Author Archive

Do Head-to-Head Regular Season Records Matter in the Playoffs?

© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Since I’m an obnoxiously determined Devil’s advocate, one of my favorite uses of data is tackling conventional wisdom. For example, one such bit of wisdom that always bugs me is when pundits insist that the best teams are the ones that win close games. In fact, the opposite is true. The most predictive run differential comes in blowouts — the good teams are the ones that are more likely to humiliate their opponents, not squeeze out a close one. This time of year, you start to see a lot of analysis asserting that X team is definitely blessed or doomed come playoff time because of some randomly chosen factor Y. We could do a column a day on these and still have dozens of unwritten pieces by the time the actual playoffs roll around, but let’s focus on a few specific ones, concentrating on who good teams beat rather than how many games they win.

First off, do regular season head-to-head records matter in the playoffs? Since the start of divisional play in 1969, teams that face each other in the playoffs have frequently met in the regular season. Interleague play added eventual World Series matchups to the regular season, and starting in 2023, every playoff matchup will have already occurred during the regular season. Given the sample size of playoff series, if we construct a simple model of series winning percentage that only consists of a team’s regular season winning percentage and its winning percentage in head-to-head matchups, the model horribly inaccurate, with an r-squared of 0.0886 and a mean absolute error of 275 points of winning percentage.

But including head-to-head winning percentage doesn’t really even have a marginal influence on the coin flip; without the head-to-head matchups, the model’s MAE increases to 276 points of winning percentage. Now, a head-to-head record may imply something about a team’s overall strength that isn’t captured in its overall record, but rather than pick up a small sample implication, we can use strength of schedule directly, which does help the model a tiny bit (playoff series are always going to be very uncertain unless we move to best-of-75 series or something wacky). Read the rest of this entry »


The M’s and Julio Rodríguez Write the Most Expensive Choose Your Own Adventure Book Ever

© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It’ll still be a few months before we see whether Julio Rodríguez wins the American League Rookie of the Year award, but today we got a glimpse of baseball 15 years into the future. As reported by MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez and ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the Seattle Mariners and Rodríguez have come to terms on a huge long-term contract extension, one that would run to the late 2030s.

Passan ran down the details of the deal, and it’s a complicated one.

Read the rest of this entry »


What Do the Projections Say About the 2023 Schedule?

© Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, MLB announced the 2023 schedule, implementing the alterations originally announced when the current collective bargaining agreement was signed back in March. The existing format, under which the 2022 season is being played, has been largely stable since 2013, the season the Houston Astros moved to the American League. That change evened out all six divisions to five teams each, making for a tidy format in which every team played their divisional opponents 19 times and the rest of the teams in their league six or seven times, with 20 interleague games against a rotating division and officially designated MLB rivals.

Before 2001, MLB’s schedule tended to be a good deal more balanced. During the divisional era before interleague play, six-team divisions typically played 18 games against their divisional opponents and 12 against non-divisional opponents; seven-team divisions had a nearly even 13/12 split (the American League did 15 vs. 10 or 11 for a couple years after the 1977 expansion). In 2001, MLB went all-in on an unbalanced schedule, with the idea being that by having teams play their divisional rivals more often, you’d create greater tension in the divisional races and more intense regional rivalries. Whether this approach actually accomplished its goals is difficult to tell. I can’t think of any new rivalries that were created simply by playing more games and tend to believe that rivalries are born from teams playing more meaningful games against each other, not simply from seeing each other more often. Red Sox and Yankees fans don’t appear to have hated each other any more in 2010 than they did in 2000, and the endless Orioles-Rays series in the days before Tampa Bay was competitive made this O’s fan click over to other games, not foster a hatred for the Rays.

