Archive for August, 2016

Why is Preseason So Long?

Posted: 08/28/2016 by levcohen in Football

As I watched the Eagles move to 3-0 in the preseason last night, I began to feel the familiar tingling of excitement in my stomach. I must admit that earlier yesterday I had smiled at least inwardly when hearing that the rival Dallas Cowboys would again be without the services of talented but oft-injured quarterback Tony Romo, this time for as many as 10 weeks, after he got hit in a preseason game. So after the Romo injury moved the Eagles up the NFC East pecking order, I felt that there was an added degree of importance to the Birds’ game against the Indianapolis Colts. I hadn’t watched the first two preseason games, but I was certainly going to watch this, the all-important third preseason game in which the starters generally play at least the first half. The tingling of excitement started early and then continued as the Eagles looked disciplined, balanced, and talented en route to a 24-3 lead in the third quarter (and an eventual 33-23 win). The defense had been playing well all preseason; now, the first team offense was doing its part, with an efficient Sam Bradford and a dynamic running game. I had almost forgotten that this was a preseason game against a vanilla defense when the announcers reminded us, the viewers, of last season’s all-important third preseason game. Any Eagles fan will remember this, because in hindsight it’s traumatic. It was the start of Chip Kelly’s third (and final) season with the team and Bradford’s first. The Eagles were 2-0 in the preseason when they faced the Packers in Green Bay. Bradford threw 10 passes that day, and completed all 10, resulting in 121 yards, three touchdowns, and a perfect 156.7 passer rating. All of a sudden, the Eagles weren’t just NFC East favorites. They were now Super Bowl contenders. We all know how this story ended. One 7-9 season later, Kelly is gone and Bradford won’t likely be in Philadelphia for long. But this post isn’t about the Eagles.

Preseason football is one of the things I understand least about sports. Let me clarify: the length of the preseason is one of the things I understand least. Preseason games generally go like this:

Game 1: Starters play a series or two, backups the rest of the first half, scrubs the second half
Game 2: Starters play a quarter, backups a quarter or more, scrubs the rest
Game 3: Starters play about a half, backups a quarter, scrubs the rest
Game 4: Scrubs (many of whom will be cut within days). This is an almost completely meaningless game.

Training camp obviously serves a purpose for teams. Every sport has a preseason, and it’s perhaps most important in football, which sees a huge amount of roster turnover each season and generally a much harder playbook for new players to adjust to. Likewise, preseason games clearly serve a purpose for teams. Performing in practice is one thing, but it’s important to see how inexperienced players adjust to in-game situations. What I don’t understand is why the preseason — or at least the number of preseason games — can’t be halved. There are a number of benefits that could come with cutting the preseason.

The most obvious one (and probably the most important one) is fewer injuries. I mentioned Romo for a reason other than just a way to voice my pleasure at the fact that another human being snapped a bone in his back. It just seemed like such an unnecessary injury for him to sustain. This is an experienced quarterback, one who’s unlikely to be helped much by a few extra snaps in a meaningless game. As I mentioned, Romo’s also an injury prone quarterback, one of those players who you fear could be injured every time he’s knocked down. The rationale for having him on the field is clear: it’s a valuable opportunity for him to gain chemistry with his offensive line and his skill position players, including rookie running back Ezekiel Elliot. But is the incremental improvement of playing against another defense instead of playing against your own defense in practice really worth the risk of injury? It’s easy to say this in hindsight, but it’s not unheard of for teams to hold their most important players out of the preseason. Aaron Rodgers threw just nine passes all preseason, while Adrian Peterson didn’t even put his pads on. If there were only two preseason games, there’d still be ample opportunity for the starters to work out their kinks but much less chance of an injury. I envision a two game preseason in which the first game is treated like Game 1 of the current structure and the second game is treated like Game 3, although this would obviously depend on the team.

A two game preseason would also give coaches a much easier way to try (or not try) things that they might want to practice (or keep secret) before the season. There are only so many new plays coaches are really curious about trying out, so a four week preseason usually devolves into vanilla offensive schemes against vanilla defensive schemes. Who does that really help? With a two game preseason, there would be more valuable opportunities for coaches to test their interesting formations or schemes against aggressive defenses. The less watered-down product would also make the games more enjoyable for fans, which could drive ratings and attendance.

There would still be plenty of time to evaluate players on the roster bubble. Most of those decisions get made on the practice field, anyway, but eight quarters of football is still enough to see what you have, especially if bubble players are playing five or six of those quarters. A way of seeing what you have in players without risking injury would be having more practices with other teams. Many of the roster decisions that have to be made are about special teams, since most of the players at the bottom of the roster make the team because they can contribute on special teams. In preseason games, there are only so many opportunities to see what you have on special teams because there are only so many kickoffs and punts in any given game. Why not exchange two of the games for more chances to drill returners, blockers, kickers, and gunners in practices against real opposition?

The only reason (as for as I can see) that the NFL might not want to cut the preseason in half is an obvious one: $$. The more games the merrier for the league. My response would be this: the real product you’re trying to sell is the regular season and playoffs. Don’t you think it’s in your (the NFL’s) best interest to protect your marketable players for the games that people actually care about? There’s also the fact that the league has been trying to extend the regular season to 18 games for years. The only thing that’s stopped them is the Players Association, which in the interest of player safety would very understandably rather not extend the season. But could the players be more willing to play 18 games if the preseason is two games shorter? What if the preseason was cut two weeks and then three weeks were added to the season, two for extra games and one for a second BYE for each team? That would make the regular season a tidy 20 weeks, which probably wouldn’t thrill the players but certainly would make the league and fans quite happy. Anyway, the specifics are above my pay grade. The point is that cutting one or two needless preseason games from the schedule gives the NFL a lot more options.

