Archive for the ‘Chicago Cubs’ category

Why Major League Hitters Aren’t Beating the Shifts

July 11, 2018

Here’s a good article from Jerry Crasnick about why players who are routinely shifted against aren’t changing their approach to beat the shift.

What it comes down to, in my mind, is that today’s major league hitters are paid to hit the ball with power, and for left-handed hitters who are shifted against most, that means pulling the ball or driving the ball out to left center.  It’s easy to plug those holes with defensive shifts.

60 or 70 years ago, Ted Williams talked about hitting against the shifts played on him (there is truly nothing new under the sun.  Trivia question: which team invented the Williams Shift?)  Williams said that hitting against the shift never bothered him, because it meant that pitchers were trying to pitch him middle-in to get him to hit into the shift.  That meant pitchers were pitching into his power, with all-too-often predictable results: 521 career home runs despite missing nearly five years of his major league career to military service.

The shifts work better today because pitchers are better and defenders are better.  There will never again be another .344 career hitter unless umpires start calling a ten-inch tall, over the plate strike zone.  Still, an awful lot of home runs are being hit today because pitchers are pitching inside to power hitters to get them to hit into the shift.

I thought Daniel Murphy‘s comments were particularly telling because he rightly talks about the advantages to hitting for power in today’s game, but he’s dead wrong insofar as taking a free first base is not extremely valuable if the bases are empty or with a man on first with less then two outs.  Home run hitting works best when men have gotten on base first.  Earl Weaver, good pitching and defense and the three-run homer.

However, the guy the hits the home run makes a lot more money than the guy who gets on base first, all other factors being even.  That’s why Murphy overvalues power hitting over getting on base.

Ichiros will always beat the shift, but how much demand is there for the poor man’s Ichiro’s in today’s game.  (There will be future Ichiros, Tony Gwynns and Rod Carews, but they will need to play at that level.  How much demand is there in today’s game for the next Nori Aoki?

The very best players have the confidence and ability to try to take advantage of every opportunity the other team gives them.  Most major league players, however, want to maintain the swing and the approach that got them to the bigs in the first place.  Trying to hit the other way against the shift might screw up their power stroke, so why risk it?

Hitters are superstititious, and almost always associate slumps and hot streaks to what they are doing rather than to random probability over short stretches, which plays a much bigger role than most major league players realize at a conscious level.  That said, the players who have the most success don’t tend to get too high during hot stretches or too low during slumps.

Answer to trivia question:  the Chicago Cubs.  They started shifting Fred “Cy” Williams in the 1920’s when Williams played for the Phillies.  The Phillies played in the Baker Bowl, which was 280 feet down the right field line and only 300 feet to right center, only marginally counteracted by a very tall right field fence.

Phillies quickly learned the value of power hitting left-handed pull hitters, and the Cubs were the first team to respond accordingly.  Williams led the NL for the Cubs with 12 HRs in 1916 during the “Dead Ball” (dirty ball) Era, so the Cubs knew exactly what type of hitter Williams was.

 

Advertisements

Cubs Rotate Two Pitchers between Left Field and the Mound

June 14, 2018

In what has been a year full of innovation in the world of professional baseball, Cubs’ manager Joe Madden tried rotating pitchers between left field and the pitcher’s mound to get the platoon match-ups he wanted.  It’s an interesting idea, and it worked today, but I don’t think it will catch on.

Madden used righty Steve Cishek to face two right-handed hitters, and lefty Brian Duensing to face two left-handed hitters.  It worked this time, but it will only take one misplay by a pitcher turned left fielder on a ball hit by intention or accidentally to that field for the whole scheme to unravel.  The media will go crazy, and MLB managers typically lack the intestinal fortitude to buck the conventional wisdom as expressed by the large majority of sportswriters.

In a baseball world in which teams are carrying more and more pitchers in order to take advantage of match-ups, it certainly makes sense for athletic pitchers to learn how to defend left field.  However, even left field takes a lot of practice to play at the major league level, and, repeat after me, major league pitchers become and remain major league pitchers solely based on their abilities as pitchers.  Shohei Ohtani got to hit this year solely because it was part of the cost of signing him at a bargain basement price.

