Tuesday, March 31, 2020

TCB March Madness Finals: The Case for Lance Berkman

[Over at The Crawfish Boxes, I was tasked with presenting the case for Lance Berkman in their March Madness poll. Of course, this article is also posted over there.]

The finals of TCB’s March Madness are here, with Lance Berkman entering the final round after blowing out Billy Wagner and Jose Altuve narrowly beating out Craig Biggio on the other side of the bracket. I’m not sure that Berkman will be able to stop Altuve’s runaway momentum given that he beat out a 3000-hit player and one of the Astros’s two Hall of Famers, but Lance’s case absolutely still deserve to be heard.

The Astros’ first round pick in 1997, and a local product out of Rice University, Berkman would go on to be the player that would define the 2000s for the Astros, giving Houston another Killer B to go with Biggio and Bagwell. He led all rookies that year in OPS (.949) and wRC+ (132), although it took him a little while to get his due: Berkman would finish sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting that season, second place on his own team (catcher Mitch Meluskey finished a spot ahead of him).

However, his recognitions increased rapidly from there, with him earning his first All-Star selection the next season and finishing fifth in MVP voting. He also led the NL in doubles with 55, tied for 21st in single season history and just one shy of Biggio’s team record set two years earlier. He did set the team record for extra base hits at 94, though, which still stands.

His age 26 season the next year would be a repeat, as Berkman earned his second of six All-Star selections, improved to third in MVP voting, and led the league in RBI. That’s arguably his best season, although it has stiff competition from 2006, which saw him again finish third in MVP voting while picking up another All-Star appearance, setting the team record in RBI (136), finishing two behind Jeff Bagwell’s home run record (45), and posting a 163 OPS+.

Of course, his 2004 and 2005 seasons weren’t bad, either, and those featured another of his strengths: strong postseason performances. Going by Win Probability Added, 2004 saw Bagwell contribute nearly half a win to the playoff campaign that ended in the NLCS in seven games. The next year, he more than doubled that, with his 1.16 Wins Added helping Houston to their first pennant in team history.

When he was finally traded at the deadline in 2010, the final year on his contract, he even contributed to the Astros’ successful rebuild, bringing back Mark Melancon and kicking off a pretty successful trade tree (one that even includes Brad Peacock). His twelve year run in Houston could only be seen as a massive success. And of course, since then, he’s even started a successful secondary career as a part-time member of the Astros’ booth.

Baseball-Reference’s franchise leaderboard sees Berkman appear in the top ten of 36 of the 43 offensive stats they have listed. That includes finishing first in on-base percentage, second in home runs to Jeff Bagwell, second in slugging and OPS, third in OPS+, and fifth in Wins Above Replacement. He had the type of the career that should have drawn more of a look from Hall of Fame voters, and he defined a decade of baseball in Houston.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Craig Biggio is the Easy Pick for TCB’s March Madness

[Over at The Crawfish Boxes, I was tasked with presenting the case for Craig Biggio in their March Madness pool.]



There’s no doubt the Final Four in TCB’s March Madness is a strong group of players. Jose Altuve’s on a Hall of Fame pace, Lance Berkman had a strong case even if he was ignored by voters, and Billy Wagner still has a good chance to get inducted before he falls off the ballot.

But there’s a reason that Craig Biggio was the first player to go into the Hall of Fame as an Astro.

The Astros' first round pick in 1987 (22nd overall), Biggio made his debut the next season as the team's catcher, and won his first of five Silver Sluggers the year after that in his first full season. In addition to that, for his career, Craig picked up four Golden Gloves, seven All-Star selections, and three top-ten finishes in MVP voting.

And of course, there are the massive career totals. Biggio was of course the twenty-seventh member of the 3000, and had one of the most memorable milestone games at that, going 5-for-6 and starting a two-out rally in the eleventh that would lead to a walk-off grand slam. He's also the modern leader in hit by pitches, with 285. Those two, with his 1160 walks, puts him twentieth all-time in times on base with 4505, right in between Honus Wagner, Paul Molitor, and Rafael Palmeiro.

Of course, while getting on base is the most important part of offense, that wasn't all that Biggio was great at. His 668 career doubles ranks him fifth in MLB history, behind only Tris Speaker, Pete Rose, Stan Musial, and Ty Cobb. And while not quite as impressive, his 291 home runs places him behind only Jeff Kent, Robinson Cano, and Rogers Hornsby among second basemen. Biggio even had good speed, with 414 stolen bases, making him one of the best multi-faceted players in the game. One of my favorite fun stats is Power-Speed Number, a Bill James invention meant to find players who fit both criteria; by that measure, Craig Biggio places tenth all-time.

Of course, there was more than that. Biggio was also a fixture of the team, playing in Houston for a full two decades. The only one-team players in history with more games played than Biggio are Carl Yastrzemski, Musial, Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks Robinson, and Robin Yount. He was a leader on the 2005 squad that brought Houston its first pennant, even hitting .295 that postseason despite being a few weeks shy of 40 years old and starting at an up-the-middle position. His multiple position changes, first from catcher to second base as a 26-year-old, then to the outfield a decade later, then back to second a few more years after that, gave the Astros massive flexibility. And of course, if we're talking off-the-field attributes, there was his 2007 Roberto Clemente Award.

