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Reds Seek Another Chance to Turn Win Ledger Black in 2020

The Reds are close to contention, but they may need Joey Votto to turn back the clock a bit. (Photo: Erik Drost)

“He who never made a mistake, never made a discovery.” – Josh Billings

The Cincinnati Reds used an unusual strategy during the 2018-2019 offseason: trying. OK, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but while last winter’s actual weather was mild, we saw a veritable blizzard of excuses in baseball. As top free agents remained unsigned going into spring training, we heard all sorts of reasoning from teams about why they couldn’t sign this guy or couldn’t afford that guy or why that player over there in the corner was impossible for them to acquire. No, the Reds didn’t pursue Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, but they did make aggressive moves to turn the team into a winner in the short-term, seeing an opportunity in an NL Central where every team had serious flaws. It didn’t quite work out, but many of the reasons they looked like a promising team in 2019 apply to the club in 2020 as well.

The Setup

I appreciated Cincinnati’s ambition last winter, even if I didn’t like every move they made. To be fair, the Reds didn’t go into the offseason intending to please one particularly sarcastic, overweight, middle-aged baseball analyst. But as noted above, there moves were a refreshing departure from baseball’s version of Rasputitsa.

Cincinnati went 67-95 in 2018, and adding 25 wins in one offseason was always going to be difficult. To start with, they needed all of their returning players to be the best versions of themselves. That meant Joey Votto needed to hold off serious decline for another year. Scooter Gennett had to play like an All-Star again. Ideally, Nick Senzel and Jesse Winker would have both been healthy and All-Star candidates themselves. Second-half Luis Castillo would have to become both-halves Luis Castillo. Read the rest of this entry »

Can the Giants Avoid a Full Rebuild?

Although 2019 went a bit better than expected, the Giants do not look like a playoff contender in the near future. (Photo: Travis Wise)

“No man is rich enough to buy back his past.” – Oscar Wilde

With three World Series wins over the last decade, it would be a bit greedy for fans of the Giants to bemoan the team’s current state too strenuously. San Francisco fell out of their even-year championship pattern in 2016 and finished the last three seasons with losing records. With the key players of the dynasty either past their prime or gone completely, the club’s laudable goal of putting a quality team on the field every year has become a tricky one to fulfill.

The Setup

Unlike other formerly competitive teams such as the Tigers and Orioles, the Giants were in no mood to head full-bore into a rebuild in 2018. San Francisco rightly realized that the outfield was a major weakness, but the club struck out in their attempts to acquire Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna. Unable to be one of the teams pillaging the Marlins during that organization’s latest payroll temper tantrum, the Giants picked up Andrew McCutchen in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates in return for Bryan Reynolds, Kyle Crick, and international bonus money. That trade doesn’t look all that phenomenal in 2019 terms given the season Reynolds had, but it was a necessary one given San Francisco’s 2018 goals. Evan Longoria was also acquired in the hopes he could bounce back to being the star he had been for most of his 20s.

As we all know now, 2018 firmly demonstrated that 2017’s 64-98 record wasn’t some horrifying outlier. While the Giants were clearly had not given up on competing, the team’s attempts to stay under the luxury tax threshold made any October aspirations more difficult to achieve. There would be no Lorenzo Cain, no J.D. Martinez, and no Yu Darvish signed in free agency to reinforce the team’s declining core. In any event, none of those signings would have salvaged San Francisco’s 2018 campaign. McCutchen himself didn’t even finish the season with the Giants, as he was sent to the Yankees at the August trade deadline.

San Francisco entered last winter with competitive aspirations, and a combination of a $10 million bump in the luxury tax threshold and $25 million in expiring contracts to Hunter Pence and Matt Cain gave the team a bit of breathing room to add to the roster. One big addition, though not of the roster variety, was that of Farhan Zaidi, formerly the GM of the Dodgers, as head of baseball operations. Zaidi wasn’t brought in — at least at that point — to spearhead a full rebuild, and the Giants went after one of the offseason’s top prizes in free agent outfielder Bryce Harper. The Giants offered Harper 12 years and $310 million, but Harper instead took Philadelphia’s 13-year, $330 million offer. Read the rest of this entry »

Houston Survives Late Inning Scare, Beats Yankees in Six

After what was otherwise a fairly quiet affair punctuated by the occasional home run, the Houston Astros won Game 6 of the American League Championship Series 6-4 on a walkoff home run from José Altuve. Houston takes the series four games to two, and avoids a high-stakes Game 7 that would have left Gerrit Cole unavailable in the World Series until the third game.

