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  • Despite Stardom and Swagger, Dave Parker is Still Short of Cooperstown

    Posted sometime

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    This post is part of a series concerning the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering executives and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in San Diego on December 8. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

    2020 Modern Baseball Candidate: Dave Parker
    Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
    Dave Parker 40.1 37.4 38.7
    Avg. HOF RF 71.5 42.1 56.8
    2712 339 .290/.339/.471 121
    SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

    A five-tool player whose power, ability to hit for average, and strong, accurate throwing arm all stood out – particularly in the Pirates’ seemingly endless and always eye-catching assortment of black-and-yellow uniform combinations — Dave Parker was once considered the game’s best all-around player. In his first five full seasons (1975-79), he amassed a World Series ring, regular season and All-Star MVP awards, two batting titles, two league leads in slugging percentage, and three Gold Gloves, not to mention tremendous swagger, a great nickname (“The Cobra”), and a high regard for himself. “Take Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente and match their first five years up against mine, and they don’t compare with me,” he told Roy Blount in a 1979 Sports Illustrated cover story.

    Parker, who had debuted with the Pirates just seven months after Clemente’s death and assumed full-time duty as the team’s right fielder a season and a half later, once appeared to be on course to join the Puerto Rican legend in Cooperstown. Unfortunately, cocaine, poor conditioning, and injuries threw him off course, and while he recovered well enough to make three All-Star teams, play a supporting role on another World Series winner, accrue hefty career totals and play past the age of 40, his game lost multiple dimensions as he aged. Hall of Fame voters greeted his case with a yawn; he debuted with just 17.5% on the 1997 ballot, peaked at 24.5% the next year, and while he remained eligible for the full 15 seasons, only one other time did he top 20%. He made appearances on both the 2014 Expansion Era ballot as well as the ’18 Modern Baseball one, but even after going public with his diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, he didn’t come close to election. Aside from the precedent set by Harold Baines‘ election last year — a small committee can throw us a wild card now and then — there’s little reason to believe his fate will be different this time.

    Born in Grenada, Mississippi in 1951, Parker and his family (which also included five other children) moved to Cincinnati when he was four years old. Both of his parents were athletic. “”My mother had a cannon for an arm, threw all sort of things at us – shoes, books, whatever – and usually connected,” Parker said in 2014. “My dad never got to play organized ball. But he’d crush that ball.”

    A three-sport star in high school, Parker was on track to play college football — he would grow to 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds as a young major leaguer — until a left knee injury ended his senior season after just one game. Per Blount, it wasn’t his knee injury but concerns about his ability to hit the ball in the air and a history of clashing with coaches that let to his being chosen in the 14th round by the Pirates in in 1970, instead of the first. Beginning in spring training 1971 — the dawn of the Pittsburgh Lumber Company — Parker picked up the finer points of the game from Clemente, Willie Stargell, and coach (and later manager) Bill Virdon.

    Aside from a rough 30-game stint at Double-A Waterbury, where he started the 1971 season at age 19, Parker hit at every minor league stop, earning MVP honors both in the Gulf Coast League in ’70 and the Carolina League in ’72. He debuted in the majors on July 12, 1973, going 0-for-4 out of the leadoff spot against the Padres’ Clay Kirby, then spent the remainder of that season and all of the next one (during which he lost more than two months to a hamstring injury) in a platoon role, making just three starts against lefties. He took over the full-time right field job in 1975, once the Pirates moved Stargell to first base and incumbent right fielder Richie Zisk to left, and the results were revelatory. The 24-year-old Parker hit .308/.357/.541 with 25 homers and 101 RBI; his slugging percentage led the league, his 149 OPS+ ranked third, his 6.3 WAR (including defense that was 15 runs above average) fifth. The Pirates won the NL East for the second straight season, but bowed to the Reds in the NLCS; Parker went 0-for-10, reaching base only on a walk and a hit-by-pitch. After the season, he edged out both Johnny Bench and Pete Rose to place third in the NL MVP voting behind Joe Morgan and Greg Luzinski.

    Though he slipped to 13 homers and a .475 slugging percentage, Parker’s 1976 was still more than solid (133 OPS+, 3.7 WAR). He started 1977 so hot that he was above .400 as late as May 14 (.408), and as high as .349 in early September; he finished at .338/.397/.531, beating out teammate Rennie Stennett for the NL batting title, ranking first in both hits (215) and doubles (44), third in WAR (7.4), fifth in OPS+ (145) and on-base percentage, and sixth in slugging percentage. He made his first All-Star team, won his first Gold Glove, and again finished third in the MVP voting, this time behind George Foster and Luzinski.

    “The Cobra” — a nickname given to him by Pirates trainer Tony Bartirome — developed into such an intimidating hitter that opposing pitchers intentionally walked him a league-high 23 times in 1978. He had more help from Bartirome that season. In a home plate collision with Met catcher (and former college football player) John Stearns on June 30, Parker was not only thrown out to end the game but he suffered a fractured jaw and cheekbone, as well as a concussion, though he only realized the latter years later. “That was like the Pennsylvania Railroad colliding with the B&O,” said Pirates manager Chuck Tanner. When Parker returned to action on July 16, he was wearing a two-toned hockey goalie’s mask that Bartirome had customized, then with the help of the Steelers’ equipment manager — the two teams shared Three Rivers Stadium — switched to a football face mask, which he wore while running the bases. It set off a trend among similarly injured players, and scared the living hell out of Morgan, who threatened to sue if he sustained injury in the event of the two players colliding at second base.

    Despite the injury, Parker hit .334/.394/.585 en route to another batting title and slugging percentage crown; he was second in on-base percentage, but 36 points behind the league leader, Jeff Burroughs. He reached 30 homers for the first time, a total that ranked third in the league, and both his 166 OPS+ and 7.0 WAR led the circuit as well. In January 1979, just before he began what otherwise would have been his walk year, he signed a five-year contract that was widely reported to be worth at least $5 million, making him the game’s first million dollar a year player, though the deal included something closer to $2.1 million in current salary and $5.3 million in deferred compensation, the payment of which the Pirates would later challenge.

    Though his numbers fell off slightly in 1979 (.310/.380/.526, 25 HR, 6.7 WAR), Parker won All-Star MVP honors thanks to a game-tying sacrifice fly and two spectacular outfield assists in the late innings of the NL’s 7-6 win. In the seventh, with the AL leading 6-5, Parker lost track of a Jim Rice fly ball against the Kingdome roof, but recovered to cut down Rice trying to stretch a double into a triple.

    Then, with the score tied in the bottom of the eighth, Parker threw out Brian Downing trying to score from second on a Graig Nettles single, positioning his throw such that catcher Gary Carter just dropped his tag on Downing’s head like an anvil. Forty (!) years later, I still get goosebumps watching this one:

    With Parker and Stargell (who would share MVP honors with Keith Hernandez) leading the way, the “We Are Family” Pirates won 98 games, then swept Morgan, Foster, and the Reds in the NLCS; Parker singled in the winning run in the 10th inning of Game 2. Though hampered by a late-season left knee injury that limited his ability to pull the ball, he went 10-for-29 in the World Series as the Pirates came back from a three-games-to-one deficit to beat the Orioles in seven games. Parker made a crucial catch of an Eddie Murray fly ball with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of Game 7. “He hit a line drive to me, a carrying line drive,” said Parker in 2014. “I broke to my glove side, slipped, and almost fell. I recovered and managed to catch it. If I don’t catch that ball, I’d have kept running right through the fence and on out into Baltimore somewhere.”

