Shohei Ohtani is an interesting dude, for so many reasons. For inquisitive baseball fans, he provides all sorts of fodder. I am a big fan of Ohtani. He has many special characteristics, which go beyond being a two-way player.
One of those characteristics is that he chose to come over to MLB two years before he could have signed for boatloads of cash. Had Ohtani waited until after the 2019 season, he could have signed for whatever a team was willing to offer. By coming over this past offseason, he could only sign a uniform player contract. The same contract given to draftees or international free agents as young as 16. Ohtani did receive a few million in the form of a signing bonus, but it was uncontroverted that he was not making his decision based on money.
There was talk that Ohtani might start this season in the minor leagues. He struggled in spring training, and the Angels could have extracted an extra year of team control by keeping him down for about three weeks. This type of service time manipulation is common if not totally accepted by baseball pundits. But it would be particularly unseemly for the Angels, having won the lottery when Ohtani chose them, to take part in this type of chicanery.
The Angels put Ohtani on the opening day roster, and if you were alive and even a casual baseball fan, you know what happened next. Ohtani lit the world on fire as both a pitcher and a hitter from the start. Ohtani throws a triple digit fastball and it was always assumed that he was going to end up providing more value as a pitcher. But through the first half of the season, Ohtani has a 145 wRC+ in 157 plate appearances. He has identical 1.1 fWARs from both sides.
However, Ohtani’s storybook beginning to his career has taken a major blow. His pitching elbow is possibly in need of Tommy John surgery. It is possible that surgery is inevitable the Angels are simply waiting until the end of the season. From a “maximizing utility” standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. If Ohtani were to go under the knife right now, he’d most likely not pitch until 2020, and would certainly be off the mound for a large portion of next season even under the best-case scenario. He would also be unable to hit for several months, probably the rest of this season. The Angels would lose Ohtani the pitcher for 2018 and 2019 and Ohtani the hitter for 2018. However, if he has Tommy John surgery at the end of the season, he can continue to hit, and the most likely outcome is that he still just misses one additional season as a pitcher. He could continue to be Ohtani the hitter in 2018 and in 2019. *
* It’s also possible that by waiting Ohtani could avoid the surgery altogether
Now comes the fun(?) part. If Ohtani were a pitcher the same way that every other major league pitcher is a pitcher, he would be on the disabled list while he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Importantly for his financial future, his service time clock would continue to run. There would be no risk of him being sent down to the minors and having his clock stop. * This raises the question: what happens if Ohtani the hitter struggles mightily and the Angels feel it is necessary to send him to the minors? Now, this seems unlikely to happen, both because of Ohtani’s strong offensive start and the solid history of top Japanese imports performing at the major league level. While this is certainly something that could happen, I am approaching this mostly as a thought experiment.
* Ohtani would need to spend 20 or more days in the minor leagues in order to lose major league service time that would push back his free agency year
I am a lawyer, but far from an expert in this area. The best I can do is to review the collective bargaining agreement and see if there are any provisions that might shed light on this. The basic rule about demoting injured players is far from detailed: “Players who are injured and not able to play may not be assigned to a Minor League club.” A player who believes his assignment is unjust can file a grievance. I didn’t read the entire CBA, but I don’t see anything else in it that would address this situation.
By the plain reading, you could say that the Angels would be perfectly within their rights. Ohtani would not be “injured and unable to play.” While he could very much say he is injured, he is also very much able to play. Ohtani could argue that the spirit of the rule would not allow him to lose service time due to the fact he is a superior enough player that it was at least thought that he could continue to be valuable as a major league player even without pitching. You shouldn’t be able to “punish” someone because they are better than everyone else. As a matter of plain fairness, this argument is as solid as an Ohtani bomb deep into the Southern California night.
Again, Ohtani seems unlikely to make this scenario a reality. But Brendan McKay is coming up the Rays system. It is possible we will see more two-way players. Looking beyond just Ohtani, it is very much conceivable that this could become an issue at some point. It makes sense for MLB and the union to figure this out before it becomes an embarrassing (international) incident.
Admittedly, this is a bit of a stupid topic. These distinctions are often thrown around with an air of importance that is far from earned. Nobody ever mentions that Hank Aaron had the most RBIs in the 1960s. You don’t need to talk about arbitrary endpoints with the Hammer. Mentioning that a player holds one of these “records” is a bit like saying a guy you are trying to set a friend up with has a great personality. It’s likely that this is covering up for something else like a hat covers a balding head.
(*before you head to the comments to blast me, yes, RBI is an incredibly useless statistic)
But they are fun! Hank Aaron did lead in RBI in the 1960s, but he finished second to Harmon Killebrew in home runs. Growing up into a baseball fan in the 1990s, one of the bigger surprises in this genre of record was the hit leader of that decade: Mark Grace. I’d imagine every Cub fan knows this. In addition, anyone who knows a chatty Cubs fan probably knows this, too. Looking at the most recent decade, there are a few surprises: Miguel Tejada had the most games played and at-bats. Andy Pettitte edged out Randy Johnson for most wins. Johnson, along with Alex Rodriguez, dominated most of the categories.
