Great Expectations: A Spring Training Preview

Written by :
Published on : February 23, 2016

 

Oh no. This is a really weird feeling for a Cubs fan to have. For the first time that I can ever remember, the Lovable Losers on the North Side of Chicago seem to be both the unanimous pick to win their division and also a trendy choice for the 2016 World Series. And on paper it even makes sense. Last year, they proved that their young squad was ahead of their projected timeline, won 97 games and then went deep into the playoffs until they ran into a freakishly overachieving Daniel Murphy and a young Mets pitching staff that seems to remind everyone of the nineties Atlanta Braves. And then they went out in the offseason and got the best healthy pitcher and the best position player from their hated Cardinal rivals, and also added a guy who led the majors in WAR in 2009. Oh, and the rest of their seemingly-all-rookie lineup from last year is back and probably better than ever and still way too young and dumb to comprehend how a jaded, cynical asshole like me can still hesitate to be bullish on the prospects of a Thousand Year Cubs Dynasty.

 

This has to be too good to be true, right? There’s too much pressure. The Cubs never follow up a good season with another good season. Look at 1985, 1990 and every other year since The Year That Shall Not Be Named. And Jake Arrieta has to regress. Because he just has to. And John Lackey is 137 years old. And their bullpen isn’t quite there. And Jason Heyward isn’t a natural center fielder. And because they’re the fucking Cubs. Right? Like, why should I get my hopes up just to have them crushed again and again like I have my whole life? Why? Well… Because of Theo Epstein. And because of Joe Maddon. And because of that offense. Oh, that offense. And Kris Bryant. And Addison Russell. And Kyle Schwarber. And Anthony Rizzo. And the fact that Heyward is actually younger than Anthony Rizzo. And the fact that Heyward could win a Gold Glove in center. And because Arrieta may have pitched an assload of innings last year, but he famously stays in excellent shape. And because of how great of a story it would be if they actually did do it. And because, on paper, the Cubs just so happen to have the best team in baseball by a decent margin. Oh no, indeed.

 

 

The Rest of the NL Central

The Cubs may have kicked their ass and stolen their girlfriend, but the Cardinals are still the Cardinals. You just kind of assume they’ll be playing in October, no matter what. But even with Adam Wainwright back, the mystique feels like it’s gone, with a bad offseason and Yadier Molina needing to grow another thumb. Maybe their insane luck will finally run out. I also thought that about the Alabama football team back in September. Not that I should talk about football in the same breath I talk about St. Louis. Anyway… Then there’s the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s not like they sucked last year either. But nobody likes to talk about them because they’ll probably just get to the Wild Card and lose again, if they do anything at all. And the only fun thing about that is if Sean Rodriguez goes HAM on another water cooler. This division will inevitably be drowned out by the tidal wave of Cubs expectations. And the Reds and Brewers have probably already
drowned in it.

 

The NL East

According to EVERYONE, the Mets have the greatest pitching staff of all time, ever. And, yes, it’s horrifying. Matt Harvey is another year removed from Tommy John surgery. Jacob deGrom is a floppy-haired pitching monster. Noah Syndergaard actually is Thor. Big fat Bartolo Colon doesn’t age. Steven Matz would be a #1 starter on every other non-Mets team. And Zack Wheeler will be back in July to seal the already-done deal. Plus, all of them except Colon are 19 years old or something. The only problem is that nobody knows what type of hangover these guys will have from all those innings they ate up against Kansas City in the World Series. Or if they’ll even stay healthy. But if they do all bounce back, holy shit. Plus, they re-signed Yoenis Cespedes, which all makes for an excellent case for them to go back to the World Series. No matter how much I hate that.

 

 

Overall this division is horrible. But Bryce Harper and the dysfunctional Nationals should contend. Even though Dusty Baker is their new manager. And nobody knows what to make of the Miami Marlins quite yet. Don Mattingly is their new manager. Barry Bonds is their new hitting coach. Giancarlo Stanton will be healthy. So will Jose Fernandez. But we’ll have to see what all that means, if anything. Or if those guys can even stay healthy in the first place. And anyone looking to make a bold prediction on the division a la the 2015 Cubs and Astros might want to keep their eye on the Atlanta Braves, who are building a monster farm team, even though they’ll most likely be just slightly less shitty than the Phillies in 2016.

