Friday, June 23, 2017

2017 Teams With a Chance to Set Home Run History: The Double-Digit Dinger Club

A few years ago, the Houston Astros shocked everyone by jumping out to a surprising early division lead, and they did it in part by hitting a lot of dingers. As I watched the season progress, an interesting subplot cropped up, beneath the question of whether the surprising young club would hold on to make the playoffs: they had a chance to make home run history.

No individual player was challenging any records, though. Rather, it was a team record the announcers would update viewers on: Most players with double-digit home runs. The all-time record was 11, set by the 2004 Detroit Tigers, who, like the 2015 ‘Stros, had no big masher leading the way; both teams were led by 27-homer guys (Carlos Pena and Evan Gattis, respectively). The Astros ended up tying this mark towards the end of the year, and had two more players finishing the season with 9.*

*Trivia time: almost half of those players aren’t on the Astros anymore, just a season and a half later. I’ll let you know who they are later in the column.

It’s a remarkable set of circumstances that leads to a team having more 10-home run guys than available lineup spots, but MLB was entering a period ideal for this, given the overall upward shift in home run totals. That trend continued in 2016, and another team joined those two atop the leaderboards: the 2016 Twins. Despite losing 103 games, just shy of a dozen Minnesota players went yard ten or more times last year.

MLB has seen yet another increase in home run totals this year, which got me wondering: could we see our fourth 11-10-homer team this year? Is there a better name for that exclusive club? And most importantly, what are the odds that some time has a full twelve players reach that mark? With just over 70 games in the books, lets take a look at the early leaders in 10-homer players, and who else they might see reach that total.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Do the Astros Need to Make Any Trades?

Today is the sixth anniversary of Hot Corner Harbor, and by some coincidence, I’ll be looking at a similar question as I did six years ago. Back then, I was wondering if one of the top teams in the league needed to make any moves to shore up their roster, despite having the second-best record in the majors. Today, I’ll be doing the same, only this time for the team with the best record in the majors: do the Astros need to make a trade, and if so, for whom?

Let’s start with the obvious: the Astros are already a really, really good team. You don’t get to a 38-16 record at the start of June if you aren’t. Sure, sometimes bad teams will fluke their way into a division lead at this point, or close to it. For instance, look no further than June 1, 2014, where half of the division leaders finished the season between 79 and 83 wins… but those types of teams aren’t generally 38-16 with a 11-game division lead. The Astros are already in rare territory.

Of course, nothing guarantees that they’ll keep up this pace, and even if they do finish the year with 114 wins, there’s still a chance they get bounced early in the playoffs (remember the 2001 Mariners?). Upgrading an area of weakness couldn’t hurt.

So what would that area of weakness be? Well, the team is second in the majors in both most runs scored per game (barely behind the Nationals) and fewest runs allowed per game (behind the Dodgers). That…seems pretty balanced. Digging deeper, we see that the Astros lead the majors with a 121 wRC+. That’s as a team, which is just incredible. They’ve hit, on average, 21% better than a league-average hitter. So yeah, they’ve got their bases covered there, both metaphorically and literally.

Their pitching isn’t quite that strong; they have a team ERA- (like ERA+, but below 100 is better instead of above) of 86, fourth-best staff in the majors. However, it’s worth noting that they’re currently outperforming their FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) by a little bit. At 90, they drop all the way to seventh in the league. Both are good, they just don’t live up to the high standards the hitters set.

Breaking it down to starters and closers is a little rougher; while their bullpen rates highly, their starters currently carry an 87 ERA- (fifth in the league) and a 97 FIP-. This makes some sense: while Dallas Keuchel has looked like his old Cy-Young-winning self and Lance McCullers has broken out in a big way, the rest of the rotation has been more ordinary. Collin McHugh has been hurt all year, Charlie Morton has been fine but just went on the DL, Joe Musgrove isn’t super overpowering and is prone to surrendering dingers, and Mike Fiers at the back end has been giving up homers like he thinks the Sky Gods demand sacrifices. They could stand to have a little bit more depth here. After all, you can never have enough arms.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Out of the Park Baseball 18: Trying to Build a Playoff-Caliber Core, Part 3

Out of the Park Baseball allowed me to try their latest release, Out of the Park Baseball 18. For this year’s edition of my review, I wanted to do something different: a multi-part attempt to build a championship core for a rebuilding team to get them to the playoffs. In Part 1, I added Mike Trout to this year’s San Diego Padres and watched them go 68-94. In Part 2, I added Trout and Chris Sale and watched the team miss the second Wild Card in the last week of the season, finishing 83-78. What would my third go-around bring?

ATTEMPT 3: 2017-B

As the start of the season rolled around in the 2017-B timeline, the San Diego Padres made a series of shocking moves. On a single day, they managed to trade Manuel Margot for Mike Trout, Jered Weaver for Chris Sale, and Erick Aybar for Manny Machado. Fans didn't question this stroke of good luck, as it considerably brightened their outlook on the coming year.

Opening Day was a 4-1 loss to Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, with the new acquisitions putting up some mediocre performances. Trout went 2-4 with 2 singles, Machado went 0-3, and Sale gave up 4 runs on 5 hits (2 home runs) and 4 walks with 5 strikeouts in 7.0 innings.

We end the first month just above .500, at 14-13. That puts us in third place, just three games behind the NL West-leading Diamondbacks and a half-game behind the second place Dodgers. That feels a little disappointing, but it is two games ahead of where the Machado-less Padres of 2017-A were at this point, and they turned okay.*

*And in a representation of the variance that occurs within any baseball season, it also means that we're six games ahead of the Sale-and-Machado-less Padres of 2017, and three games ahead of the Trout-Sale-and-Machado-less Padres of real-world 2017 were at the end of April.

