Table of Contents

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why Mike Leake Should Threaten to Accept a Qualifying Offer

Mike Leake has millions on the line.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison
As of right now, we are just over 24 hours until the non-waivers trade deadline, and Mike Leake is still a Cincinnati Red.  The Blue Jays' acquisition of David Price is a blow, as the Jays had been connected in the rumor mill to Leake over the past few days.  Now, that's at least less likely to happen.  I'm sure that there still are suitors out there for Leake, and odds are that he will be moved.  But if I were Mike Leake, I'd be nervous.

The reason?

Mike Leake is a very solid pitcher.  He has been routinely worth between 2 and 3 wins over the past three seasons, and can absolutely be a valuable part of a contending team's rotation.  But he's not an ace, and will always have to answer skeptics due to his smaller size profile and low velocity.  He doesn't rack up strikeouts.  He gets ground balls, avoids walks, and fields his position well.  A free agent this offseason, Leake has earned a pretty nice payday.  I think he can reasonably look for a 3+ year contract at $10-13 million per season.  2016 will only be his age-28 season, and he has no history of injury, so I think clubs will be happy to pay him to lock down 180+ innings per season.

Aside from a late-season injury, there is really only one major pitfall that could derail his payday: compensation.  If the Reds fail to trade him, they will have the option to make him a qualifying offer, which will be somewhere close to $17 million for one year.  If he declines, then whatever team signs him will have to give the Reds their first-round draft pick in the 2016 draft as compensation for signing him.  If the Reds trade him, however, the team that acquires him cannot receive free agent compensation.

I like the principle of compensating teams who lose free agents.  The problem is that bonus to the team losing the free agent is paid by the team that acquires him.  Therefore, the acquiring team has to include the loss of a first-round pick as part of their calculations of how much they're willing to spend.  As a result, many mid-tier free agents in recent years have had a hard time finding a job, and ultimately had to accept a below-market deal, as a result of this compensation pick.  It directly cuts into their potential earnings, and ultimately has kept players from playing baseball.

So, if I'm Mike Leake, I would tell the Reds front office that I intend to accept a qualifying offer.  No player has ever actually accepted this offer (which boggles my mind), but even the threat of it might spur the Reds to action.  Bronson Arroyo commented that he'd strongly consider signing a qualifying offer as he approached free agency two years ago.  The Reds opted not to make an offer, and Arroyo went on to sign a 2-year, $23.5 million contract with the Diamondbacks.  If I were Mike, I'd make the same threat.  The Reds would most likely respond by either trading him now, or simply not making the offer this fall; I'm guessing that they are still too cash-strapped to risk it.  And letting Leake walk without getting anything for him would be completely unacceptable.  That leaves trading him as the most viable solution.

Whether he'd actually accept a qualifying offer, in that scenario, is another question.  The threat might be all that matters.

Postscript to Cueto Deal: David Price traded to Toronto

Postscript: David Price just got traded. I would probably rank Price slightly behind Cueto and Greinke (at the time of his deal), but I’m guessing you’d find those in industry who would prefer Price too. Price doesn’t have Cueto’s injury risk. 
The haul, according to:
Daniel Norris, LHP, Blue Jays #1 prospect, #18 in minor leagues, 60 FV at fangraphs
Jairo Labourt, LHP, Blue Jays #12 prospect w/ 45 FV during preseason
Matt Boyd, LHP, Blue Jays #29 prospect w/ 40 FV during preseason 
Another all-lefty prospect return! Crazy. 
Assuming the grades are “correct,” would you take a 60-45-40 FV return or a 55-50-40 FV return? I lean toward the return with the better marquee player, so I probably like the David Price return better. But if you believe There’s No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect (which no one does literally, but there’s something to it), then you might take the Reds’ return. Thoughts?

Pirates Series Preview

Francisco Cervelli has been outstanding behind the dish for the Pirates
Photo Credit: Mark Kortum
Having deftly delivered a (minor) setback to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Reds head home to welcome the second-best team in the division, the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Pirates are having an excellent season and are hanging tough with the Cardinals near the top of the NL Central.  Their record is probably a tad better than they've played, but to my eye they have some upside among their hitters that has gone untapped thus far.

A lot has been made of the influence that the Pirates' front office has had in improving the team.  On my reading list is Big Data Baseball, which reportedly tells the tale of, among other things, how the Pirates have used infield shifts and an emphasis on ground ball rates to improve their run prevention.  It shows: the Pirates lead the majors in ground ball rate thanks to a rotation in which every single one of their starters has a 50%-plus ground ball rate.  That's amazing.  By contrast, the Reds currently have one starter with better than a 50% ground ball rate, Mike Leake, who is unlikely to be a Red in less than 48 hours.  At the same time, while I can't find a link right now, the Pirates are typically among the team leaders in the number of infield shifts, as well as runs saved by the shift.  It's a straightforward strategy, but one that seems to have a lot of merit.

