January 6, 2017

The Cubs and their prolific defense

by Daniel Conmy

As a front office there is a certain way you want to construct your team. The easiest way to benefit is to create a team that plays better at home. With half your games at home, you give yourself a decent advantage to win all those games depending on the pitchers and hitters drafted, signed, and traded to your team. Some of these philosophies are very easily recognizable; groundball pitchers, pull hitters, and defensive wizards.

We saw the Kansas City Royals constantly discussed as a contact heavy team against a strikeout heavy pitching staff in the 2015 World Series. Was this lineup composed in a certain way to give the Royals the best chance in the playoffs? Did it just so happen that this was the case? More and more front offices are leaving less to chance and improve their club with a certain philosophy. With all that stated, did any team in 2016 play towards their home ballpark better than the rest of the pack?

The team that did better than the rest was the Chicago Cubs, but it came from a defensive standpoint.

Above are three defensive values - UZR, UZR/150, and Def - that show the superiority of the Cubs defense. The San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals are second and third in this category. I do want to stress this is not really a specialty of a home ballpark, but the importance of good defense should be stressed at all times given the data that is now readily available to the public and privately to teams.

There were only a few defenders that graded out in the negative UZR category, which means that there were no real weak links on this team defensively. While the Cubs had and still have the starpower, we see a shift in the rising of the tides. Teams are more importantly filling the back end of their 25-man roster with guys who will at least grade out to be average. 

If you are not at least a league average player on a team, you will soon find your way of a major league roster. It seems like the easiest way to add value to your team is with defensive values. Of course, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series and they were led by their stellar defense. Yes, the bats and pitching were great, but the pitching staff outperformed their FIP by .62. Some of that performance can be traced back to the weak contact given up by Kyle Hendricks, but the Cubs defense constantly, as a unit, performed as the best defense in the league.

December 30, 2016

Giancarlo Stanton's contract kerfuffle

by Daniel Conmy

Listening to Effectively Wild has become routine in many baseball fan's lives. Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh banter back and forth about the hypothetical often and leave questions lingering during their show. In episode 998, Miller brought up Giancarlo Stanton's enormous contract  a 13-year/$325 million pact between him and the Miami Marlins. The breakdown of the contract looks like this:

Thanks to Spotrac, we see the breakdown in age, year, and salary. This contract does include and opt-out clause after the 2020 season. Per Fangraphs, Stanton has accumulated $196.7 million of worth since he entered the league in 2010. $44.7 million of that worth has come during the current contract. That's quite a bargain when you look at the relative contract value for 2015 and 2016. In 2017 there is an uptick in salary, but Stanton, based on Steamer, is projected to amass a 4.6 WAR. Yes, projections are just that and the real world can vary much more than a prediction. If Stanton stays in good health, the contract looks like surplus value for the Miami Marlins.

This assumption relies on the lower annual value years from the contract. At $8 million per one WAR Stanton has time, while in his supposed prime, to gather surplus value that might be lost in the later years of his contract. But, this is the issue posed by Sam Miller. The projections expect a relative move back to all-star height, but will Stanton move his value you back up to previous marks?

A larger than life  literally  superstar struggled immensely at the plate last season and there aren't any statistics that are extremely different from Stanton's career averages. One discernible difference is the way pitchers have attacked Stanton. A rise in sliders and curveballs led to diminished value at the plate for Stanton. 23.7 percent of pitches thrown to Stanton were sliders, compared to 19.6 percent through all seven seasons. For curveballs, Stanton saw an increase from 7.5 percent in 2015 to 9.6 percent in 2016  still below the average 10.4 percent in his career.

The difference in attack from pitchers is one that is backed by the numbers. Stanton's career runs above average per 100 pitches against sliders is -0.10. That means Stanton adds slightly below average value against sliders. Every other pitcher, except splitfingers, Stanton has positive value.

In baseball, pitchers and hitters are constantly adjusting to have a slight edge. Pitchers found a weakness in Stanton and exploited it by throwing more sliders. Stanton, if he wants to be revered in the city of Miami as the larger than life superstar, has to make the adjustments to either lay off the low and away slider or somehow do damage on that pitch. 

It's always difficult to justify the large cost in years and dollar amount for a superstar and we already are questioning the likelihood that Stanton will make good on his side of the contract. The first step begins with a better approach on breaking balls.

December 12, 2016

Market explosion for relievers

by Daniel Conmy

In the postseason, Andrew Miller was used in a creative role by Terry Francona. Miller, closer by trade, was openly used in a variety of innings not named the ninth inning. The Cleveland Baseball Team eventually lost to the Chicago Cubs in the seventh game of the World Series, but the creativity of Miller's usage led to wonder if other relievers can hold the same role.

