Taking a Closer Look at The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2015

Let's take a closer look at this year's Annual.  (cover via Howell Media Solutions)

Let’s take a closer look at this year’s Annual. (cover via Howell Media Solutions)

Perhaps you have heard that The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2015 is done and available for sale in print form. We’ve shared the table of contents with you, and promised you that we’re thrilled with how it came out. But as the saying goes, seeing is believing, so in that spirit we thought we’d kick off the weekend by pulling some perfectly cromulent excerpts out to whet your appetites.

We’ll start in the “2014 Season” section. We wanted to break away from the standard team-by-team breakdowns this year, so we asked our authors of each division review to pick out the 10 items that they found the most exciting from the season, be they a particular game, trend, player or whatever else. One great example comes in Greg Simons’ “The National League Central View.” In it, he weaves together narrative and game action from July 11. Here’s a sample:

Is it possible to capture the feel of an entire 162-game season in a single game? It may be a stretch, but if any game can do it, the July 11 contest between the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers is the one.

On this mid-summer day in the more northerly of the beer-making cities these two teams represent, the Redbirds were scuffling. Joe Kelly had lasted all of three innings for the Cardinals, surrendering six runs on seven hits and two walks. The faint silver lining was that he struck three batters. At the plate, they managed only two hits (one by Kelly) in the first three innings, though one of their base runners was erased by a double play.

The Cardinals came out of the gate trailing the lofty expectations placed upon them. Presumed to be the cream of the NL Central crop, St. Louis couldn’t sustain a run of any significant length. While they were never awful, a 17-5 drubbing in the middle of May at the hand of the Cubs dropped the Cardinals to 19-20, 5.5 games back, though still in second place.

On the flip side, the home team broke loose with a terrific start. The first three batters in the bottom half of the first inning reached base, and when the inning was over, all three runners had scored. The second frame featured more of the same, as two singles and a pair of triples plated three more runs.

The Brewers’ season started like gangbusters also, as they jumped out to a 10-2 start and pushed their record to 18-6 by late April. Two months later, they had nudged their mark to 51-32 and held a 6.5-game division lead.

The Redbirds came to life in the middle innings, breaking onto the scoreboard with a fourth-inning two-run home run from Matt Adams. In the sixth frame, Kolten Wong and Jhonny Peralta ripped homers of their own, and a run-scoring groundout knotted the score at 6-6.

The game doesn’t end in a tie, but it definitely ties together some important elements of both teams’ seasons.

As he does in most years, Dave Studeman wrote a WPA piece for the book. This year, he focused exclusively on the 2014 season. One such passage dealt with matchups. And one pitcher in particular got put under the spotlight:

Speaking of bullpens, Twins ace Glen Perkins had a couple of interesting matchups against the White Sox last year. In seven plate appearances against Dayan Viciedo, Perkins gave up a home run, triple, double and single. In the other at-bats, Viciedo grounded out, struck out and flew out. Adding up all the pluses and minuses in WPA (that home run was a biggie, giving the White Sox a 7-6 win in the bottom of the ninth of a Sept. 13 game), this was the most lopsided matchup in favor of a batter.

On the other hand, Perkins faced the Sox’s Alexei Ramirez seven times—once when the LI was nearly six and two other times when it was over three—and retired him all seven times. Ramirez flied out three times, lined out, hit into two fielder’s choices, and struck out. Adding up all the pluses and minuses in WPA, this was the most lopsided matchup of 2014 in favor of a pitcher.

That crazy Glen Perkins. Go figure.

Speaking of crazy, the mantle for “The Year in Frivolity” has been passed to John Paschal, who wrote frequently for the late NotGraphs, as well as turning in humor pieces here at THT titled “The Screwball.” Here’s one of his many, many humorous takes on the 2014 season:

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

During a Tigers-Yankees game at Yankee Stadium, one-time Detroit ace Justin Verlander steps out of the dugout to lob a ball to his girlfriend, the model Kate Upton. Having seen a number of similar tosses from Verlander this season, Upton does the usual thing by hitting it for a ground-rule double.

