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Rangers Sign Lyles, Still Need Bats

The three pitching lines below all belong to Jordan Lyles, who just signed with the Texas Rangers for two years and $16 million:

Getting Better All The Time
Years IP K% BB% wOBA ERA FIP
2011-19 909.2 17.4% 7.9% .340 5.11 4.52
2018-19 228.2 23.7% 8.6% .316 4.13 4.43
2019, MIL 58.2 23.5% 9.2% .271 2.45 4.42

Now, maybe you’re not surprised that Lyles, 29, signed for $8 million a year. In our Top 50 Free Agents post, where we ranked Lyles 45th, you predicted two years and $12 million for the righty. $12 million isn’t $16 million, to be sure, but it’s in the ballpark. So perhaps you’re not surprised at this deal. I’m a little surprised, though. That’s because I think Lyles’ 2018-19 performance is far more likely to be indicative of his 2020-21 performance than his excellent run for the Brewers at then end of last season, and thought most teams would agree and offer him an accordingly modest deal this winter. The Texas Rangers, apparently, had other plans. Read the rest of this entry »


Mets Trade For a Year of Jake Marisnick

It’s been clear for some time now that the Astros weren’t going to enter the 2020 season with George Springer, Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick, Jake Marisnick, Kyle Tucker, Yordan Alvarez, and Myles Straw all on the roster. There are, after all, only so many spots to fill in the outfield. A trade, then, particularly for Reddick (who’s owed $13 million next year, the last of his contract) or Marisnick (also in the last year of his contract, though for only $3 million) seemed likely. This is that trade, or at least one of them, and it’s with the Mets.

In giving up two minor leaguers (more on them later, with thoughts from Eric) for a year of Marisnick, New York is attempting to shore up what was a black hole of a position for them in 2019. The -0.4 WAR they got from their center fielders was the fourth-lowest mark in the game last year (ahead of only the Mariners, Orioles, and Marlins, who averaged 102 losses), due in large part to Keon Broxton’s horrendous performance in the early part of the season when he managed to accrue -0.5 WAR in just 53 plate appearances. Broxton, who really had no luck at all in 2019, spent the rest of his forgettable season with, funnily enough, the Orioles and Mariners. Read the rest of this entry »


Oakland Retains Diekman, 2020 Dreams

When the A’s acquired Jake Diekman for the first time back in July, they hoped that he might pair effectively with a then-recovering A.J. Puk in neutralizing left-handed hitters, who through that point in the season had hit Oakland relievers to the tune of a .305 wOBA — not terrible, but also behind Houston, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and New York in the American League. They also hoped that 2019 would end up being the first year since 2006 in which the A’s won a postseason series.

Neither of those things happened. Diekman, who has allowed a .293 wOBA to left-handed hitters over the course of his career, allowed a .314 figure to the 47 lefties he faced for Oakland, walking seven and hitting one with a pitch. The A’s, meanwhile, lost the AL Wild Card game to the Rays, 5-1. Diekman faced one batter.

Still, all the potential the A’s saw in Diekman last summer is still there, and so too is Billy Beane’s thirst for a World Championship. If you thought that last week’s Jurickson Profar trade was evidence of a step back from that goal (which I do not), think again. Diekman alone isn’t enough to put the A’s over the top (frankly, three Diekmans wouldn’t be enough) but teams that plan to punt on a season don’t sign relievers to two-year, $7.5 million deals, as the A’s have just done. Read the rest of this entry »


The Braves Are Taking This Seriously

If re-signing Darren O’Day (on November 8) and then signing Will Smith (on November 15) wasn’t enough to persuade you that the Atlanta Braves are determined to ensure that a middling bullpen doesn’t hold them back in next year’s NL East competition, yesterday’s agreement with 33-year-old Chris Martin should be enough evidence to convince you that Alex Anthopoulos is taking 2020 seriously.

In one sense, it’s not a great sign for Atlanta that Anthopoulos feels he has to spend this heavily on his bullpen, rather than taking a run at a front-line starting pitcher to pair with Mike Soroka, or another big bat to help put an already-strong offense over the top (their .332 wOBA last year was third-best in the National League but behind both Los Angeles and, perhaps more importantly, Washington).