Mike Trout is doing his usual Mike-Trout-esque things, hitting .302/.407/.615 (a 185 OPS+) with 7 homers. Chris Sale is only kind of doing Chris-Sale-type things, though (44 K, 2.98 ERA, 125 ERA+, 3.25 FIP in 42.1 IP), and Manny Machado is decidedly un-Manny-Machado-like (.240/.339/.310, 86 OPS+; mediocre fielding stats, although he's playing shortstop now). We also don't really have the backup we did in 2017-A; Yangervis Solarte is playing decently, but not one else is really stepping up yet.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Out of the Park Baseball 18: Trying to Build a Playoff-Caliber Core, Part 2

Out of the Park Baseball once again gave me the chance to try the newest version of their game, Out of the Park Baseball 18. I decided that, this year, I would run a more comprehensive simulation than it years’ past: I would take the roster of a tanking team (namely, the San Diego Padres) and slowly add star players until the team made it to the postseason.

In Part 1, the team got an infusion of Mike Trout in center field, but it wound up not being enough; the team lost 94 games, coming nowhere near playoff baseball. Clearly, one man wouldn’t be enough to turn this team into a powerhouse. But what about two men? Enjoy these dispatches from the alternate timeline, 2017-A:

ATTEMPT 2: 2017-A

Okay, so the best position player of today wouldn't be enough to bump the Padres up to playoff status. What about the best pitcher on top of that?

There was just one problem with that: if my goal was to take the Padres to the playoffs, taking Clayton Kershaw directly from a division rival would have double the effect of just adding a great pitcher. I'd be directly harming someone standing right in the way of my goal. So at this point, I basically decided that I would have to limit myself to taking only the best AL players, as even players from other NL teams would still make my path to the Wild Card easier.

And so, that's how I wound up adding both Mike Trout and Chris Sale to the 2017-A San Diego Padres. After once again sending Manuel Margot to the Angels, I followed that up by sending Jered Weaver to Boston. They probably won't notice the difference, right?

Monday, May 8, 2017

Out of the Park Baseball 18: Trying to Build a Playoff-Caliber Core, Part 1

Once again this year, I was given a chance to try this year’s edition of Out of the Park Baseball (Out of the Park Baseball 18) and review it in some way. For those who are unaware, Out of the Park Baseball is a simulation game, meaning it focuses on the managerial and front office side of the game. But even that is underselling it; it's the most complete experience a baseball fan could want in this regard. You can simulate the current season into the future, or start from any historical season in history, or even generate an entirely fictitious league.

In the past, I’ve used the game’s amazing simulation abilities to run some scenarios of various levels of craziness; this year, I wanted to go in a slightly different direction though. Something equally as impossible as putting Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, and Kevin Brown on the same team in their prime. Rather than getting deep into one scenario, I want to instead use it to re-run the same scenario many times, each time tweaking things and recording the results. The basis of this thought experiment is simple: every now and then, I'll sit and think about various "cores" of good teams, specifically things like how good the best stars on a team need to be, or how many of them a team needs.*

*For one example of some of this, see my ramblings on Lou Piniella and the Mariners from when he was on the Veterans Committee Hall of Fame ballot this past offseason.

In practical terms: I'm going to take the 2017 Padres*, and I'm going to add Mike Trout and see if they make the playoffs.** If they don't, I'll go back to the start of 2017 and add a second amazing player; if they don't make it that time, start the process over a third time, and so on.

*While they aren't the worst team in the majors right now, I settled on this example before the season. It just took me a while to carve out the free time to play, at which point it was too late to switch. Either way, it's hard to argue that a team looked more in it to tank in 2017 than San Diego.

**Some may argue that this isn’t too different than the 2017 Angels. I’m not sure I could argue against that claim too vigorously.

Without further ado, here is the first part of my grand experiment for this year:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Predicting Future Hall of Famers 2017 Follow-Up: The Disappearance of Below-Median Starters

In the previous post, I was discussing active pitchers above the median Wins Above Replacement for Hall of Famers by age when I noted something interesting at the end: there are only two starters* above the overall median who are eligible for the Hall but not inducted or still on the ballot. Kevin Brown and Rick Reuschel both cleared the median by less than a full Win. Other than them, everyone above the median has made it.

*As defined last time, this is pitchers who began post-1919 with 10% or more of their total games as a starter. See last time for the reasoning on that, although I'll be jumping back and forth in this one between "Live Ball" starters and "Total" starters; I'll make the distinction clear when those shifts happen.

This makes for an interesting contrast with the hitters. Limiting ourselves to just post-1919 debuts so that we're working with comparable sets of players, the median WAR for hitters is 65.1 (held by Craig Biggio)*, just a bit lower than the pitchers' mark of 67.95 (between Jim Palmer and Carl Hubbell). While there are only two pitchers above the median not yet in or still on the ballot, there are nine such hitters, ranging from Rafael Palmeiro (71.6 WAR) to Willie Randolph (65.5). And if we expand this to include players on the ballot, it becomes five starters to thirteen position players (plus the ineligible Pete Rose). And while those three pitchers all look likely to get inducted, the four hitters are much more uncertain, with Barry Bonds and Edgar Martinez looking likely to get inducted before they age out but Larry Walker and Manny Ramirez looking like long shots.

*Note that this is a little different than the median I used in the previous piece; that’s because I did not limit that median to post-1919 batters. However, I wanted the two to be on a level playing field here, so there’s a slight upwards shift as a result.

That's an interesting level of uniformity. Maybe this is a sign of those pitchers all being particularly obvious? But let's look at the flip-side; how have players below the median done? After all, the median is the middle point, not the end-all, be-all. We should be seeing at least some below-median names getting inducted, right? Well, that's the interesting part: we really aren't for pitchers.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Predicting Today's Future Hall of Fame Starting Pitchers, 2017 Edition

Continuing the fifth anniversary of my “Predicting Future Hall of Famer” projects, we of course have the pitchers next. Here’s this year’s hitters article, if you need to get caught up first, though.

