstate Realmuto’s importance to the Phillies. Indeed, his presence is so crucial that if Philadelphia were for some reason only able to retain one of him or Bryce Harper, I’d have to choose Realmuto, a two-time All-Star who has led the team in WAR over the last two seasons. Harper’s a very fine player and will likely still be in baseball years after Realmuto retires, but the short-term alternatives behind the plate looked bleak if the organization had had to scramble for a Plan B. There’s no combination of Andrew Knapp, Rafael Marchan, and non-roster invitee Christian Bethancourt that would have given the Phillies a fighting chance to avoid being near the bottom of the league at the position. Nor would the free agent options have provided a panacea; James McCann, Jason Castro, and Kurt Suzuki are already gone, and Yadier Molina is ancient.
In a rare swap between rivals, the Yankees sent reliever Adam Ottavino to Boston on Monday, along with pitcher Frank German, in return for future considerations. Also heading to Boston was $850,000 to defray part of Ottavino’s $8 million salary for the 2020 season, the final year of the three-year contract he signed to leave the Rockies after 2018.
Ottavino, one of the Yankees’ top relievers in 2019, had decidedly mixed results last year, putting up a 3.52 FIP but an ERA of nearly six. While Ottavino’s .375 BABIP is almost certainly a bit of bad luck — historically, non-pitchers dragooned into throwing innings have a BABIP in the .330 range — there are a few negative indicators to send us the opposite direction in evaluating him. His contact numbers were down, with nearly career-worsts in contact rate and swinging strikes, and when he was hit in 2020, he was walloped, with a five-mph bump in the average exit velocity. Yes, we’re only talking 50 batted ball events, but a 50% hard-hit rate, even in such a small sample, is a significant deviation from the 29% rate from the previous two seasons.
Pittsburgh’s sell-off continued over the weekend, with the Pirates sending starting pitcher Jameson Taillon to the New York Yankees in return for four prospects. The 29-year-old didn’t pitch in 2020, his season lost due to rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery in late 2019, the second such surgery of his career. Taillon, a former 2010 first-round pick, has suffered more than his share of setbacks, missing three years of his career and most of a fourth due to his elbow injuries and a sports hernia; he also missed time in 2017 due to testicular cancer. He heads to a Yankees rotation with a lot of interesting upside talent and a surplus of question marks.
Taillon’s departure to join former teammate Gerrit Cole in the Bronx represents the end of an era in Pittsburgh. Taken in consecutive drafts in 2010 and ’11, Taillon and Cole were frequently imagined together as the two aces at the top of a future Pirates rotation. For a team that had had recent first-round busts in the quickly injured Brad Lincoln and the bafflingly selected Daniel Moskos, this pair was the cornerstone of the rebuilding efforts of the then-new Frank Coonelly/Neal Huntington regime. Both pitchers were consensus elite choices in the draft and were selected without any of the team’s trademark cynical calculations about whether a player would sign on the cheap.
Taillon and Cole met their lofty expectations as they quickly worked their way through the minors. Cole, a college draftee, made his 2011 major league debut just two years after draft day, and if not for injury, Taillon would have likely followed him early in 2014. Missing two years is an enormous setback for any prospect, but the Pirates averaged 93 wins per season over 2013-15 and could afford to be patient. As the holes the team had to fill in order to continue winning increased, ownership’s commitment to investing in the roster did not, and the Pirates needed Taillon in 2016 more than they did in ’14 or ’15. And he succeeded, requiring only a 10-game tuneup at Triple-A before debuting in the majors and pitching well enough where he would have gotten some Rookie of the Year votes if he had been up for the entire year. Read the rest of this entry »
In the 2021 ZiPS projections that are live on this very website, Lucas Giolito is projected with the most WAR of any pitcher in baseball. If my social media is any indication, this projection is, so far at least, the source for the most joy and the most consternation. What is it about Chicago’s young ace that gives him such an aggressively optimistic projection?
One of the common complaints you see from readers about projections is that they don’t go out on a limb very often. To me, this makes perfect sense: when talking about the mean projections, massive performance changes should rarely be the player’s typical expectation. Think back on José Bautista back in 2010. At the time, Joey Bats was a player pushing 30 who had hit .238/.329/.400 in the majors in more than 2,000 plate appearances for five major league teams. As we now know, his destiny was to explode on the scene, slugging .617 for the Blue Jays, resulting in the first of his eventual six All-Star appearances. But that doesn’t mean that his baseline projection going into 2010 should have reflected that result; that unlikely things happen doesn’t mean that they weren’t unlikely.
