Baseball’s Injury Problem

Last week, Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic wrote an article examining the recent spate of injuries in Major League Baseball. For those interested in the sport, the article is well worth the read. For the unfamiliar, baseball played only about 1/3 of the number of games as usual last year due to Covid-19. This year, pitcher after pitcher seems to be falling prey to arm troubles. Position players are straining hamstrings, quads, and other muscles I’ve never heard of let alone used over the last year. And joking aside, therein is thought to be the problem.

And the evidence, in part, shows that we are seeing an increase in the numbers of injuries. But 2020 may not be as much of a problem as youngsters throwing baseballs near 100 mph. But I digress. The article contained a table detailing the numbers of injuries for certain body parts in the first month (April) of the season in both 2021 and 2019, the last comparable season due to Covid-19.

To be fair, the table was nice, but in the exhaustion of post-second dose shot last weekend, I sketched out some things and decided to turn it into a proper post.

Ouch.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Expansion Teams in Baseball

I was not planning on posting this today, because I was—am?—still working on it. But there was some baseball news last night that prompted me to export what I had to try and get this live.

For a little while now I’ve been wondering why a number of baseball stars, albeit in their later years, are still looking for employment. Some are pretty obvious in that they are facing legal troubles. Some may have high demands that ball clubs are not willing to meet. Some may have reasonable demands but the clubs are just being incredibly cheap. Or it may be none of those. Or some combination of those. But when you see some of the players some teams put on the field each night, you can’t tell me some of these free agents wouldn’t be better options.

Separately, I also tend to think baseball needs to expand and add some new clubs. But they won’t until the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays resolve their stadium issues.

But what if…

Well a normal expansion would include two teams to keep an even balance. The new teams would likely use some kind of draft to select players from the rosters of other teams, with a certain number of players almost certainly protected. But what if we just used those unsigned ball players?

Anibal Sanchez is the guy messing this up. He’s been a free agent for some time now but is reportedly going to sign by the end of this week, perhaps today. So with him and everyone else, could we field two expansion teams?

Kinda, yeah.

First up, the Charlotte Piedmonters.

The Charlotte Piedmonters could also be looking for a new name.

Not a great team—nor would we expect it to be as all the really good free agents have already been signed. But these former stars, award winners, and fan favoutites may have just enough left in the tank to make for some competitive games if all goes well. My readers who happen to be fellow baseball fans will probably recognise most of these names, though I’ll admit a number of the relief pitchers are new to me. I can figure out basically everything but a centre fielder. But you could probably get somebody from an independent league or international league or just convert somebody.

I used projected Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to determine how good the players would be. For non-baseball fans, WAR is a value you can use to determine how good a player is relative to an average replacement player. Somebody with the value 0 to 1 is a scrub or bench player. Take any average ballplayer and sub them in and you wouldn’t know the difference. 2s and 3s are solid role playing guys, but not likely stars. Stars get into the picture around 4 and your best players are probably 5 to 6 or higher.

In Charlotte, nobody has a WAR higher than Rick Porcello’s 1.4. In other words, he’s a better than average pitcher, but not by much. Tyler Flowers: a better than average catcher, but not by much. Homer Bailey: barely better than average starting pitcher. Everyone else, generally you could sub them out and not know the difference. But, crucially for our purposes, they are not below average players. Some of those are still on the market, but I didn’t assign them to Charlotte.

Now if Charlotte gets a team, so does Portland, Oregon: the Portland Lumberjacks.

Again, I’m open to name suggestions.

Here you can see Anibal Sanchez as the third man in the rotation. You can also see that the rotation here is the weakest part. For Charlotte you could get away with a bullpen game every five days. But two bullpen days? Well, take a look at the Boston Red Sox in 2020 and that pitching dumpster fire and you’ll see what having only two or three starters can do. (Though the relief starters they did use were all worse than the people on these lists, which just makes my point that there are talented if not star-level players available.)

Neither of these teams would be good. You can imagine a team like Charlotte getting beat almost every night in the AL East—except by Baltimore. The NL East might be a bit easier. And Portland in the NL West would be similarly a punching bag—except by Colorado probably. But dump either into the AL or NL Central and who knows.

Two teams is clearly a stretch. So what if we just made one? What if we brought back the Montreal Expos? Sure, it messes up the schedule, but we get to pick the best players from Charlotte and Portland.

No new name needed.

The result is a team that is significantly improved. That doesn’t mean very good. These Expos wouldn’t make the playoffs. But the rotation is full of guys who could be, at best, solid middle- to, more likely, back-end starters. The lineup, well, the lineup would still be mostly replacement level players, a.k.a. scrubs, with two exceptions. But with past track records, it’s not impossible to imagine a few of these players having a better than projected year.

