Friday, December 13, 2019

Recapping the 2020 Veterans Committee Election, and What it Means Going Forward

[Also published over at The Crawfish Boxes!]

On Sunday, we finally got our first Hall of Fame results for the 2020 Election cycle: the Veterans Committee has elected a pair of long-neglected candidates, Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller. Simmons received thirteen of sixteen possible votes, while Miller hit the twelve he needed for induction exactly. Both were long-overdue, as I covered in my full breakdown of the ballot three weeks ago, and each represented a massive breakthrough in different respects.

Ted Simmons was one of the best offensive catchers in the game, and had not just good advanced numbers, but also the type of traditional numbers that voters usually go for: he retired as the all-time leader in hits by a catcher (he has since been passed by Iván Rodríguez, who debuted three years after he retired), and second in RBI for the position behind just Yogi Berra (Berra and Simmons are still one-two in that ranking). Despite that, he didn’t even reach the 5% necessary to stay on the BBWAA ballot a second year back in 1994.

After a handful of Veterans Committee ballot appearances, including falling one vote shy in 2018 when Alan Trammell and Jack Morris were inducted, Simba finally broke through. This makes him the first player in history to make the Hall of Fame after not making a second writers’ ballot, something that bodes well for a number of other players who suffered the same fate, despite their worthy numbers.

Past voters overlooking Simmons might have been baffling, but that wasn’t at all the case with Miller. Few people have reshaped the game more than Marvin, the first head of the Players Association and a key figure in the end of the reserve clause and beginning of free agency. Of course, owners were somewhat less thrilled with his contributions, and they have an outsized impact on the Veterans Committee process. And as a non-player, Miller didn’t have a chance to face an all-writers electorate before facing the Veterans Committee.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Jimmy Wynn Might Be the Most Overlooked Player In Hall of Fame History, and He Deserves Second Look

Once again, this Hall of Fame piece is also up over at The Crawfish Boxes!


Next week at the Winter Meetings, in addition to any trades or free agent signings, the sixteen players, executives, and historians representing the Veterans Committee will convene and make their selections for the Class of 2020. I've already written about the people on the ballot, as well as the people doing the voting, and there's not much to add there; we'll probably see one player receive the twelve votes needed to reach 75% and merit induction, with the possibility of a second remaining. If you're curious who's most likely, that's all in those two articles.

I'd like to go in a different direction today, though, and focus on a player who's not on the ballot this year. In fact, he's never appeared on any Veterans Committee ballot, despite being eligible for it for over twenty years now, probably in part because he picked up no votes in his lone appearance on the BBWAA ballot. That decision was a glaring oversight at the time, and it's only become a bigger one following the advancements we've seen in player evaluations since his career ended in 1977.

I'm talking, of course, about early Astros star center fielder Jimmy Wynn. Initially drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1962, Wynn was taken that winter by the then-Colt .45s in the first-year player draft and made his major league debut the following year at the age of 21, beginning his eleven-year tenure in Houston. He also earned the nickname "The Toy Cannon" along the way, starting the Astros' tradition of under-sized stars (although Wynn was 5' 10", his power wound up being the thing that surprised people).

When he was finally traded to the Dodgers in December 1973, he was the franchise leader in most counting stats, including homers (223, no one else had even 100), hits (1291, no one else had managed 950), and 719 RBI (nearly 250 ahead of second place). He would eventually lose most of those titles, but some of them took a while (notably, he had the home run title until Jeff Bagwell finally passed him in 1999), and his name is still all over the franchise leader boards.

His fifteen season career ended with some pretty decent stats, although it's not difficult to see why voters didn't keep him on the ballot: 1665 hits, 291 homers, 964 RBI, 225 stolen bases, and a .250 batting average. Why, then, did his profile rise in the years since his retirement, with high profile fans like Bill James advocating him for Cooperstown? James even went as far as to call him one of the ten-best center fielders of all-time in his Historical Abstracts, and although that's a designation that has almost certainly changed over the years, James also had Wynn as one of the most underrated players of the 1960s. What did the Cooperstown voters miss in his case, and why does he deserve a look from the Veterans Committee.

Basically, every change in the understanding of baseball statistics has swung in Wynn's favor. Appreciation for reaching base highlighted Jim's incredible batting eye, with 1224 walks bringing his career OBP up to an impressive .366.

Understanding of offensive contexts was another big development. As it turned out, playing in the 1960s, the worst offensive context since the deadball era, and having your home games in a pitcher's park like the Astrodome will do a number on your superficial stats. Things like OPS+, which control for that context, showed that Jimmy was actually well above the rest of his peers. OPS+ puts him at 129, while wRC+ has him slightly better at 130.

There was the greater understanding of positional context. Fans had long known that some positions were more difficult to play than others, but it mostly reserved for the extremes rather than the finer differences. But, for instance, it mattered that The Toy Cannon was a center fielder, and not just a general outfielder, and it actually mattered a lot; people began to appreciate things like that.

For instance, on it’s own, his 129 OPS+ may not have stood out all that much, but compared just to other center fielders? That ties him for 20th all-time (at a position where there are still only 19 Hall of Famers), and looks even better when you realize that two of the players ahead of him are still active, and another two played less than 1000 games in their career. Put another way, the center fielders who hit better than Wynn while accruing more plate appearances is short and impressive: Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, and Ken Griffey, Jr.

And of course, tying together all of that brings us to WAR, and its various spinoffs, like Wins Above Average or the more Hall-centric spinoffs like JAWS and Hall Rating (both of which take into account a player’s peak and career values). All of those were meant to quantify those underappreciated aspects and give them the same type of attention that home runs or RBI got, and it turns out, that helps out Wynn a lot! Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR puts Jim at eighteenth all-time for center fielders, at 55.9.