    To this point, Parker was rightly regarded among the game’s elite. His 31.1 WAR from 1975-79 ranked fourth in the majors, trailing only Mike Schmidt (38.7), George Brett (35.0), and Rod Carew (32.0), while his 21.1 from ’77-79 trailed only Schmidt (23.0) and Brett (21.6). But even with the championship, Parker was so stung by criticism for his slight decline given his million-dollar status that he skipped the World Series parade. Continued trouble with his left knee in 1980 — in September, the New York Times‘ Jane Gross wrote that he “looked like a lame horse on the base paths” — didn’t help, nor did being sued for divorce. He dipped to 17 homers, 79 RBI, a 115 OPS+ and 1.6 WAR in just 138 games, including one in which he removed himself after a 9-volt battery thrown by a fan at Three Rivers Stadium whizzed by his head. Parker later said it was the fourth or fifth time he’d been targeted, and asked the Pirates for a trade, though he later cooled down.

    After the 1980 season, Parker had surgery to remove torn cartilage in his left knee, but the injury bug kept biting. Achilles and thumb injuries as well as the players’ strike limited him to just 140 games, 15 homers, and 0.7 WAR in 1981-82, his weight ballooned — some estimated as high as 260 pounds, though Parker disputed that figure — and he managed just 12 homers, a 97 OPS+ and 0.2 WAR in his 144 games in ’83, even with a .305/.331/.458 showing in the second half. A free agent after the season, he signed a two-year deal with the Reds. While he only improved slightly (104 OPS+, 1.0 WAR), his 94 RBI (up from 69 the year before) fed the perception of a stronger rebound, and the Reds inked him to a three-year, $3.325 million extension.

    On the field, Parker’s 1985 was his best season after ’79 (34 homers, a league-high 125 RBI, .312/.365/.551 line, and 4.7 WAR); he made his fifth All-Star team (and first since ’81), won the first All-Star Game Home Run Derby, and finished second behind Willie McGee in the NL MVP voting. Off the field was a nightmare. Called to testify in the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials, he admitted to having used cocaine as early as 1976 and “with consistency” from 1979 until late ’82, when he realized it had eroded his play. “I was going downhill,” he testified. Though he had been granted immunity from prosecution, he received a one-year suspension from commissioner Peter Ueberroth, waived on the condition of submitting to drug testing for the remainder of his career, performing 200 hours of community service, and contributing 10% of his salary to programs to combat drug abuse. Meanwhile, the Pirates filed suit in an attempt to avoid paying him the deferred salary because his cocaine “negatively affected his ability to perform.” In 1988, the two sides reached settlement for an amount that was “significantly less.”

    In retrospect, Parker said that his contract — which happened against a backdrop of steel mill closures, which hit the Pittsburgh area hard — was a burden. As he told The Undefeated in 2018, “Being the first [to make a million per year] and being a black guy didn’t make it that much easier, and some fans turning against me didn’t make me feel too good. And making that kind of money wasn’t a good fit for nobody involved. The fans weren’t having it, and I wasn’t having it from my end as well.”

    Thankfully, by the time he was in Cincinnati, Parker had cleaned himself up and was able to enjoy his elder statesman role while continuing his career. Though he hit 31 homers and drove in 116 runs while making another All-Star team in 1986, he declined from a 149 OPS+ to 117 as well as from +5 runs (via Total Zone) to -17; his WAR plummeted to 0.3. While he would reach 20 homers three more times and 90 RBI twice over his age 36-40 seasons — even making his seventh and final All-Star team in 1990 with a 21-homer, 92-RBI season as the Brewers’ full-time DH — the truly productive phase of his career was over. He did play for two pennant winners and one championship team while serving as the A’s DH in 1988-89, homered three times in the latter postseason, and was valued as a clubhouse leader, but his 92 homers and 400 RBI for the Reds (1987), A’s, Brewers, Angels and Blue Jays (both ’91) during this stretch amounted to a combined OPS+ of 101 and a net of -0.7 WAR, with a high of 1.1 for that Milwaukee season.

    Because of his longevity, Parker finished with impressive counting stats, though it’s not hard to imagine that had he steered clear of cocaine and taken better care of himself, he might well have reached 3,000 hits. BBWAA voters were not particularly moved by his case, though he did spend the full 15 years on the ballot, and has since gone 0-for-2 on Era Committee ballots.

    From an advanced statistical standpoint, Parker’s case is not unlike that of Dale Murphy’s, for as different as the two were off the field — and you can’t get much further apart than the distance between Parker’s swagger and misadventures and Murphy’s wholesome, milk-drinking persona. Both finished with a 121 OPS+ and have seven-year WAR peaks that are within hailing distance of the standards at their respective positions; Murphy (41.2) is 3.3 wins below the mark for center fielders while ranking 19th, Parker (37.4) 4.7 below that for right fielders while ranking 28th. Both are much further away as far as career WAR and JAWS; Murphy ranks 25th in the latter, 13.9 points below the standard, while Parker is 39th, 18.1 below the standard. The drastic fall-off of the latter’s defense, from +40 runs from 1973-79 to -61 for the remainder of his career, and then the positional adjustment hit for shifting to DH, accounts for the main discrepancy between the two.

    They’re both clearly better than Baines, whose longer stretch at DH puts his 30.1 JAWS 75th among right fielders, but as with Murphy, even given the time he spent at the center of the baseball world, it’s harder to justify including Parker on a ballot where the likes of Lou Whitaker, Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, and Dwight Evans are all within five points of the standards at their positions. We can be glad that he’s gotten his life in order and has taken a prominent role in raising money for the fight against Parkinson’s, but that doesn’t mean that his road has to end in Cooperstown.

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  • Wild, Wild East: The Braves Sign Will Smith

    Posted sometime

    It seems like only last week, I was jamming 14 Will Smith movies into a single paragraph of free agent hype, taking an obvious joke well past its logical conclusion. What would I do when Will Smith actually signed? Use the same movie jokes again? I wasn’t too worried about it. Free agents take months to sign! The Giants had made Smith a qualifying offer. No less a reliever than Craig Kimbrel had languished on the vine until after the amateur draft in similar circumstances. The same jokes could be funny again in a few months.

    Well, the joke’s on me, because Smith signed a three-year, $40 million contract with the Braves yesterday. What follows is a level-head, straightforward analysis of that transaction. Just know that, if it weren’t so close in time, I’d probably have written another article of movie names.

    The Braves fit a classic archetype of team that looks for free agent help. Their young core gelled impressively in 2019. Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies keyed the offense, while Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Mike Foltynewicz provided the starting pitching. The team had veteran help, of course: Freddie Freeman chipped in his usual stellar offense, Josh Donaldson was superb in a bounce back year, and Dallas Keuchel provided much-needed innings on his own one-year deal.

    They also have payroll room. With Donaldson and Keuchel re-entering free agency, they only had $100 million in expected commitments for 2020 before the Smith signing. With Acuña and Albies signed long-term to (some would say exceedingly) team-friendly contracts, it makes perfect sense to spend on the rest of the roster, maximizing their playoff chances while they have a strong foundation to build from.

