Thursday, March 30, 2023
Anyway, Opening Day was a tough loss, but given that Dylan Cease was almost the Cy Young winner last year, it’s at least understandable. Hopefully they can come back strong this weekend and take the first series of the year!
Wednesday, March 29, 2023
Last year while I was writing my article on the Orioles' Trade Deadline, I dug up an older piece of mine with an interesting opinion that I wanted to dig into a little bit when I had more time. I ended up sort of looking into it at the end of the 2022 season, and slowly plugging away at it in between playoff stuff and Hall of Fame stuff and all of the other offseason writings that I did. I wanted to post it a little earlier in the offseason, but ended up having to reflect on some of it a little more and then push it back. I think it’s finally to a good place though, and getting it up before the start of the season seems like a good idea!
It’s sort of a companion piece to that mini-series I did last year looking at the Orioles’ Rebuild, this time approaching the question from a different angle. For background, in the back-half of the 2010s, it seemed like there were a lot of teams who were trying to copy off the Astros’ and Cubs’ strategies of a full teardown and rebuild, and I thought in the moment that maybe some of those decisions were a little premature; the Astros and Cubs were notably devoid of talent in both the majors and minors prior to their complete rebuilds.
I feel like that gets lost in a lot of these discussions on “tanking”; go back and look at those 2010 and 2011 Cubs and Astros teams. Both had spent several years stuck in neutral at the bottom of the NL Central. The 2011 Astros’ best players were a pair of very-good-but-not-great outfielders (Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn) who were a year and a half from free agency, and another 35-year-old “left fielder” who really looked like he should have been at first base (Carlos Lee). The Cubs, meanwhile, were relying on their 21-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro to bolster their core of… 33-year-old corner infielders Carlos Peña and Aramis Ramirez. Their aces on these teams were Brett Myers and Matt Garza, respectively.
Those cores would maybe barely work, were all those players at their peaks, with very strong supporting casts and the potential for star prospects to bolster them down the stretch. None of that describes the rest of those teams, which were thin at the top and regularly ranked in the bottom third of Farm System rankings (with the Astros even picking up several last place finishes). Their drafting and player development was atrocious, Houston’s especially; Baseball-Reference’s has the Astros’ first round draft picks from 1999 to 2009 worth a combined 11.9 WAR for their careers, a number overwhelming supported by Jason Castro’s 12.4 total (plus Jordan Lyles’s 1.0 mark last season, the third-best year of his career).* Feel free to do the math on everyone else there, it’s pretty bad! That wasn’t the only factor in their lack of success obviously, but it’s a pretty good representation of the larger failure going on.
*The Cubs during that stretch look a lot less disastrous; it still wasn’t fantastic, but other clubs with similar records could turn it into strong minor league systems, with things like successful later picks, international signings, trades, or player development. The Cubs… did not do any of that.
All of that is to say: when the Cubs and Astros decided to do their total teardowns, there was a very clear logic behind it. Long gone were the early-to-mid 2000s glory days, of Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt and Derrek Lee and Carlos Zambrano, and the window on the late-2000s inglorious days of Carlos Peña and Carlos Lee seemed to be closing rapidly. But despite how much the teams sold off, every trade made sense; most pieces being sent out were some combination of aging, not great, or rapidly nearing free agency on a bad team. It’s part of why the 2018 Orioles made sense following their path, given their atrocious record, neglected minor league rosters, and a major league roster consisting of Manny Machado (in his final season before free agency) and a bunch of question marks.
However, that scenario did not describe every team going for a rebuild in subsequent years, and I think my general sense that too many teams in the late 2010s were going for that strategy has held up. Sure, some of them fit that Astros/Cubs mold: for instance, the Phillies under Ruben Amaro Jr. had been ineptly patching an aging roster for years up until 2015, and it had all fallen apart. Or the Tigers, who had seen a lot of their roster suddenly start to look very old come 2017. You’re always going to have a few cases like that, teams that went all-in on an aging core or something and stretched themselves thin (and sometimes it even works, like with the 2019 Nationals!).
But that clearly couldn’t describe over 20% of the league, like I called out in that original 2018 piece that I linked to, especially not when teams with win totals in the high-80s could still be in playoff contention (in fact, 2017 had just seen Wild Card teams with 87 and 85 wins). And I was arguably even playing it safe and just going with teams that were unambiguously already in the middle of a rebuild, and not teams that were just about to enter one (like the Orioles and Rangers), or the more muddled edge cases (like the Pirates and Royals).
