Friday, July 1, 2022

Newsletter Excerpt, July 1, 2022 -- "Players' Weekend"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

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"I retired the “my guys” conceit a while back, but had I done it this year, Luis Arraez would have been high on the list. I have Arraez in both Mixed LABR and AL Tout, valuing his bat-to-ball skills and positional flexibility. Arraez leads the AL with a .340 batting average thanks in part to being one of the best contact hitters in baseball: an 8% strikeout rate this year, 9% in his four-year career. Since his debut in 2019, Arraez is one of just three players, with Alex Bregman and Juan Soto, to walk more than he’s struck out."

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Fun With Numbers: The Yankees' Pitching

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

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Last night in the Bronx, the Yankees allowed their first unearned run in more than a month. With two outs in the ninth, Sean Murphy reached on catcher’s interference and came around to score on an Elvis Andrus single. Clay Holmes got the final out in the Yankees’ 2-1 win. The Jose Trevino mistake cost the Yankees their 12th shutout of the season, but in the end the game was the team’s 21st, in 75 games, in which they allowed no more than one run. As you might expect, the Yankees are 21-0 in these contests. Surprisingly, that does not lead the league.

Shutdown Games (most games allowing zero or one run, 2022)

           G     Rec
Dodgers   24    23-1
Astros    22    22-0
Yankees   21    21-0
Twins     20    19-1
Angels    20    18-2



It would have taken me a lot of guesses to peg the last team on that list.

The Yankees’ run prevention has been incredible this season. Even while losing a number of stalwart relievers to injury, with Chad Green out for the season and both Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Loaisiga missing time, the Yankees have allowed the fewest runs in baseball, 229. They have the lowest FIP and xFIP in the game. Their starters are in the top three in ERA, FIP, and xFIP, and they’ve thrown the second-most innings in the game, behind only the Padres. The team’s bullpen has the lowest ERA and third-lowest FIP. Yankees’ relievers lead MLB with a 49.9% groundball rate, and they have a chance to be one of the few bullpens to have at least a 50% groundball rate since we started tracking in 2002.

Ground and Pound (single-season GB% by RPs, 2002-2022)

               Year     GB%
1. White Sox   2015   53.4%   
2. Giants      2012   52.6%
3. White Sox   2014   52.1%
4. Pirates     2013   52.0%
5. Athletics   2002   51.9%
19. Yankees    2022   49.9%



A big part of this is the emergence of the reliever who closed out Tuesday night’s win, Clay Holmes, Holmes has become a right-handed Zack Britton, someone whose pitches are hard to hit and nearly impossible to elevate. Here’s how Statcast would put it.

Worm Burning, Pt. 1 (Lowest Launch Angle allowed, 2022, min. 50 batted balls)

                          LA (degrees)
Clay Holmes      NYY   -10.0
Framber Valdez   HOU    -3.9
Tim Mayza        TOR    -3.7
Sam Hentges      CLE    -3.5
Andre Pallante   STL    -3.1



That’s breaking the scale. The difference between Holmes and Framber Valdez, 6.1 degrees of average launch angle, is the difference between Valdez and #19 on the list.

We’re nearly halfway through the season, and Holmes has allowed seven fly balls and nine line drives, total. I mentioned Zack Britton above...see if you can figure out why.

Worm Burning, Pt. 2 (Highest GB%, 2002-2022, min. 30 IP)

                        Year     GB%
Clay Holmes      NYY    2022   81.8%
Zack Britton     BAL    2016   80.0%
Zack Britton     BAL    2015   79.1%
Zack Britton     NYY    2019   77.2%
Aaron Bummer     CHW    2021   76.1%



It’s all about the sinker. With the Pirates, Holmes was a three-pitch pitcher, using a two-seamer, slider and curve. Since being traded to the Yankees last summer, he’s junked the curve and turned the slider into a secondary pitch, leaning more and more on that sinker. In 2022, he’s thrown the sinker four out of every five pitches, and gotten more ground balls than any pitcher in recorded history.

You know what’s crazy? The Yankees could get Britton himself back late this season and for the playoffs. The two best groundball pitchers in recorded baseball history might be coming out of the same bullpen this fall.

All of this puts the Yankees in position to be the best run-prevention team ever in a DH league. Through 75 games, they have allowed 229 runs. With a good week, they could top this list...

A Good Start (fewest RA through 81 games, DH leagues only, non-strike years)

           Year     RA
Astros     2018    246
Angels     1989    261
Angels     1973    274
Yankees    1976    276
Orioles    1973    277     


...which would position them to top this one:

A Good Start (fewest runs allowed, DH leagues only, full seasons)

           Year     RA
Astros     2018    534
Athletics  1974    551
Orioles    1975    553
Mariners   2014    554
Orioles    1973    561  



The Yankees actually have a chance to do something that hasn’t been done since 1972, and hasn’t been done in a non-shortened season since the Year of the Pitcher in 1968. Since the first expansion in 1961, which brought with it 162-game seasons, just eight teams have allowed fewer than 500 runs. Two did it in 1972, when the players’ strike lopped a week from the season. (The 1972 Orioles allowed 430 runs in 154 games and somehow finished third in the AL East.) Six others did it from 1966 through 1968, when the strike zone was defined as “if the ball gets here intact, it’s a strike” and pitchers were airlifted to the top of the mound.