The evening got off to an inauspicious start for the Yankees as Houston’s first entrant in the bullpen battle, Brad Peacock, quickly dispatched DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Judge, and Gleyber Torres with seven pitches. Chad Green opened for New York and didn’t perform as well in his half of the inning as Peacock did in his. Green was perhaps fortunate to escape a rather pedestrian slider to Altuve with only a double, but he was less lucky with a high, very inside fastball to Yuli Gurriel, which the first baseman turned on for a home run to give the Astros an early 3-0 lead. That high, inside fastball isn’t usually that dangerous for a pitcher; there were only 13 home runs hit this year by right-handed hitters swinging at a four-seamer in Statcast’s inside and high-inside “chase” zones. Coincidentally enough, Gurriel had one of those home runs, comfortably turning on a sorta-fastball from Trevor Williams. This might have been one of the highest-leverage of those since Kit Keller’s.

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ALCS Rainout a Mixed Bag for Pitchers

The Yankees and Astros both won over 100 games in the regular season but nobody beats Mother Nature. When a rainstorm causes cool terms like “bomb cyclone” or “explosive cyclogenesis” to be bandied about, you know you’re not expecting a light drizzle. Yankee Stadium is currently dry, but with a system the size of the mid-Atlantic barreling up the coast, it didn’t make sense for MLB to pretend that tonight’s ALCS Game 4 was going to take place. Just look at the radar, courtesy of the National Weather Service:

Yikes. The rain provides the Yankees and Astros with an extra off-day now at the expense of losing an off-day between a possible Game 5 and Game 6. This isn’t a big deal for the hitters, but it will result in some revised pitching plans. In a five-game divisional series, teams can generally muddle through with a three-man rotation. Due to the 2-2-1 format, no team plays on three consecutive days, and while the Game 1 starter would have to pitch Game 4 on short rest, the Game 2 starter can pitch in a possible rubber match on normal rest. This extra rest gives teams the flexibility to either stretch their best three starters or, as the Nationals demonstrated, use starting pitchers in relief more aggressively.

But short of baseball going to some kind of impractical 2-2-1-1-1 format, that doesn’t quite work in a seven-game series. So unless you’re going to have your entire rotation do it 1930-style, you’ll need to use a fourth starter. That isn’t an ideal situation for either the Yankees or the Astros. From a pure projection standpoint, it’s actually doesn’t move the probabilities. The Astros get an immediate benefit in that they avoid a Bullpen vs. Bullpen Game 4; ZiPS takes bullpen depth into consideration and Yankees enjoy a significant projected edge in any such bullpen game. Before the rainout, ZiPS projected the Yankees to have a 56%-44% edge in a home bullpen duel, so it’s a nice game to delay if you’re Houston.

The problem you run into with this model is that the rainout doesn’t really add an extra day of rest, it simply moves it. Since there are only two days of rest for a Game 4 starter to pitch in Game 7 now, both teams end up repeating the dilemma of either using a fourth starter — particularly problematic for the Astros — or going with a bullpen game. Read the rest of this entry »

The Big Payoff for Pittsburgh Never Came

The Pirates may be headed for another rebuild, but the club hopes it won’t last as long as the previous one. (Photo: Dan Gaken)

“Life is like a sewer; what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.” – Tom Lehrer

Coming off of three consecutive NL East titles from 1990 to ’92, the Pirates lost Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds in back-to-back offseasons and quickly descended into the divisional basement. Unlike Chuck Cunningham in Happy Days, the Pirates didn’t just take the stairs and disappear forever. Vanishing from history would probably have been more merciful than what actually happened; the Pirates became the justified butt of baseball jokes. Run by Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield for the 15 years that followed, Pittsburgh filled out the entire Bingo Card of Incompetence. They drafted poorly, and gave bizarre contracts to players like Pat Meares and Kevin Young, who couldn’t even be called tertiary talent, and appeared to be on a mad quest to trade any developed star for as little as possible.

Unlike many organizations, which have one single, horrific move worth mocking, it’s difficult to decide which situation was the most embarrassing for the Pirates. Was it the time they signed Meares to a one-year contract after he was non-tendered, then gave him a four-year deal after a week of a .508 OPS? Was it trading Aramis Ramirez and not getting a single real prospect in return? Was it picking up Matt Morris and his contract for no particular reason? Or was it paying Derek Bell $4.5 million to live on his boat? I’d be hard-pressed to choose when the Pirates were the most de-pantsed.