And since this is a match-up with Joe Altuve, we might as well compare them directly. Through their age 29 seasons, Altuve has been better. It helps that he got called up a year younger, and didn't spend his first three and a half seasons as a catcher and driving down his totals as a result, but it is what it is.

But, also for what it's worth: at this age, Biggio had twelve more seasons ahead of him. Jose Altuve is off to a Hall of Fame start, but even if he goes on to seal the deal on his Cooperstown case in the next decade, he still might not measure up to Biggio's numbers; after all, Biggio is not some marginal Hall of Famer. Altuve's current long-term extension, which takes him through 2024, would still leave him over half a decade short of Biggio's tenure with the team. Altuve absolutely has the potential to pass him eventually, and has had the start to his career that you would want to see to do so. But the legacy Craig left in his time on the Astros have left Jose a high bar to shoot for.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Building a Backyard Baseball 2020 Roster


I wanted to do something more lighthearted to help cheer up what would have been the last week before Opening Day before everything went into quarantine. And one of the most lighthearted topics I could think of was to revisit one of the earliest things from my baseball fandom, Backyard Baseball.

For those of you who didn’t have a chance to play the series growing up, Backyard Baseball was a series of video games by Humongous Entertainment that debuted in 1997. The premise was simple: it was a basic, arcade-style baseball game where all the players are kids and all the parks are just places they might play around their neighborhood. In that sense, it’s kind of like a video game equivalent of The Sandlot or The Bad News Bears. The series was aimed at kids, but the underlying game was actually very solid, and had a unique aesthetic sense that helped engrain it in the mind of young sports fans, making it a cult classic that has endured the years.



After the success of the first game, the team expanded into other sports, where they hit upon another big idea: adding a handful of pro players (as cartoon kid versions of themselves, naturally) to the list of selectable options. When they circled back around to a sequel for Baseball, Backyard Baseball 2001 (so named for its release year: 2000), they upped their ambitions to that point and added one MLB player to represent each team, more than doubling the original thirty-person roster (one team go two representatives, but we’ll come back to that).


Friday, March 6, 2020

How Well Do the New-and-Improved Rangers Stack Up Against the Astros?

[also up over at The Crawfish Boxes]

As Spring Training continues, we shall also continue on our previews from around the division. Last week, I looked at the new-and-improved, 2020 Los Angeles Angels, so why don’t we take a look this time at the team that finished just ahead of them in the standings? After all, the Texas Rangers made some notable improvements of their own this winter.

Once again, let’s take it from the top: the 78-win Rangers finished a full 29.0 games out of first place in the 2019 AL West race, with their Pythagorean Win-Loss rate three wins below even that. That gap isn’t quite as big as the Angels’, but it’s still fairly massive, and it will probably take both some downwards regression from the Astros and some upwards regression from the Rangers.

I’m going to switch things up this week and start with the pitching, since that’s the area that saw the biggest movement. Last year, by Fangraph’s Wins Above Replacement, the Houston’s pitching staff was worth 23.7 Wins, while Texas’s was worth 14.2. In fact, these were the only two AL pitching staffs in 2019 to see multiple arms drawing Cy Young support, with the alliterative duo of Mike Minor and Lance Lynn representing Arlington. If we try and make them meet halfway: did the Astros drop roughly 4.75 wins, and did the Rangers improve that much?

For the first part of that question: yeah, there’s a good chance the Astros are that much worse. Getting Lance McCullers back and more starts from Zack Greinke helps, and it’s not hard to see Jose Urquidy stepping in for Wade Miley. Forrest Whitley stepping up could maybe help as well. But Gerrit Cole leaving was just a massive blow, and there are other smaller losses to make up for as well, like Will Harris and Collin McHugh. There’s a chance that the Astros avoid losing those ~4.8 Wins, but it’s going to be really close even if they do, and things will be highly susceptible to down years and injuries.

Meanwhile, the Rangers made big strides in this area, more than enough to make up the difference if the Astros don’t drop their nearly-5 WAR. Sure, new signees Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles look more like three/four-starters than aces, but that’s a massive step up for a team that was using Ariel Jurado and Adrian Sampson in those roles last year; things were rough after the top two. And of course, there was the arrival of Corey Kluber, who’s just one year removed from finishing third place in Cy Young voting.

Maybe one or both of Minor and Lynn fail to repeat on their surprise 2019 campaigns. Maybe Kluber’s injuries mean he doesn’t pitch like an ace. But the mediocre case still feels like a rotation full of middle-rotation-starters, and that’s still respectable, especially compared to what they had last year! It’s also not at all hard to see them finishing as one of the three or four best pitching staffs in the AL, even if they have a mediocre bullpen. Who comes out ahead in this category between them and the Astros will probably come down to injuries.

But…just like last week with the Angels, that’s only half of the question. And on the matter of position players…well, the Rangers are going to be counting on their new pitching staff to be picking up a lot of slack.

In 2019, the Astros’ position players managed 40.8 WAR, which is probably not going to happen again since it was pretty historic, but the team’s lineup should still be good. Texas’s lineup, in contrast, was worth 9.2 WAR, fourth worst in the majors and ahead of just Baltimore, Miami, and Detroit (the Tigers somehow managed -2.6 WAR from their position players, which is astounding for all the wrong reasons).

So yeah, our question is: are the 2020 Astros 15.8 WAR worse, and are the 2020 Rangers 15.8 WAR better? Last week, I wouldn’t commit to the Astros being 10 Wins worse, so losing another 6 Wins or so on top of that is the type of thing that we’re only going to see with some miserable injury luck or something.