Moving to the point of this article, here is a quick rundown of compelling and not so compelling races to have the most X of this decade, with two seasons remaining:
You, the Fangraphs reader that goes into the depths of the Community Research section, probably know who leads this category, despite spending 2010 in A ball. But it is a bit closer than you might have thought. While Trout could conceivably win the position player award while sitting out the next two seasons (Joey Votto is the only player that might topple him in this scenario, and he is 9.1 WAR behind), this is the one major statistical category in which position players and pitchers compete with each other.
If I just jogged your memory of that, you probably know the name that is coming: Clayton Kershaw. Trout leads with 54.4 WAR. Kershaw has 52.1 WAR on the pitching side, but has also accrued 1.8 WAR as a batter. That should count. So Kershaw, at 53.9 WAR, is directly on Trout’s heals. Trout is still the heavy favorite, but Kershaw has a puncher’s chance, especially if another injury befalls Trout.
Totally made up odds: Trout, 98%; Kershaw, 2%
Jose Altuve has put up four straight 200-hit seasons, but he is 251 off the pace and in 15th place. No, this title will most likely go Robinson Cano. Cano leads with 1501, and the only players within sniffing distance are similarly on the downside of their primes. Miguel Cabrera is second at 1416, and then there is a slew of players, including Fangraphs favorite Nick Markakis, in the low to mid 1300s.
Cano should clear 150 hits the next two seasons, and if he does, he will not be passed. Cabrera, as bad as he looked at times last season, would be the likely beneficiary of some unforeseen collapse by Cano. Elvis Andrus is the end of that slew of players behind Cabrera. He has 1329 hits, but recorded 191 last season and is significantly younger than everyone in front of him. I’m going to give him sleeper status for this title.
Totally made up odds: Cano, 93%; Cabrera, 5%; Andrus, 2%
Currently, this is an incredibly close race, with four players within five homers of each other at the top of the list. Jose Bautista is first with 272. Edwin Encarnacion and Nelson Cruz are second and third, and then you get to Giancarlo Stanton in fourth place with 267. Other than Miguel Cabrera and the remnants of Albert Pujols, no one else is close. Stanton has to be the favorite, here, but his status is extremely tenuous. First, let’s just get Buatista out of the way. He’s unemployed and several steps below the other players even if he does try to gut out two more seasons.
Without a doubt, it would be shocking if a healthy Stanton didn’t win this. But a healthy Stanton would be at least a little bit of a shock. The once-oft-injured Cruz and Encarnacion are 37 and 35, respectively, but are still mashing and project for mid-to-high 30-something homers apiece. Cruz has played four straight full seasons and E5 has three straight under his prodigious belt. Stanton is projected by Steamer for a literally—but not really literally—bananas number of 53 home runs. The Fans of Fangraphs are more modest, pegging him with only 48. But Stanton is injury prone. You all know that. There is no argument that he is not. So this is a fairly open race.
Totally made up odds: Stanton, 55%; Encarnacion, 25%; Cruz, 20%
Again, I do know this is a stupid statistic. But artificial endpoints of decades are pretty stupid, too, so this is fitting. This is Miguel Cabrera’s title to lose, and as long as he plays, he should easily win. And guys making the cash Cabrera is due for the next thousand years generally get every opportunity to play. Sitting behind Cabrera’s 860 RBI are Albert Pujols at 806 and Robinson Cano at 789. The aforementioned Edwin Encarnacion and Nelson Cruz round out the top five with 763 and 756 respectively.
If Cabrera falters, this looks like it would be a wide-open race. Pujols achieved the remarkable 100+ RBI season while losing 2.0 WAR last year. He likely will do much worse, but as long as he is playing, he will continue to accrue a decent number of RBI. E5’s Indians outscored the M’s by 68 runs last year and seem to be a better offensive team, but Cano does have a 26 RBI lead. Honestly, this looks like a virtual toss-up if Cabrera doesn’t win, but the idea of Edwin Encarnacion or Nelson Cruz leading the decade in home runs and RBI is rather delicious.
Totally made up odds: Cabrera, 80%; Cano, 7%; Encarnacion, 6%; Cruz, 4%; Pujols, 3%
Be honest, which would you rather be known for: a surprise answer to the question “who stole the most bases in the second decade of the new millennium?” or hitting an epic World Series Game Seven home run… for the losing team. Rajai Davis might say porque no los dos? Davis has the most stolen bases this decade with 301. However, he is actually a longshot to keep this title. Davis just signed a minor league deal with the Indians that includes a non-roster invitation to spring training. He will likely struggle to ever get regular playing time again. He’s 37 years old.
This will likely come down to a race between the two guys behind him. Dee Gordon has 278 stolen bases, had 60 last year, and only turns 30 in April. He has a 35 stolen base lead on 3rd place, which would seem more insurmountable if that person was not arguably a full tick or two faster. Billy Hamilton has 243 stolen bases since coming into the league in 2013, and has been remarkably consistent, stealing one more base each year than the year before. The fans think he’ll do that again this year, hitting 60 stolen bases. Hamilton is over two years younger than Gordon, and might be faster, but the 35 stolen base edge Gordon enjoys makes him the clear favorite.
Totally made up odds: Gordon, 66%; Hamilton 33%; Davis, 1%
This is likely a two-person race between Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw who have 132 and 131 wins respectively. Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke sit enough off the pace at 123 and 122 to make a comeback very improbable absent an injury, but close enough to make a comeback very possible if both players in front of them miss significant time.