As a quick recap of how this works, I look at what the Hall median Wins Above Replacement is for starters at each age, look at how many total players had that much WAR at that same age (only for retired players who have had a chance to appear on the ballot, with pitchers still on the ballot factored out to account for their uncertain outcome), then take a percentage to figure out a rough numerical “chance” each active player has.

I’m interested especially in starting pitchers specifically, as relievers are their own sort of beast. The Hall has only inducted a handful of relievers, and the few they’ve inducted don’t adhere to a pattern quite as well as the starters, who correlate pretty strongly with career WAR. At every step of the way, I’ve filtered my numbers down to pitchers who started 10% of more of their games played; this seems low, but I wanted to factor in starters who were eased into the role via the bullpen, as some Hall of Famers were.

Additionally, I’ve filtered this just to Hall of Famers who debuted post-deadball era (1920 on). Starting pitching is a pretty constantly evolving role, and a lot of the earliest starters would really mess with our numbers; take, for instance, Old Hoss Radbourn, who debuted at 26, pitched for eleven seasons, including ones of over 13 and 19 WAR, and then retired. We simply aren’t going to have any pitchers today who have a career that looks like that, so it didn’t make much sense to me to include them. I’ve picked a hard cut-off for the sake of convenience.

And I’ll run through the standard disclaimers, which are even more relevant for the pitchers than for the hitters. This is solely based on precedent, which can be a fickle thing in Hall of Fame voting. This is especially true when you factor in that the players in each “not in the Hall of Fame” group still have a chance to reach Cooperstown in the future by way of the Veterans Committee, which is even less predictable than the standard BBWAA voting. And of course, this isn’t to determine who will wind up “deserving” of making the Hall of Fame, as plenty of deserving players get snubbed. On the flip side, this doesn’t mean any player has no chance, as half of the players in the Hall didn’t reach the median, by definition.

Okay then, onward to the modern starters with Hall hopes:

Friday, March 3, 2017

Predicting Today's Future Hall of Fame Hitters, 2017 Edition

This year is the fifth anniversary of my annual “Predicting Future Hall of Famers” project (see the past four years here), so I don’t know how much of an introduction is necessary. Let’s just jump right into the methodology refresher so that we can move on to the active players on pace, shall we?

Basically, I’m looking at how the Hall’s elected players (hitters today, pitchers next) have historically looked at each age en route to their eventual election into the Hall of Fame. I use Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference’s version, for the sake of research) due to its high correlation to Hall election, and look at how each hitter looked, career-total-wise, each year. I pick out the median as a baseline, then look at what percentage of players with the median WAR at that age eventually got into the Hall.

To put concrete numbers on this, say that there were 99 hiters in the Hall of Fame, and the 50th most WAR at the age of 28 was 30. I would then see how many total players in history had 30 WAR at 28, then take a percentage of players in the Hall out of total players (removing players still on the ballot or not yet eligible, as their status is still up in the air). So if there were 100 players with 30 WAR at 28, we’d say there was a 50% chance of a player at the Hall median for WAR at age 28 eventually getting elected. It’s a little simple and crude, but it’s a good visualization of how historic Hall of Fame careers have looked.

And of course, the standard disclaimers: this is based entirely on precedent, which is a fickle thing in Hall voting. Good, deserving players get snubbed all the time from Cooperstown. Other times they have to wait years before the Veterans Committee before they get in. On the flip side, by definition, half of the players in the Hall of Fame were below the median, so not hitting the mark is not a death sentence for their eventual enshrinement. This is just to pick out the strongest cases and assign rough odds.

Good, now, with all that out of the way, let’s see who all is absolutely, totally, 100% going to get elected on the first ballot 20 years from now:

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Best Players Without a Retired Number (+Quiz!)

As you may or may not know, I have a bit of an interest when it comes to retired numbers. And that intersected with my interest in trivia a few years ago, when I decided to make a Sporcle Quiz on the best players by Wins Above Replacement who had never had their numbers retired. Well, with the Hall of Fame induction of Ivan Rodriguez last month came the news that the Texas Rangers would finally be retiring his number 7, which reminded me of that quiz.

Ivan Rodriguez wasn’t the only bit of turnover, though. In the five years (really? It’s that old?) since I had published that list, over a fifth of the names on it were no longer eligible, and twenty-five individuals in total had gotten their numbers retired by a team. This year alone will see at least four (edit: five, with the White Sox's announcement that they'd retire Mark Buehrle's number, but more on that later), between Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez for the Mariners, David Ortiz for the Red Sox, and Derek Jeter for the Yankees.

With all that change, I decided totally starting from scratch might be the easiest plan if I wanted to revisit that quiz, to see what all was different. And while I was at it, I could comment on the individuals on the list in a sort of mini-article, looking at which ones might one day get their number retired and which ones probably wouldn’t.

The quiz focuses on players who have actually worn a number, as retiring numbers for pre-numbered jersey players is a little more difficult. Not to say it hasn’t ever been done, just that it didn’t seem fair to compare the two standards. I did include a bunch of pre-number players as bonus answers though, for those who feel like seeking them out (44 in total).

Of course, if you want to play the quiz, reading the article would probably ruin the fun of it, so all of the body text will be hidden behind the “read more” break. If you want to play the Sporcle trivia quiz on “Best Players by WAR Without a Retired Number”, click here now. Spoilers will follow!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Scott Rolen: Getting an Early Start on the 2018 Hall of Fame Push

After months of anticipation, the Hall of Fame voting results were finally announced on Wednesday. We got a three-person class for 2017, featuring Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez, and all are extremely deserving of the honor. Their inductions makes for twelve total electees in the past four years, tying the Hall’s record set from 1936-9.