Finally, and this feels most important for me, fans wouldn’t be tricked into thinking their teams could win the Super Bowl as often. Team-wide preseason success is not predictive of regular season success at all. In the last 11 years, 19 teams were unbeaten and untied in preseason play. Those teams went a combined 141-163 in the regular season. It’s a lot easier to resist getting your hopes up after two good games than it is after four good ones.

Next Thursday, we’ll be subjected to the most meaningless games of pro football imaginable. Very few (if any) skill position starters will play, and many of the players who do suit up will be off the team by final cut time on September 3rd. But that isn’t the way it has to be going forward.

DJ LeMahieu’s Weird Profile

Posted: 08/25/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

If I were to ask you who the top three second baseman are in OPS, you would certainly get the first two. First is Daniel Murphy, who’s having a crazy-good season for the Nationals and who currently boasts the second best odds to win the NL MVP behind Kris Bryant. Second is Jose Altuve, who is the prohibitive favorite to take home the AL MVP. But how about third? You may guess that it’s Brian Dozier, who leads second baseman with 30 homers and is third in slugging .541. Maybe it’s Robinson Cano, who’s having a resurgent season after a down year. Maybe it’s Ben Zobrist, who easily has the most walks among second baseman, or maybe it’s a multi-time All-Star like Ian Kinsler or Dustin Pedroia. As you may have guessed, it’s none of those guys. Instead, it’s a guy who made the All-Star team last year but not this year. It’s DJ LeMahieu, who is interesting because “DJ” is his name and not just initials (he’s the first Major League Baseball player to ever have the name DJ. There have been four named D.J.) and for a host of other reasons.

LeMahieu, who plies his trade for the Colorado Rockies, is hitting .344/.416/.501. His OPS is 171 points higher than it was last season, when he made the All-Star team and supposedly reached his ceiling. LeMahieu, who turned 28 in July, already has 25 doubles, seven triples, and 10 homers, all career highs. And he’s in the midst of the best month of his career. In August, he’s hitting .461/.554/.684, good for the second OPS in baseball this month behind incredible Yankees rookie Gary Sanchez. Keep in mind that this is a guy who in his first few seasons only stayed in the lineup because of his defensive prowess. So is this the most underrated superstar in baseball or what?

Well, opposing pitchers certainly aren’t giving him much respect. LeMahieu hits right in front of Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado in Colorado’s lineup, so you can forgive pitchers for giving DJ some pitches to hit. But the number of good pitches Arenado sees is pretty surprising. Among 155 qualified hitters, only six see a higher percentage of pitches in the zone than LeMahieu (48.2%). The guys who are ahead of him include big bashers like Josh Harrison, Logan Forsythe, Zack Cozart, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Martin Prado. Also ahead of him is Dustin Pedroia, but given the plethora of scary hitters who hit behind Dustin in Boston’s lineup, that’s not surprising. And when LeMahieu is given pitches right down the middle, he hits them. His contact rate for pitches in the zone is above 96%, fourth highest in baseball. So is that all there is to it? Pitchers don’t respect him and give him easy pitches to hit, and he hits them? Is that why LeMahieu has such monster stats this year?

The answer to that last question is a clear, resounding, no. Because, you see, LeMahieu plays in Colorado, which, despite efforts to make it more pitcher-friendly, is a hitter’s maven because of Denver’s thin altitude. To see weird home-road splits from Rockies players is not out of the ordinary. In fact, the Rockies have a .888 OPS at home and a .697 OPS on the road, a 191 point split that’s just two points greater than last year’s. But LeMahieu’s splits are as extreme as I can remember. He’s hitting .400/.489/.618 at home, which gives him a 1.107 OPS. The only hitter who has a better OPS at home this season is David Ortiz. And he’s hitting .288/.336/.384 on the road, giving him a .720 OPS. That’s about the difference between Bryce Harper last season and Jordy Mercer this year.

Those bizarre splits are shocking, but they’re also pretty damning. They’re the reason that LeMahieu ranks 11th in baseball in wOBA (.393), which doesn’t adjust for ballpark effects, and 29th in wRC+ (128), which does. So what’s the conclusion? Well, even the 128 wRC+ is pretty darn good for a defense-first second baseman. The fact that LeMahieu has improved his plate discipline and strikeout-to-walk ratio (his walk rate has increased from 8.1% to 10.8% as his strikeout rate has decreased from 17.3% to 12.6%) is definitely a positive. But I just can’t wrap my mind around the home-road splits. Fangraphs is being fair and splitting the difference, so they grade him as an above-average hitter who’s been made excellent by his park. I’m more inclined to think that his true talent level is much closer to a .720 OPS than a 1.107 OPS. And the fact that he only has three homers away from home leads me to believe that he wouldn’t have a shot at double-digit homers if he were playing anywhere else.

But it is really puzzling that the home numbers have jumped so much this season. Even last year, in his All-Star season, he had just a .796 OPS at home, while his .694 road OPS was pretty similar to the .720 he has this season. So has LeMahieu completely mastered his home park, or is this a once-in-a-blue-moon type home season for an otherwise mediocre hitter? I’d say it’s probably something in between. His underlying numbers are better this year than they were last year, as his ISO is 80% higher than it was last year and he’s making a lot more contact. But he’s hitting .400 at home, something that I can’t imagine happening going forward. So where will his triple slash line settle in the years to come? If he’s on the Rockies, I’d expect something like .320/.390/.430. If he’s anywhere else, last year’s numbers (.301/.358/.388) might be the absolute ceiling. If I were an agent, I’d be trying to get my hitters to — and my pitchers away from — Colorado as quickly as possible.

