August Fagerstrom has a great article at Fangraphs today on projections of team defense for 2016. As you might imagine, a few of the AL West clubs look pretty different heading into 2016 than they did in 2015, with the Angels acquiring perhaps the best defensive player on the planet, and the M’s remaking their outfield by adding Leonys Martin and subtracting the bizarre experiment of Brad Miller/Mark Trumbo/Logan Morrison. Meanwhile, knowing more about some of the players in Houston and Oakland mean we can hopefully make better predictions than last year. To be clear: projecting team defense is really, really hard. This makes some sense at a really high level, but the numbers themselves – the magnitude of a team’s advantage/deficit – are going to be wrong for a variety of reasons. The point of this post is to look at where the AL West defenses stand here on the precipice of the all-important Cactus League “season,” to examine the impact of some of the big off-season trades on defense, and to see how well last year’s predictions did.
1: Let’s start with last year’s forecasts, as if this tool has limited predictive power, your interest in the rest of the post may wane. Last year, the top projected defense in the AL West was Oakland, at…wait! Where are you all going? Houston was projected to bring up the rear, with the M’s and Rangers around average, and the Angels a few runs worse than that. What actually happened is, well, since we’re talking about defense, “what actually happened” is actually a debatable issue. By UZR, the A’s were absolutely abysmal, coming in somewhere around 50 runs – 5 whole wins – below their projected total of 14 runs above average. But by DRS (defensive runs saved), they essentially hit that projection on the head, grading out at +16. The projections saw big contributions from Craig Gentry, Billy Burns and Brett Lawrie, who’d combine to more than make up for weakness at the shortstop position. By UZR, Burns and Lawrie were butchers, and Gentry’s defense very quickly became irrelevant when he couldn’t hit. Lawrie ranked poorly by both systems, but that shortstop position is a big one. By UZR (and errors), Marcus Semien awful – a second-half rebound kept him from late-period-Jeter ignominy, but it was still clearly a poor season. But by DRS, Semien was 4 runs above average. Selectively applying the straight-face test to defensive statistics is both poor analysis and the lifeblood of anti-defensive-stats comments, but I don’t care: Semien wasn’t 4 runs above average at SS.
So, the projections whiffed on Oakland. How about Houston? Er, this one may have been worse, though the reasons are somewhat understandable. A huge component of these defensive projections is estimating each player’s playing time. A year ago, people guessed Jed Lowrie would be Houston’s SS for most of the year. Instead, this fellow named Correa came up and played a solid half of the year, and Jose Altuve – picked as one of the worst defenders before 2015 – turned in a solid year by both UZR and DRS. But here again, the two systems differ markedly in what kind of club Houston was. By DRS, Houston was the class of the division, saving 30 runs, or nearly 5 whole wins better than their projection. By UZR, they were essentially average. Even that mark blows the projection out of the water, but it gives Houston’s pitchers a bit more credit for their suprising 2015 than does DRS.
The other estimates weren’t a whole lot better, with the M’s actual defense grading out far worse than projected, and the Rangers coming a bit better. The M’s numbers were dragged down in the 2nd half when the club punted outfield defense entirely in a bid to score more runs, and both UZR and DRS penalize them for it. The M’s OF was 45 runs below average by DRS, or about 23 runs below according to UZR. In fairness to the projection, nobody saw Mark Trumbo, everyday RF, coming. The Rangers actual results are close enough that it doesn’t much matter, and you can point to a good season from Adrian Beltre as a big reason why. Again, the projections may have assumed less from Beltre given his injuries and age. The Angels came in around 3 wins better than their projection, thanks to better than expected years from 3B David Freese (and back-up Taylor Featherston) and RF Kole Calhoun, who’s projection looks much different going into 2016.
So far, the projections don’t look so hot, but something about the AL West may have proven tricky; overall, they did a bit better. They predicted San Diego as baseball’s worst defensive group, and they were in fact awful. They identified Chicago as one of the worst teams in the AL, and they clearly were. The projections correctly tabbed Kansas City as an elite club, and saw the Rays as a plus team (employing Kevin Kiermaier helps, of course). There were other odd misses, as New York and Baltimore were both projected as great teams, and turned in below-average years, while Minnesota was nowhere near as bad as the projections thought. That’s a bit better than they did in the AL West, but it’s not a great track record overall. What have we proven? Projecting team defense is hard, and it helps to have one or two transcendent (or ghastly) defenders to essentially carry the team projection.
2: So, the M’s re-made their defense, adding perennial gold glove candidate Leonys Martin while subtracting a declining Austin Jackson+Brad Miller+Dustin Ackley. How much will that do for the club? A lot, hopefully! The M’s ranked 17th in outfield putouts last year, 140 behind the Angels, thanks to a pitching staff that yielded a lot of ground balls. Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma are clearly elite GB% guys, and James Paxton’s above average himself. For 2016, they’re bringing in Wade Miley – another GB guy – and Nate Karns, who’s more of a fly ball pitcher. It’s possible that the starting rotation could see four GB pitchers around Tai Walker. The OFs will still get plenty of opportunities to make plays, but it’s interesting, and I wonder if it gives Karns a slight advantage over Paxton as spring training looms (Paxton will start the first Cactus League game, so maybe not). The M’s bullpen figures to be much more fly-ball oriented, so the M’s team GB% will undoubtedly go down, but their rotation figures to keep the ball down more than most.
The opposite’s true at SS. Last year, M’s shortstops racked up 505 assists, 5th most in the league, and over 100 more than the Rays/Angels SS. The Rays and Angels posted the lowest GB% in the league, and that played to their defensive strengths. Trout/Calhoun or Kiermaier/literally anyone are formidable defenders, and their pitchers acted accordingly. But what do the Angels do now that they’ve acquired the Kiermaier of the infield, Andrelton Simmons? Their rotation figures to be much the same as it was last year, with fly-ballers like Jered Weaver, Andrew Heaney and especially Hector Santiago penciled in, with Matt Shoemaker (another FB guy) adding depth. Ace Garrett Richards is another elite GB% pitcher, so Simmons won’t get bored out there, but I wonder if his UZR/DRS numbers will take a hit when his chances drop, because his chances are going to be slashed. A healthy second half from Tyler Skaggs might mitigate this somewhat.
3: So where does that leave the division? Well, the Angels rank #1 defensively, thanks to Simmons and a very good OF, while the M’s are slightly above average thanks to improvements in OF canceling out a drop at catcher*. The A’s are now forecasted as one of the worst clubs in baseball, with Semien the worst offender, and 3B (Danny Valencie) a problem as well. Houston’s above average this year thanks to a whole year of Carlos Correa, a much more neutral forecast for Altuve, and very good OF play. The Rangers have fallen a bit, as their OF’s dropped off significantly as Martin’s replacement, Delino DeShields, rated below average last year.