Of course, the interesting thing about Hall of Fame voting is that, with their induction, we can already begin looking forward to the next cycle. We know who all will be appearing on the ballot, and we know all the relevant stats we could need to discuss their inductions already; nothing will change in the interim. And so, it’s looking like the Hall will easily shatter their five year record of thirteen*.

*This is sort of fudging things; the Hall of Fame didn’t actually hold elections in 1940 or 1941, meaning that their “five year” record was actually spread out from 1936-1942. Only Rogers Hornsby made it on the first year back, although every other player in the top 30 of total votes would eventually make it to Cooperstown.

Trevor Hoffman only fell five votes short, while Vladimir Guerrero fell fifteen short. That makes them seem like safe bets to make it in on the 2018 ballot. But at the same time, we’ll also be seeing an incredible class of freshmen, headlined by likely first ballot picks Chipper Jones and Jim Thome as well as Andruw Jones, Omar Vizquel, and Johan Santana. And that’s on top of the rest of the returning class, which is incredible strong as well, and featured nine players with 50% of the vote or more (tied for the most all-time).

Clearing out three players looks good, but going forward, it might not have been enough. Which makes me incredibly nervous that Scott Rolen is going to be lost in the shuffle. Maybe he’ll get something in the low 20%, which is as good as not going anywhere, but I’m even worried about him getting the 5% minimum required to stay on the ballot. We’ve lost some deserving players that way in the past, including (most recently) Kenny Lofton and Rolen’s former teammate Jim Edmonds.

So, what can be done about it? How do you make someone see that a player is deserving of induction? I think the best cases are the ones that you can reduce to one simple, straight-forward concept. Voters work better in one dimension than two; it’s why they have an easier time inducting “milestone” guys, or ones who were the best at one thing rather than very good at a bunch. Maybe you can use two points if they work together well and you can get them repeated a lot (like some advocates have done in the past with Raines or Bert Blyleven). But those points have to distill down the larger case for the player.

So let’s work in reverse. Let’s start with the broader question, “What makes Scott Rolen worthy of the Hall of Fame?”, then from there reduce it to a list of highlights, and then from there see if we can narrow it down to a one-sentence “elevator pitch”-type case.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Congrats to the Class of 2017, but also the 2017 Hall of Fame Vote Showed Why 10-Person Ballots Are Awful

Yesterday’s Hall of Fame inductions didn’t turn out to be a disaster! That seems like a good place to start.

I had been following Ryan Thibodaux’s annual Ballot Tracker, and I was starting to get a little nervous there. It started off very strong, with five players above the 75% mark needed for induction. Five! I couldn’t believe it! That would put it in a tie with the initial Class of 1936 for largest number of inductees in a year, and it would go a hell of a long way in clearing out some of the ballot’s logjam.

But of course, things are never as rosy as the initial predictions look. Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines continued to pull in strong numbers, so they were never in doubt. But first Vladimir Guerrero* slipped below the mark needed for election, then Trevor Hoffman followed. It was starting to look like Ivan Rodriguez would follow, ending up at 79.6% with a strong possibility of a big drop coming once the anonymous ballots came in. After all, only one catcher had ever been inducted on the first ballot**, and I had always assumed Trevor Hoffman would have the better chance of making it in this year.

*I’m still kind of surprised that Guerrero did so well. In all honesty, he wasn’t one of the five best corner outfielders on the ballot this year, and even if you limited it to just the non-steroid set, it was still difficult to argue that he was better than third best at the position. In a world in which Raines took ten years on the ballot, Bagwell took seven, Larry Walker is stuck in the low 20s, Jim Edmonds fell off after one season…it just doesn’t make much sense. I guess voters went for the big home run and hit totals though (even if he didn’t hit 500 or 3000)? I won’t complain, as I think he’s deserving and I’m not nearly as concerned now about guys going in “in the correct order” as I once was, but it’s still kind of confusing.

**I still can’t get over how crazy this is. This might be the clearest sign that something in the BBWAA’s approach in voting was wrong, that a position had only had one first ballot guy. Hopefully, Pudge is the signal of coming change.

After a start like that, and a ballot that overall saw an incredible number of players pulling in large totals (nine different players got greater than 50% of the vote, tied with the all-time record set seven decades earlier in 1947*), only getting two players in would have been an incredible disappointment. But thankfully, Rodriguez held on to join Johnny Bench as the only first ballot backstops. Three candidates isn’t bad, in the grand scheme of things. And all three constitute and incredible Class of 2017.

*Every one of those nine would eventually make it in to Cooperstown. That year saw the top four get in: Carl Hubbell, Frankie Frisch, Mickey Cochrane, and Lefty Grove. Fifth-place Pie Traynor and ninth-place Herb Pennock made it the next year (with Pennock somehow leapfrogging everyone on his way to the most votes), with sixth place Charlie Gehringer coming the year after that. Rabbit Maranville and Dizzy Dean wouldn’t make it until the early ‘50s. Overall, I’d say this ballot is much stronger than that one, and yet, the top seventeen finishers that year all found their way to the Hall eventually.

But then…we discovered that Hoffman only missed by five votes, while Guerrero missed by fifteen. This marks the third time in four years that we’ve had a candidate miss by an extremely narrow margin like that, after Craig Biggio fell two votes shy back in 2014. And of course, if you go back just a few more years to 2010, you’ll find it happened again, with Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar missing 75% by five and eight votes, respectively. Clearly, this is not a rare issue.

And what’s worse is that, given how crowded the ballot is, the 10-player limit on Hall ballots is what probably kept them out. Well, maybe not Alomar and Blyleven, given that 2010 was a little less crowded and they had other things going on, but certainly with the other three; after all, public ballots over on the tracker averaged 8.5 names. And Ryan even kept track of names columnist mentioned when they said they would have voted for more than 10 players. Hoffman has four votes, while Vlad has ten*. Given that we don’t know 40% of the ballots, and that not every full ballot that we know even listed eleventh choices, it’s basically a given they would have made it.