And the other methods like him even more: since Wynn’s career was rather brief (fifteen seasons, just twelve with more than 100 games played), he had a pretty high peak to be able to reach nearly 56 Wins. Three times, Wynn reached 7.0 or more WAR, with another three above 5.0. Wins Above Average, which compares players to Average, 2-Win players rather than replacement level ones, puts him sixteenth among center fielders with 28.8 Wins. JAWS rates him seventeenth (49.6), while Hall Rating puts him fifteenth (110, or 10% better than a borderline Hall of Famer).

Maybe that wasn’t good enough for the BBWAA, seeing as their inductees in center have looked more like Ken Griffey and Joe DiMaggio. But Wynn is well past that stage, since the Veterans Committee would be selecting him, and being better than somewhere between 40 to 50% of the inductees at your position seems like it should be the type of thing to attention from a committee designed to recognize overlooked players.

Given that Jimmy Wynn’s career spanned the 1960s and ‘70s, I could see either of the Golden Days or Modern Baseball committees being responsible for discussing his candidacy. That would mean he would either be up next year (the 2021 ballot, which will be announced in November 2020) or two years after that. Hopefully, he at least attracts some attention the next time he’s up for nomination, as it would be great to see him finally get a vote for Cooperstown, at the very least. He deserves more than that, but getting his merits discussed would at least be a first step in the right direction.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Breaking Down the 2019 Veterans Committee Voters

I mentioned in my Veterans Committee piece that seeing who all gets a ballot in the sixteen-person vote could give us a little extra insight into who might stand a chance at picking up the twelve votes to make it in. After all, since the committee meets to discuss the process in person, having a big advocate or two on your case can make a difference. It’s even probably what helped Harold Baines get elected last year.

I was planning on doing a big breakdown of this originally, and the news came out today (I saw it first from Jay Jaffe). But looking it over…I don’t really know if there’s a full article, just a few bullet points. There’s certainly nothing as interesting as Baines’s longtime manager and team owner both voting, that’s for sure.

(In case something happens to that tweet, the sixteen people in question are: players George Brett, Rod Carew, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, and Robin Yount; executives Sandy Alderson, Dave Dombrowski, David Glass, Walt Jocketty, Doug Melvin, and Terry Ryan; and writers/historians Bill Center, Steve Hirdt, Jack O’Connell, and Tracy Ringolsby).

My gut instinct was that Ted Simmons would benefit the most. There are a lot of Cardinal ties on that list, between Smith, Jocketty, and Eckersley. But in fact, none of them played with him; the longest co-tenure he had was actually with Yount, from 1981 to 1985. He probably knows Smith, Jocketty, and Melvin from his time doing the occasional front office/instructor-type job post-playing days, and maybe George Brett heard a little more about him playing across the state (Glass’s tenure as Royals owner began after Simmons retired, though), but that’s it.

That’s probably better than nothing, but it’s also a far cry from Tony La Russa and Jerry Reinsdorf being voters last year. Also, Simmons was already likely to make it this year anyway, seeing as he only missed last time by one vote, so there was only so much more a moderately-favorable voting block could do here.

If you’re looking for something more under-the-radar, maybe Dwight Evans will face some good luck. Eckersley was his teammate on the Red Sox from 1978 to 1984, and both still have some involvement with the team (Eck with the broadcast team, Evans as a part-time front office consultant). Doug Melvin was also a part of the Orioles front office that brought him in for one final, mediocre season in 1991, which doesn’t seem like it’ll be the thing that will sway voters. Maybe Eckersley will be enough to sway others, though.

Outside of that, it looks like the only other connections I can find are beat writers; Bill Center would have covered Garvey in San Diego, and JackO’Connell would have gotten the tail-end of Mattingly’s career in the ‘90s as a Yankee’s writer (although he was working with the Mets in the ‘80s, so not too far away). I guess those aren’t nothing, but the Eck-Evans connection seems a little stronger to me, personally.

My only other stray thought is that this would have been a good group for Larry Walker to face: Dave Dombrowski was the Expos GM when he debuted, Tracy Ringolsby has covered the Rockies for decades, and Jocketty brought Walker to St. Louis for the 2004 and 2005 playoff runs. But Walker still has one more chance before needing the Veterans Committee, and it probably won’t be this favorable should he actually go up for induction.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Revisiting Lance Berkman’s Hall of Fame Case, and How It Relates to Larry Walker’s Candidacy


Hall of Fame season is well underway following last week's announcement of the 2020 BBWAA ballot. Last year's election, which culminated with the writers electing first-year candidates Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay as well as backlog stars Mike Mussina and Edgar Martinez (the latter in his tenth and final year before aging off), cleared off a lot of space. However, this year's crop of ballot newcomers wasn't deep enough to immediately fill the gap left by the class of 2019 (plus Fred McGriff, who actually did age off), which is a big change from the past few years.

In fact, I would be shocked if any of the new players was still on the ballot come 2021. Derek Jeter will obviously be a first-ballot choice, and I don't believe any of the others will hit the 5% needed to stick around for a second season. Bobby Abreu was good enough that he probably deserves at least that 5% and a second year of discussion, but I would be surprised if he makes. But Jason Giambi and Cliff Lee don't even reach that status, and things get even weaker after them.

Compare that with the last two years, for example. The three-man class of 2017 was followed up in 2018 with ballot newcomers Jim Thome, Chipper Jones (both first ballot picks), Omar Vizquel, Scott Rolen, and Andruw Jones (all of whom remain on the ballot, with the former two looking to be in the early stages of an eventual election trajectory). When Thome, Jones, second-year Vladimir Guerrero, and third-year Trevor Hoffman went in that year, they were replaced with Rivera, Halladay, Todd Helton, and Andy Pettitte (the latter two are again returning this winter), among several others.

That crowding is part of what forced Lance Berkman, one of two subjects today, off the ballot. Joining what was already a fifteen-man ballot with those four, plus longtime teammate Roy Oswalt, former MVP Miguel Tejada, writer-favorite Michael Young*... there was a lot of competition to stand out, and he kind of got lost in the shuffle.