    You’ll notice, however, that none of the players I named as key Braves are relievers, Fried’s emergency role in the playoffs notwithstanding. The Braves finished the year seventh in position player WAR, 12th in starting pitcher WAR, and 21st in relief pitcher WAR, with only 1.1 total WAR to the bullpen’s credit. Nor did it get any better in the second half, when new arrivals Mark Melancon, now-free-agent Chris Martin, and Shane Greene bolstered the ‘pen — Atlanta was 26th in second-half bullpen WAR.

    But with the addition of Smith, the Braves now boast a strong relief corps. Luke Jackson, Melancon, and Greene are miscast as the best relievers on a playoff team, but they provide excellent depth. Smith would look right at home atop the marquee — and he may not even be the Braves’ best reliever. Sean Newcomb, the erstwhile starter, looked excellent in relief last year, but he’ll enter next season competing for a starting spot. Should he miss it, he and Smith will anchor the back of the bullpen.

    The terms of the deal, three years at $13 million per year, plus a team option for a fourth year at the same rate with a $1 million buyout, exceed Kiley’s and the crowd’s estimates, though only slightly. Last year’s Kimbrel and Keuchel situations surely played into Smith’s decision to accept a contract so early in the offseason, before even the deadline to accept or decline his qualifying offer. He now has financial security (the $13 million he’ll make in 2020 is more than his career-to-date earnings) and gets to pitch for a playoff contender, which means it’s hard not to like the deal from Smith’s end.

    Of course, the Braves’ situation and Smith’s financial security are only part of the story. As much as this is a great match of player and team, it’s also a testament to Smith’s growth as a pitcher that he was the top reliever on the market this year, one so appealing that Atlanta wasted no time in paying him despite the draft pick they’ll surrender.

    In 2017, that would have seemed far-fetched. The Giants acquired Smith in 2016 as part of their playoff push, and he chipped in admirably even as the team had a bad second half. Before the start of the next season, however, he tore his UCL and needed Tommy John surgery. Between 10 and 20% of big leaguers never make it back to the majors after Tommy John, let alone regain their prior level.

    But Smith didn’t regain his old level; he got better. His slider is a sharp, vicious thing; it darts away from left-handers and in on the hands of righties, getting both out with equal aplomb. At-bats ending in a Smith slider to a righty have produced a .200 wOBA since he converted full-time to relief in 2014. That’s excellent — and also no match for his results against lefties, against whom he’s allowed a microscopic .173 wOBA.

    The rest of his game is built off the slider. His fastball is passable, a pitch largely used to keep hitters off-balance and set up counts where the slider can do its work. He mixes in a softer, two-plane curve, easily the worst of his three offerings, to keep batters guessing. Most of his curves are thrown in the first two pitches of an at-bat, letting batters know the pitch exists — before it basically stops existing. The same goes for the fastball — when Smith is behind in the count, he’ll throw sliders only a third of the time, leaning on the four-seam instead.

    But when Smith gets ahead, the slider comes out to play. He throws over 60% sliders when ahead in the count, 64% after getting to two strikes. He throws it out of the zone, and batters chase. They swung at 54% of his out-of-zone sliders in 2019, the highest rate among pitchers who threw at least 200 sliders out of the strike zone. This was no sample-size issue, either: lower the minimum to 50 sliders, and he falls all the way to second place, just behind Corbin Burnes.

    That, in a nutshell, is what makes Smith so good. Try as they might, batters can’t lay off the slider. Sometimes it’s away, like in this dismissal of Bryce Harper:

    Sometimes it’s buried low:

    And sometimes it’s back footed to a right-hander, as Paul DeJong discovered:

    What makes the pitch so effective? It’s hard to isolate individual characteristics that make breaking balls great, but Smith has a lot of things going in his favor. He locates it well, gets a lot of horizontal break, and disguises his delivery. He works it well off of his fastball, starting both pitches on the same plane. And he throws that fastball just often enough to creep into hitters’ minds. You can’t just commit not to swing and get away with it — Justin Smoak clearly expected slider here:

    In essence, the Braves are hoping for an exact repeat of Smith’s last two seasons — a slider-fueled bonanza of strikeouts and protected leads. Nothing about his stats looks fluky: his 2.66 ERA is backed by a 2.71 FIP and 2.75 xFIP. Don’t fool yourself by saying it’s only a stadium effect, either — he’s struck out more than 35% of the opposition, a top 10 rate among all relievers, and the size of the outfield doesn’t matter when the furthest the ball is going is around the horn.

    Relievers always carry risk. After all, Smith leans heavily on one pitch, and he only has two years of history at his current magnificent level. But that caveat applies to all relievers, and the upside is real if Smith can continue his recent form. The Braves are locked in a competitive NL East, and every edge they can seize could be the difference between sitting at home in October or hosting a playoff series.

    In that context, Smith is a marvelous signing. The Braves aren’t done with their offseason yet, or shouldn’t be — they could use a third baseman to replace Donaldson, and additional starting pitching is never a bad idea. But signing Smith is an excellent opening gambit, and it puts the rest of the East on notice: the Braves know that they still need to improve, and they’re putting their financial flexibility to good use in addressing an area of need.

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  • Mike Trout’s Third MVP Is His Latest Step Into Elite Company

    Posted sometime

    When I was a little kid, I used to love reading Guinness World Records books. My childhood bookshelf at my parents’ house reflects this admittedly odd curiosity: There are several of the, I don’t know, adult(?) versions of the book from the mid-2000s — the ones that are text-heavy and include bummer-ish topics like war and crime. But then there are the “kids” versions, the ones whose pages are filled with large portraits of record-breakers, with little bar graphs in the corner to show what their performance looks like against the competition.

    One of those kids’ books I had included a page dedicated to “Most MVP Awards” won in baseball. I remember seeing Barry Bonds‘ big smile, resting vibrant next to one of those graphs that showed just how transcendent he was. He’d won seven by the time this book published; the other names listed had won just three each. I knew Bonds, because I’d watched him often. The other names, I knew only from history books — names like Mantle, DiMaggio and Foxx. Pujols and Rodriguez hadn’t yet joined this class of three-time winners, hadn’t gotten the privilege of being immortalized as one of those short, stubby bars next to the tall structure looming above Bonds’ name on the tiny illustration intended to tell me who was the best ever at playing my favorite sport.

    At the time I picked up this particular 2005 edition of my beloved book series, Mike Trout was just 13 years old. On Thursday, at the age of 28, Trout received the honor of joining this very silly-looking bar graph:

    You might be surprised to learn that, at the age of 10, I had no idea how little this graph was telling me about who the best players in baseball history truly were. There is no Babe Ruth, or Willie Mays, or Honus Wagner. There is no mention of Jackie Robinson, perhaps the most important athlete in American history. It’s just a tally of trophies — trophies whose recipients were decided by voters who have sometimes based their decisions upon faulty information, understandably unaware of what measures of evaluating performance would become commonplace in future decades, or unwilling to adapt to changing times.

    At the same time, however, no one flukes their way into three MVP awards. Hardly anyone would dispute that the names above were all transcendent players in the game’s history, and now, Trout’s name is among them. The jump from two-time MVP winners is more significant than you might think — a total of 31 players have won the award twice, but Trout became just the 11th to add a third to his tally.

    It’s as tangible of a leap as we’ve seen the center fielder take from mere “all-time great” to “inner-circle Hall of Famer,” and it’s fitting that this is the year he made such a jump. He entered the 2019 season ranked 90th among position players in career wins above replacement. Now, he ranks 47th. At just 27 years old, Trout came into this season having provided more value than 97.7% of all players to ever play major league baseball. Then, he nearly cut the number of players ahead of him in WAR by half, passing legends like Derek Jeter, Reggie Jackson, Willie McCovey and Barry Larkin, and doing so without even playing a full season.