Unless every man in the bullpen can also learn to defend left-field, this tactic just won’t work, because managers are always going to go with the relief pitchers whom they think can get the next hitter or few hitters out.  This goes beyond actual match-ups into the question of which pitchers are sufficiently rested to be available so your bullpen doesn’t break down sooner rather than later.

It worked tonight, but I just do not see a trend here.

Best Hitting Pitchers in MLB Baseball 2018

May 12, 2018

Shohei Ohtani has more or less blown up any discussion of the best hitting pitchers in major league baseball.  He’s created a whole new paradigm for two-way players that hasn’t existed since the 1920’s and the only question is whether he is the start of a new trend or a one-off.

Highly touted prospect Brendan McKay is still on pace to be the next two-way player, although he’s still got a long way to go and his hitting abilities may not be able to keep up with his pitching abilities as he shoots up through the minors.  McKay is already ready for a promotion to A+ ball as a pitcher, and I wouldn’t hold him back to let his hitting catch up.  Still, major league pitchers who can also pinch hit should have value in today’s extreme relief pitching game.

1.  Shohei Ohtani.  I didn’t want to jump on the Ohtani as hitter bandwagon too soon, but I was convinced he’s for real (even if he doesn’t continue to bat .344 and produce over 1.000) when he beat the shift with a double down the left field line about a week ago.  Ohtani has what it takes to be a great major league hitter, although he’ll face his forced adjustments and his hitting performance will be affected by the many games in which he does not bat.  That said, the baby-faced 23 year old phenom can hit.

2.  Madison Bumgarner (.185 career batting average and .555 career OPS).  MadBum is still baseball’s best full-time pitcher hitter, but the bloom is off the rose compared to Ohtani, who will be DHing three times a week until major league baseball pitchers prove they can get him out.  A one-on-one Ohtani-MadBum home run derby at the All-Star Break would be an enormous amount of fun.  Madbum should be healthy by then.

3.  Zack Greinke  (.229 BA, .579 OPS).   One thing I’ve noticed about good hitting pitchers, writing about them as I have for some years now, is that there doesn’t seem to be a particularly strong correlation between a pitcher’s ability to hit and his having spent his minor league time or the vast majority of his MLB career with a National League team, even though this would presumably mean that the pitcher got a lot more opportunities to hit.  After spending his minor league career and his first seven major league seasons with the Royals, Greinke established himself as a fine hitter by his second National League season.

If I had to guess, I would say that the ability to hit the fastball (and lay off breaking pitches) is probably the most important factor in a pitcher’s ability to hit.  Pitchers hate to walk the opposing pitcher, so any time the pitcher-as-hitter is ahead in the count, fastballs for strikes are likely to follow.

The fact that the Diamondbacks are apparently not willing to give Greinke even half a dozen opportunities to pinch hit each season is a missed opportunity.

4.  Yovani Gallardo (.229, .564).  Gallardo’s career as a major league pitcher may be over, but he sure could hit.

5. Adam Wainwright (.199 BA, .529 OPS).  Another player whose major league pitching career is winding down, but with well over 500 career at-bats, Wainwright has well proven his abilities as a hitting pitcher.

6.  Noah Syndergaard (.181 BA, .561 OPS).  A poor start to the 2018 season has brought Syndergaard’s batting average below the Mendoza Line, but he has power and will take a walk.

7.  Daniel Hudson (.226, .567).  Since coming back from an arm injury as a major league relief pitcher, Hudson has had only one plate appearance since 2012, but he could hit.

8.   Mike Leake (.200, .511).  Mike Leake hasn’t had a plate appearance yet this year, as he is now an American League pitcher.  He hit a ton his first three seasons with the Reds, but hasn’t done much with the bat since.

9.  Tyler Chatwood (.214, .485) and Tyson Ross (.199, .476).  As I point out every year, the best hitting major league pitchers get pretty bad pretty fast.

Honorable MentionsCC Sabathia (.212, .539)  CC hasn’t had a hit since 2010, but he could hit when he had the opportunity to bat more than three or four times a season.  Travis Wood (.185, .537).  Wood’s major league career appears over.

