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Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 7/9/20

Avatar Dan Szymborski: Greetings all! So begins another Chatxperience!

Matt: In your opinion, who is the best person currently playing in mlb? Not the best player, the best person.

Avatar Dan Szymborski: I don’t feel comfortable making those kinds of evaluations. I’m very qualified to evaluate players at playing baseball. I have no such qualifications at determing quality of a person.

Avatar Dan Szymborski: When we do the chapter BBWAA awards for the local team (Reds in my case), I always abstain from the Good Guy award.

Szan Dymborski: Szmbob! Why do I still think this season is not going to happen?

Avatar Dan Szymborski: Well, there’s a raging epidemic going on, so no matter how great a job MLB does, there’s always significant risk.

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ZiPS Time Warp: Nomar Garciaparra

One of the defining features of late 1990s baseball was the battle between three young, superstar shortstops: Alex Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners, Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, and Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox. There were the occasional interlopers, such as Barry Larkin in his late-career surge and Jay Bell with the Diamondbacks in the midst of his second wind, but A-Rod, Jeter, and Garciaparra were the big three at the top of the leaderboards. The debate surrounding these three shortstops was very much in the public eye, with the trio at the top of the sport in terms of both name recognition and performance.

Top MLB Shortstops, 1997-2000
Nomar Garciaparra 571 .337 .386 .577 142 27.5
Alex Rodriguez 579 .304 .372 .560 137 26.4
Derek Jeter 614 .325 .402 .479 132 21.2
Barry Larkin 481 .306 .399 .468 124 16.9
Jay Bell 608 .275 .361 .473 112 14.8
Omar Vizquel 604 .297 .370 .387 98 14.6
Mike Bordick 620 .266 .323 .395 87 10.9
Tony Batista 470 .262 .312 .497 99 8.8
Jose Valentin 520 .249 .330 .432 92 7.4
Rich Aurilia 461 .274 .331 .438 99 7.3
Royce Clayton 577 .261 .317 .397 81 6.2
Mark Grudzielanek 583 .285 .330 .391 90 6.0
Rey Sanchez 521 .282 .319 .350 70 5.9
Jeff Blauser 374 .266 .372 .409 108 5.5
Miguel Tejada 450 .253 .323 .431 92 5.4
Edgar Renteria 591 .278 .338 .377 88 5.2
Pokey Reese 471 .257 .314 .368 72 5.1
Mark Loretta 516 .294 .360 .401 98 5.0
José Hernández 541 .257 .322 .431 90 4.9
Walt Weiss 407 .261 .362 .347 84 4.7

We’ve been blessed with a flurry of phenom shortstops since then, but having three multi-talented players at the position who were also elite offensive performers was rather novel at the time. Cal Ripken Jr., Alan Trammell, and Robin Yount came the closest in living memory, but that fight was short-lived as Yount eventually moved to the outfield. To find another three this good, you’d have to jump back 60 years to the days of Lou Boudreau, Luke Appling, and Arky Vaughan. Read the rest of this entry »

Szymborski’s Breakdown Candidates for 2020

Yesterday, I posted my 10 favorite breakout candidates for our abbreviated 2020 season. Now it’s time for that piece’s inevitably less-optimistic companion, the breakdowns.

As with the breakouts, precisely defining a breakdown in exact statistical terms is difficult and, I feel, counterproductive. Sometimes it’s a guy with a few dangerous leading indicators; other times, it’s a player who has already seemingly fallen off the cliff and it’s whether he can catch the ledge. Occasionally, a player reaches an age when decline is nearly inevitable; time eventually defeats all of its opponents after all.

With all that in mind, here are my “favorite” 10 breakdown selections for 2020’s 60-game sprint.