    That last part nearly cost Trout this award. A week into September, the final leg of the American League MVP race seemed as though it would be a brisk jog for the best player of his generation. Trout led all other big leaguers in WAR by a full win, while also leading all players in walk rate, isolated power, on-base percentage, and wRC+, and was tied with Pete Alonso for the lead in homers. Trout had been the best player in baseball for much of the decade, but he’d never quite dominated across the board offensively like this, and even as his Los Angeles Angels spiraled toward another season of irrelevancy, there seemed to be virtually no competition for Trout to claim his spot as the most valuable player in his league.

    Then, an injury to his foot forced him to sit out almost 10 days before the Angels announced he would undergo season-ending surgery, capping his year at 134 games played and exactly 600 plate appearances. That left only three weeks left for his challengers to overtake him in the MVP race, and unfortunately for Trout, Houston Astros infielder Alex Bregman was more than up for the challenge.

    Already one of baseball’s best players over the first four months of the season, Bregman was utterly dominant for the last two months, hitting .372/.486/.750 after August 1, and compiling 4.2 WAR in just 51 games. That included a major league-best 208 wRC+ in the 19 games he played after Trout’s injury, with seven homers and nearly three times as many walks as strikeouts. He was practically as good as any player could possibly be when chasing down Trout, and in the end, he still came up just short, losing the WAR battle to Trout 8.6-8.5.

    That razor-thin margin in value could tell you that this award was a coin flip, and because Bregman played 22 more games than Trout, which amounted to 90 more plate appearances, that could be the difference-maker for an MVP voter. That’s without even mentioning the idea of prioritizing the player whose team made the postseason — something you definitely should not do! — or the human impulse to give the award to someone who hasn’t won before, instead of handing it to the two-time winner. But to say the award belongs to someone who played the entire season would be to ignore the fact that there was someone else who played just a few weeks short of a full season, and who was better in nearly every measurable category:

    Trout vs. Bregman, 2019
    Player WAR wRC+ WPA HR BB% K% OBP SLG BsR Def
    Mike Trout 8.6 180 5.62 45 18.3 20 .438 .645 7.1 -0.3
    Alex Bregman 8.5 168 4.99 41 17.2 12 .423 .592 -2.1 4.8

    Bregman’s ability to avoid striking out was genuinely remarkable, and his season as a whole was exceptional. But in the time they had on the field, it’s difficult to argue that Trout wasn’t the better player, especially if you value underlying batted ball data:

    Trout vs. Bregman Statcast, 2019
    Name xwOBA xBA xSLG Brls/PA%
    Mike Trout .455 .311 .669 11
    Alex Bregman .378 .272 .471 3.8

    Even if you still believe there was hardly any difference between these two players, and that deciding the AL MVP was truly a toss-up, wasn’t Trout deserving of winning one of these coin flips? In 2012, he was nearly three wins better than MVP winner Miguel Cabrera, but lost in large part because Cabrera secured the triple crown. He was 1.6 WAR better than Cabrera in 2013, but again, the Tigers’ slugger won the MVP, outhitting Trout by nearly every measure, but falling well short in baserunning and defensive value. Trout again held a small WAR edge in 2015, but had the MVP award slip into the hands of Josh Donaldson.

    He has had an excellent case to win the award five times before this season, and had only won twice. In many ways, it was his turn to emerge victorious in one of these coin flip decisions, and that’s about what this was — out of 30 ballots, 17 gave first place votes to Trout, and 13 gave first place votes to Bregman. Those that didn’t award first place to Bregman voted him second place, and vice versa. Marcus Semien earned third place in AL voting, while D.J. LeMahieu finished fourth and Xander Bogaerts finished fifth.

    Trout’s MVP ties a bow on one of the best three-year runs of offense we’ve seen in decades.

    Best Three-Year wRC+, 1969-2019
    Name Start Year End Year wRC+
    Barry Bonds 2001 2003 231
    Barry Bonds 2002 2004 230
    Barry Bonds 2003 2005 221
    Barry Bonds 2000 2002 218
    Barry Bonds 2004 2006 193
    Barry Bonds 1999 2001 191
    Barry Bonds 1992 1994 189
    Mark McGwire 1998 2000 188
    Mark McGwire 1996 1998 185
    Mike Trout 2017 2019 184
    Jason Giambi 2000 2002 184
    Barry Bonds 1991 1993 182
    Dick Allen 1972 1974 181
    Frank Thomas 1992 1984 181
    Mike Trout 2016 2018 180

    Mark McGwire spent the final few years of the last century breaking baseball, and Bonds spent the first few years of this century doing the same. How’d they do it? Guess we’ll never know. Besides them, if we go back through the last 50 seasons, only Jason Giambi has pieced together a three-year span of hitting as impressive as Trout’s. Only six total players have cleared the 180 wRC+ mark. It’s an incredible achievement, one that’s been slightly overshadowed by a sudden proneness to injury, along with a few offensive breakouts by hitters like Mookie Betts, Aaron Judge, and José Altuve.

    If Bregman had won the award, there wouldn’t have been any riots in the streets, or thinkpieces about how the voting system is broken. It would have simply been another season in which Trout was thought of, perhaps mistakenly, as only the second-best player in baseball, and there’s hardly any shame in that. On the other hand, stretches of brilliance such as this are extremely rare. If Bregman had gotten the extra first place votes he needed, it likely would have made for a bit of head-scratching decades down the line, when people wondered how three years that could very well represent Trout’s prime came and went without him winning an MVP. But we don’t need to have that conversation. Trout is the best player in the sport, and for the third time in his young life, he’s officially been recognized as such.

    Part of the reason I enjoyed reading those Guinness World Records books when I was a kid was to keep track of which records got broken year to year. I liked watching how the names on the bar graphs shifted around, or how one of the smaller bars kept getting bigger and bigger, gaining ground on the tallest one. It felt like I was watching history change, right in front of my eyes. Throughout his career, that’s what it’s felt like to watch Trout. Right now, he’s simply another stubby three to Bonds’ seven, just like all the others. But he’s also just 28, the second-youngest ever to win his third MVP award, behind only Stan Musial. There is so much time to build his tower higher, to overcome even bigger droves of Hall of Famers on various leaderboards. This award is just another trophy to place on that special shelf in his house, next to Rookie of the Year award, his seven silver sluggers, his two All-Star game MVPs, and some pictures of his family and friends. But for some reason, it feels as though it represents much more. Advanced stats have positioned Trout as one of the very best players in baseball history for a while. Now, the hardware count makes that case too.

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  • Every team should be trying to trade for Jon Gray

    Posted 38 minutes ago

    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    Reports indicate that he could be available this offseason.

    It was only two years ago that the Rockies had one of the more impressive starting pitchers in all of baseball. Jon Gray, coming off a serviceable first full-season in the majors in 2017, stood near the top of the National League in many key metrics. Among qualified starting pitchers, he ranked fifth in FIP, 10th in xFIP, 13th in SIERA, and 15th in K-BB-rate, all while throwing a harder fastball than all but two starting pitchers (Gerrit Cole, Carlos Martinez).