I live in Central PA, and have for 8 years now.  Their AA affiliate is pretty close to my house, so we go to a good number of those games per year.  I've watched the Pirates transition from laughing stock to one of the better-run organizations in baseball, and got a chance to meet Neil Huntington and stat-guy Dan Fox.  Fox is a guy I've followed on this blog for years before he was hired by the Pirates.  As such, I have a pretty strong fondness for the Pirates.  I'll always be a Reds fan, but it's exciting for me to see this team doing well.

Position Players

The success of Francisco Cervelli really should be one of the biggest stories about the team this year.  Russell Martin was a revelation for this team over the past two years, but when he left via free agency the Pirates had a huge hole to fill.  They contacted the Yankees and acquired long-time backup catcher (who is still just 29!) Francisco Cervelli.  He has been outstanding.  He's a terrific pitch framer, which I think the Pirates knew before they got him.  They have to be surprised, however, with his offense.  His batting line looks a bit BABIP-y (0.372 BABIP), so he might decline a bit moving forward.  That said, he has at least one feature that speaks well to his ability to maintain an above-average BABIP: like Joey Votto, he's an opposite-field hitter:
As a right-handed hitter, his ground balls tend to go to left field.  But when he gets it in the air, most of the time, he's hitting to center field and right.  He probably doesn't have a lot of home run power (certainly nothing like Votto has), but if he can continue to use that right-center field alley he may be in for good doubles production for the foreseeable future.

The Pirates have a lot of other interesting players.  Andrew McCutcheon, of course, and he might be better in the second half.  The Jung-ho Kang signing was met with a lot of raised eyebrows this offseason, but he's been fantastic as a super-utility guy.  With Jordy Mercer out thanks to a take-out slide, Kang is their starting shortstop for the foreseeable future.  Against lefties, which the Reds now feature, former Ray and lefty-pounder Sean Rodriguez often gets the start over Pedro Alvarez.  Aramis Ramirez seems like a nice, low-cost pickup to supplement the loss of Josh Harrison.  Gregory Polanco still has a lot of promise, and the Pirates are hoping he comes into his own in the second half.

Reds note: Jay Bruce is still hitting, and now has his WAR over 2.0 for the season.  His miserable start and last season's struggles seem almost a distant memory.  They happened, but he's looking really strong.  And that's really fun, because I love Jay Bruce.

Probable Starters

David Holmberg's start today is the start of the post-Cueto era, because this is Cueto's turn in the rotation.  It's sad.  But it was a good trade for the Reds, and hopefully will improve them as early as next season.

Holmberg profiles as a soft-tossing lefty, with velocity sitting in the upper 80's.  He hasn't historically gotten a lot of strikeouts, and has been an extreme fly ball pitcher in the majors (career 35% FB%, albeit in just 33 innings).  Control seems to be a big factor in his relative success success: early last year, he was walking batters left and right, and suffered as a result.  Late in the year, when he was getting good results, he was doing a much better job of throwing strikes.  This year in AAA, his peripherals aren't very inspiring: 5 k/9 vs. 3 bb/9.  Meh.

Referring back to my intro above, check out the Pirates' ground ball rates!  Ground balls have long been Charlie Morton's main skill.  That's looking like about all he can do.  But it's something.  Really good at everything: Gerrit Cole.


The Pirates have consistently had a good bullpen over the past several years.  That's not an accident: while they never break the bank to do so, they consistently are bringing in new arms to replenish their stores.  Tony Watson and Jared Hughes are draftees, and Mark Melancon has been in Pittsburgh since 2012.  The other five, however, have all joined the team in the past two seasons.  The Reds haven't exactly been sitting on their pen either (Mattheus and Badenhop are new this year, Adcock and Axelrod were replacement-type pickups over the past year), but the Pirates have been more active...and better at it...than the Reds.

As a fan, my ideal World Series this year (and MLB's worst nightmare) would be a Pirates-Royals match-up.  This Pirates team is most likely going to have to fight through a wild card playoff game to get into the proper playoffs, but if they can align their rotation properly they have as good a shot as any other team.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Southpaw Surprise: Reds Exchange Cueto for Three Pitching Prospects

Steve Mancuso at Redleg Nation kindly asked me to write a post about the Johnny Cueto trade, which just went live this afternoon.  In it, I compare the return the Reds received for Johnny Cueto to other deadline deals for quality starting pitchers, 2012-2015.  Here's the money bit:
It seems clear that the return for Johnny Cueto was pretty fair, given what the market has been paying for rental starters over the past several years.  If I had the choice, I would have preferred the return that the Brewers got for Greinke, based on what we knew at the time of the deal.  But given that Brandon Finnegan and Jean Segura were ranked at exactly the same spot in BA’s prospect rankings, someone who was really sold on Finnegan’s stuff could probably argue otherwise.  Furthermore, Cueto brought with him some degree of injury risk that was less of a concern with Greinke.  And, frankly, there has been discussion among journalists (whether or not they’re correct) that the market for rental players is getting weaker every year.  Therefore, for the Reds to fall within a few breaths of the Greinke return seems reasonable.  I’d expect that the Reds went with this deal because it was the best offer they received, based on their evaluations of the players. 
The Cueto return does look better than every other trade deadline return for a rental starting pitcher from the past four years.  While it’s not the most likely scenario, there’s a legitimate chance that each of the three starters the Reds acquired could be a valuable member of the Reds’ rotation by 2017.  None of them is likely to ever be the kind of pitcher Cueto was, but this is a substantial infusion of talent at a position where the Reds have been looking pretty weak.

