Pre-Thanksgiving Round-Up

marc w · November 22, 2017 at 11:27 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Hope you all enjoy the holiday with family/friends. With the end of the Arizona Fall League and the lack of M’s players in the Australian Baseball League, the opportunities to watch live games involving M’s/M’s prospects are few and far between. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to talk about.

1: I wanted to follow up a bit on my last post. There were a number of thoughtful replies on Twitter, and I wanted to respond in large part to clarify my own thinking.

The first comes from Driveline Baseball head honcho Kyle Boddy, who wrote:

This is fair; I may be understating the impact of the wave of injuries the M’s suffered through. But the M’s injury woes weren’t exactly unprecedented – other teams – including divisional rivals – lost more players to the DL and/or more games to injury. Kyle’s argument is that the way the M’s were constructed made them *especially* vulnerable to a wave of injuries. My response is that I think we may be arguing the same thing: the M’s lack of development, something he notes in the 2nd reply, is the primary problem here. It’s not the injuries that have led us here, it’s the lack of development.

And that’s why I’m frustrated with the approach of churning through the back of the roster; this is an opportunity for development that the M’s are not taking advantage of. Churning through Costco-packs of Tyler Cloyds/Nick Rumbelows/Ryan Gartons *means* you aren’t building the depth you need if injuries hit. At the very, very least, trading a Zack Littell/JP Sears/Ryan Yarbrough, or pick-your-cast-off-of-choice, seems to show a disconnect between the pro and amateur scouting groups.

As readers like PNW Vagabond noted, the M’s aren’t trading blue-chip prospects here, so the costs aren’t likely to be too onerous (I’m talking about lower-level trades than the Luiz Gohara and Alex Jackson deals, which are going to huuuurt). If the M’s were using this strategy to get better, that’d be one thing – but there’s very little evidence that that’s happening.

To be clear: this is not strictly about trading a low-minors statistical wonder like Sears for an already-debuted, MLB-ready arm. That sort of thing isn’t necessarily bad. The problem is that the M’s have gone the other way on deals like this (Jose Ramirez, who’s been decent for the Braves for 2 years, was traded for Ryne Harper); the problem isn’t an attempt to jump-start development by trading for guys further along their developmental path. The problem is giving *anything* up for the privilege of cycling through guys at the back of the 40-man roster. As I said before, I don’t see any evidence that it’s made the big league team more resilient or more effective.

2: There’s been an interesting, uh, war of words surrounding WAR sparked by the comments of legendary sabermetric writer Bill James and then another brilliant writer, Joe Posnanski. James has a big problem with the WAR metrics (whether Fangraphs’, Baseball-reference’s or Baseball Prospectus’ WARP), which is that, at their heart, they measure RUNS, and then put that run-based metric on a win scale. Crucially, the number of games a player’s team actually won or lost is sort of irrelevant. To James, this is madness: “To give the Yankee players credit for winning 102 games when in fact they won only 91 games is what we would call an “error”. It is not a “choice”; it is not an “option”. It is an error.”

Why would WAR do this? Is this an error? This gets to a very fundamental disagreement over what individual player statistics are supposed to be doing, or as our erstwhile leader here Dave Cameron would say, what question they’re trying to answer. One of the fundamental tenets of sabermetrics, one shown so brilliantly by James himself, is that when we want to compare players, we need to figure out what context we want to include, and what we need to exclude. Team wins are the result of the contributions of many, many players, and they are ALSO the result of luck and chance. James is right that the luck and chance stuff can get lost in WAR – the Yankees runs scored/allowed don’t match up to their actual record, so *10 wins* or so of bad luck just melts away. The converse is to assign it to players based on playing time or whatever, knowing that they may not have had anything to do with it. If your runs (based on linear weights, or some team-specific runs-to-wins converter) MUST align with actual wins, you don’t have a choice.

WAR is trying to answer the question: “About how valuable was this player, assuming he played for an average team in average circumstances?” James is trying to answer this one: “Given that a team won X games, how much credit do each of their players get?” I think many baseball fans are more interested in the latter question, though I don’t know all of them have thought this position through: are we *really* saying that, if Mike Trout’s team was horrible, that he was a lesser player? I disagree with that, but then, I’ve been focused on the first question, not the second. The second really starts to sound a lot like the traditional sportswriting stuff that James made his name arguing against.

Contra James, I don’t think this is diminishing the games themselves at all. Felix – and M’s fans – were punished enough by the actual results of the games in 2010 – he shouldn’t have been punished again by voters. It’s actual results that matter for the playoffs, not pythagorean record (an imputed win percentage based solely on runs scored/runs allowed, and invented by James). But bringing those results into a WAR-type metric fundamentally changes what that metric is for, and not for the better. WAR can always be improved, and I’m not saying it’s foolproof at all. I think a Jamesian measure can have value, and if he wants to argue that Altuve was the deserving MVP, he’ll get no argument from me. But personally, I’m glad WAR is not attempting to bring sequencing and luck into this.

This discussion’s led to some good posts, my favorite of which was Jonathan Judge’s over at BP. Dave’s post at Fangraphs led to a segment on Brian Kenny’s show on MLBNetwork that talked through some of these issues as well. There’s a typically interesting discussion at Tom Tango’s blog where the one person most associates with WAR sets out where he agrees/disagrees with James, noting that James hinted at many of these “issues” with WAR (though stated them much less stridently) a few years ago. Of note is the discussion about WPA. You can create a version of WAR that uses win probability-added and not pure, context-free batting runs. But “Guy” notes in comments that it doesn’t seem fair to only use the WPA values from before an at-bat; after all, at-bats that seemed meaningless at the time can take on more significance later, if a team comes back from a big deficit or if relievers blow a huge lead. Good, nerdy stuff if you’re interested in this debate at all.

