Table of Contents

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Review: The Only Rule Is It Has to Work

Last summer, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller embarked on the kind of fantasy baseball adventure that most of us can only dream about: they were appointed the baseball operations department of the Sonoma Stompers, and independent-league baseball team in California.  In contrast to a minor league affiliate, independent-league teams have to find and secure their own talent.  They do so largely by feeding off the dregs of the minor league systems: players who play in independent baseball do so because they either weren't drafted into MLB's minor league system after college, or they were signed but then were subsequently released.  And while some guys play ball simply because they enjoy the game, most of the guys available to the Stompers are playing explicitly for another chance at a career in affiliated baseball.

Even so, as the baseball operations department, this was a chance for Sam and Ben to test a lot of their ideas about baseball teams in a real world situation.  This included novel ideas about roster construction in independent leagues, using college statistics to find good ballplayers, and even, as the season went on, in-game strategy.  As the summer's data accumulated into larger datasets, Ben and Sam started to tinker with extreme fielding arrangements (shifts!  5-man infields!  4-man outfields!), unconventional reliever usage, sabermetric-minded batting orders, etc.  All of those strategies that we in the stat-head baseball blogosphere argue the big league clubs should do?  This was the chance to implement those strategies, and Sam and Ben don't waste the opportunity to do so.  The Only Rule Is It Has To Work is the tale of their efforts.

They have some wonderful successes.  But they also have their share of challenges, both on and off the field.  They soon butt heads with the manager they hire.  Other teams try to poach their players.  Some of their players underperform horrifically.  Opposing teams sign half a roster of new players.  All the while, we get to go along for the ride, living in the authors' minds.  Ben and Sam take turns writing chapters throughout the book, and so we get both of their perspectives--which are often very different--on key moments in the Stompers season.  All the while, we readers get to play armchair quarterback, thinking about what we might do in those same situations.

Nevertheless, the book manages to be more than just a recounting of a fun experiment in independent baseball.  As baseball fans will attest, the full experience of baseball brings with it a certain melancholy to accompany its triumphs.  That melancholy is revealed when playing out a doomed season, in watching aging players fail where they'd once succeeded, and in seeing hardworking players get cut through no fault of their own.  The vast majority of young men who want to become one of the 750 players on a major league active roster fail to realize that dream, and most never even come close.  This frustrating failure is the soul of the greatest baseball film of all time, Bull Durham, and it's also one of this book's unexpected successes.  We get to know the players of the 2015 Sonoma Stompers.  We celebrate their successes with child-like enthusiasm.  And we suffer through their failures, which carry a lot more weight; failure in independent ball often spells the ultimate end to players' careers.

It's that melancholy, stacked on top of the riveting tale of last summer's experiment, that brings me to this: The Only Rule Is It Has To Work is one of the best baseball books I've ever read.  Yes, I'm card-carrying stathead, and I'm a long-time Effectively Wild listener.  I've been looking forward to this book since they announced their project last summer, and even checked the Sonoma Stompers website a few times last season to check on their progress.  Yes, yes, yes, this book is right up my alley.  But even so, this is just a terrific book.  While it certainly does set itself apart from the standard baseball story with its unique premise, the book somehow still manages to encapsulate the full experience of baseball, with all of its highs, lows, and in-betweens.  Buy it and enjoy it.

Full Disclosure: I did receive a review copy from the publisher...but I had already preordered the thing, and was looking forward to reading it anyway!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Series Preview: Seattle Mariners

The Reds welcome the Seattle Mariners to town.  This isn't a team that I've gotten a chance to see very much, so I'm looking forward to watching the series.  From an organization standpoint, the Mariners' big news of the past year was the firing of Jack Z and the hiring of former Angels GM Jerry Dipoto.  Dipoto is known as a sabermetrically-oriented GM, and apparently clashed significantly with Angels manager Mike Scioscia, as well as owner Arte Moreno.  The Angels made a number of questionable moves during his tenure, but many of the biggest free agent signings that have proven problematic (e.g. Josh Hamilton) were apparently driven by Moreno, not by Dipoto.  

In his time with the Mariners, Dipoto has made a series of small moves to shore up a team that has long been on a seemingly stars-and-scrubs model under the former GM.  He has acquired Aoki, Lind, Iannetta, Martin, Wade Miley, Nathan Karns, Steve Cishek, Joaquin Benoit, Joel Peralta, and more.  So far, it's working; the Mariners sit atop the AL West, with excellent performances pretty much across major team categories, with the possible exception of their fielding.  They were projected to be a competant team, but seeing them atop the West is a bit of a surprise.  With the wins they have in the bank, however, FanGraphs gives the team a 60%+ chance of making the playoffs.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints (and fatigue!), I won't be able to offer much more commentary on this team tonight.  Nevertheless, here are stats for your edification:

Probable Starters

I'm pretty happy that we get to see King Felix, even if that's unlikely to go well for the Reds.  I really wish John Lamb's velo was up where it was last year.  