    The much anticipated encore of Gray’s 2018 season resulted in disappointment on the surface, as Gray struggled to stay consistent for most of the year, was briefly demoted to Triple-A, and ended the season with a 5.12 ERA. His walk rate moved up a touch and he allowed home runs at a much higher rate. In the end, his season resembled that of a league-average starting pitcher, and ditto for 2019 too.

    Yet the underlying traits have always been there for Gray at the major league level. For starters, the most comparable pitcher to him velocity/movement-wise is Max Scherzer, per Baseball Savant.

    Only six starting pitchers in baseball averaged a higher velocity on their four-seamer than Gray this season: Noah Syndergaard, Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler, Walker Buehler, and Luis Castillo. His four-seamer wasn’t very productive, though, as hitters crushed it for an average exit velocity of 91.9 miles per hour this season and put up a .405 xwOBA against it.

    What has always been performing for Gray is the breaking stuff. Starting with his slider, a pitch that hitters whiffed on 41.2 percent of the time the season. In his career, he’s allowed a .192/.230/.308 slash line on his slider, striking out 38.6 percent of hitters, all good for 47 wRC+ against.

    The third option in his arsenal, the curveball, has almost been equally productive. For his career, the slashline against the offering is .181/.218/.306 with a 43 wRC+ against.

    Still at only 28 years of age and indications that there could be upside in his arm, it wouldn’t be a complete shock if we have yet to see the best of the Gray. If we have, then we’re still talking about a very serviceable starting pitcher. The profile of Gray’s future outlook is intriguing by itself, but it might not even be his biggest attraction.

    Gray still has two controllable years left on his contract. His base salary for next season stands at $5.6 million and he isn’t eligible for arbitration until next year. This puts him in the price range of basically any team. If you’re a contender, he could be an arm that helps stabilize an already good rotation while providing upside. If you’re rebuilding and not looking to spend, he doesn’t add a bunch to payroll and he could be an enticing trade option during the next two trade deadlines or next offseason.

    If the Rockies are indeed looking to trade Jon Gray, as reports seem to indicate that it’s possible, then there should be a wide range of teams interested. The idea of a trade would also appear to be a positive for Gray’s future development, as he’d be looking at a decent shot of playing under a better major league player development system (the same positive change of scenery that Gerrit Cole and Sonny Gray had).

    Jon Gray may not appear to the most tantalizing option on the trade market to the casual baseball fan, but if he were to become available, it would not be shocking if he were to become one of the more popular pitchers available.

    Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.

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  • Come on, just sign Mike Moustakas to a multi-year deal

    Posted 7 hours ago

    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    Hey owners, you care about surplus value? Points big red neon sign this way

    There’s a point at which, considering the free agent market standing as it is (pending future results, of course), a market inefficiency becomes glaringly obvious. When front offices were a bit more odious and drawn to RBIs and batting average, it was incredibly easy to completely miss the market on a player on the upper-bounds.

    These days, it’s pretty much the obvious. With every team seemingly flattening the value of players to similar across the board it opens a massive opportunity in the form of what we know as a “market inefficiency” (scare quotes for sarcasm). As Twitter user LLW902 puts it, some would put Mike Moustakas in that category of market inefficiency:

    In his final year before free agency, Moustakas hit .272/.314/.521 with 38 home runs and 2 fWAR. That’s a solid season, and at 29 years-old, it’s a fair bet that he’d be worth a solid, mid-market contract at year’s end. MLB Trade Rumors even predicted he would receive a five-year, $85 million deal. He in fact received one year and $6.5 million, while being traded to the Brewers midway through 2018.

    Going into last season, the thinking was, ‘OK, sure, he may not have gotten the big deal, but at least this time around he’ll get something decent.” Well, he got a one-year deal again, this time worth $10 million with a mutual option that he obviously declined.

    This time around, FanGraphs predicts that he will sign for $36 million over three years. Let’s think about this, though I do think that prediction seems to be Lucy-with-the-football once again. If he were to ink that deal, he would have made a grand total of $52.5 million over a five-year period.

    Not only is that basically what he could have signed for out of the gate, but it lacked both the consistency of knowing where you’d live, and the uncertainty that if he got that big injury, the next piece of it would never come; that’s pretty much why free agency exists to begin with. And in terms of surplus value, even the $52.5 million would be a total bargain, as his total projected five-year total of let’s say about 12 wins would still be worth upwards of $100 million when you consider the inflation in the cost of a win.

    That’s why when people (journalists, executives, owners, fans, etc.) tell you that Actually, these players are never a good deal, it’s a total and flat-out lie. Not signing Mike Moustakas to the deal he always could have been signed to has nothing to do with him not being valuable enough to make the contract—he has a 114 OPS+ over his last 2500 plate appearances and hasn’t had a full season dip below 107—it’s about depressing the value of a win at the mid-level, plain and simple.

    If Moustakas becomes a player that is just worth one-year deals at a time worth $5-10 million, and then maybe gets two years later if he performs by age 31, it’s an absolutely terrible model for free agency, and it’s a clear case of trying to deliberately set the price for a win artificially. Some would even liken this year-to-year model to arbitration, which was always considered a compromise position between the reserve clause and free agency.

    Yet there’s some savvy owner out there (there probably isn’t), who could easily survey this landscape and pull the wool over the eyes of the other owners. There is, once again, nothing stopping an owner from deciding that if teams are going to value players at half of their $/WAR, then it makes sound financial sense to at a bare minimum to offer half of their $/WAR plus one dollar, so to speak.

    He’s not the only one, obviously. Yasmani Grandal only got a one-year deal after four straight 4+ WAR seasons. Josh Donaldson more justifiably got one year, but then he put up a 4+ WAR season. Dallas Keuchel got that partial one-year after putting up five straight 2.3+ fWAR seasons.

    If a team signed all four of those players to an imaginary replacement level team, for a measly $64.25 million and no multi-year commitment, that team alone would win ~62 games, which is pretty remarkable. That group would produce something like $109 million in win value. There’s something like doubling-up on value right there, right in the open once again. Just step right up and claim it.

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  • Cole Hamels’ Vintage Changeup Returned in 2019

    Posted 8 hours ago

    There’s a lot of starting pitching on the free agent market this offseason. There’s Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler, Dallas Keuchel, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, among many others. But one guy who has always piqued my personal interest is left-hander Cole Hamels, who is entering free agency for the first time in his 14-year major league career.

    Hamels ranked as the 19th-best free agent on the FanGraphs’ Top 50 released earlier this month. Kiley pegged him for a two-year, $28 million contract, and the median (two-years, $30 million) and average (1.93-years, $28.2 million) crowdsource values were pretty close to that. Per his agent, John Boggs, he’s already generated interest from 13 different teams; according to Boggs, Hamels plans to pitch “at least five more seasons.”

    Whether or not Hamels can actually pitch for another five years remains to be seen, but what is certain is that he still had plenty left in the tank in 2019. Hamels pitched 141 and two-thirds innings this season, to the tune of a 3.81 ERA and a 4.09 FIP. He struck out 23% of hitters and walked just 9%. Hamels was worth 2.5 WAR over his 27 starts, a solid figure, especially for the middle-of-the-rotation starter Hamels is now. Shoulder and oblique injuries kept him from making a full season’s worth of starts, but when he was on the mound, he was solid.