Moving to who I give the edge to: there just isn’t a lot separating these two. Scherzer is older, but Kershaw has had a bit more in the way of nagging injuries lately. If it truly were a push going forward, I could just go with Scherzer since he is one ahead at the moment. But I’m going to give Kershaw the ever-so-slight edge because the Dodgers are almost assuredly going to be one of the best teams in baseball the next two years while the Nationals might only have that status for the next season. Verlander gets the nod as more likely spoiler for a similar reason: the Astros are ballers.
Totally made up odds: Kershaw, 45%; Scherzer 43%; Verlander, 7%; Greinke, 5%
Craig Kimbrel should put this away by midseason. At 291, he ranks 61 ahead of Kenley Jansen and Fernando Rodney, who are tied for second with 230. Aroldis Chapman sits in 5th with 204. Kimbrel’s consistency and consistently light usage should ensure that he continues to rack up saves the next two seasons. Even a repeat of his comparatively modest 66 saves over the last two seasons would give him a realistic lock on this honor.
If Kimbrel does fall apart, the 30-year-old Jansen would be the likely beneficiary, as he has a much stronger hold on his 9th inning role than the 40-year-old Rodney. While Kimbrel might have this decade locked down, he will likely fall short in his quest to surpass Rivera’s total from the last decade. Rivera saved 397 games that decade. It should be noted, however, that Kimbrel barely pitched in the majors in 2010 and recorded only one save. On the other hand, he’s already blown one more save than Mariano did all of last decade.
Totally made up odds: Kimbrel, 97%; Jansen, 2%; Rodney, 1%
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but this is a two-man battle between Max Sherzer and Clayton Kershaw. Only this time, there is a much clearer favorite. Scherzer leads Kershaw 1909 to 1835. He essentially built that entire lead last season when he recorded 66 more strikeouts than the limited Kershaw. But Kershaw’s innings shortfall was not the only thing at play here. Scherzer struck out 1.63 more batters per nine innings. For the decade, Scherzer has a 74 strikeout lead in only 14 1/3 more innings. The only realistic path for Kershaw to overtake Scherzer is injury. Of course, with pitchers, injury is always a legitimate and significant risk.
Behind Scherzer and Kershaw is Justin Verlander with 1670. No one past Verlander has any legitimate shot barring a mass retirement of the some of the game’s best starting pitchers. At the end of the day, this is really a question about health. But for Kershaw to overtake Scherzer, he’d not only need Scherzer to get hurt, but he’d have to stay healthy himself.
Totally made up odds: Scherzer, 79%; Kershaw, 19%; Verlander 2%
This has been a very positive article, but let’s get a bit negative for a second. Which pitcher will give up the most runs in this decade? A big factor in this, of course, is that giving up a lot of runs is bad, and playing bad usually leads to not playing. You have to be good enough to get the ball on a regular basis, but bad enough to rack up the runs allowed. Our frontrunners are honestly not terrible pitchers. Rick Porcello leads the way with 789 runs allowed. James Shields is just behind with 778 runs allowed. Porcello is 29, started a playoff game last year, and is owed a lot of money through the end of the decade. He also won the Cy Young Award in 2016 while accruing 5.1 WAR on the mound. He should have opportunities to add to this total. Porcello underperforms his peripherals, but only by a little. He is basically good enough to never get moved out of the rotation, and durable enough to throw over 1500 innings this decade, but has a suddenly-not-great-for-the-era ERA of 4.29 over the last eight seasons.
James Shields is slated to maybe start opening day 2018. Unlike Porcello, Shields has been dreadful the past two seasons. Yeah, the White Sox starting pitching this year might be awful. Shields is owed a lot of money in 2018, but 2019 is an option that will only be picked up if Shields has a dramatic turnaround. Thus, there is a bit of a catch-22 here. If Shields plays well enough to keep getting the ball regularly into 2019, it seems unlikely that he’ll chase down Porcello. Of course, this could also come down to injury. If either player gets hurt, the other will very likely take this notorious (dis)honor.
Ubaldo Jimenez sits in 3rd with 734 runs allowed. He will thankfully have a hard time adding to that total. If Porcello and Shields find themselves with quick hooks and no jobs, there are a few possible dark horses, including Ervin Santana and Jon Lester, who at the very least should get two full seasons of starts barring injury. For this one, I’m just going to put the field as a third choice rather than trying to single out who might suck, but play.