Mariners Hitting

Reds Hitting


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Series Preview: Cleveland Indians Cross-Ohio Series - Lindor, Santana, and Salazar

Francisco Lindor.  Photo by Keith Allison
Having bid adieu to the Phillies for 2016, the Reds begin a strange cross-Ohio four-game series on Monday.  They will play the first two games in Cleveland, and then drive down I-71 to conclude the series with a pair of games in Cincinnati.  It's an interesting format that makes the series seem like its own little event.  I'm a fan.

The Indians have underperformed for the last several years.  Their last playoff appearance was 2013, despite perennially receiving rave reviews in the preseasons.  This year is no different, with many projection systems picking the Indians to win, or at least be within spitting distance of the AL Central crown.  In large part, these ratings are driven by their outstanding pitching staff, which is anchored by Corey Kluber, who is backed by Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, along with a solid cast of supporting actors.  While Carrasco is currently on the shelf with a hamstring injury, their rotation, as a whole, has performed as expected so far.  The thing you'll also hear about them is how much better their fielding got in the second half last year.  Their UZR, at least, confirms this: they've been outstanding across the diamond.  In contrast, their offense has struggled a bit without Michael Brantley, and their bullpen hasn't been catching the world afire.  Nevertheless, despite the .500 record, they are still given a 62% chance at making the playoffs this year.  They're currently 5 games behind the White Sox, which, to me, look like an inferior team.

Position Players

This squad isn't quite up to full strength.  The superb Michael Brantley returned sooner than expected from injury, but compiled only 39 AB's before going back on the DL with shoulder inflammation.  They are also minus Lonnie Chisenhall, at least for the moment, who is on bereavement leave.  For the time being, however, they are running out former Red Marlon Byrd and Rajai Davis, a guy that I'm honestly surprised has not yet been a Redleg given the front office's attraction to speedy outfielders.  Jose Ramirez was previously a shortstop, but has been hitting remarkably well while roaming about the outfield.  His power is entirely doubles-based, but he makes excellent contact and, for now at least, is getting plenty of hits to fall in.

This will be my first time watching Francisco Lindor.  While he might not have the power of Carlos Correa, Lindor is already in the conversation for best shortstop in the American League.  That's driven by a good, contact-based approached, and excellent fielding.  I'm a big fan of several of the Indians' other players.  Carlos Santana isn't catching much these days, but he is one of those rare players who walks as often as he strikes out--and yet still has good power that makes him a fit in the heart of the order.  The Indians often hit him leadoff, which I love.  Yan Gomes is also a favorite; he's had a miserable season at the plate so far, but in the past has shown that he can hit, and usually is rated as excellent via the framing metrics.  Mike Napoli is looking like a good pick-up.  He offers a nice dose of right-handed power in the middle of the order, and didn't cost a ton to sign.

I'm kind of surprised to see Tucker Barnhart's fielding rated as negative at this point in the season.  Baseball Prospectus's framing metric, which is the best I know of, rates him as 6th-worst in the major leagues right now at -3 runs.  He's with some good catchers on that list, though; Salvador Perez is just one spot ahead of him.  Things can change.  Nevertheless, I have noticed that Tucker's arm hasn't seemed to have a lot of zip on it at times, and he's not always as mobile as I'd hoped when blocking pitches.  Of course, his pitchers might have something to do with the number of wild pitches he's allowed.  I'm probably just expecting too much of him, but I'd really like him to be a brilliant defensive catcher.  He's in line for a lot of playing time, but hopefully he won't get over-used.  I'd like to see him get a rest in day games, for example, and that hasn't always been happening.

Joey Votto didn't have a great series against Philadelphia, but he has himself almost back up to a league-average wRC+.  His BABIP is still low, and he still looks awkward at times, but he's hitting with a lot more power now than he did earlier in the season.  I don't know what to say about Jay Bruce's ever-declining UZR, but I reject it.  He might have missed a ball or two early on, and whiffed on that double today, but he still looks at least very solid to me in right field.

Probable Starters

The Reds will face an interesting set of pitchers in this series.  Danny Salazar has been pretty awesome.  He walks a lot of batters, but he's been inducing a ton of ground balls while striking just about everyone else out.  Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin have yielded the exact same peripherals thus far, but with wildly different outcomes.  Anderson throws 94 mph, while Tomlin is a classic soft-tosser...who relies on his fastball more than any other starter in this series.  And finally, to cap off the series, we have the excellent Corey Kluber, who does everything right.


