It’s never been more dangerous to be a major league hitter. Through Thursday’s games, batters had been plunked by pitchers 457 times, struck with a fast-moving projectile made of cowhide and densely wound yarn. Considering that MLB pitchers are throwing harder than at any time in recorded history, it’s safe to assume that getting hit by a baseball has never stung worse.
While the rate of HBPs has fluctuated across the game’s history, it was just 0.34 per team game three seasons ago, which is more in line with where it was for most of the 1990s and 2000s. So what is causing the recent spike? It’s a bit of a mystery.
There’s one simple explanation: There are more opportunities to hit someone now because hitters are extending counts and pitchers are throwing more pitches. The past two full seasons saw the highest number of total pitches (721,282 in 2018 and 721,279 in 2017, according to Baseball-Reference.com) on record.2 But even though the raw counts are higher, the share of total pitches that hit a batter last season is also going up: 0.266 percent of all pitches in 2018 hit a batter, the second-highest share on record. Through Thursday, this season has seen a share of 0.274 percent — which would be the highest that we’ve seen.
Of course, one specific reason for an HBP is that the pitcher meant to do it. Retaliation is as old as the game itself. And nothing gets a pitcher more snippy than giving up a homer. Balls are flying out of ballparks more than ever before, giving pitchers more opportunities to throw at the offending players. But it’s not just the act of hitting a home run, it’s what can come next: Don’t flip your bat or stand too long watching it or lollygag around the bases or trash talk the opposition in mid-trot. This year, Tim Anderson was beaned for flipping the bat too aggressively at his own dugout.
Furthermore, with home runs all the rage, pitchers may seek to expand the strike zone by moving batters farther away from home plate, effectively making the outside part of the plate more out of reach. Miss just a little in to a hitter in midlean over the plate and … kerplunk.
While we can’t measure the pitchers’ intent, we can measure where pitches are being located. According to data from Baseball Savant, more pitches than ever before are being thrown on the inside third of the plate and off the plate to the inside.
Through Tuesday’s games, more than 32 percent of pitches were inside, which is the highest rate since pitch location was first tracked in 2008. This rate is up more than 3 percentage points from 2008, which may not seem like much on first blush but would equate roughly to an increase of more than 30,000 inside pitches.
With more pitches directed inside, more batters are bound to get hit. But how much of that is on the batters themselves? Even as far back as 1997, players were bemoaning how hitters could treat the batter’s box like they owned it.
”Today’s game, you see guys digging a little trench in there,” Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn told The New York Times. “I just get flashbacks and wonder if they would do that if [Bob] Gibson or [Steve] Carlton or [Nolan] Ryan or [Tom] Seaver were out there. You can’t let a hitter go up there and think he controls both halves of the plate. If you bust a guy in, keep him honest, get him off the plate, you might be able to get him out away.”
But Gibson hit “just” 102 batters in 3,884.3 career innings, or 0.24 per nine frames. That ranks 359th out of the 471 pitchers who threw at least 1,000 innings and hit at least 50 batters, according to Baseball-Reference.com. So the guy whose Hall of Fame bio says he “may well have been the most intimidating pitcher in MLB history” hit batters at a rate well below the hurlers of today’s game.
The pitcher today placing opposing trainers on the highest alert is Charlie Morton of the Tampa Bay Rays, who has led his league in hit batsmen four times in the past six years — despite never pitching more than 170 innings in any of those years. Morton nails 0.78 batters per nine innings, a career rate last exceeded by Ed Doheny (0.90), who retired in 1903. Morton’s ERA this year currently stands at a career-best 2.64. And in 2018, with the Astros, his .833 winning percentage led all of baseball: His 15 wins were one fewer than the number of batters he tattooed.
Willians Astudillo was already something of a cult hero before he made this year’s opening day roster of the Minnesota Twins. He earned a video shoutout on MLB.com shortly after his major league debut last year when his first-to-home sprint left him gasping. And ESPN tweeted that he “may have broken every single one of baseball’s unwritten rules” after he kneeled in the batter’s box to watch a winter ball home run. (The kneel was “a natural reaction,” Astudillo told us. “I thought it was going to be foul.”)
But there’s another thing that makes the 27-year-old rookie nicknamed La Tortuga is perhaps the most interesting man in baseball: his bat. No one in pro baseball hits quite like he does.
Among all major league hitters in history to record at least 100 plate appearances, Astudillo ranks first in batting average (.382). While he looks something like Bartolo Colon, he’s hitting like Ty Cobb.
With the Twins and Diamondbacks Triple-A teams in 2018 and 2017, Astudillo posted the lowest strikeout rateeach season among all Double-A and Triple-A batters with at least 100 plate appearances. In the farm systems of the Braves and Phillies in 2016 and 2015, he had the lowest K-rates in all of the minors. Across his entire minor league career, he struck out just 81 times in 2,461 plate appearances (3.3 percent). With velocity and strikeouts at record levels across the majors, it’s never been more difficult to make contact with a pitch. But in an age when walks and on-base percentage are prized, Astudillo has shown little interest in watching pitches go by. He walked on just 85 occasions (a 3.5 percent walk rate) across nine seasons in the minors.1
Astudillo has always hit. So why did it take him 10 years to make the major leagues? It’s probably that the sport didn’t know what to do with him. No one has looked, or hit, quite like the 5-foot-9, 225-pound catcher/utility man.
The Twins’ scouts were perplexed by Astudillo, said Derek Falvey, the chief baseball officer for Minnesota.
“They weren’t necessarily projecting the power or the on-base skill because of the lack of walks,” Falvey said. “I’d say [the scouts’ grade on his bat] was probably fringe-average, in that range, toward average. It wasn’t anything that stood out.”
He was such an outlier that Minnesota’s own projection system struggled to find comps when the Twins were scouring minor league free agents after the 2017 season.2
“He’s an interesting guy because he’s not someone projection systems would easily pick out,” Falvey said. “It’s a simple reason: Projection systems are based upon history. Take a random player, like Jonathan Schoop. You know what his track record was through the minor leagues. If you have a similar batted-ball profile, strikeout rate, swing-and-miss rate, all those things, there’s a chance you might become someone like him over time. That’s the way projection systems are built. They look at history to then look at the future.
“Willians is kind of his own breed.”
Astudillo is interesting for another reason, too: He’s getting better.
Astudillo’s grandfather and father were obsessed with baseball. His father had played professionally in Venezuela. Astudillo remembers a drill in which his father would kneel a few feet away and flick corn kernels toward him in their backyard in the coastal city of Barcelona, Venezuela. Astudillo’s objective was to hit the knuckling projectiles with a broomstick. He thinks his rare contact ability is part nature and part nurture.
“I think it’s just who I’ve been since the beginning, practicing with my dad and my grandfather. That close nucleus back home, just practicing,” Astudillo told FiveThirtyEight through an interpreter. “It’s something that I have. I don’t know how to explain it exactly.”
But low-strikeout, high-contact hitters are increasingly interesting for another reason beyond their scarcity: They’ve shown a knack for developing power.
The average launch angle has increased every year since Statcast began measuring balls in play in 2015, from 10.1 degrees in 2015 to 11.7 degrees last season and to what would be a record rate of 13.2 degrees as it stands early this season. (Astudillo’s average launch angle was 12.2 degrees last season.) That trend suggests that more hitters are trying to hit balls above infield shifts and out of the ballpark.
Hitters with excellent contact rates but unlikely power-hitting builds — like Jose Ramirez, Jose Altuve, Justin Turner, Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor — have become sluggers in recent seasons. As more batters are adjusting their swing planes, elite contact hitters have made the greatest offensive gains — measured in one way by isolated power, or slugging percentage minus batting average.
Astudillo has also gained power in recent years without having to sacrifice his contact ability. No projection system or scout saw that coming. Falvey, who had worked in the Cleveland front office before taking the Twins job, noted that Ramirez was also a high-contact hitter before he had an unlikely power breakout.
“Did anyone see Jose Ramirez turning into that kind of power hitter?” he said. “If anyone tells you they believed that at the outset — I worked there — I can tell you that’s not true. We did believe he had some interesting profile traits. Same thing with Willians.”