The answer to my first question is that LeMahieu cannot be considered a superstar. Look at what happened to Troy Tulowitzki, for a long time considered the best shortstop in the league, when he left Colorado. Tulo is undoubtedly a better player than DJ, but even he has been average since being traded to Toronto. If his defense remains solid, though, he should be an everyday starter for years. And, if he remains a member of the Rockies, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play in a few more All-Star games. But I’m happy that he’s probably not going to get much love in the NL MVP voting, because his numbers this year are certainly more a mirage than a true barometer of his performance. For the record, I don’t think Arenado, who will get some votes, should be a legitimate MVP contender either. He leads the NL in homers and is lapping the rest of baseball in RBI, but he’s also benefitted from the friendly confines of Coors Field. People recognize that it’s easy to hit in Denver, but I don’t think they understand just how easy it is. LeMahieu is Exhibit A.

Next up: why Tyler Chatwood (10-8, 3.75 ERA), Colorado’s ace, should win the NL Cy Young… Just kidding.

Corey Kluber, Cole Hamels, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer, Danny Duffy, Aaron Sanchez… Have I thrown enough names at you yet? All seven of those guys are legitimate Cy Young contenders, but they’re not alone. I haven’t yet talked about two of the favorites, nor have I touched on the most intriguing name on the list. Should a reliever really be in the mix to win the award? (Spoiler alert: no). But I’ll get to Zach Britton later. First, there are a pair of 17-3 starters to attend to.

J.A. Happ is months away from his 34th birthday and has a career 3.99 ERA. Rick Porcello is a spry 27 and has a career 4.25 ERA. That the two are having similar seasons is not a surprise; that both are Cy Young contenders, well, is. Even aside from the identical records, the profiles of these two starters are remarkably similar. Happ’s a lefty and Porcello’s a righty, but both pitch in the AL East for good teams in the thick of the division title race. In fact, Happ’s Blue Jays and Porcello’s Red Sox will have identical records atop the division if the Sox can win tonight in Tampa Bay.

Happ has a 3.05 ERA, which gives him a slight edge over Porcello’s 3.22. But Porcello has only walked 28 batters all season, giving him a WHIP (1.04) that’s substantially lower than Happ’s (1.14). And the advanced stats also seem to favor the right-handed pitcher. Porcello has a 3.69 FIP, 20 points lower than Happ’s, largely because he’s gotten much less luck when he’s put guys on base. Happ’s leaving an absurd 82.1% of baserunners on, which ranks fifth in MLB and third in the AL. Porcello’s smack dab in the middle of the pack at 74.8%. He’s also helped by a ground ball rate (45.6%) that’s higher than Happ’s (42.4%). But these are very subtle differences, and other parts of their statistical resumes are almost identical. Happ and Porcello are giving up 1.08 and 1.04 homers per nine innings respectively. Both strike out between seven and eight batters per nine innings. Porcello’s BABIP is .267, while Happ’s is .269. 31.7% of the contact against Happ is hard contact, compared to 31.1%.

The two starters don’t just get the same results; they also have similar repertoires. They each throw four seam fastballs, changeups, curveballs, and sinkers. While Porcello has better off-speed stuff, Happ makes up for it with a nasty four seamer with backspin that generates a lot of swings and misses. He throws his fastball 71.2% of the time, which ranks behind only Aaron Sanchez in the AL, and has added more value with his fastball than any other starter in the league both on an absolute and per-pitch basis (excluding knuckleballer Steven Wright, who throws his fastball just 15.7% of the time).

The reason I’m comparing these two guys rather than writing about each separately is that I think this is a comparison a lot of voters will be looking at come the end of the season. These are two veteran but relatively unheralded (at least in the context of guys like Verlander and Sale) pitchers who are running up gaudy win totals for good AL East teams. So what’s the deciding factor between the two?

If they end the season in similar fashions and both (or neither) get to 20 wins, it may simply come down to which team wins the division. But, if the race were between just these two, right now I’d side with Porcello. It’s a close call and there’s obviously a lot that can change things in a month, but the deciding factor for me is that, in addition to getting less luck than Happ, Porcello also manages to pitch deeper into games. He’s amassed 15 more innings than Happ, although he has made one more start. But the difference between going 6.6 innings per start, as Porcello has, and going 6.26 innings per start, as Happ has, actually makes a bigger difference than you would think. If the race between the two is as close at the end of the season as it is now, the 15+ inning gap between the two could well make the difference for voters who pay close attention to innings totals. Remember, Happ is currently part of a six man rotation in Toronto, so Porcello has a chance to widen the gap before the end of the season. Also: Porcello looks likely to clear the 200 innings total, while Happ is very unlikely to do so. Arbitrary numbers like 200 innings probably shouldn’t mean much to voters, but they undoubtedly do.

Now it’s Zach Britton time. Let’s first all agree that he’s having a fantastic season. He has 37 saves, tops in the AL. More importantly, he’s given up just three runs in 50.1 innings all season. That’s good for a .54 ERA, which, if it holds up, will break Fernando Rodney’s 2012 record for best ERA ever (.60). It’s important to note right off the bat that in that 2012 season Rodney, who had 48 saves and gave up five runs in 74.2 innings, finished fifth in the Cy Young voting.

Anyway, Britton’s been successful because he has a devastating sinker that almost always causes swings and misses or ground balls. His only other pitch is a sparsely used slurve, so he throws the sinker almost every pitch at an average velocity of 97.6 miles per hour. And the results are pretty terrifying. .69% of his sinkers end up being hit in the air. When you limit it to just balls hit in play, only 4.5% of the sinkers end up in the air. Just look at it this way: Britton’s thrown 722 sinkers, and five have ended up as fly balls in addition to one other that was a home run, the only homer that he’s given up this season. Overall, Britton has 59 strikeouts in 50.1 innings, which is a pretty standard number for a closer. But he has an 80.5% ground ball rate and an 8% fly ball rate. That’s a 10.11 ground ball to fly ball rate. Sam Dyson ranks second at 4.0. Pretty staggering.