Signing Martin for two years and $14 million, as the Braves have just done, puts the 2020 Atlanta payroll at an estimated $119 million, which despite ranking solidly in the bottom third of National League clubs, is right around the upper limit of what ownership has been comfortable spending in recent years. Ideally, at least from a payroll perspective, a few more of the Braves’ recently-vaunted young pitchers would have transformed into quality bullpen arms (and not in the Sean Newcomb way), thereby freeing up dollars for other parts of the roster. Read the rest of this entry »


Keeping the Astros Bullpen on the Right Track

The Houston Astros, who made it to the World Series thanks at least in part to a bullpen that led the majors in xFIP (4.06) and placed second in ERA (3.75) during the regular season (the unit’s 11th place-FIP was still good, if a bit more pedestrian), saw four of its relief arms enter free agency last month: Will Harris, Collin McHugh (who threw innings as both a starter and reliever this season), Joe Smith, and Héctor Rondón. Here’s how those four stacked up in 2019:

Astros Free Agent Relievers in 2019
IP K% BB% ERA FIP
Will Harris 60.0 27.1% 6.1% 1.50 3.15
Collin McHugh 33.2 28.2% 11.3% 2.67 3.42
Héctor Rondón 60.2 18.7% 7.8% 3.71 4.96
Joe Smith 25.0 22.9% 5.2% 1.80 3.09
McHugh’s figures are those in his relief appearances only.

Between them, the Astros’ four free agent relievers threw a little more than 32% of Houston’s 555 relief innings in 2019, and about 35% of their right-handed innings (505). That’s because Houston got an astonishingly small number of relief innings out of lefties in 2019: 49 and a third — the fifth-lowest such total in a decade — 35 of which came from Framber Valdez, who pitched only three times after September 1.

That imbalanced composition made Houston’s 2019 ‘pen unusually reliant on right-handers with a demonstrated history of getting left-handed hitters out. Lefties still aren’t close to the majority of all batters faced league-wide, of course, but they are 40% of the total, and so it behooves teams to have a plan for when they step into the box. The Astros did: Five Houston relievers — Ryan Pressly, Roberto Osuna, Cy Sneed, McHugh, and Harris — were better at retiring lefties than righties in 2019, when the league’s average tendency for relievers was the opposite:

Astros RH RP wOBA Splits, 2019
Name LHH Faced wOBA vs LHH RHH Faced wOBA vs RHH Ratio
Ryan Pressly 103 .159 108 .305 .522
Collin McHugh 66 .221 76 .330 .670
Roberto Osuna 131 .207 121 .270 .769
Will Harris 125 .212 104 .263 .806
Cy Sneed 44 .328 49 .389 .844
League Avg 24791 .321 33981 .314 1.022
Josh James 130 .312 133 .303 1.032
Héctor Rondón 104 .314 144 .292 1.076
Chris Devenski 151 .343 136 .303 1.132
Joe Biagini 30 .529 39 .403 1.315
Joe Smith 39 .322 57 .192 1.675
Includes only right-handed relievers who faced at least 20 lefties in relief as an Astro in 2019.

The Astros’ top offseason priority should probably be their starting rotation, with Gerrit Cole seemingly extremely likely to depart (though Jim Crane is making noises about taking a run at him). They’ll also need to replace Robinson Chirinos and Martín Maldonado at catcher, where Yasmani Grandal may make sense. But the chart above suggests that retaining Harris and McHugh, at least, should be a priority for Houston as well. Letting Rondón and Smith walk will leave about 85 innings and Smith’s strong performance to replace, of course, but this year’s relatively strong relief market (10 relievers are projected for at least half a win, including Harris and McHugh) means there’s ample opportunity to do so if Houston is willing to spend a little money.

It’s not clear that the Astros will in fact spend — our RosterResource payroll page for Houston estimates the Astros 2020 payroll at $221 million with their luxury tax payroll estimate higher, and both are in excess of the initial $208 million luxury tax threshold. But if they do choose to spend, and in particular spend on their bullpen, they’ll have a number of intriguing options to choose between. Chris Martin, lately of the Braves, has the height the Astros like in their pitchers (he’s 6-foot-8), was significantly better against lefties than righties last year (allowing a .239 wOBA against them, versus .318 to righties), and has above-average spin on his fastball. Sounds like a Houston reliever to me. Robbie Erlin, Jake Diekman, and Will Smith could also be intriguing for different reasons (fastball spin rate, lefty splits, and overall competence respectively), but if I were Houston I’d feel pretty satisfied with an offseason that included signing Martin and retaining Harris and McHugh.