*As an aside: Young finished in the top ten in MVP voting twice, yet somehow got as many votes as Berkman and Oswalt combined despite Berkman having twice as many *top five* MVP finishes and Oswalt making the top five in Cy Young voting five times. I must be missing something.

But he absolutely deserved better than that, and I kind of wish he had managed even a short appearance in 2014 to delay his ballot debut to this year, where he would have had a better chance at picking up votes. Even if it didn't change his stats at all, between being in the conversation for best not-Jeter player among the newcomers and the overall thinner ballot (I just don't see nineteen players on this year's ballot topping 5%, as was the case last year), he probably would have picked up a few more votes, maybe even enough to make it to a second ballot. Berkman's case wasn't anywhere near a slam-dunk, but I do think it was worth discussing, and I want to revisit his resume a little more.

Berkman’s counting totals looked a little low, with under 2000 career games and only 1905 hits (less than 2000 hits is a death sentence with Hall voters, historically), but he still managed some good numbers. His career mark of 366 homers is still sixth all-time among switch hitters, and his 1234 RBI are respectable.

Even stronger, though, are his rate numbers; for instance, Lance is one of just twenty-eight players in history with a career slash line above .290/.400/.500, at .293/.406/.537. While some of that is the era he played in, that doesn’t cover nearly all of it: his OPS+ is an incredible 144, tied for forty-eighth all-time among batters with 3000 career plate appearances. And if you up that to a 7000 PA minimum (Berkman is at 7814), he moves all the way up to thirty-sixth.

His postseason heroics serve as another compelling piece of evidence. I don’t think a lack of postseason heroics should count against anyone’s Hall of Fame case, but having them should be a definite point in favor of candidates that do, and boy does Lance Berkman have that. After a rough first time in 2001, he turned things around in a big way, posting an OPS above 1.000 in four of the five series he played in between 2004 and 2005, with his 2005 NLCS bringing up the rear at “only” .924.

With a net Win Probability Added in 2005 of 1.16, that would be a career high-mark for most players. But Berkman topped that in 2011, when he helped the Cardinals to the title over the Rangers. He posted an OPS above 1.000 once again against Texas, picking up some memorable hits along the way. His 2011 postseason WPA of 1.35 remains the seventh-best mark for a single season (with David Freese from that year number one), and added all together, Berkman has more postseason Win Probability Added than all but three players in history (David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, and Justin Turner).

Returning to regular season numbers, if you go by value stats, he still holds up. Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR puts him at 52.1, with four different seasons above 6.0, good for twentieth all-time at left field. Fangraphs holds him in even higher regard, at 55.9 WAR and six different seasons above 6.0. He drops down twenty-fourth in their left field rankings, but that’s due to Fangraphs including corner outfielders with substantial time in left and right field on both lists. Either way, considering there are already twenty left fielders and twenty-six right fielders in the Hall, and several of the players ahead of him are either banned from induction (Pete Rose, Joe Jackson) or still in ballot purgatory (Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez), it’s pretty clear that Lance would not look at all out of place in Cooperstown.

Unfortunately, since he got only 1.2% of the vote and fell off the ballot, he not only won’t be returning this winter, he won’t even be eligible for consideration again until the Veterans Committee gets around to him in 2029 (since they need to wait until after his ten-year window would have ended had he stuck around). So the question becomes: what effect does all of that have on this year’s voting?

Not much for Berkman, but I was looking over the ballot some and noticed his strong similarities with another candidate who does still have a chance at induction: Larry Walker. The longtime Rockie* and Expo is on his tenth and final ballot this year, having reached a new personal best in last year’s voting. After being stuck in the 10 to 20% range for years, he’s seen his totals rapidly increase, from 21.9% in 2017 to 34.1% in 2018 to 54.6% last time. Another jump like that and he’s just over the line for induction.

*Fun fact: if selected, Walker would still be the first player in Colorado Rockies history to make the Hall of Fame. He’d also be just the second Canadian in Cooperstown, after Fergie Jenkins.

In a lot of ways, Walker just narrowly edged out Berkman. Larry reached the .300/.400/.500 career batting line instead of having to settle for an average above .290. He also actually topped 2000 hits, settling at 2160, and edges out Lance in both homers (383) and RBI (1311). Really, their lines were so close that I feel like it’s doing a disservice to not just lay them out, side-to-side.

Larry Walker 1988 8030 2160 1244 471 62 383 1355 1311 913 1231 230 76 0.313 0.400 0.565 141
Lance Berkman 1879 7814 1905 1087 422 30 366 1146 1234 1201 1300 86 48 0.293 0.406 0.537 144

So, you might be saying, Berkman has a pretty good case and deserved better on the Hall voting, but why is Larry Walker doing so much better? What makes him so much more deserving of induction? And, if you’re the type of person who took this opportunity to investigate their WARs, why is Berkman sitting in the mid-50s while Walker is right round 70 (72.7 bWAR, 68.7 fWAR)?

That stolen base column I included is a pretty good hint. I think Berkman’s hitting was good enough for Cooperstown, but there’s a reason I only focused on his hitting earlier. Walker, meanwhile, was the complete package. It’s not just that Walker was a better baserunner, although he absolutely was. Berkman was passable as a fielder, but there’s a reason he was moved to first base after about 1000 games in the outfield.

Walker, meanwhile, stayed in right field his whole career, and even won 7 Gold Gloves while doing it (and advanced metrics have more or less backed up the view that Walker was a good fielder). Walker was just an all-around good player. It lines up logically, too; given the lengths of their careers, Walker’s fielding and baserunning would work out to about an extra win every year over Berkman. That doesn’t seem at all like an unreasonable assumption, and over the course of their career, it would certainly add up like we see.