Take the Marlins for instance, who famously traded a stellar young outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna rather than do literally anything to reinforce that core beyond hoping their draft pick lottery tickets all suddenly became All-Stars at once. Or the White Sox, who dealt their two top, all-star level starters rather than bump up their middle-of-the-pack payroll even slightly while playing in baseball’s weakest division.
But there’s one team from that group that stood out. All of the teams I called out back then finished 2018 in a manner exactly as uninspiring as predicted… except for the Braves. And of course, ignoring the eventual end result of the 2021 World Series and looking only at where things stood at that moment, I absolutely understand why I included the Braves here.
Going into the 2014 season, the Braves were coming off of four straight seasons where they averaged 92.5 wins and made the playoffs three of four times. They had a young, homegrown core of stars, and things looked bright. Sure, their playoff runs had been short (two Division Series losses and one Wild Card Game loss), but October is pretty random, so just making it to the playoffs seemed like the thing to focus on.
And then, they mildly underperformed in 2014, going 79-83. Granted, that was still second in the middling NL East, and they still had their young core, so it wasn’t hard to predict a possible rebound. Except… Atlanta didn’t do that. Instead, they sold off a ton of talent, including Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, and Evan Gattis. It might be easy to forget given that we’re nearly a decade removed at this point, but back in 2014, that was half of their eight best players (by Baseball-Reference WAR), and they ranged in age from 27 (Gattis) to 24 (Heyward). The team took a corresponding tumble, going 67-95 in 2015.
Tuesday, March 28, 2023
A few years ago, I decided to take a crack at applying my Future Hall of Fame methodology to Closers. Unlike with starting pitchers or position players, Wins Above Replacement traditionally doesn’t seem to line up with how Hall views relief pitchers. However, I found that Win Probability Added does a pretty good job of matching the voters, and went with that instead. For those who aren’t as familiar, Win Probability Added (WPA) is a context-sensitive value stat. A home run will basically count the same in WAR whether it happens in the first or ninth inning, but WPA is based on the real-time in-game probability of a team winning, and credits or debits the player with how much each of their actions swings those odds in their team’s favor.
With Billy Wagner looking like a strong bet to make the Hall in 2024 or 2025, I thought this offseason might be an interesting time to revisit my closer predictions. You know, maybe take a look at which relievers could be following in his footsteps, especially since the role seems to be in a period of transition at the moment.
It was supposed to be a pretty easy process; there hasn’t been a new closer inducted since the last time I did this in 2019 (following the inductions of Lee Smith and Mariano Rivera), so I shouldn’t need to do that much to update it. But after checking my results from last time I ran into some issues… I really don’t know how to explain it, but my numbers were just wrong. I have no idea how it happened, but the numbers don’t seem to line-up with anything. I tried a few things, referring to my notes and even reaching out to Baseball-Reference to see if they had changed anything in their site’s calculations, but I couldn’t recreate the results despite several attempts.
Weirdly, though, the methodology was still right? I tried it again after re-calculating every number, and I was basically getting the same players in the same order, with relatively strong correlations to Hall voting. It was just… the WPA totals and Hall odds were different from what I had last time. I suppose I could just wait until Wagner gets inducted, since that would require a total re-calculation anyway, but I wanted to publish the corrected numbers at least once before then.
I’m using the same basic framework as my Hitters and Starting Pitchers article, here: looking at the WPA for Hall of Fame closers by age to build a median trendline, then looking at how players above that line at each age have fared in eventual Hall elections. If you need a more detailed explanation, you can check out either of those examples and such.
However, one big difference that I would like to expand on here: there just isn’t a large sample size of closers in the Hall to work off of, which is a big deal since this method is built off of precedence. There are currently 8 pitchers who qualify here, so each one has an outsized impact on our results.
Like, a quarter of our cases are Hoyt Wilhelm (a knuckleballer who didn’t debut until age 29 but pitched for 21 seasons) and Dennis Eckerlsey (who spent the first decade of his career as a starter), each of whom is extremely unique. Each additional electee is going to significantly shift our standard here, and given the ways the role has changed so radically in its short lifespan, it is important not to get too attached to these numbers, and to remain flexible in your considerations of what a Hall Closer looks like. This method just isn’t as strong as the one for Position Players or Starting Pitchers.
For similar reasons, I’m going to be going in a slightly different order for this one. I usually like to start with younger stars and end with the older ones, because that way keeps the more interesting and unusual names at the top of the discussion but allows me to end on longer write-ups of stronger candidates who will be facing the ballot sooner.