On paper, they still wouldn’t be as good as the worst team in baseball (by WAR), the Pirates. But Pittsburgh also doesn’t have a centre fielder, so…

Anyway, I was going to try and do some more analysis beyond using WAR, but I wanted to get this out before Sanchez signed this week.

I also got to add Oliver Perez, who despite having a good year was released by Cleveland today. Boston needs a solid lefty reliever for the middle innings, and I hope they pick up Perez and option Josh Taylor down to Worcester.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Trading Andrew Benintendi

Yesterday, one year to the day the Boston Red Sox traded Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Red Sox made another big trade, sending Andrew Benintendi, their starting left fielder, to the Kansas City Royals as part of another three-team trade—last year’s three-team part fell apart, but initially involved Boston receiving a quality reliever from the Minnesota Twins.

In this year’s trade, the Red Sox receive an outfielder, Franchy Cordero, from the Royals and a pitcher, Josh Winckowski, from the New York Mets. Boston is sending $2.8 million to Kansas City to help defray the costs. Using data from Baseball Trade Value, we can make a quick graphic to show how this trade shakes out for the teams involved.

How the trade looks, with incomplete data

At first glance, we see that the Red Sox and the Royals are giving up more than they are receiving in value. The Mets look like the clear winner here, by a long shot.

And it could end up that way this time next year.

But, there is one enormous question mark—or maybe three. The Red Sox are also acquiring one player to be named later from the Mets and two from the Royals. Players to be named later are usually not the high end of prospects, but instead of low to middle value. And what appears likely in this case is that the Red Sox will be presented lists of players from both teams and Boston can choose which ones they like. The key here is that this could take a few months to sort out, because Boston wants to see how these players perform in the minor leagues. In 2020, there was no minor league season and so teams have very little to no information on players, which makes it nigh impossible to accurately assess their skill sets.

And so yes, we can make graphics like this and talk about how the Red Sox lost this trade. But in reality, we’ll need to wait a few months to see the last three players of the deal to see how badly—or how well—Boston does in the end.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Shipping Out of Boston

Monday was the trade deadline for this year’s attempt at a baseball season. The Red Sox actively sold off parts of their roster. You may remember that just two years ago, the Red Sox won the World Series, the sport’s national championship. One would imagine that two years later, most of that championship calibre roster would remain.

You would be wrong.

Well over half that roster is gone. And to prove it, I bought a t-shirt to celebrate. The t-shirt’s design featured the World Series roster on the reverse. (To be fair, there was a mistake as Brandon Workman, who had been on the ALDS and ALCS teams was removed for Drew Pomeranz. But Pomeranz is also gone and so what do you know, the math still works.) I simply crossed out who is no longer with the team.

Some people retired, like Steve Pearce, who, despite being World Series MVP, had his body simply give out and could no longer play the sport two years later. Others, like Blake Swihart, were really only on the roster so that they would not be lost to waiver claims. Still others, like Joe Kelly, understandably left in free agency for deals that were probably way overpriced. And others like Mitch Moreland were simply traded at the end of their contracts for potential prospects to build the next winning team.

And then there are the others.

Brock Holt, a fan favourite super utility, a verifiable Brockstar, who the Red Sox never really entertained any notion of retaining this past off-season. Jose Peraza is no Brock Holt.

And of course, last but certainly not least, we have the Mookie Betts situation. Because ownership has got to make its millions. A homegrown, fifth-round draft pick who was originally slotted into second base. As he began to rise through the system the thought was to trade him, because Dustin Pedroia blocked him in that position. Well someone, somewhere (probably no longer in the organisation) had the idea of let’s try him in the outfield. 2018 MVP much?

But he was traded to the Dodgers this off season because ownership wouldn’t agree to an extension, a pricey one to be fair, but one that an ownership group and a particular owner that includes (in whole or in part) the Red Sox, Fenway Park, NESN, Roush Fenway Racing (controls two NASCAR cars), and in the UK, Liverpool FC, and Anfield, home of Liverpool FC. So, you know, they have some money. But they wouldn’t commit to paying a homegrown star his due to have him play his entire career in Boston.

So they flipped him to the Dodgers for a few prospects and one player, Alex Verdugo, who has a checkered past with allegations of being present near a sexual assault (though he is not alleged to have assaulted the victim, being as he was reportedly in the other room) and then more directly recording on Snapchat the beating of aforementioned victim by two other women who were in the room. None of this has been proven in court, however, because none of it was thoroughly investigated, allegedly because the Dodgers and their director of player development, who would later go on to manage the Phillies and now the Giants, did not really want it fully investigated. And by all accounts, the incident will never be fully investigated and so we’ll never really know what happened in that hotel room.

They traded Mookie Betts, generally perceived in the media as all around nice and humble guy, and also a champion bowler, for saving some money, two minors prospects, and Alex Verdugo.