I think Lance Berkman is a borderline Hall of Famer with enough extra credit to put him over the line, despite the obvious shortcomings in his game, and he at least deserved an extended hearing on his merits. If that’s the case, though, a Lance Berkman whose biggest shortcomings were turned into a strength would be a no-doubt, slam-dunk Hall of Famer, and that’s effectively what we have in Larry Walker.

I’m hoping enough writers have finally come over to his side this year to get him over the line in 2020, making him just the seventh Hall of Famer to get inducted on his final ballot, and the third in the last three years (after Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez). He’s already picked up two new votes from among the first seven voters to reveal their ballots, which is a promising sign. Maybe we’ll see Walker on the stage in Cooperstown next July after all. And maybe one day, Lance Berkman will get that second look his candidacy deserves as well.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Who from the 2020 Veterans Committee Ballot Will Make the Hall of Fame?

As a heads up, this is also up over at The Crawfish Boxes! I'm mostly reposting here because I anticipate writing multiple Hall of Fame things, and want to make sure I remember to consolidate them all here.

The last two weeks have marked the official start of Hall of Fame season; this past Monday saw the announcement of the 2020 baseball writers' ballot (the more traditional election everyone thinks about), while the week before featured the reveal of the Veterans Committee choices. We'll have plenty of time to dissect the BBWAA ballot, so let's instead start our discussion with the second group, since their vote and subsequent induction announcement will take place over the Winter Meetings the second week of December.

For those who aren't aware, the Veterans Committee exists as a sort of safety net for the Hall of Fame, designed to elect worthy players to the Hall who may have been overlooked the first time around. Whether they've always met the "worthy" part is debatable, but the BBWAA has absolutely missed out on deserving players in the past, so something like the VC is at least a necessary part of the process, but the exact form it has existed in has shifted multiple times over the years.

The current format rotates through different eras (this year's ballot focuses on 1966 to 1982), picking ten to twelve candidates from the group of players of that era who have aged off the normal Hall ballot, as well as any non-players like managers or executives. During the winter meetings, a committee of sixteen various Hall of Famers, writers, and executives will get together to discuss the ballot and vote; just like with the BBWAA's ballot, any person who gets 75% of the vote is inducted the following July.

This year's ballot contains nine players and one non-player: Dwight Evans, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons, Lou Whitaker, and Marvin Miller. As a quick note, I’ll be making frequent mention of a pair of less-common stats devised to compare Hall of Fame cases, namely JAWS and Hall Rating. The long and short of it is, both of them combine total career value and a player’s peak, with JAWS serving to rank players within their position and Hall Rating working as a sort of OPS+, but for the Hall minimum (so a player with a Hall Rating of 110 would be 10% better than the Hall Minimum). If you want to know more about them, you can read about JAWS here and Hall Rating here.

With that out of the way, let's take a look at each of them individually:

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The End-of-the-Season Post Round-Up

With the final week of the season now behind us, here's a collection of all my newest things, including everything from the World Series:

-I linked to it last time, but for the sake of including everything World Series-related, here's my look at what was baseball's second-ever all-expansion World Series.

-I followed that up with a look at the mismatch in the Astros' and Nationals' records. As it turns out, it didn't matter too much!

-In preparation of his Game 6 start, I looked at Justin Verlander's World Series history. Unfortunately, he just didn't have it that night.

-I did a pair of recaps during the series as well. Naturally, they were both losses: here's Game 2, and here's Game 6. World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg was pretty good, as it turned out! Given my luck in recapping Astros games, maybe I deserve some credit there?

Seriously though, this team went 107-55 in the regular season, a .660 winning percentage, then fell just one game short of winning it all. In total, that's a 117-63 record, still a .650 winning percentage. In my 32 game recaps this season, Houston went exactly 16-16. That...doesn't look great.

-Over here, I wrapped up with my yearly Best Active Players Without a World Series quiz on the night of Game 7.

-And finally, in non-baseball writing, I published something over on Out of Left Field reviewing one of my favorite video games of 2019.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Annual Playoff Trivia Article, 2019 Edition

With the conclusion of all the Game 162s, it’s time for the 2019 edition of my Playoff Trivia article. Without further ado, let’s get into things:

After two straight years of drops following the pretty historic highs of 2015 and 2016, both the median and average drought of teams going into the playoffs rebounded slightly in 2019.

On the AL side of things, Cleveland, the team with the longest current drought, missing out hurt the overall numbers. But Tampa Bay, a team who has never won in 22 seasons, taking over for last year’s champ Boston helped mitigate some of the decreases that would result, and new AL Central champ Minnesota doesn’t have too shabby a drought of their own, last winning in 1991.

The NL side also returns three teams from last year, with all of them gaining one year in their drought counts. The swaps here are St. Louis, who last won in 2011, taking over for Colorado, who hasn’t ever won in 27 seasons; and Washington, who hasn’t won in 51 seasons, taking over for the Cubs, who won in 2016. That latter one is the other big reason Cleveland missing out didn’t drop the overall numbers too badly.

In fact, the NL Wild Card Game participants, the Brewers and Nationals, are currently tied for the third-longest active drought in baseball (with the Padres), as none of them has won a World Series since being founded in 1969. Only the Indians (last win in 1948) and Rangers (no wins, founded in 1961) have longer ones. However, no one else playing in October this year even falls in the top ten.

Astros: 2018
Cardinals: 2011
Yankees: 2009
Rays: Never (founded in 1998)
Braves: 1995
Twins: 1991
Athletics: 1989
Dodgers: 1988
Brewers/Nationals: Never (founded in 1969)

My yearly Sporcle Quiz updating the Best Active Players without a World Series will be coming after the season. 62 players will be included, although one of them played exclusively in foreign leagues (Erick Aybar) and two others retired during the season (Troy Tulowitzki and Ichiro Suzuki), although my official wording on the quiz is “players must have been active at some point during 2019”, so all three count.