In comparison, everything about closers feels less certain; stars regularly appear out of nowhere or suddenly flame out, the standard progression is kind of ridiculous and barely feels like a realistic guideline (more on that later), and to top it all off, we barely even know what Hall voters want beyond “A lot of saves, most of the time”. So instead, I’ll just start with the most veteran names and kind of work backward. There really aren’t any overwhelming favorites here anyway, so we might as well start with the most interesting discussions.
Also, as a note, when I refer to a player’s age, I’m generally referring to last season; if I’m instead using their 2023 age, I’ll try to make it obvious. Now then, let’s queue up that entrance music and see what we’ve got!
Tuesday, March 14, 2023
In the ten years and eleven sets of articles that I’ve been looking at Future Hall of Fame odds for starting pitchers, there’s been a clear downward trend. In my piece last year, I even talked about the decline in the number of starting pitchers who were passing the median Wins Above Replacement for their ages and speculated about the causes.
Returning to the issue this year, things don’t look substantially better; we’re still pretty devoid of players who hit those marks, but looking at it once again, it definitely looks to me like it’s due to teams putting stricter workload limits on young pitchers. Compare things even to a decade ago: we had one pitcher in the league at all under the age of 22 last season, compared with nearly a dozen in 2012. The number of under-23 pitchers basically halved, the under-24s dropped, and so on.
I went and picked some other years from the 1990s and 2000s, and 2022 fell under basically all of them. There did seem to be something of a ceiling here, surprising; there weren’t uniformly more 22-year-olds throwing in 1990 compared to even 2012 (when discussion of innings limits were certainly more wide-spread). If anything, there seemed to be kind of a hard limit, and the quantity from year-to-year would vary below that; I suppose at a certain point, it’s difficult to justify throwing out more young arms than that soft limit just on a talent level. But the overall number of young pitchers went down, and the innings they were being given certainly went down. Sure, innings counts are down on the whole and I’m not positive if the effect is equal across ages, but the end results is still that there are definitely fewer young pitchers racking up 100 or even 200 innings in a season.
Will it work at reducing injuries? I suppose there’s not really a way to tell other than waiting and seeing, but I will say, going back and looking at 22 year olds who threw 150-to-200 innings in a year sure does turn up a lot of non-famous names that ring a bell, either because they were supposed to be good but never stayed healthy or who were good for a bit but suddenly fell out of the game after 8 or 9 seasons, so… I don’t know, maybe the old methods weren’t working out so great.
Pitching in general just seems to be more in flux than hitting, even beyond just the immediate scope. But that makes it difficult to use a system like this, which is entirely based around precedent. And given that WAR is a counting stat, and young pitchers are playing less, it’s an immediate disadvantage that they basically spend their careers coming back from; it’s a big part of why “being successful in your 30s” has become basically a necessity for pitchers making it to Cooperstown (not even getting into how modern Hall voters are mostly ignoring all but the most obvious candidates). Of course, innings totals have been dropping at the top too, which might make putting up a big season and making up ground even harder too…
I’ll do my best to work to combat all of this, listing some of the major leaders in each age group even if they aren’t especially close to the Hall median line. Take the values then as more of a guide for what they need to do to reach the Hall, like “how long do they have to keep this up” or “how good do they need to be to stay in the discussion”.
As a reminder for how my methodology in this series works: first, I take every Hall of Fame starting player (so anyone who’s started in 10% or more of their appearances, and limited to just the post-1920 Liveball pitchers since the Deadball era was even more unrecognizable), and look at all of their career Wins Above Replacement totals* (Baseball-Reference version) at each age. Then, I take the median for each year, to form a sort of “Median Hall of Famer Pace” to follow. From there, I look at how many starting pitchers (with the same 10% limit) in history have been above the pace at each age, Hall member or not. I get the percentages for each age from just doing a simple calculation, (Number of Hall of Famers above the median pace) divided by (Total number of players above the median pace).
*Also, for pitchers, I only use their Pitching WAR, since their value as batters hasn’t typically factored into their Hall chances even before considering the new universal DH.
So (to make up an example with fake numbers), if there were 100 Hall of Famers, and their median WAR at age 30 was 40.0 Wins, then I’d look at how many players in history had 40.0+ WAR by the same age. Say it was 100 players total, with 50 of them being in the Hall, we’d say players with over 40.0 WAR at that age have a 50% chance of induction. Also, I group players by their listed age the previous season, so players in the age 20 group will be playing in their age 21 season in 2023.
With that all out of the way, let’s start looking at players: