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    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.