    Driving much of this success was Hamels’ changeup, which experienced a resurgence in 2019. Check out his weighted runs above-average on the pitch by year:

    Hamels’ wCH by Year
    Season wCH
    2006 14.5
    2007 17.4
    2008 23.4
    2009 11.8
    2010 6.2
    2011 29.3
    2012 13.8
    2013 28.6
    2014 19.7
    2015 17.2
    2016 0.9
    2017 7.0
    2018 0.9
    2019 11.6

    Hamels’ +11.6 runs above-average on the changeup in 2019 was his highest single-season mark since 2015. His changeup was more valuable this season than it was in the last three seasons combined. Narrowing our focus a little bit, let’s take a look at the results on Hamels’ changeups from each of the last five seasons:

    Hamels’ Changeup, 2015-19
    Season wOBA wRC+ K% BB%
    2015 .246 63 33.5% 7.0%
    2016 .331 118 24.0% 7.8%
    2017 .252 65 25.6% 6.2%
    2018 .277 82 32.4% 6.1%
    2019 .214 37 32.0% 7.8%

    Hitters really struggled against the pitch this season. Collectively, they hit .159/.229/.254 and produced a 37 wRC+. Hamels hasn’t seen results that good against the changeup since 2013, when hitters posted a mere 28 wRC+ against it. For his career, 2019 represented Hamels’ third-lowest opponent wRC+ versus the pitch. Hamels has the best changeup of the past two decades, and somehow, it managed to get close to its pinnacle in 2019. That’s certainly good news for his free agency case.

    The story doesn’t end there, though. Pitch values are not predictive, with a year-to-year correlation below 0.25. They tell you how good a pitch was in one particular season, but they have very little power to tell you how the pitch will perform the next year. We can see this very phenomenon within Hamels’ pitch values themselves — intrinsically, Hamels’ changeup was more or less the same pitch in both 2018 and 2019. It just so happened that the results were significantly better in 2019.

    What is more likely to be sticky, however, are Hamels’ tendencies when throwing the pitch. These are statistics that are more within his control. For example, 32.4% of Hamels’ changeups in 2019 were in the strike zone, compared to 27.5% in 2018. While he cannot fully control whether each individual pitch ends up in the strike zone, trends like those are interesting because they demonstrate a level of intent. Did Hamels intend to throw more changeups in the strike zone this season? The answer appears to be yes.

    Here are Hamels’ changeup heatmaps from 2018:

    And here are Hamels’ changeup heatmaps from 2019:

    Note that all four of these heatmaps are from the pitcher’s perspective, meaning that Hamels consistently attacked the inside part of the plate with the changeup to left-handed hitters and the outside part of the plate with the changeup to right-handed hitters. Regardless, it’s not hard to see that more of Hamels’ pitches were inside the strike zone in 2019 than they were in 2018.

    If a pitcher starts throwing his pitches inside the strike zone more often, we might expect hitters to swing more, too. For Hamels, that is exactly what happened. Opposing hitters swung at 59.8% of Hamels’ changeups this season, a 2.4-point bump from 2018, when they swung at 57.4%. Though the hitters’ response is not statistically significant, Hamels’ increase in zone rate is. And perhaps most notably, Hamels’ groundball rate against the changeup experienced a huge spike — from 48.5% to 57.3%.

    The idea here is that Hamels made a tangible change to his game by throwing the changeup in the strike zone more often. As a result, hitters swung at his pitches more regularly, and when they made contact, they tended to put the ball on the ground. In turn, that would seem to lead to worse results against the pitch, which is indeed what happened.

    Where this logic falls short can be demonstrated through Hamels’ expected statistics. His xwOBA allowed with the changeup this season was .265, 51 points higher than his actual wOBA allowed of .214, and actually 10 points higher than his xwOBA allowed with the changeup in 2018.

    On fly balls, Hamels was especially lucky, but the same size was so small (only 12 fly balls allowed) that it’s hard to call that anything more than random variation. Yes, we might expect worse results on balls hit in the air against Hamels’ changeup in 2020, but if he’s allowing so few fly balls to begin with, the difference in performance might not be extremely significant. Hamels also experienced some good fortune on groundballs, a fact that is likely more concerning since that tends to be the most common batted ball result off the pitch by far. Weirdly, among the 37 pitchers to allow at least 50 groundballs against the changeup this season, Hamels’ xwOBA against was the fifth-highest, even if the .232 mark still looks quite solid in a vacuum.

    I broke this down further by looking at Hamels’ distributions of launch angles and exit velocities against the changeup for both 2018 and 2019. If anything, I found that Hamels actually improved in the exit velocity category. His average exit velocity on the changeup decreased just shy of one full mph, and his distribution appeared to get better, too:

    Exit Velocities vs. Hamels’ Changeup
    Exit Velocity (mph) 2019% 2018%
    31-40 2.2% 0.9%
    41-50 0.0% 0.9%
    51-60 5.4% 4.6%
    61-70 6.5% 7.3%
    71-80 25.0% 21.1%
    81-90 23.9% 28.4%
    91-100 27.2% 22.0%
    101-110 7.6% 13.8%
    111-120 2.2% 0.9%

    In both 2018 and 2019, approximately 63% of Hamels’ batted balls against his changeup came off the bat at or below 90 mph. However, Hamels did see a year-over-year increase in the percentage of batted balls at or below 80 mph, a solid four-point jump from 35% to 39%.

    The launch angles are where things get a bit weird. Hamels’ average launch angle versus the changeup increased from 5.9 degrees in 2018 to 6.8 degrees in 2019, even while the standard deviations (27.8 in 2018, 27.7 in 2019) remained relatively unchanged. Even more interesting are his median launch angles — 4.9 degrees in 2019 compared to 8.7 degrees in 2018. What this is ultimately saying is that in 2019, Hamels saw some very extreme launch angles that skewed his distribution to the right, all while he was allowing more groundballs (thus the lower median) in the process. In 2018, the roles were reversed, with Hamels’ average launch angle sitting a few degrees below his median, meaning that a few very low launch angles were driving the average down.

    This may explain why Hamels’ expected stats demonstrate his relative luckiness in 2019 — there were quite a few batted balls off his changeup that were hit at high launch angles, those that are likely to go for extra-base hits. However, I still contend that the overarching theme remains true: Hamels specifically pitched his changeup in the strike zone more often and was rewarded with such fortunate results because hitters tended to roll them over. That may not continue in 2020, but if I were a team looking for starting pitching, seeing Hamels have this much success with his changeup would make me want to call his agent right away.

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  • RosterResource Free Agency Roundup: NL Central

    Posted 9 hours ago

    This is the fifth of a six-part series — the AL East, AL Central, AL West, and NL East pieces have been published — in which I’m highlighting each team’s most notable free agents and how it could fill the resulting void on the roster. A player’s rank on our recently released Top 50 Free Agents list, along with Kiley McDaniel’s contract estimates from that exercise, are listed where relevant. In some cases, the team already has a capable replacement ready to step in. In others, it’s clear the team will either attempt to re-sign their player or look to the trade or free agent markets for help. The remaining cases are somewhere in between, with in-house candidates who might be the answer, but aren’t such obvious everyday players to keep the team from shopping around for better options.

    Here’s a look at the National League Central.

    Chicago Cubs | Depth Chart | Payroll

    Nicholas Castellanos, OF
    FanGraphs Top 50 Free Agent Ranking: 11
    Kiley McDaniel’s contract projection: 4 years, $56M

    Castellanos had been an above-average hitter for a few seasons, although his fielding has left much to be desired. But for the two months following a trade from the Tigers to the Cubs, he was the kind of hitter — 154 wRC+, 16 home runs in 225 plate appearances — whose bat could more than make up for his defensive inadequacies.