If you want to know who the other players are, I’ll include a full list of names at the bottom. But to avoid spoilers, I’ll just list the number of players on each of team who qualified this year up here:

Zero: Athletics
One: Cardinals, Rays, Twins
Three: Astros, Braves, Brewers, Dodgers
Four: Yankees
Eight: Nationals

So not counting Tulo for the Yankees, a full half of teams in the playoffs have 3 title-less players on the roster. On the extremes, we have Oakland, who is mostly loaded with young talent and consequently has no one appearing in Baseball-Reference’s Top 100 active players, and Washington, who has a good mix of key stars who haven’t won and role players with long histories in the league

2018 denied us even one expansion team in the World Series, let alone the second-ever all-expansion series. This year, four of the ten teams headed to the postseason are expansions, and they’re even evenly distributed, with the Astros, Rays, Brewers, and Nationals carrying the banner.

The biggest issue is that three of the four are Wild Card teams. In the NL, the Wild Card slot is guaranteed to give us an expansion team, so there’s roughly a 1 in 4 chance the NL rep is not an original team. The Astros bring those odds up a lot on the other side, and if the Rays beat Oakland, the winner of an Astros-Rays Division Series gives a 50/50 shot of an AL Expansion Pennant. But if you figure it’s 1-4 for the Astros and 1-8 for the Rays right now, our overall odds of the Second All-Expansion Series are roughly 3 in 32, or 9.375%.

Speaking of the Astros, Rays, Nationals, and Brewers, if you want to see a unique World Series matchup this postseason, you need to start rooting for one of those four teams. The Twins, Yankees, Cardinals, Dodgers, A’s, and Braves just have too long and storied histories, but more on that in a second.

The Nationals have still never played in a World Series, meaning that anyone they face will make for a new match. Same goes for the Brewers, who have made a World Series, but it was back in 1982 when they were an AL team. There’s a chance they meet up with the Cardinals, who they faced that year (and have faced in the postseason since), but it won’t be in the World Series.

The Rays have actually won a pennant in their own league, but they squared off against the not-playoff-bound Phillies in 2008, so that rematch can’t happen. The Astros have also won a pennant since they switched (as well as one before then), although they could potentially have a rematch against the Dodgers. Every other combination would be new, however (and, like the Brewers, they have long postseason histories from their pre-league-swap days, although in this case, it’s against both the Cardinals and Braves, with some pre-2017 faceoffs against eventual 2017 World Series foes the Dodgers thrown in).

If, however, you’d prefer a series with a little more history behind it, every past World Series featuring a combination that could happen again in 2019 is listed below. Interestingly, the Twins have three pennants since moving to Minnesota, and each one has resulted in a different World Series matchup against one of this year’s NL Division winners. In contrast, you have the Yankees, who have faced off against the three NL Division winners a combined twenty times.

1 time
Athletics-Braves (1914)
Astros-Dodgers (2017)
Twins-Cardinals (1987)
Twins-Dodgers (1965)
Twins-Braves (1991)

2 times
Athletics-Cardinals (1930, 1931)
Athletics-Dodgers (1974, 1988)

More than 2 times
Yankees-Braves (1957, 1958, 1996, 1999)
Yankees-Cardinals (1926, 1928, 1942, 1943, 1964)
Yankees-Dodgers (eleven times, most recently 1981)

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Appreciating Yuli Gurriel’s Surprising Season, and Reflecting on What Might Have Been

Note: This is also up at The Crawfish Boxes, but I also wanted to post it here directly, since it's something of a spiritual successor to this piece I wrote a few years ago about Hiroki Kuroda.

There have been a lot of things to appreciate this year for the Astros, between Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole dueling for Cy Young, Yordan Álvarez waltzing to the Rookie of the Year, Alex Bregman’s late charge for MVP, the acquisition or Zack Greinke, solid seasons from Jose Altuve and George Springer in spite of injuries… you get the point. But I want to go over the most surprising season of all (and in case you doubted it, it was even the winner of Wednesday’s StroPoll).

Because let’s be honest, nobody foresaw Yuli Gurriel hitting 30 homers this year. After all, this year marked his age 35 season, and in two and a half years in the majors, he hadn’t even reached 20 homers, let alone 30. And sure, that home run total is partly due to the suspect baseballs, which have led to league-wide home run surges. But even within that context, Yuli has stood out; his 134 wRC+, for instance, is both a career-high, and 52nd in the league.

And when you combine that with his age, it makes things even more impressive. For instance, only 38 hitters in history have had 30-homer years in their age 35 season (and there are quite a few other notable Astros on that list, including Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, and Carlos Beltran).

On top of that, Yuli has played a harder defensive slate than most of the names in that group, with 42 games coming at third base (his primary position back when he was in Cuba) and another 4 at second; if you take out everyone who played over three-quarters of their games at first/DH/left field/right field, the group shrinks down to just nine: Yuli, Cy Williams, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Steve Finley, Mike Schmidt, Joe DiMaggio, and Curtis Granderson. It’s not all Hall of Famers or anything, but that’s still a pretty solid list.

His season holds up outside of homers, too. At 3.4 WAR (Fangraphs), Yuli is tied for 117th all-time among 35 year olds. And that 134 wRC+ is tied for 66th all-time for players his age. Being this good this late into his career is impressive, and while not every name right around him is a Hall of Famer, a decent number are, since one of the ways to still be pretty good in your mid-30s is to have been really good before then. Since he got a late start, only defecting from Cuba in 2016 at the age of 31, we’ll never get to know if Yuli could have been that had he started earlier.

In the absence of that, though, I decided to take a look back at his pre-Majors career to get a fuller sense of the scope of his career. Baseball-Reference has pretty robust foreign league stats, after all. If we can’t know for sure how he would have done in the Majors from Day 1, maybe we can at least contextualize it better to estimate.