Be that as it may, from a philosophical standpoint, heavily unbalanced schedules make the most sense when winning divisional races is the sole or at least primary way of making the playoffs and much less so when more Wild Card spots exist. When you have a lot of Wild Card spots, you create a fundamental bit of unfairness when the divisions are of meaningfully differing strengths; teams in weak divisions are competing directly against teams in stronger divisions for those Wild Card spots, with the former generally having easier schedules. Read the rest of this entry »


Carlos Rodón Appears Headed for a Big Payday

© Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports

After having arguably the best season of his professional career in 2021, Carlos Rodón signed a rather modest two-year, $44 million contract with the San Francisco Giants. For a large part of the 2021 season, it looked like he was headed toward a much more headline-grabbing dollar amount. After years of missed time, first due to shoulder problems and then a Tommy John surgery, Rodón shocked the baseball world by returning with a much hotter fastball than he’d previously ever had. Never reaching the heights the White Sox expected when they took him with the third overall pick of the 2014 draft, he was bordering on bust status before suddenly re-emerging as an All-Star. Literally — he made his first All-Star team in 2021.

But a few nasty surprises kept Rodón from getting the payday aces typically get. Given his injury record — he’d only been healthy enough to qualify for an ERA title once — there were inevitable concerns about his durability, an important consideration when you’re doling out nine-figure contracts. Those fears were realized in the second half of the season, as Rodón missed time due to shoulder fatigue and soreness. It wasn’t that he struggled; most teams would have been overjoyed with his 3.26 second-half FIP. What was highly concerning was the dramatic velocity loss he experienced, an extremely inauspicious sign for a pitcher: Read the rest of this entry »


The Bellinger Tolls For the 2019 NL MVP

Cody Bellinger
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Three years ago, everything was coming up Cody Bellinger’s way. The NL Rookie of the Year in 2017, he broke out in a big way in ’19, smashing 47 home runs with an OPS over 1.000 and edging out Christian Yelich for his first (and only) MVP hardware. Bellinger had even taken to playing excellent defense in center field, not something typically on the curriculum vitae for a young first baseman. Entering his age-24 season, everyone expected that he’d be a star for the next decade or so and a building block for the Dodgers as players like Corey Seager were approaching free agency.

The ZiPS projection system, known for being the grumpy devil’s advocate as most such systems are, didn’t see any particular reason for concern, either. If you wanted Los Angeles to sign Bellinger to a lucrative contract extension, guaranteeing he wore Dodger blue for a long time, you had a loyal friend in ZiPS:

ZiPS Projection – Cody Bellinger (Pre-2020)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2020 .291 .389 .583 549 106 160 33 5 39 118 87 126 15 155 2 6.8
2021 .290 .392 .594 535 106 155 33 5 40 119 89 126 14 159 2 6.6
2022 .284 .392 .580 529 105 150 32 4 39 115 93 130 14 155 1 6.4
2023 .282 .393 .582 521 105 147 31 4 39 114 94 132 13 156 1 6.3
2024 .277 .390 .576 509 101 141 30 4 38 110 93 131 11 154 1 5.9
2025 .276 .390 .564 493 98 136 29 4 35 105 91 123 11 151 0 5.5
2026 .275 .388 .559 476 93 131 28 4 33 100 88 115 10 149 0 5.2
2027 .271 .381 .543 462 86 125 26 5 30 93 82 109 9 143 0 4.6
2028 .266 .373 .523 440 79 117 24 4 27 84 75 99 7 136 -1 3.8
2029 .260 .363 .494 419 71 109 21 4 23 75 67 88 6 126 -1 3.0

In rest-of-career WAR, Bellinger ranked third among position players, behind just Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr.

Now, if this were a comedy movie, this is the point in the trailer at which you hear the record scratch, the narrator describes the humorous change of fortune, and then the music changes to an upbeat pop hit song with clips of how Bellinger gets back everything he lost and learns about the incredible power of friendship. But it’s not. Since that NL MVP season, he has hit .200/.271/.380 in over 1,000 plate appearances, only finishing above replacement level by virtue of the fact that he at least still remembers how to play defense. This is less Pixar and more Darren Aronofsky. Read the rest of this entry »


Rookie Standout Michael Harris II Signs $72 Million Extension

© Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Just a few weeks after extending third baseman Austin Riley, Alex Anthopoulos and the Atlanta Braves are at it again. This time, the recipient of a long-term deal is one of the team’s two rookie standouts, Michael Harris II. The freshly inked contract runs for a minimum of eight years, with $15 million and $20 million club options in 2031 and ’32 that each carry a buyout of $5 million. All told, Harris stands to pocket at least $72 million; the deal will be worth $102 million if the Braves exercise both options.