The M’s at around average feels about right, though I think we’d all say there’s a lot of volatility there, as the starting SS has a big league track record of 60 games or so. They were *good* games, but he played a lot of 2B in the minors and the Rainiers started him in CF a few times as well, thinking that as long as they were going to yank around their big league SS, they could do the same in AAA. Marte looks the part of a good defensive SS, though his arm isn’t quite up to big league average standards. They have depth at the position, but are apparently looking for more, so if Marte faceplants defensively, they can swap someone else in. The M’s rank below average everywhere on the IF but 3B (thanks, Kyle!), but again, I don’t know anyone who’d put money on that. Adam Lind has been around average at 1B, and a few runs better than that last year. Robbie Cano’s defense has been sliding, but he’s not a serious problem, and could easily grade out at average. There’s downside risk here too, of course, with aging players at 1B/2B/C and an untested SS. There’s more depth this year, but Clevenger is clearly on the team for his bat, and Luis Sardinas/Chris Taylor need to show they can hit enough to get meaningful time. It feels like a cop-out, but I think the projected figure of about 2 runs above average seems right. This not dissimilar from a coin flip or just discarding the defensive projection altogether, but it’s not: the M’s changed so much between March of 2015 and the end of the year, and then once again between the end of the season and February of 2016. The fact that they’re a bit better than they were last year obscures the fact that they’re a hell of a lot better than they were the last time we saw them, and that average-ish is a hell of an improvement in a short amount of time.
* These rankings don’t include catcher framing – this is about blocking pitches, throwing out runners and fielding the position.
So far, we’ve talked about two 2016 Mariners who are uniquely resistant to forecasting. Today, we’ll turn to the bench, and some of the interesting positional battles – or at least, what the projections think could be positional battles, but the humans running the team don’t. In each case, we’re dealing with the predictably noisy, never-as-much-as-you’d-like data, and the enduring mystery of how players will transition from the minors to the majors.
Ketel Marte is the starting shortstop. Let’s just get that out of the way. I saw him a few times in Tacoma and always struggled to match what I saw with what actual prospect evaluators saw, which is to say, frighteningly quick hands and a potential plus hit tool. I kept looking at results and not process, and Marte’s success in high-profile events like the Futures Game and then again in the majors highlight why that’s not always helpful with 21-22 year olds. Marte won admirers in the organization with his defense, but the development of his bat enabled him to make the transition from AAA to MLB seamlessly – he even improved his walk rate, something I would’ve bet plenty of money against. Marte is flat out *better* than I thought he’d be.
And yet, for 2016, Marte’s projected batting line is somewhat worse than Chris Taylor’s. Taylor too was supposed to be a glove-first SS, but impressed early on with a good batting eye and more gap power than expected. Taylor took a step forward with a huge spring in Tacoma in 2014 and hit reasonably well (though not as good as Marte) in his first call-up that year. But as a classic “high floor” prospect, what are we – and the projection systems – supposed to do with his 2015? In frighteningly Zunino-esque fashion, Taylor’s bat collapsed in 2015: in the big leagues, his K% shot up, his walk rate dropped, and he hit the ball without any authority. Even in Tacoma, he showed signs that he wasn’t going to be repeating his 2014 success; after a solid April and a call-up in May, he collapsed in June – as if taking his Seattle struggles with him. He looked like a different hitter in August, however, with an ISO around .150 and an even K:BB ratio.
So, what means more? Which developmental path correlates to major league success? Marte’s smooth trajectory from toolsy youngster to successful SS? Or Taylor’s inconsistent but occasionally excellent performance record, highlighted by a good walk rate and an age closer to the standard big league peak? Look at a 5 or 10 year forecast, and I’m sure pretty much all of them would favor Marte. But for 2016, looking only at the bat, Taylor “wins” by Steamer, Davenport, CAIRO and PECOTA. PECOTA is particularly bearish on Marte’s OBP, forecasting him for a .288 mark. In fact, Marte’s 80th percentile forecast for OBP is equal to Taylor’s *40th* percentile mark. Personally, I don’t see that big a gap, but it’s kind of concerning nonetheless. Steamer’s .312 mark for Marte is much closer to Taylor’s .320 figure, and the fans (being fans, of course) are much more optimistic about Marte.
The guy we haven’t discussed is the one Jerry Dipoto brought in specifically as Marte insurance: former Rangers/Brewers farmhand Luis Sardinas. Sardinas was once a fairly well thought-of prospect, but his bat hasn’t really developed, and he’s acquired the utility-infielder tag, despite his age – he’s only 22, and will turn 23 in May. Still, for another “high ceiling” guy, he collapsed as hard as Taylor did in 2015, and he didn’t have Taylor’s 2014 to fall back on. Sardinas put up a wRC+ of *17* last year in the bigs, and 81 in the PCL. His forecast is better, because it has to be, but an improved line of .241/.274/.304 doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. This is one of the true battles of the spring – the right to be the primary back-up to Marte. To the projections, this is a total no-brainer. I’m not sure the M’s see it that way. Scott Servais presumably worked with Sardinas in the Rangers system a few years back, and may see something in him that he thinks he (and Andy McKay) can work with.
Taylor, too, was something of a developmental project. When rosters expanded last September, Taylor joined Mike Zunino not in Seattle, but in Peoria to work on a swing overhaul. Of course, that process seems like it would’ve been impacted by the coaching reshuffle that occurred not long after Taylor arrived in Arizona; the primary instructor was supposed to be Rainiers batting coach Cory Snyder, but Snyder was let go in October. That said, he was already working on adjusted mechanics when the new regime’s “hitting summit” in early January. Taylor – slowed by a broken wrist in the spring and an awful batting line in May/June – may have been getting conflicting information from a series of coaches (though the presence of Edgar Martinez ameliorates this risk a bit). That’s something no projection system can account for, obviously.
New starting CF Leonys Martin’s 2015 went about as well as Chris Taylor’s, and for similar reasons. Martin battled wrist injuries that kept him out for a few games in early May, then a broken hamate bone in August (after being demoted to AAA). Did Martin try to come back too soon from the wrist injury? Did one or both injuries conspire to destroy his batting line? Or is Martin a glove-first player who’ll always be vulnerable to any decline in BABIP? The M’s are betting on the former, obviously, as they’ve installed him as the starting CF despite projections of a sub-.300 OBP from the soon-to-be-28 year old. As with Taylor, though, the previous years offer some hope.
After a moderately encouraging full season in 2013, he improved in 2014, batting .274/.325/.364. It’s not much, especially in Arlington, but paired with outstanding CF defense, that’s a more than acceptable line. In 2015, though, Martin collapsed to a slash line of .219/.264/.313, fueled by a BABIP of just .270. His K% crept above the league average while his BB% dropped further from the mean. In any system that weights more recent performance higher than older data, Martin looks pretty bad. We know some of that performance drop may be injury related, but we don’t know how much, and Martin’s skillset is probably not built to maintain solid OBPs, especially without a sky-high BABIP (his BABIP was .336 when he posted that .325 OBP in 2014).
