Category Archives: MLB

The Brewers Are The Rare Team To Win The Offseason And The Actual Season

Winning the offseason — signing the marquee free agent and/or making the headline-grabbing trade — does not correlate strongly with actual winning. The San Diego Padres “won” the 2014-15 offseason by adding Craig Kimbrel, James Shields and a host of other players, then went on to lose 88 games the following season. The previous winter, Seattle shocked the baseball world by outbidding the Yankees for All-Star Robinson Cano, but the Mariners still haven’t made the playoffs since 2001. In December 2011, the Los Angeles Angels signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract — a contract that quickly became one of the great albatrosses in the sport. The deal has compromised the Angels’ ability to improve their club; Angels star Mike Trout has participated in only three playoff games in his career.
But last winter, something unusual happened: The Milwaukee Brewers won the offseason and went on to win in the actual season. The Brewers, who will begin the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, acquired the best player in the trade market last winter in Christian Yelich and the best player in the free-agent market in Lorenzo Cain. They also found an undervalued arm in Jhoulys Chacin.
These big-name acquisitions exceeded expectations. In total, no team had a better year-to-year roster overhaul than the Brewers — and it wasn’t close.
The Brewers added 18.90 wins above replacement1 from outside their organization in 2018. The next closest teams were the Tampa Bay Rays (11.93 WAR) and Houston Astros (9.05). In terms of net gains and losses from last offseason, the Brewers’ departing players accounted for -0.02 WAR of value in 2018 with their new teams, making their net WAR gain from offseason transactions 18.92. The next closest clubs? The Red Sox (7.78) and Reds (5.43). Yelich (7.61 WAR), Cain (6.30) and Chacin (2.50) accounted for 39.7 percent of Milwaukee’s WAR this season.

The Brewers won the offseason … and the NL Central
MLB teams by net wins above replacement (WAR) for the 2018 regular season

team
Net WAR

Milwaukee Brewers
+18.92

Boston Red Sox
+7.78

Cinncinati Reds
+5.43

Cleveland Indians
+3.97

Toronto Blue Jays
+3.95

New York Yankees
+3.77

San Francisco Giants
+3.33

Minnesota Twins
+3.26

Houston Astros
+2.73

Philadelphia Phillies
+2.15

Atlanta Braves
+1.94

Tampa Bay Rays
+1.84

San Diego Padres
+1.48

Los Angeles Dodgers
+1.45

Seattle Mariners
+0.73

Colorado Rockies
-0.47

Oakland Athletics
-0.49

Texas Rangers
-1.46

Washington Nationals
-1.53

New York Mets
-1.84

Baltimore Orioles
-2.47

Pittsburgh Pirates
-2.49

Chicago Cubs
-5.55

Los Angeles Angels
-5.81

Arizona Diamondbacks
-5.91

Chicago White Sox
-5.93

St. Louis Cardinals
-13.27

Miami Marlins
-13.59

Detroit Tigers
-15.01

Kansas City Royals
-16.22

Sources: Fangraphs, Baseball-reference.com

One reason it’s so difficult to translate offseason success to the actual playing field is that predicting player performance is a difficult task in just about every sport — even a sport rich in data like baseball. Injury and misfortune can derail the best of plans.
Another reason is tied to a macro-level trend in baseball: Free agency has been devalued.
Because of both performance and financial motivations, teams are prizing cheaper, younger talent more. The average age of an MLB player in 2004 hit a post-World War II high of 29.2, but that has gradually declined to a 21st-century low of 28.2 years this season. Testing for performance-enhancing drugs, which began in earnest in 2004, has also likely played a role in the disappearance of 30-somethings — ages when players are typically acquired as free agents. Simply put, it’s more difficult to buy a competitive team in baseball, while the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros have won titles with homegrown efforts and given MLB a blueprint in the past several seasons.
Yet Milwaukee defied the odds and — partially through spending — got itself a contending team. As the industry zigged, the Brewers zagged.
Conventional wisdom has it that small-market baseball teams must be homegrown because there is no financial mechanism like a salary cap to level the playing field, though baseball’s strengthened penalties for exceeding the luxury tax are acting something like a soft cap.2 But the Brewers, ranking 23rd in opening day payroll, had the second lowest amount of homegrown production this season, according to MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, who found that only the Oakland A’s had a lower share of homegrown WAR than the Brewers’ mark of 17 percent.
The Brewers’ offseason and in-season success is tied to being opportunistic. The team took advantage of a suppressed free-agent market to land Cain, an effort perhaps aided by clubs saving dollars to pursue Bryce Harper and Manny Machado this coming offseason. Star-level free agents often sign before New Year’s Day, but it wasn’t until late January that Cain reached a five-year agreement worth $80 million. While the back end of the deal might not turn out to be favorable for the club, the 32-year-old Cain’s 6.3-win season has already covered much of the expense in terms of performance value. Among 2017-18 free agents, no one was more valuable than Cain this season — even J.D. Martinez, who is guaranteed $30 million more over five years.
While teams have become more leery of free agency, they’ve also become less likely to part with prospect talent. Milwaukee went against the grain here, too, in acquiring Yelich, who may very well be the NL MVP. The Brewers surrendered four prospects — including their top prospect, Lewis Brinson — to acquire Yelich. The 26-year-old is under club control through the 2022 season at $51.3 million.
All clubs are interested in free-agent bargain hunting to fill out their rosters — and the Brewers did well here, too, in signing Chacin to a two-year, $15.5 million deal. Chacin’s 2.50 WAR was third only to Miles Mikolas (4.47 WAR)3 and Jake Arrieta (2.65 WAR) among free-agent starting pitchers signed over the winter.
With the Brewers, Chacin and Yelich have gotten more out of their abilities. Chacin’s slider usage rate has increased to a career-high 43.9 percent; in run value per 100 pitches, it was the 11th-best slider in baseball. Yelich became more aggressive in swinging in early counts in the second half, and his home run-to-fly ball rate surged to 48.1 percent.
The Brewers were also able to avoid the overpriced relief market, returning Josh Hader and Corey Knebel — their top two relievers from 2017. Their bullpen is the strength of their pitching staff.
Milwaukee invested wisely. The Brewers saw undervalued players and opportunity last winter. Because of that, this high-import, small-budget team is four wins from the World Series.
Neil Paine contributed research.
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Did Aaron Boone Forget That The Yankees’ Bullpen Was Historically Good?