While writing the article, I also whipped up quick profiles on each of the players involved.  I felt they made the article too long, however, and were kind of redundant with work already published by Redleg Nation authors this week.  So, here is what got cut:

Johnny Cueto, RHP, 29 years old

We all know he’s amazing.  How amazing he is depends on how you evaluate him.  By pure FIP-WAR (FanGraphs’ default, which is based strictly on his FIP), Cueto ranks 21st in baseball over the past calendar year at 4.2 WAR.  However, Cueto has consistently posted numbers better than his ERA estimators thanks to a consistent skill to induce low average on balls in play (career BABIP against = 0.271, and it’s been in the .230’s the past three seasons) and an exceptional pickoff move that shuts down the running game.  As a result, by RA9-WAR, he ranks 5th in baseball over the past calendar year with 6.1 WAR, behind only Greinke, Keuchel, Scherzer, and Kershaw.  His true talent probably lies somewhere in between, but I’d peg Cueto as among the top 10 or 15 pitchers in baseball.

Brandon Finnegan, LHP, 22 years old

The 2014 draftee has outstanding stuff: he throws hard, especially for a left-hander, has a plus slider, and his change-up is usable.  The main questions surrounding him are his height and build; at 5’11, 185 lbs, he’s not a big guy, so there are concerns about his ability to hold up to a starter’s workload.  He also has suffered from lapses in control.  That all said, the 22-year old has been in professional baseball for one year, has major league experience, has been constantly jerked across the minor and major leagues since signing.  He has yet to throw more than 25 innings with any one club, and was frustrated with how he was being handled.  He ranked as the #55 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America entering the season, and Kiley McDaniel recently reaffirmed his preseason 55 Future Value scouting rating on Finnegan.

Cody Reed, LHP, 22 years old

Reed has been a rising star in the Kansas city Royals system this year.  Like Finnegan, he also throws hard, hitting the upper 90’s regularly, and has a plus slider to go with a developing change-up.  Unlike Finnegan, he has a more traditional power-pitcher body that scouts like to see at 6’5”, 220 lbs.  The knock on Reed has been his control, which has ranged from bad to horrific.  This year, however, he seems to have taken a major step forward, showing much better control and command across A+ and AA levels.  McDaniel rated him as a 50 FV prospect this week, and he made Baseball America’s midseason Royals list as their #9 prospect.  His strikeouts have taken a hit with his promotion to AA, but it's early and he's young.  I'm pretty bullish on him.

John Lamb, LHP, 25 years old

Lamb is a former top prospect with the Royals, reaching #18 in all of baseball on Baseball America’s 2011 prospect list.  That was the same list that featured five Royals in the top-20; he was one of those guys.  It was that year, however, that his ulnar collateral ligament gave out, and he submitted to Tommy John surgery.  Lamb’s recovery did not go very well.  He missed most of 2012 in recovery, lost a lot of velocity, and had lackluster results in 2013 and 2014 between high-A and AAA.  This year, however, reports have it that his velocity is back up in the low 90’s, almost where it was at his best.  His results have improved as well: his strikeouts are up over the past few years, and his walks are WAY down.  Having already spent a year and a half in AAA, he is thought to be almost ready for his big league debut.  I expect we'll see him this year, and probably before the other two pitchers.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Series Preview: St. Louis Cardinals - First Looks at Stephen Piscotty

Jason Heyward, like Jay Bruce, has rebounded after a terrible start to the season
Photo Credit: Arturo Pardavila III
The Reds travel to Busch Stadium to visit with the St. Louis Cardinals to kick off the week.  In past years, this has been a moment when I am filled with anticipation and some degree of dread.  But you know what?  One of the side effects of being in the midst of a fire sale is that losing just isn't that big of a deal anymore.  It's ok.  It's time to just enjoy baseball.

I'll be rooting for the Reds to stick it to the Cardinals, of course, but it's with the knowledge that the Reds are going up against a superior team.  The difference, at least this year, however, is entirely wrapped up in their pitching staff.  The Reds have had almost equivalent offensive production to the Cardinals, albeit in different ways: the Cardinals have gotten on base more often, while the Reds have had more power (and Billy Hamilton).  The two teams have both been about league-average defensively.  But the Cardinals have gotten superb starting pitching, which has been all the more impressive given that they lose Adam Wainwright in April in a freak pitcher-as-hitter accident.  Their bullpen has been lockdown-worthy as well, again despite encountering a heaping helping of injuries.  This is a deep, deep team, and that depth has been tested this season--and that depth has delivered.  FanGraphs has them with a 99.6% chance of making the playoffs, the highest such percentage in baseball.  90% of that is through a division title.