Overcoming 15 years of haplessness was the challenge set to Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington when they took over the Pirates’ day-to-day operations in September 2007. They cleaned the Augean stables, remaking the organization from top-to-bottom and turning it into one that looked like its more modern contemporaries. They brought in analysts, integrated contemporary sabermetric approaches, and found a pitching coach in Ray Searage who could help them turn straw into gold. And for a while, it worked. Blowing through the .500 threshold, the Pirates won 94, 88, and 98 games, making three consecutive postseasons for only the second team in the team’s history. Read the rest of this entry »

Padres Disappoint With 70-92 Record, but Rebuilding Stays On Target

The Padres aren’t where they want to be yet, but it certainly feels like they are headed in the right direction. (Photo: Keith Allison)

“OUTCOME, n. A particular type of disappointment… judged by the outcome, the result. This is immortal nonsense; the wisdom of an act is to be judged by the light that the doer had when he performed it.” – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Coming up this early in this baseball autopsy series, the Padres find themselves in the midst of a number of disappointing teams in search of a direction. The Padres do have a direction, they just haven’t gone far enough along the road that they should be stopping for coffee and bathroom breaks. Of the teams that have been covered so far in this series, the Padres are the first one that I’m legitimately optimistic about when it comes to their 2020 record.

The Setup

People have a tendency to not use the word “mediocre” correctly. Many use it as a synonym for awful, which it is not. Mediocre is an eternal C- student, something of continually below-average quality without being a grand failure. The post-Gwynn Padres may be the best example of a mediocre franchise.

With losing records in 11 of the past 12 seasons, the Padres never really descended into the full “farce” category, never losing 100 games or failing to make the 70-win line in consecutive seasons. The Padres as a franchise never really elicit an LOL reaction, let alone a full-bore ROFLMAO; they’re the team that you’d occasionally remember exists when your favorite team is on a road trip. Even the uniforms reflected this state of affairs. The current blue-and-white uniforms aren’t cringe material like the White Sox experiment with collars and shorts, and they aren’t obscenely odd like the Turn Ahead the Clock jerseys that assumed everyone in the future would be extremely near-sighted. They’re just bland and forgettable, like if you were using the create-a-team feature in a baseball video game and forgot to change the jersey from DefaultTeam1. Read the rest of this entry »

Postseason Preview: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Washington Nationals NLCS

After two elimination games on Wednesday night, the National League Championship Series has its two participants: the St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Nationals. It’s not quite the matchup most predicted — only four of 32 FanGraphs predictors pegged the NLCS correctly a week ago — it’s hard to say that either team got there cheaply. The Game 5’s were very different; one was a fantastic blowout, the other a fantastic crushing of Clayton Kershaw’s hopes and dreams, and just like that, the National League’s two winningest teams saw their seasons end before mid-October.

The Washington Nationals were a ZiPS favorite going into their series with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not a literal favorite — the Dodgers were still projected to win 51%-49% — but certainly a team that was hitting above their seasonal win total. Over 162 games, there’s no doubt that the Dodgers were the better club, but over a short series of five games, Washington’s Big Three of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin match up against any team in baseball. It didn’t always work (see: Corbin’s first relief appearance), but combine the Wild Card and the NLDS, and Nats were able to use that trio in just under two-thirds of their total innings (66.3%). In the regular season, that number was only 40.1%.

Similarly, while the Washington relief corps still isn’t a good unit, they’ve at least been able to use the shorter timeframe of postseason baseball to lop off some of the dreadful performances at the back of their bullpen. Kyle Barraclough and Matt Grace weren’t around to start any late-inning conflagrations (Trevor Rosenthal was mercifully released in August). The bullpen combined for an abysmal 5.68 ERA in 2019, but the seven pitchers brought in this October have combined for a 3.90 ERA. That’s certainly not going to remind anyone of the Yankees, but it’s at least a serviceable group if you’re forced to use them.

In a seven-game series, the Nationals undoubtedly will have to utilize the bullpen more than they did in the NLDS. The two extra games the NLCS can run do not come equipped with an additional day of rest, so it would be even harder to feature a surprise guest appearances from their top starters. Aníbal Sánchez will certainly get another start unless Game 4 is an elimination game for the Nats, and while I wouldn’t count out a Scherzer appearance in a truly high-leverage relief situation, I think you’ll necessarily see Washington rely on its relief pitching more. St. Louis’ offense is not L.A.’s, something that’s not necessarily captured in Win Expectancy calculators, so the average relief outing is slightly less frightening against the Cardinals than an identical game state against the Dodgers. Read the rest of this entry »

Mike Trout and the Others Once Again Fail to Make the Playoffs

While Mike Trout got some help from teammates like Brian Goodwin, the supporting cast was once again not enough in 2019. (Photo: Keith Allison)

“Put all your eggs in one basket… the handle’s going to break. Then all you’ve got is scrambled eggs.” – Nora Roberts

For the Los Angeles Angels, 2019 looked a lot like most of the past decade. Despite starting off the roster with the best player they’ve ever had and probably the best player they ever will have in Mike Trout, Los Angeles finished below .500 for the fourth consecutive season.