Despite getting beaten on a good pitch in the World Series, Harris will likely command a hefty premium this offseason as a number of contending teams seek bullpen help and take note of his sterling performance for the Astros over the last half-decade. The median crowd estimate you gave for his services was two years at $7 million a year — Kiley predicted two years at $10 million a year, which I think is somewhat more likely — but at either price, I think the Astros would be silly to let him walk, particularly given Rondón, Smith, and McHugh’s concurrent free agencies.

Like Aroldis Chapman, who just extended his time with the Yankees, Harris is well into his 30s and lost a mile per hour or so on his fastball and curveball in 2019. Those factors will probably keep the offers mostly to two years, as you projected, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the winning team ends up being the one that guarantees a third year. If that is the case, his new team should take comfort in the fact that Harris, like Chapman, adjusted to his declining velocity this season by increasing the rate at which he threw his breaking ball (in Harris’ case, that curve), and found success throwing that pitch out of the zone for strike three, or to steal a strike on the second pitch of a sequence, as we can see in this chart from Baseball Savant (cutters are in brown, curves in blue):

Bullpens aren’t everything, of course, but they’re of outsized importance in the postseason, where the Astros’ poor relief performances played a major part in their loss to the Nationals. As Houston stares down the decisions in front of them this offseason — the pursuit of Cole probably foremost among them — they’d do well to set a little bit of money aside for two of the players who helped carry them as far as they got last year, and perhaps a little bit more for one or two who can help them do more of what they did so well in 2019.


Chapman Chooses Another Year in Pinstripes

Aroldis Chapman, most recently seen allowing a home run to José Altuve that sent the Astros to the World Series, has reportedly signed a contract extension with the Yankees that will keep him in New York through the 2022 season. The deal, as reported, adds one year and $18 million onto the two years and $30 million that were left on Chapman’s previous contract, and answers the question — open since that Altuve home run — of whether Chapman would exercise the opt out in his contract and become a free agent this offseason.

Last week, Jon Heyman reported that Chapman, 32, planned to exercise his opt-out in the event he was unable to reach a deal with the Yankees for an additional year. That move would almost certainly have resulted in the Yankees extending Chapman a qualifying offer (this year set at $17.8 million), Chapman declining to sign at that price, and Chapman and his agent subsequently seeking a deal that involved the signing team giving up a draft pick.

Having no doubt watched the Craig Kimbrel experience play out last offseason, and presumably wanting no part of it, it makes sense that Chapman would pursue an extension in New York rather than test free agency with a QO hanging around his neck. This is now the second time the left-hander has chosen to return to New York (the first time, when he signed his current contract, came in 2016) and this extension guarantees him three more years in the city he calls home — not to mention a worry-free winter.

The Yankees benefit too. Retaining Chapman means that their excellent 2019 relief corps can return mostly intact, and in particular that Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, and Chad Green can return to the roles they played last season, and are presumably comfortable with (that’s especially true for Britton, who for obvious reasons threw in many of the same sorts of situations as Chapman). That’s not to discount Chapman’s contributions on their own terms, as they were excellent last year (a 2.28 FIP and a 36.2% strikeout rate over 57 innings pitched) despite modest declines in fastball velocity that began in the middle of 2018 and persisted in 2019:

It’s hard to know what to make of Chapman’s velocity decline or what it augurs for his future effectiveness. As far as I can tell, the conventional wisdom on relievers is that they’re good until they’re not, except for elite relievers, who are good for longer until they’re not. Chapman definitely falls into the latter category, and as Ben Clemen’s wrote earlier this year, he’s already demonstrated success in moving somewhat away from his fastball in favor of sliders inside the strike zone. Since Ben wrote that piece, Chapman has gravitated even more towards his slider, throwing it 31.1% of the time in 2019 against 19.7% two years ago and 19.3% on his career.