Position Players

This is what we're used to seeing from the Cardinals: Strong offense from top to bottom, though without a lot of star power.  The new name is Stephen Piscotty, their 2012 #1 draft selection, and the latest part of the Cardinals machine. Entering this year, Piscotty was an extreme contact hitter with a decent eye and modest power for a corner outfielder.  In his offseason review of Cardinals prospects, Kiley McDaniel wrote that the Cardinals "would like to see him trade some strikeouts for home runs so he can more traditionally profile in right field."  This year, he seems to have done just that, showing jump in his strikeouts (which were a still very-reasonably 16% in AAA), but also a big jump in his home run production (11 in a half-season after hitting 9 all of last year).  With Matt Adams out with quad surgery, the Cardinals are trying Piscotty at first base.  There are rumors that they might pursue another bat via a trade (e.g. Adam Lind), but they might just go with Piscotty and see what happens.  Worst case, they still have a platoon of Dan Johnson and Mark Reynolds waiting in the wings.

Things I'm surprised to see: Randal Grichuk with positive fielding numbers despite playing in center field for the injured Jon Jay.  Peter Bourjos awful UZR fielding score.  Jhonny Peralta's low baserunning score.  General poor performance from what's left of the Cardinals bench.

Things I'm not surprised to see: everyone hitting.  Yadier Molina with amazing catching fielding stats.  Jason Heyward leading the team in WAR despite a slow start.

Probable Starters

The Reds are outclassed by this rotation, though the difference isn't staggering.  I think there are some interesting comparisons here.  Mike Leake and Jaime Garcia are basically following the same approach: not many strikeouts, but lots of ground balls and few walks (Garcia will be coming back from time off due to injury, so we'll see how much rust he has).  Anthony DeSclafani and John Lackey even more similar, except that Lackey avoids walks far better that DeSclafani.  It's one avenue that we might hope Disco might take to become a better pitcher.

This series will hopefully be a good opportunity for Reds pitchers to learn from a pitching staff that gets it done.


Before you look at this bullpen, it's worth noting that they've already lost Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle to injury.  Nevertheless, they've gotten at least solid performance from the first to the last man.  Rosenthal, Siegrist, and Maness have been effective in shutting down the later innings, and their mid-inning guys have generally done well.  They've also been recently bolstered by Steve Cishek, who hasn't been great this year but was very recently a closer for the Marlins.  With the Reds, however, while there are Chapman and Hoover, there are also catastrophes.  And some of those catastrophic performances have gotten quite a few innings.  Building a bullpen is hard, I guess.

Reds: JJ Hoover and Jumbo Diaz are an interesting pair.  The defensive-independent stats say completely the opposite as the more traditional record-keeping in terms of who has thrown well.  I'm glad to see JJ Hoover having a nice season results-wise, but I do hope he can get his strikeout rate up over the rest of the season to prolong that success.  Jumbo Diaz had another rough outing Saturday, but any time a guy pumps high 90's heat with control and with the expected strikeouts, I gotta ride that train.  He might be a good case where control (avoiding walks) is clearly different from command (putting the ball right where you want it).

Friday, July 24, 2015

Rockies Series Preview: Tulo and the Gang

The Reds are off to Colorado tonight to make their annual try at Mile High Baseball.  We've all heard about the humidor and how it's reduced how far the ball travels.  And it's true that we're no longer dealing with a park factor in the 120's in Denver like we were in the late 1990's.  But still:

Playing in Coors Field is like playing no where else in major league baseball.  It's just a different game altogether, and none of the other parks can really compare in terms of how much of an affect the park has on a baseball game.

Whether it's due to their park, poor personnel decisions, or bad luck, or whatever else, the Rockies haven't had a winning season since 2010 when they rode Ubaldo Jiminez, Carlos Gonzalez, and Troy Tulowitzki to a third-place finish.  The year before, they made the playoffs with much the same squad (plus Jason Marquis).  And it sort of feels like they're still trying to ride that same squad today.  Ubaldo is no longer with them, of course, and unfortunately CarGo and Tulo no longer seem to be the great players they once were.  There are some new faces and names, but the Rockies never seem to be able to avoid cratering at a position or two, and always have a hard time piecing together a rotation.  The same is definitely true this year.

By pretty much every measure in every category, the Reds have been equal to or marginally better than the Rockies.  They've hit slightly better (after park adjustments), their rotation has been slightly better, while their bullpens and fielding have more or less been a wash.  Neither team is in line to make any sort of push for the playoffs, and both are expected to be sellers at the trade deadline.  The question is which players they will be able move.