*Eleven if you count Joe Posnanski, who wrote a good column on how hard it was to decide his final spot but wasn't included in the tracker's list.

This has been a recurring issue, and everyone knows it, but the Hall refuses to do anything. It’s stupid to have players competing for votes when the question is simply “Are they worthy?”, and not “Are they more worthy than everyone else on this arbitrary ballot?”. But even dumber, the Hall has refused to compromise on this issue at all, shooting down a request from the BBWAA to moderately expand the ballot to twelve slots two years ago.

Nothing about Hoffman or Guerrero will change next year. 75% of writers already think they’re deserving, which should be the most important thing. Instead, about 330 writers will need to waste at least 660 ballot slots (out of a possible ~4400) on guys that, for all intents and purposes, have already cleared the necessary requirements, ballot slots that could be better spread around to the other five players who cleared 45%, or the incredible class of newcomers (which includes Jim Thome, Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, Johan Santana, and Omar Vizquel, among others), or the numerous players struggling at the bottom of the results who deserve more attention (like Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Billy Wagner*, etc….). All in all, 19 different players on next year’s ballot will have 50 or more career WAR, and that’s excluding Hoffman, Wagner, and Vizquel. With that much depth, we're going to need as many spare votes as possible.

*Let’s be honest, if Hoffman is going in, it’s very difficult to argue against Billy Wagner unless you reduce their cases to comparing save totals.

Fewer votes being wasted on guys who “should” be in already means a greater chance that someone deserving falls off the ballot, or sees their case stall out (which, given the time limit has been reduced from fifteen years to ten, is much more urgent). It’s a waste of time for everyone involved, and there’s no good reason for this rule to exist. Baseball writers have historically been fairly resistant to change; when they’re proactively requesting fixes, something is massively wrong in the system.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The 2017 Hall-of-Fame-a-Palooza (featuring over 20 guys up for induction, plus my ballot)

When we last left off, I was writing about my thoughts on the Veterans Committee election, albeit a little late. It’s a shame, too, because maybe my random article on the internet would have filtered up to someone on the committee, and they could have shared it with the other fifteen voters to spread my wisdom. I should probably write about the BBWAA ballot before the results are announced to avoid a similar tragedy.

The easiest way is to probably just look at last year’s ballot and look for what I would change. So, without further ado, last year’s ten-person ballot:

Jeff Bagwell
Barry Bonds
Roger Clemens
Jim Edmonds
Edgar Martinez
Mike Mussina
Mike Piazza
Tim Raines
Curt Schilling
Larry Walker

Yep, I did the “don’t vote for Ken Griffey, Jr. because he’s a lock so you can spread the votes around”. Clearly, the BBWAA did not find my article last year, as Jim Edmonds couldn’t lock up the requisite votes to stick around another year. That, plus the election of Mike Piazza, freed up two spots for me this year, which is good, because we got four solid candidates in Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Jorge Posada. So, we can just add those names and be done with…

Nope, never mind, I did that math wrong; four is more than two. I’m gonna have to do some parsing of the names. And I forgot all the holdovers I couldn’t vote for anyway; even with Alan Trammell and Mark McGwire aging off, there are still plenty of interesting names remaining.

Let’s start with the most simplistic ranking: if we just line up everyone by Wins Above Replacement (WAR, Baseball-Reference edition), what does that top ten look like?


That’s…not too bad, actually. It’s basically my ballot from last year, with first-timers Pudge and Manny thrown in to fill those open spots. And not only that, but there’s a pretty clear demarcation there-Gary Sheffield is next, a full 8 Wins below Edgar, with the rest of the ballot below 60. If we were trying to draw a line somewhere between those four names between 68 and 70 WAR, that would be one thing, but this is a lot more noticeable break.

And I do think some positions need some upward adjustments to their WAR totals; notably, catcher and relievers. But Rodriguez made it on his own, while Posada is the lowest non-reliever I think of as “in consideration”, with only 42.7. A 25+ WAR boost is just ridiculous. Posada is right where I would consider the borderline for catchers, so I’m not too bent out of shape by omitting him anyway. With the Hall already missing catchers like Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, and Bill Freehan, I’m much more comfortable leaving him off my list.

Then, there are the relievers. We’re basically looking at Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman, and Billy Wagner. And I can see them all having a case for Cooperstown, but given how crowded the ballot is, I wouldn’t want to vote for more than one. So which one do I go with? Let’s line them up, and include some other stats, excluding their save totals to make who is who less clear:

A: 29.6 bWAR, 26.6 fWAR, 1289.1 IP, 2.93 FIP, 1251 K, 8.73 K/9, 1.256 WHIP, 82.3 SV%
B: 28.4 bWAR, 26.1 fWAR, 1089.1 IP, 3.08 FIP, 1133 K, 9.36 K/9, 1.058 WHIP, 88.8% SV%
C: 28.1 bWAR, 24.1 fWAR, 903.0 IP, 2.73 FIP, 1196 K, 11.92 K/9*, 0.988 WHIP, 85.9 SV%

*This would be the all-time record, if C had enough innings to qualify.
So…which one do you pick? Because honestly…they all look too similar to me. I just can’t vote for one of them and feel like it wasn’t made somewhat arbitrarily. And I’m still not convinced that any of them deserves a spot over the other ten.

(For reference, A was Smith, B was Hoffman, and C was Wagner.)