That Harris would be signing an extension that takes him into the 2030s in August of 2022 while nearly doubling up the next-best National League rookie hitter by WAR would have been a surprising revelation to someone living in the pre-lockout days. After all, Harris had not yet played above High-A, and while he was excellent in the Sally League, he wasn’t dominating the way Julio Rodríguez was at a similar level of play. But like Rodríguez, it only took six weeks of Double-A ball before Harris was ready to star in the majors.

When Harris was called up in late May, the Braves were still scuffling below .500, 7 1/2 games behind the Mets in the NL East. Atlanta’s outfield beyond Ronald Acuña Jr. was sorely tested, as Eddie Rosario was out with eye surgery, Marcell Ozuna had an OPS hovering around .650, and it felt as if the Baha Men had a hit more recently than Travis Demeritte. Some teams would have taken the path of least resistance and called up journeyman fifth outfielder Delino DeShields or eternal prospect Drew Waters. Instead, the Braves went with the bolder move, calling up Harris. Unlike the other options, Harris was at least playing excellent baseball, hitting .305/.372/.506 in 43 games for Double-A Mississippi. Read the rest of this entry »


Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 8/18/22

12:02
Avatar Dan Szymborski: And we are live!

12:02
Avatar Dan Szymborski: Or possibly dead and this is a very odd afterlife.

12:02
Sampa: The best part about being a padres fan is that we will all be dead someday

12:02
James: What does Zips think about Verlander’s next contract? Will anyone give him 3 years?

12:04
Andrew: Why are the orioles putting Gunnar Henderson at 1st base?

12:04
Avatar Dan Szymborski: Oops, sorry didn’t answer yet lol

Read the rest of this entry »


Will a Compressed Playoff Schedule Have a Measurable Effect on the Outcome?

© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The delayed start to the 2022 season due to the lockout has had a lot of small consequences for the structure of the season, ranging from expanded rosters to my least favorite thing, the continued use of zombie runners in extra innings. The last (we hope) of these changes is a slight alteration to the playoff schedule, which the league sees as a necessity in order to keep the postseason from straying too far into November. On Monday, MLB announced that the three-game Wild Card Series will be played without any off-days, while an off-day will be trimmed from the Divisional Series (between Games 4 and 5); teams in the ALDS get one additional off-day, without travel, between Games 1 and 2. The Championship Series will lose an off-day between Games 5 and 6). The World Series is business as usual.

While I expected this configuration for the Wild Card round (it was already accounted for in the generalized ZiPS projections for postseason performance), there are some slight tweaks that need to be made to account for the changes to the Division and Championship Series with respect to pitching. When projecting the roster strength of a team for the purposes of postseason probabilities, ZiPS weighs pitchers at the top of the rotation more heavily. That’s because historically they have gotten a larger percentage of starter innings in the playoffs than during the regular season. But losing an extra day of rest could result in teams using the pitchers after their No. 3 starters more heavily, as well as more dilemmas involving bringing back a top starter on three days rest. There are also possible consequences for the bullpens. In other words, teams will need to be slightly deeper than normal this playoff season.

So, how do we account for that? To get a rough estimate — I’m not sure there’s a methodology that will let us do any better than that — of the potential effects of the compressed schedule, I went back into the ZiPS game-by-game postseason simulations and put together a new, quick simulation for starting pitcher usage. I used projections as of Tuesday morning. Read the rest of this entry »


Fernando Tatis Jr. Suspension Is Huge Loss for Padres, Fans, Major League Baseball

Fernando Tatis Jr
D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

In a shocking story heading into the weekend, MLB announced that Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. would be suspended for 80 games under the league’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. His positive test was for Clostebol, an anabolic steroid that previously led to the suspensions of Dee Strange-Gordon and Freddy Galvis. The ban ends his 2022 season before it ever officially started, and he will also miss a decent chunk of next year, as well.