Of course, we do reference popular culture at other times in the book. In Jason Linden’s piece in our Commentary section, which compares the influence of Moneyball versus The Book, there is just such a reference:

So enough tripping down memory lane. It’s not 1998 or 2003 or 2006. It’s 2014. We have the benefit of at least a little perspective. I put several questions to front office folks around baseball and got answers about the workings of six different teams. The answers I received were as interesting for what they didn’t say as what they did say. My first question was very simple: Moneyball or The Book, which was more important? I got some interesting answers to this question. Most favored Moneyball, though, of course, our answer won’t be so easy. Among the best I received was this response from Justin Hollander of the Angels:

“In the movie Big, adult Josh Baskin is at a dinner party, and he ends up teaching algebra to the hosts’ son by using the example that if Larry Bird scored 10 points in the first quarter, he will score 40 points in the game. ‘That,’ according to Josh Baskin, ‘is algebra.’ Well, not exactly, but he packaged the information in such a way that the kid wants to learn more about algebra, and that is what Moneyball did for sabermetrics.”

Well, OK, perhaps Big is not today’s popular culture. Picky, picky, picky. One team looking to make their mark on popular culture this year will be the Cubs. It’s been awhile since the Cubs were relevant on a national scale. In fact, they’ve been punchless for a long, long time. In his case study on the Cubs’ young hitters, Bradley Woodrum explains:

It’s been a long night for the Cubs franchise. Since 1945, the end of World War II, the Cubs have had exactly one above-average offense: The 2008 Cubs, who hit .278/.354/.443 for a 104 weighted runs created plus (wRC+). That means—after we control for era and park factors—the Cubs have had an average or below-average offense in 68 of their last 69 seasons. In fact, in only one season (1998) did they hit at exactly league average (100 wRC+), and the group of 69 seasons averages only 89 wRC+.

But dawn is coming.

Bradley isn’t the only one to look back before looking forward. In his piece, “The Year The Money Stood Still,” Dave Cameron revisits a graph from this 2012 piece by Studes in discussing how the economics of baseball are changing:

The late ’70s and late ’90s saw remarkably strong relationships between wins and dollars spent, and not surprisingly, these were eras when the Yankees padded their championship totals. The mid-’80s and early ’90s saw a downturn for the Bronx Bombers, and not coincidentally, the lowest correlations between wins and payroll we’ve seen in the free-agent era. You know what also happened in the mid-1980s? Baseball owners colluded to drive salaries down by agreeing not to sign other teams’ free agents, an anti-trust violation that eventually would see them settle for $280 million after the Player’s Association filed multiple grievances over their actions.

In other words, since free agency began, we’ve only ever seen this low of a relationship between wins and dollars in the days when owners were actively agreeing not to sign each other’s free agents. Given the amount of free agent spending we saw last winter—headlined by the Mariners giving Robinson Cano $240 million to lure him out of New York—we can say with some confidence that we haven’t entered another era of collusion, or at the very least, if teams are conspiring to drive down player salaries, they’re being a lot less obvious about it this time.

The economics of the game aren’t the only thing changing. Strikeouts continue to go up, in a big way. In “The Strikeout Ascendant (and What Should Be Done About It),” Steve Treder not only looks at historical strikeout trends, but also makes some recommendations as to how we can curb the rise of the strikeout. On his way to his ultimate recommendations, he had some other theories that ultimately were not practical enough. They’re still interesting though, especially since the Mets are doing the exact opposite of one of them. Good ole Mets.

One thing that would reduce the ability of batters to hit home runs, while simultaneously increasing the value of speed, would be to move outfield fences outward. This generally happened in the 1970s, and the impact of increased contact-hitting was significant. However, given modern stadium configurations, this simply can’t happen. Outfields are almost never bounded by easily-movable chain-link fencing these days, but are instead limited by permanent grandstand structures. Until a new stock of ballparks is constructed, the only direction fences can be moved practically is inward, and that would be precisely the wrong direction.