Boog Powell, on the other hand, is all about taking pitches. The ex-Rays farmhand moved to Seattle in the Brad Miller/Nate Karns deal, and has never posted a walk rate below 10% in the minors. BABIP problems of his own knocked his average down, and Powell’s power is non-existent, so his walk rate is doing all the work in any projection of his utility. But it’s doing a lot of work: every projection system sees him outhitting Martin next year. Powell’s projected OBP of around .327 easily beats Martin’s, as no system forecasts an OBP over .300. Now, this OBP gap doesn’t mean Powell should be given the job. The M’s brought in Martin mostly for his defense in CF, and that gap may be much larger than the gap in offensive performance (especially given Martin’s SLG% advantage). Still, if the M’s want depth that won’t kill the team the way the catching spot did last year, Powell makes some sense. He’s gone through the hitting summit mentioned above, and he, perhaps more than any other M’s prospect, “controls the zone,” so he figures to get some opportunities.
How many opportunities depends on a number of things, not least of which is the newest Mariner, Cuban National Team CF, Guillermo Heredia. The M’s inked Heredia to a one-year, $500,000 deal that may indicate a long-awaited return to rationality in the international market. Just last week, the guys at NEIFI posted a great piece on the bonkers valuations* teams were slapping on Cuban prospects and the incentives the international bonus pool system that helped that happen. After guys like Leonys Martin came over and received modest salaries, the post-Puig Cubans starting getting massive contracts from teams who admitted they were more projects and needed work: Yasmany Tomas’s nearly $70 million deal a bit over a year ago seemed to be the high water mark. Whereas guys like Cespedes, Martin, Jose Abreu and now Yuliesky Gurriel were obvious stars, Tomas seemed like a project. In MLB, he still seemed like a project.
There have been several “project” types who’ve come over in recent years, from Daniel Carbonell (whom the Giants signed for more than the M’s signed Heredia) and Roberto Baldoquin at the low end to Rusney Castillo and Yoan Moncada. Heredia does not appear to have Castillo/Moncada upside with the bat, but it’s worth pointing out that he outhit Carbonell in the Cuban leagues pretty consistently, too. The best thing you see in Heredia’s stat line is his solid OBP, driven by an excellent batting eye. The problem here is that the Cuban league – as a whole – produces more walks than Ks. It’s the anti-MLB in this regard, and thus it means nothing to see a Cuban player with more walks than K’s. On the flip side, it is a major warning sign if you see a Cuban player WITHOUT such a ratio. Carbonell and Baldoquin had more Ks than walks in Cuba, and put up worrying K rates and very few walks in the Cal League this year. Even Gourriel, one of the crown jewels of the Cuban league, and someone MLB teams have been following for more than a decade, saw his K:BB ratio collapse in his (otherwise successful) stint in Japan: after a few years in Cuba with twice as many walks than Ks, NPB pitchers induced nearly 3X more Ks than walks.
Heredia won’t put up a great K:BB line. He probably won’t hit for much power. But as a relative youngster with solid bat to ball skills, he can probably do enough to play, though I’d imagine he may still need some seasoning in the minor leagues the way Martin did (and Martin was the much, much, much better bat out of Cuba). Heredia’s defense and age will get him a shot, and the contract’s so small that this is a clear no-risk, medium reward kind of move. I haven’t seen many projections of Heredia, but I think it’s clear that Powell would have the edge for now. The M’s have a lot more depth at CF than they did a few months ago, however, and being able to confidently say they won’t need to give Chris Taylor an OF glove and throw him to the wolves in CF is a big step up from where we were in 2015.
* That blog post compares what Cuban prospects like Yoan Moncada and now Lazarito Armenteros have received/may receive with the record bonuses of Dominican/Venezuelan players, but of course, the same market restrictions and distortions apply in the DR too. The current record bonus for Nomar Mazara came in the last year before the bonus pools were instituted, and Texas decided to adjust to the new system by blowing a ton of money in the last year there were no penalties for doing so – they gave Mazara and Ronald Guzman unheard-of amounts that year, and scouting opinion was predictably divided on those two. Many compare the bonuses 16-year olds like Mazara get to college and US High school draft picks, but of course that’s measuring them against a system that’s designed to deflate bonuses. The league has imposed a series of restrictions on payment for amateurs, but whenever teams see a loophole, they pour plenty of money into it. Maybe that’s irrational, or maybe it’s just a signal of how well these restrictions are working in re-directing spending away from the draft/international bonuses and towards MLB free agents.
Yesterday, we talked about Nelson Cruz and how his frankly bizarre late-career surge makes him especially hard to project. If the historical similarity scores bring a bunch of players with only slight resemblance to what Cruz’s career arc looks like, you’re not going to be all that confident in the result. This is a very different spin on the Ichiro problem – that PECOTA never knew what to DO with Ichiro, because his historical comps were all dead-ball era players. That’s just going to happen with every player at some tail end of the distribution.
Franklin Gutierrez, though… We’re not even looking at a distribution. Systems are trying to project a player based on sporadic playing time over several years, and violently conflicting production between bouts of near-crippling illness. If Nelson Cruz’s similarity scores bring back Jermain Dye, Hank Sauer and Ellis Burks, Guti’s top comps are catarrh, flux, and biliousness (most similar through age 32: King’s Evil). Projections generally don’t have to consider athletes who’ve missed this much time due to injury, because those players retire. Projections don’t generally have to consider players who hit .211/.270/.340 in the hitter’s haven of the Pacific Coast League, then sit out an entire year to rest their failing, almost mutinous, body and then hit .292/.354/.620 in a short big league stint.
To say that projection systems weren’t built to handle this is both obvious, and it gets you to pondering that Franklin Gutierrez himself may not have been built to handle this. Nelson Cruz is a couple of standard deviations from the mean aging curve, but he was a recognizable type of player whose yearly statistics just look funny when read sequentially. Franklin Gutierrez is part role-player, part symbol of hope and recovery, and a big part cautionary tale. Cruz’s case teaches us about the limited predictive value of edge cases. Gutierrez teaches us about our limited narrative abilities.
“Narrative” tends to be a pejorative in many segments of the game, or discussions of the game, but it’s a word that can mean a variety of things. To sabermetric fans, it’s often used regarding stories that jump from results to psychologically-tinged explanations of them. A declining batting average is the sign of a player wilting under the bright lights of New York, or fading in the doldrums of a go-nowhere Atlanta team. This closer’s blown saves prove he doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to close, and this reliever needs a clearly-defined role to succeed. Even teams get in on the act, as this article about the Braves pushing back on the “narrative” that their past two offseasons constitute a rebuild.
Of course, everything about statistics needs some kind of frame, some story – this is what happened, and this is what I think it means. It’s been years since Fangraphs was just numbers and graphs; they’ve got tons of words on there now, and more of them every day. Journalists – traditionally the target of the pejorative sense of the word “narrative” – occasionally push back at this: you don’t like my explanation of what happened? Fine, say why – don’t just shut down discussion by scoffing “narrative” and walking away. Look, I hate pieces that substitute pop psychology (“they just didn’t have the will to win”) for meaningful analysis of a team’s successes and failings, but both are ways of explaining why something happened. We all actually WANT narrative, but we don’t want shitty, cliched narrative, and yes, sabermetric writers are capable of producing that sort just as much as any on-deadline beat writer. We don’t want familiar tropes about this or that specific 5-1 loss, or another bullpen failing. We all desperately want some kind of meaningful, illuminating story about what the heck happened to Mike Zunino or DJ Peterson last year.