Cody Allen was superb last year.  This year, he's declined in velocity, and with that decline has come a drop in strikeouts and a huge increase in his walk rate.  He's been pretty shaky thus far, but is still being placed in high-leverage situations.  Bryan Shaw has also struggled.  Fortunately, the Indians have gotten decent outcomes out of the rest of their pen.  Probably the most dominant has been Joba Chamberlain, who has been superb in his first year with Cleveland.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Pittsburgh Pirates Series Preview: Polanco, Kang, and Nicasio

Gregory Polanco has a new extension, and looks like a new hitter.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Satriale, WEBN-TV

After a pair of frustrating losses to split the series with the Brewers, the Pirates come to town on Monday for a three-game series.  The Pirates had an amazing run last season, despite the quick exit from the playoffs, and did only minor remodeling in the offseason.  The biggest loss was unquestionably A.J. Burnett out of their rotation, but they shored up that spot with Jon Niese, and replaced Pedro Alvarez at first base with one of my favorite low-key signings of the offseason in John Jaso.

Despite only a tepid early-season performance from Andrew McCutchen, the Pirate offense has been spectacular thus far, and their fielding (by UZR, anyway) has been top-drawer.  But their pitching has struggled, particularly in their bullpen, and it's kept them well shy of the ridiculous pace the Cubs have established in the NL Central.  They'll have a long road to climb over the rest of the season if they're going to avoid another wild card game.  Even as-is, they have a one in three chance of making the playoffs at all.  It's early, but this is a team that will have to improve on the run-prevention side of things if they want to repeat last year's success.

With the Reds thoroughly out of it, and given my fandom of their front office, I'll be cheering for the Pirates to win this year...anytime they don't play the Reds, of course.

Position Players

Brandon Phillips had himself a monstrous series against the Brewers, and launched himself from a 75 wRC+ mid-last week to the second-best tally on the team.  I question how many more times he can go down on his back knee to successfully jerk a ball over the fence, but it was fun to see him smashing the ball around.  Adam Duvall also got himself north of the average mark thanks to a series of home runs.  He doesn't walk much, strikes out a lot, and is the most pull-oriented Reds hitter right now, but he has nevertheless been a pleasant surprise.

The Reds demoted Scott Schebler today and replaced him with another lefty-hitting outfielder in Kyle Waldrop.  I'd guess a big part of the reason was to get Schebler some PA's.  The plan coming into the season was to platoon him with Duvall in left field, but that plan quickly faded as Duvall carried his hot spring over into a full-time role.  Waldrop, prior to a miserable showing at AAA Louisville last year, had been on the prospect radar.  His performance had usually exceeded scouts' assessments of his future, and so perhaps his struggles were foretold.  This year, while his hitting line isn't particularly inspiring (0.228/0.294/0.380), it's good for a 98 wRC+.  Offense must be hard to come by in the International League thus far. Waldrop offers power potential, but not much else.  I'd expect him to be used primarily as a pinch hitter against righties.  I certainly hope he won't play anywhere but a corner.

The Pirates' offense is off to one heck of a start to the season.  Remember all the hoopla about the Royals and their contact-oriented offense last year?  The Pirates don't strike out either.  Well, Andrew McCutchen does, but he's awesome so who cares?  They have some free swingers on the squad as well in Josh Harrison and Starling Marte, but both guys have power and defensive virtues (Harrison is versatile, Marte is a center fielder playing in the Pirates' deep corner).

Jung-Ho Kang just returned from the DL after his slide-induced injury last season, but even while he was away the Pirates got a nice performance from veteran David Freese.  Now, they've got Freese's bat playing off the bench, and platooning with John Jaso at first base against lefties.  Word is that Kang will be worked back slowly, so we may still see Freese start a game at third base this week.

The decision to sign Gregory Polanco to an extension is looking pretty good in the early-goings.  While his defense and baserunning allowed him to turn in a good first season in 2015, he's been smoking hot this year as their #3 hitter.  I haven't looked at his ground-ball splits, but he also looks like a prime candidate to shift against given his pull rates.  McCutchen has been moved up to the #2-slot in the Pirates' ongoing efforts to optimize their team at the margins using a data-driven approach.  Sigh.

Probable Starters

Jon Niese seemed like a revelation pitching out of the Mets bullpen last season, but thus far he hasn't looked particularly sharp back in a starting role.  He does get ground balls, per the Pirates' philosophy, but he hasn't been able to do a lot else so far.

Juan Nicasio really looks to have turned his career around (based on the early small sample).  Coming up in the Rockies system, Nicasio wasn't a top-tier prospect, but he boasted excellent strikeout numbers and good velocity.  I've always liked him, and was happy to hear he'd won a spot in the Pirates rotation out of spring training.  He's been pitching out of his mind thus far.

