On Edgar’s Near Miss

January 25, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 12 Comments 

It was always going to be close. In his 9th time on the ballot, Edgar Martinez had 77% of the ballots that had been made public, just barely ahead of the 75% needed for induction into the Hall of Fame. Once you include the ballots made public *after* MLB’s announcement, Edgar was included on about 80% of all of the public ballots. It wasn’t enough. Edgar fell 20 votes short, as he was selected on under 60% of the private ballots. He has one more shot with the Baseball Writers Association, and, if past trends hold, he’ll make it in next year.

Random thoughts:

1: There’s some irony in the fact that it’s taking Edgar so long despite being eminently qualified. Part of the reason why Edgar’s in this situation at all is that he simply doesn’t have the career length some voters want – a fact created by the Mariners’ bizarre refusal to give him a real shot at their line-up until Edgar was 27.

2: The gap between public and private ballots was larger for Edgar than it is for many other potential inductees, and it fits a pattern that we’ve seen for several years – one we can see thanks to the tireless work of Ryan Thibodaux and his awesome HOF ballot tracker. This gap is higher among certain player types than it is with others. The PED guys, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, were selected on far fewer private ballots, while Omar Vizquel and Trevor Hoffman actually did *better* on the private ballots. Edgar’s not a PED guy, so why does this same pattern hold?

If there’s a comparable player on the ballot, I’d say it’s Mike Mussina, another player who was overlooked by writers at the time, and whose value outstrips his name recognition or, to put it another way, his fame. Mussina, whose fWAR/bWAR would seem to make him an easy choice, got about 70% of the public ballots released before today. He got just 54% of private ballots, and thus fell well short. If your case rests on WAR – or any other newfangled metric – you’re going to struggle with the private ballots. As campaigns for deserving players take hold, and they’ve been emboldened by the successful campaigns for Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines, voters who see this as weakening the hall have dug in their heels – and refused to make their ballots public.

In short, Edgar’s a case that highlights a fundamental disagreement among voters regarding what a HOF player is, and thus what the Hall’s supposed to be. You’ve got those for whom overall career value is key, and then you’ve got those who vote for something more like impact; on how memorable a player was. You’ve got voters who’ll never vote for a designated hitter, two generations after the AL brought the position in. And you’ve got voters who’ll reliably vote for elite closers, a similarly recent development. You’ve got small-hall people who voted against Jeff Bagwell or Larry Walker, and you’ve got people who vote for Omar, Andruw Jones (or Kirby Puckett or Jim Rice) whose overall value would seem to fall short of the voters’ own standards. At the end of the day, the group favoring Edgar and Edgar-like players is winning, and Edgar will be enshrined next year. If you can get past your anger at how Edgar’s been overlooked, it’s actually a really interesting dynamic to watch play out.

3: That dynamic doesn’t map perfectly to the age of the voters, but the Venn diagram is pretty close. The Hall’s recognized that this sort of thing might happen, hence the various Veteran’s Committees that go through and elect some other worthies that the writers may have overlooked. In general – and this is something that’s been discussed in more detail and better style by other writers – the Vets have fundamentally different standards, and thus have elected far more “marginal” cases. It’s generally fallen to the Vets to select among the specialists – glove-first guys like Bill Mazeroski or, even more controversially, High Pockets Kelly.

As the game grows more specialized, the Writers Association’s now dealing with a lot of specialists. They weighed the merits of glove-first players like Omar Vizquel and Andruw Jones this year, and they’ve now had plenty of time to weigh the merits of designated hitters in time to ignore their own misgivings and usher David Ortiz.

The growth of relief pitching means that starters are pitching fewer and fewer innings. The Writers clearly don’t mind closers, implying that specialists who come with their own theme music are A-OK, but their standards for starters may need to adjust. As their barometer adjusts for starters, it’s also clearly adjusting to account for a more holistic view of position players, too. Adrian Beltre seemed like a marginal case a few years ago, but a brilliant late-career surge along with writers’ increasing fluency in WAR frameworks and defensive metrics would seem to make him an easy selection. The voting’s getting better, and while it’ll take a long time, the massive gap between the Writers and the VC may start to close.