We still have quite a ways to go, but as they take the field in the Bronx today, the Yankees are putting together one of the best pitching seasons in baseball history.
 

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Newsletter Excerpt, June 28, 2022 -- "No Longer LOLrioles"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $59.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

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"Orioles relievers have thrown more innings than any other team’s. Of the five teams who have asked at least 300 innings from their relievers, the Orioles have the lowest ERA and by far the lowest FIP. They’re getting both volume and run prevention from a group of pitchers who, even today, wouldn’t get recognized across the street from Camden Yards."

 

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Newsletter Excerpt, June 23, 2023 -- "Guardians Partyin'"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $59.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

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"The 17-4 run coincides with some roster decisions that have stabilized the defense. After using Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario all over the diamond for 200 games, Francona has settled in on the two as his double-play combination. Rosario has started 21 of 22 games at short, and in 17 of those he’s been paired with Gimenez at second. (Owen Miller is still getting some starts against left-handers, though he’s also now getting some of them at the expensive of Josh Naylor.) Just before the winning stretch began, the Guardians promoted outfielder Oscar Gonzalez. Gonzalez, who looks a little like Franmil Reyes’s more athletic brother, has hit .333/.363/.500, and the Guardians are 18-6 when he starts."

 

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

On Bob Nutting and the Pirates

 This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $59.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

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You can trace the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates back to 1882, when they went 39-39-1 in the inaugural season of the American Association. One of the strongest teams in that nascent league, the Pirates jumped to the better-established National League in 1887, and have played in the larger circuit ever since. 

Pittsburgh was big-time then. In the 1880 census, the city rated as the 12th-biggest in the U.S., and it was the fourth-biggest with a team in the AA. A decade later, however, the then-Alleghenies played in the smallest city with an NL team, with a sixth of the population of New York, 30% of that of Brooklyn -- still a city of its own -- and half that of Boston and St. Louis. By the turn of the century, the gap between the largest cities in the NL and the smallest had grown, establishing a dynamic that remains to this day.

As of 2020, Pittsburgh is the 67th-largest city in the U.S. by population, between Greensboro, N.C., and Irvine, Calif. There are about 27 times more people in New York than in Pittsburgh, about 13 times as many in Los Angeles. If we use the modern convention of measuring by the size of the TV market, Pittsburgh is 26th in the U.S., about 15% of the size of New York City, about 20% the size of Los Angeles. It is not the smallest market in the U.S. with a team -- that’s Milwaukee -- but it is part of a tier that simply doesn’t have as many people to please. The Pirates won 88 games in 2014, made the playoffs for the second straight season, and sold 2.4 million tickets. That same year, the Cubs went 73-89, finished fifth for a fifth straight year, and sold 2.6 million tickets. Don’t even ask about their respective TV deals. 

I take you on this snoozy demographic tour to make this point: There is a real need for the sharing of local revenue among baseball teams, to smooth out the differences in revenue for teams in small cities and teams in large ones. Over the last 30 years, baseball has asked teams in those large cities to share more and more of the money they make by dint of geography with teams that do not, ostensibly to prevent the development of a financial underclass, to sustain competitive balance. 

It’s not working. The Pittsburgh Pirates are, at the moment, the signature example of how it’s not working. The Pirates get a 3.3% share of the national-TV deals even if they never appear on national TV. They get a large share of local revenue-sharing money generated by the Yankees and Dodgers and Cubs and other large-market teams. Locally, their deal with Bally Sports brings in an estimated $44 million a year. They also, even as a bad team, sell tickets. Their last-place team in 2019 sold 1.5 million, and all the hot dogs and ball caps and parking spaces that go with that. Only the last of those figures is in any way contingent on the short-term performance of the baseball team. 

Bob Nutting isn’t the first owner to recognize that the league will subsidize a losing team, but he’s the one who has been the most aggressive about exploiting it. When his Pirates were good in the middle of the last decade, he didn’t do what owners in Kansas City and San Diego and Milwaukee -- all smaller markets -- did, bolstering his roster and raising the team’s payroll to maximize the Pirates’ chance of winning. Nutting let that team founder, its payroll peaking at 22nd overall and never rising above $116 million. For three years running, his Pirates have spent less on baseball players than any other team, and will fight to retain that crown in 2022.

This is a structural problem, but not the one you think it is. MLB shares more local revenue than any other league, more than enough to make the Brewers and Padres and Royals competitive with the Cubs and Dodgers and White Sox. MLB now shares, in fact, too much local revenue, so much so that teams can be both bad and profitable. A system designed to prevent the development of an underclass is now subsidizing an underclass.

Bob Nutting has, over and over again, chosen the next dollar over the next win. He’s the problem, and until he’s replaced, the Pirates are going to struggle. I can write about them in the middle of a lockout because I know that despite $200 million in revenue and a $52 million payroll, they’re not going to do anything to materially change the roster.

