Playoff baseball is interesting as a concept. After a regular season of 162 games to determine the game’s best teams, the sport’s champion is then determined by a few best-of-five and best-of-seven series. It’s not unlike asking the top 10 finishers of a marathon to run a 5K in order to decide who should receive first place. The sprint-like nature of the postseason is baseball’s Theatre of the Absurd (especially where small sample sizes are concerned): entertaining and a bit preposterous at the same time.
One of the areas where the effect is most pronounced is in the realm of Win Probability Added (WPA) and Leverage Index (LI). Championships are on the line and the lens of the postseason only serves to magnify what would be tense moments even on a quiet night in July. A big WPA day turns a player into a legend, while going the opposite direction turns a player into the goat. But not every intriguing event with a high WPA or LI is a starring turn. With that in mind, let’s look at a few of the stranger WPA- and LI-related things we’ve seen during the League Championship Series.
Caleb Ferguson was a 38th-round pick out of high school for the Dodgers in 2014. A starter through his whole minor-league career — he recorded only three relief appearances in the minors prior to this year — he found a home in the Dodgers’ bullpen this year. While he doesn’t have an incredible arsenal — Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel graded his fastball as a 50, curveball as a 45, and changeup as a 45 — he put up solid numbers as a reliever, striking out over 30% of batters and produced a 2.55 xFIP. After that solid rookie season, Ferguson joined the playoff roster as one of three lefties — the other two being Alex Wood and Julio Urias — in the Los Angeles bullpen.
Generally speaking, he didn’t pitch in high-leverage situations this season. With an average leverage index of 1.08 (Overall average is 1), he ranked 123rd in baseball for relievers with at least 30 innings pitched. In the League Championship Series, however, things have been a little different.
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With their win in the divisional tiebreaker on Monday, the Brewers took home the National League Central title, their second Central crown and third division title in their 49-year existence. By winning, besides avoiding the scramble of the winner-take-all Wild Card game, they get to face the Colorado Rockies. This is surely preferable for the Brewers for many reasons. For one, the Rockies offense is significantly less potent than either the Cubs or Dodgers — the Brewers’ other potential opponents — putting up an 87 team wRC+ compared to 100 for the Cubs and 111 for the league-leading Dodgers. The Brewers also (albeit in rather small samples) took five of seven from the Rockies this year, compared to three of seven from the Dodgers and nine out of 20 from the Cubs.
Despite the optimism, there is one catch to playing the Rockies; eventually, you have to go to Coors Field. Coors can be a tricky place to play, as many NL West players could tell you. From the elevation to the humidor, there are many factors that come into play once you travel to Denver. However, the Brewers are uniquely situated to combat one of Coors Field’s most difficult attributes.
This past Saturday, the Braves defeated the Phillies by a score of 5-3, earning their 87th win on the season and clinching the National League East title. Needless to say, this was unexpected back in March, when the Braves entered the year with a 3.2% chance of reaching the playoffs. Then again, there were a lot of unexpected developments in Atlanta this year. It was clear entering the season, for example, that Ronald Acuna possessed considerable talent; it was less obvious, however, that he’d become one of baseball’s best so soon. It was perhaps even more unlikely that a 34-year-old Nick Markakis would earn his first All-Star selection, although that happened as well. The list of surprises goes on. Johan Camargo, Mike Foltynewicz, and Anibal Sanchez: each of these actors played an important role in the Braves’ early arrival on the national stage.
Now the minds of both fans and the players themselves turn to October baseball. While there are some legitimate reasons to regard the Braves as a long shot — the Astros, the Dodgers, the Indians, the Red Sox, you get the idea — they do still have a 2.9% chance of winning the World Series. Throw in the fact that playoff baseball can be especially random, and we could be sitting here in a month lauding World Series MVP Kevin Gausman.
The Braves do enter October with questions beyond their youth. Most of these questions relate to their pitching, especially their bullpen. In terms of both run prevention (19th in adjusted ERA) and peripherals (18th in adjusted FIP), the relief corps has been middling. The midseason acquisitions of Brad Brach and Jonny Venters for international bonus money have yielded some returns, as the two veterans have put up a combined 0.8 WAR. However, if the Braves hope to slow down baseball’s best offenses in the late innings, they’ll be relying on two rookies with very similar arsenals.
This has been an exciting year for rookie performances. Juan Soto has looked like the best teenage hitter in history, Ronald Acuna has helped lead the Braves to a (surprising) lead in the NL East, and Shohei Ohtani has short-circuited our understanding of player value with his two-way achievements. Rookies have always been a key component to baseball’s excitement, and this year’s crop is no exception.
Now, quick: what player leads rookies in second-half WAR? If you guessed Acuna, congrats! Acuna has caught fire, putting up a 190 wRC+ and 3.4 WAR since the break — second-best in baseball behind Matt Chapman’s 3.7 mark during that timeframe.
Let’s continue, though. Who’s second amongst rookies since the break? Soto? Sorry, no. Ohtani? Nope, not even after accounting for his contributions on all sides of the ball. It’s not the workman-like Brian Anderson, nor is it defensive wizard Harrison Bader. No, second among rookies in WAR during the second half is New York Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil. For some, perhaps that makes sense. For many, though, the likely response is, “Who?”