4: All of that said, I find myself caring less and less about the Hall. That’s not a pose as a cynical blogger, or a protest at voters who vote for two strange candidates and call it a ballot, or who return blank ballots to make a point. The larger issue is that so many people have very different ideas about what the Hall is, and my own view (Large Hall) is in the distinct minority.

It’s ludicrous that Trevor Hoffman or Omar got votes while Edgar didn’t, but I don’t really have the desire to trash their candidacies. If it was me, I’d let Omar in, actually. Sure, he’s not quite at Ozzie Smith’s level, but in part that’s due to the fact that Ozzie played at a time in which strike outs were comparatively rare, meaning he got tons and tons more chances. Omar spanned several eras of the game, and his statistics suffer for it. He predates the steroid era, but gets penalized for playing through it. Was Edgar a better, more valuable baseball player? Yeah, sure. But if we only induct the *best defensive shortstop of his generation* every few generations, then I think we’re getting a bit picky. Others disagree; it’s not enough to be a brilliant SS, you’ve got to do SOMETHING with the bat as well. I get that argument, and I recognize that it’s winning and will continue to win. I just don’t agree with it.

That’s been one of the frustrating things about Edgar’s 9-year odyssey on the ballot. Dealing with counter-arguments feels like playing whack-a-mole, and arguing that Edgar Martinez was great seems like arguing that the sky is blue. This isn’t the Hall’s fault, but this is what the Hall makes us *do* every winter. It’s…not fun. The downside here is that I’m not going to feel as joyous as others next year. I’ll be happy for Edgar, the M’s, the Hall, and baseball itself, but the disengagement I’ve felt this year will come back to bite me next year.

BA Locates Names of Ten Mariners Prospects

January 19, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues · 10 Comments 

Just before the holidays, fans of prospecting in general were gifted a tweet by Baseball America’s JJ Cooper which said what many had been thinking for a while:

Reading the back of the Mariners Top 30 for the Prospect Handbook. The back of this list is…..fascinating in a “Wow, we’re ranking this guy, and this guy and this guy and this guy.”

The Mariners have been in a precarious position for a while now, having traded off substantial amounts of lower minors prospects for near-ready depth with modest ceilings. Coupled with this, our draft strategy has been primarily to target competent and competitive replacements, and perhaps where we’ve had our greatest success is in selecting arms that we feel we can slot into bullpen work in short order. As such, the DiPoto era has almost excused itself from the trickier tasks of long-term development, as anything promising is quickly jettisoned and we’re left with an organization filled with organizational players. I said at the beginning of last draft that we were reaching a tipping point, beyond which was dangerous, in which we needed to focus on higher ceilings rather than replacement players. For a couple rounds, that was where our aims were, and then thereafter, not so much, which is part of why it’s not all that surprising to see a BA top ten list that has the first three names, the fifth and sixth, and then something of a free-for-all:

1. OF Kyle Lewis
2. 1B Evan White
3. RHP Sam Carlson
4. OF Julio Rodriguez
5. CF Braden Bishop
6. RHP Max Povse
7. RHP Matt Festa
8. RHP Art Warren
9. 3B Joe Rizzo
10. SS Juan Querecuto

Trending: DOWN Trades of eight players who ranked in the Top 30 Prospects a year ago have depleted the ranks.

I’m sparing you the next line which identifies as the non-coveted “worst farm system in baseball.”

If there’s anything promising that’s come out of listening into offseason conversations, it’s that DiPoto on the Wheelhouse podcast specifically stated that he thinks that we have finally arrived at the “tread water” point for our upper minors depth and can now comfortably focus on players that might take a little longer to bring along. He’s not wrong either in terms of how our depth is configured. Haniger, Gamel, Heredia, and Dee Gordon means that we can afford not to pressure Kyle Lewis or Braden Bishop. Ryon Healy, Vogelbach, and MAYBE Mike Ford mean that Evan White isn’t going to be counted on to be the first player of his draft class to hit the majors. For whatever else you think of Miranda, Erasmo Ramirez, and Mike Leake, they’ve at least got us fairly stable in the short term. One could also say that the fact that Jean Segura is locked into a long term contract makes it okay that we have traded away nearly every capable shortstop prospect we’ve had in recent memory.

In the longer run, sending away a lot of stuff leaves us with questions of resource allocation and whether it was worthwhile to, as some have characterized, make twenty moves only to still hover around .500. Hindsight makes such questions easier to answer, but in terms of prospecting, would you rather have Enyel de los Santos or what we got from Joaquin Benoit? Freddy Peralta or the Adam Lind experiment? Erick Mejia or Joe Wieland? Mike Montgomery and a quad-A starter or Daniels Valencia and Vogelbach? Zach Lee for Chris Taylor and the package that got us Smyly / Simmons were unexpected blow-ups, and had things worked out in the expected way, they would likely have been worthwhile. But the slow, untreated bleedout can ruin you just as easily as the bigger blow. Right now, I don’t feel confident in our ability to develop or to correctly evaluate more long-term assets.

It’s a bleak take on things, but then this is probably the thinnest, most top-heavy system I’ve seen in my sixteen+ years of following. There are positives to be taken away, such as the team continues to recruit Driveline guys as minor league free agents, has brought in Dr. Lorena Martin to help standardize conditioning practices, and has coaches that are increasingly savvy to how pitching and hitting mechanics are modeled. These are all great things to have to help you develop the talent that you have. We need more talent though. We need it badly.

Rene Rivera is an Angel

January 18, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

In 2001, the Mariners won 116 games, as you may have heard. Their future looked bright as well, as the great Sam Miller reminded us yesterday. A great roster, the 2nd best farm system in the game, and a wonderful new stadium. Their draft that year – June of 2001 – looked…odd, but a system that good could overcome a reach on Michael Garciaparra. After that pick, the M’s took a young catcher out of Puerto Rico named Rene Rivera.

That well-regarded system that Sam mentioned? None of the prospectors were talking about Rene Rivera. The M’s already *had* their catcher of the future: Ryan Christianson, whom the M’s took with the 11th overall pick in 1999. He reached AA in 2002, and he was the guy M’s fans pictured catching Ryan Anderson’s untouchable fastballs for years to come. An injury to Christianson and Rivera’s great defense allowed the Puerto Rican teen to rise quickly, and he ended up getting a cup of coffee with the M’s at age 20 in 2004, but during that lost season, the M’s traded away Freddie Garcia and, with Christianson stalled out, acquired their next catcher of the future: Miguel Olivo. Olivo was just 25 then, and had been the Sox #2 prospect before getting a solid half-season of work on the South Side in 2003. Olivo brought power while Rivera…did not.

Olivo had the starting job locked up in 2005, but found himself mired in a historic slump. At the end of May, Olivo was slashing .145/.174/.236 with 33 Ks and 4 BBs in 110 PAs, and the M’s sent him down. His wRC+ in 157 total PAs with the club that year was 12, or the worst in club history for any batter with at least 100 plate appearances. In late July, they officially gave up, swapping him for veteran Miguel Ojeda. Was this Rivera’s moment? No, unfortunately. A few weeks before trading Olivo to San Diego, the M’s made a last-minute decision to skip SS Troy Tulowitzki and instead take USC catcher Jeff Clement with the 5th overall pick in the 2005 draft. Again, the M’s had a catcher of the future, and again, it wasn’t Rene Rivera.

This story isn’t just about Rivera getting picked over, though. He didn’t get *much* of a chance, but he got one in 2006 as a back-up to Kenji Johjima, newly arrived from Japan and the M’s catcher of the present. Rivera got to bat 106 times, and slashed .152/.184/.253, good for a wRC+ of 9. Just…9. The ink wasn’t even dry on Olivo’s dubious record, and Rivera had somehow lowered the bar. This blog took note, heaping scorn on the hapless Rivera and the woeful 2001 draft that set the stage for the collapse of the M’s system (though that collapse had more to do with the curious implosion of the prospect haul the M’s got from Chicago – the one that included Olivo and Jeremy Reed). Rivera was demoted to AA for 2007 and after another bad year at the plate, he was gone.

First the Dodgers in 2008, then the Mets the following year. He moved to the Yankees after a brief stint in the independent leagues for the Camden Riversharks, and when that came to nothing, signed on with the Twins in 2011. He hit well in in AAA, and with Joe Mauer injured, the Twins had a need for back-up catchers. Their own Drew Butera was on hand, but even Butera knew he couldn’t hit. He’d put up a slash line of .211/.268/.292 *in AAA* in 2009, but that was good enough, and he’d been the bench catcher for 2010 and 2011. Rivera actually had a slugging percentage that started with a 4 in AAA in 2011, and with Butera cratering to a big league line of .167/.210/.239, the Twins gave Rivera a shot. Butera’s wRC+ that year was just 19, one of the worst marks in THAT franchise’s long history for anyone with over 100 PAs, but Rivera – who just a year ago was in the Atlantic League – would give Butera some cover. In 114 PAs, Rivera hit .144/.211/.202, good for a wRC+ of 12. It was the worst mark in franchise history since 1964.

Rene Rivera had two semi-extended chances in the big leagues, separated by 5 years. In *both* of them, he became the worst hitter either team had seen in at least 45 years. However, I came here not to bury Rivera, but to praise him. In a sense, Rivera’s timing was perfect. By hanging on as a guy with a great defensive reputation, Rivera found himself in an era in which offense cratered league wide. No, he wasn’t exactly catching up to league average, but fortunately enough, league average was charging headlong towards him. And around this time, some amateur analysts at Baseball Prospectus and elsewhere started trying to quantify some hitherto ignored components of catcher defense. Dan Turkenkopf figured the run value of changing a ball to a strike, and then Mike Fast (and then Max Marchi) calculated these cumulative run values catchers could accrue by “framing” strikes. Rene Rivera had been the embodiment not merely of replacement level, but the *dregs* of freely-available players. He was “I don’t care anymore” made flesh and draped in catchers gear. But a combination of changes in how we viewed the game and changes in Rivera himself would make him a valuable player.

He signed on with the Padres org in 2013, and ended up getting plenty of time as Yasmani Grandal’s back-up in 2014 when Nick Hundley got hurt. Rivera responded to his 3rd extended stint in the pros – over 300 PAs! – by hitting .252/.319/.432 with 11 HRs. A change in his swing led him to hit a lot more fly balls, and thus, while his HR/FB ratio was pretty much unchanged from his minor league stints, the sheer number of fly balls pushed his HR and SLG% numbers way, way up. He played for the Mets again in 2016-17, with a lower average but a decent number of dongers, and he excelled after a late-season move to the Cubs. A free agent, Rivera signed a deal with the Angels this month for $2.8 million.

Rene Rivera has gone from near-forgotten org depth to punch line for two different teams, and then, as the game changed, to a perfectly respectable veteran presence back-up catcher. I’m not an Angels fan by any stretch, but I’ve been inordinately happy for Rivera since the signing was announced. This game belongs to the sluggers now, the Aaron Judges, Mike Trouts, and, improbably, Jose Altuves. I keep thinking that Kris Bryant literally couldn’t have chosen a better year to debut than 2015, and Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmermann, Josh Donaldson, Yonder Alonso and others figured out how to adjust to the changing game and excelled. All of them have figured out how to maximize their own talent. But I keep thinking of guys like Rivera who personify the changing game in large part because their careers span multiple eras or epochs within the game. When Rivera started out, it was us statheads mocking the concept of catcher ERA or the measurable components of catcher defense. That was problematic for a no-hit catcher, but then all of us went ahead and changed: offense dropped, making glove-first Cs less of a run-sucking black hole in a line-up. The statheads reversed course, and finally figured out how to measure a lot of the things that had seemed unquantifiable. And Rivera actually improved. The game changed, how front offices view the game changed, and Rivera changed, too. In a hot stove season in which so few players are actually signing FA deals, I’m really, really glad that Rivera signed one, and that – at age 34, having spanned the Ryan Christianson era through the present, from the M’s being the best club in history through their entire playoff drought – Rivera will get a sizable raise and earn the largest salary of his career.

The Changing Battle Between Batters and Pitchers

January 9, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

This is a strange post without real conclusions that was sparked by an unrelated quote from M’s manager Scott Servais. I’ve grabbed a whole bunch of data from Statcast, Pitch Fx and Fangraphs, and it tells the story of how much – and how *fast* – the game has changed over the past 10 years, and the last 3-4 years in particular. I think that’s interesting enough for a post in this remarkably slow hot stove season; I mean, what else are we going to do?

On January 4th, David Laurila had one of his characterically-great quote round-up posts, this one focused on how teams valued speed in today’s game. It featured a quote from Servais, noting:

“Where the power is come from in the game — obviously we’re going to focus on it. You see guys… I call it ‘hunting their pitch.’ They’re shrinking the strike zone and trying to drive the ball out of the ballpark, trying to get the ball in the air more consistently. I think that’s the biggest change. Hitters are more aware, mechanically, of their swings — what they need to do to get the ball in the air. And not chasing pitches, but sitting on their pitches and trying to pull the ball in the air. The result has been more home runs.”

This quote, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is NOT about speed at all, but about home runs and what’s causing the HR spike in the game. Servais points to “hunting” pitches, and I wanted to see if this was true or not. So, how should we go about verifying this? How would “hunting pitches” and then really swinging hard at a narrower band of the strike zone (“shrinking the strike zone”) show up in pitch data? To me, I think, given the quote, that we’d see fewer swings overall and more called strikes. Do we? No, we do not.

What we DO see is that total pitches are up notably, by over 10,000 compared to 10 years ago, and by *22,000* compared to 2015. The problem is that these “extra” pitches aren’t a bunch of called pitches – they’re increased swings. Batters are swinging the bat more frequently these days, rising from about 45% of all pitches in 2008-2010 to about 47% from 2015-2017. With increased HRs and a rising league-wide on-base percentage, the league is seeing both more plate appearances than we did during the little batting ice age of 2010-2014, but also a steady, unbroken increase in pitches per plate appearance. Even though there were more plate appearances in 2008 compared to 2017, 2017 saw more pitches as pitches per plate appearance grew dramatically between 2014-2017. Again, batters offer at more of these pitches, as both foul balls and whiffs are up, while called strikes are down. Called balls dropped around 2009 and stayed low through 2015, and then recovered slightly in 2016-17; this is consistent with everything we’ve heard about the growth of the strike zone over this time period.

All of these swings haven’t related in more balls in play, of course. Strikeout rate has risen in each year between 2008-2017, and the league’s HR rate has followed suit. Walk rate declined markedly at the start of the 2010, and while its grown in each of the last three years, it’s still below 2008-2009 levels. While the trend isn’t quite as clear, fastball usage league-wide is lower than it was in previous years, dropping in each of the last four years, and dropping three entire percentage points from 2009-2017. This would seem to play a role in the increase in whiffs and perhaps foul balls.

The story here, such as it is, has much less to do with Servais’ conjecture and much more to do with league-wide trends that would seem to require more pitchers (to throw more pitches) and that recognize that batters are swinging more. The M’s have endeavored to control the zone in recent years, not so much by increasing whiff rates/K rates (though they’ve done that), but by limiting bases on balls. The M’s walk rate lags the league average, while their K rate is more-or-less at parity with the league. The M’s began the 2008-2017 with a remarkably bad pitching staff, leading to bloated walk rates. Jack Z’s new-look M’s quickly took care of that, but they did so by dropping K rates as well. It’s stabilized more recently, but the M’s again fell behind the league average K rate for the first time in quite a while in 2017. Still, what we’ve seen, especially over the past 5 years (the years of Safeco’s new dimensions) is that walk rates have been consistently low, while K rates have been more or less average. It’s been easier to get to an average or better K-BB% or K/BB ratio or whatever than it has been for many teams, and this despite the M’s not spending a ton of money on big-name free agent pitchers (though of course this time period covers peak Felix). What HASN’T been so easy is keeping the ball in the ballpark.