While Astudillo was limited to 128 Triple-A plate appearances with the Diamondbacks in 2017, his isolated power jumped to a career-best .217, up from .065 the previous year. His previous best ISO mark had been .101. (The MLB average ISO was .161 in 2018.) With the Twins last year, he followed up with a .192 ISO mark in 307 plate appearances in Triple-A and a .161 mark in 97 plate appearances with the major league club.
“I think it’s the experience from playing more often,” Astudillo said of his power surge. “Yes, I made contact (early in my career), but it was mostly weak contact. I was swinging at pitches a little out of the zone. Now I am not swinging at those pitches. I am being more selective.”
Astudillo ranks 35th in the frequency of swinging at pitches out of the zone among major league hitters to have recorded at least 100 plate appearances since last season, and he ranks 17th in swing percentage. But Falvey noted that Astudillo doesn’t dramatically expand his zone and offer at pitches far outside the strike zone.
“It’s not like he’s trying to chase balls over his head or out of the strike zone,” Falvey said. “He just constantly attacks strikes. He has a unique ability that when he attacks a strike, he usually doesn’t miss.”
When Astudillo goes outside the zone, he’s not going that far out of the zone. And when he swings — either in or out of the zone — he doesn’t miss. Astudillo leads baseball in contact rate (91.9 percent) and out-of-zone contact rate (83.3) among batters with at least 100 plate appearances since last season. That’s well above the MLB averages for both last season, with contact rate at 76.9 percent and out-of-zone contact at 60.1 percent.
While Astudillo’s bat is fascinating, it’s not the reason the Twins signed him in November 2017 to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. They were intrigued by his glove.
During their organizational meetings last spring, Twins officials went through the scouting reports on players in their camp. As they looked at Astudillo, they thought he could play second, third, left field and catcher — important versatility in a sport that increasingly requires roster flexibility. A Twins evaluator in the room then spoke up.
“‘He can play center, too, just ask him,’” Falvey recalled.
The club officials were amused. Center field didn’t seem like a natural fit for the stout player. But Astudillo showed them the proof: video of himself robbing a home run in a 2014 Venezuelan winter league playoff game.
Months later, after several Twins went down with heat exhaustion during a game on a sweltering afternoon last June, Astudillo trotted out to center field in Wrigley Field. He became the first player 5-foot-9 or shorter weighing more than 220 pounds to play center in a major league baseball game, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
But even given his versatility, the Twins thought he was best suited to play catcher, according to Falvey. Astudillo rated as an above-average pitch framer throughout his minor league career, according to Baseball Prospectus defensive metrics — and pitch framing has been a focus of Falvey’s since he took the reins of the Twins after the 2016 season.
While the Twins initially brought in Astudillo for his interesting glove, it’s his bat that will ultimately determine how much he plays and whether he’s a short-lived curiosity or becomes a useful major leaguer.
Even the Twins admit that they didn’t see this player emerging. But as is so often the case with Astudillo, what you expect is not what you get.
With a blazing average of 4.07 seconds to first base — that’s 15.1 miles per hour — Kansas City Royals shortstop Adalberto Mondesi was one of the fastest players in Major League Baseball last season. But this year, he’s not even the fastest player on his own team. That honor belongs to new center fielder Billy Hamilton, who runs to first in an astonishing 3.94 seconds. Fourth outfielder Terrance Gore might not be much slower, either, and none of those guys is even the reigning MLB leader in stolen bases — which K.C. right fielder Whit Merrifield happens to be. These are the 2019 Royals: The fastest baseball team assembled in years.
It was clear from the start that this team’s identity would be all about running as fast as possible: “We want to be a motion team,” general manager Dayton Moore told MLB.com in February. “We have to be elite at some aspects of the game, and defense and speed is something we can be elite at.” And Kansas City has already put that speed to good use in its season-opening games against the Chicago White Sox, with Merrifield and Chris Owings swiping three combined bases and Mondesi hitting two triples in a 2-1 series victory.
If the 2014 and 2015 Royals were an experiment in whether a talented small-ball team could win a championship in the modern game (it worked), this year’s version will be more about how much pure speed can make up for a lack of talent in other areas. The Royals might not be “good” per se — but in an era when just about every team is constructed according to the blueprint of advanced analytics, they will be different, and that might have value in itself.
This year’s team is projected to be better yet still far from first place. The preseason FiveThirtyEight forecast called for Kansas City to improve all the way to 70 wins, though most of that change could be attributed to regression toward the mean rather than any specific additions. (In fact, K.C.’s most notable roster development since last fall was the news that Perez, a six-time All-Star, would miss the whole 2019 season with an elbow injury.) The projections were also low on both the 2014 and 2015 Royals, getting blindsided entirely by their World Series runs, but at least those teams had established, scout-approved talent with some sort of a track record and upside. The 2019 Royals don’t pass the eye test any more than they impress the computers.
The projected speed in this lineup, however, is the genuine article. According to FanGraphs’ preseason depth chart projections, Royal hitters were forecast to swipe 168 bases this year, which represented 6.2 percent of the total steals predicted for all of MLB.2 If Kansas City hits that benchmark, it would become only the sixth team since 1996 to claim at least 6.2 percent of leaguewide stolen bases. The 2016 Brewers did it recently, but mostly that rate was a hallmark of teams from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when gaudy steal totals were the norm and not every team had settled into similar offensive philosophies guided by sabermetrics.
The speed of these Royals emerges in other metrics as well. I filtered down every opening day lineup since 1950 for those that contained at least eight players who had logged 200 or more plate appearances during the previous year. Then, for each lineup, I averaged two numbers from its players in the season before: Speed Score — a Bill James invention that estimates raw speed by combining stolen bases (both attempts and successes), triples and runs scored as a percentage of times on base — and FanGraphs’ Base Running (BsR) statistic, which quantifies the run value of every base-running action (including steals and advancement on other events). The 2019 Royals’ average Speed Score is tied for 24th since 1950, and its average BsR per 600 plate appearances ranks 71st; only 12 opening day lineups were faster by both measures, and half of those played during the nine-season span from 1978 to 1986, a heyday for running teams.
So this is basically an ’80s-style team of burners, in the mold of the Whitey Herzog St. Louis Cardinals,3 dropped down into the modern major leagues. And Kansas City’s speedsters are off to a blazing start already, easily leading baseball in Speed Score through the first weekend of the season with an eye-popping 8.5 mark. (The MLB average is about 4.4 in recent seasons, with the leader topping out around 5.4 most years.)
The Royals’ next step, though, is turning all that speed into more tangible results. Perhaps most surprising in Kansas City’s portfolio of badness last year is that the team was somehow MLB’s fifth-worst at base running (according to BsR) despite the steals-leading presence of Merrifield atop the lineup for most of the year. The Royals’ speed was above average — if not quite as impressive as this season — but they didn’t use it well, particularly between bases in advancement scenarios. According to FanGraphs, K.C. lost 12 runs (more than an entire win) relative to the average team in base-running situations that didn’t involve steals. One of the ways K.C. can improve this year is to deploy its running game in a smarter way, using it to take advantage when opponents inevitably offer up chances to take extra bases.
That’s an area in which Kansas City might take a cue from its 2014-15 teams, which were legendary for their opportunism on the base paths. Take the famous ninth-inning play that extended Game 5 of the 2015 World Series: Eric Hosmer’s heads-up sprint from third base to home on a weak groundout, a daring piece of aggressive base running that forced an errant throw by Mets first baseman Lucas Duda and tied the ballgame. The Royals would eventually score five 12th-inning runs off New York’s beleaguered bullpen to secure the championship.
Hosmer (career Speed Score: 4.0) wasn’t even fast, so imagine how much more damage Hamilton, Mondesi, Merrifield and friends could do if they pick their base-running spots correctly. Along the same lines, Kansas City is also hoping this speedy roster can emulate the 2015 Royals’ defense, which according to FanGraphs was the best in baseball in terms of runs saved relative to average.
