Friday, February 12, 2016

The Comebacker Player of the Year

Continuing a tradition, the hosts of the Effectively Wild podcast recently drafted candidates for the 2016 Comeback Player of the Year Award. As Ben and Sam discussed, the winners typically fit one particular archetype: A quality player returns from injury to produce at his pre-injury level. The potential 2016 winners selected in Episode 811 -- Yu Darvish, Homer Bailey, Matt Cain, etc. -- meet the standard exemplified by 2015 honorees Matt Harvey and Prince Fielder. But while "Drafts of Everything" is a classic Effectively Wild theme, it would have been even more Effectively Wild to draft candidates for an award that exists only here, thanks to the Baseball Reference Play Index:

The Comebacker Player of the Year.

It seems there are two ways to define this frivolity. First are the batters who made the most outs involving a comebacker -- a ball hit directly back to the pitcher -- and second are the pitchers who induced the most comebacker outs. Lucky for us, the Comebacker Player of 2015 is easily identifiable in both categories.

Of the 705 batters who made an out starting with a "1" on the scorecard, none did it more often than Dee Gordon. His 47 comebackers led MLB by a large margin, by 16 (over 50% more) than second-place finisher Brock Holt's 31. Most of the guys at the top of the hitter list are, like Gordon, speedy types for whom the third baseman plays in on the grass:

Dee Gordon47
Brock Holt31
Ender Inciarte30
Starling Marte29
Johnny Giavotella29
Jean Segura29
Erick Aybar28
Andrelton Simmons28
Ichiro Suzuki27
Alcides Escobar27
That's a list of slappy, speedy types, except for Starling Marte, who hit 19 home runs. The top of 2014's hitter list was substantially similar, if more condensed:

Seems like it's tough to have a valuable offensive season if you're the kind of hitter who often can't get the ball past the pitcher. (Insert dig at Derek Jeter.) The flip side, of course, is that pitchers who induce comebackers are some of the best in the game. In fact, the 2015 Comebacker Pitcher of the Year was also the 2014 winner -- Dallas Keuchel.

The top four NL Cy Young finishers and the AL Cy Young winner appear on the 2015 list. Perhaps Keuchel's ability to collect comebackers should have tipped us off that his 2014 performance was sustainable. 

Last bit of trivia for the evening. In 2015, there was one game in which pitchers coerced nine comebackers. On June 2, still-a-Red Johnny Cueto faced the Phillies' Sean O'Sullivan in Philadelphia, in a game the Phillies won 5-4 in walkoff fashion. Cueto was responsible for three comebackers. O'Sullivan induced two -- both sac bunt attempts by Cueto (one failed). Relievers caused four more after the starters were pulled.

A nine-comebacker game isn't a black swan. None occurred in 2014, but there were four in 2013. one in 2012, and four in 2011. In 2010, there were two 10-comebacker games. You have to go back to 2004 to find an 11-comebacker game (there were two that season). Twelve-comebacker games are the modern (post-1988) record, with one occurring in each of 1996, 1991 and 1989. 

The takeaways from this exercise? 

- My goodness, the Play Index is fun.
- Perhaps Eno Sarris should incorporate comebackers into his fantasy pitching ranks, as they appear predictive of elite starting pitcher performance.
- Going into 2016, it's reasonable to wonder if Mike Leake, Jon Niese and Michael Wacha are on the verge of breakouts, 
- Henderson Alvarez could be a savvy return-from injury pickup for the A's. He could even win the awards for both Comeback and Comebacker Player of the Year!


Upon sending this research to the Effectively Wild hosts, Ben Lindbergh was kind enough to respond:

I like this. Good idea. My only critique is that I don't really think of a bunt as a comebacker. Has to be harder hit. Might be the same names anyway (definitely would be for the pitchers), but I think I'd filter out bunts.
Filtering out bunts from the 2015 data subtracts 836 of the 5136 comebacker outs.

Dee Gordon remains on top of a ranked list of hitter comebacker outs, with 37, down from 47 inclusive of bunts. In other words, ten (21%) of Gordon's comebackers were bunts fielded by the pitcher that resulted in outs. His other 37 comebacker outs occurred on grounders, pop-ups or line drives. Contrast that with number three on the list, Ender Inciarte. Inciarte bunted on only three (10%) of his 31 comebacker outs. One could argue that Inciarte -- who made 90% of his comebacker outs on non-bunt attempts -- should be the 2015 Comebacker Hitter of the Year.