Projections do go out on a limb, but in a conservative sort of way. One of the more notable examples in recent years is the 2019 ZiPS projection for Shane Bieber. With a 4.55 career ERA (but a 3.23 FIP!) in just 114 2/3 major league innings entering the season, ZiPS gave Bieber an optimistic projection as the 14th most valuable pitcher in baseball with a 3.71 ERA over 187 innings for 3.8 WAR. That was enough to put him just behind Clayton Kershaw and ahead of notables such as Zack Greinke, Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. Not only did Bieber meet this projection, but he also exceeded it, finishing eighth in WAR among pitchers at 5.6.
But why did ZiPS love the Beebs so much? It wasn’t one factor. Instead, it was an accumulation of smaller positive factors that significantly outnumbered the negative ones. Bieber was only 24. He had a record in the minors and majors that suggested he could avoid lofty gopher ball totals. His BABIP in his rookie year was extremely high. From his quality-of-contact data, ZiPS thought that batters “should have” hit .252 and slugged .415 against him in 2018 when the actual numbers were .285 and .467. And so on.
It’s the same thing for Giolito entering the 2021 season. No, he isn’t in the same position as Bieber was entering 2019, given that he’s already received Cy Young votes in two seasons. But it does take something special to get ranked No. 1 with a bullet. His top-notch projection doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen, only that it’s more likely to occur than the downside scenarios. And the latter do exist: ZiPS projects a 15% chance that Giolito will be worse than a league-average starter and about a 7% chance he’ll have an ERA on the wrong side of five, both things that would have a very negative effect on Chicago’s 2021 fate.
So what are some of the reasons for this digital love?
Pitchers don’t have a typical age curve, but it’s still preferable to be in your twenties than in your thirties. Like Bieber, the height of Giolito’s ceiling remains an unknown. Both Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom are amazing pitchers, but after a few more years in the majors, there’s less uncertainty about their remaining upside. Superstars in their mid-20s, on the other hand, frequently have another gear or two remaining. Among Giolito’s top comparables were a multitude of youngish pitchers who were already stars and did have such performance bumps remaining: Greg Maddux, Jose Rijo, Dave Stieb, Brandon Webb, and so on.
Of the top 50 most comparable pitchers in Giolito’s cohort, 32 of them beat their baseline performance estimates over the following three seasons — an astounding rate of success given how attrition claims pitchers. For Cole, that number is only 23; for deGrom, 26; and for Max Scherzer, 19.
Home run rates for pitchers are volatile, but they’re not random. Giolito fares well in velocity and barrel-based numbers and was in the top-tier in most of these measures in 2020. Among the pitchers projected in the top 10 overall in ZiPS, only Luis Castillo consistently beat him. And this is especially important because of the characteristics of the park. Guaranteed Rate Field (that name still makes me cringe) is a bit of an unusual bird, a homer-friendly park that tends to be neutral overall. For a pitcher with an elite ability to avoid batters crushing his pitches, this provides an opportunity to squeeze out a little more value. In other words, while Guaranteed Rate is a neutral park for everyone, Giolito’s homer-avoiding tendency makes it a de facto pitchers’ park for him. This one of the reasons ZiPS liked Dallas Keuchel’s chances at a bounceback season in 2020 and continues to think he’ll be very productive for the Sox. Were this a neutral park, Giolito would lose just enough in his projection to drop him to third in the league in WAR.
At a 33.7% strikeout rate, Giolito certainly wasn’t struggling to punch out batters. But from the across-the-board improvement in his contact numbers in 2020, ZiPS thinks that he should have seen a larger bump in his strikeout rate from 2019’s 32.3% rate.
As part of its model for calculating baseline expectations, ZiPS has a measurement that I’ve dubbed zSO. (The Z stands for ZiPS, as you may have guessed.) Using contact data, velocity numbers, and the like, ZiPS makes an estimate from how many strikeouts a pitcher “should” have ended up with. It’s not a number I pulled out of my hat but one used as part of the model because it has more predictive value than actual strikeouts. Going back to 2002, if all you knew about a pitcher was his strikeout rate and his zSO rate, you’d have predicted the following year’s strikeout rate most accurately with a mix that was 82% zSO and 18% actual.
Looking at the top 15, while zSO is far from infallible — all models are wrong, but some are useful — it had a solid record at identifying the strikeout outliers correctly. So what about the 2020 season? There’s a lower minimum batters faced here (200 batters faced) because of the short season, so you’ll see some larger-than-typical variations between actual strikeout rate and zSO.
