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October 6, 2017 – Division Series Updates, Previews

Here’s a free excerpt of today’s Penning Bull, which rounds up the early action in the two ALDS series and looks ahead to Friday’s NLDS openers.

Astros 8, Red Sox 2 (Game 2: 2:00 PM ET Friday)

 
The difference in this game was Houston’s ability to hit the ball to (and over) the walls, and the Red Sox’s inability to do the same. In the preview of the series I threw together for Baseball Prospectus, the thing I tried to draw out was that Boston is a little underpowered, by 2017 standards. They had some really good at-bats on Thursday. Even in Justin Verlander’s 1-2-3 first inning, Andrew Benintendi took him to a full count and fouled a few pitches straight back. They’re a team that can get on base and hit line-drive singles all day, if the defense permits. The Astros’ defense performed well in Game 1, though, and that left Boston without a clear path to scoring enough runs to win.
 
It turned out that “enough runs to win” was a pretty big number, anyway. Chris Sale simply wasn’t fooling the Astros on Thursday. That’s not really a sign of Sale faltering or failing under the heat of the playoff lamps (though it’s worth noting that he scuffled even down the stretch of the regular season, and has done so in a majority of his big-league seasons), but rather, a reminder that the Astros are an incredible offensive team. During the first half, it looked like they might score 1,000 runs for the year, and although they fell far short of that in the end, that sheer excellence was no mirage. With more or less the whole lineup healthy, no one can contain this group, especially because no one can keep them in the ballpark all night. Even in the few games that have been played so far, we’re seeing that power is going to carry the month. The ball has not been un-juiced, and the home run remains the most reliable way to score runs. 
 
John Farrell did his team no favors, of course. Sale yielded two runs in the first (back-to-back home runs by Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve), and two in the fourth (two hard-hit doubles sandwiching a hard-hit single), and one in the fifth (another Altuve homer), and still, Farrell sent his ace back out to the mound in the sixth inning. Sale departed after allowing a double by Evan Gattis (which left the bat at 107 miles per hour) and a walk to Josh Reddick. Joe Kelly let in both runners before the frame ended, and the blowout was on. 
 
I’m not sure Sale should have taken the mound in the fifth. That was when the lineup card turned over, giving the Astros a third look at him. That was Farrell’s chance to put the game in the hands of a bullpen that has overachieved all season, and that has recently gotten better with the additions of previously shelved Carson Smith and David Price. He missed the opportunity, and then he missed it again after Sale allowed the homer to Altuve and retired the side in the fifth. 
 
On the other side of the field, A.J. Hinch was admirably proactive. Farrell’s decision to keep pushing Sale smacked of desperation, of a manager afraid to put a game that already looked in danger into the hands of anyone else. Hinch, on the other hand, looked at the Astros’ considerable lead after six frames and pulled Justin Verlander in favor of Chris Devenski. If the series goes to a fifth game (or if the Astros simply play deep into this month), Hinch can rest assured that his ace has an extra few bullets in his arm, That also prevented any high-stress moments the rest of the way, as Houston’s bullpen made easy work of the Red Sox.
 
Losing the Sale start seems to all but seal Boston’s fate, however premature that might sound. In Game 2, they send out Drew Pomeranz, whose peculiar season I documented a little over a month ago, and who has had another reversal of fortune even since then. Dallas Keuchel gives the Astros a big edge in that matchup, and if it’s 2-0 going into a Game 3 in which the Red Sox will start Doug Fister, Dave Dombrowski might as well hop on a flight to Nippon Ham and start wooing Shohei Ohtani, because the series will be over.
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September 26, 2017 – #Bullpenning and the Wild Card Game

Here’s an excerpt of the latest edition of Penning Bull, which is actually about bullpenning–specifically, the case for the Yankees doing just that during the Wild Card Game against the Twins.

There’s never been a team better positioned to turn the Wild Card Game into a bullpen game, and that’s exactly what the Yankees should do. With those six guys, they should be able to easily rack up 27 outs, and they’d probably strike out 15 or 16 batters along the way. That would save Severino (who, instead, will start the game) for Game 1 in Cleveland or Houston, and leave him one start fresher if the team ends up going to the World Series and needs to push him far past his previous workload thresholds. He’s only 23, after all, and while he’s been stretched out to about 162 innings in previous seasons, he’s going to top 190 before the calendar even turns to October.