On the pitcher side, Ben's right -- the list doesn't change at all. Of the 56 comebackers Dallas Keuchel converted into outs in 2015, a full 53 of them were groundouts. Only one was a bunt; the other two were a pop-up and a liner. Arrieta had 47 comebackers, of which 40 were groundouts and seven were bunts. Greinke's 40 comebackers were *all* groundouts.

Filtering out bunts reinforces the idea that a pitcher's ability to induce comebacker outs is a repeatable skill akin to infield popups that should be considered in projecting a pitcher's stat line.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The 2015 Mets Offseason

Haven't written in a long while. Two kids and a law practice will do that to you. Here are my thoughts on the Mets' offseason to date.  

As you may have heard, the 2015 World Series was won by the team with the higher payroll.

Instead of celebrating their deepest playoff run since 2000's Subway Series, Mets fans are understandably frustrated with ownership's diversion of baseball revenues to service Fred Wilpon's personal indebtedness on his team, stadium and television network. For those who haven't followed the sordid details, Wilpon's annual interest payments amount roughly to the $120 million the St. Louis Cardinals spend on MLB payroll.

If you're looking for the facile answer why the Mets paid less to field a team in 2015 team than they did in 2001 (adjusted for inflation), Wilpon's debt is it. Embedded media constantly regurgitate the company line. Those who value their press passes will tell you that the Mets' $110 million payroll expenditure combines with Wilpon’s $120 million in debt financing to produce a larger number than every team but the league-leading Dodgers put toward players last year.

This line of thinking is deeply flawed. Wilpon's cries of poverty are overwhelmed by the fact that the value of the team itself has grown by 120 percent in the last dozen years, to $1.35 billion. MLB’s annual revenues have exploded from $1.4 billion in 1995 to around $9.5 billion today. In other words, granting that the equity appreciation isn’t liquid, Wilpon's investment in the Mets has more than doubled. His part-ownership of MLB Advanced Media (the unit that streams video for baseball, HBO, and ESPN) is worth another $166 million. That's pure profit, as MLBAM didn't exist when Wilpon bought the team. Ratings for SNY, the Mets' regional sports network, are up 60 percent from 2014 -- and are now on par with Yankees ratings. When you read about the Diamondbacks signing Zack Greinke out of the $90 million a year they get from their new TV contract, it’s a reminder that you should add at least that amount to the Mets' annual revenues.

Wilpon quietly signed a 17-year lease to move SNY's headquarters -- oh, and those of his real estate group, Sterling Equities -- to 83,000 pristine square feet on the 49th and 50th floors of the new 4 World Trade Center. Ownership is doing just fine. But while the Red Sox supplement their young hitting talent by signing David Price and trading for Craig Kimbrel, the Dodgers flex their financial muscles to run MLB's largest payroll, and the Tigers' owner says, "I don't care about the money. I want the best players," Wilpon uses the Mets to massively buttress his personal balance sheet.

For the season just ended, the Mets spent the fourth-lowest percentage of revenues of any team -- only 38% of team revenues were directed to payroll. The Mets could have entered next season with only three players (David Wright, Curtis Granderson and Michael Cuddyer) having accumulated the seven years of service time necessary to hit free agency. Rostering so few market-value veterans would have made the team a historical anomaly. It also highlights how the Mets -- like the Diamondbacks signing Greinke -- could easily afford another $30 million on the payroll because they’re getting so much production from young, cost-controlled talent. However, General Manager Sandy Alderson merely “hopes” the team will open 2016 with a higher payroll than it did last year.

The funny thing is, not even the famous "source with direct knowledge of team financials" can deny that the Mets' division title and World Series appearance will earn the team over $50 million in added revenues. Given Alderson’s previously-expressed intention to "make a splash" in 2016, any reasonable expectation has the Mets spending far more this offseason than last, when they committed to merely $12 million in 2015 salary for Cuddyer and John Mayberry.

On December 9, the Mets traded Jon Niese for Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, then signed Asdrubal Cabrera to a two-year, $18.5M contract. Unquestionably, having Walker better aligns the roster. Niese had been shunted to the bullpen for the Mets’ playoff run after a mediocre regular season (4.13 ERA, 4.41 FIP). Between Rafael Montero returning from shoulder soreness and Zack Wheeler returning from Tommy John surgery, the Mets will have two internal candidates to fill Niese’s fifth-starter role. Niese at $9M was an unnecessary expense.