How do the Rangers look in comparison? Well, Robinson Chirinos will be missed in Houston, and he definitely improves what was a net zero last year. Todd Frazier improves third base, but not quite as much, since they at least had half of a decent year from Asdrubal Cabrera (plus, Frazier will be 34 this season).

In the negative column, Hunter Pence will be missed, and Nomar Mazara and Delino DeShields were both shipped out of town. On the injury rebound front, a full season from Joey Gallo after his injury-marred-yet-breakout 2019 could mean extra wins. And…that’s really about it. This just isn’t at all close to 16 WAR.

The Rangers definitely look better in 2020, and their pitching is especially formidable. Their efforts to improve are commendable at a time when so many in the league are outright punting on the season. But they still only have half of the equation right now, and barring multiple big surprises, the Astros should definitely be able to hold them off again in 2020.

Friday, February 28, 2020

How Well Do the New-and-Improved Angels Stack Up Against the Astros?


The Angels had one of the splashiest offseasons of any team in the majors, with the centerpiece being handing out one of the largest contracts in history. That stands in fairly stark contrast with Houston’s offseason, which (even aside from the sign stealing scandal and related fallout) still saw them lose the 2020 AL Cy Young runner-up, among other players. That contrast has been looming in my mind, so I wanted to step back and take a more objective look: how much did the gap close between the Angels and Astros this winter?

Before anything else, though, it’s worth keeping in mind the scale of what we’re dealing with. The Angels, for all of their good players, were still not a good team in 2020, finishing the year with a 72-90 record, behind the 107-win Astros. And it’s not like there was a lot of luck there that they can hope will help even things out; both teams finished exactly in line with their Pythagorean records, so we can just go off their regular records.

That put them a full 35.0 games out of first place, which coincidentally matches the single biggest one-year improvement by a team in MLB history (the 1998 to 1999 Diamondbacks, who went from 65 wins to 100 in part with the help of new free agent Randy Johnson). It’s probably unrealistic to expect that from the Angels, so let’s divide that swing between the two teams. If you want to split the difference, dating back to 2000, a little less than two teams per year improve and fall by 17 games. So the Angels, to compete for the division title, are hoping to be one of the two biggest improvements this season and the Astros being one of the two biggest drops (and even that might not be enough, given that 17+17 still only accounts for 34.0 games).

Honestly, that sense of scale is reasonably comfortable already for anyone rooting for the Astros, but let’s break it down further, into the individual components. Let’s start with the offense, since that’s where the Angels made their biggest, most notable improvements. In 2019, L.A. finished with about half of the position player WAR (Fangraphs version) of the Astros, 40.8 to 20.3, in large part thanks to finishing 26 points behind Houston in wRC+, 125 to 99.

Some of that can come from regression to the mean on the Astros’ part, given their historic 2019 campaign and how hard it is to repeat historic seasons. And losing Robinson Chirinos (113 wRC+) is going to hurt some. But it’s not like there aren’t areas for improvement to help offset those losses, too: Yordan Álvarez (87 games, 178 wRC+) should be getting a full season, and Carlos Correa (75 games, 143 wRC+) will hopefully be healthy; Jose Altuve and George Springer each missed about 40 games last year, and could make up some of that difference in increased playing time.

On the margins, Tyler White and Tony Kemp won’t be getting 400+ plate appearances, and while Jake Marisnick’s glove will be missed, Myles Straw could easily prove an adequate replacement on the whole, with a better bat making up the difference even if his defense is a notch below Jake’s. And of course, there’s still the hope that Kyle Tucker steps forward and provides another great bat.

The Astros will almost certainly be worse at hitting in 2020, because no one has hit like they did in 2020; but there’s still plenty of room to fall and still be above average. For example, if they had a team wRC+ a full 10 points lower last year, they still would have been third in the league.

But while the Astros’s position players will still probably good in 2020, it’s not hard to imagine the Angels’ improving enough to match them on that front. Jason Castro is stepping into a spot that was basically a zero last year. Shohei Ohtani and Andrelton Simmons each missed over 50 games, and Mike Trout missed a little over 20. Justin Upton missed nearly 100 games, and the 63 he played in didn’t look anything close to his previous seasons. And of course, there’s Rice-alum Anthony Rendon, who signed a massive contract this offseason and is more than enough to make up for their biggest loss from 2019, Kole Calhoun. We haven’t even gotten into Jo Adell, their equivalent of Kyle Tucker, but saying their Angels’ lineup is on par with the Astros doesn’t feel like too much of a reach.

To go back to our earlier pair of questions, are the Astros 10 wins worse on offense, and are the Angels 10 wins better? I think Houston is worse than before, but 10 wins is a big drop, even for a team that was at a historic high last year. But the Angels very easily might be 10 wins better on this front. And every win above 10 makes up some of that gap from the Astros not dropping 10 wins.

I think I’d still lean towards the Astros due to several big questions hanging around L.A. (Can Justin Upton bounce back? How well and much will Albert Pujols play? Are the bigger injuries last year a lingering problem, or a one-year fluke?), which mostly seem to come down to “they have a similar ceiling, but the Angels have a lot more uncertainty”. I could honestly see the matter coming down to who has a healthier season.