It’s not even certain that Severino would give the team a better chance to win the Wild Card Game itself than the six-headed relief monster would, and that’s really where the rubber meets the road. The playoff schedule is so pockmarked with days off that using Severino in the Wild Card Game won’t really hurt New York. If the Yankees win that game, they’ll have the following day off for travel. Then, after two games in either Houston or Cleveland, they’ll get another travel day to come back to New York for Game 3 of the ALDS. Severino could pitch that game on regular rest even after appearing in the Wild Card Game, which we tend to forget. It’s what the Giants did with Madison Bumgarner last October, and the Cubs with Jake Arrieta the year before. In fact, the winning starter in the Wild Card Game has gone on to start Game 3 of the Division Series seven out of 10 times. This is why most teams don’t even entertain extreme strategies in the Wild Card Game: there’s too little gained by manipulating things that way. Severino’s youth and the Yankees’ exceptional relief corps tip the balance, but in most cases, even ardent statheads have moved on from the idea that teams should bullpen their way through that contest. That’s not the way we expected it to be when this system was first put in place, though.

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September 25, 2017 – Tucker Barnhart and the Reds

Here’s an excerpt of the piece that went out to subscribers this morning, about Tucker Barnhart’s contract extension and what the Reds will need to do if they’re going to make Barnhart part of a winning team before that contract is up.

In the Brewers, the Reds can see what they have to hope they can be in 2018 or 2019: an upstart team succeeding on the merits of a surprising pitching staff and a fistful of young players maturing as the season progresses. I wrote the player comment capsules for the Reds in last year’s Baseball Prospectus book, and came away from the process feeling that they had a lot more prospect depth than the industry was giving them credit for. We saw a lot of that depth come up to fill holes as this season wore on, although the results (and the long-term prognoses) are mixed. Getting Luis Castillo (the hardest-throwing starter in baseball this year, and a guy with more than raw arm strength going for him) for Dan Straily last winter is looking like a coup, even as Straily finishes up a fine first season in Miami. On the other hand, whatever hope the Reds had for Amir Garrett has to be pretty severely dented at this point. Anthony DeSclafani’s inability to get healthy at any point in 2017 certainly bodes ill for him, and he looked like a mid-rotation starter just last year. Tyler Mahle is a prospect with more finesse than pure stuff. He’s looked good in a handful of starts, but he’ll be tested when he goes around the league again next spring.

Overall, the pitching remains a mess, but the positional core is increasingly viable. Joey Votto isn’t turning into Albert Pujols any time soon; it looks like he’s going to age about the way his idol, Ted Williams, did. Eugenio Suarez is a borderline star-caliber player, at this point, a guy who hits for power, accepts his walks, can cover the plate, and who (after a rough adjustment period last year) is bringing the physical presence of a converted shortstop to bear at third base. Jesse Winker hit for zero power in the International League, but his hit-first approach is letting him get to plenty of pop in the bigs. (Sure, that makes sense, ball’s not juiced, no sir, Mr. Manfred, sir.) If Winker can hold down right field next year, then the Reds can platoon Scott Schebler and Adam Duvall in left, and that would be one of the most productive platoons in recent memory. Billy Hamilton has lost a step in the field and still hasn’t figured out how to get on base consistently, but if he’s in center, your corner guys have a little less ground to cover.

There remain a whole host of unanswered questions. Jose Peraza can’t have inspired tremendous confidence with his uneven season. Last summer’s second overall pick, Nick Senzel, had an awesome season in the minors, and could be ready by the middle of next year. If he can play second base, the holes are starting to fill up for this team. If he’s stuck at third or regresses and ends up in left field, there’s less help there. No matter what, the team faces the prospect of replacing Zack Cozart, who will hit free agency this winter and probably never look back.

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September 23 – Behind the 8 Ball

Here’s an excerpt of today’s Penning Bull, on the Angels’ long odds in the AL Wild Card race.

Maldonado is a different story. He didn’t fail early, and he wasn’t displaced. In fact, he made a huge positive impact. He does absolutely everything well behind the plate, from framing to throwing to blocking pitches in the dirt to calling the game to fielding bunts and dribblers. The Angels were 11th in catcher Fielding Runs Above Average last season, according to Baseball Prospectus, where those numbers include all of those elements (except game-calling). This year, they’re second, and they have Maldonado to thank. 
 