There are two things to look into before we dive into Miller and the eventual three free agent reliever signings.

First, Zach Britton was not used in a one-game playoff by Buck Showalter. That led to an ungodly amount of criticism of not using your best reliever at the most important part of your season. This trigger sent of the baseball community into an outrage. Meanwhile, Miller was being used in a role not in the ninth inning since the trade from the New York Yankees to Cleveland. Terry Francona molded Miller into this role, but Miller also bought into the idea. In a piece written by the New York Times Miller stated his trust in his manager:
"The fact that I came in the fifth is not a big deal," Miller said. "We have a lot of trust in whoever's out there. Tito [Francona] puts guys in good situations. We trust the plan and it's gonna work out."
Miller already received his payday -- something many relievers never see -- and Cody Allen assumed the closer's role. Miller was used as a fireman -- coming in to douse an upcoming rally. This reasoning was critiqued by the baseball community, but the most important constituents are the relievers that just received their enormous paychecks.

Mark Melancon, Aroldis Chapman, and Kenley Jansen all received four- or five-year contracts and below are the contract values:

Name Team Years Contract (Millions)
Mark Melancon San Francisco Giants 4 $62
Aroldis Chapman New York Yankees 5 $86
Kenley Jansen Los Angeles Dodgers 5 $80

Big pay days, right? No one can argue that this is the most a reliever has received as payment since Jonathan Papelbon. The first question that comes to my mind and the mind of many fans is -- will they be worth it?

Everyone speculates wildly about contracts and their worth before players play out their finals days in said deal, instead, let's look into why these players were given large sums of money for such a minuscule amount of time at their position. 

Wins above replacement (WAR) discredits relievers and do not give them their due, therefore, we looked into win probability added (WPA). While WAR is an accumulation statistic, WPA takes context into consideration. This is vital when discussing relievers worth. Relievers are not used in non-consequential situations -- they are deployed when outs are critical. 

Over a 162-game season the results are moot, but the reasoning for this outbreak in money for relievers comes from the postseason. 29 teams saw as Miller dazzled in multiple innings every outing and front offices took note of the competitive reliever market. 

All teams that signed these relievers -- Giants, Yankees, Dodgers -- are likely playoff contenders for the years of each contract. They are not being paid for the saves they collect throughout the regular season, their worth lies solely on their ability to perform where the WPA is highest. Chapman and Jansen were used in that role shortly in their postseason stints, but will it last? How long can relievers go in the postseason before their arsenal is lackluster? We've yet to cross that threshold and it is likely differs from pitcher to pitcher and how each team deploys those pitchers.

Ironically, Chapman blew his opportunity in game seven of the World Series when he allowed a game-tying home run to Rajai Davis. In such small samples -- like one or two innings performances -- pitchers will not deliver the results that are expected. We moved away from the fireman role that Miller is revitalizing, but where is the breaking point when pitchers are less than stellar? Will pitchers be used in more creative roles during the regular season?

These questions and more will be answered in the upcoming 2017 season. Front offices offered plenty of money for necessary arms, but we've seen a competitive Tampa Bay Rays teams in the late 2000's by having players on rookie contracts perform well. The signing of Melancon, Chapman, and Jansen brings less volatility into the back end of each bullpen, but relievers are generally unreliable. 

All these players will bring a positive worth to their team, but the lack of innings needs to be made up in high WPA numbers throughout the length of these contracts.

September 21, 2016

Playoffs be damned

by Daniel Conmy

There is an unspoken irony in American sport that needs to be changed. We wipe out the importance of the regular season in mostly every sport for a wild, random setting called the playoffs. As the baseball playoffs are approaching, it is important to remind everyone that five months of baseball is being thrown out for randomization and for teams, who are not as good as others, to have a chance at the only meaningful accolade in the sport. Some of these teams include the New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, and San Francisco Giants.

Economically speaking, it would be idiotic to not have the playoffs. Given the extra revenue from the home games in the playoffs, you could not persuade owners to sign off on this idea. Instead, we are arguing that the not playoff system finds the true champion of the sport. It is not fair to the 2001 Seattle Mariners to say they were not a “playoff” team. They won 116 games in the modern era (Even the 2016 Chicago Cubs, who are arguably a better team, won’t be close to that mark) and were taken out by the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series (ALCS) in five games.

Shouldn’t the Mariners be celebrated for more than just a team that had the most wins in a season and blew it in the playoffs?