Larger issues, such as the team’s dismal .305 on-base percentage last season, might place hard limits on how much value Kansas City can get out of its speed this year. (Even Sunday, the team was being no-hit by Chicago’s Lucas Giolito — owner of a career 5.48 earned run average going into the game — into the seventh inning.) But no matter what, it should at least be more worthwhile to watch the fleet Royals this season, both for the entertainment of all those steals and as an experiment in against-the-grain team-building.
DUNEDIN, Fla. — Within a 30-foot radius in the Toronto Blue Jays’ cramped spring training clubhouse are locker spaces adorned with the nameplates Guerrero, Biggio and Bichette. Any baseball fan of the 1990s and early 2000s would recognize these surnames: Vladimir Guerrero, Craig Biggio and Dante Bichette combined for 20 All-Star Game appearances across two decades. But these lockers belong to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette, who have combined for zero big-league at-bats to date. They are on the cusp of the majors, prospects invited to camp in the sleepy Gulf Coast town of Dunedin, Florida.
But expectations are high for the Blue Jays’ young trio. Guerrero is the No. 1 prospect in the game according to most evaluators. Bichette is considered a top 20 prospect. And Biggio dramatically elevated his prospect status last season. Another son of a former big leaguer, pitcher Mark Leiter Jr., was also in the clubhouse before undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Second-generation prospects are not limited to the Toronto system, either. ESPN’s Keith Law has San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr., another legacy, as the game’s No. 1 prospect, while Pittsburgh’s Ke’Bryan Hayes — son of Charlie — is also a top 20 prospect. And numerous legacy prospects are or will soon be contributing to their big-league clubs: Adalberto Mondesi (son of Raul) is expected to be in the Royals’ starting lineup, Lance McCullers Jr. is a fixture in the Astros’ rotation when healthy, and slugger Cody Bellinger (son of Clay) has already earned an All-Star nod for the Dodgers.
If it seems like the kids of former big leaguers are taking over the sport this spring, it’s because they kind of are — they’re making the majors at rates far greater than the general population.
Whether it’s Guerrero, Bichette, Biggio or another prospect, the next child of a major leaguer to reach the majors will set a record for legacy debuts in a single decade. Entering 2019, the 2010s (44 debuts) are tied with the 1990s for most such debuts, according to Baseball-Reference.com data analyzed by FiveThirtyEight. The share of debuts by sons of major leaguers this decade is the second-highest on record (2.1 percent), and could perhaps challenge the 1990s record (2.3 percent) by the close of the season.
But it’s how the progeny of former players are reaching the pinnacle of the sport, and at increasing numbers, that is misunderstood.
When Cavan Biggio and his brother, Conor (who was drafted by the Astros in 2015), were in elementary school, Craig Biggio picked them up from school when the Astros were at home. They traveled straight to Minute Maid Park for the Astros’ pre-game batting practice. During games, Cavan and Conor didn’t spend their time in the family section; rather, they confined themselves to the Astros’ concrete bunker of a batting cage in the bowels of the stadium. They would hit off the tee and play games in the space, only vacating it if an Astros bench player came to get ready for a pinch-hitting at-bat. They observed the swings and collected the balls swatted into the nylon netting. The only other time they would pause is to watch their dad’s at-bats when their attention turned to the bubble-screen TV attached above cage.
Like his dad, Cavan has a two-handed finish in his swing. This is not a coincidence. “The only thing he would say to me, mechanically, was ‘Two-handed finish, two-handed finish,’” Cavan said. “I still hear it today ‘Two-handed finish’ OK. I know [Dad]. I got it.”
He’s not alone in mimicking what made his dad so successful. The swing of Bo Bichette is also similar to his father’s.
It’s not just at the plate, too. In Pirates camp, Hayes is renowned for his defensive ability at third base. “My mom says that our mannerisms on defense, the way we stand and stuff like that, are exactly the same,” Hayes said.
Driveline Baseball’s Kyle Boddy studies athletic movement patterns and is on the vanguard of player development in baseball. In speaking with Boddy for reporting on the “The MVP Machine,” he said the greatest advantage in being the son of a major leaguer is in mimicking movement patterns. After all, early-life imitation is key in motor learning. He cited the throwing motion of Astros’ McCullers Jr., which closely resembles that of his father’s.
Boddy suspects the children of major leaguers succeed at abnormally high rates. With the available data it’s difficult to know exactly how their success rate compares to the general population, but there are suggestions that it’s far better.
The proportion of U.S. high school players compared to domestic-born major leaguers has stayed more or less the same. In every year since 1978, there have been almost exactly 500 high school players in the country for every one U.S.-born major leaguer, according to Baseball-Reference.com and National Federation of State High School Associations data. That’s a success rate of about 0.2 percent. We don’t know the total number of major league progeny playing baseball, so we can’t make a direct comparison. But, over the last 30 years, the sons of majors leaguers have accounted for 2 percent of all debuts, and that number has gradually risen throughout the game’s history.1
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Hayes’ pedigree played a role in moving him up their draft board, selecting him in the first round in 2015. Huntington is also confident the Blue Jays are “baking in” legacy considerations to their evaluation sauce.
“There’s a lot to be said for seeing how things are done at the highest level whether it’s motor learning or whether it’s how people carry themselves,” Huntington said. “They see the drive, the work ethic it takes.”
What’s also interesting about Hayes, Biggio and Bichette is not just what they observed but how they were taught.
“I never really worked on mechanics,” saya Hayes about his father’s tutelage. “ At a young age, I just kinda learned the right movement, the fundamental stuff.”
Said Bichette: “We didn’t do a lot of drills.”
Boddy is wary of burdening pitchers with too many internal cues. Similarly, Schonbrun says implicit learning is the most effective way to acquire a skill.\
“Ken Griffey Sr. probably didn’t show his son how to wiggle his bat and find that perfect arc for his swing,” Schonbrun says. “I’m guessing he probably told Ken Jr. ‘Here’s how you should get from A to B,’ and Ken developed that swing on his own. … In a lot of ways, that’s a better way for the brain to learn rather than following really detailed explicit instruction.”
‘Specialization’ is not a dirty word
A common experience shared by Biggio, Bichette and Hayes is that they all grew up with a batting cage in their backyards. They all had access to travel baseball, equipment and facilities. Tim Lee, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, believes that those factors are perhaps the greatest advantage in having a professional athlete for a parent.
“The relationship of the model to the learner is one of the important moderating variables in observational learning,” Lee told FiveThirtyEight. “My hunch, however, is that this plays a far less important role than does the availability of practice facilities and instructional opportunities.”
While those spaces speak to the financial edge that also comes with being the son of a big leaguer, the cages, lessons and tools allowed them to be exposed to not just high-level motor patterns but enabled them to log thousands upon thousands of reps.
In the backyard of their Houston home, Hayes estimates he took “anywhere from 400 to 500 swings a day.”
Said Bichette of life in the backyard swing incubator: “At one point in my life we would go into cage and count at least 200 swings.”
For his fielding work, Biggio said his dad taught him to throw a lacrosse ball off a wall to create unusual hops to improve his hands. Hayes was also taught the practice and still tosses a lacrosse ball off of a wall when killing time in the hallways of minor league clubhouses. It’s one reason he projects as having a 70-grade glove on the 20-to-80 scouting scale.
When Bichette was a freshman in high school, he was also an excellent tennis player, but his parents urged him to choose one sport. Dante Bichette understood the importance of specialization.
While there has been research and concern about sports specialization leading to injury and burnout, Schonbrun notes it’s difficult to excel without it. Florida State professor Anders Ericsson attempted to quantify the hours of specialization needed to become an expert in 1993, which Malcolm Gladwell later dubbed the 10,000-hour rule in his book “Outliers.” Schonbrun said specialization is “necessary.”
“From a cognitive and neurological standpoint, the more you can focus on one task, the more practice that goes into it, the better you are going to be,” Schonbrun said.
Baseball-Reference.com‘s database contains father-son pairs to play in the majors but it does not include minor league family history or other family connections. That means the advantage in growing up around the game is probably even more considerable than we’re showing here. Consider the case of another consensus top-five prospect this spring, a player who could be the next teenager to reach the majors: Tampa Bay’s Wander Franco.