So let’s just start with the basics. Prior to coming over to the Astros, Yuli Gurriel played 15 seasons in the Cuban National Series (plus another half season with the Yokohama BayStars in Japan), debuting with the Gallos de Sancti Spiritus in the 2001-02 season (the Cuban leagues avoid the summer months) at the age of just 17. He played third base for almost the entirety of that (with just short stints at second base and center field to mix things up), and provided some major offense from a difficult fielding position.

Prior to signing with the Astros, Yuli hit 250 homers, with 239 of those coming in Cuba. And Cuba has never had the home run totals that MLB has, between the lower-scoring environment and shorter, 96-game season; the league leader is usually in the twenties or thirties. In racking up those 239 homers up, Yuli finished in the top ten eight different times. Once, he led the league (the 2013-14 season, his first of three with the other team he played for, Industriales de La Habana), and four other times, he finished third. And if you multiply his total by 1.5 in an attempt to put it on a scale closer to the Majors (96 times 1.5 would get you 144 games), it’s closer to 360, or an average of 24 per year.

His rate stats hold up similarly; Yuli won the batting title once in Cuba, and finished top ten five times total. That batting title came in 2015-16 when he won the triple-slash triple crown, hitting an astounding .500/.589/.874. He won a second slugging title before that in 2013-14, when he posted a .566 mark, and finished in the top ten nine times in total.

Of course, again, it’s hard to compare this directly to MLB, since it’s a totally different run scoring environment. But you can roughly estimate OPS+ if you know the league averages, and that gives us a little more context of how he stood in comparison to the rest of the league. It’s not the more advanced, park-controlled version we’re used to, but it’s good enough in cases like this. And when we compare Gurriel to his league he still looks pretty darn special.

In 2001, at the age of 17, rookie Yuli posted a 97 OPS+ in nearly 400 plate appearances. He would raise that to 121 OPS+ the next year, then post a 144 OPS+ or better every year after that with the exception of his age 21 season. That incredible 2015-16 season saw him reach an absurd 293 mark, but even outside of that, he had another season at 184, three more above 170, and four more in the 160-169 range. Even his brief sojourn to Japan saw him hit 43% above the league average.

(Yuli's stats, with my calculations of league rates and OPS+ added; sets of single asterisks indicate top ten finishes in home runs and triple slash stats, double asterisks indicate league leader)

Of course, the big question is how this all would have translated to MLB. No other foreign league is equal in talent with the majors, but they all differ in how close they are. I’ve seen estimates that place Japan at slightly above AAA, Mexico just below AAA, and Korea at High A, but I’ve not found anything estimating Cuba’s relative level.

Clearly, things wouldn’t have been a 1:1 translation. After all, you can count on one hand the number of 17 year olds who have gotten notable playing time over the last century. There’s no way Yuli would hit at a league-average level over 400 plate appearances like he did in Cuba.

But at the same time, Yordan also played in Cuba overlapping with Yuli. In 2013-14, Yordan debuted at the age of 16 for Las Tunas. He would play half a season that year and the next, with OPS+s of 48 and 112. That’s not exactly a comprehensive study or anything, but just going off of that, it seems like Yuli could have been a fixture in the majors by age 22 or 23, back in 2006 or 2007. It feels weird to imagine Gurriel coming up as a contemporary of Justin Verlander, Hanley Ramirez, Hunter Pence, Ryan Zimmerman, or Dustin Pedroia, but that’s where that would have but him.

And clearly, not everyone can be Yordan, but you don’t need to keep a 182 OPS+ to play in the majors. Especially not if you’re playing third or second base, where Yuli would have still been at the time. Zimmerman and Pedroia, for instance, could regularly rack up 4-6 WAR seasons at those positions with OPS+s in the 115-140 and strong defense.

Would that have been manageable for Gurriel? That’s something like a 45 point hit to what he was doing in Cuba; I have no sense if that’s too harsh or not, but he’s still comfortably above average even it it’s not a stiff enough penalty. And it’s hard to know how good Yuli’s defense would have been at his peak, but even the pessimistic reading of this scenario is that he could have easily stuck as a starter in the majors in his early 20s, and likely picked up a few All-Star selections later in his career. At best, maybe he could have even been a version of Hanley who didn’t completely give up on defense after a few years.

Even if we didn’t get to see him in his real prime, it’s good that we get to see this year, which has been incredible in its own way. Few and far between are the players who have age-35 seasons this good, lifelong MLB stars or later-year transplants. Yuli has been integral to the success of this year’s Astros, and it’s as good a time as any to appreciate the totality of his career.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

A Much Less Overdue Link Round-Up

Only two articles this time, after the massive one from last week. First, I looked at Jose Altuve's performance since coming off the Injured List. He's kept up his power surge from early in the season, but his contact skills have returned as well!

Then, I recapped today's loss to the A's. I've been on a really rough roll the last two months or so as far as the Astros' record in games that I recap, but despite that, I still somehow apparently have a winning record on the year at 12-11.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

An Overdue Link Round-Up

It's been a while since my last post linking to all of my recent writing across different sites, so let's take care of that!

Over at The Crawfish Boxes, I had pre-trade deadline features on the relief pitcher market generally and Felipe Vazquez specifically. I also contributed a series preview for the Cardinals-Astros meet-up.

And the newest feature over there is a piece looking at the Astros' chances at finishing the year with the best record in the majors, comparing their remaining schedule strength against the Dodgers, Yankees, and Twins. As a bonus, I even explained why they're favorites to set another franchise win record this year.

I also did three game recaps along the way, including a loss to the A'sa loss to the Indians, and a win over the Mariners.

If you haven't been following my posts here, I did a piece Hall of Fame weekend suggesting that other teams should follow the Mariners' lead in lobbying for Edgar Martinez, and even suggested a name for each team. And following the Astros acquiring Zack Greinke, I looked at his chances of reaching 3000 strikeouts, and the history of 3000 K teammates.