 

The NL West

I hate to say it, but 2016 is an even year. So we can probably throw all the analytics out the window and just hand the San Francisco Giants their fourth world title seven years. Their pitching staff picked up two possibly-great/possibly-hugely-disappointing acquisitions in Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. And that could give them an edge in what everybody seems to think will be a three team race with the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks.

 

The Dodgers lost Zack Greinke. To the Diamondbacks. They also have a rookie manager in Dave Roberts. In a market that wore out Mattingly and sent him to Miami. They also didn’t do anything with their gigantic payroll in the offseason. And any time you need to rely on Yasiel Puig for anything other than drama, it’s a pretty scary predicament. But this is a deep team with a crazy-good farm system. And they’ll probably be in enough contention by the time the trade deadline rolls around to throw money at whatever problems they have (that don’t involve lack of team chemistry). Plus they still have Clayton Kershaw. At the end of the day, as a resident Angelino, I just want to see Vin Scully go out in style. And if that means the Dodgers have to be good for that to happen, I can accept that.

 

 

Yes, Arizona got Greinke. And Shelby Miller. And they still have unrecognizable superstar, Paul Goldschmidt and equally unrecognizable AJ Pollock. But their projections aren’t too high as of now because of a lack of offensive depth (sup, Yasmany Tomas?). And it seems more likely they could be this year’s Padres and/or White Sox. As for the 2016 Padres and Rockies, I’m not wasting my time. It is an even year, after all.

 

The AL East

Every team in the division not named the Baltimore Orioles seem to have a chance this year. But the overall consensus comes down to the rebounding Boston Red Sox and the reigning division champion Toronto Blue Jays. Personally, I don’t know how acquiring David Price and Craig Kimbrel turns a 78-win last place team into a division favorite, but that’s just how the east coast media bias works. But it will be fun to see how fat Pablo Sandoval is. And if Hanley Ramirez can play first base. And it’s also the swan song for Big Papi. Plus, David Price is actually really fucking good. So I don’t know.

 

 

The Blue Jays have the best offense in baseball. And reigning MVP, Josh Donaldson. And their offense might be even better than last year since Troy Tulowitzki never got comfortable in Toronto in 2015. They’ll just have to stay healthy. And hope somebody on their team can pitch. As for the Yankees, they’re really old. And look how that worked out for them last season. Plus, you never know about that staff. And as good as their bullpen looks right now, we still don’t know what’s going to happen with Aroldis Chapman’s domestic abuse suspension. And the Rays have Chris Archer and the rest of their great starting five, but they’ll basically need everybody else on the lineup to be awesome to compete. Oh, and also the Orioles are in this division too, I guess.

 

The AL Central

The Royals won the World Series last year, no big deal. And they were one Madison Bumgarner away from being back-to-back World Series champions. Yet for some reason, Baseball Prospectus has them projected to be in last place in the Central in 2016. What gives? Maybe you can’t project things like ‘putting the ball in play and its positive consequences’ or ‘playing with a chip on their shoulder’, but whatever they did the past two seasons worked, so I don’t know why it wouldn’t work again. They have the defense. They have the bullpen. It’s just so hard to make a good enough argument for or against a team with relatively zero stars, that’s this mediocre on paper, going to three straight Fall Classics.

 

 

The hot pick in the AL Central continues to be the Cleveland Indians because of an extremely good pitching staff. Add Francisco Lindor’s defense behind them and they could be a powerhouse. Or Michael Brantley could be hurt and their offense could struggle and they won’t have the money to make acquisitions at the trade deadline to compete. And while I have a soft spot for the Detroit Tigers, they’re also getting a little long in the tooth. They got Justin Upton to aid a pretty good, but aging offense. And they picked up Jordan Zimmermann and K-Rod to help out a healthy, but aging Justin Verlander-led group of arms. Health is the key here. And if they have it, they might compete. The White Sox might also compete, even though nobody outside of Bridgeport is talking about them. They got Todd Frazier. They have Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and a full season from Carlos Rodon. It’s just that everybody is distracted by the heat of a thousand suns ™ on the North Side. And the Twins have Miguel Sano, who is going to hit 40 dongs this year. Even though they were so terrible last year, that even when they were in first place for a while nobody bought it. If that makes any sense. Not that it should. Why would anything in this division make sense? I mean, Royals went to the World Series the past two years.