In some ways, the Angels are baseball’s least interesting team. The organization’s 2002-2009 salad days are long in the past, and while these Angels are never spectacularly awful — 2019 was the club’s first 90-loss season since 1999 — it’s a team that’s blandly assembled to create indifferent results. Being truly awful would have at least elicited a kind of macabre fascination. But these Los Angeles Angels appear to be a franchise focused on blithely existing.

The Setup

Thanks to the presence of Trout, the Angels essentially start off every baseball season with a three-win head start over any team in baseball. Beginning every year with a guy who puts up nine- or 10-win seasons like clockwork is an amazing boon for a franchise. Suddenly, the challenge of building a 90-win team is simply assembling a .500 team using the other 24 players on the roster. It’s a bit like getting Gordon Ramsay for your elementary school’s bake sale; if you can’t sell cookies to your neighbors with the most famous chef in the world in your corner, you might want to double-check the recipe.

And it’s not as if those 10 wins are collected at a price that cripples the budget. With an average salary under $36 million for the next dozen years, the Angels couldn’t have gotten a better deal on Trout if he was bought in a shady marketplace after falling off a truck. Read the rest of this entry »

Strasburg Throws the Dodgers a Curve

In what was nearly a must-win game for the Washington Nationals Friday night, Stephen Strasburg threw six strong innings to even the series against the Dodgers to 1-1. The Game 2 win ensures that the Nationals don’t have to win three games in a row to advance against Los Angeles; the Dodgers only lost three consecutive games on three different occasions in 2019.

The Nationals have developed a certain sort of notoriety, similar to that of the Oakland A’s, for their relative incompetence when it comes to postseason baseball. While it’s unlikely to be predictive for a franchise in any meaningful sense, and their 8-13 historical playoff record entering Game 2 isn’t really that historically awful, reputations in sports are rarely assigned in a fair manner. But one National you can’t blame for this playoff history is Strasburg, who has now allowed just two runs in 28 career October innings and struck out 38 against while walking just four. Strasburg’s sterling start wasn’t a blue-light BABIP special as he struck out batters in double-digits for the third time in his still-young playoff career.

In a season in which the Dodgers won 106 games and led the National League in runs scored, Strasburg has been one of the few pitchers to have continued success against the Boys in Blue. Adding in Friday night’s performance, Strasburg’s season line against the Dodgers (so far!) amounts to a 1.89 ERA in three starts with 26 strikeouts in 19 innings.

Perhaps the most interesting difference in last night’s game compared to his previous starts against the Dodgers was that Strasburg was far more reliant on curveballs and changeups. 61% of Strasburg’s pitches were his curve or his change, a number only beaten this year by an August 20 start against the Pirates. Strasburg’s 15 swinging strikes in Game 2 on curves or changeups almost matched the 16 he totaled in his other two starts against the Dodgers. While he still pounded the Dodgers high on fastballs as in previous starts, there was a lot less hard painting of the outside edge for righties and inside edge for lefties. Strasburg was more content to send the Dodgers fishing, which they did quite happily and ineffectually.

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Dodgers Take NLDS Game 1 with Two-Hitter

The Dodgers got their 2019 postseason off to a convincing start, blanking the Nationals 6-0 in a game that remained close longer than it should have. Walker Buehler earned his first postseason win, throwing six mostly strong innings marred only by a dicey fourth.

Hyun-Jin Ryu has been getting more attention where the Cy Young race is concerned by virtue of his league-leading 2.32 ERA, but with both Ryu and Clayton Kershaw now in their 30s, Buehler has more clearly become the team’s build-around pitcher. For the first time in his career, Buehler was given the Game 1 nod and responded by allowing just a single hit in six innings, while striking out eight. The scoreless outing brings Beuhler’s consecutive postseason scoreless innings streak to 16.2 innings; his last run allowed was a solo homer given up to Christian Yelich in the 2018 NLCS. The next time Buehler fails to strike out seven batters in a postseason game, it will be the first time.

The fourth inning was a very near thing for Buehler and the Dodgers. Only up 2-0 at that point in the game, Buehler threw 11 of his 13 fastballs outside of the strike zone, allowing all three of Washington’s walks in the game. The pitches weren’t a function of failing to get borderline strikes on the edge of the zone, either; five of the fastballs weren’t anywhere close to the strike zone, including two to Adam Eaton that would have been high balls to Manute Bol.

Buehler’s fourth inning a close call continued when facing Juan Soto with Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon on-base. Soto put up a 1.000 OPS against right-handed pitchers in 2019, but he’s struggled against sliders with a .161 batting average and a .274 slugging against sliders from righties. Buehler left a tempting one right in Soto’s wheelhouse and Soto was just an eyelash away from fully crushing it. But after a Howie Kendrick walk, an easy groundout from Asdrúbal Cabrera left the bases loaded and the Nats scoreless.

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