But there are great relievers every season. In fact, figures like Aroldis Chapman’s 17.67 strikeout to walk ratio in 2014 are even more impressive than Britton’s numbers this year. So how come Britton seemingly has a real chance, with support coming from across the baseball fan spectrum? Well, old school fans love that he has a shot at the ERA record. Analytically inclined fans almost universally point to a statistic called win probability added, which is a context-based stat that attempts to measure a pitcher’s win probability added given the situation when he’s pitching. Britton is first in WPA among all pitchers by a wide margin — his +4.52 is followed up by Clayton Kershaw’s +3.72 and Andrew Miller’s +3.58. The point is that Britton’s been super important for the Orioles. Point made.

In my view, there are a few problems with this argument. First of all, no matter how high-leverage the innings have been, Britton’s still only thrown 50.1 innings. Corey Kluber’s thrown 169.2 innings. That’s a big hole to climb out of. Starting pitchers have the unique ability to make the late innings low-leverage situations. So if Baltimore had Corey Kluber or Chris Sale or Aaron Sanchez instead of one of their mediocre starters, Britton would either not have thrown as many innings or would have had lower leverage save situations. People are also super excited by Britton’s 40.1 inning scoreless streak that dates back to the beginning of May. It’s a really impressive streak, but it’s something that’s happened nine times before, including with Zack Greinke last year. The difference is that 40 innings for a starter might not even span a month. For Britton, it’s been almost four months.

Another reason I don’t buy this argument is that there are so many other truly dominant relievers. In the context of the starting pitchers in contention for the award, the .54 ERA and 10.55 K/9 ratio are both astounding numbers. But the strikeout per nine ratio is just 35th best among 150 qualified relievers, while little known Cam Bedrosian has a 1.12 ERA in 40.1 innings. Last year, Wade Davis had a .94 ERA. Sure, Britton’s been better. But has he been significantly better? His 2.02 FIP, which ranks sixth among relievers this season, indicates that he’s far from the bullpen’s version of Clayton Kershaw.

Why are so many relievers dominant? Easy. Because being a reliever and being tasked with getting three batters out is a heck of a lot easier than going out and throwing 230 innings a season. Could Corey Kluber move to the bullpen and be dominant? Of course he could. Could Aaron Sanchez? Well, his 1.09 ERA in 2014 in 33 innings would indicate that he’d be a pretty darn good closer. In fact, and this is the kicker, Britton himself once started. Between 2011 and 2013, 46 of his 48 appearances came as starts. He had a 4.77 ERA in those three seasons, and hitters hit .278 against his sinker. Of course, Britton’s become a better pitcher since 2013, and what he’s done not only this year but also in the previous two is incredible. The fact that his FIP is actually higher this year than it was last year is an ode to his three year dominance of opposing hitters. It’s not like any random starter could go to the bullpen and be as dominant as he’s been.

It’s a bit unfair to hold Britton’s tenure as a starter against him in this conversation, since the Cy Young is a one year award and since I didn’t hold, say, J.A. Happ’s previous struggles against him. But the fact that he was not good enough to consistently do what the other contenders for the award are doing just illustrates the difference in importance between a workhorse starter and a closer.

If Britton fails to win the award this year, people will ask whether it’s really possible for a reliever to win the Cy Young. My answer is that I don’t think it should be. Starters are inherently more valuable than relievers, because 150 good innings are three times as valuable as 50 good innings. And because starters are more valuable, any pitcher who can be either a good starter or a great reliever will be asked to start. So why can’t there be a high-profile Mariano Rivera award? Poor Mo never even sniffed a Cy Young and will enter the Hall of Fame award-less. I want Zach Britton to be rewarded for his incredible season, but I can’t justify putting him ahead of someone who will have thrown four times as many innings as him by the end of the season.

I wrote about the elite pitchers of the AL and how none of them have pitched well enough to make a super compelling case for the Cy Young. Now, let’s look at the less heralded pitchers who have a chance to sneak into some first place votes in the award voting. These guys are a mixture of low-innings stalwarts, the two starters with the most wins in the league, and even a relief pitcher. Today, I’m going to write about the three starters with the best ERAs in the American League, one of whom I think may be the favorite for the award. Next, I’ll write about the two wins leaders and the closer.

Michael Fulmer has pitched 120 innings for the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers have played 121 games. In order to qualify for the ERA title, you need to pitch at least one inning per game played, so as of this moment, Fulmer doesn’t qualify. Now, I mentioned that he pitches tonight, and if he stays healthy for the rest of the season, he should crack 162 innings with room to spare. But the Tigers have talked about skipping a few starts down the stretch because he threw just 124.2 innings last season. There’s no “hard cap” on Fulmer’s innings, but Detroit will be cautious about him as the season draws to a close even as they remain in the thick of the AL wild card race. So there’s some question regarding whether Fulmer will even qualify for the ERA title. But we’re talking about the Cy Young, not the ERA title. Is, say, 170 innings enough to propel Fulmer into the thick of the Cy Young voting? Well, he’s 10-3 with a 2.25 ERA, so that helps. Even if he has a rough start or two down the stretch, he’ll likely have the best run prevention number in the AL, as he currently has a 48 point jump on second place Danny Duffy (more on him soon). He’s really snuck up on me in his rookie season. After generally being considered a mediocre prospect, he was ranked at the back end of the top-50 entering this season and made just three starts in AAA before getting the call-up. He was a first round pick who’s always performed pretty well, so his success makes some sense, but I don’t think anyone expected him to be this good. And he’s actually been even better since his first four starts. Since he shut down the Rays on May 21st, he’s made 15 starts. He’s 8-2 and has a 1.43 ERA and a .84 WHIP. He doesn’t have the strikeout-to-walk rate of Clayton Kershaw, but that’s a 15 start stretch that seems very Kershaw-esque (or Arrieta-esque, for that matter). Now, a lot of this is down to luck. He’s leaving a higher percentage of baserunners on base than anyone in the league besides Ian Kennedy and Duffy, and he’s holding hitters to a .248 average on balls in play, second-lowest in the league behind Marco Estrada. This is where the difference between Fangraphs WAR, which is based on FIP, and Baseball-Reference ERA, which is based on ERA, comes into play. Fulmer is tied for 12th in fWAR at 2.6 but first in bWAR at 5.1. At the end of the day, I don’t believe that a starter whose thrown 60-70 fewer innings than the league’s workhorses belongs in the Cy Young debate. But for the ERA-obsessed voters, it’s pretty hard to ignore someone who seems likely to have the best ERA in the league by a long shot, especially if he can win three or four more games and if the Tigers can make the playoffs.