Position Players

Prior to this season, the question with Troy Tulowitzki has always been whether he can stay on the field.  Last year, he posted 5.3 WAR in just 375 plate appearances.  After having surgery to repair a hip labrum tear(*) that he'd been dealing with since 2008, he is back and supposedly healthy this year.  However, he got off to an unbelievably bad start this season.  He suddenly and inexplicably stopped walking altogether, wasn't compensating in other ways, and was generally awful.  Over the past month-plus, however, he seemed to have turned the corner, with career-normal walk rates and a 41-game on-base streak.  He might be back.  I'm hoping; he's always been one of my favorites.

* Note: sounds like the same injury that afflicted Devin Mesoraco this year.

Nolan Arenado has become one of the leading figures on this team as CarGo has slipped and Tulo has been hurt.  He hits well and fields brilliantly.  Not much else that one can ask for.  The other guy of particular note is former Cistulli-crush Charlie Blackmon, who is a significant force in the Rockies least against right-handers.  The wrap on him is that he can't hit lefties, although his career L/R splits don't seem that ridiculous (82 wRC+ v. LHP, 105 v. RHP...though they've been particularly pronounced this year at 60/133).

Drew Stubbs is still a Rockie.  He gets starts against lefties, but as such probably will not appear this series except as a substitute.

Reds notes: Good to see Jay Bruce turn it on over this past month.  I've enjoyed watching Eugenio Suarez as well, though he's been a little BABIP-y, isn't walking, and has higher strikeouts then you'd like to see.  The power (.182 ISO for a SS), at least, has been encouraging.  Joey Votto's wRC+ finally crept over Todd Frazier's on the season with Votto's recent non-elite surge.

Probable Starters

The one rookie of any note on the Rockies right now is first-game starter Eddie Butler.  Kiley McDaniel ranked him as the #42 prospect in baseball, with good velocity and a good change-up.  His ground ball rate has been impressive, but he's walked more than he's struck out so far this year.  Former Cubs swingman Chris Rusin has been doing a credible left-handed Mike Leake impersonation this year, and has had the best season of this Rockies' trio.  Kyle Kendrick is not very good, but throws strikes.

The big thing for the Reds this series is to see Cueto have a good game with good control.  Pitching in Colorado isn't going to help, but he needs to demonstrate that his loss of control in his last start was just a hiccup.  The Reds should have traded him a few weeks ago, or so I thought.  But they are content to wait for the offers to improve and hope he doesn't break.  ....  this, by the way, is why I don't handle any negotiations at my house.  I just want to have this over and done with, before something happens that kills all of his value.


The Rockies have some good pieces.  I love that LaTroy Hawkins is still a credible reliever, and is wearing purple again.  John Axford has done well as a closer, but he's never a sure thing.  Top lefty Boone Logan has been vulnerable.

And hurrah for Jumbo Diaz's return!  I predict a nice second-half for him, and a fairly steady ascent back into a late-inning role.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Can Billy Hamilton's Legs Make Up for his Bat?

Photo Credit: Keith Allison
Billy Hamilton is having one of the strangest seasons I've ever seen.  He has been absolutely terrible at the plate.  Really, really bad.  Thus far, heading out of the All-Star break, he is hitting .220/.269/.287 with a 52 wRC+.  Compared to his 2014 season, when he was merely not good, he is making more contact (19% K rate in 2014, 15% in 2015).  However, this contact has been more often soft contact (22% Soft, 21% Hard in 2014, versus 23% Soft, 17% Hard contact in 2015) and he has been hitting slightly fewer ground balls (41.5% in 2014, 40% in 2015).  There have been times when I have been more confident in the pitcher's offense than in his, which doesn't happen very often with starting position players.

Remarkably, there are currently four qualified batters who have a lower wRC+ than Hamilton this year.

Alexei Ramirez, 43 wRC+, -1.0 WAR
Mike Zunino, 45 wRC+, -0.3 WAR
Chris Owings, 48 wRC+, -0.7 WAR
Omar Infante, 48 wRC+, -0.3 WAR
Billy Hamilton, 52 wRC+, +1.6 WAR

Ramirez and Infante, at least, have a history of being at least decent, if not plus, hitters for their positions.  Zunino is a catcher with a good defensive reputation.  Owings is a sophomore and former good prospect who has fallen on hard times.  If any of those guys don't pick up their offense in the second half, however, there's a good chance that they'll lose their starting position.  As a result, they won't achieve "qualified batters" status by the end of the season.