To say this is unwelcome news would be an understatement. The Padres are in prime playoff position without having the services of Tatis this year, but this is a giant hit; they’re in this position in spite of his loss. Whether you’re talking about the projections of nerdy computer systems or the expectations of team employees and their fans, the idea that he would be back on the roster for at least most of the stretch run and the playoffs was baked into the assumptions.

While a certain trade with the team in D.C. for a specific outfielder of much acclaim rightfully got the most thundering plaudits after the deadline, the depth move for Brandon Drury in a small trade with the Reds is looking even better. After a string of disappointing seasons following his early success in Arizona, he’s having a career year, hitting .269/.333/.521 for a wRC+ of 130 and playing several positions. Drury is competent at both second base and third base, which amplifies the value of his offensive production, and that flexibility allows the Padres to shuffle players around the diamond as needs, matchups, or injuries demand. He’s even played enough shortstop that he can be at least considered an emergency option, but it’s less needed in San Diego with Ha-Seong Kim and Jake Cronenworth likely ahead of him in the depth chart at the position.

The Padres’ depth mitigates the loss of Tatis, but their young superstar is so good that practically any timeshare of mortals will represent a significant downgrade at the position. Entering 2022, ZiPS ranked him second in baseball in projected WAR, behind only Juan Soto, and only because it projected fewer games played for Tatis because of his injury history. ZiPS was not exactly going out on a limb here; Steamer and THE BAT held him in similar regard, as did, well, every person who was even vaguely familiar with baseball. Even my mom, who has just about zero interest in the sport, knew about the suspension, though admittedly she referred to him as “Taters.”

In any case, let’s run the median projections for the NL West, both without a Tatis suspension and with him returning at the end of this week:

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL West (Pre-Tatis Suspension)
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Los Angeles Dodgers 106 56 .654 99.9% 0.1% 100.0% 10.7%
San Diego Padres 91 71 15 .562 0.1% 85.5% 85.6% 6.3%
San Francisco Giants 82 80 24 .506 0.0% 5.4% 5.4% 0.2%
Arizona Diamondbacks 72 90 34 .444 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Colorado Rockies 69 93 37 .426 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

The Dodgers have basically closed the door on the longshot chance that San Diego would catch them in the NL West, but the Padres are among the best situated of the plausible wild card teams. Adding Soto gave them the strongest roster among wild card contenders, a roster as strong as Los Angeles’ until Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw return. ZiPS saw San Diego, against league-average competition, as a .582 team with the assumption that Tatis would be back. Now let’s go to the current projection without Tatis, which reduces the roster strength by 26 points of winning percentage, to .556.

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL West (After 8/15 Games)
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Los Angeles Dodgers 106 56 .654 100.0% 0.0% 100.0% 10.7%
San Diego Padres 90 72 16 .556 0.0% 76.0% 76.0% 5.3%
San Francisco Giants 82 80 24 .506 0.0% 6.5% 6.5% 0.2%
Arizona Diamondbacks 72 90 34 .444 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Colorado Rockies 69 93 37 .426 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

The impact on both San Diego’s chances of making the playoffs and winning the World Series is significant. In terms of the postseason, just under a tenth of the time, the Padres playing postseason baseball becomes the Padres playing golf and watching the playoffs on TV. Playoffs being a bit of a crapshoot, the absolute impact is relatively small, but that a sixth of their World Series chances just evaporated has to be a sore spot for a team trying to win right now. Against a .575 team, going from a .582 team to a .556 team reduces the chances of victory by about four to six percentage points every series, depending on length.

