October 15, 2018

PHILOSOPHY OF NEW STATS

Baseball core principles are changing as advanced stats become the norm.

Batting averages, the key stat in a hitter's success, are now downplayed or discarded in favor of OBP or OPS. The league is now flooded with .230 hitters with high strike out rates because power stats are more "valuable" than a single or a single out (strikeout). If a lineup is filled with .230 hitters, it is more prone to long batting slumps. In 2018, the Cubs found that out the hard way by scoring one or fewer runs in 41 games.

No one is trying to find a traditional lead off hitter. A person who hits for high average, can work a walk, and steal a base with ease. The reason is that stat men believe a steal is a risky and worthless strategy. Teams no longer think on ways to "manufacture" a run when the trend is still the 3- run HR or bust mentality.

There are so many .230 BA strike out machines that pitchers no longer have to "pitch to contact." In other words, starters use to have to conserve energy to pitch 8 innings/start. But today, they are nibble on the corners and try to "trick" batters into missed swings. Other pitchers just rely on two pitches, a fastball and an off-speed pitch, and throw as hard as possible knowing that they are on a 100 pitch count. It does not matter if you are in the third or sixth, at 100 you are going to get yanked. So wins, an old measure of starting pitcher success, is another meaningless stat in the modern age. Pitchers don't have the mind set to go out a "win" a complete game because management has diminished their role by bolstering the bullpen to finish games. It also is driven by the fact that pitchers give up more hits the third time around in the batting order. So teams are planning to get a pitcher, however effective, out by the time the batting order rolls around for the third time.

All the nibbler pitchers have increased the time of games, and contributed to the wide variance in strike zones called by umpires. In the past, a quality pitcher will blister the zone with his best pitch challenging the hitter to hit it. Now, batters are sitting back looking for "a mistake" to hit. Since the pitcher has the advantage, most do themselves no great service by throwing outside the zone.

Traditional pitching coaches preach that it is not velocity that matters most in pitching, it is movement. But velocity speed guns are still the primary tool to evaluate pitchers. A 100 mph straight fast ball can be hit by any major talent. It is the 94 mph pitch that moves sideways or plummets down that causes batters more problems. Bruce Sutter was an ace closer not because he had a dynamic fastball, but because he developed the original fork ball, an enticing pitch that looked like a heart of the plate fastball until it dropped off a table at the last moment. Sutter was looking for swings and misses, but he could throw his fork ball for called strikes. He was a pitcher not a thrower.

A pitcher has a plan for each batter, because each batter has a hole in his swing. A sinker ball master can have opponents beat the ball to the infielders for easy outs. Such a plan limits the starter's pitch count and gets the entire team into the game. A thrower gets on the mound a rears back for every pitch. He does not really know where it will land because control is not his primary principle.

With all the new stat analysis, what is lost is the more basic elements of the game: runs and outs. Each team has 27 outs to score runs. How you use those outs to get runs is important. A "productive" out such as a sacrifice bunt, hitting to the opposite field, a sacrifice fly are all downplayed today. Teams have horrible collective stats with runners in scoring position. Why? An individual stat priority takes precedence over the proper situational play like moving the runner over, of choking up on the bat to hit a single instead of a home run. Scoring runs should be the priority of every player, but there is now an inherent bias to put individual stats (that's how players are paid) ahead of the team.

Front offices continue to hire cheaper, non-old school managers who management can control more with stats than gut strategy. The game is morphing into a video game without controllers.

October 12, 2018

SOME KEY STATS

A major league team filled with a roster of "replacement level players" would be expected only to win 48 games. In reviewing the Cubs 2018 season, let us look at a few key statistics.

The Cubs won 95 games. That is 47 games above replacement level.

The Cubs combined hitters had a 24.0 WAR.

The Cubs pitching staff had a 21.1 WAR.

Combined, the roster had a 45.1 WAR.

In the end, the Cubs wins was 1.9 above their collective WAR. So the Cubs won two more games than reasonably expected during the season. Is this the quantitative measure of Maddon's managerial skill?

If you look at the Cubs win total to actual WAR, the 1.9 WAR difference is 4.2 percent. That would equate to a projected seasonal impact in approximately 7 games (6.82).