Going back 10 years (2005-2014), there are only five players who have managed a full season of playing time with a wRC+ lower than Hamilton's:

2006 Clint Barmes, 38 wRC+, -0.7 WAR
2010 Cesar Izturis, 46 wRC+, -0.4 WAR
2006 Ronny Cedeno, 48 wRC+, -1.8 WAR
2006 Angel Berroa, 48 wRC+, -1.5 WAR
2013 Alicedes Escobar, 49 wRC+, +1.1 WAR

(of note: Zack Cozart in 2014 had a 56 wRC+, +1.2 WAR)

Therefore, while Billy has been unquestionably bad at the plate, it hasn't quite risen to historical status.  The interesting thing to me about these two lists, beyond the magnitude of these hitters' offensive struggles, is that only two of them show up as having positive WAR: Alicedes Escobar and Billy Hamilton.  In both cases, the players' WAR totals are buoyed by strong baserunning numbers and strong fielding numbers.  There are those who will scoff at fielding data, but I can swallow that an elite defensive player like Escobar could still be worth 1 win above replacement.  That's still well below average, and not good.

Hamilton, though, currently has 1.6 WAR.  That puts him on pace for almost exactly 3 WAR, which would put him as a slightly above-average baseball player.  This is despite owning (if it doesn't improve) a batting line that would rank him 6th-worst since 2005.  Is that really possible, or is WAR broken when it comes to Hamilton?  Let's go component by component.

Hamilton's Baserunning

Perhaps more than any other ballplayer, Billy Hamilton's value comes on the basepaths.  While last year he was caught regularly, this year he has become far better at determining the best time to go.  Heading into last night's game, he had stolen 44 bases and been caught only 6 times, good for an 88% success rate.  That's Barry Larkin-level success rates, except that Larkin only topped 44 bases in one season.  Hamilton is on pace for 83 thefts.

And it's not just his basestealing.  Hamilton sails from first the third with ease, and scores from first on anything even remotely resembling an extra base (assuming he hasn't already stolen second).  He's been brilliant.

The two best baserunning totals since 2005 are Mike Trout in 2012 and Willy Taveras in 2008 (+14 runs each).  Hamilton is already 17th on that list at +10.6 runs, with 76 more games to play.  That puts him in really good position to be at the top of this list by the season's end.  He might even do that by the end of August.

Given everything we know about his actual baserunning abilities, I believe these numbers.  He's really special out there.  He might not reach +20 runs by the season's end (which he's currently on pace to do), but would anyone really be surprised if he posted the best baserunning season of the past decade at +15 runs or so?

Hamilton's Fielding

Thanks in large part to MLB's condensed games, I've been able to watch at least the meaningful plays of almost every Reds game this season.  The thing that has stuck out to me, even more so than Hamilton's baserunning, is his defense.  I can't count how many times I've seen a ball hit hard into the gap, cursed in anticipation of a double, only to see Billy somehow close on the ball and catch it running.  And then there are all those times when he's made those brilliant diving plays in shallow left-center.  He's wicked fast, and to my eye it seems like he takes good routes.  He's been amazing to watch.

Hamilton currently has +11 UZR, which is the fielding metric that FanGraphs uses in WAR.  That ranks him 37th among center fielders over the past decade+,  and 2nd this season behind Kevin Kiermaier.  He is one of only 6 center fielders to have made a play that Inside Edge classified as a "Remote Chance" play, ranks 3rd among CF's among plays ranked as "Unlikely," and 9th among CF's on balls judged as having an "About Even" chance to catch them.

Last year, Hamilton was a +22 UZR center fielder, which is what he's pacing right now.  The best center field seasons of the past decade have been in the 20-30 range, topped by Franklin Gutierrez's 2009 season at +34 runs.  I think most of those are probably overestimates high due to the volatility of fielding stats, but they were all very good fielding players (a young Andruw Jones, Coco Crisp, Carlos Gomez, Michael Bourn, Willy Taveras, etc).

Therefore, I think evaluating Hamilton as a +15-20 run fielder in center field is pretty fair.

Offense + Baserunning + Fielding + Position = WAR

Let's put it all together.

Offense: Hamilton is on pace for -32 batting runs above average.  Let's assume, for now, that he won't improve and go with that.

Baserunning: Let's assume +15 runs as a baserunner

Fielding: I'm going to be slightly conservative and put him as a +15 fielder.

Position: I'll give him the standard +2.5 runs/season bump for CF's, prorated down to +2.1 runs for 86% playing time (he misses games here and there with small injuries due to his playing style).

Replacement: I'll peg Replacement Level as -2.25 wins below average, which is about -20 runs vs. average on the season, prorated down to -17 runs due to playing time (using 9 runs per win).

So, if this is correct, it would be Billy's valuation at:

-32 (offense) + 15 (BsR) + 15 (fielding) + 2 (pos) + 17 (field) = +17 runs above average, or 1.9 WAR.

In other words, Hamilton rates out as almost exactly a league average player.  I'm not arguing he's a plus player, and he's definitely not an all-star.  Just that he's a unique, extreme, league-average ballplayer.  You can even argue that I'm being conservative.  Maybe he's a +20 run fielder.  And his rest of season projections have him about equal to his 2014 offensive performance than his miserable 2015 performance (ZiPS has him at .251/.301/.346 the rest of the way).  But league average feels about right to me.  I really don't think Hamilton is killing the Reds this year, especially not hitting 9th as Price is smartly deploying him.