Two starts in, Tim Adleman certainly is showing some warning signs.  The .185 BABIP.  The 98% LOB%.  But despite all that, his xFIP is the second-best of any Reds starter this year.  Keep doing that weird delivery, Tim.  I'll be cheering for it to keep working.


J.C. Ramirez is now the only Reds releiver to have a better-than-average xFIP.  xFIP doesn't know he gave up that homer, of course, but it's been good to see him striking guys out and pumping in the heat.  Looks to me like a keeper, as far as middle relievers go anyway.

The Pirates usually have an outstanding pen, but they've struggled in the early season.  Tony Watson and Arquimedes Caminero just haven't been anything like their typical selves, and Jared Hughes has barely pitched.  Neftali Feliz is another one of their reclamation projects, and looks like a smart signing thus far.  He's been dealing, and I was shocked to see that he's still just 28 years old.

Rain is in the forecast each of the next three days in Cincinnati, but the weather looks to be warm.  Take some steamy nights (for May!), two struggling pitching staffs, and an explosive Pirates offense, and you have a recipe for some high-scoring games at Great American Ballpark.  Go Reds!

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Brewers Series Preview

My classes are over and the Brewers are coming to town!  It's the battle for last in the NL Central!

In the race for badness, the Reds are definitely looking like the team that is best at being the worst.  The Reds' offense has been abysmal to the Brewers only just kinda ok performance.  The Reds starters have posted a better ERA thus far, but they've matched the Brewers in badness according to peripherals.  And their bullpen has the clear lead in suckitude by both runs allowed and DIPS-based estimators.

The two teams' rest-of-season projections are both very close, with FanGraphs projecting only slightly fewer wins over the rest of the year.  That, plus the slightly better Brewers record, has the Reds at a very solidly bad 0.0% playoff odds, while the Brewers have a still-almost hopeful 0.2%.

So, yes, Reds all the way at being bad!

Position Players

Zack Cozart is making himself into quite a nice trade chip.  Yes, his BABIP is inflating his numbers, and he never will enjoy taking a walk, but he's showing good power and no apparent ill-effects from his surgically-reconstructed knee.  His fielding has looked solid on TV, and his too-early-to-be-worth-much UZR is in the positives, as is his base running metric.  He's been a legitimate catalyst at the top of the Reds lineup thus far, and over the past two years he has hit .283/.321/.480 in almost 300 PA's (not including yesterday's home run!).  If he's still a plus defender, and it looks like he is, that's quite a nice player.  A lot of contenders would be thrilled to have something approximating him at shortstop, and I hope they'll pay accordingly.

This is still a pretty nice offense.  Scooter Gennett is out with an oblique injury, and Aaron Hill has been a black hole thus far at third.  Nevertheless, everyone else has looked pretty good at the plate.  Chris Carter was getting a lot of attention from the statcast guys at the start of April, and he's been thumping the ball thus far just like so many thought he would.  I don't know if he'll keep this up, but the Brewers have to be thrilled at the prospect that he might have figured out how to hit at the major league level.  Ryan Braun is hitting like old times, and Jonathan Lucroy has been doing his thing.

Probable Starters

Chase Anderson was one of the key acquisitions of the Jean Segura trade this past offseason, and he was expected to step into the rotation as a steady #3-#4 starter.  He's not quite been that thus far, though he's been a heck of a lot better than the giant, steaming pile of suck that has been Alfredo Simon.

Tim Adleman had a magical day in his last start.  Let's just assume that he'll continue to strike out 27% of the opposition while avoiding walks.

I've been pretty happy with Brandon Finnegan thus far.  But I'm surprised, having just been watching his starts and not focusing on numbers so much, that his strikeouts are so low...and his walks so high.  His change-up has looked good to me.

John Lamb was my offseason mancrush.  But his velocity was not where it was last season during his debut start, and I thought his curveball looked like it had far less bite.  Maybe he'll be better next time.


Not much to say here!

So far, anyway, this has been a solid pen for the Brew Crew.  Tyler Thornburg has been striking everybody out, and Jeremy Jeffress gets nothing but ground balls, so that's a good start.  The rest haven't been quite so impressive, but it's all small sample size land.  Chris Capuano is the only lefty in the pen, so the Reds lefties don't have a lot to fear in late innings.

So, we have two teams in a transition period.  One is run by David Stern, an up-and-coming analytics-oriented GM who heralds from last year's great triumph of sabermetrics.  And the Reds are run by Walt and Dick.  It'll be interesting to see how all of that goes for the two teams in the coming years.

By way of acknowledgements, this post is brought to you by Rogue Sriracha Hot Stout Beer.  It is better with food than by itself, and I mostly drank it alone.