While he seems like a natural, dominating older competition at age 17 last summer, he is also the youngest of three brothers — each named WanderFranco — who each play in the Giants organization. His father, another Wander Franco, pitched in the minor leagues. His uncles Willy and Erick Aybar played in the majors. His neighbor growing up in the Dominican city of Bani was Cleveland Indians infielder Jose Ramirez.
Franco IV was exposed to elite-level motor patterns when he was young, but he was also around people obsessed with baseball. There was a dry river bed near his neighborhood in Bani and that became their ballpark. They used whatever scrap they could find to create bases. They wound up a sock to use as a ball.
“It was all games, every day,” Franco told FiveThirtyEight through an interpreter.
The Rays gave Franco, the No. 1 international prospect in 2017, a $3.85 million bonus. “One of the things that helped us get comfortable with that level of investment was that he had grown up around the game,” said Chaim Bloom, the Rays’ vice president of baseball operations. “You see a lot of guys who have a tremendous amount of skill but don’t know how to apply it on a baseball field. The way that Wander was able to do that as an amateur was really, really rare.”
Franco might seem like a natural, but his story might be more about nurture than nature.
Genes do play a role in success, of course. Bichette said the “bat speed” he shares with his father cannot be taught. Biggio says he has better than 20-20 vision and so does his brother and father. There are things Guerrero Jr. does with that bat that are assuredly tied to genetics.
But in some ways they are all lesser athletes than their fathers. Biggio is not nearly as fast as his father. Guerrero Jr. is not built like his fatherlisted at a 6-2, 250 pounds, where his father was 6-3, 235. As a shortstop, Bichette has a much smaller frame than his father, who was a slugging corner outfielder.
While they are the sons of former professional athletes, there are more talented natural athletes that never reach the major leaguers. Their advantages go beyond genetics, and for a variety of reasons, the advantage of being the son of a major leaguer is growing.
As reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Angels are closing in on a 12-year contract extension worth at least $430 million with outfielder Mike Trout, setting the all-time mark for both the largest contract (passing Bryce Harper’s $330 million deal from a few weeks ago) and the greatest average annual contract value in baseball history. Trout is a longtime object of fascination for us here at FiveThirtyEight; we’ve frequently extolled his virtues as baseball’s best and most consistent star. Now he has the record-breaking contract to match his talent — but one that might still represent a big bargain for the Angels. And the deal’s long-term nature only renews questions about Trout’s ability to win in L.A., as well as his potential to break through as a star off the field.
At first glance, about $36 million per year seems like a tremendous deal for the Angels. According to FanGraphs’ estimated market values based on wins above replacement (WAR), a player with Trout’s 2018 production should have been worth about $79 million last season. That’s nothing new for Trout: FanGraphs estimates that he was worth $55 million (in 70 percent of a full season) in 2017, $78 million in 2016 and $74 million in 2016. So if Trout continues his recent pace, the Angels will basically be paying him half of what he’d be worth on the open market over the next few seasons.
Of course, Trout is also 27 this year, traditionally the age at which baseball players peak. Trout’s new deal will take him through 2030, his age-38 season. Even though no player in baseball history has posted more career WAR through their age-26 season than Trout,1 it’s probably safe to assume that Trout won’t continue to be a 10-WAR-per-season machine throughout the entire life of this contract.
The old saying that “Father Time is undefeated” remains true — perhaps truer now than ever. And even star-level players peak more quickly than you might expect. While Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were superstars late into their careers, other outfielders similar to Trout — such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones — fell off a performance cliff after age 30 and never recovered.
Here’s a plot of the 10 retired outfielders most similar to Trout through age 26 (according to The Baseball Gauge), along with the arcs of their seasonal WAR as aging took hold:
Trout’s most similar group averaged just fewer than 1.0 WAR by age 38. And that group contains eight Hall of Famers, including Griffey, Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson and Mel Ott. To further complicate matters, the quality of competition in MLB continues to improve over time, and the game is getting younger, making it more difficult to age well.
However, if 1 WAR is worth $8 million in 2019, and that value inflates by 3 percent per season (for the first five seasons),2 the average of Trout’s comparable group would be worth about $450 million from age 27 through age 38. And it bears mentioning that Trout has accumulated 48 percent more WAR through age 26 than his comparable group of all-time legends. (Yes, Trout is good.)
So Trout seems like a very good bet to deliver more value to the Angels than they’re paying him for in this contract, even if some of the assumptions above are more player-friendly than the current state of baseball’s economics. While many MLB mega-contracts end up looking bad in retrospect, this Trout deal might be the rare one that delivers positive surplus value for the team.
Either way, with no opt-outs in the deal and a full no-trade clause, Trout and the Angels are committed to each other for the long haul. If Trout is interested in winning World Series rings, he took a risk in remaining in Anaheim: He has never won a playoff game with the Angels even while establishing himself at the game’s best player. As great as Trout has been, even the best player cannot do it alone — particularly not in baseball, which is a weak-link sport that is less dependent on star talent than other sports.
But in some ways, the Angels’ outlook is improving for the second act of the Trout era. Albert Pujols’s albatross of a contract is coming off the books after the 2021 season — $28 million in present-day dead money the Angels can allocate elsewhere.
The Angels entered Tuesday with $28 million committed in 2022 salaries, ranking 18th in baseball despite playing in the sport’s No. 2 market in Los Angeles. (The MLB average is $35.2 million committed in 2022, according to Spotrac.) So should the Angels want to compete in the market for high-end free-agent talent in coming years — like, say, Mookie Betts (free agency ETA 2021) or Francisco Lindor (free agency ETA 2022)3 — they will have the flexibility and purchasing power to do so.
Perhaps most important for the club’s long-term prospects is the productivity of its farm system. For much of Trout’s tenure with the Angels, the club had one of the worst farm systems in baseball. The Angels’ system ranked last in baseball in 2014, 2016 and 2017, according to Baseball America. That’s begun to change. The Angels hired Billy Eppler to lead their front office after the 2015 season; they improved to 14th in the rankings in 2018 and 13th this spring.
Outfielder Jo Adell, L.A.’s first-round pick in 2017, has quickly become one of the game’s elite prospects, while starter Griffin Canning, a second-round pick in 2017, gives the Angels a second top-100 prospect. And help from the farm is not too far away: Eight of the top 10 Angels prospects are expected to open in Double-A or higher this spring. Moreover, if the Angels’ top prospect from a year ago, Shohei Ohtani, can become a consistent impact performer as a pitcher and hitter, L.A. could have two star caliber players in one roster spot.
The Angels’ biggest long-term issue is that they are in the same division as the Houston Astros, who are on the cutting edge of evaluation and player development. The Astros took home the 2017 World Series trophy, won 103 games a year ago project to win 99 games again this season according to the FiveThirtyEight model, all while maintaining a farm system that has ranked fifth or better in three of the past four years. Baseball America ranks the Astros’ farm system No. 5 in the game entering 2019.
It will be no easy task to supplant the Astros as kings of the AL West. And if Trout and the Angels can’t do that, it will be more difficult for Trout to raise his own profile, which lags well behind what his talent would suggest. Only one baseball player made ESPN’s list of the 100 most famous athletes in the world, and it wasn’t Trout — it was Bryce Harper at No. 99. This contract extension makes Trout very rich, but it also forces him to forfeit the chance to join a more likely World Series contender — and he’ll miss out on the spotlight that would have shown on him during his own free agency after the 2020 season.
So now the pressure is even greater for the Angels to surround Trout with better talent and build a winner around him. By the end of this contract, he’ll have spent two full decades with the franchise. It would be a true shame if Trout’s next 12 seasons contain as little team success as his first eight did.
The Philadelphia Phillies and star outfielder Bryce Harper on Thursday reached a record free-agent agreement in terms of total dollars ($330 million) and years (13). After waiting 123 days since the World Series ended, Harper breaks the mark set just days earlier by Manny Machado. The previous open-market record — Alex Rodriguez’s free-agent contract for $275 million deal with the Yankees on Dec. 13, 2007 — stood for 11 years until this winter.1
But Harper’s deal falls short in terms of annual average value ($25.4 million). For instance, Rodriguez’s mega deals signed in 2007 and 2001 each had greater average values, and offseason speculation expected that Harper might command more than $30 million per season.2 There is no opt-out clause in the deal, but there is a no-trade clause. Given the deal’s less-than-expected annual average value and Harper’s far-longer-than-expected wait on the open market, the contract suggests that the baseball industry didn’t quite know what to make of Bryce Harper.