The Cubs were 11th in the NL with 104 errors made. That means the Cubs gave their opponents 104 more outs, or the equivalent of 3.85 games. For a tired pitching staff, adding another 4 games to 163 regular season contests is a burden. They had to perform 2.4 percent more than the norm.

Errors create base runners which leads to more "highly leveraged" pitching situations. For starters, that means changing one's mechanic's to the stretch position. For relievers, it puts more pressure to get strikes with your best pitch. For relievers, the errors could have added an average hidden  4 1/3 IP  to their work load, or 4 more appearances during the season. Cishek had 80 appearances for 70.1 IP. Wilson had 60 appearances for 52.1 IP.

The Cubs season could be summed up as being conflicted; there was inconsistent offense and tired pitching but it lead to a slight overachievement in the end.

October 11, 2018

BRYANT TO WALK

Multiple reports having Kris Bryant turning down a $200 million extension offer from the Cubs.

Bryant's agent, Scott Boras, is looking for his MVP winner in three years to hit the open market. A market, which two years ago, thought Bryce Harper would potentially reach the $400 million mark. But Boras and other top agents hit the wall last season when the free agent market tanked on star players. Harper's market value has plummeted with the misfortunes of the Nationals. Being a diva and not a five tool player has hurt Harper's valuation. But the market makers, the large big budget teams, are now more concerned about staying under the luxury tax or spending caps to bankrupt their draft picks and international pool money.

For the Cubs to even offer Bryant such a deal after his weak 2018 campaign is telling; someone in management thinks the Cubs window of opportunity for championships is longer than three years. But to offer any player $200 million is a risky proposition. Bryant has had various injuries that kept him out of the lineup for 60 games. Most troublesome is a shoulder injury for which rest did not help. It screwed up his batting mechanics to the point where he became a weak singles hitter. The Cubs do not need another .275 BA, big money singles hitter (i.e. Heyward.)

Player salaries continued to rocket northward from 2009 to 2016. In 2009 free agency, a star player would receive approximately $1.3 million/WAR. By 2012, the value increased to $3.3 million. It peaked around $6 million/WAR. Last off-season, J.D. Martinez had a 4.2 WAR. He was one of the few power hitting free agents. After a long wait, Boston signed him for decrease in his asking price, around $5.6 million/WAR. Other free agents got less.

Bryant and his agent are still miffed that their grievance on manipulating service time cost Bryant an earlier escape into free agency. But the Cubs did pay him more money than the minimum prior to arbitration eligibility. The Cubs have paid record arb awards to Bryant. He will make from $14 to 16 million in 2019. If you look at Martinez's Red Sox valuation, Bryant only had 1.9 WAR in 2018. That would equate to only a $10.4 million 2019 salary. Bryant's 2019 salary is still based on "talent" and not "performance," something Theo Epstein was in general bitter about his team during the post-season press conference. He had earned a record for a first-year arbitration-eligible player $10.85 million in 2018.

To offer Bryant $20 million/year extension means that the Cubs would not exercise the option on Hamels. The team would have to shed more money to keep under the salary cap, probably packaging Russell ($3 million), Schwarber ($1.3 million) and Chatwood ($12.5 million) in order to pay for Bryant's extension. All three of those Cub players are at their lowest trade value. They may have gone stale from their prospect-scouting talent projections based on recent performance.

Boras may still be misreading the future of MLB. The bottom of the market could crash in the next three years because MLB cannot count on a billion dollar national television deal. MLB teams cannot reasonably believe they will get a billion dollar windfall by creating their own Yankee network or Dodgers channel because cable operators are bleeding to death by cord cutters who refuse to pay for sports channels. Boras and other agents may think smart owners may cash out their investment in the next few years so some new rich guy will come to the table ready to spend money for "star" players.  So the odds are that Bryant will take a dangerous jog down the path of free agency.

October 6, 2018

THE SAME POSITION

The Cubs find themselves in the same position as they did last off-season.

The Cubs are in need of the following:

1. TWO STARTING PITCHERS.  Darvish and Chatwood signings were a total disaster. Darvish has an arm injury and Chatwood is a walk machine. Darvish injury is a stress reaction which is a precursor to a stress fracture in his elbow. It was reported that 8 weeks of rest would be the treatment plan, but one has to put a question mark on whether the injury is problematic (due to mechanic's etc). Chatwood may get a second chance, but most believe he can maybe salvageable as a long reliever. Montgomery was the 6th starter for most of the year. In 19 starts, he went 5-6, 3.99 ERA and 1.1 WAR. That may not be enough to claim the 5th starter role in 2019. The Cubs have to prepare to sign two more starting pitchers this off-season (Smyly does not count since he did not recover from his injury in the projected time frame to help the club in 2018).