But that’s only half the question, and man oh man is the pitching half of things still as lopsided as ever. Gerrit Cole leaving hurts, and I don’t blame anyone for being concerned about that. But the Angels are not the ones who are going to push Houston on this front; after finishing 18 WAR behind the Astros in 2019, L.A.’s big pickups were Julio Teheran and Dylan Bundy, and at this moment, those two would make up half of their playoff rotation. Fangraphs predicts both of them to finish with ERA’s above 4.40 and FIPS in the 4.50 to 5.00 range.

Shoot, even if they make a big mid-season trade for a starter, those two still might both appear in a potential ALCS rotation, depending on the health of Andrew Heaney (just 95.1 innings in 2019), Shohei Ohtani (hasn’t pitched since 2018, on track to start pitching a month and a half late and only go once a week when he’s back), and how well their assorted fourth and fifth starter options can stick (Griffin Canning, the best of their bunch, is already in a worrisome spot health-wise this spring). Put another way, in a best-case scenario, I can see Los Angeles maybe fielding a competent rotation, but it’s hard to envision a ceiling much higher than that, and it’s extremely easy to see them ending up below that ceiling.

So let’s go back to that two-pronged question we used in the first two parts; is the 2020 Astros pitching 9 WAR worse than it was in 2019, and is the Angels staff 9 WAR better? Losing Cole is big (Fangraphs had him at about seven and a half wins alone), and Wade Miley was competent for most of the year, but there are plenty of mitigating factors to that total. Lance McCullers’ return and a full season of Zack Greinke will help offset some of that, and Jose Urquidy projects to be about on Miley’s level at least; they could still be 9 wins worse on the whole, but it will largely come down to injuries, young pitchers, and regression in that case.

But the Angels just do not strike me as 9 WAR better than last year on the pitching front, let alone enough above that to start making up ground if the Astros don’t fall their full 9 WAR. And remember, just adding 9 WAR isn’t enough; they also have to make up for the late Tyler Skaggs, who was their best starter last year (1.8 WAR in 79.2 innings). And unlike on the offense, where the Angels can match Astros fans’ hopes for Kyle Tucker with their dreams for Jo Adell, the Angels don’t have a Forrest Whitley in the wings, let alone the recent track record Houston pitching has seen under Brent Strom.

Maybe the Angels can make up for that on offense, but that’s expecting something like a 15 WAR improvement on top of a 10-WAR drop by the Astros, which is starting to reach “extremely improbable” territory. The Astros will have a harder path to the division title in 2020 than they did in 2019, and the improved Angels will be a part of that, but they probably won’t wind up replacing the Astros themselves.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Future Hall of Fame Extra: Breaking Down Hall Standards for Catchers

As I mentioned two weeks ago while writing about position players on a Hall of Fame pace, catchers are held to a different standard than every other non-pitcher position. There's a pretty good reason for this; catcher quite frankly just is that different from other positions, particularly in how physically punishing it is. Catchers just don't last as long as non-catchers, and that has an effect on counting stats, which are still the biggest factor in building a Hall of Fame case.

Iván Rodríguez , all-time leaders in Games among catchers and largely seen as freaks of nature for lasting over two decades in the majors, are still just tied for fiftieth and sixtieth all-time among all position players, respectively (coincidentally enough, that ties them with Hall of Fame Class of 2018 first ballot inductees Jim Thome and Chipper Jones, also respectively). Or going by Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, only Johnny Bench and Gary Carter have passed 70 total, representing less than 3% of all 70-WAR position players.

So, why not just look at catchers separately from everything else? On the one hand, sure, it's not a huge sample size, with only sixteen catchers elected (going by the JAWS system's count, which is based on the amount of WAR a player has accumulated at different positions; this can of course get fuzzy at the edge cases, though).That makes it especially susceptible to weird fluctuations. But on the other hand, keeping in mind that it's more descriptive than predictive, it's better than nothing. That was the mentality I had last year when I decided to look at relief pitcher Cooperstown standards, and if nothing else, that turned out interesting. And with another catcher, longtime snub Ted Simmons, finally getting his due this year thanks to the Veterans Committee, I figured it was even somewhat timely.

So let's start from the top: my system is pretty straightforward. I look at the total Wins Above Replacement every Hall of Famer has earned through a given age. Then, I look for the median WAR among that group, and find how many total players in history have matched that WAR total through that age. Finally, I look at what percentage of eligible players to top that WAR total by that age have gone on to be elected in Cooperstown.

There are some issues, but this method is just to give broad, age-based understandings of which players are "on-pace" for the Hall in a way that just looking at WAR leaderboards doesn't. After all, we all intuitively understand that, say, Alex Bregman or Jose Ramirez have better chances at making the Hall of Fame than Brett Gardner or Ben Zobrist, even if the latter two technically have about twice as much WAR at the moment. Having 20+ WAR in your mid-20s is definitely better for your chances than having 40-50 in your mid-30s, this just gives a rough idea of how much better.

So first, let's just run down the list: what's the median WAR for future Hall of Fame catchers by age, and how what percentage of players who achieve that mark are eventually elected?