I don't know how long this will last.  I worry that Hamilton's all-out play in the field and on the bases will slow him down over the coming couple of years.  And if he slows, I don't think his game is amenable to almost any kind of aging.  But for now, I think he's an acceptable starting outfielder.

And who knows?  Maybe he'll still learn to hit a little bit.  After all, even just taking a few more pitches, given the generally poor results when he actually swings, could really help his value.

Monday, July 13, 2015

MLB Power Rankings: Shifting Power in the American League

With methods described in this post, here are the latest MLB power rankings!

TPI = Team Performance Index (my ranking metric).  Based on wRC, DRA, DRS, and UZR.
W% = Team Winning Percentage (i.e. real life)
Py% = Pythagorean Winning Percentage (based on real RS and RA)

On-Paper Playoff Leaders

American League - East: Yankees, Central: Tigers, West: Astros, Wild cards: Royals and A's
National League - East: Nationals, Central: Cardinals, West: Dodgers, Wild cards: Giants and Pirates

This update sees new leaders in all three American League divisions.  Having just recently risen to the top in the last update, the Orioles have now (barely) fallen behind both the Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East.  The Tigers surged past the Royals in the AL Central, while the upstart Astros jumped past the Athletics to take the AL West lead heading into the All Star Break.

This is a far more optimistic appraisal of the Tigers team than you'll likely see elsewhere, with Detroit sporting a .500 record and a sub-.500 Pythagorean record.  Nevertheless, the Tigers' offense is third in baseball in expected runs scored, and this is enough to overcome their fairly average run prevention.  This framework sees both their actual runs scored and actual runs allowed as worse than expected, based on the underlying numbers.  The Tigers were certainly expected to be better than a .500 ballclub, so I think there might be something to it.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

My 2015 American League All Star Team

Continuing my annual look at the best players in baseball, here is my American league squad, which is based largely on past calendar-year splits.


Russell Martin
Starter: Russell Martin (TOR: 5.9 WAR)
Reserve: Stephen Vogt (OAK: 3.8 WAR)

It still seems amazing to me that the Pirates were able to sign Martin to a discounted deal just a few years ago when he left the Yankees as a free agent.  He already had demonstrated significant upside in the major leagues at that point, and somehow had been relegated to a has-been pile despite just being 30 years old.  Now, at 32, he is playing at the best level of his career offensively, and his defensive numbers (particularly his framing) are always top-tier.

Stephen Vogt is the newcomer to the list.  He's a pretty interesting player; if the narrative in this post by Eno Sarris is correct, his emergence this year is thanks to a reversion to a more patient approach at the plate that he abandoned in the minor leagues at the behest of his coaches.  It's not like he was playing in some kind of backwards organization either: he came up with the Rays, and is now with the Athletics.  He's sure hitting now, though.

First Base

Starter: Miguel Cabrera (DET: 6.1 WAR)
Reserve: Jose Abreu (CHW: 4.1 WAR)

Miguel Cabrera continues to be a premier player, which is a good thing for Detroit because his 8-year extension doesn't even kick in until next season.

Jose Abreu is the newcomer; at this time last year, we were just starting to realize that he was for real.  Now we know that he's among the best power-hitters in baseball.  He's also the only White Sox position player who has posted more than 0.5 WAR this season (next closest: Geovany Soto with 0.4 WAR as a part-time catcher).

Second Base

Brian Dozier
Starter: Brian Dozier (MIN: 5.0 WAR)
Reserve: Jason Kipnis (CLE: 4.7 WAR)

Dozier nearly claimed the starting job last season, and now has claimed the top ranking honors among all second basemen.  Now in his age-28 season, he just continues to get better.  This season, he has already cleared 3 WAR, and is sporting a .262 ISO.  This edges him over the equally-impressive Jason Kipnis, who seems completely recovered from his struggles of last season and has once again asserted himself as a dominant hitter.  Dozier provides more power, while Kipnis has a .400+ OBP on the season.

Third Base

Starter: Josh Donaldson (TOR: 7.4 WAR)
Reserve: Manny Machado (BAL: 5.2 WAR)

Josh Donaldson is the best third baseman in baseball.  I know Oakland got quantity back for him when they traded him this offseason, and Donaldson was just entering his arbitration years and thus was starting to get expensive.  But given the salary that Oakland took on in their other deals this winter, I still just can't believe they made that deal.

Manny Machado missed a lot of time last season, but is back with a vengence and is still just 22!  As much as I love Todd Frazier, I see Machado as the only legitimate contender for Donaldson's title as best 3B in the game.  Machado, to this point in his career, has been a good hitter-great defender.  This year, he's hitting brilliantly as well.  He's one of the forces behind Baltimore's ascent to the top of the AL East.