Justin Verlander, Houston Astros

Don’t get me wrong, I still think Justin Verlander is a terrific pitcher. But he’s at an age when pitchers can decline very quickly and he’s recovering from a significant groin injury. ZiPS is still convinced he’s an easy ace, but those low-percentile projections have gotten a bit scarier. Verlander’s projection for 2020 is quite close to his 2019, but the differences at the bottom are stark; ZiPS projects an 14% chance of Verlander having an ERA+ under 80; when re-projecting 2019 with a 60-game season, that number was only 5%. There’s no methodology change that accounts for these differences. As breakdowns go, this is a mild one, but it’s significant given Houston’s increased reliance on Verlander without Gerrit Cole around. Read the rest of this entry »

Szymborski’s Breakout Candidates for 2020

Predicting breakout candidates is one of the hardest and most frustrating tasks for anyone who tries their hand at baseball soothsaying. By its very nature, a breakout (or breakdown) projection is a low probability event. If it wasn’t, it would be the basic projection! Your big hits will be next to some embarrassing mistakes. For example, if I were of a mind to gloat about having said in this 2018 piece for ESPN that Christian Yelich had a peak Joey Votto/Will Clark season in him, I couldn’t get around the fact that the player listed right after Yelich was Danny Salazar, who has appeared in one game since that article ran.

So what constitutes a breakout season? Is it a player making a significant change in one aspect of their game? A bounce-back season? Is a top prospect showing improvement a breakout? Or is it a sudden step forward along broad lines? I’d argue that it’s any and all of these things. I used to try to statistically define a breakout season, but in the end, I found no purely mathematical estimation that was satisfactory. As I’ve written this piece over the years, I’ve gone with a more abstract definition: when a player, capable of contributing to a playoff contender, is able to fundamentally change what we think of them.

Predicting breakouts and breakdowns for 2020 is even tougher than usual thanks to the 60-game season, which will complicate knowing if I’m right even if it is somehow miraculously played to completion. But it’s part of the job, so let’s get to the bet-making instead of the bet-hedging. Here are my 10 favorite breakout picks for 2020.

Eloy Jiménez, Chicago White Sox

Eloy Jiménez had a vaguely disappointing rookie year in 2020, with a .513 slugging percentage in a pinball season not enough to balance out the .315 on-base percentage and mediocre defense. What keeps me a believer is that he was a more well-rounded hitter in the minors than he’s displayed in the majors and it’s way too soon to peg him as a low-OBP slugger. It was encouraging that his plate discipline numbers improved over the course of 2019, and ZiPS thinks his second-half .337 BABIP is closer to his real number than his .275 over the season’s early months.

I don’t think a year similar to Yordan Alvarez’s .313/.412/.655 2019 would be all that shocking. Neither does ZiPS; in a 600 PA season, it put his 90th percentile home run total at 54.

I kind of wanted to put Nomar Mazara here as a tandem, but I resolved to stop picking him after doing so for three consecutive seasons and whiffing each time. A breakout is still a possibility for Mazara, but if I pick him for a decade and he finally does break out, I’d just be the blind squirrel finding the nut.

Adrian Houser, Milwaukee Brewers

You’d be excused for not getting excited about Adrian Houser as a prospect; he was never especially enthralling in the minors. What was exciting, however, was Houser’s two-seamer/sinker, which he used to great effect in 2019. Pitch-classification algorithms can have issues with a pitcher like Houser, but while he upped his grounder game considerably last season — useful for a right-handed pitcher given Miller Park’s history as a haven for left-handed sluggers — he did it while avoiding the somewhat dated approach of simply constantly throwing hard and down.

Houser did have considerable splits last year depending on his role, with a 4.57 ERA as a starter compared to 1.47 in relief. But in a rotation that seems overstuffed with third and fourth starters, Houser’s upside is interesting.

Dinelson Lamet, San Diego Padres

One thing people forget about Dinelson Lamet is how little experience he actually has as a pitcher, with only 500 professional innings under his belt. I think there’s a good chance that if not for the Tommy John surgery, he’d be a legitimate ace right now for the Padres; his change was a work in progress at the time. Lamet has been 16 runs below-average with his mid-to-upper 90s fastball — which came back faster post-surgery — but I don’t think this is a case of Nathan Eovaldi, a pitcher who had trouble turning his velocity into outs. Lamet just hasn’t the time to refine his potent fastball-slider combination yet.