Age Median WAR YTY WAR Increase Induction Rate
20 1.5 - 37.50%
21 2.55 1.05 45.45%
22 4 1.45 33.33%
23 4.4 0.4 23.53%
24 7.8 3.4 36.36%
25 11.9 4.1 47.06%
26 17.1 5.2 50.00%
27 21.65 4.55 61.54%
28 25.5 3.85 66.67%
29 30.35 4.85 72.73%
30 36.5 6.15 80.00%
31 39.25 2.75 80.00%
32 44 4.75 80.00%
33 46.3 2.3 88.89%
34 47.1 0.8 88.89%
35 49.25 2.15 88.89%
36 51.1 1.85 88.89%
37 52.75 1.65 88.89%
38 51.65 -1.1 88.89%
39 52.3 0.65 88.89%
40 54.35 2.05 88.89%

Let's just focus on the tail-end first; that 88.89% represents 8 of the 9 catchers above the median WAR eventually getting in. The lone holdout? Joe Torre, who was an interesting case in that 1) he was only a catcher in just over 40% of his games (still a plurality, but lower than any other Hall catcher, below even Buck Ewing's 47%); 2) he eventually made the Hall of Fame anyway as a manager anyway. So technically, the only catcher to top the Hall median for the position at any point in their 30s and not eventually get inducted in Thurman Munson, who tragically passed away during his age 32 season (Munson also appeared on the most recent Veterans Committee ballot).

The next thing to note is that this is still a really aggressive track to keep to for a catcher. It’s technically lower than the overall bar for position players, but catchers also usually debut a little later than most other positions; for instance, in the 2010s, only eighteen catchers even played a game before the age of 23, and only two of those played in half a season’s worth. In total, though, 213 position players debuted that young, with 75 of them hitting the 81-game mark by that age. Or, of the 141 position players in the 2010s to reach 100 games played by the end of their age 23 season, only eight (5.5%) were catchers.

That’s a pretty big hole to climb out of immediately, a factor which is compounded by the constraints of the position. Since WAR is a counting stat, sitting out regularly (as catchers need to do) hurts their totals. For example, only three catchers in baseball history have had an 8.0-WAR season (Mike Piazza 1997, Gary Carter 1982, and Johnny Bench 1972). In contrast, four non-catcher position players posted an 8.0-WAR season in 2019 alone. There are less than 130 seasons by catchers of over 5.0 WAR, dating back to the 1800s, making up less than 0.25% of all such seasons by position players in history,

With that understanding, then, it’s not too shocking that we’re talking about a pace that not even ten players in history have matched. And while no active players are there, the recently-retired Joe Mauer is. It seems difficult to argue that Mauer wasn’t better than half or more of the catchers already in the Hall, but I’m not sure if that’ll translate into an easy, first-ballot election when he comes up. After all, only two catchers ever have gone in on their first try (Bench and Rodríguez), so it feels like the odds might be against him.

Among active catchers, Buster Posey is in the lead at 42.1, putting just below the 44.0-Win bar for catchers through their age 32 season. It if he can get back into form, you can see him actually making up some of that ground, but it’ll depend a lot on his health. His 2019 was rough following season-ending hip issues in 2018, but maybe an offseason of rest has him feeling ready to go again.

Yadier Molina is the only other active 40-WAR catcher, entering his age 37 seasons. Russell Martin is the same age and just behind him, at 37.9. We’ll return to them in a minute, though. For your under-30 leaders, Salvador Pérez is still in first despite missing all of 2019 for Tommy John surgery. Still, with 22.3 Wins, he’s about 10 WAR behind where he needs to be to match pace. J.T. Realmuto, meanwhile, is only at 17.6 and is just a year younger than him. Still, nothing’s to say they couldn’t still make it; after all, half of the players in Cooperstown are, by definition, worse than the median. They’ll probably just need to make up for it by staying pretty good well into their 30s.

There is, of course, one other area to address, the one that ties back to Molina and Martin (as well as Brian McCann, who retired after 2019 with 31.8 WAR): pitch framing. Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR does not factor that into catcher value, while both Fangraphs’ WAR and Baseball Prospectus’ WARP do.

Of course, the problem is that it's not a constant feature of either, which makes it a problem when looking at historical trends like Hall of Fame voting. Baseball Prospectus' version counts it starting in the late 1980s, meaning that only Rodríguez and Piazza have it covering their entire careers (Simmons, Fisk, and Carter have a few seasons at the end as well). Fangraphs' version doesn't even have that, as it only dates to the 2000s.

But it's still worth taking into consideration. And by that metric, Martin, McCann, and Molina all come out looking really strong; both versions have all three of them landing somewhere in the low teens or back half of the top ten among catchers all-time (in fact, all three of them land a bit ahead of Joe Mauer, who was fine but not amazing). Granted, we also don't know how much the top ten would change if every catcher in history had it added, and what happens might not line up with our preconceptions (for instance, Pudge only moves up slightly despite all of his Gold Gloves, while Piazza, a player with a much worse defensive reputation, was apparently pretty good at it!).

Posey also looks pretty strong, as both versions already have him just a step below the Mauer/Molina/Martin/McCann grouping. The other notable big step forward belongs to Yasmani Grandal, who moves from the mid-teens to the low-30s in WAR. Grandal just completed his age 30 season, so he has a ways to go still, but it has potential rather than looking like a total lost cause.

Ultimately, I'm not sure how much we should weigh it, since it feels a lot less established than some of the other components of WAR. But I definitely wouldn't rule it out entirely, and I think the big beneficiaries of that are all worth considering. Thankfully, we have a full five years to sit on that question before deciding how to vote for real (or I do, at least, since I'd vote for Mauer regardless of his framing numbers; McCann will be the real test case for the 2025 ballot).