 

Monday, June 20, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, May 9, 2022 -- "The Big Questions"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $59.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 36
May 9, 2022

What about changing to starting with a 1-and-1 count (like softball). So we only need two strikes for a K and 3 balls for a walk? it actually gets to the action quicker in the count.

--Chris A.


This is a common rule in amateur sports. It may even be a fair one at those levels, particularly in non-fast-pitch games where the pitcher’s role is closer to its original one, to enable batters to put the ball in play. 

In MLB, though, it wouldn’t work. The league is hitting .232/.306/.370 -- ugh -- this year. After batters get to a 1-1 count, they’re hitting .212/.297/.333. Last year, the difference was about 40 points of OPS, and in 2019 it was about 50. We think of 1-1 as a neutral count, but it isn’t; it’s a pitcher’s count. In fact, there are no neutral counts after 0-0. Getting to a 1-1 count has the smallest effect, and even it takes away 10-15% of offense from hitters.

No Neutral Territory (Batting by Count, 2021)

             AVG    OBP    SLG  tOPS+
Overall     .244   .317   .411   100
After 1-0   .256   .379   .442   127
After 2-0   .266   .499   .481   174
After 3-0   .263   .730   .474   246
After 0-1   .214   .261   .351    67
After 1-1   .226   .306   .379    89
After 2-1   .235   .390   .412   123
After 3-1   .254   .589   .470   200
After 0-2   .160   .193   .256    23
After 1-2   .169   .225   .276    38
After 2-2   .181   .290   .305    66
After 3-2   .199   .456   .352   130

tOPS+: OPS relative to the overall league OPS


This leads to one of my favorite notes. In 2017, batters hit .255. In 2021, even being spotted a 1-0 count, they hit .256. Heck, maybe the solution is to go to three balls for a walk.

Take a look at that second line, those plate appearances where the batter starts 1-0. They hit .256/.379/.442, which is around what the league hit in the crazy season of 1894, when there were 14.7 runs scored per game. That would be overshooting the mark. A game with a walk rate of 16% would be unwatchable, even if you shaved a pitch per batter off those walks.

For all the things that may be worth tinkering with given the way player skills have changed, four balls and three strikes may damned well be perfect.

There’s going to be tinkering, however, whether we like it or not. What we want to start thinking about is not what changes we want to see from the current game, but whether there is an optimal version of baseball for which we should be aiming. Should baseball be a ten-runs-per-game sport? Nine? Eight? 14? How long should a game take? I’ve written about this before, but the people who think a baseball game should take two-and-a-half hours are crazy; the last time games ran an average of 2:30 was in 1977 and the players were all smaller, skinnier, and weaker. Games ran 2:50 in the first half of the 2000s, and that’s an optimistic goal.

Perhaps most germane to these discussions: What should the strikeout rate be? Baseball’s strikeout rate has climbed inexorably from the sport’s earliest days. I sounded the alarm about this in 2014, when the strikeout rate had just reached 20%. It’s 23% now, even with pitcher batting finally off the table. Thinking back a bit, the Davenport Translations that were the backbone of the early Baseball Prospectus annuals were created for a league with a 16% strikeout rate. We used to target pitchers, for fantasy-drafting purposes, who struck out seven men per nine innings. I’m not talking about the 1890s here. This was 25 years ago.

The absolute all-time peak for MLB tickets sold was in 2007, just short of 80 million fans. That league hit .268/.336/.423 with a 17.2% strikeout rate, a 3.6% HR rate, and 9.6 runs per game.

Speaking just for myself, I think 20% is where you lose the thread, and you really want a game with a maximum strikeout rate in the high teens. When I wrote that series in 2014, one of the points I made is that if you didn’t address the problem, you’d eventually have a crisis. That was at 20% and with more hits than strikeouts. Now, we’re at 23%, headed for the fifth straight season with more strikeouts than hits, and nothing’s been done.

MLB seems to be hoping that nibbling around the edges -- deadening the baseball to modify batter behavior, using a pitch clock to modify pitcher behavior, limiting rostered pitchers to modify front office behavior -- will lower the strikeout rate. They may be right, but all these changes combined are, at best, going to slow the increase rather than roll it back. Some may increase the league's walk rate, making them a wash. Some come with unintended consequences, like punishing hitters for making really good contact. There’s the potential for some to cause an increase in injury rates, which should be a concern for a sport where star players break down way too frequently. Certain changes we’re likely to see, like mandating bad defensive positioning, are likely to increase the strikeout rate -- hitters will be rewarded for dead-pull hitting, while pitchers will have greater incentive to avoid contact.

I’m getting buried in the details, same as MLB. 

The details aren’t where we have to start. We have to start with this: What should a baseball game look like? What is the right mix of offensive and defensive events to entertain fans, allow the players to show off their skills, keep competitive integrity, and get everything done in a reasonable amount of time?

The last time baseball really engaged with these questions was in the 1800s, when the sport was young enough to still be malleable. Twelve decades later, it’s time to do so again.