Young Hitting Pitchers to Watch.  Michael Lorenzen (.226, .618).  A shoulder injury has prevented Lorenzen from pitching or hitting so far in 2018.  Ty Blach (.194, .505) hit as a rookie in 2017 but is off to a terrible start with the bat in 2018.  Ben Lively (.182, .545) still has to prove he can be a major league starter.

Texas Rangers Claim Tommy Joseph off Waivers and CTE

March 20, 2018

The Rangers claimed former SF Giants prospect Tommy Joseph off waivers today from the Phillies.  I had wondered whether another team would claim him or wait until he passed through waivers when he would have likely elected free agency as a veteran major league player.

Joseph was originally the Giants’ second round pick (55th overall) in 2009.  He was extremely promising as a catcher on both sides of the ball, but was eventually quite literally knocked out of the position by concussions.

I’m predicting that we start to hear about more former major league baseball catchers developing CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in the not too distant future.  Ryan Freel is still the only former MLBer diagnosed after death with CTE that I am aware of, but with many more catchers’ careers ending now because of concussions (pitchers throw harder and batters swing harder than ever before), it’s just a matter of time.  More on this thought later.

Back to Joseph — Tommy hit well enough that he was able to convert to 1B and reach the majors solely on his abilities as a hitter.  He was good in his 2016 rookie season, posting an .813 OPS in 347 major league plate appearances.

In 2017, Tommy Joseph had his sophomore jinx season.  He still hit with power (22 HRs), but his .721 OPS in 533 plate appearances with an ugly .289 on-base percentage isn’t going to cut it anywhere as a 1Bman.

Joseph is an old 26 in 2018 (he turns 27 on July 16th and he looks older than 26 in his baseball reference photo), but any kind of 26 is good for a righted-hitter with power who already has almost 900 career plate appearances.  He seemed to me like he was an obvious candidate for an American League team that could use a better right-handed hitter with power on the bench, and I feel gratified that at least one AL team agreed with me.

The Rangers are clearly that team.  Joseph shouldn’t play first base in any more games than are needed to rest Joey Gallo, who is a younger, better version of Tommy Joseph.  However, Gallo is a lefty swinger and so is 35-year old DH Shin-soo Choo, so there’s an obvious fit for Joseph.  Choo isn’t likely to play 149 games as he did last year, and he may well continue to spend time in the corner outfield positions as needed.  Joseph is also insurance if either Gallo or Choo gets hurt.

The one thing standing Joseph’s way is that he hasn’t had much of a platoon split in his MLB career.  He has a career .781 OPS against lefties and a .748 OPS against righties.  He better improve his hitting against lefties in 2018 if he wants to re-establish himself as a full-time major leaguer going forward, because right now his role is as right-handed power bat off the bench.

Back to CTE in a roundabout way — earlier today I happened to look up catchers who hold the records for most games caught in a season.  Randy Hundley is still the only MLB player to have caught more than 155 games in a season when he played a whooping 160 games behind the dish in 1968.

Playing 150 games a season as a catcher has been accomplished only 27 times in MLB history.  The first such iron man was George Gibson for the World Champion 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates.  He caught at least 140 games in each of 1908 and 1910, and then the injuries set in as he had also reached the age of 30.

There are only two eras in major league history when catching a 150 games in a season wasn’t rare — the expansion era generation from 1962-1983 (17 such seasons) and the last two years of World War II 1944-1945 (four times).  In the expansion era more games were played in a season and catching talent was thinly spread.  In the late War years, there was a real lack of major league caliber catchers, even at the lower wartime level of play, such that some of the good ones who were available had to work double duty.

I would guess that in the days of the old Pacific Coast League when seasons were routinely 180 to 200 a season, it wasn’t rare for a catcher to catch 150 games in a season.  However, two of the greatest catchers in PCL history, Billy Raimondi and Truck Hannah, appear to have accomplished the feat a total of only three times between them during their combined 37 PCL seasons.  Of course, the fact that they weren’t overworked may be part of why they had such long professional careers.