That’s the good news. The bad news is that they have lacked catching depth all season, leading manager Mike Scioscia to ride Maldonado extremely hard. Only Yadier Molina (which, that’s another conversation we’ll have soon) has caught more innings than Maldonado this season. As the season has worn on, Maldonado has worn down, and not in a small way. Since August 1, he’s taken 135 plate appearances, and batted .171/.201/.287. (I double-checked because I didn’t believe it, either.) He has 41 strikeouts and one walk during that period. A regular member of any lineup carrying a .201 OBP is almost inexpressibly damaging (although I guess I’m trusting that choice of words to express the damage, more or less). The Baseball Gauge at Seamheads.com keeps a statistic called Championship Win Probability Added (cWPA), which is basically what it sounds like. It calculates, for every plate appearance a batter takes, how much that situation stands to affect the outcome of the game, and then how much the outcome of the game stands to affect the probability that that team will win the World Series. Then it assigns a value to whatever the player does in that plate appearance, based on run expectancy models. Maldonado’s -0.017 cWPA, then, essentially means that he’s made the Angels 1.7 percentage points less likely to win the World Series with his offensive performance this year. That’s incredibly hard to do, for a team whose odds of winning the Series have been slim all along. Only two position players have lower cWPA this season, and remember, most of this lost value has come in the last seven weeks. Maldonado was hitting .239/.307/.401 at the trade deadline, which is more than enough production from such a solid defensive backstop.

September 22, 2017 – Shohei Ohtani and Rob Manfred

Here’s an excerpt of today’s Penning Bull, my jeremiad on the upcoming Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes and the way the owners have set themselves up to look foolish and to lose control of the competitive balance of the game. Oh and also, why they don’t care.

Half of all teams are out of the running, just like that. No one in the National League is going to have access to a player regarded by many as one of the best in the world, even though he’ll come at a bargain price. (We’ll get to what that price will really be in a moment, but it will certainly be a bargain.) The staggering competitive advantage this confers on the 15 teams in the AL, just by virtue of being on the right side of the rule book, is only an exaggerated version of the one they’ve enjoyed for two decades or more. The DH gives AL teams a margin for error in the free-agent and amateur talent markets that NL teams do not have. It allows them to play specialists (not only one-dimensional DHs themselves, but elite glove men who can’t hit at all) much more readily, without any aspect of their team suffering for it. The AL has been the dominant league since the rise of the Core Five (screw cutesy rhymes, that team is nowhere without Bernie Williams) Yankee dynasty, and it’s precisely because the NL is playing by arcane rules that hamper them. That phenomenon goes to another level when Ohtani signs with some AL team this winter.

The second obvious problem with the Ohtani market is the preposterously low bar the cap sets for his official compensation. That is a green light for, if not tampering, then all manner of other shenanigans. Teams will promise him $100-million contract extensions, effective the moment Rob Manfred’s potential legal footing to block such a move starts to soften. They’ll sling money at him under the table in every way imaginable, because the official price tag on him is so far below his market value that even the risk of getting caught (and having to pay a huge fine to the Commissioner’s Office, and losing the right to sign international free agents for the rest of the signing period, and maybe even losing draft picks) is nowhere near enough to deter them.

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September 21, 2017 – Brewers v Cubs

Here’s an excerpt of today’s post, a quick preview of the weekend’s crucial Cubs-Brewers series:

[Zach Davies is] a soft-tossing righty, but his command is elite, and he’s stayed ahead of the adjustment curve by using his literal curve more often in the second half.

Indeed, he’s a true four-pitch pitcher right now: sinker, cutter, changeup, curve. None of the four are even above-average offerings. It’s been command and unpredictability fueling his success, but if you have enough of both those things, you can still be really good. Really, that’s the Brewers’ 2017 in a nutshell: they’ve improbably found the depth to remain ahead of the league’s adjustments to them.

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Penning Bull – September 20, 2017 – Suspended Logic

Here’s an excerpt of today’s Penning Bull, a piece in which I beg MLB to apply a more thoughtful series of criteria to the decision-making process when disciplinary action is required.

 

It happened so quickly that Contreras, who seemed to have had half a mind to run interference and keep Lackey from getting tossed, wasn’t even able to turn his full attention away from the field for another moment or two. Once he was, he jawed with Baker a bit, obviously frustrated by the blown call, his own poor framing job on the pitch in question, and Baker’s quick trigger on his pitcher. Then, just as he seemed to be turning his attention toward the field and the job of warming up Lackey’s replacement, Contreras tried to get in some final word that Baker found impermissible. Baker threw him out, more emphatically than the sheepish wave he gave to Lackey. Livid, Contreras spiked his catcher’s mask.

Freeze the video. The mask is on the ground, five feet or so from Baker. It’s been slammed straight down, a victim of Contreras’s frustration and fury. What it clearly isn’t, of course, is a weapon, a tool being applied to some malevolent, violent purpose. Keep watching, though, because that’s about to change.