2. LEAD OFF HITTER. Ever since Dexter Fowler left for free agency, the Cubs have not had a consistent lead off hitter (even though Fowler was not the prototypical lead off batter). It was recently reported that not all Cub players are happy with Maddon's new line-up everyday philosophy. Players want an established lineup order to better prepare for their games. The idea of leading off Rizzo, Bryant, or Baez (usually to get them out of slumps) hurt the run producing slots down the line. The Cubs had a major issue in run scoring. It was feast or famine. The second half was a painful drought. In 40 games, the Cubs scored less than 3 runs. The Cubs could not manufacture a run with a walk, stolen base and a single (only when pinch runner Gore made the club was there a slight glimmer of old school baseball.) When the hitting philosophy changed from launch angle/home run upper cuts to level line drive/opposite field for average, the Cubs offense was more ineffective. Having a high OBP, contact hitter with stolen base speed at the top of the order allows the Cubs the ability to manufacture at least a run every three times through the order. But advanced statistics (which Theo seems to be addicted to) calls out base steals as being counter-productive (risk-reward).

3. CLOSER. Morrow signing was hailed as a good move, but risky. He had a history of arm issues. But the front office said that the team would not "overuse" him. But Maddon, who really has a problem managing his bullpens, used Morrow three games in a row (for no apparent reason) which led to Theo believing that ended Morrow's season. The alternative closers did not step up to replace Morrow. Edwards seems to lose concentration in high leverage situations. Strop can be good, but Maddon making him bat after throwing 1 2/3 innings which led to his hamstring injury killed the final run. Cishek was overused by Maddon throughout the season so that his throwing arm is a foot longer than normal. There is no dominant arm in AAA to be the next closer. It is hard to trust whether Morrow will come back fully healthy, or whether he can be the regular closer in 2019.

The front office was under orders to not go over the luxury tax threshold in 2018. They bumped up to the ceiling by the end of the year. There is not much coming off the payroll for 2019. With arbitration players and existing contracts, the Cubs project to be near the $200 million mark, only $6 million from the new tax cap. If Russell is given his walking papers or traded, that saves around $3 million. A $9 million window will not sign a big FA like Harper, or exercise the $20 million option for Hamels.

You have to realize that there is still tension between baseball operations and the "business" side of the Cubs. Ricketts and Kenney were budgeting and banking on the Cubs going deep in the playoffs. The was the expectation from fans and ownership. If the Cubs would have gotten to the NLCS, the team could have banked at least $60 million in premium post-season revenue. That has to be a sore spot for the bean counters and the huge investment Ricketts has made outside the ball park. There is no reason to expect the Cubs to spend like drunken sailors this off-season to get an ace pitcher and a big expensive bat after spending $186 million on Darvish, Chatwood and Morrow who are under contract.

When Theo said in his state of the Cubs post-season press conference that they would be not looking at "talent" but "performance," he was calling out his young core guys: Schwarber, Happ, Contreras, Almora. Theo has a track record of loving his guys to the point of over-valuing them (and not trading them when they had value). Some reporters believe after the flat finish to the season, no one is untradeable from the roster.  But the front office and scouts may still have rose color glasses on their players "turning things around."  The roster is filled with .230 hitting platoon players. It would be rare for all of them at the same time to have sudden career years in 2019.  Spring training needs to be a battle for starting positions. Give the position to the player who earns it, so he can be hungry enough during the season to perform to keep it. That level of internal competition has been missing in the clubhouse under Maddon because juggles the lineup so everybody plays. But that track may not help in the development of players. Likewise, giving the job to a player on the up-cycle (like Contreras at catcher) does not necessarily guarantee continued success (at least offensively).

In one respect, the Cubs 2019 roster is pretty much hand cuffed by the underperforming core of young players. The Cubs championship window is now (and closing fast). The win-now demands means that they cannot shop for prospects and wait three years to promote them to the major league team. Do you blow up the team and trade for veterans on the downhill side of their careers for one last death march to the pennant? Of do you stay the choppy course with the guys you have?