Credit for the original shirt goes to somebody on either the MLB or Red Sox design teams I would assume. The annotations are, of course, my own work.

When Is an Opener Game in Baseball Really Just a Bullpen Game?

Whenever someone not named Eovaldi or Perez starts a Red Sox game in 2020, that’s when.

We all know the Red Sox are the worst team in the American League. They have only two starters, maybe sometimes a third. And then the last two days of the regular five-day rotation cycle, manager Ron Roenicke throws some relievers at the wall and sees which ones stick that night. Spoiler: Few do.

But as much as I enjoy listening to the three-man broadcasting booth (Remy and Eck make the games fun to at least listen to) the games are unwatchable. And then to hear them try and dress a game up as having an opener? Well, what is the opener?

For the non-baseball fans, most are probably aware enough that some guy goes out to a small hill and throws (pitches) a ball at a batter for most of the night. Then towards the end, when the guy’s energy wanes, he is replaced by some guy who throws really fast. That’s over simplified, but that’s a normal ballgame. A starting pitcher records five, but ideally at least six, innings of work before handing the ball over to an eighth-inning setup man and then a ninth-inning closer. Sometimes a really good seventh-inning reliever sets up the setup man.

A bullpen game, by contrast, is when a bunch of those relief pitchers handle the entire game. Usually this would be after a game went into extra innings (since baseball cannot end in a tie, unless you’re in an All Star game), and the next day’s starting pitcher had to finish the long game by pitching several innings. With nobody available to throw six innings, a bunch of relievers come in and try to cover that by pitching one, two, or three innings each.

The opener game is relatively new. The idea is in addition to the really good closer, a really good opener records the first inning or two (3–6 outs) to deal with the opposing team’s best hitters. He then hands the ball over to a mediocre starting pitcher who throws the next four or five innings, who then hands the ball over to the late-inning relief specialists. Doing it this way, the starter avoids one set of at-bats or plate appearances by the opposition’s best hitters.

But when is an opener just a bullpen game? Well, it’s when that mediocre starting pitcher isn’t really a starting pitcher. And when he doesn’t even throw four or five innings. Basically all the Red Sox games this year.

I made a graphic this morning to contrast those different types of games and compare them to a game I watched two nights ago between the Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays. The game was teed up as an opener with a good relief pitcher by the name of Ryan Brasier starting the first inning. But then instead of a mediocre starter pitching four or five innings, we got a mediocre reliever pitching three innings. He handed it over to a guy who was supposed to go maybe two, but couldn’t get through his second inning. He handed it over to another guy, who handed it over to another guy, who handed it over to a final guy. And none of those last guys were the good relievers you would typically expect to see. (Though, to be fair, the Sox weren’t winning, so why use your best relievers?)

What is an opener and how does it compare to a bullpen game?
Different game types compared

Credit for the piece is mine.

Credit for the Red Sox dumpster fire of a season goes to John Henry and ownership.

Red Sox Starting Rotation: A Dumpster Fire in a Dumpster Fire Year

Baseball for the Red Sox starts on Friday. Am I glad baseball is back? Yes?

I love the sport and will be glad that it’s back on the air to give me something to watch. But the But the way it’s being done boggles the mind. Here today I don’t want to get into the Covid, health, and labour relations aspect of the game. But, as the title suggests, I want to look at a graphic that looks at just how bad the Red Sox could be this (shortened) year. And over at FiveThirtyEight, they created a model to evaluate teams’ starting rotations on an ongoing basis.

The Red Sox are just bad.
Look at the Red Sox, one of the worst in baseball.

Form wise, this isn’t too difficult than what we looked at yesterday. It’s a dot plot with the dots representing individual pitchers. The size of the dots represents their number of total starts. This is an important metric in their model, but as we all know size is a difficult attribute for people to compare and I’m not entirely convinced it’s working here. Some dots are clearly smaller than others, but for most it’s difficult for me to clearly tell.

Colour is just tied to the colour of the teams. Necessary? Not at all. Because the teams are not compared on the same plot, they could all be the same colour. If, however, an eventual addition were made that plot the day’s matchups on one line, then colour would be very much appropriate.

I like the subtle addition of “Better” at the top of the plots to help the user understand the constructed metric. Otherwise the numbers are just that, numbers that don’t mean anything.

Overall a solid piece. And it does a great job of showing just how awful the Red Sox starting rotation is going to be. Because I know who Nate Eovaldi is. And I’ve heard of Martin Perez. Ryan Weber I only know through largely pitching in relief last year. And after that? Well, not on this graphic, but we have Eduardo Rodriguez who had corona and, while he has recovered, nobody knows how that will impact people in sports. There’s somebody named Hall who I have never heard of. Then we have Brian Johnson, a root for the guy story of beating the odds to reach the Major Leagues but who has been inconsistent. Then…it is literally a list of relief pitchers.