Totally made up odds: Porcello, 60%; Shields, 30%; Field, 10%
Other Interesting Battles
(My favorites in italics)
Games: Robinson Cano, 1264; Alcides Escobar, 1250 (that would be something)
Runs: Ian Kinsler, 785; Miguel Cabrera, 741; Andrew McCutchen, 740; Robinson Cano, 738
Strikeouts: Chris Davis, 1266; Mark Reynolds, 1250; Justin Upton, 1249
HBP: Shin-Soo Choo, 98; Anthony Rizzo, 98; Chase Utley, 92
Games: Tyler Clippard, 576; Luke Gregerson, 551
Innings Pitched: Justin Verlander, 1705; Max Sherzer, 1670.2; Clayton Kershaw, 1656.1
HBP: Charlie Morton, 82; Justin Masterson, 77 (23 in AAA in 2017)
Balks: Clayton Kershaw, 17; Franklin Morales, 15; Johnny Cueto, 13
Bonus Trout Stuff
You will notice that, apart from WAR, Mike Trout was not mentioned at all in this article. Of course, Trout played zero MLB games in 2010 and only 40 in 2011. But he is also an all-around performer. He doesn’t even show up in the top 10 for most counting categories. So for the lazy, here is where Trout ranks in the decade (if among top 30, must be qualified for rate stats):
Triples: T-8th (40)
Home Runs: T-16th (201)
Runs: 8th (692)
RBI: 30th (569)
Walks: 7th (571)
Intentional Walks: T-14th (61)
HBP: T-27th (55)
Sac Flies: T-16th (40)
Stolen Bases: 17th (165)
Batting Average: 6th (.306)
OBP: 2nd (.410) (not close to first, Joey Votto, .438)
Slugging%: 1st (.566) (biggest threat is probably Giancarlo Stanton, at .554)
Trout is about to play his age 26 and 27 seasons to round out the decade. He’ll be an “old 27” with his August birthday. We don’t know how he’ll age. But it is possible that he plays his whole career, a career of an inner-inner-circle Hall of Famer, and never leads a decade in any traditional counting stat. This on top of his frustratingly low MVP totals. If nothing else does, perhaps that should tell you how stupid this whole exercise is, and how stupid rigid benchmarks for greatness are in general. If Trout were born three years earlier, he could have dominated the counting stat leaderboards of this decade. If he played for a better team, he could have 2-3 more MVP awards.
So what does it all mean? Probably not much. If Albert Pujols squeaks out the most BRI of the decade, will that make it less of a disappointment? Does Nelson Cruz having the most home runs over an arbitrary 10-year period mean that he’ll one day be enshrined in Cooperstown? Well, no. However, I hope you had fun. I know that I did.
Because I believed Jeff Sullivan that there was a 2% chance Ohtani would sign Friday, I wrote this article, that now reads a bit weird, but I’m not going to change it because I have to get back to the job that I do for money instead of for fun. Any complaints about said weirdness should be addressed to Jeff Sullivan.
The phrase “sure thing” is thrown around a lot in sports to describe things that are not actually sure things. Atlanta was going to win the Super Bowl. Up 25 points, it was a sure thing until it wasn’t. Shohei Ohtani is not a sure thing to be a superstar in MLB, or even an All-Star. He’s not even a sure thing to be an average big-league player. History is littered with players that were star players one day and also-rans the next. But what Ohtani is a sure thing to do is pay off his price tag. Barring a tragic accident or something else outside of the realm of baseball, the team that signs Ohtani will surely earn more than $20.5 million extra during the 2018 baseball season that they would not have earned without him.
To understand why this is a certainty, you can look at Stephen Strasburg in 2010. The Nationals were the worst team in baseball in 2009, finishing with 59 wins for the second consecutive season. They were not much better in 2010, adding 10 more wins to that total, but still finishing 5th in the NL East. Their overall attendance for 2010 was bad, which is to be expected. 1,828,066 were said to have paid money to see the Nationals play that year, or about 22,500 per game. That was only about 10,000 higher, on the season, than they managed in 2009. Strasburg’s first game was electric (I was there). It was the kind of atmosphere that made no sense at all for a team that was mired in long-term terribleness. The game, played on a Tuesday, sold out with attendance only rivaled that season by opening day, up to that point.
But that only tells a small part of the story. The two Tuesday games the Nationals had played at home prior to this game averaged about 16,000 fans. It’s pretty safe to say that this game, against the Pirates, would have been in a similar range without Strasburg. But the Strasburg effect was much wider reaching. First, once it became known that Strasburg was pitching, the Nationals created a ticket package to sell many of the unsold tickets. The package included the Strasburg game, plus three additional games. For those that came to the stadium without a ticket, their choices were between that and the suddenly busy scalpers.
The weekend before Strasburg’s debut, the Nationals drew almost 91,000 fans against the Reds. That was about 6,000 more than they drew during their previous weekend series against the Orioles. But the Orioles are not really a fair comparison because they are Beltway rivals of the Nationals. If you go back the weekend series before that, when the Nationals were playing the Marlins, just over 63,000 came to the ballpark. Now, some of this might have been random or based on other factors, but fans were anticipating Strasburg’s debut and buying tickets in anticipation of it — fans including the humble author of this post. Some even speculated that the Nationals intentionally misled fans in order to juice the gate.
Strasburg’s second start was in Cleveland, who also seemed to have benefited from a large Strasburg-related spike in attendance for that game. His third game was a Friday and was sold out. Again, even weekend games prior to Strasburg were sparsely attended. The Saturday game after his start was nearly sold out, likely due to fans incorrectly believing it was going to be the day Strasburg pitched. His 3rd home game was the first that did not sell out. But there is more to the story (again, I was there). This game was played during the week, during the day, and it was literally at or above 100 degrees that day. There were still almost 32,000 fans there. After pitching on the road, Strasburg again sold out the stadium for his 6th start and had a large, but not sold-out game for his 7th. His next home start, another Tuesday game, again sold out. I’ve probably gone on long enough, if not too long. If you didn’t know how much Strasburg boosted attendance, you do now.