October 3, 2018

CUBTOPSY

The lunch time sports radio is all about Cub disappointment.
And a storm cloud on the horizon future is the metaphor for the future.

Here's the preliminary Cubs autopsy:

 LEFT FIELD: Is Schwarber's .236 BA, 25 HR, 61 RBI, 1.5 WAR
enough to keep a full time job in 2019? Probably not
if Bryant is going to move to LF to protect his lame shoulder.
Which leads to a bigger question: will Bryant fully recover
from his injuries or is he going to stay a singles hitter?

CENTER FIELD: Will Almora be given the full time job
or will Maddon continue to use Happ as his primary guy?
Almora .286 BA is good but lacks power (5 HR). His overall
1.7 WAR is surprisingly low for a defensive specialist
which equates to be a bench guy. But Happ is not the
answer either: .235 BA, 15 HR 44 RBI 0.5 WAR.

RIGHT FIELD: Heyward has the big money contract so
the management forces him to start. .270 BA, 8 HR, 57 RBI, 1.6 WAR
is not a power corner outfielder. Zobrist's come back year of
.305 BA, 9 HR, 58 RBI, 3.3 WAR took time late in the season
away from Heyward. But Zo is turning 39 and his defensive range
is becoming a real issue.

In essence, the Cubs ran their outfield last season with 6
bench players sharing time instead of getting solid, proven
starters like the Brewers did with Yelich and Cain. There is
strong argument to be made that none of them have won
a starting job for next season, but there is no one in the
minors who will push for a starting role.

THIRD BASE: by default this is Bryant's spot, but
you have to be skeptical with his injuries. Bote was the
surprise call up, but his magic turns to myth when you look
at his final stats: .239 BA, 6 HR, 33 RBI, 1.0 WAR. Again,
Bote looks like a defensive replacement/bench player.

SHORTSTOP: Management likes Russell, but his suspension
and lingering injuries have affected his ability to a two-way player.
.250 BA, 5 HR, 38 RBI, 2.0 WAR are bench player numbers.

SECOND BASE: Baez had a team MVP season.: .290 BA,
34 HR, 111 RBI, 6.3 WAR. He is the first real starter in this
season review.

FIRST BASE: the second is Rizzo. .283 BA, 25 HR, 101 RBI,
2.7 WAR are respectable stats, but it should be noted that
Rizzo's WAR has steadily decreased since its 6.3 peak in 2015.

CATCHER: Contreras fell off the Earth in the second half of the season.
He bolted on the seen as the next great NL catcher. But 2018 was
a struggle: .249 BA, 10 HR, 54 RBI.

The Cubs offensive woes are clearly visible when you look at the
main players final stats. Of the 8 position players, only 3 (if you
include Contreras) rate as major league starters.


A fist full of .235 hitting players platooning with other .235 hitting players
is not going to create a .300 hitting position player.

The Cubs have hit the business side's glass ceiling for payroll in 2018.
There is a question of whether the team has any room to sign a quality free agent
or exercise Hamels $20 million option. The glass ceiling is the luxury tax limit
which Ricketts abhors to pay. The current penalties for overspending two years
in a row handcuffs front offices from both amateur and international signings. 

The Cubs midseason was on pace to spend $193 million with the luxury tax
threshold at $197 million. It will be close. Next year, the tax floor is raised
to $206 million.  But a look at the commitments for 2019, no opening day
salaried player is coming off the books. Instead, there are a few options
to retain players but no big window to spend a great deal more to get a
$25 million player like Bryce Harper.

This would be bearable if the farm system was ready to churn out major
league rookie prospects like the Dodgers organization does on an annual basis.
The Cubs are stuck with their current roster for the foreseeable future.

UPDATE: 10-10-18

MLBTR projects the Cubs will pay their arbitration eligible players a combined $40.1 million next season. That is an increase of approximately $21 million.

According to Sportac, the Cubs had the fourth-highest payroll in 2018 at $194,259,933. As we stated, the roster may not see a lot of  turnover (the bullpen may be the exception), but just adding the increase in arbitration salaries shows the Cubs projected payroll of $215 million for 2019 will be over the luxury cap by $9 million. This projection does not include exercise of Hamels $20 million or Kintzler's $5 million options.