Danny Duffy’s thrown more innings and has been slightly less lucky than Fulmer, but I put him in pretty much the same category. He’s thrown 132 innings and is 10-1 with a 2.73 ERA in 34 appearances, 18 of which have been starts. Had Duffy, who ranks ninth in fWAR and seventh in bWAR, started for the whole year, this award might be his to lose. But he didn’t start until May 15th, and he didn’t throw more than 88 pitches until June 22nd. He has a 2.68 ERA and sub-1 WHIP as a starter, but it probably won’t matter much. Despite his 10-1 record, Duffy’s generating even less Cy Young talk than Fulmer is, both because he’s been around for a while (he was a former top prospect who was 24-30 with a 3.80 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in his first five years) and because he’s pitching for a World Series Champion that is barely over .500 and seems unlikely to make a playoff run. Duffy really seems to have figured something out; he’s generating far more swings-and-misses than he ever has, largely because he’s nixed his curveball in favor of a slider and has thrown his changeup much more often and much more effectively. That’s good news for the Royals, but Duffy probably won’t end the season with the Cy Young.

When the Blue Jays traded for Francisco Liriano at the trade deadline, Toronto GM Ross Atkins said that Aaron Sanchez would be heading to the bullpen. But he’s made two starts since then and is scheduled to start again tomorrow. Why? Because the Blue Jays have decided to go with a six man rotation instead of wasting their talented young starter. Now that we know he’s remaining in the rotation, Sanchez might be the frontrunner for the award, because he seems like the guy in the race who checks off the most boxes. Workload? He’ll probably be 30 innings behind the league leaders, but he’ll start 29 or 30 games and get close to 190 innings, which will give him significantly more innings than Duffy. Record? He’s 12-2 and, given the quality of Toronto’s offense, seems to be in a good position to end up with 15 or 16 wins. He’s five wins behind J.A. Happ and four behind Rick Porcello, but he’s just two behind Chris Sale, one behind Corey Kluber, and tied with Justin Verlander with time to move ahead of those guys. Narrative? The Jays currently lead the ultra-competitive AL East by a game and a half, and Sanchez is the ace. Run prevention? His 2.84 ERA ranks behind only Fulmer and Duffy. Advanced stats? His FIP is 3.30, behind only Kluber and Duffy. His BABIP is .278, which is pretty middle of the road. While he doesn’t have a high strikeout rate, he generates a huge number of ground balls (253). His ground ball rate is 57.1%, which puts him behind only Marcus Stroman and Dallas Keuchel and miles ahead of Fulmer (50.6%), who’s next among Cy Young candidates. He gets 2.53 ground balls for every fly ball, behind only Stroman and again many degrees of separation away from the other contenders. And his hard hit% against is only 28.7%, fifth in the AL. Duffy is getting hit hard 34.6% of the time and has the fifth worst grounder to fly ball rate in the league. In other words: Sanchez has been more good than lucky.

He really does check all the boxes, but while I would vote for Sanchez or Corey Kluber if I had to cast a vote today, neither of them are really running away with the award. That’s why the race is still open for three other surprise candidates who I still haven’t gotten to. When I said this was a wide open race, this is what I meant.

 

Who’s the best starting pitcher in the American League? Well, based on pedigree, the answer is probably Cole Hamels, Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, or Corey Kluber, all of whom have ERAs between 2.88 and 3.42. Based on ERA, it’s Michael Fulmer (2.25) or Danny Duffy (2.82). Based on win-loss records, it’s Rick Porcello, J.A. Happ (both 16-3), Chris Tillman (15-4), or Aaron Sanchez (12-2). This is a wide open race. But these races generally aren’t over by the middle of August. While the NL race would have been an exception if Clayton Kershaw had stayed healthy, it’s now also somewhat competitive, with Stephen Strasburg, Jake Arrieta, and Madison Bumgarner leading the way. But the reason this year’s AL Cy Young race is so interesting is that some unlikely names might end up atop a lot of ballots. Today, I’m going to write about why some of the big names aren’t running away with the award. Next, I’ll write about the pitchers who have the best chance to capitalize on the lack of a stud starter in the AL, including a certain relief pitcher.

Before the season, Sale (fourth last year), David Price (second), and Kluber (ninth) were expected to lead the chase for the award. 2015 winner Dallas Keuchel and young standouts Sonny Gray (third last year), Chris Archer (fifth), and Marcus Stroman (1.67 ERA after returning from injury last season) were also considered to be in the mix. With two notable exceptions, those guys haven’t pitched particularly well this season. Price has logged the most innings in the AL this year but has a 4.29 ERA, which barring a Kershaw-esque run to close the season eliminates him. And among the 53 AL pitchers with 100+ innings pitched, Gray (5.74), Stroman (4.63), Keuchel (4.56), and Archer (4.39) all rank in the bottom 40% of the league in ERA. So those four guys are clearly out of the running. But Sale and Kluber have both pitched well.