And lastly, in non-baseball news, over at Out of Left Field, I did a piece suggesting some possible (albeit unlikely) future Disney live action remakes.

Phew, that was a lot; I've been productive lately!

Friday, August 2, 2019

Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, and a History of 3000 Strikeout Teammates

If you’ve seen any of Justin Verlander’s starts this year, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen him making some bit of strikeout history or other; he’s been climbing up the leaderboard since joining Houston, passing famous aces and various milestones almost nightly. When he came to Houston back in September 2017, JV stood at 2373 Ks, in 46th place all-time. Now, just under two years later, he’s climbed all the way to 18th, and at 2902, he should pass the historic 3000 mark sometime in early 2020.

But now, he’s not alone on the team in that regard. With the acquisition of Zack Greinke at the deadline, the Astros now have both the second- and fourth-highest active strikeout totals in their rotation (and, given that this is CC Sabathia’s final year, they’ll of course automatically take over first and third next season). And both are under contract through the 2021 season, meaning this duo should be here for a while.

Greinke is one year Verlander’s junior (well, eight months, but they fall on opposite sides of the June 30th line that’s usually used to determine a the season-age for a player), and at 2570, is even closer to 3000 strikeouts than Verlander was when he arrived back in 2017. Get ready to see a lot of the same names Justin passed coming up again (in the coming weeks, you can look forward to Bob Feller at 2581, Warren Spahn at 2583, Tom Glavine at 2607, and Chuck Finley at 2610). But it also raised a few interesting questions for me: how soon could Greinke reach 3000 strikeouts? And how often are there two 3000 strikeout pitchers on the same team?

Let’s tackle those in order. First, I don’t feel it’s too presumptuous to say that Greinke will get to 3000 strikeouts, and the only active pitchers who I think have a better chance to make it right now are the two ahead of him, Verlander and Max Scherzer (who’s currently at 2638). Greinke is basically a guarantee to reach 2600 this season, and is under contract for at least two more full years to get him even closer.

Basically, as long as you can stay productive or get close enough to 3000 that you can crawl over the line in a season or two while your arm doesn’t fall off, you can keep finding opportunities to get the rest of the way there. There’s a reason that nobody has retired with a strikeout total in the 2900s (something that isn’t true for any other hundreds before it), or that the largest gap between any two consecutive retired players on the all-time list (outside of the top five) is Jim Bunning (2855) and John Smoltz (3084). People generally want to get the rest of the way once they’re that close

And even below the 2900 range, outside of Mike Mussina, the only players who have retired in even the 2600-2900 range are the ones who saw their strikeout ability drop substantially in their final years. Sometimes it was due to injuries limiting their innings, sometimes it was their K/9 rate dropping rapidly, sometimes it was both, but neither seems to apply to Zack yet. I suppose that Greinke could finish in that range and decide to walk away like Mussina did, but I’d want to hear that from him before calling it at all likely.

As for when it will happen, just going by some back of the envelope calculations, there’s a decent chance he pulls it off before his current contract ends. As mentioned, he currently sits at 2570, and has 135 on the year. If he can pull out 60 more (just to use round numbers), that would put him more or less in line with his 2018 total (199) and leave him at 2630. At that point, he would just need to average 185 for the next two seasons, which is very much something Zack can manage. It’s looking like 2019 will be his third straight season topping that total, and perhaps even more impressively, 2019 will mark the tenth time in the last twelve years where he would top 180 strikeouts. We’ll have to see how he fares in Houston, of course (maybe Brent Strom can even help him kick things up yet another notch), but reaching 3000 by the end of 2021 looks at least doable, although it will likely come down to the wire and definitely depend a little on luck.

And of course, by the time that he reaches it, Verlander will have crossed it about a year and a half earlier, which will put the Astros in rare company. In the course of Major League history, only 17 different pitchers have reached the 3000 K plateau, which means teams with multiple 3000 strikeout guys are even rarer. You can probably think of a few examples; Greg Maddux and John Smoltz on the ‘90s Braves, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling on the Diamondbacks, and so on. But not all of them had 3000 strikeouts yet when pitching in those duos, which would be the case if Greinke reaches it by 2021. How often has that happened?

I decided to chart out every 3000 K club member (plus likely next three in Verlander, Scherzer, and Greinke) by team over the years, as well as when they finally crossed the mark, to answer that question. Here’s as much trivia on 3000 strikeout teammates as I could find:

Sunday, July 21, 2019

One Hall of Fame Candidate Each Team Could Lobby For

This Sunday marks the 2019 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, where (among others) Edgar Martinez will finally be getting his long-deserved induction. What makes his case especially interesting is that his team, the Mariners, played an unusually large role in helping to sway some of the more stubborn voters. This type of campaigning isn’t completely new (just look at Rich Lederer and Bert Blyleven a decade ago for one notable example, or any number of Veterans Committee selections who have had some connections in the voters), but it is unusual for certain teams to be the ones doing so rather than individuals.

And honestly? I kind of like it. Maybe one day, when teams are regularly pushing for bad players to be elected, it’ll be more frustrating than anything. But in this day and age, where there’s instead a huge backlog of notable candidates getting insufficient Hall of Fame attention? In truth, more teams should be doing that.

So let’s help them out! Here’s one candidate I think each team could take up to advocate for their Hall of Fame selection:

The Easy Matches, BBWAA Edition:

Colorado Rockies-There will be plenty of time to work on the Todd Helton lobby, but right now, Larry Walker is in his tenth year and desperately needs some votes whipped in his favor. The Rockies have kept Walker’s number mostly out of use since he retired, so they clearly like him. Help him out here, Colorado!

San Francisco Giants-After years of waiting (I guess for the Hall of Fame to induct him?), the Giants went ahead and retired Barry Bonds’s number anyway. Starting to push for his Hall election would be a next step.