3: Game on – Shohei Ohtani will be posted. In recent days, MLB, MLBPA and the NPB were struggling to negotiate a posting process for this year. MLB and NPB had an agreement at one point, but the MLB Players union wouldn’t approve it. Finally, on Monday night, all parties agreed to essentially extend the current process for another year. The negotiation period in which an MLB team tries to sign Ohtani has been cut from 30 to 21 days, but it’s still the same basic system.

That means that the first hurdle to clear to negotiate with Otani is a laughable one: each team puts up a posting fee with a maximum of $20 million, and then Otani decides which team to negotiate a contract with. If he signs one, his old NPB team gets the posting fee from the MLB team. That is, every team pledges $20 million, and only have to pay IF they land Otani. Every team will post $20 million.

In the future, posting fees will be calculated as a percentage of the eventual contract; 20% of the first $25 million, with descending percentages from there. This would allow an NPB team to collect more when a superstar like Yu Darvish gets posted, but crucially, this only applies to over-25 year olds. Because of the change to MLB rules last year, Ohtani isn’t a major league free agent, but is instead subject to the international bonus pools, rules which are meant to apply to 16 year old kids (and are ethically debatable for them). In these situations, an NPB team gets just 25% of an absurdly low cap – perhaps $1 million or so. Ohtani is a black swan, and *because* he’s a black swan, his NPB team and Ohtani himself are forgoing lots of potential revenue. This new agreement seems to lock in that arrangement and ensure that a Japanese talent that somehow gets to free agency before 25 would get far less than he deserves and that the team that developed him would also get hosed.*
After the bizarre posting process, it gets more complicated, as teams negotiating power is constrained by the international bonus pools and the fact that MLB won’t let teams offer more than the standard minor league contract. Teams have every incentive in the world to find loopholes/push the envelope on secret deals or pledges to offer a contract extension if he so much as pitches a solid inning in spring training, but MLB rules prohibit such side deals. Showing clubs that they mean business may be why the league just banned former Braves GM John Coppolella for life and voided the Braves signing of 17 international free agents, including consensus top prospect Kevin Maitan. For years, teams have been cutting side deals with trainers, and punishments for these deals have been sporadic. The Braves seemed to be flagrant about their deals (reportedly signing a 14-year old to a handshake agreement), but the timing here seems important: MLB is watching how teams deal with Ohtani. This means that Ohtani will sign an absolutely absurdly below-market agreement, and MLB will be closely watching to see if teams court him by offering something slightly *less* team friendly. This is the strangest process yet, and now we know we’ll get to see it play out ’till the end.

Happy Thanksgiving!

* International soccer is much more used to players moving from club to club and country to country, so it’s not surprising that some want baseball to adopt FIFA rules giving ‘solidarity’ payments to teams that train players who eventually sign with huge international clubs. Essentially, this would mean earmarking a percentage of a players posting fees to each team that developed him. But as we’ve seen with local star Deandre Yedlin, differences between HS and FIFA laws can make this hard to enforce.


6 Responses to “Pre-Thanksgiving Round-Up”

  1. Milendriel on November 23rd, 2017 12:32 am

    “WAR is trying to answer the question: “About how valuable was this player, assuming he played for an average team in average circumstances?” James is trying to answer this one: “Given that a team won X games, how much credit do each of their players get?””

    I think a problem with the latter metric is that it already lines up with a lot of fans’ intuitions, and thus doesn’t add much value. Fans who follow their team closely remember the big plays that drive context-dependent value, and local media coverage tends to center on this narrative as well. On the other hand, fans like to speculate about potential roster moves and trades, and that’s where a context-neutral metric shines, because it’s the only way to objectively compare players.

  2. Westside guy on November 23rd, 2017 11:14 am

    Even if Ohtani wasn’t part of the discussion – baseball’s current rules regarding international signings stink at so many levels.

  3. stevemotivateir on November 25th, 2017 6:37 am

    MLB’s rules regarding international players in general seem to invite devious behavior or sell someone short.

    I don’t know what the answers are, but maybe an international draft for true amateurs (teenagers who haven’t played in a professional league) would make some sense; do away with the bonus pools all together and introduce slots similar to the Rule 4.

    Treating players under 25 who have had signigicant professional experience at a top level, which would suggest they’re past the general development stage (for the most part, anyway), as professionals and introducing a higher flat fee in addition to a percentage of a MLB contract, would seem to make some sense as well.

    The key here would be major league contracts, rather than amateur contracts. There would be more risk for MLB teams, but it could invoke more postings of players under 25. Let’s say you set the bar for recognition as a professional at 4 years experience minimum. That would cover your Ohtani’s and Fujinami’s.

  4. bookbook on November 25th, 2017 8:29 am

    A draft and spending limits are artificial mechanisms to deprive amateur players of leverage. MLBPA and Ownership cooperate to enforce this on amateurs because it both enriches owners and current major leaguers at the expense of a group that’s unrepresented.

  5. davepaisley on November 26th, 2017 1:14 pm

    “are we saying that, if Mike Trout’s team was horrible, that he was a lesser player?”

    No, but if he’s really that good, you’re underestimating how bad the rest of the team was.

  6. msfanmike on November 26th, 2017 2:16 pm

    The posting system rules are a bit of a mystery wrapped within a riddle, but if the Mariners end up with Ohtani I will like whatever they are.

    And if he turns out to be as good as advertised, he will sign a huge deal/extension soon enough.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.