Let’s look at things a different way, though; how does our list look when we use Wins Above Average? For reference, WAA is basically WAR, with the baseline set at 2 rather than 0 (that is to say, to calculate a player’s WAA for a season, subtract 2 from their WAR). This gives us a better sense of dominance, how much better the players were than just some random starter. For that, we’ve got:

Sammy Sosa-28.0
Jeff Kent-26.3
J.D. Drew-25.0
Mike Cameron-20.8
Fred McGriff-19.6

First things first: not a great look for those last five, falling below Drew and Cameron (at the same time though, good on those two; they had great but underrated careers, even if they fell a little short overall). And this further cements my belief that I can scratch off all three closers.

Once again, the same ten names are at the top, albeit in a shuffled order. And once again, there’s a decently-sized gap between ten and eleven. I feel like I can say that the top six are locks, because of how far ahead of the rest they are. There’s just no question that they’re the cream of this crop.

Plus, Rodriguez made the top ten in both cases despite all of the lack-of-playing-time penalties that double-count against catchers. I think it’s safe to say he’s easily the best catcher not in Cooperstown too, so he’s in. And this is Raines’s final year on the ballot before he ages off, and he’s right on the cusp, so I feel obligated to throw him a vote. So that gives me eight names.

So, those last two spots seem like they come down to Edgar, Manny, Vlad, Sammy, and Sheff, with those first two the favorites. This is a good group to look at too, as it’s four corner-outfielders who were got most or all of their value from their bat alone, plus a designated hitter.

If you want to compare them, here’s a custom Fangraphs leaderboard. To be honest…I’m kind of inclined to stick it out with Manny and Edgar. They were far and away the best hitters, with Sheffield the next closest. Vlad probably has the best “intangible” arguments, given how notable he was and the steroid ties for Ramirez, Sosa, and Sheffield. But at the same time, he’s far and away the weakest candidate, to the point where he’d be noticeably among the weaker outfielders in the Hall.

So that’s the final ballot: Bagwell, Bonds, Clemens, Martinez, Mussina, Raines, Ramirez, Rodriguez, Schilling, and Walker. If I were feeling clever, I would probably drop Manny and Walker in favor of Hoffman and Guerrero; based on the early returns, those two are riding the knife’s edge, currently at 75.0% and 73.3% on 175 ballots as I type. Meanwhile, the rest of my ballot is over 50% and needs help building momentum, while Ramirez and Walker are just sorta languishing in the low-20s. The more people we get in this year, the more cleared out the ballot is next year, meaning we can work to getting even more people inducted.

And we’re gonna need those spots next year. Because outside of Bagwell, Raines, Hoffman, Rodriguez, and Guerrero, everyone else I mulled over is basically a lock to return next year, plus we’ll be adding Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, and Johan Santana, all of whom I have strong opinions about (plus Omar Vizquel, who I personally don’t but many other people will). A five person induction class would reduce so many headaches going forward (and it would match the largest Hall class ever, which would be cool). So godspeed, five guys getting over 70% of the vote; let’s hope we all see you in Cooperstown this summer.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Thoughts on the 2017 Veterans Committee Ballot, as well as Managers in the Hall

It's December, which means that it's the most wonderful time of the year: Hall of Fame season. No joke, this is actually probably my favorite time to write about baseball, at least based on the number of ideas I always seem to come up with around now each year. And in that fine tradition, I again have a whole bunch of ideas lined up; hopefully I'll get through all of them. For the time being, let's start with the one most relevant to this week, the Veterans Committee results.

Let's just clear something up right now before going any further: despite their recent reforms to the process, the Veterans Committee has a whole bunch of issues still. Most notably, the math of the group doesn’t work out. You know how everyone always gives the BBWAA ballot a hard time for being structured in a way that forces voters to leave off players that they think are deserving? The Veterans Committee is that on steroids (pun intended).

For those who don’t know, the committee right now is 16 people, 12 of whom have to support a player in order to induct them. They each get a ballot of 10 names, and can name up to 4 names. That means there are up to 64 votes going around, so up to 5 names can make the cut (64/12=5 remainder 4). But that’s assuming voters are allocated to get everyone to only 12 votes; in real life, the VC still has unanimous inductees, like John Schuerholz this year. One unanimous choice immediately cuts our pool of votes down to 48, so that’s all of our “remainder” ballots. Hopefully everyone is in total agreement over the other four names that merit induction, or else we have no chance at maximizing inductees.

And in real life, we can get more than one unanimous choice. It almost happened this year, with Bud Selig falling a vote short. Two unanimous choices leave the other eight candidates to fight over 32 votes, making it hard for anyone to build up a following, and impossible for more than two more inductees to make it. We’ve even had three unanimous choices as recently as 2014! (Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, and Bobby Cox, all of whom I think we can agree were more than deserving). You can clearly run out of spaces very quickly.

You’ll note that all of those names aren’t players, which makes sense. The names going on a Veterans Committee ballot couldn’t make it on the BBWAA ballot, so they probably won’t get a unanimous vote here. Meanwhile, all executives and managers are inducted exclusively here, from the best of the best to the ones that people will look at in ten years and ask “who?”. Those best-of-the-best types, though, will always be picking up votes first and squeezing the players out, which seems to defeat the entire purpose of the VC.

But I’d argue this year that it went even further; even the managers were getting squeezed out of ballot slots. Because this year's "executive" category was like that "La Russa/Cox/Torre" manager class from 2014. John Schuerholz was unanimous for a reason; he played a major role in building the 1980s Royals, a powerhouse of a system, and then went on to build the 1990s Braves, who you may have heard had a couple of playoff appearances.

And then there’s Bud Selig. I think Craig Calcaterra lays out a pretty good case for why he didn’t deserve induction, and I think that I wouldn’t have voted for him if I had a say, since it was such a crowded ballot. Of course, I also probably wouldn’t have gotten a ballot with that stance, but let’s ignore that for a minute. Just speaking objectively, Selig was getting inducted. Baseball commissioners have been pretty…not great, overall, so he’s at the very least near the top of the rankings in that category. And the Hall has made it clear that they’ll vote for any commissioner with a moderate-length tenure or more; they even inducted Bowie Kuhn, who’s most notable achievement was getting steamrolled as he tried to hold back the advancing tide of free agency. There was no way Selig wasn’t getting in, and probably with more than the minimum twelve votes.