Friday, February 14, 2020

Predicting Today's Future Hall of Fame Starting Pitchers, 2020 Edition

[As always, also up at The Crawfish Boxes]


Last week, I decided to look forward at which active position players might be on a Hall of Fame pace, something that’s become an annual tradition of mine. This week, let’s take a look at the other half of the equation, pitchers. Surprisingly, the path to the Hall is really different for starting pitchers, despite the relatively similar endpoint of 60-70 Wins Above Replacement; we have a much better idea of which hitters in their 20s are on pace for the Hall.

But first, let’s recap the method. I first look at every player inducted (divided by position player or pitcher, as mentioned), then look at their spread of WAR (Baseball-Reference version) by age. Then, I pick the median, and from there, look at how many total players in history have matched or bettered that total at every age (excluding players who are still active, not yet eligible, or still on the ballot, since their fates are still up in the air). Then look at what percentage of that total group eventually went on to Cooperstown.

There are a few added twists I use in accounting for pitchers as well. First, I limit my study to just pitchers from the liveball era (1919 on). Pitching has changed a lot since baseball began in the 1800s, and at a certain point, pitching careers just did not resemble what they are today. Picking the liveball era is kind of arbitrary, and I suppose you could just as easily pick something like founding of the American League or whatever, but the end numbers aren’t going to move too drastically, so I just stick with that. Also, it’s worth noting that I try and separate out starting pitchers from relievers, since the two have wildly different standards for induction the latter’s are still developing.

With all of that out of the way, which active starters are pitching at a Cooperstown pace?

Friday, February 7, 2020

Predicting Today's Future Hall of Fame Hitters, 2020 Edition

[Also up over at The Crawfish Boxes!]

As you may know by now, I’m especially interested in the Hall of Fame. And one of my favorite offseason activities, in the period between the official Hall of Fame election and pitchers and catchers reporting for a new season, is to merge the modern and the historic and look at the active players who, entering the season, are on pace for Cooperstown. I’ve been at it for several years now, in fact.

It’s a pretty simple system, running primarily on Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement across ages. And it’s more descriptive than predictive, reflecting who’s already been elected rather than who should be but was snubbed, or whether the Hall should be bigger, or how much newer issues like steroids will affect the vote.

But it’s a good activity for the slow end-of-winter days, and unlike some other methods, it usually returns a reasonable number of players given what we know (Bill James’s estimate years ago is that there are usually around 40 active future Hall of Famers in a given season, and I’m usually a little over that but with some regression expected), and they’re actually fairly spread out across ages rather than clustered at the end (that 40 active players total doesn’t differentiate between players just starting and those nearing the end). And if nothing else, it gives you an idea of what a reasonable career path to Cooperstown looks like?

So what is the method I use, exactly? I basically look at each player inducted (divided by position player or pitcher, since the standards are different), then look at their spread of WAR by age. I pick the Median; and from there, look at how many total players in history have matched or bettered that total by that age (excluding players who are still active, not yet eligible, or still on the ballot, since their fates are still up in the air), then look at what percentage of that group eventually went on to Cooperstown.

See, not too complicated! So, with that out of the way, who all currently is above the Hall of Fame median WAR for their age? Players are grouped by their age from the 2019 season.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Hiring Dusty Baker is the Astros Making the Best of a Rough Situation

[Also over at The Crawfish Boxes]

The Astros are hardly in an ideal situation, finding themselves suddenly lacking both a Manager and a General Manager mere weeks before pitchers and catchers report for what is expected to be a contending season. However, they appear to have finally settled on longtime manager Dusty Baker, and honestly? I think that's a fine choice, especially on short notice.

Really, of all the names that were considered for the role, Baker's was far and away the one that was the most interesting, to me. We have a decent idea of who all was considered for the role, given Chandler Rome's list of nine candidates from the other day, and it's not bad considering the short notice the role opened on. Still, I was also hesitant given that half of the list was candidates with no managerial experience.

The Astros are pretty clearly in win-now mode, and while I think the Astros will be contending this year and possibly even in 2021, I'm not sure how much further than that I'd be willing to go. The farm system is depleted after the last few years, and losing their biggest draft picks for 2020 and 2021 is only going to exacerbate matters. The primary focus should be on the next season or two, which is why I'm skeptical of rookie managers (in this case meaning Mark KotsayEduardo Pérez , Joe Espada, and Will Venable).

There's a lot of uncertainty in hiring someone totally unproven, and even in the event that you find someone great, it may take a while for them to find their footing. Just look at Terry Francona, or Bobby Cox, or Joe Torre, all of whom didn't record a winning season until their second teams as managers. Even the legends who figure things out relatively quickly still usually have something of an adjustment period, like Tony La Russa and Bruce Bochy needing a full season or more to make it above .500. And this is without getting into the unique challenges Houston will present this year, with increased pressure following in the fallout of the sign stealing investigation. Given all that, I'd rather go with a more experienced manager.

And of the managers with experience, Baker was far and away my favorite option. Let's just start with the first, most basic point: Dusty has had substantially more success than anyone else available. For example, just comparing him to the other candidates who had managed before:


ManagerSeasonsWinning Percentage
Baker220.532
Showalter200.506
Gibbons110.501
Ausmus50.478
Banister40.509

Every candidate has had some success, but Baker is just heads and shoulders above the other four. Not that they’re bad, of course, Baker has just managed a level of success that few have sustained for as long as he has. In fact, he’s twenty-third all-time in Games Above .500. That doesn’t just happen by accident.