Whether Walker is a necessary expense is open to debate. Dilson Herrera and his career .304/.369/.470 minor-league line could have been given a shot to play second base, filling the shoes Daniel Murphy wore when he kicked grounders all over the World Series. Instead, trading for Walker both reveals the team’s belief that Herrera needs more development time and provides the Mets with far more certainty as they defend their pennant -- Walker has produced at least 2.4 bWAR in every season since 2011. Granting that the Walker trade is a good play for 2016, it’s both cynical and accurate to say that the Niese/Walker swap was essentially revenue-neutral, with Walker set to earn approximately $1 million more than Niese will in 2016.

Cabrera’s signing is more about accumulating depth than an indictment of Wilmer Flores’s ability to play an MLB-caliber shortstop, as both infielders have widespread reputations as defensive butchers. ESPN’s Dan Szymborski projects Cabrera and Flores to produce 2.2 and 1.7 WAR, respectively, in 2016. Because Wright seems more likely than not to spend time on the disabled list, Walker and Cabrera are both on the wrong side of 30, and Flores is far better than the replacement-level backups like Eric Campbell and Daniel Muno that filled in last year, having Flores on the bench is another reasonable hedge against uncertainty for a team that expects to contend for a playoff spot.

Flores should play more than a typical extra infielder, though. Walker is a switch-hitter who has a career 123 wRC+ against righties and a mere 83 wRC+ against lefties. Flores has mashed southpaws to the tune of a 162 wRC+. Flores can be a real asset as the short half of a platoon -- if Terry Collins is inclined to use him that way.

The Mets claimed they’re not done building next year’s team even before Cuddyer retired, freeing up a roster spot and $12.5M in salary (minus the undisclosed buyout Cuddyer will get for walking away with a year left on his contract). With Daniel Murphy and stretch-run additions Yoenis Cespedes, Tyler Clippard, Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson off the books as free agents, and accounting for the fortuitous Cuddyer announcement, the Mets’ current payroll is estimated at ~$103 million for 25 players, one of whom (Zack Wheeler) will still be recoving from Tommy John surgery on Opening Day:

Player            Salary
RF Granderson     $16.0M
2B Walker   $10.0M
1B Duda           $6.8M
2B Wright         $20.0M
LF Conforto       $0.6M
C  d'Arnaud       $0.6M
SS A.Cabrera      $9.25M
CF Lagares        $2.5M

Bench Nieuwenhuis $0.6M
Bench Plawecki    $0.6M
Bench Tejada      $2.5M
Bench Flores      $0.6M

SP Harvey         $4.7M
SP deGrom         $0.6M
SP Syndergaard    $0.6M
SP Matz           $0.6M
SP Colon          $7.25M
SP Wheeler        $0.6M

RP Familia (RH)   $3.3M
RP Reed (RH)      $5.7M
RP Blevins (LH)   $4.0M
RP C.Torres (RH)  $0.8M
RP Edgin (LH)     $0.6M
RP Mejia (RH)     $2.6M
RP Montero        $0.6M

2016 payroll is now exactly what it was in 2015, when the Mets -- the New York Mets -- ranked 21st out of 30th teams in MLB. Between Alderson’s “hope” that the team will spend more than last year’s $103 million on its Opening Day roster, Cuddyer’s retirement, and a $50 million playoff bonanza, the team can easily commit to another $25 million for 2016 payroll. In other words, the Mets could have afforded Jason Heyward.

Please don’t scoff. Adding the best free-agent center fielder -- pushing Juan Lagares to the defensive-support bench spot he's best suited for -- to the team with the best starting rotation in baseball would have made the Mets a near-lock for the 2016 playoffs. Heyward received $23 million a year from the Cubs. If the Mets had dealt Jon Niese for a prospect or cheap bullpen arm instead of Walker, allowing Dilson Herrera or Wilmer Flores to start at second base, they would have saved $9 million. Cuddyer’s retirement saved another $12.5 million. Sure, that $21.5 million covers only one year of Heyward’s deal, but the Mets have merely $48 million committed for 2017 payroll and only $28.5 million committed for 2018. Again: The Mets could have afforded Jason Heyward.

Public perception, fed by Wilpon and his friendly press corps, instead ruled a Heyward signing impossible. Now, the Mets will likely sign 30-year-old Dexter Fowler or 29-year-old Gerrado Parra at a fraction of Heyward's salary. Those guys could perform adequately as the dominant side of a center field platoon with Lagares, but it's not the impact signing the Mets need -- the potential second coming of Carlos Beltran in his prime. Remember when the Mets signed the best free agent available?

