I love early-season baseball. Early-season baseball is the only time when players hit .415. Players don’t hit .415 for a full season anymore so pulling up the leaderboards and seeing .415 is like a huge neon sign blinking EARLY-SEASON BASEBALL. It’s fun to follow the MVP races later in the year, but to me now is the best time to check the leaderboards we keep here at FanGraphs because now is when things are absurd. Little is more absurd than early-season leaderboards.
So let’s look at some! I’ll give you the category, last season’s leader for some context, and the on-pace-to-finish-with figure of the current leader. Then I’ll comment! Seems a handy dandy format, wouldn’t you say?
We’ll start with hitters, unless you decide not to read this, in which case I’ll just start with hitters all by myself. Numbers are current as of yesterday afternoon. Rankings marked with a t denote that the corresponding players are tied.
Let’s start with…
Double Plays Hit Into
t1. David Freese, 5
t1. Andrelton Simmons, 5
t3. Five Players, 4
Last Year’s Leader: Trevor Plouffe, 28
2016 Leader’s Pace: 62
For some reason I find this category fascinating. You can’t score two points on yourself in basketball when you miss a shot, but in baseball players can create two outs with one hit. It’s magical. So it’s fitting that the seventh video on David Freese’s MLB.com player page features Freese grounding into a double play. They’re on to you, David. Though this does make sense as 63.9% of Freese’s balls in play have been ground balls this season. That’s a lot of grounders. Add that to the Pirates current high on-base percentage of .432, eighth-best in baseball, and you have a batter hitting lots of grounders with runners on base.
This is going smoothly!
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The way these things – meaning “baseball” – go, the Orioles probably won’t be undefeated for long. Baseball is all about losing. The best teams lose a lot. The worst teams lose a lot a lot. I’m not sure the Orioles are the latter of those things, but even if they’re the first a loss is coming, so we’d better get to this while we can.
Have you seen the standings? Jeff Sullivan examined them a couple days ago here at website Fangraphs dot com and, further, he examined the teams that have improved their chances of making the playoffs the most since the season began.
Now hold that thought because we’re going to come back to it. Remember the preseason? That’s the time we all pretend we know what’s going to happen and make predictions about the upcoming season. These predictions are stupid stupid stupid predictions that will always be wrong because predictions about baseball are always wrong. Anyway, if you examined (lots of examining!) those preseason predictions — specifically the ones concerning the American League Eastern Division — you would find many different permutations. You’d find people who predicted the Red Sox to win the division, others who predicted the Rays, and many others who predicted the Blue Jays. Some even predicted the Yankees. Did anyone pick the Orioles? I didn’t see anyone. The Orioles were the one team it seems nobody thought was going to do squat in the AL East this season. So, of course of course of course they’re 7-0 and in first place. Of course.
A hundred and fifty-four days. That’s how long we’ve been wandering in the wilderness. That’s a long time, and especially so when you remember that the wilderness isn’t acres and acres of trees but basketball and hockey. But now we have found civilization because baseball has returned and we are all happy and excited at the prospect of a new season. The dawn of a new season always brings with it questions. Who will be the best team? Who will be the best player? Who will win in the playoffs? What unlikely events will occur? We don’t know, which is why this is so fun. If you could flip to the back of the book and find the answer, you know you would, and but then, when June and July came around, you’d be forced to find something else to do with your life. It’s like that book that lists all the World Series winners from Back to the Future. Screw that book.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t take guess on how things will go. You know we love to take guesses and you love it when we take guesses. In fact, listen to any sports radio now or read any baseball article on the internet and you’ll find guesses as to what will happen this season. Because people love guesses! Some will be grounded in numerics and hard data; others will be pulled, to put it politely, from the darkest of regions. But all are, at their core, guesses. So let’s do some more guessing.
The first baseball game of the season just took place on Sunday. It featured the Pittsburgh Pirates hosting the St. Louis Cardinals. What can that game teach us about the season that is to come here?
Even More Strikeouts
Strikeouts are going up. We know this. We’ve seen graphs and pie charts and other representational forms of data showing how more and more batters are striking out. What’s more, as was pointed out by Steve Treder at The Hardball Times, this isn’t anything new. What is new is the heights to which strikeouts have ascended. Last season, there were over 15 strikeouts per game played (an average of 7.76 per team times two). That means 28% of the total outs in games during the 2015 season came by strikeout. That’s a lot.