Franklin Gutierrez is a human rebuke to dull, cliched, boilerplate stories. Everything about Franklin Gutierrez is insane, and teeters on the edge of credibility, from his defense in 2009 to the fact that HE SLUGGED .620 LAST YEAR, AND YES THIS NEEDS ALL-CAPS. Describing anything about his career simply *requires* exclamation points. Some of my favorite pieces on this website the past few years have been about Guti, a players who’s logged all of 500 plate appearances since *2011*. The thankful, the depressed, the philosophical and mournful – Guti *makes* us do this. You don’t “project” Gutierrez’s statistics, because you can’t know when you’re going to see any. You know you’re going to feel something when you do, though, and that’s much more interesting.
In the post comparing a variety of projection systems and what they make of the M’s, I noted that the entire AL is clumped around 81 wins (see Jeff Sullivan’s fangraphs post on this today), and as a result, *individual* projections mean a lot more to the M’s playoff chances. A career year from Kyle Seager or Ketel Marte can impact the pennant race in a way it wouldn’t if the M’s were chasing some 95-win behemoth. Of course, individual forecasts are really, really hard to do, and the M’s have a number of players for whom traditional projection methods might be ill-suited. The point of all this isn’t to say that these cases are where the projection systems are wrong, or this is why they’re dumb. Having an objective starting point, with the same methodology applied to each player is incredibly valuable, in addition to making February almost bearable. Besides, it can be instructive to think through what we mean when (if?) we say that the M’s will “beat” their projected win total. As fans, we actually DO have access to all sorts of material that PECOTA, Steamer, ZiPS or whatever don’t. But as fans, we’re often ill-equipped to make sense of that extra information, or to apply it even-handedly. It’s not clear that we *should*, of course. In any event, we’ll start this off with one of the hardest players to make sense of in the American League; a player whose career arc makes less and less sense the more you look at it: DH (hopefully) Nelson Cruz.
In general, projection systems are going to have a lot more disagreements about players with short track records. The younger the player, the higher the fraction of minor league PAs to MLB PAs, etc., the more projections need to focus on things other than looking at past performance and applying an aging factor to it. For players with plenty of MLB time, this is much less of a concern. You don’t need to look at major league equivalencies or spend computing power weighing the strength of the Texas League versus the Southern League in 2014 – you can just take the prior X years and take a weighted average. But what are they – or we – to do with Nelson Cruz? Four years ago, at the age of 31, Nelson Cruz was terrible, a more or less league average bat with a decidedly less-than-league-average glove. He had some power, as he’d shown in 2010, but that power seemed to be on the wane: from 2010 to 2012, his ISO fell from .258 to .200… in Arlington. His fly ball percentage fell as well, and he made less contact than he did earlier in his career. The raw stats were bad, and if you looked at the components, you’d see what looked like characteristic signs of declining bat speed and production.
From 2013 on, though, Cruz has thumbed his nose at aging curves and component stats and enjoyed some of his best years as a pro. He abruptly halted his decline in ISO and started racking up HRs, setting a career high (by a mile) in 2014 before besting it the following year. Even in the midst of this, projection systems and analysts saw warning signs. After his 2014, Tony Blengino penned this piece at Fangraphs saying that Safeco would sap the production out of the fly balls Cruz hit, and that aging would hurt his batted ball authority. Blengino also noted that Cruz was pulling more of his balls in play, leaving him vulnerable to infield shifts that would hurt his production on *non* fly balls. It all makes a certain kind of sense, and when you remember that Cruz turned 35 last year – he’s older than the cratering Josh Hamilton – Blengino’s prediction that Cruz would never hit 30 HRs again doesn’t seem so harsh. But trends and component stats aren’t destiny, as Cruz’s 2015 shows us. His pull tendency stopped and went into reverse, and Cruz’s fly ball percentage *dropped* markedly. In its place was a huge uptick in Safeco-defying batted ball authority, especially fly ball authority. This is precisely the skill that Safeco was supposed to depress, but Cruz got more out of his fly balls in Safeco than he ever did in Baltimore of Texas. His HR/FB rate had touched 21% a few times, but it was over 30% last year. He hit fewer flies, and was spectacularly unlucky on those that stayed in the park, but it didn’t matter: 2015 was Cruz’s best season at the plate by far. Cruz has not just made adjustments, he seems like an entirely different hitter. At the very least, he’s made a series of adjustments, from pulling more pitches to last year’s radically different batted ball profile. Whatever he’s doing, it’s worked.
What do we do with this? Nelson Cruz’s authority is increasing, and his move to a pitcher’s park and his mid-30s hasn’t slowed it down, as Jake Mailhot at Lookout Landing noted a few days ago. That’s odd enough, but the more you look, the harder it is to find any kind of good precedent for Cruz’s late-career surge. To be clear: plenty of sluggers have enjoyed long careers and had very productive seasons in their mid to late 30s, but these players generally had very productive 20s and early-30s as well. Jim Thome was great in his last 30s, but he was great in his 20s, too. In the main, it’s hard to find players who weren’t so hot at 31 and then turned into all-star candidates years later for the obvious reason that most players who aren’t great at 31 are busy applying for a real estate license or dreaming of a charter fishing business.
Cruz’s power allowed him to stick around and make some adjustments, but what he’s done with those opportunities are just about unprecedented. Mark McGwire’s age 34-35 peak seems like a good comp, but that obviously comes with a pretty big asterisk, as does Bret Boone’s 32-35 peak. Barry Bonds’ peak is the most famous case of a player’s peak occurring in his late 30s, but Bonds was a Hall of Famer before it, and for a number of reasons, it’s just not fair to use it as a comp.* The obvious M’s parallel is Edgar Martinez, who broke in late (like Cruz), and then took off at age 32, but Martinez never really struggled: Martinez’s peak came late, but Edgar was never a 1-win player (excepting his injury years) the way Cruz was. David Ortiz enjoyed a late-career renaissance after two poor years in his early 30s, but his best years were from age 29-31. The best examples I’ve come up with are Ellis Burks and Hank Sauer, two corner OFs from very different eras who struggled with inconsistency before putting up brilliant late career numbers.
Burks broke out in Boston in 1987-88 along with RF Mike Greenwell. Burks was a standout CF for a few years, but scuffled in his age 26-28 seasons, resulting in him playing for three teams in three seasons. A move to Colorado in 1994 certainly helped revive his slash line, but a trade to San Francisco seemed likely to put an end to his years of gaudy statistics. Instead, Burks thrived, peaking at age 35 with a .344/.419/.606 line in a tough park. Yes, yes, steroid era, and yes, his WAR numbers were better either at 23 or 31, but from a park-adjusted batting standpoint, that 2000 season was his peak. Sauer was a middling OF before losing a few years to military service in WWII. He came back and had another mediocre year for Cincinnati and then found himself stuck in AAA for his age 29 and 30 seasons. He topped 30 HRs in 1948 and 49, but a low average and the high scoring environment meant he was still a solid-average regular as opposed to any kind of a star. Things turned around at age 32 when he was sent to the Cubs in mid way through 1949. He made the all-star team in 1950, his first full year in Chicago (at age 33), and won an MVP award at age 35 in 1952.* Both Burks and Sauer aged fairly gracefully from there – Burks hung around as a useful DH in Cleveland for a while, and Sauer’s 1954 may have been better than his MVP year.
But that’s essentially it. Any projection system is going to apply generic aging curves, and those curves are going to *destroy* a guy like Cruz. This the reason why Steamer and PECOTA have surprisingly weak batting lines for Cruz. Steamer’s line of .255/.321/.476 and PECOTA’s essentially identical line of .256/.315/.472 are marginally better than his 2011-2012 trough, but nothing remotely like his 2014-2015 peak. CAIRO’s projection looks a bit better, at .272/.338/.505, but it may not be park adjusted. At least CAIRO’s got him down for over 3 WAR, while Steamer has him below 2, or a below-average regular. PECOTA’s 2.6 WAR forecast looks better, but it sees him as a RF (with a curiously conservative estimate of his defensive cost), whereas Steamer, CAIRO and I think he’ll DH this year.
While Cruz’s black swan aging curve means the projection systems can’t really figure him out, it’s not like the rest of us are in a better position to judge his production over the remainder of his contract. If he really is (nearly) unprecedented, humans will throw up their hands just like the CPUs that produced PECOTA or Steamer. Jermain Dye is Cruz’s top PECOTA comp, but he was done at age 35. Sauer and Thome (and Burks, to a lesser extent) were productive throughout their late-30s, but Michael Cuddyer (and Duke Snider) weren’t. As we’ve mentioned, it seems like a fools errand to find a meaningful trend in any of his peripherals. Ultimately, if you’re an optimistic sort, and want a reason to believe that the M’s are better than their 83-84 win projections, Cruz is a great place to start. Fangraphs/PECOTA missed badly last year, and you can accurately say that these systems just don’t know what to make of him. If you’re not, you can say that it’s all downhill from here, and that many/most of Cruz’s comps fell off a cliff after 35, and that no player is guaranteed a slow, dignified descent from star to beloved regular to bench-bat/heart of the clubhouse. What you make of the fact that no one knows anything and math can’t save us is up to you. I have no idea what’s coming, and have simply decided that that’s kind of awesome.
* Was it deserved? Eh, probably not. Stan Musial and Jackie Robinson were both far better, but I’ve seen less-deserving years rewarded.
Perhaps the most striking trend in baseball this off-season has been the creation of super-bullpens: teams that already have one or two great relievers doubling down and getting another one. The Yankees put together a remarkable bullpen last year, headed up the utterly dominant pair of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. Their big move of an otherwise-quiet offseason? Trading for closer Aroldis Chapman. The Dodgers tried to acquire Chapman, despite the fact they already employ a great closer in Kenley Jansen. The Red Sox traded four very good prospects for closer Craig Kimbrel, then traded a middle-of-the-rotation starter for the M’s Carson Smith, despite already having Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa as set-up men. The Orioles resigned set-up man Darren O’Day to a four-year deal to work in front of closer Zach Britton. The lowly Colorado Rockies, who may struggle to win 70 games, picked up ex-closer Jason Motte *and* traded for Jake McGee. You get the idea. This is something we haven’t really seen before, and something that runs counter to some pretty core sabermetric beliefs about bullpens and how to value them. Jerry Dipoto’s Mariners seem anomalous then, first for trading out Carson Smith and then for handing the closer job over to Steve Cishek, who lost his job last year and was quietly shipped out of Miami for a low-level prospect. What’s going on here? Are the M’s missing the boat, or is doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing the surest/only way to find market inefficiencies in baseball?
This is a gross oversimplification, but I tend to think baseball and baseball analysts have two primary views of relief pitching. The first is leverage: sure, they don’t pitch as many innings as some random 4th starter, but the innings they DO pitch are often critical to wins and losses. A great reliever pitches effectively in high leverage situations, and thus helps his team win close games. Winning close games can be the difference between “contending” and celebrating, so, by this view, it’s not a surprise to see teams (especially in the AL, where every team’s clustered around average) focus on adding depth in the bullpen. The second overarching view of relievers is volatility. Sure, they’re highly leveraged innings, but the pitchers are so inconsistent that it’s kind of insane to give four years and $30m plus to a set-up man. One year ago today, there were two things we thought we knew about the bullpen: Danny Farquhar was head and shoulders above everyone, and Mark Lowe signed a deal so he could retire as a Mariner or whatever. Sabermetrics has studied performance in one-run games, and can’t find much (if any) of a lasting effect. It’s noise. Just look at the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, who rode Jim Johnson to a ridiculous 29-9 record in one-run games and an unlikely playoff berth. But their great bullpen performance in 2015 is *totally* different and ultra-sustainable and basically sequencing and BABIP-luck free, right?
These views contradict each other in places, particularly whenever anyone tries to stick a value on a reliever, whether in trade or free agent contract terms. They’re not mutually exclusive: you can acknowledge that relievers are both really important and really volatile, and sort of shrug your shoulders and scan the waiver wire for live arms. That was plan the Oakland A’s implemented not so long ago, and it was ridiculously effective right up until it wasn’t (volatility!): from 2012-2014, the A’s edged out the vaunted Royals bullpen in ERA and strand rate. Their cumulative ERA was bested only by Craig Kimbrel’s Braves, and the A’s did it with guys like Dan Otero, Jesse Chavez, Jerry Blevins and converted 1B Sean Doolittle. But the current trend of building dominant ur-pens is really a response to two teams: Kansas City and Pittsburgh. As Jeff Sullivan noted in this post at Fangraphs, the Pirates and Royals rank 1st and 2nd, respectively, in cumulative wins above projected totals over the past three years. The Pirates have won 280 games in those three years, or an average of 93.3, while the Royals have won 270 (an average of 90), two pennants and a World Series. Neither team ranked in the top 10 in starting pitcher WAR, and the clubs rank 15th and 17th in runs scored over this time period.