Perhaps most promisingly, Chapman has demonstrated a willingness to use that slider in most instances with the count even or behind, saving his fastball only for the first strike of the sequence (in the chart below, courtesy of Baseball Savant, his fastball is in red, his slider in yellow, and his little-used sinker in orange). That sinker only appears with two strikes and fewer than two balls, when Chapman uses it to try to generate swings and misses.

All in all, although I wouldn’t personally want to be on the hook today for paying a generic 35-year-old reliever $18 million in 2022, I think this is the right move for the Yankees, whose owners are significantly richer than I. Chapman has convincingly demonstrated that he is anything but a generic reliever, and finalizing their bullpen this early in the offseason gives New York the cost certainty they need to pursue other, Gerrit Cole-shaped projects. What’s more — and this is where it gets icky — the Yankees have clearly already decided that they’re comfortable with Chapman’s history and past suspension under the league’s domestic violence policy (Hal Steinbrenner, their owner, was quoted in 2017, not long after Chapman signed his first deal with New York, as saying of the incident, “Sooner or later, we forget, right?“).

Any other team that signed Chapman — save perhaps the Cubs — would no doubt have deservedly tarnished their reputation for doing so. For the Yankees, that decision was made three years ago, though that stretch hasn’t dimmed our memories quite like Steinbrenner thought, or perhaps hoped, it would.

With Chapman’s new contract will likely come ripple effects downstream in the relief market. Will Harris, Will Smith, Daniel Hudson, and Dellin Betances (not to mention Drew Pomeranz, Chris Martin, and Jake Diekman) are all available this offseason, and probably happy to see Chapman return to a team already rife with relief arms. There aren’t quite as many sure bets on the market this offseason as there were, perhaps, a year ago, when Kimbrel, Britton, Cody Allen, Jeurys Familia, Kelvin Herrera, Andrew Miller, Joakim Soria, David Robertson, and Ottavino were all available. But there are still enough that the teams most in the market will find plenty to consider this winter.


Nationals Win 7-2, Rendon, Strasburg Force Game 7

Through seven minutes after the 8 pm E.T. Wednesday night, when Justin Verlander threw the first pitch of Game 6 to Washington’s Trea Turner, the 2019 World Series had recorded one lead change, zero home wins, and the lowest TV ratings in series history. What it needed, at least from the perspective of a non-partisan observer, was a little action, a little controversy, a little red blood in its veins. It got precisely that. This World Series is going to Game 7 tonight in Houston, and all it took to get there was two lead changes, five RBI from Anthony Rendon, a six-minute “replay” review, a managerial ejection, and quite possibly the best-traveled bats in Fall Classic history. That and 8.1 terrific innings from Stephen Strasburg.

In a moment of what we in the writing business call “foreshadowing,” the very first play of the game — a Turner groundball to Alex Bregman at third base — resulted in a replay review. The call on the field (out at first) was swiftly and uncontroversially overturned, and Turner took his base — and then a second — on his way to scoring the first Washington run of the game on an Rendon single to right (also, as it turns out, a sign of things to come). In a less eventful game, or one in which the final score was reversed, we might make more here of Dave Martinez’s decision to use Adam Eaton (and a bunt) to move Turner over in this inning; as we are consequentialists, we will not.

That first Nationals lead was itself overturned fewer than 10 minutes later, when a José Altuve sacrifice fly and a mammoth Bregman home run in the bottom of the inning put Strasburg on his heels and the score at 2-1 going into the second. Somewhat more importantly, given what was to come, Strasburg took just 13 pitches to get through his inning; Verlander threw 17. The next inning, which was scoreless for both clubs, added 7 and 12 to those totals. The third — also scoreless, though featuring a lively threat from Juan Soto — added 15 and 25, and by the time the fourth inning drew to a close, Verlander had thrown nearly 40% more pitches than his counterpart, and 75 on the game. He was, quite clearly, tiring. Read the rest of this entry »


Anthony Rendon Isn’t Underrated Anymore

In 2017, The Ringer called Anthony Rendon baseball’s “unknown superstar.” A year later, at the conclusion of the 2018 season, Beyond the Box Score described Rendon as “constantly overlooked.” I’m pretty sure there’s a law somewhere that says that when you write about Rendon, you have to describe him using the word “underrated” or one like it. But rules were made to be broken, and this one has run its course. Rendon is too good to be underrated any more. He has a strong case as being the best third baseman in baseball — which is an incredibly deep field — and an even better case as one of the top 10 players in the game overall.