Much has been written about this trend, what to do about it, or if it’s even a problem. Perhaps it’ll eventually even out? Not if the first game of the season had anything to say about it. The Pirates struck out just five times against Cardinal pitching including Adam Wainwright, but the Cardinals made up for it by striking out 15 times against Pirate pitching. That’s a total of 19 strikeouts. Divide that by the 51 outs in the game (the Pirates were leading at home so they didn’t bat in the ninth inning) and we can see that 37% of the outs made in the game came on strikeouts. Of course, one game doesn’t dictate an entire season and the strikeout rate in baseball has taken a dip at times over the decades. But strikeouts. Yeesh.
Here’s a list of the last 11 players selected first overall in the draft, in order of most recent to least:
A couple of the guys are too young to fairly judge, but for the most part this is a list of star players. And Luke Hochevar. He’s on there, too. When a team picks first overall, their chances of getting, not just a major leaguer, but a star, are the highest among any spot in the draft. Which makes sense. But even in the most advantageous position with which to draft a star, teams make mistakes, and take the wrong guy. The Royals took Hochevar over Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer. The Rays took Beckham over Posey. The Astros took Appel over Kris Bryant. So it doesn’t always work out.
And then there’s the draft that I left out. The year before the Diamondbacks picked Justin Upton, the San Diego Padres had the first pick. There was a right-hander out of Old Dominion University in Virginia who was well regarded, but the Padres didn’t take Justin Verlander. Instead they took a local high-school shortstop named Matt Bush. Bush wasn’t the consensus best player available, but he was highly thought of, still a legit first-round pick if not a first-overall selection.
So the Padres picked him. He stood on the stage, smiled the smile of an 18-year-old who has no idea what’s in store for him, and modeled a Padres jersey. Things went downhill from there. Since that day, the greatest in his young life but the first of what was supposed to be many great days, Bush has spent more time in jail than on a major-league roster. He’s been arrested multiple times for offenses as serious as assault and battery, drunk driving, and hit-and-run while drunk driving. His life has been, to put it gently, a damn mess. He’s a man with personal demons and he’s let those demons define his life, destroy his career, and injure those unlucky enough to be situated nearby.
But Bush could always throw, and even at 30, his arm is apparently still present. He signed with the Rangers two months after being released from prison and he’s opened some eyes during spring training with his plus-plus velocity from the mound.
The New York Times has completed an investigation into the NFL’s concussion research and thus, by proxy, its public statements about the connection between playing professional football and concussions. They’ve concluded, simply, that the NFL has misled both the public and the players as to the very real negative health implications of playing pro football.
Anyone who has followed the NFL over the past few seasons shouldn’t be surprised by this finding. The NFL has a vested interest in presenting pro football, their product, as safe both for the players and for the fans, a vested interest that they pursue without regard to the health and safety of anyone involved with the sport. The idea the NFL might lie about concussions and brain injuries — or seek to cover up the connection between them and playing football — likely isn’t that surprising.
As baseball fans (though I count myself as a football fan as well) we should consider ourselves lucky. Baseball as a sport does far less chewing up and spitting out of it players relative to football, something that makes watching the sport as much as I (and I suspect you) do easier to handle from a moral standpoint. That’s not to say the sport is free of the nefarious — the treatment of minor leaguers does spring to mind, for example — but rather to acknowledge that baseball is in a better place when it comes to concussions than football.
Of course, that’s like comparing a regular person favorably to an axe murderer, so there’s some room to grow if you want to be a superhero. The point is, though, that baseball is, compared to football, doing alright when it comes to the concussion front. The NY Times isn’t going to break any front-page stories about Bud Selig covering up a concussion report. But that doesn’t mean baseball is in the clear.
If Xander Bogaerts were a video game character you’d hold down the A button for three seconds and he’d start to glow red. Hitting for power is really easy when you’re glowing red. Bogaerts is a real person, not a video game character though, so hitting for power is considerably more difficult. Last season Bogaerts managed all of seven homers in 654 plate appearances. The fact that I can spell the number of homers means he didn’t hit many. Don’t let me mislead you though. The Xander Bogaerts of 2015 was a very good player. He played good defense, hit for average, and even stole some bases. He just wasn’t a power hitter. And that’s fine. Good, even. The odd part is the Bogaerts we saw last year was almost the opposite of the player we were expecting as he was coming up through the minor leagues.
Bogaerts’ calling card as a prospect wasn’t just his power, but that was an important feature. And yet last season the homers just weren’t there. That’s not how it was supposed to be. And so we’re left to wonder, what happened to the power bat we watched so intently zoom through the minor leagues?