Naturally, Tatis’ teammates and organization have expressed their frustration with him publicly; it would be unreasonable for them to feel differently. Nobody can find fault when a player is injured, but when he’s out from actions of his own doing, it feels a bit like a betrayal. If I were suspended from my BBWAA membership for a year for conduct violations, while it would obviously affect my personal career, it would be a real slap in the face of my colleagues at FanGraphs and the many writers who have spread my work around over the years.

Joe Musgrove on Tatis:

“A little bummed, a little pissed,” said Joe Musgrove, the lifelong Padres fan and now a pitcher and a leader on the team. “It’s hard to make a judgement or say anything until I hear from Tati or what those details are. But yeah, not a good day.”
[…]
“You can say he’s a young kid and he’s gonna learn his lessons or whatnot,” Musgrove said. “But ultimately, I think you’ve got to start showing a little bit of that remorse and showing us that you’re committed to it and that you want to be here.”

Mike Clevinger:

“The second time we’ve been disappointed with him,” pitcher Mike Clevinger said last night. “You hope he grows up and learns from this and learns it’s about more than just him.”

President of Baseball Operations A.J. Preller:

“It’s very disappointing,” Preller said. “He’s somebody that from the organization’s standpoint we’ve invested time and money into. When he’s on the field, he’s a difference maker. You have to learn from the situations. We were hoping that from the offseason to now that there would be some maturity, and obviously with the news today, it’s more of a pattern and it’s something that we’ve got to dig a bit more into. … I’m sure he’s very disappointed. But at the end of the day, it’s one thing to say it. You’ve got to start showing by your actions.”

The explanation given by Tatis was unconvincing.

Athletes blaming their positive tests on others is old hat, but the claims of a tainted ringworm treatment, while not impossible, sound like a stretch. Dr. Rany Jazayerli, a name most of you ought to be familiar with, is at that rare intersection of baseball analyst, long-suffering Royals fan, and working dermatologist, and he was highly skeptical about Tatis’ claims. On Twitter, he reiterated that he would not consider prescribing anything with Clostebol — as opposed to the similarly named Clobetasol — to a patient with ringworm.

Tatis accepted the suspension without appealing, but that’s hardly a great sacrifice given that drug suspensions in baseball are largely strict liability. Without being able to challenge the proof of the violation itself, he must prove by clear and convincing evidence that he bore no significant fault or negligence for the positive test. That’s a tough burden and mostly serves simply to mitigate the penalty to a minimum of 30 games for a first-time offender while still leaving him ineligible for the playoffs. Luckily for the Padres, the postseason ban only applies to the season during which a suspension commences, not all seasons in which there is a suspension, which leaves Tatis eligible to play in the 2023 postseason along with most of the regular season.

There’s no real silver lining, but if Tatis had been suspended just a few weeks later, there would have been an additional problem for the Padres. Since his suspension runs for fewer than 40 games in 2023, he is allowed to play in all spring training games, not just the intrasquad games for which no tickets are sold. Given that Tatis had already missed most of a season with a fractured wrist, the franchise should be happy to get him into as many actual baseball games as they can before he returns sometime next year. If San Diego plays in the maximum of 22 postseason games, he could be back as soon as mid-April!

From a projection standpoint, little changes about Tatis other than the additional normal hit taken from missing time from a non-injury. ZiPS does not look at drug suspensions differently because, after spending a decade researching this issue from every angle I can think of, knowing whether or not a player has been banned for PED use has had no predictive value in the context of performance from MLB-level players. This is largely why I consider PED use a safety issue — players shouldn’t feel forced to use, whether or not they’re effective — and a public relations one.

That latter arena is where Tatis might take the biggest hit of all. The reputational damage will be immense, no matter the efficacy of his PED use. We’re in uncharted territory here, in which a young, elite player is caught using. While Alex Rodriguez has admitted using, and there’s at least a question about David Ortiz as a young player in 2003, these weren’t known at the time. Tatis could come back, put up a Hall of Fame-type run for a decade and pass every drug test with flying colors, and there will be inevitably some people who still think of him as a cheater. Robinson Canó didn’t have to play baseball for 15 years after a drug suspension, and players like Frankie Montas and Nelson Cruz just aren’t in the same tier as Tatis; fans seem to be far more forgiving of moderate talents than transcendent ones.