If you had told me before the year that Chris Sale would have a 14-6 record and the second most innings pitched in the AL on August 16th, I would’ve thought that he’d be in great position to win the Cy Young. And he has pitched well. He has a 3.30 ERA, 12th in the AL, and a 1.04 WHIP, tied for fourth. He has 157 strikeouts in 160.2 innings and has a 3.48 FIP (fielding independent pitching). Sale, the owner of a career 2.97 ERA, has been an elite pitcher for his whole career, and he’s been pretty darn good this year. With all of that said, I don’t think he has a great chance of winning the award. He plays for a 56-61 White Sox team that has no chance of making the playoffs. That’s much easier to recover from in the Cy Young race than it is in the MVP race, but it doesn’t help. His 3.30 ERA is solid, but it’s not eye-popping. And, perhaps most importantly, he was suspended for five days by his team for cutting up his team’s throwback jerseys because he didn’t want to wear them. Unless Sale separates himself from the pack stat-wise, the attitude problems and his team’s mediocrity will likely bar him from winning the award.

The AL’s other headline starters I haven’t talked about are Hamels, Verlander, and Kluber. All three have valid Cy Young cases. Hamels truly is a case study of old school v. new school. His surface numbers — 12-4, 2.88 ERA, 149 strikeouts in 153.1 innings — look really good. He’s the ace of a team that has been the most pleasant surprise in the AL, with a league-leading 70 wins. He’s been consistently excellent for a decade but has never finished better than fifth in the Cy Young voting, so voters could see this as a chance to reward him in a year without a clear winner. Sounds pretty good, right? But the advanced stats tell a different story. Hamels has the third-largest difference between his ERA (2.88) and his FIP (4.03) in the AL. He’s just 19th in the league in WAR among 44 qualifiers. His control has been pretty bad this year, as he’s walking 3.46 batters per nine innings, which actually serves as his career high. For someone who’s made 330 career starts, that’s saying something. He’s also allowing the hardest-hit balls against him since 2007, and his 1.30 WHIP is the highest of his career. The reason for the disparity is that Hamels has been either clutch or lucky depending on who you ask. His “clutch” rating (per Fangraphs), which measures how well a player performs in high leverage situations with a score of 0 being neutral, is 1.08. That ranks behind only Ian Kennedy, J.A. Happ, and Mike Fiers in the AL. He’s left 83.2% of baserunners on base, easily the highest percentage of his career. We can debate all day about whether it’s been more skill or luck (the answer is luck), but it might not matter, because voters will probably want to jump all over a pitcher with 16+ wins and a sub-3 ERA on a surprisingly good team. I believe that Hamels will regress down the stretch and no longer be a top option for the Cy Young, but as I type this on August 16th he’s certainly near the front of the race.

If the season ended today, Justin Verlander would not win the AL Cy Young. But it doesn’t end today, and I think Verlander has a better chance of winning the award than either Sale or Hamels. After giving up seven runs on May 3rd, Verlander had a 6.49 ERA through his first six starts. Since that debacle, he’s become Justin Verlander again. In his last 18 starts, he’s held opposing hitters to a .198 average and a .582 OPS. He’s 10-3 with a 2.58 ERA in that span as the Tigers have risen into the thick of the AL wild card race. And it doesn’t look like he’s cooling off, as he’s lowered his ERA in eight consecutive starts and hasn’t given up more than two runs in a game since July started. For the entire season, Verlander is now 12-6 with a 3.42 ERA. He’s third in the AL in innings pitched and second behind Chris Archer in strikeouts with 170. The low-strikeout Verlander of the last few years is gone, and the strikeout machine is back, albeit without quite the same velocity. Again, Verlander’s resume isn’t good enough today to warrant all that much discussion, but he could well be on his way to pitching 215+ innings with a ~ 3.20 ERA, 220+ strikeouts, and 16+ wins. The last time Verlander pitched this well was in 2012, when he finished second in the Cy Young voting (just barely behind David Price) and eighth in the MVP voting. In a wide open race, Verlander is pitching like he wants to make himself a factor down the stretch.

Then there’s Corey Kluber, the guy who won this award two years ago, the guy who leads AL pitchers in WAR this year, and the guy who, with Sale, has been the co-best pitcher in the league for the last three years. If the advanced stats hate Hamels, they love Kluber, who’s the only Cy Young candidate with a FIP (2.97) that’s lower than his ERA (3.21). Kluber’s been the second least “clutch” (or lucky) starter in the league, so the fact that his ERA is as low as it is anyway is pretty impressive. He’s leaving just 69.3% of baserunners on base, which when compared to Hamels’s 83.2% makes up more than the 33 point ERA difference between the two. I think everyone would agree that Kluber’s a really good pitcher. The problem is that he isn’t running away with the award either, as he might lose some votes to Danny Salazar and has an unimpressive 12-8 record to go with his below-average-for-a-Cy-Young ERA. When he won the award two years ago, his numbers — 18-9, 2.44 ERA, 269 strikeouts — popped off the page. Will voters be keen to award him another Cy Young just two years later and with clearly inferior numbers?

One thing’s for sure: none of these guys have profiles that are shaping up to be as good as Kluber’s in 2014 or Keuchel’s — 20-8, 2.48 ERA, 216 strikeouts — last year. That could open up the race to some of the less-heralded options I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post. I’ll talk about those guys next.

Entering the All-Star break, Bryce Harper was having a disappointing season. He was slashing .296/.399/.491 and ranked 23rd in baseball with 3.2 WAR. But it was only disappointing because of the transcendent numbers Harper put up last season; with 19 homers, 13 steals, and an excellent 1.21 walks for every time he struck out, Harper was still on pace to rack up pretty impressive numbers for one of the best teams in baseball. After a 2015 second half in which he slashed .320/.457/.586, it seemed likely that he’d pick up his numbers after the break this season. Instead, he’s been terrible and has now missed the last three games with a neck injury with a DL stint possible. Nationals’ manager Dusty Baker has said that the neck stiffness has impacted Harper’s swing, but given that the injury has only been bothering Harper for “a couple of days” (in his words), there has to be more to Harper’s terribleness since the break.