We will return to that questions, but let’s go across the pond and look at how English Premier League Soccer is run. In the Premier League, you play 38 games, twice against every opponent. The winner of the Premier League is based on whoever has the most points at the end of the season. A win is worth three points and a tie is worth one point. Now, we don’t have ties in baseball, we just play extra innings.

There are some complications to this idea and the first being scheduling and set up of the leagues. First, the schedule would have to reflect what is done in the premier league season: the same amount of games against every team. By wiping out the playoffs, this would create the opportunity to play more games in October. Every team would play six games (three at home and three away) against every team. This would create a 174-game schedule and six more home games for every team, which could possibly raise the revenue league wide.

Another obstacle to the Premier League model is the lack of excitement. The Chicago Cubs are far and away the best team in baseball this year. The mix of superb defense and young superstars has propelled them to eight more wins than the next closest team. There will be years where the excitement at the end of the year does not match the excitement that could be created in the playoff atmosphere. I agree with that concern, but most years, the races are a lot closer than the ones we are seeing in the present. In 2015 and 2014 the team with the most wins only had two more than the those chasing. Also, in 2013 the Red Sox and Cardinals had identical records at 97-65. There will be no co-champions in this model, either.

In the case of a tie at the top of the league, there should be a seven-game series. The reasoning for this is that the teams with the most wins are equal opponents and the randomness and fluctuation should not matter given their level of play. Wouldn’t that bring just as much excitement to the season?

I’m sure many of you are cautious or downright disagree with this stance, but it does not seem correct to state that the 2001 Mariners needed an “ace” and that’s why they did poorly in the playoffs. The system I have proposed, following the Premier League’s model, is a fairer system. Yes, there is randomness that occurs throughout a season, but over the entire season you have to sustain a high level of play and that high level of play should be rewarded.

Last year in the Premier League, Leicester City, a cinderella story, sustained the high level of play for all 38 matches and were rewarded the Premier League Championship. If the Premier League followed the example of Major League Baseball (MLB) playoffs, there is no way to say they would make it past the first round. Teams should not have to prove their worth over again for the sake of the spectacle. It seems utterly ludicrous that we wipe away important games because the playoffs are more meaningful. Instead, put meaning back into the full, newly created, 174-game season and watch as the drama will continue to unfold in a new, exciting way. 

September 6, 2016

Brian Dozier has pull power

by Daniel Conmy

We are lucky enough to get the day off on Labor Day, but baseball players are hard at work attempting to push their teams into the playoffs. Other teams are not as fortunate to be in a playoff race. They still play baseball, though, and sometimes it is impressive. Brian Dozier is one of those people we don't pay enough attention to. Before play on Monday, Dozier accumulated 35 home runs and a 5.3 WAR. Those are incredible numbers, so let's look into how Dozier's accomplishments, which are rare for second basemen.

All Brian Dozier does is pull the baseball, but once in a blue moon, he hits one to right field. That one time, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote about Dozier's only opposite field home run last year. It was a look at a feat that hasn't been accomplished by the slugging second baseman. To give some perspective on how rare that is, here is a graph of Dozier's home runs this year:

This graphic displays home runs before play on Monday afternoon, where Dozier deposited three more home runs to left and left-center field. There are only two balls right of center field this year. His total has climbed to 38 home runs on the year, a career high, and is approaching the highest amount ever by a second basemen. Davey Johnson in 1973 leads all second basemen with 43 home runs in a single season. With a little under a month left, it is not far-fetched to think that Dozier can make it to 43.

In August, Dozier led the league with 13 home runs and has continued his torrid pace with six home runs already in September. What does Dozier do so well or why do pitchers continue to throw pitches in a zone where Dozier can lift them over the fence? One thing that Dozier has done incredibly well is not miss his pitch.

Looking at his pull percentage on FanGraphs, Dozier has not done anything differently from 2014 on. In 2014, Dozier’s philosophy changed from hitting balls all around the field to hitting over 50 percent of the balls to the pull side. What is being done more successfully is how hard he is hitting the ball. Dozier’s hard hit percentage from 2014 to 2016 has risen by seven percentage points. Since there is a change in his hard hit balls, his home run total has increased as well. It may not be perfect correlation because there are always other factors, but you can assume that the harder you hit the ball, the farther it will go.

Monday, Dozier battled against Ian Kennedy in a 10 pitch at-bat, which ended with a home run. Here are the pitches from that at-bat:

This graph, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, shows that Dozier battled off pitches that he was not able to do damage with. From the graph, you can look at how Dozier only swung at pitches in the zone and was able to lay off of pitches outside the zone, where he could do no damage. Then, Kennedy made a mistake over the middle of the plate:

What we see in the swing above is vintage Dozier -- a pitch middle or a little outside and the Minnesota Twins second basemen decides to be short and quick to the ball. Given Dozier's shorter stature, he does nothing more than barrel the ball. This year is shaping up to be a career year for the 29-year-old, who will likely enter a decline over the next couple years.