    Since the Cubs were the team to witness the 27-year-old at his best, especially at Wrigley Field where he slashed .384/.412/.750 in 119 plate appearances, they would have to at least be open to bringing him back. But with the current state of the roster, that does not appear likely unless they trade Kyle Schwarber.

    Cole Hamels, SP
    FanGraphs Top 50 Free Agent Ranking: 19
    Kiley McDaniel’s contract projection: 2 years, $28M

    With their top four starters returning in 2020, the Cubs aren’t likely to invest in bringing back Hamels for his 36-year-old season. In fact, they could just let Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Colin Rea, and a few of their prospects, including Adbert Alzolay, battle it out for the fifth spot.

    Chatwood could have the edge; the Cubs probably didn’t give him a $38 million contract to pitch out of the bullpen. He was good in a swingman role last season, though, so maybe it’s best not to change things up again. The 27-year-old Mills, who is out of minor league options, was effective in each of his nine major league appearances in 2019 — he made four starts and pitched multiple innings in four of his five relief appearances — and finished with a 2.75 ERA, 4.19 FIP, and 10.5 K/9 in 36 innings.

    Brandon Kintzler/Steve Cishek/Pedro Strop/David Phelps, RP

    The team’s two most reliable relievers in 2019, Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick, are set to return in 2020, along with closer Craig Kimbrel, who will hopefully benefit from having a much more normal spring training. That’s a good start, but adding another reliable late-inning reliever and some middle relief depth would appear to be a priority.

    Of the four veteran free agents, only Strop is coming off a disappointing season. Because of his track record, though, it’s likely that he won’t have trouble drawing interest from teams. If the Cubs could bring back Kintzler or Phelps and add another lefty — Drew Pomeranz and Jake Diekman are the best available free agents — they’d be in decent shape heading into the 2020 season.

    Total WAR: 5.7

    Cincinnati Reds | Depth Chart | Payroll

    Jose Iglesias, SS
    FanGraphs Top 50 Free Agent Ranking: 46
    Kiley McDaniel’s contract projection: 1 year, $7M

    When the Reds picked up Freddy Galvis‘ $5.5 million club option for 2020, the chances that Iglesias would return for another season in Cincinnati decreased substantially. While a Galvis/Iglesias double-play combination could actually be quite good and a lot of fun to watch, the Reds should be covered at second base between Josh VanMeter, Jose Peraza, and Alex Blandino.

    Top prospect Jonathan India, the fifth overall pick in the 2018 draft, could also end up at second base if the Reds decide to fast-track him to the majors. The 22-year-old has played mostly third base, but he made five starts at second base for High-A Daytona last season and also split his time between second and third base in this year’s Arizona Fall League.

    Total WAR: 1.6

    Milwaukee Brewers | Depth Chart | Payroll

    Yasmani Grandal, C
    FanGraphs Top 50 Free Agent Ranking: 6
    Kiley McDaniel’s contract projection: 4 years, $70M

    Grandal has continued to separate himself as one of the best all-around catchers in the game and it’s likely he’ll get paid like it this offseason. If he departs, the team is left with Manny Piña, David Freitas, and Jacob Nottingham at the position. Needless to say, Grandal’s departure would leave the Brewers with a huge void and replacing his offensive production would be a top priority.

    Mike Moustakas, 3B/2B
    FanGraphs Top 50 Free Agent Ranking: 14
    Kiley McDaniel’s contract projection: 2 years, $32M

    It was because of Travis Shaw, coming off of back-to-back terrific seasons, that Mike Moustakas began the year at second base, a position he had never played as a professional. Now it’s because of Shaw, who was abysmal in 2019, that the Brewers probably can’t afford to let Moustakas get away.

    Unless the Brewers are planning to enter the bidding war for Anthony Rendon or Josh Donaldson, there are no better third base options than Moustakas, who had a 113 wRC+ and 35 homers in 584 plate appearances last season. Asdrúbal Cabrera and Todd Frazier are probably the next best available third basemen on the free agent market.

    Drew Pomeranz, RP/SP
    FanGraphs Top 50 Free Agent Ranking: 24
    Kiley McDaniel’s contract projection: 2 years, $16M

    After moving into a full-time relief role after being acquired from the Giants at the trade deadline, the 30-year-old lefty appeared to have found his calling. In 25 regular season appearances with the Brewers, Pomeranz had a 2.39 ERA, 2.68 FIP, 15.4 K/9, two saves, and 12 holds. Now he’s one of the best relievers on the free agent market. The Brewers will be one of many teams hoping to sign him this offseason.

    With Corey Knebel doubtful for Opening Day as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, the team will continue to rely heavily on Josh Hader to close out games unless they can add another capable late-inning reliever.

    Gio Gonzalez, SP
    FanGraphs Top 50 Free Agent Ranking: 40
    Kiley McDaniel’s contract projection: 1 year, $8M

    While he wasn’t able to work deep into games — he completed more than six innings in just one of his 17 starts — Gonzalez was still very effective at run prevention. He allowed three earned runs or less in all but three of those starts. The Brewers are probably in the market for at least one starting pitcher this offseason, but a reliable innings-eater would be a better fit on this current staff than the 34-year-old Gonzalez would be.

    Jordan Lyles, SP
    FanGraphs Top 50 Free Agent Ranking: 45
    Kiley McDaniel’s contract projection: 2 years, $14M

    It’s taken a long time — he debuted way back in 2011 at age 20 — but Lyles has finally established that he can be a very good starting pitcher in the major leagues; he is a fit on just about every team as a back-of-the-rotation starter or multi-inning reliever.

    The Brewers, who apparently like him a lot since they acquired him during each of the past two seasons, could look to bring him back again. It’s likely that the 29-year-old will get higher offers from more pitcher-needy teams, though, while the Brewers could continue to give Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes a chance to break into the rotation and Jimmy Nelson a chance to return to his pre-shoulder surgery form.

    Total WAR: 10.9

    Pittsburgh Pirates | Depth Chart | Payroll

    Francisco Liriano, RP

    For the first time in his 14-year career, Liriano pitched an entire season out of the bullpen. And he was pretty good, posting a 3.47 ERA and 4.53 FIP with 12 holds in 69 appearances. With closer Felipe Vázquez’s career likely over following his September arrest, the Pirates head into the offseason without their two best left-handed relievers from 2019.

    The bullpen still has plenty of talented right-handers, including Kyle Crick, Keone Kela, and Richard Rodriguez, but they only have two lefties, Sam Howard and Williams Jerez, neither of whom is particularly experienced, on their 40-man roster. If he’s not a starter, Steven Brault would be a strong candidate for an integral role in the bullpen.

    Total WAR: 0.3

    St. Louis Cardinals | Depth Chart | Payroll

    Marcell Ozuna, OF
    FanGraphs Top 50 Free Agent Ranking: 7
    Kiley McDaniel’s contract projection: 4 year, $70M

    The Cardinals have an abundance of outfielders ready to compete for Ozuna’s starting spot, although only Dexter Fowler is a guaranteed a starting job in 2020, while Tommy Edman could split his time between the infield and outfield.