As mentioned, that leaves us ~32 votes to play around with, and we haven’t even discussed anyone with hard stats (we also haven’t discussed owner George Steinbrenner, who was a much weaker candidate than Selig or Schuerholz, but had a decent case all the same). Manager stats aren’t anywhere near as comprehensive or accurate a view as player stats, but we can at least look at wins, championships, playoff titles, awards, winning percentage, and so on. So now we’re left trying to compare not just Lou Piniella to Davey Johnson or Mark McGwire to Will Clark, Albert Belle, Orel Hershiser, and Harold Baines, but all of those against each other (with Steinbrenner still in the mix). That is a very diverse group that can make it hard to pick stand-outs. How do you allocate those ~32 votes left among such a group?

So that’s why I think Piniella and Johnson saw almost shockingly-low levels of support. On my ideal ballot, I think I would have included both of them, plus McGwire (who I’ve written about in the past in a Hall of Fame context) and Schuerholz, with Selig on the outside looking in.

I don’t think I need to defend Schueholz’s candidacy, nor do I feel like rehashing yet again why I support Mark McGwire for Cooperstown (he’s a yearly fixture on my “50 Best Players Not in the Hall of Fame” lists, if you want a starting place of where to look for those), so I might as well hash out my cases for the managers.

Let’s just get this out of the way right off the bat: no, neither of them are on the level of Joe Torre or Bobby Cox or Tony La Russa. But, much like the Hall of Fame standard for the players isn’t Willie Mays or Babe Ruth, those three are not the standard for Hall of Fame standard for managers. For example, every manager with 2000 career wins is in the Hall, but that set only represents half of the 22 inductees. Every manager with three or more World Series titles is in, but that’s only nine individuals; meanwhile, eight only managed their way to a single title in their careers.

Basically, this is even more fluid than electing players. There are some automatic figures, but also a lot of subjective arguments. So let’s start with Davey Johnson, because I think he has the stronger objective arguments.

Johnson managed the 1986 Mets to a World Series, and generally speaking, the only hard and fast requirement for managers so far seems to be that they must have one championship, so we’ve got that out of the way. Additionally, Davey Johnson is the most games over .500 for any manager in history to not be in Cooperstown. At a .562 winning percentage, he’s 301 games over; the other 18 names with 279 or more are all in the Hall, although some of them are inducted more for their times as players or executives. Still, it’s a strong argument.

Coincidentally, the second highest games over .500 mark for a non-inducted manager is Billy Martin, and I think both should be in for similar reasons. Not only were they successful, their success seemed to follow them. Martin is best known for his time with the Yankees, but he managed in a lot of other places too. The Twins went from 79 wins in 1969 to 97 and an ALCS appearance the following year when he took over. He left after that season, and the Twins would post one more similar season before returning to mediocrity. Same with the Tigers, who jumped up 12 games when he joined in 1971 and fell 13 when he left. The Rangers were similar as well. We’ll never be able to run seasons twice with different managers as controls, but seeing him win across so many teams, with several of them sliding back when he left…maybe it’s not a definite sign that he was skilled as a manager, but that sounds like what we would be looking for if we wanted to make that argument.

Johnson seems the same. The Mets won 90 games in his first season after seven straight of under 70. The year after he left, they fell back to 77 wins after winning 87 or more every year he was there. The Reds went from fifth place to two straight first place finishes with winning percentages of .579 and .590 with him, and right back to third place and a .500 finish without him. The Orioles’ only playoff appearances, not to mention winning seasons, between 1994 and 2012 came with him at the helm. The Nationals had their first good season in Washington under his watch, a 98-win season which they haven’t matched even going back to their Montreal days, and which broke them out of a decade and a half of mediocrity. Like I said about Martin: after a certain point, winning in so many circumstances, while others can’t quite measure up to your success…that all seems to indicate that there was something special about that manager, even if we can’t quite quantify it yet.

And then, there’s Lou Piniella. Again, he had a single title to his name, meaning he meets that requirement. He didn’t quite get to 2000 wins, but he got close at 1835. The only manager with more wins than him and no plaque in Cooperstown is Gene Mauch…but that’s not really a great comparison. Mauch had a losing record with a career .483 winning percentage (to Piniella’s .517), and for as much as people make at time’s about his lack of postseason success given the strength of his teams, at least Lou has a title, unlike Mauch. And even if it isn’t as good as a title, I think Piniella deserves some extra credit for his miraculous 116-win season with the 2001 Mariners.

Actually, let’s look at those Mariners more closely for a second. I feel like he gets grief for not winning more with them. After all, look at all the great players they had: Ken Griffey, Jr.! Alex Rodriguez! Randy Johnson! Ichiro Suzuki! Edgar Martinez! And so on. How do you not win with talent like that?

Well, I think it is worth mentioning a couple of things. First, even with the lack of a title, it’s the most postseason success Seattle has ever seen. No non-Piniella manager has ever taken the Mariners to the postseason, let alone three ALCS matchups.

But more importantly, those teams weren't quite as good as memory would lead us to believe. Let’s set aside the four years where Seattle made the postseason and lost, as I think chance plays a little bit too big a role in the playoffs to definitively say that all of those failures are Piniella’s fault. But what about the other six years?*

*For those wondering, that would be 1993, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2002, and 1994, when there were no playoffs but the Mariners weren’t positioned to make them had there been. Although it’s also worth pointing out that not all of those were bad years. Most notably, they won 93 games in 2002 but still missed the playoffs, as the 103-win A’s and 99-win Angels finished ahead of them. In another division, the Mariners probably make it a fifth time.
Well...the short story is that, even with all those big names, the Mariners weren’t as deep as you’d remember. They weren’t super teams, despite the star power, as the stars didn’t perfectly overlap. A-Rod didn’t debut until 1996, and Ichiro didn’t debut until 2001. Griffey left after 1999. Edgar Martinez missed most of 1993 and 1994 with injuries. Jay Buhner probably wasn’t as good as you remember. It was good, but also not exactly Murderer’s Row.