And here is the question: As much hype as there was in D.C. during the summer of 2010, do we really think that Ohtani’s hype won’t meet or perhaps even far exceed it? I certainly do. Additionally, the team that signs Ohtani will have a much easier time plotting and planning exactly how they can wring the most dollars possible out of their fans. In 2010, the Nationals created a multigame package on the fly, but now teams are exploring more and more ways of earning extra dollars through dynamic pricing. If a team like Seattle were to get Ohtani and announces that he’ll be pitching the second game of the season, the added revenue they would be able to earn would be astounding. Last season, the Mariners’ attendance dropped from 44,856 on opening day to 18,527 the next day. With Ohtani, it’s safe to say they’d sell out their second game.
If you’ve stayed with me this long, you might be wondering “yeah, I knew all of this already, so what?” And yes, most FanGraphs readers probably already believed that Ohtani is going to really juice attendance wherever he ends up. But then, why did three teams not even bother to try to acquire him? There simply is no justification. If you are the Marlins, you can do both things. You can say you are cutting payroll by $50 million, but at the same time if Ohtani for some reason picks the Marlins (he wouldn’t), you find the $20 million to pay him. You will get it back and more. Take out a loan. Heck, take out a payday loan with onerous and unfair terms and you will still end up ahead. It simply makes no sense. He is, from a financial standpoint, literally a sure thing.
Bartolo Colon has not been good. There is no way to spin things to say that he has been good. Conversely, it is pretty easy to spin things to say he is bad. After another bad outing on Monday, his ERA is 7.78 in 59 innings of work. Masahiro Tanaka and Bronson Arroyo are second- and third-worst among qualified starters, at 6.34 and 6.24 respectively.
However, if you look at other statistics, they are not so bad. By FanGraphs’ measure of WAR, he is a tick above replacement level. His K% and BB% have both trended in the wrong direction by a couple points when compared to recent three-year stint with the Mets. His HR rate is up, though some of that may be attributable to what might be a very homer-friendly home park. Colon has also suffered from some bad batted-ball luck, with a BABIP of .353, only .004 points lower than his 2007 season that ended his tenure with the Angels and made many question if he was finished.
However, above all else, what is hurting Colon is probably his strand rate. As of right now, his LOB% is 48.5%. This is terrible. This is pretty much without precedent. And here is a table to show exactly how unprecedented this is:
When you see charts like this and statistical points like this, one thing that should always pop into your mind is that the 2017 figure represents about one-third of a season. Regression to the mean should make Colon’s LOB% go up over the course of the next year. Unfortunately for Colon, he is on the wrong side of 40 and often times when older players struggle, whether fair or not, it spells the end of the road. However, there is evidence that in cases like this, pitchers do not get the opportunity to play their ways out of struggles, regardless of age.
What I wanted to do here was look up pitchers who had similar LOB% to Colon through a comparable amount of the season, and to see what happened to those players. To me, that would have been ideal. However, I get an error message when I try to do that on the leaderboards, so I’ll have to present some less ideal numbers and invite anyone else who has access to look into this further.
Going back to 2002, using a minimum of 50 innings pitched, Colon still has the very worst LOB%, just ahead of a guy you might have heard of, Roy Halladay, who clocked a 49.4% rate in what was a truly dreadful 2000 campaign. Looking through the bottom 50 LOB% list, you will find a couple interesting trends. First, a lot of these players played for terrible teams. The early-2000 Tigers and mid-2000 Devil Rays have a few entries. Colon joins Williams Perez’ extremely forgettable 2016 season as the recent Braves on this list. Second, aside from Derek Lowe in 2004, none of these pitchers came close to pitching a full season. Lowe, who checks in at #26 on this list, had 10 more starts and 45 more innings than the second-highest total.
What this list does not account for, however, is that there could be pitchers like Colon that do very poorly in the LOB% department early in the season, but then turn things around due to better luck and thus do not end up on this list. In order to do this, I wanted to look at players that were similar to Colon’s 2017 season. Colon sports a 123 FIP-, which is worse than league average by a decent amount, but not close to his 184 ERA-.
Looking at the next 10 worst LOB% ranked players, you see that they were not having good seasons. Here are the players:
And here is how they compare to Colon’s 2017 (numbers as starting pitcher only):
Finally, a quick rundown of what happened to each of these players during their unfortunate seasons:
Boof Bonser: Bonser was demoted after May 31st to the bullpen, and finished the year there. Bonser was victimized by a horribly unlucky May, where his LOB% was 33.3%. Despite a lack of actual good pitching, the Twins did give Bonser a chance to improve his luck despite him being only 26. He had surgery in the offseason and barely played in the majors after that.
Dallas Braden: Braden actually did a pretty good job of keeping runners from scoring in his 2007 rookie season when he was coming out of the bullpen, but he was awful as a starter. Still, it seems as though the going-nowhere A’s did not hold Braden back as he finished the year as a starter. Braden was fairly successful until injuries cut his career short, most notably pitching a perfect game in 2010. It’s possible that Braden, 23 at the time, was helped by the A’s decision to let him continue in his starting role at the major-league level.
Charlie Morton: After starting with a 9.35 ERA, Morton was disabled, sent to sports psychiatrist, and demoted to the minor leagues on May 27th. He was able to return on August 29th, and had a decent rest of the season. Morton, who was 26 that year, has bounced around as a fringe starter ever since.
Jose Lima: Lima was a bad pitcher in 2000 and 2001 and somehow managed over 50 innings as a starter in 2002 to make this list. He struggled to a 7.77 ERA and famously responded to his release by Detroit by claiming he was “the worst pitcher on Earth.” Twenty-nine at the time, he managed to start 74 more games in the majors after that.