Perhaps more importantly, this hasn’t happened by just camping out on a good team for years. Baker has continued his success across all four teams he’s managed to date. And it’s not like he’s just stepped into already successful teams, either: every one of his first seasons in a new town have seen his team improve, with three of those four improving on their previous year’s record by double digits. The only one that didn’t improve by that much was the Reds, who were in midst of a losing streak; by 2010, his third season, he had gotten them their first winning season since 2000 and their first playoff appearance since 1995.

Few managers can boast that type of quick success across so many teams, and the ones that can are pretty fondly remembered, like Billy Martin and Davey Johnson. There’s not really a good way to measure the exact effect a manager can have on a team, which is why direct comparisons between seasons like that seem important. It’s the closest we can get to running a season again with minimal changes to measure differences, and while one or even two success stories might be luck, four feels a little closer to a pattern.

The larger point is, there’s clearly more to managing than just the things Baker has been criticized for, like in-game bullpen management or optimizing the lineup (the latter of which still has a minimal effect at most). If there wasn’t, we probably would probably have seen more success among the total neophytes with close ties to analytical front offices that were so in vogue a few years ago. Most went the way of guys like Robin Ventura or Walt Weiss, making little impact. But even the ones that made the playoffs tended to have questionable records that drove fans of their teams crazy. Seriously, ask a Cardinals about Mike Matheny, or Tigers fans about Brad Ausmus. Or Nationals fans about Matt Williams, for that matter.

That last one seems especially relevant, seeing as it led to Baker’s last gig. And it seems like a not-dissimilar comparison to what the Astros face, with a talented roster but chaos at the head of things. Keeping things calm and getting the players to play to their full potential would be greatly appreciated for the 2020 Astros, in my opinion.

But even aside from that, Dusty’s reputation has sort of wildly surpassed the man himself, with a lot of the points held against him coming from things that happened a decade or more ago. He’s pretty clearly shown an ability to learn and grow, though, which is both a good quality and critical point to look at when evaluating him as a potential manager for 2020. You can point to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood’s (who had arm troubles years before Baker got to Chicago anyway, but we’ll ignore that) injuries if you want, but noting that his approach has changed and his last two teams didn’t see similar problems in his wake feels at least as important, if not more so.

And I guess you could worry about his postseason record, but it feels kind of like a moot point. I tend to think a lot of the playoffs are still pretty random and that the effect a manager can have is pretty underwhelming, so you might as well focus on maximizing regular season success and work from there, but let’s set that aside. The only available managers with World Series under their belt are guys who have made it pretty clear they’re retired, so it’s not like there was a clearly better option floating around. And the other four veteran manager candidates on that list combined have as many playoff series victories as Baker does by himself.

Really, the biggest part of a manager’s job seems to be second-guessed, so no choice is going to make everyone happy. But at the same time, Dusty Baker is without a doubt in the top 10% of managers all-time, likely even higher, and it’s not every day you can find someone like that on short notice. No other candidates looks like as sure a bet, which seems crucial given how much longer the team’s window for success looks to be open. He has a long track record of success, has succeeded on teams that look similar to the 2020 Astros, and has shown an ability to learn from his mistakes. Working with a more analytical front office might even help him improve more. I don’t know what else you could want if you’re in Houston’s situation.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

2020 Hall of Fame Election: Results and Recap

[Also up over at The Crawfish Boxes.]



What we discussed this morning is now official: Derek Jeter and Larry Walker are the newest members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. For the seventh year in a row, multiple players are going to Cooperstown off the BBWAA ballot, making it 22 in the last seven years. Both are far and away records.

Let’s start with Jeter: the long-time Yankees shortstop went in on his first try, falling one vote shy of unanimous support. We’ll probably never know who that one voter was, but to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. Sure, it would have been just the second unanimous induction in Hall history, but it’s not like they print the vote percentages on the plaques or anything. All it is in the end is trivia.

And for as much as it feels like Jeter is overrated to some degree, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s sixth all-time in hits (3465), made the All-Star team fourteen times, and posted a 119 wRC+ over 20 seasons while playing shortstop. For all of the holes in his game, none of them were big enough to overcome that strength.

Walker was also a close call, but in the other direction: he cleared the bar for induction by just six ballots, ending with 76.6% of the vote. Walker was a five-tool player, carrying a .313/.400/.565 batting line along with one of the ten or so best gloves in right field history. His induction was long-deserved, but he finally made the mark in his tenth and final year on the writers’ ballot.

That 76.7% is still shocking, in some ways. Just six years ago, Walker was stuck beneath a ton of other snubbed candidates, and pulling in just 10.2% of the vote. Even as recently as three years ago, Larry was getting just under 22% of the vote. Last year alone saw him jump 20.5%, the ninth-biggest single-year increase in modern Hall of Fame voting, and then he topped that this year by increasing another 22.0%, tying him for seventh all-time with Don Drysdale. That combined two-year gain also falls just a hair behind Luis Aparicio’s record 42.7% increase from 1982 to 1984.

Outside of those two, what happened down the rest of the ballot, and how does it bode for the 2021 election? It may seem too early to be asking that, but we already know who will be eligible, and what their final career numbers are. The only other major variables are how they finished in voting this year. And given next year’s relatively weak class of newcomers (Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, and Torii Hunter are the biggest newcomers), we could very well be seeing a lot of improvement in the vote totals for the returning players.