That’s understandable. Unless you’ve watched a Mets game since July 24th — and let’s be honest, why would you if you lived outside the New York MSA? — you’ve probably not heard of McNeil. Even if you were a prospect hound, McNeil could have evaded your eye. He didn’t appear on prospect lists for the Mets here at FanGraphs, at Minor League Ball, or Baseball Prospectus. At FanGraphs, only the enigmatic Carson Cistulli mentioned McNeil in an early July edition of the Fringe Five.*
*Since this article came out, it has come to my attention that several articles focused on or mentioning Jeff McNeil have been written by several authors. Among them include the Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Prospectus Mets prospect writers Jarrett Seidler (May 2018), Jeff Paternostro, and Alex Rosen (May 2018). Jeff’s coverage of McNeil in particular goes back as far as McNeil’s second season in 2014. This oversight was completely accidental on my part and not meant to disregard or disparage their work or the work of anyone else who has written about McNeil in the past
For a Mets fanbase that has observed the front office regularly block prospects in favor of flawed veterans — at least they finally freed outfielder Brandon Nimmo — it has to be mildly gratifying to see a young player getting reps in the waning days of the season. McNeil is not only second in WAR amongst rookies in the second half, he is 13th among all hitters by the measure.
Given McNeil’s lack of obvious tools, there’s still reason to doubt that he can put together a substantive major-league career, let alone sustain the pace he’s established since July. Despite these concerns, however, it’s encouraging that the Mets have continued to give McNeil — and Amed Rosario and Nimmo — sufficient playing time to earn a place on the big-league club.
This time last year, Jeff Sullivan posited that the Indians might have assembled the best pitching staff in baseball history, a distinction that unsurprisingly included one of the best collections of starting pitchers ever. Even though the club wasn’t able to translate their success into October glory, it would be hard to pin whatever shortcomings the team exhibited on the rotation, the worst regular member of which, Josh Tomlin, recorded “only” a league-average FIP. It was an impressive season.
Perhaps surprisingly, the 2018 campaign has seen the Indians repeat that success. The rotation as a whole leads baseball with 19.9 WAR, with its four best starters — Trevor Bauer (6.0 WAR, fourth in baseball), Corey Kluber (4.9 WAR, ninth), Carlos Carrasco (4.1 WAR, 11th), and Mike Clevinger (3.9 WAR, 12th) — ranked among the top 12 of the league by that metric. That quartet has already exceeded their combined WAR from 2017 by half a win with a month to go. Notably, that isn’t even the only way in which the rotation has improved.
Instead of Tomlin, the Indians have turned to rookie starter Shane Bieber since the end of May. In 15 starts, Bieber’s has produced a 4.66 ERA but has also posted an incredible 3.23 FIP and 2.0 WAR in a mere 85 innings. He strikes out over a batter an inning (9.21 K/9) and has excellent control of his pitches, as evidenced by a top-10 walk rate (4.2%). Putting those figures two together, Bieber’s 5.8 K/BB is exceeded by only six pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched. Some impressive names are counted among those six, including Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, and Bieber’s teammate, Kluber.
The Indians seem to have struck gold with Bieber. While the team doesn’t seem to need it this year — thanks to the remarkably weak AL Central — Bieber is a key piece for the Indians in the future. His repertoire, ability to deploy his pitches, and command make him an especially valuable (and foundational) starter.
A little less than four weeks ago, I wrote about Phillies rookie Victor Arano. Originally expected to play only a minimal role (if any role at all) with the club this season, Arano has paired with Seranthony Dominguez to lead a Philadelphia bullpen that has aided the club’s surprising pursuit of a division title. Arano’s opportunity to provide meaningful innings would not have been possible had certain other relievers for the Phillies not fallen by the wayside. Tommy Hunter (0.5 WAR) and Pat Neshek (0.6 WAR) have certainly been serviceable, but they’ve fallen a little short of expectations. As for projected closer Hector Neris, he’s fallen well short of them, putting up a 6.90 ERA, 6.39 FIP, and -0.7 WAR through the end of June before earning a demotion to Triple-A.
Neris was recalled to Philadelphia on August 14th and has looked like an entirely different pitcher since his return. In the smallest of samples, Neris has struck out 16 batters, walked one, and allowed three hits in 26 batters faced. This performance — one of the best two-week stretches by a reliever this season — would have been entirely unexpected given his first half. His return comes at a time when the rest of the Phillies’ bullpen performance has been flagging, and his continued excellence will be a necessity if the team wants to emerge from a crowded Wild Card field.
The New York Mets are currently not a good baseball team. This isn’t news, and it can also be the source of occasional amusement. In the future envisioned by Futurama, the New New York Mets are the worst team in baseball’s successor, blernsball. But the humor provided by the Mets isn’t solely confined to the future; it provides comedy in the present as well. Upon Wednesday’s announcement of the 2019 MLB schedule, our own Dan Szymborski got in a dig at New York’s second-favorite team.
The 2019 schedules just came out and the Mets have already been mathematically elminated.
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) August 22, 2018
The 2019 schedules just came out and the Mets have already been mathematically elminated.
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) August 22, 2018
This current state of Mets-dom is unlikely to change anytime soon. That said, the Mets are actually having a decent August. At 12-11, with three series wins and one split in six series against admittedly weak competition, August represents a major improvement over the months of May through July (27-51 combined record).
The underlying numbers back up this August run. Most important of all is the fact that the Mets have put up the third-highest pitching WAR for the month, trailing only the Indians and Braves in that timespan. Their staff has been led by Jacob deGrom (1.7 WAR, best in MLB in August), Noah Syndergaard (0.8 WAR, 17th-best), and Zack Wheeler (1.0 WAR, eighth-best). While this level of performance isn’t out of the ordinary for deGrom or Syndergaard, Wheeler’s appearance alongside them is little surprising, at least relative to expectations. Prior to the season, the projection systems placed Wheeler at around 1.2 WAR, with all three of ZiPS, Steamer, and Depth Charts projecting him to be worth less than Jason Vargas.
That’s not to say that Wheeler’s talent level was expected to be worse than Vargas’s. It was just hard to know. After 2015 and 2016 seasons wiped out by Tommy John surgery and then a poor 2017, there was little sense of what to expect from the former top prospect. However, Wheeler has rebounded in 2018 to the tune of 3.3 WAR, 15th-best among pitchers in all of baseball. This turnaround has come at a beneficial time for the Mets, a club now looking to build for 2019 and beyond.
As baseball analysis has grown, the advanced metrics have begun to find their way into television broadcasts more regularly. Announcers will occasionally mention win probability in terms of game context. Pitcher FIP will be brought up alongside ERA. The slew of batter statistics — wOBA, wRC+, ISO, et al — will be used to shed further light on hitters. Even fielding metrics like UZR and DRS have slowly started creeping their way into viewers’ homes, at least from national television broadcasts.
The one quantifiable area of the game that seems to get a little less sabermetric coverage from broadcasters is baserunning. Stolen bases are of course referenced, and Statcast sprint speeds are a relatable number that does occasionally get mentioned. However, the concept of baserunning runs (BsR) has not made its way to television in the way that its fielding counterparts have.
While the introduction of Statcast sprint speeds to the public is a step forward in understanding how good a baserunner is, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Rather, it tells something more akin to the potential baserunning value that a player can bring. Activating that potential involves no small amount of baserunning instincts for basically anyone who lacks Billy Hamilton’s speed. Looking at one player in particular from 2018 clearly shows us why in explaining runner ability, broadcasts need to go beyond sprint speed.
If you haven’t heard, Freddie Freeman is good at baseball. He’s currently second among first basemen by WAR and wRC+, behind only Matt Carpenter in each case. Since 2016, he’s recorded a 150 wRC+, good for sixth-best in baseball over that span. Nor is his more recent success unprecedented. Freeman ranks 29th in career WAR for active hitters, with only five players having produced a greater WAR figure than him (30.0) in fewer plate appearances (4,793): Josh Donaldson (35.6 and 3,757), Paul Goldschmidt (34.8 and 4,521), Mike Trout (62.6 and 4,547), Giancarlo Stanton (37.7 and 4,613), and Buster Posey (39.1 and 4,658). (All numbers current as of Wednesday.)
This news isn’t exactly earth-shattering for anyone who frequents the pages of FanGraphs. We have known this since Freeman’s breakout season in 2013. Despite that, however, it seems like there’s an increase in Freddie Freeman appreciation recently. Some of this is likely due to the fact that the Braves are — somewhat unexpectedly — fighting for a playoff spot. The Home Run Derby also helped his nationwide notability, even if he didn’t perform particularly well. Google seems to confirm the newfound recognition, as Freddie Freeman searches are up notably the past two years.
As noted, though, Freeman has been an extraordinary talent for a while now. He hits for average and power, is a good fielder (he ranks third in UZR for first basemen since 2013), and is a good runner for a first baseman (fourth-most baserunning runs since 2015). However, to add to all these skills, there is one thing that Freeman does better than anyone else in baseball, and it’s this one thing that helps put him in position to succeed.
It’s August 3rd, and the Phillies are still in first place in the National League East with a 60-48 record. They’ve slid a bit off of their June 1st pace, but that’s not totally unexpected. Despite this, they still remain in good position among teams in the playoff hunt. According to our playoff odds, they have a 45.3% chance of winning the division and a 59.9% chance of making the postseason in general.
One key that has helped drive the Phillies to their first-place position is the success of a few rookie relievers in a bullpen that has already exceeded preseason projections and generated 3.5 WAR with 55 games to go. The group was expected to be led by Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, and Hector Neris — projected to put up 1.1, 0.8, and 0.6 WAR, respectively. But these three relievers have combined for just 0.4 WAR so far, with Neris demoted to Triple A. Instead, it’s two rookies who have been the premier relief options for the team. Seranthony Dominguez has been discussed here before, and has ascended to the closer role since Neris’s demotion. However, it’s the emergence of Victor Arano that has put the Phillies bullpen in a position to help push the team toward the playoffs.