The good news for the Phillies is that Harper should help them immediately. Based on 100 simulations run for FiveThirtyEight by Out of the Park Developments, Harper will improve the Phillies from an 80.2-win team in 2019 to an 86.1-win team, though the computer forecasts still had Philadelphia missing the postseason. Harper caps an aggressive offseason for the Phillies, who traded for catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura and added notable free agents Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson to a young core led by ace pitcher Aaron Nola and slugger Rhys Hoskins.
But what’s troubling for the Phillies, who are now committed to Harper through his age 38 season in 2031, is that there’s a good chance that Harper has already played his best baseball.
Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2009 at age 16, dubbed the “most exciting prodigy since LeBron.” A year later, he was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He debuted as a 19-year-old in 2012 and won rookie of the year. In 2015, he posted a season of 10 wins above replacement and was named as the National League MVP. Since he reached the majors in 2012, he’s 20th in position player WAR, and he owns a .900 OPS (on-base plus slugging). In many ways, he’s lived up to the hype.
But seven seasons into his career, we’re not exactly sure what type of player Harper is. While he’s shown stretches of brilliance, volatility in performance has been his most consistent trait.
This has led to an unusual career trajectory to date.
He’s one of only 15 position players 25 and younger to own a 10-WAR season, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The rare company includes Ted Williams, Mike Trout, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken Jr. But he’s had just the one elite-level season.3 His other campaigns have had a range of outcomes, from 1.1 to 5.1 WAR. Even within seasons, he’s had dramatic peaks and valleys. Last year, for instance, he hit .214 with an .833 OPS in the first half but was a star in the second half when he hit .300 with a .972 OPS.
Injuries have played a role in this. Harper has played fewer than 120 games in three of his seven years in the majors, and those partial seasons have also limited his ability to rack up WAR, which is a cumulative stat that rewards just showing up for work.
FiveThirtyEight examined all players in MLB history who have had one season of 8 or more WAR — but only one — before turning 26, and then we studied the trajectory of those players’ careers. There are 32 such players in MLB history, including three other than Harper who are still active: Aaron Judge, Matt Chapman (who hasn’t played his age 26 season) and Evan Longoria. Of the 28 players who are no longer active, 17 never produced another 8-plus WAR season after their age 25 season.
The historical players studied peaked at age 24 (6.6 WAR) and 25 (6.5 WAR), then they declined steadily. A player’s peak is often earlier than conventional wisdom would expect. Jeff Zimmerman at FanGraphs found that while the average ballplayer peaks at age 27, good players peak at either 25 or 26 years old.
While there are exceptions like Adrian Beltre and Henry Aaron, who had some of their best years later in their careers, the best baseball happens early for many excellent players. That doesn’t mean that Harper (or Machado, for that matter) can’t be a star-level player regularly, but history is betting against him becoming a consistent MVP presence like Mike Trout. Baseball may not quite know what Bryce Harper is, but the Phillies are going to find out.
Earlier this month, Major League Baseball said it was considering a rule change to require pitchers to face at least three batters per appearance — or finish an inning — as part of a series of initiatives to improve the pace of play. I don’t hate this; I’ve always been a fan of relief pitchers working longer outings. But I think the MLB proposal misses the real problem.
The issue isn’t really with relievers who face just one hitter at a time. In fact, LOOGYs — Left-handed One-Out Guys — are already fading in popularity as teams realize that if a pitcher isn’t good enough to face multiple hitters in a row, he may not belong in the bullpen pecking order at all.
Instead, the problem concerns teams that use a parade of relievers who enter the game from the sixth inning onward and throw the hell out of the ball, knowing they’ll probably max out at one inning at a time. (The Yankee bullpen is a prime example.) You might call these pitchers OMGs: One-inning Max-effort Guys. They can be incredibly, game-changingly effective, but they aren’t necessarily all that skilled.
In fact, the whole problem is that OMGs are a renewable resource, with no real constraints on supply. Teams can take failed starters with two decent pitches and, after some weeding out, turn them into OMGs who will strike out 25 or 30 percent of the batters they face, provided they only have to throw one inning every second or third day. It also yields rosters that are grossly imbalanced relative to the amount of value that these relievers generate. According to FanGraphs, relief pitchers accounted for only about 9 percent of the value (in wins above replacement) that all position players and pitchers created last year. And yet, they occupy about 25 percent of roster slots.
Strikeouts have been increasing for more or less the entirety of baseball history. Here’s the trajectory from 190811 up until last year — when, for the first time, more plate appearances ended with strikeouts than with base hits.
There are a couple of peaks marking the end of the Deadball Era in the late 1910s and then another pitchers’ era in the mid-to-late 1960s, but overall the trend is very steady. Over this period, the correlation between the year and the strikeout rate is 0.91.
One other baseball trend has been equally if not more relentless, however: As time has passed, teams have relied more and more on their bullpens. As a result, both starting pitchers and relievers have seen increasingly shorter stints. Thus, the number of pitchers per team per game has steadily increased, from 1.4 in 1908 to around 4.4 now.
The correlation is stronger still if you look at the number of pitchers used relative to the number of plate appearances in a typical game.12 For instance, if you take the number of pitchers used per 38 plate appearances13 — over the long run, MLB teams average about 38 plate appearances per game — you get this:
That looks a lot like the previous graph showing the strikeout rate — the correlation is 0.96 — including a dip in both pitchers used and strikeouts at the end of the Deadball Era in the late 1910s and again at the end of the Second Deadball Era in the early 1970s, and then an especially steep acceleration in both strikeouts and pitchers used over the past few years.
It’s not just a coincidence that relief pitcher usage and strikeout rate are correlated in this way. When you take a starter and use him in relief — especially in a short stint that typically lasts only an inning or so — his strikeout rate will be usually be higher, and sometimes a lot higher. You can also expect him to throw harder and to use a more dangerous repertoire consisting of more fastballs and sliders.
Here’s the tale of the tape. Using data from FanGraphs, I looked at all pitchers who worked both as starters and relievers between 2016 and 2018, providing for a direct, head-to-head comparison of how the pitchers performed in each role. These pitchers’ strikeout rates were about 12 percent higher when they came on in relief than when they started. They also threw about a mile per hour harder in relief.14
Starters supercharge their K rate when working in relief
Statistics for MLB pitchers who worked as both starters and relievers, 2016-18
Those are meaningful gains, but the really big differences come when you use pitchers in short stints that are roughly one inning long. In the next table, I’ve assigned the pitchers who worked both as starters and relievers into three groups: first, those who averaged five or fewer batters faced per relief appearance (these are guys who usually threw just one inning at a time — the OMGs); second, those who averaged more than five but fewer than eight batters faced (a mix of one-inning and multi-inning appearances); and third, those who averaged eight or more batters faced (mostly multi-inning appearances).
It’s much easier to throw an inning at a time
Statistics for MLB pitchers who worked as both starters and relievers, 2016-18, by how many batters faced per relief appearance
Five or fewer batters
Between five and eight batters
Eight or more batters
The first group — the OMGs — got a massive, 20 percent boost to their strikeout rate as relievers. They also gained about 2 mph worth of fastball velocity. And they were able to throw fastballs or sliders — the pitches that seem to be at the core of increasing K rates — 76 percent of the time in relief as compared with 71 percent of the time as starters.
Conversely, the third group — the long relievers who routinely worked multi-inning stints — got only a 6 percent gain in their strikeout rates relative to the ones they had as starters, and they added only 0.6 mph to their fastballs.
LOOGYs aren’t really the problem
The MLB proposal would effectively kill off the LOOGY, along with its much rarer companion, the ROOGY. So it’s worth asking: If relief pitchers are especially effective when they’re limited to only one inning of work, does it follow that they do even better when limited to just one or two hitters? That is to say, could MLB’s proposal to require that pitchers face at least three batters cause an especially large reduction in strikeout rates?