At the top of the backlog is Curt Schilling, who finished with 70.0% of the vote. 2021 will mark his ninth year on the ballot, meaning he has two tries to pick up 5%. He’s done that each of the last three years (including topping 9% each of the last two years), so it seems likely he’ll be standing on the stage in 2021.

Following him were Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, at 61.0% and 60.7%. As high as those percentages are, it’s hard to be optimistic about their chances of making it in. Like Schilling, they only have two more tries, but unlike Schilling, they’ve only been adding about 2% each of the last few seasons. Picking up nearly 15% in two seasons seems like a tall order given that, unless a large number of voters suddenly change their mind on steroids. The last time either of them saw an increase that big was 2017, but that year featured Bug Selig getting elected, likely causing some voters to question what the point of punishing steroid users was if the architect of said era was going in. Nothing of that magnitude seems to be coming down the pipeline, so Clemens and Bonds will likely need the support of the Veterans Committee if they’re to make it one day.

Omar Vizquel converted nearly 10% of voters, and finally broke 50% of the vote in his third year on the ballot. Now at 52.6%, I find it very likely he gets elected eventually, although I can’t say I’m a huge supporter of his campaign. I have no idea how long it will take for him to make it in from here, if his lack of advanced stats will slow his growth or if passing 50% causes BBWAA members to consolidate around him even quicker than they have been. But given that he has seven more tries to pick up just 22.4% of the vote, he doesn’t exactly need to be improving each year by leaps and bounds the way Walker did.

Somehow, Scott Rolen might be both the most positive and negative surprise of the day? I’m a big supporter of his candidacy, and I don’t know how exactly to feel about it. On the one hand, it’s hard to feel too upset; Rolen finished his third go-around at 35.3%, over double the 17.2% he got last year. That means he’s almost halfway to that fabled 75%, and maybe a big jump like that sets him up for a next few years similar to Walker’s past few; election in two or three years doesn’t seem at all out of the realm of possibility!

But on the other hand, Rolen entered today trending around 50%, which we all knew would be high compared to the final totals, but a 15-point drop is rough. Publicly released ballots were nearly split down the middle on him, but private ballots only went his way 20% of the time. Of course, while that might not seem like much of an improvement, it’s worth noting his public-private split last year was 21%-9%, so this is still an improvement either way. Maybe the big jump he got this year will spur another big jump in 2021?

Immediately after Rolen were Billy Wagner (31.7%, fifth election), Gary Sheffield (30.5%, sixth), and Todd Helton (29.2%, second). Like Rolen, Wagner nearly doubled his support, from 16.7% in 2019. Unlike Rolen, Wagner is two years further along in the process, meaning two fewer chances to make up the 40%+ he still has to go. Right now, I’d rate his chances as “feasible”, though; another double digit gain next year and he’s looking a lot more likely.

I’m more encouraged by Todd Helton’s performance than either Wagner’s or Sheffield’s, though. I think Sheffield has a ceiling near wherever Clemens and Bonds end up, so I don’t know that we can expect another 17-point gain next year. On top of that, he’s a year further along than even Wagner. Helton, meanwhile, just took a major step forward from his 16.5% debut last year, and he has eight more tries to go. It might take him a while, but with an even emptier ballot next year, it’s very possible he makes another double-digit jump. And Walker going in also likely helps his case by helping to remove some of the Coors Field stigma (although I’m not sure if that’s the biggest factor hurting either of them, it’s probably not helping things either). I think he’s looking at a Tony Perez-like campaign, taking several years, but not quite pushing things to the wire like Walker.

And that’s really all of the major movement downballot. Manny Ramirez still hasn’t broken 30%, and will likely lag behind even Sheffield from here on out. Jeff Kent jumped up nearly 10%, but he’s still only at 27.5% with three more tries to go; he’s technically closer than Larry Walker was at this point, but he also isn’t the player Walker was. Let’s see him at least make a 12% jump in year eight before we start using Walker as the blueprint here (although I think Kent will find a more receptive audience in the Veterans Committee, so it’s not all doom and gloom).

Andruw Jones more than doubled his prior support, but that only takes him to 19.5%. Jones is a legendary fielder, so it feels a little silly he’s trending so far behind Vizquel. Then again, it’s at least good to see voters are open to considering him, and maybe Vizquel’s candidacy will lead to greater appreciation of Jones’s glove. With seven more tries, he’s not done yet, but I don’t feel as confident about his chances as I do Rolen or Helton.

The only other players to clear 5% and secure a place on the 2021 ballot were Sammy Sosa, Andy Pettitte, and Bobby Abreu. Sosa’s eighth time (13.9%) around marked both a new personal best and the first time he broke double digits since his debut back in 2013. So yeah, he’s basically just playing out the string at this point. Pettitte’s second ballot saw him jump from 9.9% all the way to 11.3%. I feel like he’ll be on the ballot for a while, if nothing else. And really, at 5.5%, I’m just glad Abreu is sticking around; like I said earlier, he’s more deserving of an extended hearing than most people give him credit for. He’s at least gotten a second year, now.

And with that, we can close a book on this year’s Hall of Fame election. Congratulations again to Derek Jeter and Larry Walker, as well as Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller, who are your new Hall of Fame Class of 2020. To everyone else, we’ll see you again next year.