Brian Duensing: Duensing was 29 in 2012 and he makes this list because he managed to make just enough spot starts, despite the fact he was mostly a bullpen guy. For what it’s worth, Duensing’s 11 starts in 2012 were his last, though he still pitches in the majors. The fact that he went into the season thought of as a bullpen guy means you cannot make much out of his trajectory.
Taylor Buchholz: In his 24-year-old rookie season, Buchholz was not bad by peripheral stats when he was demoted to AAA on July 29th. The Astros, with nothing to play for, had given up on him and traded him to the Rockies, where he has two adequate years mostly pitching in relief. While it would be a stretch to say that he could have been wildly successful had he been given a chance, even a team with a new, forward-thinking GM was unwilling to look past the painful on-field results.
Justin Germano: At 29, Germano got a shot to end the year with the Cubs, and performed okay based on peripheral stats. But Germano was a journeyman player who recorded 23 of his career 48 starts in 2007. He was demoted and released, but honestly it would be the toughest sell job to say that he had any real potential.
Charlie Furbush: Furbush was a mediocre reliever in his age-25 rookie season when he was traded to Seattle in the Doug Fister trade, and for some reason the Mariners let him finish the season as a starter. He wasn’t good, but he was also very unlucky in the stranding-runners department. The Mariners held onto him, but put him back in the bullpen, where he was okay.
Yohan Flande: Flande was a 28-year-old rookie in 2014 that only made two starts after mid-August thanks to his struggles. He has barely been heard from since.
Josh Fogg: Fogg was an old man compared to the rest of this list (except of course for Colon) at the age of 33. I can’t find any indication that Fogg was demoted due to his struggles, and he finished the season in the rotation. The Reds were not playing for anything. After the 2008 season, he barely played.
Conclusion: Players with poor LOB% generally are not pitching very well, and generally are not given a chance to recover. It is likely that extremely poor strand rates are correlated with pitching poorly. Colon’s stint with the Braves and his time in baseball may be coming to an end, and he has likely been the victim of some historically bad luck. But the bad luck can only explain so much. Most of the pitchers who have pitched like Colon in the past were young guys who ended up converting to relievers or guys that were on their way out of the game. Only Braden and Morton remained starters for a significant amount of time afterwards, and Morton has been below average. They were also both almost 20 years younger than Colon is now. In other words, considering all of the bad numbers Colon has, even when taking into consideration his bad luck, there is probably not a good case to be made for giving a fat guy a chance. And he probably won’t get one.
If you are like me, and you are in a custom, home-run-only fantasy baseball league, you might lie in bed around midnight and look through box scores on your phone. You also might look through box scores for a number of other reasons. Looking through them, I’ve noticed what I believe to be trend. Managers are shifting their lineups to put much more productive players second in the order. That is what this post is about. Another in a long line of posts about something that at the end of the day doesn’t really matter. As long as a manager puts the right names on the card, he is unlikely to screw this up too much.
As a longtime baseball fan, I had a feeling this was a trend that has happened during the course of this year. It was widely publicized that the Reds were going to hit Joey Votto second in the order. 2014 Votto is not exactly a controversial choice for that spot in the lineup. While his power has had a bit of a resurgence, the Reds have still left him in the two hole. So, in what is definitely a very unscientific study, I looked at who each team batted second on July 7th (I started writing this on July 8th. I have a job, so it has taken me a few days. I promise this was random) and I compared that to opening day (and opening night the day before in the case of the Cardinals and Cubs). What follows is a list of the same (two players listed denote a double-header on July 7):
Team Opening Day July
Anaheim Mike Trout Kole Calhoun
Atlanta Jace Peterson Cameron Maybin
Arizona Ender Inciarte David Peralta
Baltimore Manny Machado Jimmy Paredes
Boston Dustin Pedroia Brock Holt
Chicago (AL) Melky Cabrera Jose Abreu
Chicago (NL) Jorge Soler Anthony Rizzo, Rizzo
Cincinnati Joey Votto Joey Votto
Cleveland Jason Kipnis Francisco Lindor
Colorado Carlos Gonzalez DJ LeMahieu
Detroit Ian Kinsler Yoenis Cespedes
Houston George Springer Preston Tucker
Kansas City Mike Moustakas Alex Gordon, Gordon
Los Angeles Yasiel Puig Howie Kendrick
Miami Christian Yelich Christian Yelich
Milwaukee Jonathan Lucroy Jonathan Lucroy
Minnesota Brian Dozier Joe Mauer
New York (AL) Brett Gardner Chase Headley
New York (NL) David Wright Ruben Tejada
Oakland Sam Fuld Stephen Vogt
Philadelphia Obudel Herrera Ben Revere
Pittsburgh Gregory Polanco Neil Walker
San Diego Derek Norris Yonder Alonso
San Francisco Joe Panik Joe Panik
Seattle Seth Smith Franklin Gutierrez
St. Louis Jason Heyward Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter
Tampa Steven Souza Joey Butler, Grady Sizemore
Texas Elvis Andrus Rougned Odor
Toronto Russell Martin Josh Donaldson
Washington Yunel Escobar Danny Espinosa
What follows is a categorization of the difference between then and now. I’ve categorized each as either the same; functionally the same (old-school); functionally the same (new-school); shifting old-school; shifting new-school; and wildcard. It’s tough to define exactly what is old-school versus new-school. Some attributes of old-school second-hole hitters are: bad hitters, no power, middle infielder, speed, and younger players. While only the first two of these are actually bad attributes, a new-school thought would be to put a good power hitter second even though he is slow and plays a corner. Anyway, when looking at the choices, sometimes it is harder than you might think, and you may disagree with a few of these. You can read my brief analysis for the 26 teams that had different players, or skip to the bottom for the anticlimactic conclusion.