Projection systems, relying on base runs and context-neutral stats, see flawed clubs. There are a number of reasons why the Royals and Pirates have won more games than their base runs would suggest, and many of these have nothing to do with pitching at all, but clearly their bullpens have been a part of the equation. By ERA, the Pirates and Royals have been in the top 10 in ERA in each of the last three years, finishing 2nd and 3rd in 2013 and 1st and 2nd in 2015. There’s all sorts of evidence for volatility (the M’s were first in ‘pen ERA in 2014! They were…not in 2015!), but these two clubs have sustained high-level, high-leverage performance from year to year. By win probability added, it’s even more stark. #1 in 2013? Pittsburgh. 2014? Kansas City. 2015? Pittsburgh. Over the past three years, the clubs are #1 and #2 in WPA, edging out New York, who’s also been surprisingly consistent. Pittsburgh and Kansas City (and maybe New York) have deep pens with elite set-up relievers who’ve succeeded in high-leverage innings before the 9th. For years, sabermetric dogma decried modern bullpen management that often left an elite closer to come in with the bases empty in the 9th while leaving a tie-game, 1-out, bases loaded situation to a much worse reliever. With depth, this problem is greatly reduced or even eliminated; with elite set-up relievers, you can play match-ups AND keep your closer for the 9th/extra innings.
Beyond the truism that three or four great relievers are better than one or two, this gets at *why* these clubs have been able to beat their projections. A team with a great bullpen can effectively *change* base runs/win probability by altering the run expectancy for batting events, and they can do so whenever the manager wants. Tie game in the 8th, and the tiring starter walks the lead-off man. BP’s run expectation data for 2015 shows 0.84 runs are expected to score through the rest of the inning. Now imagine that the manager has Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman available in the bullpen. Might that leadoff walk have a tougher time making it around? Of course, this literal arms race is already impacting everything in baseball. Scoring is down (the run expectancy of that leadoff walk was 0.86 in 2012 and .90 in 2008) and velocity is up in part – IN PART – because relievers pitch more innings, throw harder, and give up fewer runs than starters. For years, sabermetrics folks have debated how to value relievers because certain key assumptions that “worked” on pitchers in general worked less well on relievers. For example, HR/FB ratio is fairly stable for pitchers as a whole – that’s why xFIP exists – but relievers post consistently lower HR/FB numbers. Relievers strand more runners and thus, on average, post lower ERAs than their FIP would indicate (starters, on the other hand, have higher ERAs than their FIP). The more we learn about the times-through-the-order penalty, the more obvious it all gets, and the more it points to having a bullpen pitch more innings. If all of these trends push down scoring, and scoring IS down of course, then these advantages are multiplied. If every run counts, a deep bullpen is all the more vital.
But this obviousness cuts both ways. It demonstrates that successfully navigating high-leverage situations is crucial, but it doesn’t prove that teams can consistently succeed in such situations. Not only do you need great relievers, you need a manager who knows how to deploy them, AND you need some luck. By WAR – the context-neutral measure of value – the Cubs and Orioles had *better* bullpens than the Pirates and Royals last year. It’s only by WPA (and that great sabermetric bugbear, ERA) that the Pirates/Royals re-take the lead. One way of reading this seeming incongruity is that the Pirates/Royals had worse pitchers who saved their best innings for when it counted (read: got lucky). The fact that they’ve done so for a few years may be a statistical fluke: Oakland’s success from 2012-2014 did not help them in 2015. The Astros were brilliant in context-neutral stats, but their bullpen was terrible in the clutch, particularly during their second-half slide. They did everything the “leverage” folks asked for – they built a deep bullpen with quality arms to attack lefties and righties, and they watched it pitch brilliantly when up by 3, and poorly in tie games. Volatility, all is volatility.
Moreover, the fact that relievers throw harder, strand more runners, etc. as a whole would seem to *undercut* the case for valuing relievers more. The pool to which each reliever is measured against keeps getting better in a weird, journeyman form of the Willie Mays problem. As many have noted this year, the average bullpen arm in baseball is much, much better than you might think. Relievers – a group which includes Brendan Ryan, Tyler Olson, Mayckol Guaipe, and dozens of people you’ve never heard of – struck out 22.1% of the batters they faced. A reliever who strikes out a batter an inning is no longer the mark of a very good, bat-missing hurler – it’s pretty much league average.
Think of some of the elite relief performances we’ve seen in recent years – on paper, there was nothing flukey about them: Neal Cotts’ bizarre 2013, Farquhar’s 2014, Fernando Rodney’s 2012. Sure, the ERAs were low, or the strand rate high, but they struck out tons of batters and posted very good FIPs to go along with those freakishly low ERAs. And yet none of them was able to fashion the kind of sustained excellence we’ve seen – SO FAR – from O’Day, Miller, Chapman and the like. If velocity and fielding-independent stats are only partially correlated with future success in the pen, does it make sense to commit more years to a free agent reliever, or to swap elite prospects or solid starters for them? If you can get someone to K 22% of batters faced for a minimal amount, and if a certain percentage of non-roster invitees keeps coming up aces (Mark Lowe is good again? Didn’t Neal Cotts’ arm fall off? I thought Ryan Madson retired?), maybe it makes sense to avoid overpaying for Darren O’Day and let volatility work FOR you by acquiring a bunch of guys coming off poor results.
Now, the “leverage” partisans will say that it’s a baseball-specific form of nihilism to imagine that spinning the NRI wheel or bringing in Steve Cishek will produce a bullpen equivalent to Pittsburgh’s or New York’s. Yes, bullpens are volatile, but we’re talking about baseball: *Brandon Crawford* hits home runs now, Matt Lucroy sucks at pitch framing, that bad catcher with the below-league-average batting line you used to mock in 2011 just won the AL MVP award. EVERYTHING is volatile, and it doesn’t prevent teams from signing people or deploying them in ways they think will help them win. Still, the magnitude of the M’s bet here – trading for Joaquin Benoit aside – is pretty remarkable. In a tight division, in a pitcher’s park playing teams on the west coast, I could definitely see the M’s trying to shop for brand-name relievers as part of a retooling. Spend some money, still get value (reliever salaries have gone up sharply, but have you seen what bad starters get these days?), and squeeze more wins out of the moderate number of runs your club produces.
Instead, the M’s have largely shopped the bargain aisle, picking up the broken, the unlucky and those coming off bad years. It’s not that the M’s opted solely for the kind of NRI pile that Oakland used, or that the M’s have trawled successfully in the past – they’re spending (some) money and (mostly meh) prospects to acquire relievers. But they’re doing so in a very different way, and seemingly looking for very different things than the rest of baseball. Here’s hoping their ex-reliever GM sees something special in the M’s pen. If he doesn’t, and the Yankees and Red Sox take the wild-card slots, we’ll have another small-sample-size result to fight over.
Spring Training looms, and with the exception of the somewhat odd Khris Davis deal, the AL West clubs seem to have settled in on the rosters they’ll take to Arizona. We’ve also got some early projections of each team, and now that the hot stove is down to a very low simmer, we can start to make more educated guesses about playing time. Put the two together, and we’ve got some early looks at the state of the division. If your initial reaction to this is indifference or a rueful scoff, I get it; the projections were pretty enamored with the M’s last year, and that didn’t work out so well. I think there’s always some value in seeing how the teams stack up on paper, knowing that chance and luck will make most of these look silly by August, if not sooner.