To get a better picture of where Bogaerts will end up, it’s instructive to look at where he’s been. The Red Sox shortstop of the present has been the Red Sox shortstop of the future for going on six years now. In 2011 he hit 16 homers in 72 games in A-ball as an 18 year old. The next year he hit 20 homers combined while splitting time between High-A and Double-A at age 19. None of the teams he played for play in particularly homer-prone ballparks, so the power was legit. After the 2012 season Baseball America ranked Bogaerts as the eighth best prospect in baseball. At the time they gave his bat a 60 on the 20-to-80 scale. They gave his power a 70.
History is amazing in that it matters tremendously and it matters not at all. This is an article about the Cubs so you know that history is a thing for them. On one hand they are the Cubs, baseball’s current definition of mediocrity and failure. Since 1946, the Cubs have no World Series appearances and in fact they’ve only finished in first place five times in that span. That’s five times in 70 years. And that’s only first place in their division. They are historical ineptitude. That’s the backdrop to the 2016 season. It’s also why 2016 could be so important, because, according to our projections, the Cubs have a mean expected win total of 96 games.
Only one other team in baseball is projected to win even 90 games (the Dodgers, at 93 wins). The Cubs are projected by 11 games better than the Cardinals and 12 games better the Pirates, their nearest division rivals. Should these projections pan out, the Cubs would be the best team in baseball by a good amount and the favorite to get to and win the World Series. To sum up, we think Cubs will be very very good and, to bring it back to history, that’s quite weird.
Perhaps the best team of my childhood is the 1984 Detroit Tigers. The Tigers won 104 games during the regular season, then went 7-1 in the playoffs en route to winning the World Series. According to Baseball Reference, the Tigers also lost 58 times that season, but I don’t remember them losing even once so I assume that’s a misprint. The Tigers had the best record in baseball in 1984 season and won the World Series, but that’s not why they are interesting. Every season a team has the best record in baseball and every season a team wins the World Series. Neither is unique. What is unique and interesting though is what the Tigers did at the beginning of the 1984 season. They began the season by going 35-5 in their first 40 games. Their start was so good that second place Toronto went 27-14 during the same span and found themselves 8.5 games back before May had ended. The start wasn’t just good though. It was the best start to any season by any team ever (as long as ever means since 1885).
No team in the last 130 seasons has been better through 40 games than the 1984 Tigers. That’s something. But the Cubs are supposed to be really good. And truthfully, gun to my head, I wouldn’t be shocked if they won more than 96. Projections are often and wisely conservative. There are often outliers. The Cubs have the look of one, at least from where I sit now.
If you haven’t guessed the focus of this article yet, I’m sorry. I probably should have mentioned it earlier but until someone invents a backspace button we’ll all just have to live with overly long opening paragraphs. The question I’m curious about is are the Cubs as good as the Tigers? More specifically, can the Cubs equal or even beat Detroit’s three-decades-plus old record?
You may not care about Marlon Byrd. Or Edwin Jackson. Or Dana Eveland. Or Josh Wilson. That’s a reasonable position to take, as none are remarkable players at this stage of their careers. And yet here we are, not one paragraph into this piece and I’ve mentioned all of them. But wait! Don’t click on that other article you saved, the one about the rise in butt implants quite yet! There’s a very real and interesting (maybe!) reason I’ve mentioned all of these players, but you have to read the next paragraph to find out. Ooo! This is like a mystery.
So what binds these guys together? Byrd may yet manage to find a team on which to dump his age-38 season, but to date he’s an old free agent with maybe one skill to offer. Eveland is a 32-year-old pitcher who has averaged 15 appearances a season over the past decade. His specialty seems to be riding the shuttle back and forth between Triple-A and the majors. Wilson is a backup middle infielder/defensive specialist, which is a nice way of saying he can’t hit, as his career OPS+ of 64 attests. And Jackson is a once-promising fireballer who seems resigned to scooping up innings wherever he can until his clock runs out. So they’re all varying degrees of bad, but “here are a bunch of lousy baseball players” is not really a driving theme for an article. There is something that holds these players’ careers together though, and that is this: each of them has played for nine different teams in their careers.
[Pause while you read your piece on butt implants.]
I know! I can’t believe they do that either. So where were we? Oh yeah. What makes this significant is that nine is the highest number of franchises for which any active player has played — and Jackson, Eveland, Wilson, and Byrd are the leaders of that list. Actually, LaTroy Hawkins has played for 11 different teams, but he’s retiring, so as soon as this season begins the aforementioned group will be the active leaders.