We dumped the salary of Mookie Betts and David Price and all we got was basically a tee-shirt saying “We still need a pitcher or three”.

Credit for the piece goes to Jay Boice.

The Mookie Betts Trade

Apologies for the lack of posting the last few months. There are several things going on in my life right now that have prevented me from focusing on Coffee Spoons as much as I would like. I will endeavour to resume posting, but it might not be the daily schedule it had been for at least a little while longer.

Onwards and downwards to the title—one of the dumbest, stupidest, worstest things the Boston Red Sox have done. At least in my lifetime. But also probably in all time. Except Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Also dumb. I’m so upset by this trade I’m using my words good.

The Red Sox had some financial difficulties, or so they claimed. Their payroll was one of the highest in baseball and was over an arbitrary line called the luxury tax, above which teams incur penalties. Repeat offenders pay increased fines, lose draft picks, &c. Boston was a repeat offender and was set to be again with several large contracts on the books.

Instead of sucking it up for a year and fielding a competitive team, the Red Sox dumped a huge chunk of their salary by trading away their star player, maybe baseball’s second best, and their second best pitcher. For a good, not great, outfielder, a fringe-y second baseman, and an even fringier catcher. But mostly they got salary relief. And the 2020 Sox are going to be painful to watch.

Anyway, I made a graphic about this complete suckfest. Because it sucks.

Suckfest 2020.
Suckfest 2020.

Credit for this awfulness goes to Chaim Bloom, the new president of Red Sox baseball operations. But the graphic is mine.

How Worldly Is the World Series?

The World Series began Tuesday night. But, as many people reading this blog will know, baseball is not exactly a global sport. But is it really? CityLab looked at the origin of Major League Baseball players and it turns out that almost 30% of the players today are from outside the United States. They have a number of charts and graphics that explore the places of birth of ball players. But one of the things I learned is just how many players hail from the Dominican Republic—since 2000, 12% of all players.

There are quite a few players from countries around the Caribbean.
There are quite a few players from countries around the Caribbean.

The choropleth here is an interesting choice. It’s a default choice, so I understand it. But when so many countries that are being highlighted are small islands in the Caribbean, a geographically accurate map might not be the ideal choice. Really, this map highlights from just how few countries MLB ball players originate.

Fortunately the other graphics work really well. We get bar charts about which cities provide MLB rosters. But the one I really enjoy is where they account for the overall size of cities and see which cities, for every 100,000 people, provide the most ballplayers.

One of the other things I want to pick on, however, is the inclusion of Puerto Rico. In the dataset, the designers included it as a foreign country. When, you know, it’s part of the United States.

Credit for the piece goes to David H. Montgomery.

Angry Birds? Bad Birds

Baseball is almost upon us. And oh boy do the Baltimore Orioles look bad. How bad? Historically bad. FiveThirtyEight went so far as to chart the expected WAR, wins above replacement, of each position of all teams since 1973. And the expected Orioles lineup looks remarkably bad.

They are going to be so bad.
They are going to be so bad.

What is nice about this graphic is the use of the medium grey for each team/year combination. I may have used a filled orange dot instead of open, but the dots do at least standout and show the poor positioning of just about everything but the second baseman.

Credit for the piece goes to the FiveThirtyEight graphics department.

Is Bryce Harper Another Ryan Howard?

No. Definitely not. But, the position of this article by FiveThirtyEight is that the Phillies, the Philadelphia baseball team that just made the largest guaranteed contract in North American sports, may have purchased the rights to somebody who is a few years past his prime.

The author tracked the performance of similar baseball players over history and found that they peaked earlier and tailed off earlier.

Ken Griffey Jr.'s swing though…
Ken Griffey Jr.’s swing though…

Now, the obvious thing about this graphic that I dislike is the spaghetti-fication of the lines. What does help alleviate it, however, are the greying and lighter weight of the non-identified lines in the background. Interestingly, they are even lighter than the axes’ value lines. There is also a thin outline to the lines that helps them standout against each other.

I also wonder if a few more added benchmark lines would be useful. Elite seasons are defined as those with 8+ wins above replacement (WAR), an advanced measurement statistic. Could that level not be indicated with a line on the y-axis? What about the age of 26, before which the players would have had to produce one and only one 8+ WAR season to be eligible for the data set?

Of course, as I said at the beginning, the answer to this post’s title is no. Harper will make the Phillies a better team and the length of his contract will not be the albatross that was Ryan Howard’s. However, the Phillies may be paying for 13 years of subprime Harper.

Credit for the piece goes to the FiveThirtyEight graphics department.