There could even be Cooperstown consequences. Only speaking for myself, I consider a drug suspension, even if I don’t believe it significantly changed performance, to be a serious offense. To me, as with corked bats, it’s the attempt to cheat, not the efficacy. I do think there is a gray area, as when Mark McGwire allegedly was using. Some will cite Fay Vincent’s 1991 memo banning steroid use as evidence of a baseball rule, but even Vincent himself didn’t believe his memo applied to players.

“I sent it out because I believed it was important to take the position that steroids were dangerous, as were other illegal drugs,” Vincent said. “As you know, the union would not bargain with us, would not discuss, would not agree to any form of a coherent drug plan. So my memo really applied to all the people who were not players.”

In other words, that memo could ban Jim Fregosi or Terry Collins for steroid use. But the drug testing agreement explicitly made it against the rules with penalties attached, and that wiggle room vanished.

Unlike some writers, I don’t consider a PED suspension an automatic disqualifier, but under the Hall of Fame’s voting guidelines, I consider it a violation of the character clause, which I see in baseball terms, and for a borderline candidate, that could put him out. That said, the Hall of Fame voting pool will change a lot in the 20–25 years before Tatis would come up to the electorate — I don’t vote until after the 2025 season, and by the point I would be voting on Tatis, I’ll be in my mid-to-late 60s — so it’s hard to gauge exactly how writers will feel about drug use with another quarter century of experience.

Regardless of what happens to Tatis personally, this is a hit for baseball. He’s one of the league’s most marketable young talents, and one of the proponents for baseball actually being allowed to be fun, not a Very Serious Affair in which we tut-tut about brutish bat flips and proletariat celebrations as we gently sip our beers (pinky out!) and yearn for the return of Regency Baseball standards. Tatis should be one of the faces of baseball, not one of its disgraces. When we lose a player like that, everybody who loves the game loses.


Pitcher zStats Update for the Stretch Drive

Jordan Montgomery
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

As anyone who does a lot of work with projections could likely tell you, one of the most annoying things about modeling future performance is that results themselves are a small sample size. Individual seasons, even full ones over 162 games, still feature results that are not very predictive, such as a hitter or a pitcher with a BABIP low or high enough to be practically unsustainable. For example, if Luis Arraez finishes the season hitting .333, we don’t actually know that a median projection of .333 was the correct projection going into the season. There’s no divine baseball exchequer to swoop in and let you know whether he’s “actually” a .333 hitter who did what he was supposed to, a .320 hitter who got lucky, or a .380 hitter who suffered extreme misfortune.

If you flip heads on a coin eight times out of 10 and have no reason to believe you have a special coin-flipping ability, you’ll eventually see the split approach 50/50 given a sufficiently large number of coin flips. Convergence in probability is a fairly large academic area that we thankfully do not need to go into here, but for most things in baseball, you never actually get enough coin flips to see this happen. The boundaries of a season are quite strict.

What does this have to do with projections? This volatile data becomes the source of future predictions, and one of the things done in projections is to find things that are not only as predictive as the ordinary stats but also more predictive based on fewer plate appearances or batters faced. Imagine, for example, if body mass index were a wonderful predictor of isolated power. It would be a highly useful one, as changes to it over the course of a season are bound to be rather small. The underlying reasons for performance tend to be more stable than the results, which is why ERA is more volatile than strikeout rate, and why strikeout rate is more volatile than the plate discipline stats that result in strikeout rate.

MLB’s own method comes with an x before the stat, whereas what ZiPS uses internally has a z. (I’ll let you guess what it stands for!) I’ve written more about this stuff in various other places (like here and here), so let’s get right to the data as we start the final third of the season. We’re also looking at how zStats leaders and trailers fared in the two months since I last posted the numbers. Sure, we’re using a small sample size of players and comparing a small sample size to another small sample size, but curiosity gets precedence over everything! Read the rest of this entry »