Since the All-Star break, Harper is hitting .134, last among qualified hitters. Even more incredibly, the slugger is slugging just .209 since the break. In 81 plate appearances, he has one homer and two doubles, which means that 3.7% of his plate appearances have ended in extra base hits. Last year, he hit an XBH in 13% of his plate appearances. This might be the easiest way to see how steep Harper’s decline has been since the break: his wRC+ is 32 and his ISO (SLG-AVG) is .75, which rank 7th and 18th worst among 169 qualifiers. Before the break, even as he played much worse than he did last season, his wRC+ was 131 and his ISO .235, 38th and 32nd among 167 qualifiers. He’s gone from being a disappointing All-Star-level-performer to being one of the worst players in baseball.

His walk rate remains very solid, but it’s down from 19% to 14.8% as his strikeout rate has risen from 15.8% to 24.7%. As a result, his 1.21 BB:K rate, which was best in baseball, has dropped to a middle-of-the-pack .6. That’s a sure sign that something isn’t right with Bryce.

Harper’s doing worse against every type of pitch he’s facing. Last year and again in the first half of the season, he was tremendous against both fastballs and curveballs and solid against pretty much every pitch across the board. Since the break, though, the only pitch he’s added value against has been the curveball. Against fastballs, he’s costing the Nationals 1.95 runs per 100 pitches, 11th worst among the 169 qualifiers I referenced earlier. That’s almost impossible to believe, because, even including this year, Harper has been the 12th best hitter among 324 qualifiers against fastballs on a per-pitch basis since his 2012 debut.

Harper’s problem isn’t that he’s been chasing too many pitches or swinging and missing too many times. In fact, he’s swinging just 37% of the time, down from 43.5% in the first half of the year and 47.1% in his career. He’s swinging less both against pitches outside of the zone (from 31.3% career to 27.7% first half to 22.4% in the last month), which is good, and against pitches inside the zone (from 72.9% career to 68.2% first half to 61.3% in the last month), which is more confusing. Harper’s contact rate is up to a career-highest 81.5% in the last month and his swing-and-miss rate is at a corresponding career-low.

It looks as if Harper’s made a conscious decision to be more patient at the plate this year, and it’s hurt him. Last season, Harper took 61.9% of opening pitches, already a pretty high figure. This year, he’s taking 71.6% of the time. Harper used to be known as a first pitch hacker, but now he’s become one of the premier pitch-takers in baseball. That explains the high walk rate, but an unwanted byproduct of the patience might be that, by taking more pitches, he might be passing up his best chances in a lot of at bats to get hittable pitches. Because when pitchers are facing a hitter of Harper’s caliber, they’re going to be much more willing to pitch around him than they would be someone else.

As a result, when Harper has hit the ball, he’s hit it with much less authority. Since the break, 17.4% of the balls he’s hit in play have ended up as infield popouts, which is three times as high as the 5.8% of the time he popped out last season. His soft-hit ball percentage is up from 11.9% to 22%, and his hard-hit ball percentage is down from 40.9% to 32.2%. With the decrease in aggressiveness has also come a return to Harper’s pre-2015 tendency of spraying the ball to all fields rather than being a true pull hitter.

A lot of the decline has also been the result of unluckiness. Last year’s .369 BABIP was the highest of Harper’s career and abnormally high for someone who isn’t super fast, so it would have been smart to expect some regression. But Harper has a .237 BABIP this year, 89 points his career average and third-worst in baseball. And since the All-Star break, nobody has a worse BABIP than Harper’s .167.

On the surface, it seems confusing that a 23-year-old would decline so rapidly a year after a tremendous offensive season without a significant injury. But Harper’s dropoff actually makes a lot of sense. I know it’s hard to do this, but let’s ignore the fact that Bryce was the most highly touted prospect in years and that he was supposed to be the best player of his generation. If you ignore that, last season feels like much more of an aberration than it does Harper’s first All-Time Great caliber season of many. In Harper’s first three years, he slashed .272/.351/.465 in 1489 plate appearances with 18 homers in 119 games per season. His OPS+, which is adjusted for ballpark and league averages, was 121, which is above-average but not notably so. He walked 52 times and struck out 106 times per season. This year, he’s hitting .233/.374/.438 with 20 homers in 105 games. His OPS+ is 115. In between, of course, he had his MVP season, in which his OPS+ was a preposterous 198. But if we throw that season out, I think we can start to figure out what Harper’s future will look like.

His average is down this year from the first three in his career, but we can chalk that up entirely to a really unlucky BABIP. Sure, a little of that BABIP might be tied into his softer hits (more on that in a second), but his average should be at least 50 points higher, which would put him in the .280-.290 range. So, slightly better than his first seasons, but nowhere near last year’s .330. His slugging percentage is also down, and that’s what can be tied to the softer hits and loss of aggression that have come with Harper’s increased patience. But his on-base percentage is way up, which is the result of his 82 walks and 78 strikeouts, a huge turnaround from the .49 BB:K ratio he had in his first three seasons. Last year, of course, Harper combined the average, the walks, and the slugging, which is why he had such a monstrous season. This year, he’s only getting the walks due to a combination of bad luck and approach at the place.

Bryce Harper is going to be absolutely fine. He’s still walking a lot in this lost season (although it won’t be a lost season if his team has postseason success), and his average is sure to rebound. As Harper’s career evolves, it’ll be interesting to see whether he opts to maximize his contact rate or his power. We saw Mike Trout do the latter, as his .320+ averages and ~30 homer seasons in his first two seasons became .290 averages and ~40 homers in his next two. This year, Trout has kind of reverted to his 2012 and 2013 self, with more stolen bases and a .312 average accompanying a home run total that probably won’t approach 40. I’d expect Harper, who was drafted to be a 40+ homer slugger, to become a little bit more aggressive going forward as he attempts to recoup some of the power that he showed in his 42 homer season last year. These are two possible batting lines I see as Harper reaches his prime:
A. .300/.430/.520 with 25 homers. This is Harper as Joey Votto, with a great eye and patience paired with decent power.