Starter: Jose Reyes (TOR: 2.8 WAR)
Reserve: Brad Miller (SEA: 2.5 WAR)

As has been the case for a few years now, the AL crop of shortstops is a pretty thin bunch.  This year is thinner than most.  Jose Reyes clocks in with the top WAR over the past year, and has a history of excellence, so I went with him as the starter.  For the reserve, it was sort of a toss-up.  I tapped Brad Miller, primarily because Seattle needed a representative and he's performed well in limited playing time.  A league-average bat with solid defense at shortstop is a pretty decent player, and he's posted the second-best WAR totals in the league over the past year in just over 400 PA's.


Mike Trout
Starters: LF - Alex Gordon (KCR: 5.5 WAR), CF - Mike Trout (LAA: 7.4 WAR), RF - Jose Bautista (TOR: 5.1 WAR)
Reserves: Lorenzo Cain (KCR: 5.5 WAR), J.D. Martinez (DET: 4.9 WAR), Michael Brantley (CLE: 4.6 WAR)

While the gap may have narrowed, I still consider Mike Trout the best player in baseball.  I love Alex Gordon, and I gave Jose Bautista the nod in right field because I trust his bat better than I trust Lorenzo Cain's fielding numbers (though I love Lorenzo Cain too).  I have a special affection for Michael Brantley because he seems like such an interseting player: good power, decent patience, all combined with brilliant contact ability.  There are other players who make contact like Brantley does, but they don't have his power.  He's pretty exciting.

Starting Pitchers

Corey Kluber (CLE: 7.1 WAR)
Chris Sale (CHW: 6.5 WAR)
David Price (DET: 6.2 WAR)
Dallas Keuchel (HOU: 5.8 WAR)
Sonny Gray (OAK: 5.3 WAR)

There has been a lot of turnover among AL Pitchers in the past year.  Max Scherzer and Jon Lester moved to the NL.  Yu Darvish is injured.  And we've seen the emergence of Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, Dallas Keuchel, and Sonny Gray.  Kluber and Sale are a blast to watch because of their ridiculous strikeout totals.  I've watched several games by each of them this season.  Keuchel is pretty fun because his ground ball rate is so over-the-top compared to most other pitchers, and he combines it with good control and strikeout rates.  Gray I actually have overlooked a bit, and mostly still know him as a promising prospect.  He has almost 400 MLB innings under his belt now, however, and has been fabulous.  I certainly should know him.

Relief Pitchers

Wade Davis
Wade Davis (KCR: 3.4 WAR)
Dellin Betances (NYY: 3.3 WAR)
Andrew Miller (NYY: 2.4 WAR)
Joe Smith (LAA: 2.3 WAR)
Zach Britton (BAL: 2.2 WAR)

I think it's fascinating that three of the top four relievers in the American League over the past year, based on an average of FIP-WAR and RA/9-WAR, are not currently closers on their teams.  Someone has probably already done this, but it would be neat to track how closely the current dip in run scoring is attributable to improvements in relievers compared to starting pitchers.  I'll put that on my to-do list.

Pats on the Head

Tampa Bay Rays: Chris Archer, Starting Pitcher (4.4 WAR)
Chris Archer seems to have taken a step forward from his already-good performance last season, and is now posting ridiculous numbers: 11 k/9, 2 bb/9, 49% GB rate, and a 2.31 ERA (with other component ERA estimators matching that value).  I could have taken elite-fielding CF Kevin Kiermaier, but this is one of those cases where I don't trust fielding numbers enough to take someone who is generating 2.5 WAR by glove alone.  ...  at least, not when their are other viable options.

Boston Red Sox: Mookie Betts, Center Field (4.2 WAR)
After his phenomental half-season debut last year, Betts' 2015 season has been a bit disappointing.  His combination of good hitting and good fielding at a premium position has already been worth 2.3 WAR this year, however, which puts him at the top of the Red Sox leaderboard during the past year.

Texas Rangers: Adrian Beltre, Third Base (4.1 WAR)
Beltre hasn't been very good this year.  He has missed time with injury, and hasn't hit like he did last year (his totals here are entirely bouyed by his brilliant 2014 second half).  I think the bat is likely to come around, however, and he still posts good fielding numbers every year.  His contract has an option for the 2016 season, and it will be interesting to see if the Rangers pick it up.  If not, he seems likely to still get a job if he wants one.  I'll be interested to see how much support he gets for the Hall of Fame once he retires.

Organization Totals

(not including "pat on head" selections)
BAL - 2
CHW - 2
CLE - 3
DET - 3
HOU - 1
KCR - 3
LAA - 2
MIN - 1
NYY - 2
OAK - 2
SEA - 1
TOR - 4

The Blue Jays get the nod for most stars on their squad.  They are currently one game out of first place in the AL East, and I tend to think better things are in store for them down the stretch.  If they can find a left fielder and another starter on the trade market, they would seem poised to make a nice run.  Johnny Cueto might look pretty good in blue, and I'd enjoy watching him carry their team to a pennant.