In 2005, Omar Minaya inked the then-28-year-old Beltran to a 7-year, $119 million contract. The outfielder finished 9th in MLB with 32.3 bWAR for the life of his contract. Beltran sits above his former teammates David Wright (10th, 31.9) and Curtis Granderson (11th, 31.3) on that list. Indeed, for those seven years, Beltran was better than future Hall of Famers Chipper Jones (12th, 29.8), Ichiro Suzuki (14th, 29.3) and Derek Jeter (31st, 25.6). Heyward would have fit perfectly in orange and blue.

But Wilpon’s P.R. poverty campaign has been a success. With Heyward off the market, the Mets re-signed the serviceable LOOGY Jerry Blevins for one year at $4 million and innings-eater-slash-team-mascot Bartolo Colon for $7.5 million. Next, the front office will likely sign a mid-market lefty-hitting centerfielder. Wilpon will dole out barely $10-$15 million over 2015’s payroll -- anchoring the Mets in the bottom-third of MLB spending -- and tout that expenditure like he did last year when the team signed Cuddyer. Then the front office will close up shop for the winter while the likes of Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes and Chris Davis sign elsewhere. (And while Alderson hopefully undergoes successful cancer treatment.)

The league should censure Wilpon for redirecting team revenues to make payments on debt rather than payroll when the team has a championship-caliber core. Yet it's well established that MLB has no interest in forcing Wilpon to sell unless he goes full-McCourt and embarrasses his fellow owners. All the Mets have done in acquiring Walker and Cabrera this offseason is fill the holes left when Murphy and Uribe/Johnson left as free agents. Mets fans have to hope that the team's bumper crop of cost-controlled young players improves enough to overcome what will inevitably be a disappointing offseason of high propaganda and low spending.


Scott D. Simon is an attorney who specializes in commercial litigation, financial restructuring, and bankruptcy. He is also Commissioner of the Westchester Hebrew Softball League, and one of the Effectively Wild Podcast’s favorite emailers. Follow Scott on Twitter at @scottdsimon.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

2013: Tigers or Athletics?

Today's issue of Joe Sheehan's Newsletter, spurred by rumors of Felix Hernandez signing a $175 million contract, posits that the Mariners are "the fourth-best team in a division with three of the top ten teams in baseball ..." 

Few would argue that the Rangers, who have reached two of the last three World Series, or the Angels, having signed Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke* this offseason, are not among MLB's best. But placing the A's among a group that includes the aforementioned Rangers and Angels means that two of the Nationals, Blue Jays, Tigers, Dodgers, Reds, Giants, Braves, Rays and Yankees are not top-ten teams. I emailed Joe how that could be, and he replied that while he hadn't researched the topic, he's sure that the A's are better than the Tigers.

*This is what happens when I write at 11pm. This is also why I haven't written in two years. 

My first response was that Tigers < A's is, if not a narrowly-held position, then a quietly-held one -- I've not heard anyone tout the A's for 2013. Indeed, Sportsbook set the A's at 30-1 to win next year's World Series, longer odds than the Cardinals and Rays.* Sportsbook's odds imply that the Red Sox and A's are equally likely to win the World Series. Now, online gambling lines qualify less as research than entertainment, so let's dig a little deeper. 

*The A's play in one of the toughest divisions in baseball while the Tigers play in one of the easiest, though the addition of the Astros to the A.L. Central balances the scale somewhat. Still, the Tigers are clearly a better bet to win their division than the A's are to win theirs -- and therefore much more likely to make the playoffs and win the World Series. This shouldn't affect how we objectively view the teams.

Based on Baseball Prospectus's adjusted standings page, the 94-68 A's should have won between 87 and 92 games last year. The Tigers, at 88-74, nailed their Pythagorean mark; BP says Detroit should have won between 87 and 90 games. What the adjusted standings tell us is that one could expect the A's to naturally regress next season, while the Tigers' record was a fair reflection of its component statistics. The A's and Tigers were both ~89-90 win teams at heart last season, thus the question becomes: Which team did more to improve for 2013?

The A's were involved in two offseason trades, acquiring John Jaso from the Mariners and Jed Lowrie from the Astros. The only major-leaguer Oakland relinquished in those deals was Chris Carter, the hulking slugger whose 16 home runs in 67 games only provided +0.8 WAR because he played a miserable first base -- when he was even allowed to put on a glove. Carter might thrive in Houston, but he's no great loss to the A's. Granting Joe's premise that Jaso provides a two-win upgrade from A's catchers last year, that's a significant upgrade. Lowrie was a +2.5 WAR player in his age-28 2012, but that was the first time he had played even 90 games in a season. The A's have stated they plan to use Lowrie in a utility role, so It is not harsh to pencil him in for a +2.0 WAR season next year. 

The A's also signed Hiroyuki Nakajima to be their starting shortstop in 2013. Nakajima was a star in Japan, but it's fair to say that Japanese infielders seem to rarely work out. Nakajima will look to outplay Stephen Drew, who left Oakland to sign with Boston. Drew's been injured for significant portions of the last two seasons, so he's far from guaranteed to outplay Nakajima next year.

Of the Athletics' returning players on offense, it's unlikely that Brandon Moss, he of the .251/.317/.442 career mark, repeats his age-28 .291/.358/.596 season in 2013. Similarly, Coco Crisp will play this season at 33 years of age; he's more likely to regress than improve.  For the A's to maintain their 90-win pace from last season, they'll need both Yoenis Céspedes and Josh Reddick to prove that their combined 55 home runs and down-ballot MVP showings were not flukes. Reddick will be 26 this year, and Céspedes will be "27", so both could be entering sustained peaks. Still, Céspedes and Reddick combined for only 85 non-intentional walks in 1,213 PAs. That's not a Jason Giambi or Johnny Damon walk rate. Color me skeptical that the Oakland outfield duo will exceed last year's combined +7.9 Fangraphs WAR. 

On the pitching side, the A's lost Brandon McCarthy to free agency, but hope to get Brett Anderson back from having pitched 230 innings -- over the last three seasons. Anderson is a borderline star when on the mound, but his next season throwing 180 innings will be his first. After 35 innings in 2012, I doubt the A's are counting on Anderson to provide more than 120 innings this year. The rest of Oakland's rotation -- Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, and Dan Straily -- will be helped by throwing half their games in the Colosseum, but two-through-five that's a weak starting staff. 

The A's, as is their sabermetric wont, annually cobble together outstanding bullpens from other teams' discard piles. I'll concede that whatever anonymous relief corps Oakland conjures up will outperform the Tigers' pen. 

Oakland's improved at catcher and improved their infield depth while they hope that last year's outfield breakouts are for real. They're treading water on the pitching side. Today, I'll pencil the A's in for 90 wins. Are the Tigers that good?

(It's already past my bedtime, I'm at 900 words, and I've not even written up the Tigers yet. Apologies if this rapidly devolves into incoherence.)

The 2013 Tigers will benefit from a full year of Anibal Sanchez in the rotation and Omar Infante at second base. Neither is an MVP candidate, but each represents an easy one-win upgrade over last year's performers in those spots. Detroit also sees Victor Martinez, returning from injury, replace free-agent Delmon Young at designated hitter. That alone could provide three or four wins over the team's 2012 performance. The Tigers also signed 37-year-old Torii Hunter to play right field. Hunter's not going to hit .313 again, but he won't have to in order to provide more than Brennan Boesch (.240/.286/.372) and Quintin Berry (.258/.330/.354) did last year. Figure that's another 2-win improvement. 

On the regression side of the ledger, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Austin Jackson all performed at MVP levels last year. Two of these three are future Hall of Famers whose 2012 stats are not out of place next to their career numbers. (Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta also performed in line with expectations and should do so again.) Jackson, still just 26 years old, is no lock to provide another +5 WAR season, but I'd rather have Jackson's 2013 than that of Céspedes or Reddick.  

Behind Verlander and Sanchez, the rest of the Tigers' rotation includes Max Scherzer, who was basically unhittable in last year's second half, Rick Porcello, who Jason Parks predicts to break out in 2013, and Doug Fister, who proved in 2012 that his Seattle numbers were sustainable in Detroit. This is an exceptionally strong starting staff. 

With Rafael Soriano off the market to Washington, it appears the Tigers will go into 2013 with a rookie closer backed up by a nondescript veteran bullpen. I'm falling asleep so I'm not going to offer my opinion on Detroit's seventh through 13th pitchers, but with the variability of relief pitchers, I'm unwilling to predict greatness or failure. Jettisoning Jose Valverde's Capital-C Closer mentality is likely to add, not subtract, wins from the team. 

The Tigers took an 89-win team and improved by adding Hunter, Infante and Sanchez, getting Martinez back, and showing the door to Young and Valverde. On paper, that looks like five or six wins to the good. 

I'll stipulate that the A's demonstrated surprising skill by holding off Texas and Anaheim for the 2012 A.L. West crown. But it is respectfully submitted that last year's A's overachieved and did not adequately replace the wins they'll lose to regression. The Tigers, who won the Central nearly by default, and who were last seen getting swept by the Giants in the World Series, improved by trade and free agent signing, but also by health and (subtly) free agent departure. 

Having given this a pretty close look, I'm pretty sure that the Tigers are a better team than the Athletics heading into 2013.