B. .280/.400/.580 with 40 homers. This is Harper as prime Jose Bautista, with a little average sacrificed for power.

I intentionally did this so neither side is clearly superior, because I’m not sure which path Harper should take. I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t end up with a handful of 40+ homer seasons, but maybe he’ll experiment with both methods. One thing I am sure about is that Bryce Harper has the talent and hitting ability to be an elite hitter for a long time. Now, elite is still a step away from 2015 Bryce Harper, and I think we’ll come to consider 2015 and 2016 as the poles of Bryce Harper’s production while he’s in his prime. But Nats fans should feel confident that Harper will bounce back in plenty of time to be signed to a $500 million deal… by the Yankees.

The Unmatchable Allure of the Olympics

Posted: 08/06/2016 by levcohen in Olympics

Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong in the weeks and months leading up to the Rio Olympics did go wrong. Problems with the host nation?? Ohhh boy. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been suspended from office pending an impeachment trial over accusations that she illegally manipulated government accounts. The investigation into a corruption scandal involving state-controlled oil company Petrobras, called Operation Car Wash, has implicated members of Rousseff’s party but also many of her opponents. The corruption scandal has deepened the divide between the major Brazilian parties and between Brazilian people, leading to many massive demonstrations against the government. Not ideal. But plenty of countries have corrupt governments. Brazil’s problems heading into the Olympics are much greater than just corrupt leadership. There’s also an economic crisis, one that’s led to a 3.8% shrink in the economy in 2015, an unemployment rate now in double digits and rising, and sky-high inflation rates. As a result, a lot of Brazilians aren’t exactly pleased to see so much money going to hosting the Olympics when more and more people are starving and living on the street.

Disease with no vaccination or medicine? Check. The Zika virus is prevalent in Brazil, leading to a flurry of dropouts and complaints from high-profile athletes, including United States soccer’s goalie Hope Solo, who has heard shouts of “Zika!” from the crowd whenever she’s gotten the ball in her team’s first two games. Now, there’s some debate over how likely it is that the Olympics will spread Zika, but the disease is certainly a scary thought for both athletes and fans in Rio.

Sky-high crime rates? Yup. Street robberies have shot up by 81% and murders by 38% in Brazil this year, and Rio officials declared a “state of public calamity” in June, a month in which there were 17,116 robberies in Rio state. There have already been multiple alleged crimes in the Olympic Village.

But there are also problems with the Olympics themselves. Namely, it’s impossible to rationally believe at this point that everyone’s playing on a level playing field. The Russian doping scandal, a state-controlled program going back a century, is just the latest of a long list of substance problems at the Olympics. And while some Russian athletes have been barred from competing in the Olympics, plenty have still been allowed to compete under the clearly-tainted Russian flag. And the problems don’t end with the Russians, because plenty of athletes from other countries have been busted for steroid use and plenty more have either beaten drug tests or even been given drugs by their home countries. So yeah, it’s tough to watch the 400 meter final without wondering which athletes are clean and which aren’t.

And yet… I bet you’re still going to watch the Olympics. I know I will gobble up as much of it as I can. Will the host nation’s problems dampen the atmosphere? Probably. Will the steroid questions mar the Games? They should. But, in the end, the allure of the Olympics is just too great for a number of reasons. Here are the reasons why you’ll always watch the Olympics:

  • The history. The ancient Olympic Games were religious and athletic festivals held every four years in Olympia, Greece. The competition was between city-states and kingdoms of Ancient Greece and were held from 776 BCE to 393 AD. The modern games were modeled after the ancient ones and have been held every four years since 1896 (and every two years since 1992) with the exceptions of 1916, 1940, and 1944. So when athletes break Olympic records, it means a lot. When the history is so rich, it’s hard not to want to feel part of it.
  • Patriotism. This may be less true for the United States than it is for other nations, but how often do you get to cheer on your countrymen in competitions against everyone else in non-war scenarios? Only during the Olympics. And if your friends are raving about an athlete, you’re going to want to tune in and cheer him or her on. It’s easy to grow up in Philadelphia and be a Los Angeles Lakers fan; I’d imagine that it’s harder to grow up in Norway and root against the Norwegians in the Olympics. Rarely do people get to unite with their countrymen like they do during the Olympics
  • The variety. Are you tired of watching basketball and baseball every night? Well, there’s a lot more variety in the Olympics. There are 42 Summer Olympic sports, ranging from archery to canoe to equestrian to fencing to swimming to wrestling and on and on. Chances are that you’ll find a sport or five to watch and enjoy and a sport or five for your friends and family to watch and enjoy.
  • Witnessing greatness. With some notable exceptions (I’m looking at you, golfers and basketball players), we have the pleasure of seeing the greatest athletes in the world in one place every other year and especially during the Summer Olympics. When else can you see Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, and Usain Bolt in the same place at the same time?
  • The competition. Not only is it two weeks of sports, but it’s also two weeks of drama-filled and high-intensity competition. This is less true in some sports (for example, both men’s and women’s basketball) than others, but you can’t watch swimming and track finals without holding your breath. And when you hear some of the athletes’ backstories and get connected to them, the events become even more heart-wrenching and certainly must-watch events.
  • Sense of community. As a fan watching the Olympics, it’s really heartwarming to see the friendships and bonds athletes from different countries and backgrounds form with each other. The fact that there’s an Olympics Refugee Team this year says it all. It’s easy to see how much this competition means to the athletes and especially for the refugees and athletes from underprivileged and/or small countries, and that in turn makes it much more enjoyable to watch.
  • Coming together. Perhaps above all, the Olympics serves as a time in which people from every corner of the world can focus on one thing. Domestic politics are omnipresent, but they’re a little less present when the Olympics are going on. Everything’s just a bit brighter and more hopeful when the athletes are plugging away at the Olympics.

Complain all you want, but I’m telling you, you will watch the Olympics, both this year and going forward.