Going a step further, I think it’s interesting to compare the projections and see where they agree and disagree about the M’s and their competitors. As we’ve seen in recent years, the parity of the AL as a whole means the relative position of each team within the division means a little bit less – there are no great teams and no truly awful ones. EACH of the projection systems we’re looking at today sees the best and worst teams separated by 10 games or less. You can legitimately make a case for any of these teams, though obviously the case is a bit easier for the Astros and M’s than it is for Oakland.
This compression/parity/mediocrity/whatever you want to call it has a few ramifications. First, if true talent isn’t going to decide the division, then chance and how teams respond to it means more. That is, teams will need to decide very quickly what counts as a slow start, and what is an unacceptable level of performance in a tight race. The M’s have been remarkably poor at this in recent years, but given the samples, it’s almost impossible to separate noise from signal. The Rangers’ faith in Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus was rewarded last year, while the Athletics’ freakishly unlucky bullpen* never saw their luck change as their innings piled up. Second, differences in individual forecasts are similarly more important. Fangraphs’ projection for Nelson Cruz is pretty terrible, while CAIRO’s is more bullish. For Kyle Seager, they’re reversed. A lot of this has to do with how they apply aging curves (Nelson Cruz’s WAR by age is almost unprecedented outside of the steroid age), but regardless of why, each individual projection (and thus each individual season or performance) has a larger impact on how the teams rank within the division. Finally, with the division so bunched up, a big part of a team’s playoff odds come down to the strength of the division as a whole vis a vis the others divisions.
Each system sees the teams as tightly bunched up, but there’s some disagreement about *where* they’re bunched up. In CAIRO, the teams are centered on around 79 wins. The Astros 83 projected wins actually paces the division. This contrasts sharply with Clay Davenport’s projections, which see the AL West as perhaps the best division in baseball: the Blue Jays lead the league with 90 projected wins, but then spots 2-4 are all AL West clubs. To CAIRO, the teams are sharing 393 wins pretty evenly, but the Davenport projections show them fighting over 420 wins. Fangraphs comes in right at the midpoint. In a system with this much parity, small differences can get magnified. This isn’t just a mathematical oddity; how the clubs in the West and Central stack up impacts the M’s playoff odds. By CAIRO, if you don’t win the West, you’re pretty much out of luck. The Davenport win totals show three AL West teams with very good odds to make the postseason.
One final comment before we get to some tables: the other thing that parity does is put more emphasis on playing time estimates. Every team projection has an objective part and a subjective one. The projections endeavor to give us an objective look at true talent, but a human’s got to input some playing time estimates, and that’s both tough to do before spring training and hugely important to the overall winning percentage the model spits out. Fangraphs has their own estimates at their “depth chart” page, as does Clay Davenport on his projection page. CAIRO, the projection system from SG at the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog, doesn’t yet have these estimates for every team. He’s done one for the Yankees, which is fair enough, but not for the AL West teams. Using his awesome CAIRO spreadsheet, I’ve taken a stab at it for each club in the West. Fair warning: I’m sure fans of the other clubs might quibble with my guesses.** You tell ME how the A’s are going to use Khris Davis and Mark Canha. It’s just a guess, and it’s still only mid-February, but it’s important to acknowledge that small changes to the line-up – even bench players – move the needle by a win or two.
So, let’s take a look at how Fangraphs, Clay Davenport and CAIRO see the AL West as of Presidents Day 2016:
|Team||Wins -FG||Wins – Dav||Wins -Cair|
The Astros are generally, though not uniformly, the best team, with the M’s a close second. The other three teams are a few wins back, though it’s worth pointing out that the systems disagree on the Angels more than the other clubs.
Looking at run differential helps highlight how each system sees the AL West vis a vis the other divisions:
|Team||RunDif FG||RunDif Dav||RunDif Cair|
The M’s (and Astros’) run differentials stand out. By Davenport, the M’s are projected to score the 2nd most runs in the AL, behind only Toronto. By CAIRO, the M’s improvement in runs per game is much more modest – about 0.05 runs per game as opposed to 0.5. Both systems have identical forecasts for runs allowed, though. Fangraphs and Davenport are very close to each other regarding each team’s runs scored, while CAIRO’s much more bearish. On runs allowed, it’s Davenport and CAIRO that are nearly indistinguishable, while Fangraphs sees a lot more runs charged to AL West hurlers.
One final area of agreement: Fangraphs and CAIRO both see the M’s defense as a net positive, with the bulk of the contribution coming from the OF. Putting Nelson Cruz at DH and Leonys Martin in CF is a 1-2 win swing on its own, and the M’s D is forecasted to save around 5 runs by Fangraphs or 12+ by CAIRO. Martin’s defense is going to be important with so many fly-balling relievers, so it’s critical that Martin hit enough to stay in the line-up. I know he was hurt last year, but the projection systems all see him as a Brendan Ryan-type hitter/player. If he’s significantly better, the M’s are in much, much better shape. If not, they’ve swapped out a black hole at C and 1B for one at CF.
(FG = Fangraphs, Dav= Clay Davenport, Cair = CAIRO. I had nothing to do with creating these systems, I’m just using them. Huge thanks to SG for the editable playing time tab in his CAIRO spreadsheet.)
* I’ll come back to this in a future post, but one of the most significant sources of variance this season – and every season – is relief pitching. Not just “Does Steve Cishek bounce back, or nah?” but in a larger sense: how important to team success is a bullpen? The A’s “unlucky” bullpen absolutely sunk a team that was putting together a decent season by run differential (and it made Evan Scribner available to Seattle), while the Pirates and Yankees’ bullpens propelled them to contention. Depending on your point of view, this is either a huge part of “chance” – random good seasons from volatile set-up men can get you Baltimore’s 2012 or Oakland’s 2015 – or an important way to actually beat projections.
** Some obvious issues with my estimates here: Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez wasn’t forecasted, but his not-so-hot forecast shouldn’t do too much to the Rangers’ overall win projection. I have no idea how the A’s OF rotation works now, but gave Davis and Canha plenty of PAs. Wouldn’t be surprised to see the latter moved before opening day. The back of each bullpen is pretty speculative, but with so few innings at stake, it shouldn’t matter too much.
I should wait and post this on February 22nd, but if I keep trying to find the time to post, I’ll just miss it and go another month without providing any baseballing opinions. So: *nearly* ten years ago today, on February 22nd, 2006, the M’s made a low-key minor league signing of a guy who’d just been released by the Red Sox organization. Roberto Petagine got a sip of coffee with Boston in 2005, appearing in 18 games, but spent most of the year demolishing the International League for Pawtucket: an OBP of .452, and a SLG% of .635. Sure, he was 34, but though few knew his name, this wasn’t exactly a shock.