 

The AL West

Even though the Astros are the unanimous choice to win the division, everybody would rather talk about the Texas Rangers. Their 2015 playoff run was nothing short of a miracle. And now they’ll have full seasons from Cole Hamels and a healthy Yu Darvish. It’s just that nobody really expected the Astros to be where they were last season either. And now nobody expects them to regress. And the former hot choices in the division seem like yesterday’s newspaper. Mike Trout has no talent around him in Anaheim. Nobody wants to get fooled by the Mariners ever again. And the A’s need too much to get anything done.

 

 

So there you have it. Now you’re ready for the baseball season. And now you know why your team probably sucks and why you should switch allegiances to the Chicago Cubs. Or at least that’s how everything looks right now. Spring training, when nothing counts. And before the actual season comes with all its shitty reality to break hearts, launch new stars into the stratosphere and ruin every expectation, rendering long-winded predictions like the one I just spent way too long typing on a nice afternoon completely worthless. But hey, that’s baseball.

 

What else were we gonna talk about, Donald Trump?

 

 

 


Zack Greinke, Sabermetrics and the Greatest Season of the Past 25 Years

Written by :
Published on : August 17, 2015

 

From June 18th of this year to July 26, Zack Greinke of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitched 45 2/3 innings without giving up a run. It was good enough for the 4th-longest scoreless innings streak in Major League history. In that period, he struck out 43 batters and only walked 4. Opposing hitters only reached third base twice. It was insanity. That’s around the time I got an email from my friend Rob. The subject was ‘Greinke’ and the body of the email just said, “On pace for best season in the last 25 years?”

 

The short answer was “No.” The dick answer was, “He’s not even the best pitcher on his own team.” But the honest answer is, I’m not even really 100% sure how to evaluate that question. So I started to ask around. I have plenty of friends who profess to be sabermetric nerds and I said, “If you had a vote for the Cy Young Award, what criteria or statistics would you use to make your choice?” The answers I got were all over the place. So I finally did something I’d been putting off for years. I went down the advanced stat rabbit hole, using places like FanGraphs as my Rosetta Stone. So when analysts argue things like Corey Kluber vs. Felix Hernandez for the Cy Young (as they did last year), the stats won’t look like total gibberish. This is what I found…

 

Felix Hernandez

 

Most of you probably already know that wins and losses are not a good judge of a pitcher’s worth. Wins just tell us how many games your team scored more runs than the other team. But what I didn’t know was that ERA (Earned Run Average) and WHIP (Walks Plus Hits Per Innings Pitched) are probably out too. The main thing most of the stat geeks are trying to get across is that once a ball is hit, pitchers have no control over whether it lands in someone’s glove or not. That’s the defense. So not only can a pitcher win games with an amazing offense, they can also look like studs because of amazing defense. Last season, Jordan Zimmermann completed his no-hitter because of a circus catch by Steven Souza. In 1990, Andy Hawkins pitched a no-hitter for the Yankees and still lost the game 4-0 because of fielding errors.

 

One stat for that brand of luck is called BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) and hitters actually have more control over it than the pitchers and fielders. Voros McCracken best explained this stat by saying that in any given Home Run Derby, you’ll see guys hit balls that would clearly be outs in a real game. And those pitchers are TRYING to give up home runs.

 

The league average for BABIP is always .300. So you can actually look at a player’s career BABIP (Greinke’s is .301) to see if their current numbers (Greinke’s is .236, which is the lowest in the Majors) are sustainable. In this case, Greinke looks like he’s been pretty lucky this season, but I still want to evaluate players based on what they’ve actually done.

 

Zack Greinke

 

The best way to really evaluate a pitcher is to focus on things they CAN control. That means walks, strikeouts, home runs and HBP (Hit by Pitch). There are a few ways to do it, but I prefer FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) as a starting point. FIP shows what a pitcher’s ERA would look like if they had a league average BABIP. So it takes the role of defense and luck out the equation. It tells you how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how the fielders fielded. Where ERA tells you what actually happened, FIP tells you what should have happened. It’s not perfect, as it doesn’t take into account HR/FB (Home Run to Fly Ball rate) or how good the pitcher is at stranding runners. But almost everyone agrees it’s better than ERA at summing up a player’s overall contribution to run prevention. Just for fun, here are the top 10 FIPs of the past 25 years:

1999 Pedro Martienz 1.39
2014 Clayton Kershaw 1.81
2013. Matt Harvey 2.00
1995 Randy Johnson 2.08
2001 Randy Johnson 2.13
2000 Pedro Martinez 2.17
1990 Roger Clemens 2.18
2011 Roy Halladay 2.20
2003 Pedro Martinez 2.21
1998 Kevin Brown 2.23

 

Greinke’s FIP is currently at 2.63. Kershaw would just miss the list at 2.24. What’s interesting is that Harvey, Halladay and Brown didn’t win the ERA titles in those years. And only half of the list won the Cy Young in those years. Because we’ve all been living a lie.