    Of those who’ll need to earn regular at-bats, Harrison Bader, José Martínez, and Tyler O’Neill are the familiar faces. Four rookie outfielders are also on the 40-man roster — Lane Thomas and Randy Arozarena, who each spent time in the majors in 2019, and two others, Adolis Garcia and Justin Williams, who each spent last season in the minors after major league stints in 2018.

    The most interesting candidate could be 21-year-old Dylan Carlson, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2016, who had a 142 wRC+ with 21 homers and 18 stolen bases in 483 Double-A plate appearances before a late-season promotion to Triple-A. He’ll have a tough time winning a spot on Opening Day, but could force his way to the majors by mid-season.

    Michael Wacha, SP

    With Adam Wainwright already re-signed for 2020, the Cardinals only have one rotation spot up for grabs and enough good in-house options that Wacha’s days with the team are likely done. After a disappointing 2019 season, the 28-year-old could use a change of scenery, anyways. As long as he’s healthy, there won’t be a shortage of teams willing to give him a chance to bounce back in 2020.

    As long as the Cardinals have not closed the door on Carlos Martinez’s career as a starting pitcher, he would be the favorite for the open rotation spot. Alex Reyes, one of the best pitching prospects in the game for years, will also have a chance if he can ever stay healthy. He’s barely pitched since 2016 due to injuries. Daniel Ponce de Leon, Ryan Helsley, and Génesis Cabrera would be the leading rotation candidates if Martinez and Reyes aren’t in the mix.

    Total WAR: 2.4

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  • Small Sample, Big Outlook: Bryan Abreu

    Posted 13 hours ago

    For my last two articles, I highlighted two guys who made pretty big impacts in 2019. For this article, I’m going to be looking at a more under the radar guy who only pitched 8.2 innings in the majors in 2019, but has the potential to provide great late round value in 2020. Bryan Abreu isn’t an unknown prospect; as he was widely regarded as one of the Astros top five prospects after his breakout 2018, where he struck out 90 batters in only 54 IP. His 41.9 K% in 2018 was the highest of any non-reliever with at least 50 IP in the entire minor leagues, so people were intrigued to see how Abreu would build on his success in 2019. At the beginning of the year it looked like more of the same for Abreu, as he sported a 42.4 K% through his first three starts at A+. Following this third start, the Astros decided to get aggressive and promote him to AA, despite him having less than 50 IP at full season ball. In hindsight, I think this move was a bit questionable, as Abreu still has some command issues that I think he could use more time working out at the lower minors, but this move also made it clear to me that the Astros had more interest in Abreu as a reliever. 

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  • Jake Odorizzi and José Abreu choose the qualifying offer over free agency

    Posted 16 hours ago

    Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

    Both decisions highlight problems with the rule.

    Of the 10 players extended a qualifying offer, José Abreu and Jake Odorizzi were the two who accepted it. Odorizzi and Abreu will remain with the Twins and White Sox respectively for 2020 and unless either player renegotiates a longer deal, they will earn $17.8 million for the season.

    Since the qualifying offer was introduced to baseball in 2012, six of 80 players have accepted it. No player accepted the offer in the first three seasons of its existence. If Will Smith had not been offered a three-year, $40 million contract by the Atlanta Braves, then Smith would have made for three players to accept the qualifying offer.

    Everyone’s reason for accepting the qualifying offer is different, but the common denominator here isn’t that the offer is a large sum of money. While it’s true that the qualifying offer often exceeds what a player would expect to get annually from the open market, the qualifying offer actually fell for the first time this year. The money isn’t what attracts players to the qualifying offer, it’s the promise of avoiding the open market with a draft pick attached.

    Accepting the qualifying offer specifically works for Abreu. It seemed like no matter what, he would stay in Chicago because of the mutual interest. The qualifying offer just affected how much money he would make. Abreu can either negotiate a longer term deal with the White Sox or head into 2020 with a one-year $17.8 million contract. The qualifying offer may have actually boosted his earnings.

    Abreu, however, is precisely the sort of player that would struggle mightily to get the sort of contract he deserved on the market with a draft pick attached to him. He turns 33 in January, he’s defensively limited, and his bat isn’t what it once was. Abreu, though, still crushes lefties, and he’s a decent hitter overall. He might have been able to beat the one-year $17.8 million without, but the draft pick penalty makes that impossible. If Abreu didn’t want to remain in Chicago, the qualifying offer would have made it nearly impossible for him to leave without taking a pay cut. Free agents should have autonomy in choosing where and for whom they want to work, and the current QO rules infringe upon that autonomy.

    Odorizzi’s decision more clearly highlights the problems inherent in the qualifying offer system. Now, Odorizzi may wind up renegotiating a multi-year deal with the Twins, but Odorizzi didn’t have the clear desire to remain with his organization in the way that Abreu did. Odorizzi is coming off an All-Star season in which he saw a spike in his strikeout rate with a velocity jump that followed suit. Odorizzi was the tenth-best free agent on the market according to MLB Trade Rumors. They estimated that he would earn $51 million over three years, but Odorizzi and his agent presumably thought the risk of getting Keuchel’d was too great. Dallas Keuchel had to wait until after the draft to sign a contract despite coming off a 200+ inning season with a 3.87 DRA.

    Odorizzi’s decision is a reminder that the qualifying offer penalizes the player more than the signing team. A generous view is that this penalty is an unintended consequence of a rule drafted in the spirit of parity. The rule was designed to curb big market teams so they couldn’t outspend the small market teams while also maintaining the same advantages in the draft. A less generous view is that the qualifying offer is another ploy to suppress player salaries by crippling their earning power upon entering free agency.

    In either situation, the qualifying offer is an unnecessary wrinkle to the free agent market. There’s no need create penalize teams for spending on players. Every team could easily afford to run up against the competitive balance tax threshold. Even the Royals, who claim they can’t afford to add much more than Alex Gordon a couple bullpen arms, are valued at over $1 billion.

    Even if we believe that certain teams absolutely cannot afford to match the Dodgers and Yankees, penalizing a team when it does sign a top free agent works against parity. The simplest solution would just be to do away with the qualifying offer entirely and allow free agents to freely negotiate deals without a burden artificially planted on their value. It’s a misguided attempt at balance at best and malfeasance at worst.

    Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.

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  • Effectively Wild Episode 1457: The Sign-Stealing Spiral

    Posted 18 hours ago

    Ben Lindbergh and Meg Rowley banter about the first stirrings on the free-agent market, the latest developments in the Astros sign-stealing scandal, where MLB investigation’s might lead, what the appropriate punishments would be, the psychology of sign-stealing, whether pitchers should call pitches, fighting technology with technology, Mike Trout’s MVP award win, a fixable flaw in the BBWAA’s awards voting, the hirings of Ben Cherington and Gabe Kapler, and EW Secret Santa sign-ups, plus a postscript about still more aspects of the sign-stealing story.

    Audio intro: Spiritualized, "You Lie You Cheat"
    Audio outro: Doug & The Beets, "Bangin’ on a Trash Can"

    Link to story on teams’ sign-stealing paranoia
    Link to Rob’s sign-stealing audio footprint story
    Link to article about crime deterrence
    Link to FanGraphs post on Trout’s third MVP win
    Link to Andrew Baggarly on Kapler
    Link to Grant Brisbee on Kapler
    Link to video of Darvish and Yelich
    Link to Jeff’s 2017 post about the Astros’ projected strikeout rate
    Link to EW Secret Santa sign-up
    Link to order The MVP Machine

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