Luis Urías, Milwaukee Brewers

It strikes me as odd that in some circles Luis Urías is already thought a bust despite just turning 23. After sitting out the spring with a recovering from surgery on a broken hamate bone, Urías’ poor injury luck has continued; he tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the Brewers’ intake procedure for training camp. His case was reported to be asymptomatic and while we have little practical evidence of how cases like that will affect elite athletes, Craig Counsell appeared optimistic about Urías’ chances of rejoining the team in fairly short order. Urías had a disappointing stint in the majors in 2019, but even taking a huge chunk out of his .315/.398/.600 Triple-A effort due to the league offense and the level, there’s strong evidence that his baseline is well above his .223/.329/.326 major league line last year.

Victor Robles, Washington Nationals

It seems a little weird with the benefit of hindsight, but Victor Robles was always supposed to be the new hotness before Juan Soto exploded onto the roster in 2018. Robles isn’t going to catch up to Soto any time soon — or likely ever — but he showed signs of being a fairly complete hitter as a prospect and his defense in center field has been about as good as advertised. His main problem remains that he makes very soft contact, especially on groundballs, and I think his tendency to be overaggressive on the first pitch and top a soft grounder is hurting him here; he just doesn’t have the contact skills of a David Fletcher. Victor Robles will never hit for power like a Joey Gallo, but better pitch selection would give him a shot at retaining his 2019 home run bump. Too much of his current plate discipline comes from simply being willing to take a hit by a pitch.

Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves

Poor Dansby Swanson is at risk of becoming the new Gregg Jefferies, a player who is always measured versus our lofty initial expectations, found wanting, and ends up underrated by “only” being a B+ player in the majors. Swanson hit the ball harder in 2020 than he ever had before in the majors, with his barrel rate more than doubling his 2017 and ’18 numbers and his weak contact hits dropping considerably. It didn’t show up in his overall stats, but ZiPS “thought” he should actually have been a .492 slugger instead of the .422 mark he posted. zSLG isn’t an outlier, either; Statcast’s xSLG had Swanson at .480.

Dylan Bundy, Los Angeles Angels

My working theory on Dylan Bundy is that he needed a change of scenery more than practically any pitcher in the majors, both figuratively in terms of coaching and literally in terms of a park better configured to contain his mistakes. Bundy came out of high school nearly a decade ago as a hard thrower, a pitcher who regularly hit the high-90s and was clocked at 100 as an amateur. Years of injuries killed off the fastball, but Bundy continued to pitch as if he was still that pitcher, aggressively challenging hitters with a 91-92 mph four-seamer. That doesn’t actually work against major league hitters; for his career, he’s allowed a .542 SLG on four-seamers, including a .574 in 2018 and a .642 in 2019.

Bundy has to reinvent himself the way Frank Tanana did after his injury. There were signs of progress at times in 2019, with Bundy trying to change speeds more often. I still think there’s upside here if the Angels convince Bundy that his comps fall along the lines of Doug Fister, not Randy Johnson.

Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins

Byron Buxton thrived last season when the Twins finally did what they’d resisted doing for years: sticking him in the lineup, letting him play, and not panicking every time he had a bad week. ZiPS gives Buxton a 10% chance at a 130 OPS+, enough that it would make him a superstar when combined with his defense. The shoulder is a concern, but he’s also had the luxury of more time to recover because of the pandemic’s long layoff.

Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates

I can’t think of a scenario in which Mitch Keller’s .475 BABIP in 2019 represents an actual ability. I’m not convinced that Mitch Webster, coming out of retirement and converted to pitching, would allow a .475 BABIP. Historically, hitters being dragooned as pitchers have a BABIP allowed in the .330 range, which I think sets a soft ceiling of minimal pitching competence. But it was such a wacky number that even ZiPS is having trouble coping and I’d take the under on the .328 projection, even with Keller having similar issues in the minors, though not to the same extreme. Like Lamet above and my eternal example, Kevin Gausman, I think Keller really needs an offspeed pitch he can count on, but the talent is there. It’s hard to strike out 12 batters a game and have no idea what you’re doing.

Tyler Anderson, San Francisco Giants

There’s a chance that this is personal bias since his windup always gives me nightmares in MLB: The Show, but Tyler Anderson was always on the verge of breaking out as command-type pitcher in Coors and with a better outfield defense and a friendly park in San Francisco, I think he could have a Kirk Rueter-type run of success. And yes, I know he’s more of a strikeout pitcher than Rueter — the comp isn’t perfect. Having the extra time to recover from major knee surgery will be helpful, I feel.