 

Roy Halladay

 

Now, there’s also xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) that takes BABIP and HR/FB into the equation. It does even more to remove the randomness from a pitcher’s performance. But I feel like if you gave up the home runs you gave up, they should count against you no matter what. xFIP and a few other stats are better predictors of future performances than they are assessing a pitcher’s current value.

 

There are still people who think batted balls can tell us SOMETHING about a pitcher’s actual skill level. Ground balls and fly balls produce outs at the highest rates (74.8% and 77.7%, respectively). While line drives have the best chances of becoming hits (and 73.6% of them will). SIERA (Skill Interactive ERA) tries to account for some of the complexity of balls in play, and it ends up being a more accurate ERA estimator than xFIP. Plus, it adjusts for differences in park sizes. Both xFIP and SIERA started getting data in 2002, so let’s look at the best FIP, xFIP and SIERA since then:

 

                FIP                 xFIP                 SIERA
2014 Clayton Kershaw 1.81 2014 Clayton Kershaw 2.08 2014 Clayton Kershaw 2.09
2013 Matt Harvey 2.00 2015 Clayton Kershaw 2.08* 2002 Curt Schilling 2.18
2011 Roy Halladay 2.20 2002 Curt Schilling 2.21 2015 Clayton Kershaw 2.21*
2003 Pedro Martinez 2.21 2002 Randy Johnson 2.44 2002 Randy Johnson 2.38
2002 Pedro Martinez 2.24 2014 Felix Hernandez 2.51 2002 Pedro Martinez 2.42
2015 Clayton Kershaw 2.24* 2011 Zack Greinke 2.56 2015 Chris Sale 2.46*
2004 Randy Johnson 2.30 2014 Stephen Strasburg 2.56 2014 Felix Hernandez 2.50
2009 Zack Greinke 2.33 2015 Chris Sale 2.56* 2014 Chris Sale 2.56
2009 Tim LIncecum 2.34 2014 Corey Kluber 2.57 2015 Max Scherzer 2.57*
2014 Corey Kluber 2.35 2015 Chris Archer 2.57* 2004 Randy Johnson 2.60

 

 

Clayton Kershaw

 

All three stats agree Kershaw’s 2014 season was the best since 2002, and this year, it’s unanimous that Kershaw is the best and Chris Sale is #2. All that being said, xFIP and SIERA are only ERA estimators. They give hypothetical home run and BABIP rates while FIP uses players’ actual home run rate in its math. I don’t want to predict the future as much as I want to show past value.

 

FanGraphs’ WAR (Wins Above Replacement) tells us how many more wins a player would have given his team over a replacement. It’s their total contribution. They use FIP in its calculation, rather than one of the estimators, and also adjusts for park size and how many innings the pitcher throws (something everyone I talked to finds highly important). The problem with WAR is that it’s not precise, since they haven’t figured out how to put SIERA’s balls in play math into the equation. There’s also RA9-WAR, which uses actual runs allowed instead of FIP. It’s just a matter of how much you want to account for defense and luck. Is it better to be lucky or good? I’d say it’s better to be good. So I’ll go with WAR. Here are the top 10 WARs for pitchers in the last 25 years:

1999 Pedro Martinez 11.6
1997 Roger Clemens 10.7
2001 Randy Johnson 10.4
1998 Kevin Brown 9.6
2000 Randy Johnson 9.6
2004 Randy Johnson 9.6
1995 Randy Johnson 9.5
1999 Randy Johnson 9.5
2000 Pedro Martinez 9.4
2002 Curt Schilling 9.3

 

Pedro Martinez

 

Okay. So we have FIP and WAR as pretty good tools in evaluating what a pitcher has done, without luck and fielding involved. Last year’s King Felix vs. Kluber argument could have been summed up by saying Felix had a 2.51 FIP and a 6.0 WAR. Kluber had a 2.35 FIP and a 7.3 WAR. Case closed. The right guy won. So back to the email I got from my friend Rob. Is Zack Greinke on pace for the greatest season of the past 25 years?

 

The short answer is still “No.” The dick answer is still, “He’s not even the best pitcher on his own team.” And the correct answer is, “Good luck beating Pedro in ’99.”

 

 


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