Same – Miami, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Cincinnati
My article is about the shift in attitude from the beginning of the season to now, but I will note that this seems to be a group that is not behind the times, with the exception of San Francisco. Despite the fact that Joe Panik has wildly exceeded expectations, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the classic no-bat middle infielder that should not be hitting second. Process, bad. Results, good!
Functionally the same (old-school) – Washington, Arizona, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Texas
Perhaps Peralta has shown himself to be just a little too good of a hitter to waste in the two-hole, so Inciarte took his place. You could argue this is shifting backwards, but Peralta is a young guy who was not considered one of Arizona’s best hitters. Cleveland had previously lucked into the fact that the low-power middle infielder they hit second was actually not bad offensively. But now there is a new middle infielder who is a rookie and can’t hit, so he should hit second! It is possible that Washington simply bats whoever is playing third base second in the order. You can’t prove they don’t. Well, you could, but please don’t. Philadelphia is a team that has slotted FanGraphs whipping boy Jeff Francoeur either 4th or 5th in about one third of its games, so why be surprised that both then and now a below average hitter, even for this team, is hitting second? You might think that Texas could do better than hitting Andrus second. They could. But instead they have inserted another below average middle infielder, who I assume gets this honor because he’s the less experienced player.
Functionally the same (new-school) – Boston
Boston is a tough one as could see Brock hitting here because he does so much to help the team win and Pedroia, while a great hitter, is also a tiny middle infielder. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt as Pedroia is also a star player and Holt is their only All-star and has been perhaps the best hitter on the team in 2015.
Shifting towards old-school – Houston, Anaheim, Los Angeles, New York (NL), Baltimore, Tampa, Colorado, New York (AL)
Houston went from one of its best hitters, who is also a high OBP/speed guy, to the rookie, because I guess it’s embarrassing to hit in the same spot in the order as Matt Rizzo or Jose Abreu. This might be bad luck as Trout has batted second in the vast majority of Angels games, but this is a huge drop off in production (though, to be fair, almost anyone alive is a huge drop off in production from Trout). On the plus side, Calhoun is actually one of the better offensive players for the top-heavy Angels. Yes, Puig is young and fast, but he is also big, strong, and a great hitter. Kendrick is your grandpa’s choice to bat here. Wright is hurt. With the Mets batting Tejada second, it’s hard to know if good lineup construction is just a matter of luck for this team.
Baltimore went from one of its best hitters (and one of the best players in baseball) to a guy, Jimmy Paredes, that I definitely had to look up to know who he was. Souza may be striking out at an incredible rate lately, but that is no excuse to bat the walking corpse of a once great player second. Tampa played two games, and batting Butler second in one of them is excusable. If Sizemore plays at all, he should be hitting on the other side of lead off. Perhaps the biggest shift of all is in Colorado (which I guess shouldn’t surprise anyone as this is the team that might be the hardest to understand). They went from a star player who does not fit the traditional mold to a below average middle infielder who screams 1980s bunting-the-runner-over. For New York, Gardner was a guy that both fit the old-school model and the new-school model. On the other hand, the current version of Headley is a baffling choice to hit second.
Shifting towards new-school – Toronto, Atlanta, Chicago (NL), Seattle, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Detroit, Minnesota, Chicago (AL), Oakland
While the Blue Jays were already ahead of the curve with Martin, they now have their MVP candidate and a guy that would be the best hitter on many teams hitting second. It may be luck that Atlanta is here as Maybin has not hit second frequently for this team. Sadly (for the Braves), Maybin is arguably the best healthy bat in the Braves lineup, a huge improvement over sticking Peterson in the two-hole, a move that could have looked a lot worse if not for a surprising start to his season. Chicago was one of my inspirations for this piece and it’s easy to see why. Rizzo is clearly one of the two best hitters on this team, and he’s a power hitting first baseman to boot. These guys never, ever, ever hit second even 10 years ago. Soler wasn’t a terrible choice, but this is clearly a shift.
Seager fits some of the old-school bill, but compared to trotting out Gutierrez, this is clearly higher-level thinking. I’m giving San Diego credit because Alonso is a pretty good choice for this team, especially considering he’s having a good year, and also because he’s a first baseman. While he’s not a first baseman like Rizzo, it was still rare to see lineup with a “3” next to the two spot a decade ago. Perhaps Pittsburgh thought the previously highly touted Polanco would be better, but there is no doubt that Walker is one of the best hitters on this team. Unlike some other teams, such as Boston and Cleveland, Pittsburgh has not allowed him to “graduate” out of hitting in one of the most important spots in the lineup.