On top of that, the rotation was frequently shaky after Johnson, which was devastating when he was injured in 1996 and left Sterling Hitchcock as the staff ace (at least until they finally picked up Jamie Moyer at the deadline). A lot of the rotations looked like this year’s Orioles, and let me tell you, that was not a fun rotation to watch. Without the bullpen, things would have been even worse…speaking of which, Piniella wasn’t working with a relief corps nearly as good as Buck Showalter. Results varied from “okay” to “very much not okay” The Mariners finally sorted the rotation issues out towards the end…after Johnson, Rodriguez, and Griffey had all left and as Buhner was wrapping up his career. Nothing seemed to line up exactly like they needed it to.

How much of that lack of depth is Piniella’s fault? Maybe some of it, but it’s not enough for me to think his tenure in Seattle was a disappointment in the end. He wasn’t a guy squandering superteams, he was just a guy doing pretty decently with very top-heavy rosters. And in the end, he’s still the most successful skipper the team has ever seen, even if they didn’t win him a second trophy.

Anyway, this piece has gone on for much longer than I anticipated, so I should probably start wrapping things up. In the end, until the Hall of Fame decides to change up the process by which the Veterans Committee functions (yet again), we’ll probably be stuck seeing manager- and executive-heavy classes of inductees and not many players, which is a shame. And until they remove the per-ballot vote cap, we’re going to continue to see deserving candidates like McGwire and Piniella and Johnson squeezed out in favor of higher-profile candidates. Considering that the VC was intended to help exactly those sorts of cases, this seems like a massive design flaw.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Prepare Yourself for More Droughts Like the Curse of the Billy Goat

As you may have heard, a certain team recently ended a World Series drought of 108 seasons. In a clash of two historically unfortunate teams, the Chicago Cubs ended their record-setting (across all sports, even) streak of futility. And like I wrote about it at the time, this World Series was a historic meeting that will remain at the top of its category for some time.  It's mathematically guaranteed until 2047, at the very least. And even in just comparing the misfortunes of individual teams, the Cleveland Indians have another four decades until they match where the Cubs just were. Even the second-longest drought of all time, that of the Cubs' crosstown rivals the White Sox, fell two decades short. It seems like such an outlier in all regards, doesn't it?

Yes, it will be sometime before we see another World Series drought in similar length to the Cubs'...but it is almost guaranteed to fall, and probably sooner than you would first believe. Even that record-setting 174 years of combined drought in World Series competitors is probably less safe than it seems like it should be, and could very likely fall within your lifetime. Historic droughts are going to start becoming more common; it's really just a simple question of math.

Just think of the question as a basic algebra question. There are currently 30 teams in Major League Baseball, so let's give them each a given probability of 1/30 for winning it all in any given year, or approximately 3.33% if you prefer it in percentage form. That might seem overly simplistic; you wouldn't give, say, the Cubs and the Braves equal chances in 2017. But if we take a long-term view of things, the odds even out pretty well. We have zero clue what the 2026 versions of either team will look like, so just assigning every team a 1/30 probability is probably a reasonable assumption.

Conversely, that would mean that any team has a 29/30 chance of not winning in a random year, or 96.67%. Now, if we wanted to see the odds of a team not winning in either year one or year two, we'd just multiply the probability of not winning in either year, or 29/30^2. That gets us to a 93.44% chance of a given team not winning in either of two seasons in a row.

So let's extrapolate from there. The chance of a given team not winning for 100 years in a row would be 29/30^100, which works out to about 3.37%. If your first reaction to that might be "that's not so bad", compare that to the initial 1/30 odds. That means there is a (marginally) better than 1-in-30 chance of a team going a century without, which, given that there are currently 30 teams, means that you would expect (on average, if you could set it up like an experiment and run it a bunch of times) at least one to go 100 straight seasons without winning it all.

And that's just using the most simplistic view of the problem. In real life, we have several confounding factors to deal with. For example, not every team is going in to every season with 1/30 teams; a team that gets saddled with below-average management will see even worse odds for some years in that stretch. Additionally, Major League Baseball isn't done expanding just yet. We've been hearing some rumblings of possible new teams for a little bit now, which makes sense given that 1998 (the last season with new teams) to the present represents the longest the league has gone without growing since the initial 1961 expansion. As soon as we hit 32 or 34 or more teams, each individual team's odds will continue to drop.

On top of that, each team isn't starting at the same place. If we had thirty brand new teams in a hypothetical competitor league start this season, we'd (on average) expect one to have a barren century. But not all MLB teams are starting at zero. The Indians, as mentioned, would only need to go four more decades to match the Cubs, which works out to just over a one-in-four chance (25.77%). The Rangers and Astros, at 56 and 55 respective years without a championship, come in at just under one-in-six, and then there's a trio of teams approaching the half-century mark on top of them.

That's not to say that they'll be quite as...extraordinary as the Cubs' streak. After all, the Cubs pulled off half of that in a pre-expansion era of only sixteen teams. A "mere" fifty years of not winning with 1/16 odds (6.25%) is actually roughly as likely as not winning for a hundred years in a thirty-team league, so any future "hundred-year rebuilding plans" won't have been as statistically improbable as the Cubs' recently-ended one unless the new team eclipses their mark in length. Of course, I'm sure that fact will do a lot to comfort whichever team's fans finds themselves on the wrong end of a century of ultimately coming up short.