The jump in HRs league-wide is both striking and much-discussed; I don’t think it’s a shock to anyone at this point. But what’s interesting to me at least is just how much quicker things have jumped for the M’s. The M’s allowed over 200 HRs in a season a couple of times before 2016 – once in the old Kingdome, and once in 2004 with a truly, memorably bad pitching staff. To do so in two straight years is remarkable, especially given where the club was in 2013-2014. If the M’s gave up HRs at their own 2014 HR% rate, they’d have given up 141, or nearly *100 fewer* than 237 they actually gave up. Even using the league-wide rate for 2017 – the year of the HR, remember – would produce 202 HRs when applied to the M’s actual number of batters faced, or 15% less than they actually yielded.

If you’ve followed this site for a while, you know that this is something of a theme. The question for the M’s is what to do about it. There are a lot fewer HRs than there are walks and strikeouts, and like so much, HR rate is volatile when you restrict it to one team and one year. HR rate results from a variety of factors, from pitcher quality to opponent quality to ballpark mix and even the atmospheric conditions in games…all mixed in with a big random component for chance/variance that isn’t strictly limited to one of the aforementioned factors. I understand why a team might bet on some regression in HR rate, especially when it’s outpacing league-wide HR% growth by so much. But at this point, I’d suggest weighting this factor more heavily than the M’s may have previously. Hell, maybe they do, and they just got bit by a combination of injuries, a new, springier ball and climate change. Maybe it was dumb (bad) luck.

The desire to shift more innings to relievers may be part of the team’s means of addressing this alarming spike. Relievers tend to allow fewer HRs/FB than starters, and thus whereas teams didn’t need a whole slew of set-up men, it might make sense for the M’s to employ as many as possible.

Moreover, they may want to explore just how much of the HR explosion, or more accurately, the batters’ swing changes to generate elevated contact, are related to changes in how batters react to fastballs. I touched on this in May, but looking at the data over 10 years versus 2 months is instructive. The share of HRs that have come on FBs has bounced around over this time period, from 59.2% in 2008 to 58.5% in 2017. It hasn’t dropped significantly; though it’s down from its peak in 2009 and down a bit from the average, it’s still close to 59% overall. What *has* changed is the share of *fastballs* that become HRs. In 2008, 0.71% of FBs went over the fence. After a brief increase for 2009, this ratio dropped noticeably from 2010-2014, before rising back to 0.74% in 2015. Since then, though, it’s jumped again, to 0.82% in 2016 and then 0.89% in 2017. For the Mariners, though, the picture is even *more* dramatic. After starting at the league average of 0.71% in 2008, the M’s have steadily seen more fastballs become dingers than the league average. In the HR-era, though, they’ve been even more dinger-prone, rising to 1.04% of all fastballs in 2017. The M’s have *consistently* given up more HRs per fastball than the league, and if anything, the gap is growing.

Again, this may simply be the result of injuries dramatically reducing their own fastball quality last year. But the M’s have been pretty consistent in terms of the HRs they’ve allowed on FBs: they’ve ranked in the top 10 in baseball 5 of the past 6 years, and ranked 4th last season. The M’s have talked about how they evaluate a pitcher’s fastball, and the multitude of individual metrics that make up an overall fastball grade. It’s possible that giving up a few more HRs is the price they need to pay to have solid K/BB numbers without breaking the bank for name-brand, free-agent hurlers. But this seems like it bears watching. Much of the overall data fits the narrative we’ve already created: batters are swinging at more pitches now, reacting to the growth of the strike zone. The time lag means swings are up even after the growth in the zone stopped. HRs are up due to the ball, and the growth in OBP means more plate appearances and thus more HRs even as fastball usage declined. What I can’t yet fit into some narrative or just-so story is why the M’s have been quite so homer-prone, or why their fastballs are smacked around the way they are. To compete in 2018 and beyond, the M’s need this to change. That’s not news, that’s not a meaningful conclusion. The M’s offense does not appear to be much better in terms of OBP than last year’s model, so to the extent their runs-allowed/runs-scored improves, it sort of stands to reason that the improvement will come from the pitchers. Health will play a role, of course, but figuring out this HR problem would make that job much, much easier.