78 times has a catcher caught at least 145 games in a major league season.  Here is a list of the only eight catchers (by my count) who wore the tools of ignorance that many times in three or more different seasons: (5 times) Jim Sundberg, Jason Kendall; (4) Randy Hundley, Gary Carter; and (3) Yogi Berra, Bob Boone, Jody Davis and Tony Pena.  Needless to say, most of these seasons happened early in these catchers’ careers.

My point, I guess, is that there are a lot of retired catchers who caught a whole of games in their major league (and professional) careers who are reaching the age when we should start to hear more about CTE in former major league catchers.

Philadelphia Phillies To Sign Jake Arrieta for Three Years at $75 Million

March 12, 2018

The Phillies and Jake Arrieta have reportedly reached a deal that guarantees Arrieta $75 million over three seasons.  This is perhaps the contract for Arrieta that could have been predicted much earlier this off-season, as teams showed a strong preference for shelling out big bucks but for fewer seasons during the first half of this free agency period.  Arrietta receives well less than expected, but he certainly didn’t take a beating like Mike Moustakas.

Aside from the term and the guarantee, Arietta’s contract is interesting and full of the kind of crafty, creative terms we’ve come to expect from Steve Boras.  The deal is heavily front loaded, with Arietta receiving $30M in 2018, $25M in 2019 and $20M in 2020.  More evidence of many teams’ new preference for paying players the most when they reasonably predict the player’s performance value will be highest and paying less for the anticipated decline seasons.  This makes budgeting in future seasons easier, but loses the time value of money of the traditional back-loaded multi-year deals.

After two seasons, Arrieta has an opt-out, except that the Phils can void the opt-out by guaranteeing two additional years (2021-2022) at $20 million per.  The $20M per can be elevated up to $25M per based on games started or up to $30M per based on Cy Young Award finishes in 2018-2019, meaning, I suppose, that Arrieta could earn as much as $60M or $70M more than the $75M guarantee if he wins the Cy Young Award in either 2018 or 2019.

Arrieta and Boras didn’t get what they were expecting, but it’s still hard to have much sympathy for either.  Arrieta is still guaranteed a pile of money, which could nearly double if Arrieta is as good going forward as Boras claims he will be.

For a team that lost 96 games last off-season, the Phillies sure spent a lot of money on free agents this off-season.  None of the deals is longer than three years, so the Phillies must think they can be competitive by 2019, or the deals don’t appear to make much sense.

However, the Phillies play in a big and potentially lucrative market, and I definitely think it’s easier to develop young players on a good team than a terrible one.  It’s nice to see at least one MLB team this off-season — and you also have to give credit to both the Twins and the Brewers for doing the same — really trying to make itself better for 2018 this off-season.

Notes on NPB Free Agents

March 2, 2018

I had long thought that NPB free agent contracts were effectively limited to four years in length.  I may well be wrong.

Some reporting says that last off-season, Taiwanese NPB star Daikan Yoh (real name Yang Dai-kang) may have signed a five year long deal with NPB’s wealthiest club, the Yomiuri Giants.  In fact, free agency exists in NPB only because the Yomiuri Giants in the early 1990’s wanted to make it easier for themselves to pry away the best veteran players from the other NPB teams.

An NPB player becomes a domestic free agent after seven or eight seasons of major league play, depending on whether the player is initially signed out of high school (8 yrs) or college/industrial league (7 yrs).  A domestic free agent effectively forces a trade, by being able to sign with another NPB team (usually but not always one of NPB’s three rich teams) with the team losing the free agent getting to select an unprotected player from the signing team and/or getting a cash payment.  For example, when the Yomiuri Giants signed Yoh last off-season, his former team the Nippon Ham Fighters elected to receive solely a portion (60%) of Yoh’s 2016 salary, which came out to a payment of 96 million yen ($900,000).