Let’s start with the top-line figures and then get into the mechanics. Here are baseball’s WAR leaders since 2013, when Rendon made his debut for the Nationals:

WAR Leaders, 2013-2019
Player wOBA PA WAR/100 PA WAR
Mike Trout .424 4,499 1.39 62.6
Josh Donaldson .382 4,148 0.98 40.6
Mookie Betts .377 3,629 1.03 37.2
Buster Posey .348 3,898 0.95 36.9
Paul Goldschmidt .391 4,626 0.77 35.8
Christian Yelich .374 4,043 0.83 33.6
José Altuve .363 4,594 0.72 32.9
Anthony Rendon .366 3,927 0.83 32.7
Freddie Freeman .386 4,424 0.73 32.5
Manny Machado .349 4,533 0.71 32.0

Read the rest of this entry »


Rays Exploit Astros’ Unrest, Force Game 5

In the fourth inning of Tuesday night’s Game 4, with José Altuve on first base, one out, and the Rays already up by three, Yordan Álvarez hit a deep fly ball to right-center field. You’d have been forgiven, in this home run-happy era, for thinking at first that the ball had left the park. You’d similarly have lost not one whit of credibility had you assumed that Kevin Kiermaier, one of the best center fielders of his era, might catch the ball on the run. But neither of those two things happened; the ball instead bounced beautifully off the right-center field wall and hung, for just a moment, in the air above Kiermaier’s head. That was the moment — when the ball hung briefly in stark contrast against dark blue — in which Gary Pettis, the Astros’ third-base coach since 2014, had to decide whether to send Altuve home.

As Ben Clemens pointed out in the game chat, our WPA Inquirer suggests that at the time Pettis made his decision, the Astros would have had about a 28.1% chance of winning the game had Altuve stopped at third, a 17.7% chance of winning the game if he went and was thrown out (which is what happened), and a 29.8% chance of winning the game had he run and scored. That distribution suggests, all other things being equal, that Pettis had to believe Altuve was likely to score at least 86% of the time in order to justify sending him (29.8 – 17.7 = 12.1; 12.1 * 0.86 + 17.7 = 28.1). Given that math, I find it hard to fault Pettis for his choice to run Altuve. It took two essentially perfect throws, from Keirmaier and Willy Adames in turn, plus a terrific tag from Travis d’Arnaud, to get Altuve at the plate by a hair. I know it won’t make the Astros feel better given the result, but it was fun to watch. Read the rest of this entry »


Corbin’s Labor in Vain as Nationals’ Exit Looms

Dave Martinez didn’t exactly shower Aníbal Sánchez with praise when he penciled the 35-year-old into the starter’s spot and his postseason series early Sunday morning in Washington (35 doesn’t seem that old until you realize that 2001, the year in which Martinez made his last major-league plate appearance, was the same year in which Sánchez signed as an international free agent with the Red Sox). When pressed on the choice — between Sánchez, who hadn’t pitched in 10 days, and Wild Card starter Max Scherzer on two days rest (he threw in relief in Game 2 Friday) — Martinez was brief. “I’ve asked a lot of guys to hold off on their bullpens,” he said.

But Sánchez, the part of this game that wasn’t supposed to go well for the Nationals, acquitted himself admirably over five innings and 87 pitches of work. The first inning was dicey, with two walks and a single sandwiched around a foulout to right by Max Muncy and a swinging strikeout by Cody Bellinger. But Sánchez found control of his soft changeup late in the Bellinger sequence, and used it to great effect against Pollock with the bases loaded. 71 mph up and in with the bases juiced, just like they drew it up. Pollock struck out, and so did the next four Dodgers hitters.

In the meantime Juan Soto, in his first at-bat in the nation’s capital since that liner to right last Tuesday that will sit uneasily in the memories of Wisconsinites, took a Hyun-Jin Ryu fastball that caught altogether too much of the plate out of the ballpark to center. That put the Nats up 2-0, and caused me to contemplate for the first time what it might mean to a generation of fans to have the Nationals advance beyond the Division Series for the first time in their history.

Read the rest of this entry »