The answer is: not really. If you further break down our sample of pitchers and look at those who threw very short stints in relief,15 they actually had fewer strikeouts than those who averaged around an inning per appearance.16 A lot of this is selection bias: Guys who are brought in to face only one or two hitters at a time are usually mediocre pitchers with big platoon splits. Left-handers who became LOOGYs are generally worse as starting pitchers than the rest of the sample; indeed, they’re quite a bit better in relief than in their starting roles. Nonetheless, they’re not all that effective in relief — much less effective than the OMGs — and because they throw so few innings, they don’t affect the bottom line that much in terms of baseball’s strikeout rate.
And because LOOGYs are fading in popularity, they don’t necessarily contribute all that much to slowing down the game. Of the roughly 16,000 pitching changes in 2018, only about 5,000 occured in the middle of the inning, according to data provided to FiveThirtyEight by David Smith of Retrosheet. These midinning changes are indeed time-consuming — adding about 3 minutes and 15 seconds worth of game time, Smith estimates. (Pitching changes between innings add only about 15 seconds, by contrast.) But they aren’t all that common.
How to bring balance back to bullpens
There’s a better idea than the MLB minimum batters proposal, one that would also speed up the game but that would yield more interesting strategy and — most importantly, from my point of view — cut down on the number of strikeouts, perhaps substantially. The core of my proposal is simple: Each team should be limited to carrying 10 pitchers on its 25-man active roster, plus an Emergency Pitcher.
Like it? Hate it? Well, let me give you some of the details first:
What’s an Emergency Pitcher? He’s a pitcher who could be signed either on a game-by-game basis — in the way that emergency goalies are used in the NHL — or for any length of time up to a full season. The Emergency Pitcher couldn’t be a member of a team’s 40-man roster, although — just for fun — he could be a member of a team’s coaching staff.17 Emergency Pitchers could enter the game only under certain circumstances:
If the starting pitcher left the game because of injury;
If one team led by at least 10 runs;
If it were the 11th inning or later; or
If it were the second game of a doubleheader.
Position players could still pitch, but they wouldn’t be allowed to pitch to a greater number of batters than the number of plate appearances they’d recorded so far on the season as hitters. A backup catcher with 100 plate appearances could face up to 100 batters as a pitcher, for instance (which works out to roughly 20 or 25 innings). With this rule, teams could use position players to pitch on an emergency basis basically whenever they wanted, but they couldn’t designate pitchers as position players just to circumvent the 10-pitcher requirement. Brooks Kieschnick types would need to have their innings and plate appearances monitored carefully.18
After the roster expanded to 40 players in September, minor league call-ups who were not on the 10-pitcher list could start games, subject to a requirement that they threw at least 60 pitches or five innings or — a mercy rule — gave up at least five runs. They could not appear in relief, however.
Relief pitchers, especially the OMGs, aren’t going to like this, so the restrictions could be phased in over several years. For instance, you could start with a 12-pitcher limit beginning in 2020, then ratchet it down to 11 pitchers in 2022 and 10 pitchers in 2024 as teams adapted to the new requirements.
As you can see, the goal here is to be fairly strict: While we want to provide for a bit of flexibility, we mostly want to force teams to stick to the 10 players they designate as pitchers as much as possible. For that matter, we’d probably also want to tighten rules surrounding the injured list and minor-league call-ups, which teams regularly use and abuse to add de facto roster slots — but that’s not a part of this proposal per se.
Toward a new equilibrium
So how would teams use their pitching staffs under these rules? That’s anyone’s guess, and part of the fun would be in seeing the different strategies that teams adopted. But my guess is that the average team would do something like this to fill the roughly 1,450 innings that major league teams pitch in each regular season:
What a 10-man pitching staff might look like
No. 2 starter
No. 3 starter
No. 4 starter
No. 5 starter
Long reliever/spot starter
Durable middle reliever
September call-up starters
This strategy envisions that starting pitchers would throw 6.0 innings per start, up from 5.4 innings per start in 2018 but a bit less than the 6.2 innings per start that pitchers averaged in the 1980s. Relievers would average around 1.6 innings per appearance, meanwhile — considerably up from 2018 (1.1 inning per appearance) and about the same as in the 1980s.
Overall, this plan would entail using 2.9 pitchers per team per game, which is close to where baseball was in the late 1980s. But we could balance out the workload more effectively than teams did back then. As you can see in the table, we could get the necessary innings from a 10-man staff without having to ask starters to throw 270 or 280 innings, as ace starters sometimes did in the 1980s, and without having to ask closers to throw 140 innings a year, as sometimes happened too. Starters would have to work through the third time in the order a bit more often, but there would still be plenty of room for discretion on the part of the manager.
The most consequential change would be that we’d cut down on the number of OMG innings. There would still be plenty of them, to be sure. But if you went overboard, it would come with a lot of trade-offs. If a team tried to employ five relievers who each worked 70 appearances of one inning each, for instance, its five starters would have to average about 6.5 innings per start, so they’d be working through the third time in the lineup a lot more often.
And if you did want to use a pitcher to face only one or two batters, you could still do it, but it would be more costly still — with a 10-man pitching staff, someone else is always going to have to pick up the slack.
This would also relieve (pun somewhat intended) the monotony of the OMGs. We wouldn’t be removing any spots from the 25-man roster. (In fact, we’d essentially be adding one for the Emergency Pitcher.) But we’d be requiring at least 15 of them to be used on position players. Pinch runners, pinch hitters, platoon players, defensive replacements and third catchers — all of whom have become endangered species as teams use every marginal roster slot on an OMG — would begin to roam the baseball field freely again.
I’m reluctant to estimate the overall amount by which my rule change would reduce strikeouts or improve pace of play. That’s because baseball strategy is a dynamic system, and our goal is to change teams’ overall attitudes toward pitcher usage. Pitching to contact might become more common again, for instance, as starters would need to throw longer outings. Keep in mind that if starters are only expected to work through the order two or two-and-a-half times, tossing perhaps five or six innings, they can also throw at relatively high effort. So we wouldn’t just be reducing strikeouts by exchanging some OMGs for multi-inning relievers; starters would also have to pace themselves more, too.
But if relief-pitcher usage has as close a relationship with strikeout rates as I think it does, the net effects could be substantial. This rule would essentially roll relief-pitcher usage back to what it was in the late 1980s or early 1990s and could bring strikeouts back toward what they were back then too, when pitchers struck out about 15 percent of the batters they faced instead of the 22 percent they do now.
That’s probably too optimistic; at least some of the increase in strikeout rate undoubtedly has to do with pitchers being bigger and stronger and throwing harder than ever before.19 But some kind of intervention is needed. The OMG-dominated equilibrium of today may be ruthlessly efficient, but it isn’t making for an aesthetically or strategically rewarding form of baseball.
But now the calendar has flipped to 2019, and as spring training warms up for the Sox in Fort Myers, Florida, Boston must focus on defending its crown — and staving off the inevitable regression that comes in the wake of a season as charmed as the one the Red Sox just enjoyed.
As a rule, clubs that win a crazy number of ballgames in one season tend to come back down to earth quickly in the next. Of the 32 teams that cracked the century mark in wins (per 162 games)5 since 1990, 28 had an inferior record the next year,6 and 24 failed to return to the 100-win club. (Thirteen failed to break even 95 wins.) On average, these 32 triple-digit winners declined by 9.6 wins the following season.
Teams that won substantially more than 100 games have tended to regress even harder. The 2002 Mariners, for example, won “only” 93 games after the 2001 squad tied a major league record with 116 wins; the 1999 Yankees won 98 a year after the team took home 114. The inescapable truth is that few major league teams actually have 100 wins of “true talent” on their rosters, much less 108. Most of these huge winners were aided by some not-insignificant amount of luck along the way.