Another idea, definitely more radical, would be to move the pitchers’ rubber backward from the longstanding 60-foot, six-inch distance. Even a modest increase, say six inches or a foot, would have the effect of reducing pitch velocity and increasing batter response time. The evidence from 1892 to 1893 is that the result would be a dramatic increase in hitting and scoring (though the evidence from the 1890s suggests it might not be enduring, as pitching technique adapted). However, stadium configuration again presents a practical obstacle: While it’s easy to move the pitchers’ mound in the middle of the diamond, bullpens in most stadiums (major and minor league) are frequently hemmed in to accommodate the traditional dimension. The difficulty and expense of remodeling bullpens (not just in professional baseball, but in all the amateur levels across the United States and in so many other countries, where every aspiring pitcher develops) would likely prove prohibitive.

Once he works through the impractical, Steve has some great recommendations in his piece, which leads off our History section. Other great insights come in the Analysis section, where Jeff Zimmerman looks at how well certain “normal” shifts work. He sets up one of these normal shifts, the “anti-bunt,” with a great historical example. Well, great for Mets fans anyway.

I am not sure if many people remember the 1986 World Series, but in Game Seven (YouTube the 1986 World Series, Game 7: Red Sox @ Mets, 2:19:00 mark) Mets pitcher Jesse Orosco came to bat with runners on first and second and one out in the bottom of the eighth. The Red Sox thought he was going to bunt. The announcers thought he was going to bunt. Most fans sitting in the stands and at home probably expected a bunt, as well. And with good reason. It was just his second postseason plate appearance. In his first, he had bunted.

This time though, he didn’t bunt. After he faked a bunt on the first pitch, Orosco pulled the bat back and slapped the ball into center field, right to the area where shortstop Ed Romero had been standing, before he had left to cover third base. Ray Knight scored from second, the Mets took an 8-5 lead and three meek outs later they were World Series champions.

The reason the hit caught the Red Sox off guard is they expected Orosco to bunt. In almost 30 years, nothing has changed. When a pitcher is up with less than two outs and a runner is on first or second, 57 percent of the time the pitcher will bunt. Teams may also have a weak-hitting position player bunt to move a runner over late in the game.

Teams have a good idea the hitter is going to bunt, so they bring up just the first and third baseman to help the pitcher field the bunt. The fielder is trying to either get to the ball in time to at least get the batter out, be lucky enough to catch the bunt in the air for an out or perhaps even gun down the lead runner.

I will break the examination into two groups, pitchers, as ugly as it is sometimes, and position players hitting.

You’ll have to grab a copy to see the results, but suffice to say, they’re as eye-opening as that hit from Orosco was.

The analysis section is filled with interesting findings, and I’ll leave you with one from old friend Matthew Carruth’s  “Mind the Gap.” In it, Carruth comes up with a new metric to figure out how often a pitcher confuses a hitter, which he labels, “Gap.” One pitcher who scores well is Indians pitcher T.J. House, who debuted this year in Cleveland. Carruth had this to say about House:

Be on the lookout for lefty T.J. House next season. He’s showing solid core skills and a strong penchant for generating ground balls. If his bad luck on the fielding behind him—a .332 BABIP—regresses, then the rest of baseball might start taking notice when his already low ERA (3.35 in 2014) drops further.

There are lots of other great kernels of truth in this article, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. In fact, there is plenty that I’m not sharing at all. From Jeff Sullivan to Eno Sarris, Craig Wright to Shane Tourtellotte and David G. Temple to Chris St. John, the book is overflowing with great baseball commentary, history and analysis. Order yourself a copy today; you won’t be sorry that you did!

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.
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Pat Cochran
9 years ago

Hello, The article was great. Keep up the good work and go for 2015.