These are my breakout candidates. Next, I’ll reveal the sad side of the coin: the breakdowns.

Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 7/2/2020


Jon: I tried to make a model to project break outs and I had zero luck. Any suggestions for a beginner?

Avatar Dan Szymborski: Project Arkanoid, it was a more successful Break Out!

Avatar Dan Szymborski: Sorry.

Avatar Dan Szymborski: It may be that you don’t have sufficient variables in your model to identify breakouts.

Chris: What do you make of manfreds comments about never intending to play more than 60 games? Seems like a dumb thing for a lawyer facing a grievance to say

Read the rest of this entry »

Breaking Bob: The 60-Game Season and the ERA Record

One of the greatest myths of baseball history is the asterisk supposedly added to Roger Maris‘ then-record 61 home runs in the 1961 season. As the story goes, Major League Baseball, aghast that Babe Ruth’s home run record could be broken by Maris in a 162-game season when Ruth’s Yankees only played 154 games, forced Maris’ record to wear scarlet punctuation in order to shame it in the record books. The only problem is that the Maris asterisk never actually happened. Commissioner Ford Frick, who held the job at a time when he was still expected to at least give lip service to the idea of being a steward to the abstract notion of baseball, was simply expressing his opinion; no asterisk ever appeared next to Roger Maris’ name or record.

The truth about baseball’s record book is that its entries have never had much in the way of purity. From changes in the baseball and the mound to whether players could or could not spit on the ball, numbers in one season never really mean exactly what numbers in other seasons do. Not even baseball’s greatest shame — enforcing a grotesque color line that robbed countless star baseball players of their turn in the majors — resulted in a culling of statistics from the game’s first century.

Records tend to be set in an environment conducive to setting them. No dead ball season features a player with a home run total in even the top 1,000 in history; there’s a reason that strikeout records, both positive and negative, are a feature of modern baseball, not antiquity. Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA in 1968 is currently recognized as baseball’s number to beat only because the dead ball era was deemed to be too different; Tim Keefe, Dutch Leonard, and Three Finger Brown each boast one better than Gibson’s. And Gibson’s record itself reflected the environment — The Year of the Pitcher resulted in baseball lowering the mound by a third and reducing the size of the strike zone for the 1969 season. Read the rest of this entry »

ZiPS Time Warp: Kerry Wood and Mark Prior

Long before Theo Epstein took his curse breaking talents to Chicago, helping to exorcise the demons of the Cubs’ past as the organization secured its biggest W in a century, it was two young pitchers who were supposed to fulfill that promise. I could write separate pieces on Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, but to me they’ll always be linked together in history, so it feels right to have them go as a tandem.

Kerry Wood donned the Cubbie Blue first. He was the first pitcher off the board in the 1995 draft, taken with the fourth pick behind other future major leaguers Darin Erstad, Ben Davis, and Jose Cruz. It’s not surprising that scouts liked Wood; Baseball America was correct in another respect: how quickly he would make the majors despite being a pitcher drafted still two weeks before his 18th birthday:

Wood has an exceptional arm. Not only is the velocity on his fastball equal to that of any pitcher in the draft, but it has heavy, late boring action. His curve also has a tight rotation, giving him two well above-average pitches that he throws with a minimum effort. Scouts say Wood is so advanced that he should be ready for the big leagues faster than all but one or two college pitchers.

This turned out to be almost exactly correct. Two advanced college pitchers, Brett Tomko and Matt Morris, debuted before Kerry Wood did. Indeed, BA’s report only missed the very nitpicky fact that Ariel Prieto (25 at the time), and two low-round relievers, Mike Judd and Jeff Wallace, also beat Wood to the bigs. The Cubs were not pleased when, two days after the team took Wood in the draft, Grand Prairie coaches let him pitch both games of a doubleheader, throwing a total of 175 pitches. Regardless, Wood’s path to the majors was relatively unimpeded and after two full seasons in the minors, he was called up at the start of the 1998 season. Read the rest of this entry »

The Obscenely Late, Obscenely Early ZiPS Projected Standings

It seems like years ago at this point, but the last time we posted preliminary projections a month before the start of a baseball season, it went, well, you know, not great! Now comes our second attempt at preliminary standings projections, previewing what will likely be the oddest baseball season of our lives, at least until the robots take over and the league consists of 1200 Mike TroutBots.