And it’s hard to argue that the Red Sox weren’t one of the luckier teams in baseball last season. According to the Pythagorean expectation, a team with Boston’s runs scored and allowed should have won four games fewer than it actually did. Furthermore, a team with Boston’s particular statistical profile (its singles, doubles, walks, etc. — both for and against) should have had a Pythagorean record five games worse than it actually did. Add up those two categories, and the Red Sox benefited from an MLB-high 10 extra wins of luck, whether through prevailing in the relative toss-ups of close games or through stringing hits together (or stranding opposing runners) in an unusually favorable manner.
On top of all that, there’s another way a team can have everything go right for it, and that’s at the player level: Did everyone outperform their expected levels of performance at once? Injuries can often play a role here — though the Red Sox were in the middle of the pack in terms of man-games lost to the injured list. More pertinently, Boston also saw a number of players post career-best seasons last year, from American League MVP Mookie Betts (10.6 wins above replacement)7 to blockbuster free-agent signing J.D. Martinez (6.1), plus young up-and-comers such as Andrew Benintendi (4.1) and even longtime puzzles such as Eduardo Rodriguez (2.7).
Altogether, 12 of Boston’s 21 regulars (those who played at least 2 percent of the team’s available playing time)8 exceeded their established level of WAR, with only Jackie Bradley Jr., Eduardo Nunez and the catching tandem of Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez significantly undershooting their previous production levels during the 2018 regular season.9
And this is to say nothing of the unexpected performances the team received in the postseason from the likes of Steve Pearce — a fizzled-out former prospect who arrived in Boston via a midseason trade and ultimately won World Series MVP — or Nathan Eovaldi, another castoff who had a 1.61 ERA in 22 1/3 postseason innings. (Or, in general, the amazingly fortuitous splits the team had in crucial playoff situations.)
All of those different ingredients explain how a team that won 93 games in 2017 suddenly exploded for 108 and won the championship a year later. But again, the pull of baseball’s gravity is strong. Based on data since 1990, we’d expect a team that improved by 15 games between seasons to give back about 5.2 wins the next season. It’s just another data point to toss onto the heap of statistical indicators that foretell a decline for the Red Sox heading into 2019.
The good news for Boston is that if your starting point is a 108-win team, you have a ton of room to regress and still be one of the best teams in baseball. Even if the Sox didn’t truly have 108 wins of talent on the roster last year, they still played like a 98-win team according to their underlying statistics, and almost all of that team will be back this season (with the notable exception of closer Craig Kimbrel). According to an early preseason version of our 2019 MLB projections,10 we rate Boston as the third-best team in baseball, with a 95-67 projected record and a 10 percent chance of repeating as champs, which is also tied for third-best in MLB.
Trouble is, that might make the Red Sox only the second-best team in their own division. Our simulations consider the archrival New York Yankees just as likely as Boston to win the World Series and actually think that New York is ever-so-slightly better talent-wise. Although the Sox got the better of the Yankees last season, winning 13 of 23 games (including an August sweep and a four-game division series victory), for all intents and purposes, our projections have the two teams in an absolute dead heat as we look ahead to 2019:
The Red Sox still have a Yankees problem on their hands
How our preliminary Elo ratings are forecasting the 2019 AL East race
The result of Dombrowski’s moves was a championship, and one of baseball’s all-time great single season performances, so I’m pretty sure it was worth it. The question now is how steep the drop-off will be in 2019 — and beyond. In many ways, Boston caught lightning in a bottle last season, enjoying the kind of magical year that comes along only once every decade or so. But if history is any guide, the follow-up will have trouble coming close to matching the original.
The San Diego Padres may have surprised some on Tuesday when they reached a record-setting agreement with Manny Machado — ending a lengthy wait for a star free agent — but the match is an ideal fit for the club and player. Machado will receive the biggest deal ever for a free agent, while a club that is traditionally not a big spender and hasn’t reached the postseason since 2006 will add an in-his-prime, superstar-level player to play alongside one of the most enviable collections of young talent in the sport.
Machado’s overall production and youth make him one of the most appealing free agents in baseball history. The former Oriole and Dodger has produced the 26th most wins above replacement among position players through age 25 in baseball history (33.8), according to Baseball-Reference.com. For comparison, fellow 26-year-old free agent Bryce Harper is 41st (27.4). And of those players ranked ahead of him, Alex Rodriguez was the last player who was younger when he entered the open market — coming off his age 24 season in signing with the Texas Rangers in 2001.
In signing for a reported $300 million over 10 years, Machado will break Rodriguez’s 11-year-old record ($275 million) for a free-agent contract set in 2008, his second mega-contract.1 The deal is also the largest free-agent pact in North American pro sports history. Machado’s agreement includes an opt out in the fifth year.
As the Rangers and Rodriguez did with his first free-agent deal, the Padres and Machado prove that not all major contracts are signed by clubs coming off winning seasons, looking for an extra push to get them a title. The Padres recorded 96 losses a year ago and were projected by FiveThirtyEight entering Tuesday to win 73 games this season.
Of the 12 previous contracts exceeding $200 million in baseball history, six were awarded to players by teams with losing records the previous season: Giancarlo Stanton (contract extension) with the Marlins in 2015, Rodriguez with the Rangers in 2001, Robinson Cano with the Mariners in 2014, David Price with the Red Sox in 2016, Miguel Cabrera with the Tigers in 2016 (contract extension) and Zack Greinke with the Diamondbacks in 2016. Only Greinke and Price have reached the playoffs with their signing teams, and the Padres are in a much stronger position than any of those clubs.
Losing teams are often willing to pay
Largest contracts signed in MLB history
Prev. season record
San Diego has Baseball America’s top-rated farm system, including consensus top-five prospect Fernando Tatis Jr., who figures to slot in at shortstop next to Machado in the not-too-distant future. The Padres have a number of other potential future stars and contributors in prospects like Mackenzie Gore (pitcher), Luis Urias (middle infield), Francisco Mejia (catcher), Adrian Morejon (pitcher), Chris Paddack (pitcher) and Luis Patino (pitcher).
And if Machado makes good or exceeds his 5-WAR forecast for the coming season, perhaps he can help the Padres creep into the postseason picture even sooner. Machado has produced at least 5.7 WAR in four out of his past five full seasons2 and has played in at least 156 games five times since 2013. The four-time All-Star has averaged 31 home runs per 162 games and has won two Gold Glove awards at third base.
Baseball America editor J.J. Cooper speculates that the Padres could further accelerate their timetable by trading for veteran pitching:
The Padres' lineup is now so far ahead of the development curve of their pitching staff that I have to imagine we'll see some trades from the No. 1 farm system in the game to help the starting rotation.
Machado’s deal exceeded many expectations. On the eve of free agency in November, the FanGraphs crowd predicted a deal of 8.6 years on average at $273 million for Machado. In January, when asked again, the crowd’s prediction fell to 7.9 years and $233 million, a 15 percent drop in dollars.
Padres chairman Ron Fowler is now a big-spending outlier for a second straight offseason. The Machado deal comes almost exactly a year after the Padres signed Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million deal. (The Padres hope for far more than Hosmer’s replacement-level, -0.1 WAR debut season, according to the FanGraphs metric.) And like Hosmer, Machado could have some of his offensive numbers decline by playing in what is typically a pitcher’s park.
The Padres are trying to compete with the Dodgers, who appear set for sustained success in the NL West. They now indisputably have what they tried to purchase last year with Hosmer: a centerpiece to build a lineup around. While Machado can hit for power, hit for average and capably play the field, he’s not one for sprinting. Much was made of Machado’s lack of urgency last postseason, when he said hustling is not his “cup of tea” after appearing to not run out a ground ball in Game 2 of the NLCS at Milwaukee:
Some speculated that his lack of hustle could cost him in free agency. But $300 million later, that thinking seems misguided. And there’s reason to believe the lack of hustle is not a recent development or much of a major concern as it relates to his overall value.
In 2017, Statcast began measuring a metric called “sprint speed,” which consists of two measurements: home-to-first times on weakly hit ground balls and speed when advancing two or more bases (except for instances when a runner was on second base at the time of an extra-base hit).
Machado’s top speed, 26.3 feet per second, was the same in each of the past two seasons and up slightly from 2016 (26.1 second). Machado averaged 27.4 seconds in 2015, the first year Statcast cameras tracked player movement. His sprint speed split times, including his initial burst — his first 5 feet (0.55 seconds) — were also the same in each of the past two seasons.