The second thing that makes this (hopefully!) interesting is that the record for the most teams any player has ever played for is 13. You’ll never guess who did it, so I’ll just tell you. The record is held by Octavio Dotel. Dotel played for Houston, Oakland, Detroit, the White Sox, Kansas City, the Mets, Colorado, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, St. Louis, the Dodgers, Yankees, and Toronto.
[Pause to re-read piece on butt implants.]
Humorously enough — though not as humorous as butt implants (I know!!) — Dotel was once traded in a deal that included Edwin Jackson. Because of course he was. Baseball is a closed circle and now I’m sad I’ve already reached the quota for butt-implant jokes this paragraph.
So the obvious question now: can any of these players exceed Dotel’s total of 13 teams played for?
How much can a one-dollar bill buy? Well, one dollar’s worth, right? But, what happens to that dollar after you spend it? It goes to someone else and then they spend it and it goes to someone else and they spend it and on and on down the line. In 2014, the average one-dollar bill had bought $638 worth of goods and services by the time it was removed from circulation. There’s even a term for this phenomenon — one with which, as a baseball fan, you’re likely familiar, although in a different context. It’s called the “velocity of money,” and you can see how this might tell us something useful about the economy.
Of course, it tells us nothing useful about baseball players. But what about baseball players themselves? Do ballplayers have a velocity? Some do, it would seem.
Unlike dollar bills, ballplayers are all a little bit different from each other in ways that alter their value. But like dollar bills, baseball players are used as currency to make trades for other baseball players. To figure out a player’s “velocity,” we could add up the total value of all the players teams acquired in exchange for him since the time they were traded for each other. We’re not concerned for which team that value was generated or how much the player was paid at the time. The only issue here is how much value an individual player has generated in terms of total career value in return.
Take, for example, the case of Mark Teixeira. Despite having now spent over half his career with the New York Yankees, Teixeira was integral not merely to one, but two, relatively high-profile deals — first for Casey Kotchman and then, in a second deal, Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Kotchman has been worth a total of -0.1 WAR since he was dealt for Teixeira, while Andrus, Feliz, Harrison, and Saltalamacchia have been worth 18.7, 4.7, 7.5, and 8.9, respectively. Thus, Teixeira has bought 39.7 WAR over the life of his career. That figure, just under 40 wins, represents his “velocity.”
When I first came up with this idea, I thought the thing to do was to explain the concept and then apply it to a comprehensive list of all transactions and develop a list of players who’ve produced the highest velocity in their careers. Sounds vaguely interesting, right? Okay, let’s do this!
Over the past few days you may have noticed about a billion pieces on Lonn Trost’s recent comments. In fact, I wrote one, too, and you’re reading it now. The difference is I’m less concerned about Trost and his clear disdain for the — let’s call them the “non-rich” — and more concerned about what this means for baseball as a whole.
But let’s back up a second. In case you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, Lonn Trost is COO of the New York Yankees. Last week he was answering a question about the Yankees’ new ticket policy, a policy which is designed to do two things: first, force people who intended to purchase Yankees tickets by way of StubHub to use the Yankees after-market website instead, and second, make more money for the Yankees.
Of course, Trost couldn’t come out and say that. Nobody wants to hear how the New York Yankees are going to make more money off the sales of tickets they’d already sold once before. So, while attempting to justify the unjustifiable, Trost did what what most adults do. Namely, he lied. Or, if you’re being more charitable, he was disingenuous. But it wasn’t the lie (or the disingenuousness) that was particularly notable. What was notable was how Trost explained the reason for the new policy.
The problem below market at a certain point is that if you buy a ticket in a very premium location and pay a substantial amount of money. It’s not that we don’t want that fan to sell it, but that fan is sitting there having paid a substantial amount of money for their ticket and [a different] fan picks it up for a buck-and-a-half and sits there, and it frustrates the purchaser of the full amount. And quite frankly, the fan may be someone who has never sat in a premium location. So that’s a frustration to our existing fan base.
Did you catch that? Let’s cut out the fat and run it again.
And quite frankly, the fan may be someone who has never sat in a premium location. So that’s a frustration to our existing fan base.
Hello! That statement has been called elitist and vaguely racist by some and you sure won’t catch me blocking the way of anyone making such a claim. Part of the joy of sitting in a “very premium” seat at Yankee Stadium is apparently not having to sit next to a poor person, and having to do so would compromise the quality of the seat and the ticket and, wow, that’s a disgusting sentiment. It occurs to me, though, that Trost might not be the biggest problem here.