The 60-game season is anything but familiar. MLB’s regional schedule has emerged victorious, with teams primarily playing their own divisions while also facing off against the corresponding geography-based division in the other league instead of their normal out-of-division games. Teams will play 10 games against each of their divisional rivals (40 total) and four games against each of the corresponding divisional teams (20 games total). The standings will work as they normally do, just with the odd twist of many of the teams that will compete in the Wild Card races not playing each other during the regular season. The designated hitter rule is universal for the rest of the 2020 season (and likely for the rest of baseball’s existence as a sport).

Not only will 60 games result in a more volatile season than 162 games would, there are factors that make it even more unpredictable than you’d expect. The injuries that every team suffers could really swing the numbers since the injuries themselves don’t “scale down” in a shorter season. Every injury that would normally place a player on the 60-day Injured List will essentially be a season-ending one, as will many less serious injuries, especially without the ability to play in rehab games in the minors. Read the rest of this entry »

ZiPS KBO Update: Dinos No Fluke, Eagles Have (Crash) Landed

Back before the Korean Baseball Organization’s Opening Day, I altered the methodology ZiPS uses to project Major League Baseball standings to do the same for the KBO’s 144-game season, as it was nearly the only game in town for viewers in the United States. Because projections aren’t written in stone, and are constantly in flux as actual on-field performance eviscerates old projections, I also update the ZiPS’ in-season methodology. After all, ZiPS is a large set of algorithms, not a time machine; the future never exactly matches the prognostications.

One interesting note is that offense has shot way up in the KBO in 2020. After dejuicing the baseballs for 2019, the league’s ERA dropped from 5.17 in 2018 to 4.17 last year. Nearly a third of the way through this season, that ERA is back up to 4.80, almost entirely due to a bit of a re-explosion of home runs. As far as I know, they haven’t re-juiced the baseball, so it will be interesting to see if this keeps up, and if so, do we see similar results in Nippon Professional Baseball or MLB, possibly as a result of pitchers having less time to prepare for the season?

But enough of that; let’s get to the updated projections.

2020 ZiPS KBO In-Season Projections, 6/22
Team W L GB PCT 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th Playoffs
NC Dinos 88 56 .611 42.1% 25.7% 17.3% 9.9% 3.7% 98.7%
Kiwoom Heroes 85 59 3 .590 26.3% 26.5% 22.2% 15.1% 6.9% 97.0%
Doosan Bears 84 60 4 .583 20.1% 24.5% 23.5% 18.2% 8.9% 95.3%
LG Twins 81 63 7 .563 9.8% 17.1% 22.0% 24.4% 15.3% 88.7%
Kia Tigers 74 70 14 .514 1.6% 5.1% 10.2% 17.6% 27.2% 61.7%
Lotte Giants 67 77 21 .465 0.1% 0.5% 1.9% 5.4% 12.5% 20.4%
Samsung Lions 66 78 22 .458 0.0% 0.3% 1.4% 4.4% 10.9% 17.0%
KT Wiz 64 80 24 .444 0.0% 0.1% 0.7% 2.7% 7.4% 10.9%
SK Wyverns 64 80 24 .444 0.0% 0.2% 0.7% 2.3% 7.2% 10.4%
Hanwha Eagles 48 96 40 .333 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

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COVID-19 Roundup: There’s Still a Pandemic Going On

This is the latest installment of a series in which the FanGraphs staff rounds up the latest developments regarding the COVID-19 virus’ effect on baseball.

Dr. Fauci Skeptical About NFL Season

Earlier this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci recommended that MLB try to avoid playing games in October, and his scheduling suggestions didn’t stop at baseball. Yesterday, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said that if the NFL wants to have a 2020 season, they’ll need do so in a heavily quarantined environment, similar to that of the NBA at DisneyWorld.

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble — insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day — it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Fauci said. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”

Read the rest of this entry »