While the Twins do not have much to play for in these days of September, Dozier has a legitimate chance to break the all-time home run record for second basemen. We've seen many players decide to only pull the ball this year and focus on hitting home runs. Brian Dozier is one player that has thrived on this type of style and he is continually reaping the rewards, including his first three home run game on Labor Day.

July 27, 2016

Domestic violence and the forgiveness of athletes

by Daniel Conmy

This is a topic that does not get talked about often enough in sports circles. There's probably a rationalization by fans to not talk about domestic violence, but it needs to be in the forefront of conversation. Why? Because we are much more than just fans of a game that has a ball thrown around or hit out of a park. We, as consumer of sport, are much more than our fandom and the players are much more than entertainers.

I cannot stress enough that I have never been in a situation where domestic violence has directly affected me. These opinions are my own and they do not represent any one else's view. I do not have all the information on all the incidents I have or will preface, but what I will look into is the reaction from fans and teams. With that said, let's talk about the issues with athletes and domestic violence.

Aroldis Chapman, was accused of choking his girlfriend and firing eight shots in her general vicinity. Later, no criminal charges were filed. Chapman was suspended by Major League Baseball for 30 games for this incident. From the baseball side of things, Chapman's value was lowered given the suspension, but this is much more than a case of value being lower.

Chapman threw a scoreless, hitless inning for the Chicago Cubs in his first appearance for his new team. Everyone was standing and cheering as they saw the radar light up with numbers above 100. It was a spectacle for baseball fans. No one else consistently throws over 100 mph. Kids were locked in, the crowd reacted with a collective gasp when he hit over 100 on the radar gun. They cheered and the Cubs won the game after the 1-2-3 inning. The fans, who haven't seen a World Series since 1908, went into applause because their team won another game, putting them closer to a playoff spot. In the middle of that was a man who was recently accused of domestic violence.

While I've thought about this at length in discussions with friends, it was never something I thought I could speak on with fervor, but discussion, of any kind, is what is going to make this change. What sparked this internal, and now external, discussion of this topic was highlighted with a tweet by Katie Nolan:

The response is not necessary to look into. What is important is what Nolan states. We look past domestic violence disputes. The amount of times I have seen people calling these females horrific names, stating that this is a "money grab" is atrocious. And we, as a society, have the audacity to put these figures back into the public eye without even bringing it up. Recently, more sports writers are tackling the issues of domestic violence, which is a long awaited step that needed to happen since the start of sports journalism. That's all well and good, but Chapman was suspended for 30 games and then he gets to be back on top of his world. That is not fair or correct. Some can make an argument where the legal system did its diligence and found that nothing happened. You can agree with that sentiment or you can look at the power dynamics in these cases.

It is well known that having a good lawyer or lawyers can get you a better deal or acquitted of any wrongdoing. They are powerful people because of their money and if they get in trouble, they have the financial capability to wiggle around any true punishment. What Chapman did was wrong there's no doubt, but some can argue that it never passed the "alleged" phase, so let's look at a more concrete case of domestic violence.

Jose Reyes, once member of the Colorado Rockies, was arrested in the offseason when Reyes had a physical altercation with his wife. Reyes was suspended until May 31, the equivalent of 52 games. The Rockies made a wise decision and designated him for assignment, although they are on the hook for his $40 million left on his contract. It was a tough pill to swallow, but Colorado was an upstanding organization in this aspect of not tolerating that behavior from its players. The issue? Reyes signed with the big league team he came up with, the New York Mets. Over time, Reyes was back into playing shape and up in the big leagues. This man received a standing ovation. Yes, the fans of the Metropolitans applauded a man who beat his wife in the offseason came back in a time where they "needed" a shortstop like him. That's not to say other fans were upset and booed him, but the fact is this man is playing baseball again with no repercussions other than a slightly damaged public image. 

I hear often that these players "did their time" or they "deserve a second chance," but you can make the argument they do not deserve another chance. Depending on the severity of the violence, the accused can serve no jail time or up to four years of jail time. While I am not proposing that Chapman and Reyes deserved jail time, forfeiting of salary for the allotted amount of games suspended seems weak. 