The power of the major league manager is in decline, and the role has changed in baseball’s information age. More and more power is concentrated in the front office, which constructs rosters and sets organizational philosophy. Yet there’s one traditional managerial responsibility that remains largely intact: in-game decision making. While the front office plays a role in game-planning in most organizations, the manager is ultimately making the real-time decisions. Tactical errors can be lost in the marathon of a regular season, but they are heightened and highlighted in the postseason.
New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone had a tough Monday. His Tuesday wasn’t much better. And in part because of his decisions, the Yankees’ season came to a close. The Boston Red Sox advanced to play the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series beginning Saturday in Boston.
The Yankees entered the postseason with the most dominant bullpen in history by some measures, including wins above replacement (9.7) and strikeout rate (11.4 strikeouts per nine innings). Moreover, managers have never been more aggressive in employing their bullpens. Major league relief pitchers accounted for a record 40.1 percent of innings in the regular season. They absorbed a record 46.5 percent of innings last postseason. Entering LCS play, relievers have accounted for 48.8 percent of innings this postseason. But Boone seemed to forget that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had spent the last two years building one of the most dominant relief units of all time.
After Sunday’s off day, with the series tied at 1-1, the Yankees started ace Luis Severino in Game 3. Severino struggled. The Yankees already trailed 3-0 in the top of the fourth when three straight Red Sox reached to open the inning and load the bases.
“Certainly in hindsight, when he doesn’t get an out, I’d like to have that back,” the rookie manager told reporters before Game 4 on Tuesday. “Being able to look back in hindsight, sure, go in a different way there.”
At that point, the Yankees had a 10.2 percent win expectancy, according to FanGraphs. Boone then exacerbated matters by calling upon Lance Lynn, hardly the top bullpen option available, with a 4.77 ERA in the regular season.30 Lynn walked Mookie Betts and allowed a bases-clearing double to Andrew Benintendi. The Red Sox led 10-0 by the close of the frame, and the Yankees’ win probability had fallen to 0.8 percent, en route to their 16-1 loss.

Source: FanGraphs
Any decision from Boone in that situation might not have changed the final outcome. The next pitcher after Lynn — Chad Green, a more dominant bat-missing arm — also struggled. But Boone’s curious thought process played a part in letting the game slip away early.
“I know it’s out there because of the texts I receive, the ‘hang in theres,’” Boone told reporters about the second-guessing. “We can all sit and second — not even second guess, first guess or second guess — I would do this, that’s one of the great things about our game.”
On Tuesday night, as the Yankees faced elimination, some in the media advocated for the Yankees to bullpen the game. Boone started veteran CC Sabathia and stuck with him through a third inning in which the Yankees’ win probability slipped from 50 percent to 23.9 percent.

Source: FanGraphs

Terrible job by Boone. CC should have been out at the first sign out trouble. Two runs late.
— Mike Francesa (@MikeFrancesa) October 10, 2018

Remember when Terry Collins let Matt Harvey pitch the ninth?
What Aaron Boone is doing right now is less defensible.
— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) October 10, 2018

Yankees ace reliever Aroldis Chapman did not pitch Monday and only appeared Tuesday when the Yankees were down by three runs in the ninth inning. In the Yankees’ five postseason games, including their wild-card game win over the Oakland A’s, Chapman pitched just three innings.
Meanwhile, in the year of the relief pitcher, the Milwaukee Brewers have bullpenned games in the postseason, and the Tampa Bay Rays, a rival of the Yankees in the AL East, often started regular-season games with a reliever. The Red Sox used ace Chris Sale in relief Tuesday. But Boone plotted a more traditional path — and it cost him.
Managers have lost power, but they have become important conduits and gatekeepers when it comes to sharing and embracing information. While their power is reduced, their decisions can still make or break fortunes.
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