Between 1999 and 2004, Petagine was one of Japanese Baseball’s elite. The Venezuelan signed with Yakult, and in his first season in Japan led both the Central and Pacific leagues in HRs, OBP, SLG% and OPS. Ichiro was 25 that year, and easily led the Pacific League with an OBP of .412. Petagine’s was .469. Hideki Matsui hit 42 HRs and slugged .631, but Petagine hit 44 and slugged .677. Petagine was the only player to exceed 100 walks. You get the picture. There were some great domestic and imported players, but Petagine was, generally speaking, the most dominant offensive force for the next few years. In his first year with Yomiuri in 2003, Petagine missed 40 games (in a 140-game season), so he didn’t take the HR crown, but still posted the best OPS and OBP in the league. Petagine led with a .457 mark, while Kosuke Fukudome came in 2nd all the way back at .401. He slumped a bit – for him- the next year, losing the OBP crown to Greg LaRocca, and putting up an OPS of only .970. Still, the guy who signed a minor league deal with Boston that offseason was nearly as big a star as Matsui had been – and of course it was Petagine that Yomiuri turned to in 2003 when Matsui left to join the Yankees.
For those of us who had some cursory knowledge of the NPB then, this was no ordinary minor league signing. This was an undervalued talent, and one that could clearly help an M’s team that was coming off two straight poor offensive seasons. Even the skeptics had to acknowledge this was a high-upside, zero-downside move. Still, there were warning signs: where was Petagine going to play? The M’s 1B was a surprisingly effective Richie Sexson, coming off a 2005 that saw him hit 39 bombs and post a 144 wRC+. DH had been a problem, but the M’s appeared to have solved that by signing switch-hitter Carl Everett. Behind him was corner OF/Util lefty Matt Lawton. If he was going to play, he could spell Sexson every now and again or beat out Lawton and hit dingers.
As it happened, not even the lack of production from his would-be competitors would ensure Petagine got a real shot in the bigs. Carl Everett was horrific, Lawton was worse, and Petagine was planted firmly on the bench, used sporadically as a pinch hitter. This, combined with the M’s odd just-sort-of-hanging-around form of contention led to two of the worst trades of the Bavasi era, which is saying something. Off went teenage SS Asdrubal Cabrera for right-handed Petagine-replacing DH Eduardo Perez*, while Shin-Soo Choo followed Cabrera to Cleveland in exchange for lefty DH Ben Broussard. Petagine was finally released in late August, having had 2 plate appearances since June 29th. The M’s, you’ll be shocked to hear, did not make the playoffs. Petagine never appeared in the majors again.
After sitting out 2007, Petagine came back in 2008 at the age of 37. He started in Mexico, knocked the crap out of the ball, and then moved to the Korean league, where he posted an insanely high OBP yet again. The following year, 2009, saw Petagine put up another monster year for the LG Twins: a slash line of .332/.468/.575 and yet another OBP crown at the age of 38. The KBO was an insane offensive environment that year – as it has been most years – but Petagine still stood out. A young Jung-Ho Kang hit 23 HRs that year and posted an .857 OPS, while 26 year old 1B Dae-Ho Lee hit 28 HRs and topped .900. Petagine’s OPS was 1.043, of course. After that, Petagine played one final half-season in Japan before calling it a career. Meanwhile, Lee improved dramatically in the next few seasons, culminating in a dominant 2011 that saw him win a batting title.
Lee then moved to Japan, right in the midst of the NPB’s extraordinary shift in run environment. In Lee’s first year in Japan, 2012, the average Pacific League team scored 3.37 runs per game; in the Central League it was 3.14(!). The 2010 Mariners are the worst offensive ballclub in decades, and they scored 3.2 runs per game. The NPB in 2012 was pitcher-friendly, is what I’m getting at. Lee’s OPS was 2nd best in the Pacific League, and the 1B out-homered Wily Mo Pena. The following year, scoring was up dramatically – around 4 runs per game over both years (this was the year of Wlad Balentien’s single-season HR record, and a scandal involving a “juiced” ball), and Lee again posted excellent – though not in Petagine’s class – numbers.
But it’s hard to compare Lee and Petagine directly given this volatility in NPB’s run environment. In Petagine’s first year, NPB pitchers gave up 0.9 HRs per 9 innings, and teams scored about 4.4-4.5 runs/game. In 2012, the HR rate was just 0.5, but rebounded all the way to 0.9 again just a year later. Scoring came roaring back as well, with Central League scoring exceeding 4.2 runs/game in 2014, before collapsing again to 3.4 in 2015. Just to get confusing, Pacific League scoring *didn’t* spike in 2014, but also didn’t collapse in 2015. The M’s obviously have the tools and experience to make sense of this run environment and Dae Ho Lee’s place within it; I’m going to offer a shrug and just hope he can help.
However you control for the league, Lee seems like a solid hitter, albeit one in his decline phase, which isn’t really a shock considering his age (he’ll turn 34 this season). I think, broadly speaking, that Petagine may have been the superior hitter, but Lee has a better chance to play and contribute, considering the M’s primary 1B is a lefty with serious platoon split problems. Moreover, his competition as the right-sided platoon guy is not covered in glory: Jesus Montero’s history is, uh, checkered, and Gaby Sanchez is coming off a poor 2014 in Pittsburgh, and an equally bad 2015 in the same league Lee’s coming from. Dae-Ho Lee hit 31 HRs, and was named the Japan Series MVP. Sanchez hit .226/.328/.392 for last-place Rakuten. There’s a path to a roster spot, and a path to meaningful at-bats for Lee.
But a path isn’t the same thing as a job, and an opportunity isn’t the same thing as a fair shot. I was legitimately excited about Petagine 10 years ago, and it’s easy to laugh that off as the optimism of the stat-sheet scout. But Petagine had 32 plate appearances for the M’s in 31 games, so even the optimists can bring out the old college socialist bromide: Petagine didn’t fail, Petagine was never actually attempted!** I don’t know what to think anymore. I loved Balentien, but he got more of a shot and did less with it before going to Japan and hitting like Babe Ruth. Dae-Ho Lee was solid for many years in the NPB, but with his K% creeping up as inexorably as his age, he may not make enough contact to really help. That said, check out his Davenport translated batting line: .266/.327/.426. It’s not gaudy, but it’d help.
I have no doubt that if you’d run Petagine’s translations back in 2006, they’d have said he’d do even better (just checked, and yes, it’s true). Ultimately, Petagine never really got a shot to prove those forecasts wrong. Whether it was a long-looking swing, his age, the outlay to bring in Everett, or the then-prevalent assumption that *anyone* could roll out of bed and hit 30 HRs in Japan, Petagine never played. I like Dae-Ho Lee, and I sincerely hope John McGrath is right that we’ll look back on this move as a big one. Lee may adjust easily to the big leagues, but before he can worry about adjusting to new pitchers, parks and a new baseball, he’s going to have to win over a manager the way Petagine couldn’t.
* Perez himself was an NPB veteran, spending part of 2001 with Hanshin. Perez got in about 50 games and washed out, hitting .222 with little power.
** We sabermetric fans often wrestle with two mutually exclusive ideas, and deploy either one as needed when praising our Tampa Bay overlords. First, small samples don’t mean much. Second, smart teams move quickly to correct deficiencies, and don’t let them fester for years like Justin Smoak or Dustin Ackley. How can you “move quickly” if you don’t have a large sample size? I don’t know, ask
Billy Beane Andrew Friedman.