One debate entering this offseason was whether Harper or Machado was the better free-agent bet. But what Machado offers that Harper does not, in addition to consistency, is the ability to play on the left side of the infield.
After playing shortstop last season, when he was the third-worst defensive shortstop in the game, Machado figures to transition with San Diego back to third base, where he has been elite. Machado has ranked as above average in defensive runs saved in every year he has played third. He was second in baseball in defensive runs saved in 2013 (35), trailing only Andrelton Simmons. He won Gold Glove awards at third in 2013 and 2015.
The Padres made a big push late in the offseason to sign one of the best free agents of all time. And even it at record dollar amount, it will be worth the cost if it coincides with the young Padres coming of age.
When asked about Major League Baseball’s interest in restricting defensive shifts, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle recalled that when he was growing up in Merritt Island, Florida, they were often short on players for neighborhood games. Hurdle said they would arbitrarily cut the field in half to solve the problem. “Sometimes we’d shut down the pull field. … We just would do it to change the game and realized we learned how to hit the ball the other way,” said Hurdle. “What the shifts are telling hitters is, ‘Here’s what you do. Where is your counterpunch? Where is your answer?’”
Many coaches, commentators and baseball observers have asked the same question, bemoaning batters’ seeming inability to adjust to opponents’ shifts — the tactic of moving defensive players out of their usual position to overload one side of the infield, a strategy that has proliferated across the sport in the past decade. The shifts have also become one of the most conspicuous on-field byproducts of baseball’s data age as more and more teams decide how to align their defenses using actual batted-ball data. In December, The Athletic’s Jayson Stark reported that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred had “strong” backing from baseball’s competition committee to limit defensive shifts. Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo’s Christmas wish was to see shifts banned.
But in all the hand-wringing over the shift, one detail has been overlooked: Batters have adjusted, and they’ve done it without league intervention or legislation. What’s more, there’s reason to believe shifts are actually encouraging increasingly efficient offensive behavior.
Shifts have grown at a staggering rate. In 2011, defenses deployed the shift — counting both the traditional (three infielders to one side of second base) and non-traditional varieties — during 3,065 major league plate appearances that ended with a ball being put into play,1 according to Baseball Info Solutions data housed at FanGraphs. That’s only 2.6 percent of all at-bats where balls were put in play. The number of plate appearance where hitters faced the shift has increased every year since, save for 2017. Last season, batters faced the shift in a record 40,730 total plate appearances ending on balls in play — that’s about 34 percent of such plate appearances.
The era of the shift has coincided with a league-wide decline in batting average, though that is more a product of the record strikeouts rates in recent years as fewer and fewer balls are put in play, as batting averages on balls that are put into play has remained steady despite all the shifting, as you can see on the chart below.
While shift usage has grown dramatically, there’s evidence that batters have adjusted by going over the shift, which reduced the overall effectiveness of the shift across baseball.
In 2011, batters hit ground balls 53.2 percent of the time when they put a ball in play against the shift. Last season that number was 43.9 percent, which is the lowest such rate since at least 2010, the first year for which data is available on FanGraphs. When batters are not facing shifts, ground-ball rates have remained steady. Batters had a 45.9 percent ground-ball rate in 2011 when not facing a shift and a 45.9 percent ground-ball mark last season. You can see the divergence in strategies in the following chart. The drop in ground-ball rates against the shift suggest that more players are trying to bypass the infielders altogether by knocking one over their heads.
Not all hitters try to adapt — Bryce Harper, for example, has a career 1.4 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio both when facing a shift and when not facing a shift. But those who do, Joey Votto, tend to go high. Votto’s career ratio when not facing a shift is 1.57 ground balls to fly balls, but that drops to 1.44 against the shift.
“I’ve tried to avoid the right side of the infield shift,” Votto said in 2017. “I’m not excited about hitting balls to that side because I could hammer a one-hopper to the second baseman or shortstop, or whoever they have stationed over there. … Personally, I embrace the fly-ball thing just because of that reason.”
The average launch angle of a batted ball has increased in every year of Statcast era,2 rising gradually from 10.1 degrees in 2015 to 11.7 in 2018. But with the shift on, batters are even more likely to hit the ball in the air. The average launch angle against the shift last season was 14.7 degrees, a notable jump up from 13.1 in 2015.
In addition to MLB-wide trends, I looked at the behavior of the regularly shifted-upon batters in 2018 to see how their approaches changed.3 This group combined for a 42.5 percent ground-ball rate when facing shifts and a 44.1 percent rate when not facing shifts.
“Is [banning the shift] that going to produce more batting average? Maybe,” said Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch at the winter meetings. “More runs? Debatable. A more energized and entertaining game? I doubt it.”
Left-handed hitters are an interesting study since they now put more balls in play with the shift on (26,076 last season vs. shift) than off (23,214 against no form of shift).
Last season, left-handed batters hit for a higher average (.300), greater slugging percentage (.388) and lower ground-ball rate (44.0 percent) when the shift was on compared to when there was no shift (.295 average, .380 slugging mark, 45.7 groundball rate). And because Baseball Info Solutions can only track shift data when a ball is put into play, those stats do not include home runs, since they are not in play.
In some ways, the shift has backfired. Batters have an incentive to hit more balls in the air, and balls hit in the air are more valuable. When batters faced a shift last season, 5.2 percent of balls they put in play went for a home run. When they didn’t face a shift, 4.1 percent of balls went for home runs, according to Statcast data.
While more batters try to go over shifts, they are not always going to the air in the most optimized manner. Every hitter who has faced a shift has probably been advised to try and go the other way. And as a result, the percentage of batters pulling line drives and fly balls against the shift has fallen off notably since 2010, from a 31.5 percent pull rate in 2010 to 26.2 percent in 2018. But by going the other way, batters might actually be hurting themselves. They are purposely avoiding the most valuable batted ball in baseball: a pulled ball in the air.
Consider that in 2018, 32.7 percent of fly balls to a batter’s pull side went for home runs, compared to 8.1 percent of fly balls to center field and 3.8 percent to the opposite field. Batters across the league had a .429 average and 1.514 slugging percentage on fly balls hit to the pull side and a .135 average and .324 slugging mark on balls hit to the opposite field. That’s not much more valuable than a ground ball. Last season, MLB batters hit .236 and had a .258 slugging percentage on ground balls.
Many have made the case for batters facing the shift to simply bunt more often. After all, batters have hit at least .357 when bunting against a shift every season since 2010. Would bunting be more effective than, say, trying to go over the shift? Not for most batters.
According to weighted runs created plus (wRC+) — a metric that adjusts for ballpark and scoring environments, with 100 representing league average — batters produced a 53 wRC+ mark on bunts against all shift types last season compared to a 127 wRC+ mark when putting the ball in the air against shifts.
Batters seem to unwilling to sacrifice potential power in pursuit of infield bunt singles. The percent of at-bats against the shift where the batter bunted has fallen four straight years, from 2.92 percent (2015) to 2.12 percent (2016), 1.88 percent (2017) and 1.73 percent (2018).
One other issue: Teams are pitching less effectively to the shift.
As more and more batters use an uppercut swing to better combat sinking fastballs, which are designed to produce ground balls, the percentage of sinkers thrown has decreased. Sinkers represented 22.4 percent of all pitches thrown in 2010. Last year? 16.9 percent.
The shift will always be effective against pull-side ground balls and low line drives. Batters who hit those batted ball types often, especially left-handed hitters, can see their batting average drop. But more and more batters might be learning to combat the shift. When factoring in all batted ball types — not just grounders and low liners — the MLB batting average on balls in play has remained stagnant. In 2010 — a relatively shift-free season — league-wide batting average on balls in play for all defensive configurations was .297. Last season? .296. The figure has held relatively steady even while scoring and slugging have increased, despite the growing use of shifts. Maybe shifts aren’t such a problem after all.
“The beauty of the game is all the strategies that we can employ,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said at the winter meetings. So “attacking strategies to win baseball games, man, I just don’t see that as improving the game.”