Kansas City was not going with the prototypical guy beforehand, but by inserting Gordon, who hit second in both of Kansas City’s games on Tuesday, they have gone with the best hitter and best player on their team. Detroit is another team that has gone from a mediocre offensive middle infielder to a power hitting outfielder. You could easily argue that Victor Martinez would be a much better choice, but I guess hitting perhaps the slowest player in baseball second is a bit too far for now. Dozier is a nice little player for Minnesota. Their place on this list is more about who took his place, face-of-the-franchise Joe Mauer. He also happens to be easily the best OBP guy on this team. There must be something in the water in Chicago, because the two best examples come from the south- and north-side. Chicago flipped Cabrera, a fairly classic two-hole guy, and Abreu, clearly not in that category. This is the last one I’m doing, so I’ll just say this. Fuld is not good. Vogt is good.
Wildcard –St. Louis
The Cardinals are two as they played a double-header with two different players batting second. You could argue that Heyward is a new-school choice. Carpenter definitely is as a guy with a .377 OBP and no speed. However, they also used Wong, who is definitely in the old-school camp.
Final Tally: Same – 4; Stayed Old-School – 5; Stayed New-School – 1; Shifted Old-School – 8; Shifted New-School – 11; Wildcard – 1
I wanted to find something. I didn’t. That makes me comfortable with my conclusion. A few teams are definitely bucking the old-school ways, at least for now. But just as many teams seem to have gone backwards since opening day. But overall you do see a much more productive player, on average, hitting second. Both the Chicago teams are the clearest examples, as they have put large first basemen/DH with elite power who happen to be their best hitters second in their lineups. You might think that Kansas City or Toronto have permanently turned over a new leaf. But when you see Colorado go from Carlos Gonzalez on opening day to DJ LeMahieu in July, it makes it hard not to discount the possibility that any shift by any team is merely temporary. And now I’ve written 2,000 words on nothing, except perhaps a warning that if your favorite team does something you like because it seems forward thinking and helpful, don’t get too excited because there is a good chance it a blip and Howie Kendrick will be hitting second before you know it.
Being a sports fan is hard. On average, a major league team’s chance to win the World Series in a given year is 3.3 percent. I promise the math works out. Some teams, particularly larger-market teams, may have a greater chance, but for fans of any team you are more likely to end the season sad than happy. However, in April there is hope for every team. This is an old baseball cliché, but it is also generally true!
If you look at FanGraphs’ playoff odds, every team has a chance to make it at least to the wild-card game. Even the Phillies! So the cliché is grounded in a bit of reality, as clichés usually are. On the other hand, two teams are listed as having 0.0 percent chance of winning the World Series. Those darn Phillies and the Atlanta Braves.
Let’s talk about those Braves and their chances at fortune. For purposes of this exercise, we are going to assume that the playoff odds are correct up until the playoffs actually occur. Maybe you think the Braves 3.2 percent chance of making the playoffs is pessimistic. After starting 3-0, it has jumped from 3.1 percent, so that’s something! Maybe you think that is too low (or too high), but that doesn’t matter, this exercise could be done using many bad teams. The Braves have a 3.2 percent chance of making the playoffs but a 0.0 percent chance of winning the World Series. This is very unlikely to be true.
I don’t have the statistical skills to delve into the projection models, but I believe there is a fundamental flaw that essentially double dips on poorly projected teams. The playoff odds beyond simply making the playoffs are calculated assuming each team is as good or as bad as projected. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t comport with reality. If the Braves (or the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Brewers, Twins or Rangers) make the playoffs, it will be at least partially due to them being a much better team than the projections thought they were. Of course, the projections know that this is possible, hence the slim odds instead of no odds of making the playoffs.
For purposes of this chart, I’m going to make generous assumptions on the decimal points that we cannot see. These assumptions work against my conclusion and I believe my conclusion still holds. For percentages that are listed as 0.0, I’m going to assume 0.05. * For 0.1, I’m going to assume 0.15. And so on. These odds all come from FanGraphs projections as of Friday, April 10, 2015.
Below is a list of teams with less than a 10-percent chance of making the playoffs. Assuming they make the playoffs, based on these conservative assumptions, the odds of these teams winning the World Series are:
Team 1 in…
White Sox 18
The three teams in the AL actually don’t look that bad. I’d say they are perhaps a little too pessimistic, but not drastically so. In the NL, the Braves are the worst example, but the Reds, Brewers, and Rockies are all clearly unrealistic considering what we know about the playoffs (that it is something, perhaps a big something, of a crapshoot). My guess is that this could be fixed by regressing the odds of each team heavily towards a typical playoff team to account for the fact that poorly projected teams that make the playoffs are likely way towards the top end of their possible outcomes. If the Braves make the playoffs, it will be largely because they are good, and probably also because they got a decent amount of luck. I’m not saying they’d be 8-1 (as a division winner) or 16-1 (as a wild card team), which is what their odds would be based on coin flips. But there is no way the Imaginary Good Braves would go into the playoffs as 64-1 longshots to win the World Series. You don’t need a calculator or anything other than common sense to know this. And remember, I used very conservative assumptions. It is likely that if I had access to more significant digits, some of these numbers would look much worse.
*The Phillies listed odds of making the NLCS are 0.0 percent. Based on this, I halved the odds for winning the NLCS and then halved them again for winning the World Series. Thus, I conservatively estimated that the FanGraphs odds for the Phillies winning the World Series are 0.0125 percent. Thanks again, Phillies, for making things harder.