Unfortunately, as a society, we are not as strict on athletes as we should be. There is a superiority complex that we instill. These athletes are larger than life. Some, like members of the Baylor football team, get help from those higher up to cover up some behavior that could get members of their team jailed for a long time. This is a culture issue in the United States. We do not properly teach these people, who are obviously very talented in some aspect, how to respect another human being. We create monsters that do not think that they can be touched because of their fame and money. It runs rampant on college campuses and most most members of these institutions look the other way because the person being accused might be making that school millions upon millions of dollars. We must be better. We cannot stand for letting those people get off for crimes that severely damage another physically or emotionally or both.

Major League Baseball did what they could, giving Reyes the largest suspension possible given the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Major League Baseball Player's Association. The fact is, these organizations are a business and they see the valuable asset that performs on the field, but sometimes do not think about the off field issues. What can be done by Major League Baseball organizations is a collective effort to not sign these players. The issue in the present day is your competitor might not have the same morals as you, and they not get a small PR hit, but the benefit of an all-star closer by overlooking the domestic violence incident. Major League Baseball is ahead of the National Football League with their handling of domestic violence, but it is not enough.

Athletes are sometimes immune to the consequences of the dreadful acts they commit. Some get cheered for the rest of their life. The domestic violence gets wiped to the side, the rape accusation gets silenced because an institution pays off the accuser. People point that it is a money grab, but you or I can never project on these victims. It is not our place to say what a victim is feeling or thinking. Be respectful of those in that situation and think before you start cheering for someone with a cloudy past just because they are on your favorite team.

Please, let's change and uphold everyone to a higher standard. 

July 25, 2016

Cubs acquire Chapman, future is still bright

by Daniel Conmy

Chicago saw a World Series victory in 2005, but that was on the South Side. This time around, the Cubs are going all in for the World Series. Tonight, the Chicago Cubs acquired Aroldis Chapman in a blockbuster deal close to the deadline. Sure, the price was steep, but the Cubs are in a precarious position.

As everyone knows, the Cubs have not won the World Series since 1908. Some call it the curse of the Bill Goat. Others still blame Bartman for something that wasn't his fault. Nevertheless, the Cubs know sadness and they might be on the verge of ending that sadness with the fantastic team Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer put together.

The Cubs are trading off future value since Gleyber Torres is the marquee prospect in the trade, but the Cubs time to win is now. Torres, is playing high-A ball in the Carolina League and the major league club has a wealth of infield ability. Along with Torres, the Cubs departed with Billy McKinney, Adam Warren, and a fourth player to be named later. Chicago's one weakness could lie within the middle relief, but they shifted that thinking after acquiring Mike Montgomery from the Seattle Mariners for Dan Vogelbach. To add to the bullpen depth, they have two shutdown closers with Hector Rondon and Chapman.

There's always been concern with the value from a midseason rental, but this move is not for the rest of the season. Given that the Cubs are likely going to keep pace to make it into the playoffs, this is for the playoffs where you can deploy your best relievers with more frequency, The extra days off for travel benefit the elite bullpens, just look at the Royals bullpen last year. The game is becoming an affair between bullpens and it's a wise decision to build up the best one for the playoffs. For example, Chapman threw 4.3 percent of the innings for the Cincinnati Reds in the 2013 season. That would be a foolish investment for the Cubs if he is only throwing that often in the postseason. Given Joe Maddon's forward thinking approach, that probably won't appear as an issue in the postseason.

Beyond Chapman's innings, this is a unique situation for a baseball team. If the Cubs won a World Series in the last few years, many would be calling this trade an overpay, and it still likely is. We have to throw all of that out the window when it comes to the Cubs. They are in a position to end the worst drought in all of American major sports. Taking a chance on one of the best, if not the best, reliever in the game is a no-brainer. Also, this one move does not damage the long term health of the major league roster.

Their farm system is a little weaker after the trade, but prospects have recently been overrated to an extreme. Everyone is looking for the next Mike Trout, but that likely won't exist for a while. To add to that, Chicago has a young, cheap, and controllable core. Yes, Jake Arrieta is up for arbitration starting next year and Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Ben Zobrist all signed healthy offseason contracts, not to mention Jason Heyward. The point being is, Kris Bryant is a young superstar that is filled with other young talent up the middle of the field. No, I did not forget about the all-star at first base in Anthony Rizzo. This is not an overpay for a longshot chance to make the playoffs and blow it up after this year. The Cubs have staying power for the next couple of years and management decided that most important value to receive is present value.

To add on, the price of relievers has gone up astronomically in the past seasons and it start with Craig Kimbrel and Ken Giles this offseason. Make no mistake, the price is steep, but the team to unload prospects is the Cubs.

People will always argue whether or not something is an overpayment,  but if the Cubs win the World Series, no one can argue with the trading of future value.