No, Giolito doesn’t make the top 15 of underachievers, but he’s close. Compared to his 33.7% strikeout rate, ZiPS thought he “should have” been at 35.7. And that’s unusual, as leaders in anything in baseball are more likely to have overachieved than underachieved. Of the top 20 strikeout pitchers in 2020, ZiPS thinks that only four pitchers actually underachieved: deGrom (0.2%), Tyler Mahle (0.3%), Castillo (0.6%), and Giolito (2.0%).
In summation, ZiPS sees Giolito as a nearly perfect storm of awesomeness and one of the top Cy Young contenders in the American League. With Cleveland reeling, the White Sox have an excellent shot at taking the division and going deep into the playoffs. If the White Sox raise a world championship banner in 2021, the right arm of Giolito will likely be responsible for a great deal of the hoisting.
Can you do the ZiPS “what-if” I’ve been nagging you about for a decade, Bonds if he hadn’t been a victim of collusion in ’07?
I’m guessing ~50 more homers, ~135 OPS+ in three seasons.
One of the big puzzle pieces of this offseason fell firmly into place Tuesday night as the Toronto Blue Jays came to terms on a six-year, $150 million contract with free agent outfielder George Springer. Springer, our second-ranked free agent overall, is coming off a .259/.359/.540, 1.9 WAR season in the abbreviated 2020, enough to make him a highly desired player despite the fact that he’ll turn 32 at the end of the 2021 season.
It seems almost like yesterday when I was fielding questions in my chat about whether Springer was a highly touted prospect-turned-bust after a rough first two weeks in the majors that featured a sub-.500 OPS and strikeouts in a third of his plate appearances. In fact, my standard, curt “April” reply originated in response to the initial panic caused by his slow debut. As one would expect from a player with his pedigree, April showers brought May power, and by the end of his second month in the bigs, Springer’s seasonal OPS was up to a much healthier mark in the mid-.800s. His OPS stayed at or above .800 until he was finally stopped in July due to a quad injury that cost him the rest of the 2014 season.
That was pretty much the last thing that stopped him. Starting in 2015, his first full season, Springer hit .274/.363/.494 and 154 homers and 24.7 WAR for the Astros. That’s not even counting his playoff appearances, another half-season of the highest-leverage baseball you can find, where Springer flourished, hitting .269/.349/.546 over those 63 postseason games. His 19 postseason home runs are currently tied for fourth in major league history, though admittedly, there are a lot more playoff games now than when Ted Williams played. All told, Springer’s performance has easily put him in the top 10 among outfielders in recent years. Read the rest of this entry »
The Angels added some catching depth over the weekend, signing Kurt Suzuki to a one-year contract worth $1.5 million. This will be the 15th season of Suzuki’s career, his longevity the result of an unusually late offensive peak in his mid-30s that has largely compensated for his defensive shortcomings. In 129 plate appearances in 2020, Suzuki hit .270/.349/.396, a respectable triple-slash but also amounting to his lowest wRC+ since 2016, his final season with the Twins.
As I showed through projections last week, the Angels look like they’re in that zone where each additional win or loss has a larger-than-average effect on a team’s playoff destiny. Add in the general desire for a team with a $180 million luxury tax number — more than half from just four players — not to have that payroll go to waste, and you have a formula for being aggressive in adding plausible Plans B to the roster. And really, $1.5 million is just about peanuts, no matter how MLB will suggest otherwise.
The Giants continued to remake their starting rotation this week, signing former Dodgers swingman Alex Wood to a one-year, $3 million contract. Wood’s low salary reflects the fact that he’s struggled over the last two seasons, accumulating -0.2 WAR in 48 1/3 innings, courtesy of a bleak 6.02 FIP. The catch is that he was not truly healthy in either campaign, missing much of 2019 with back issues and a chunk of ’20 with shoulder inflammation. While he’s never been the picture of perfect health — he hasn’t qualified for an ERA title since 2015 — he was a key contributor to the Braves and the Dodgers, and before his disappointing 2019, his worst FIP over a season was 3.69 in ’15, a number many pitchers would be delighted to hit.
Similar to about 27 or 28 teams in baseball, San Francisco hasn’t made a splash this winter, but there’s been a real push to improve the starting pitching. Back when the Giants were winning a World Series every other season, a large part of the foundation was young, team-developed pitching. Few teams could match the accomplishment of producing Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner over a rather short period of time. But since the team’s collapse in 2017, a year in which the Giants just barely avoided their second 100-loss year in franchise history, the rotation has been one of the worst in the league, ranking 25th in WAR. Any sort of magic at creating young aces seems to have dissipated, with a long list of names — Kyle Crick, Keury Mella, Tyler Beede, Ty Blach, Clayton Blackburn — failing to make an impact.