Houston Astros-I think Lance Berkman wouldn’t be a bad Hall selection, but he’s not an especially pressing case and he’s now fallen off the writers ballot. Meanwhile, Billy Wagner is still on the ballot (entering his fifth of ten chances), and now that Mariano Rivera, Lee Smith, and Trevor Hoffman have gone in over the past two years, Wagner is probably the best closer not in Cooperstown.

Atlanta Braves-Andruw Jones might be the best fielding outfielder of all-time, hit 434 home runs, and is in danger of falling off the ballot in his third attempt this winter. His strong connection with Atlanta could help, especially since his ‘90s co-stars Chipper Jones, Bobby Cox, and The Big Three are now all accounted for

The Easy Matches, Veterans Committee Edition:
Detroit Tigers-Now that Alan Trammell and Jack Morris are in, the obvious next step is to advocate for their long-time teammate Lou Whitaker, who is more than deserving.

Chicago White Sox-An early star of integration, Minnie Minoso has come to be a regular appearance on Veterans Committee ballots and Hall of Fame snub lists. The White Sox love him, and have retired his number, so maybe it helps him out one day the way it seemingly did Harold Baines this year.

Kansas City Royals, New York Mets-I have a feeling that one or both of these two might have to take up Carlos Beltran, but they have a few years until he hits the ballot. Or maybe Beltran does better than I’m expecting and goes in quickly. Who knows. In the meantime though, I think Bret Saberhagen is a deserving modern starter who fits the “high peak” Hall profile. And Keith Hernandez is the type of “doubles-and-fielding” star who gets overlooked, especially at positions like first base, plus the Mets already have his #17 out of circulation.

Toronto Blue Jays-I think either Dave Stieb or John Olerud works here. I don’t think that Stieb is as good as Saberhagen, or that Olerud is as good as Hernandez, but both have similar cases to those two, and I think they’re still good enough for Cooperstown.

Minnesota Twins-I guess they could try and push for Johan Santana (see above) when he finally hits the Veterans Committee ballot, but maybe they would be better served gearing up for Joe Mauer in a few years. I also foresee that one being a bit of a struggle.

Los Angeles Angels, Baltimore Orioles-Both teams are a little leaner in their options, but Bobby Grich is a strong second base option who split his career fairly evenly with both teams, so either could take up his case convincingly.

Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers-For both of these AL West teams, you could argue for either a slugging steroid era first baseman (Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro) or an expansion era third baseman, since the position has been pretty overlooked (Sal Bando, Buddy Bell).

Cincinnati Reds-The Reds finally retired Pete Rose’s number a few years ago after holding off for decades following his ban from the game. Maybe the next step is petitioning Cooperstown to finally electing him? Failing that, I could see them pushing for Dave Concepción, although I’m less sold on his Hall case.

The More Complicated Ones, BBWAA Edition:

Cleveland Indians-I’d like to see the Indians take up the case for Kenny Lofton when he hits the Veterans Committee ballot in a few years, but realistically, their primary focus would probably be Omar Vizquel until he’s no longer on the BBWAA’s ballot.

New York Yankees-Similarly, I think the Yankees could do good things for the cases of guys like Thurman Munson or Graig Nettles, but the main focus would probably be Andy Pettitte while he’s on the Writers’ Ballot. I do think Pettitte is a better Hall choice than Vizquel, though, so I mind this a little less.

Boston Red Sox-Manny Ramirez and Roger Clemens are both still on the ballot, but neither has a great relationship with the Red Sox, to my knowledge. The uncontroversial option would probably be to take up the VC case for long-time Red Sock Dwight Evans.

St. Louis Cardinals-Scott Rolen is still on the ballot, and I think he’s more closely associated with the Cardinals than his other teams. As a fan of both Rolen and the Cardinals, I’d love to see this happen, but his short tenure with the team might hurt him. If not Rolen, then among VC options, they could try with the unfairly-one-and-done Jim Edmonds, or put real effort behind finally pushing Ted Simmons or Ken Boyer over the line.

Philadelphia Philles-Both Rolen and Curt Schilling are on the ballot, and spent a plurality of their careers in Philly, but I don’t think either left the city on great terms? So maybe there’s too many hard feelings here. I’m not a Philadelphia native though, so maybe I’m interpreting things wrong. I guess they could just start gearing up for Chase Utley in 2024 instead.

Arizona Diamondbacks-Similar to Rolen and St. Louis, maybe Arizona takes up Schilling’s case instead. His shorter time in Phoenix means more in the context of a younger team, if nothing else, especially given his role on the 2001 champions.

Miami Marlins
-The Marlins don’t have a ton of great options, because, well, you know. But it would be both kind of funny and actually interesting if they took up Gary Sheffield’s case while he was on the ballot. Sheffield was kind of a mercenary during his career, but the Florida native played more games in Miami than anywhere else, joined the team in their debut season, and was on their first championship team in 1997. I always kind of wondered if he would have stuck around longer (or at least liked the option to do so) had Marlins ownership been a little less wildly cynical.

Chicago Cubs-Sammy Sosa seems like the obvious choice, but Cubs ownership still doesn’t like to acknowledge him for whatever reason. So failing that, I guess they could go in for Rick Reuschel?

Seattle Mariners­­-I can’t think of any good options here, but since they started this idea and got Edgar inducted, I’ll give them a pass for the time being.

Tampa Bay Rays, Washington Nationals-The Nationals don’t really acknowledge the Montreal years, so they have under two decades to work with. The Rays will probably get their first good candidates in a few years when Evan Longoria retires.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers-I could see them pushing for Dave Parker and Orel Hershiser or Fernando Valenzuela. They’re all kind of stretches, but they’re Veteran Committee ballot regulars, and neither team has a stronger candidate.

Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres
-I’m totally at a loss for these two right now. I guess starting building your casebooks for Christian Yelich and Manny Machado?