An NPB player becomes an international (true) free agent after nine full seasons of major league service.  He is then free to sign with anyone without his former team receiving compensation.  Needless to say, a very small percentage of NPB players play in NPB’s major leagues long enough to become true free agents.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that if a player elects to become a domestic free agent (NPB players must affirmatively elect to become a free agent, and for mainly cultural reasons, many players choose not to exercise their domestic free agent options) and signs with another NPB team, he cannot become an international (true) free agent for four more seasons beyond the seven or eight it took to become a domestic free agent.

As you may have surmised, the best NPB free agents who sign with NPB clubs typically sign four year contracts, since that is how long it will take for them to become free agents again.  These players are typically the best NPB players who aren’t quite good enough to tempt MLB teams or wish to stay in Japan for their own reasons.  Like the de facto 600 million yen annual salary cap (no one in NPB history has ever received a contract for more than 650 million yen in a season and that was only former MLB closer Kazuhiro Sasaki after he returned to NPB on a one-season deal), the four year de facto limit for free agent contracts is determined by the circumstances rather than by an actual rule.

It’s unlikely any NPB player will be good enough to earn more than 650 million yen in a season any time soon, because any such player has already left for MLB and its vastly higher salaries.  For example, the Yomiuri Giants once offered Hideki Matsui $61 million for ten seasons, but he elected to sign with the New York Yankees and made more than $83 million over his 10 year MLB career.  That’s small potatoes compared to Masahiro Tanaka‘s and Yu Darvish‘s more recent MLB contracts.

Reportedly, Daikan Yoh was particularly concerned with a long-term deal, rather than on maximizing his salary per season over a four year deal, and he had other suitors which (may have) convinced Yomiuri to give him a fifth season.  Probably the fact that Yoh is a foreign player (although he may not be considered a “foreign” player for purposes of NPB major league roster limits since he was apparently drafted by the Fighters in the NPB amateur draft in 2007 — he’d have become a free agent much sooner if treated as a foreign player for roster limits) had something to do with his insistence on breaking the unwritten rules.

Perverse Incentives

February 22, 2018

On the subject of Kenta Maeda‘s contract with the Dodgers, one obvious problem with the contract, at least as far as Maeda is concerned, is that none of the incentives are applicable to relief pitching.  This could create perverse incentives for the Dodgers going forward.

Two off-seasons ago, Maeda signed an incentive laden deal that guaranteed him $25 million over eight seasons, but could be worth $105 if every performance incentive is achieved.  Maeda made just over $20 million over his first two seasons of the deal, because he met many of the performance incentives.

However, by the end of the 2017 post-season, it’s a real question how much longer Maeda will be a regular major league starter.  He made 25 starts in 2017, but was dropped from the Dodgers’ deep starting rotation several times. At the same time, in 10.2 relief innings pitched in the post-season against the highest level of competition, Maeda allowed only a single run, suggesting that his MLB future may eventually come down to pitching out of the pen.  Needless to say, some Japanese ace starters in NPB have proven more effective as relievers in MLB — see, Kohi Uehara.

Maeda isn’t likely to take the Dodgers closer role from Kenley Jansen in the short term absent the latter’s injury, but it’s easy to imagine Maeda becoming the Dodgers’ top set up man.  The Dodgers will have to make that decision based on what is best for the team, but if Maeda as a top bullpen pitcher comes to pass, Maeda is screwed.

Maeda’s agents negotiated a contract based solely on Maeda as a starter.  If he becomes a top Dodger reliever, he’ll only earn $3.275 a year.  Brandon Morrow, the Dodgers’ top set-up man in 2017, just signed a two-year $21 million deal with the Cubs.  You can see the potential unhappiness that Maeda will feel if the Dodgers decide that his greatest value is in the bullpen.

Precisely because no one can predict the future, if I were the Dodgers management, I would offer to re-open Maeda’s contract now solely for the purpose of creating some performance incentives for relief appearances and games finished.  Maeda wants to be a starter, and the Dodgers want Maeda to a starter, but if it becomes apparent that Maeda’s greatest value to the team is out of the bullpen, then that’s what has to happen.

The Dodgers should get ahead of the situation by negotiating some relief pitcher incentives with Maeda.  They wouldn’t necessarily have to be too generous, since all the parties realize the Dodgers don’t have to renegotiate relief incentives in the first place.