Taking a Closer Look at The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2016

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)

Hark! The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2016 is now available for purchase. It is quite the undertaking for our editors and contributors, and we think you’re really going to love this edition. To that end, we want to give you a sneak preview of sorts. We’ve actually already shared with you the full table of contents, so you can definitely check that out. But let’s take a look at some excerpts from the book as well.

We’ll start with our section on the 2015 season. In it, we chose to highlight the three most important games, days and/or series in terms of the swing in FanGraphs Division Odds. We felt this would be an interesting way to recap each division. If nothing else, it was a new way to recap the season for us. We didn’t have much turnover from last year, and one of the returning writers was August Fagerstrom, who once again tackled his beloved American League Central. In the section of his essay titled, “June 5-11: Indians Can’t Get Over the Hump,” he detailed a lot of what went wrong both on this homestand and throughout the Indians’ season:

Kluber’s lack of run support was already a story by that point in the season and continued to be one for the season’s remainder. Despite throwing 222 innings with a 3.49 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio that was in the top five in the major leagues, Kluber finished the season with a record of just 9-16 thanks to his American League-low run support of 3.38 runs per nine innings.

The Indians offense had a hard time scoring for any of the team’s starters in the first half, but something about Kluber’s outings seemed to render them especially punchless. It wasn’t for a lack of getting on base, as the next day’s game showed. The night after Kluber’s start, Trevor Bauer and the Indians took on Taijuan Walker and the Mariners, with the Indians out-hitting Seattle, 12-10. Those 12 hits turned into just three runs, though, with the Indians losing, 9-3.

Cleveland went 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position that night, a single-game performance that would seem like an outlier if not for the entire season being something of an outlier.

The team’s weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 100 at season’s end indicates the Indians had a league-average lineup, one that was tied with the first-place Royals in that regard. The difference between the Royals and the Indians, though, was clutch hitting. Kansas City’s OPS with men on base was .778, the fourth-best adjusted OPS in the league. Cleveland can be found on the other end of the spectrum, posting a paltry .713 OPS with men on, giving the Indians the largest disparity between their overall adjusted OPS and their men-on adjusted OPS of any team in baseball.

Things didn’t go as planned for Cleveland, but few things happen the way we think they will in baseball, even when the planning that goes into it is pristine. One area of the game that is going to require a great deal of planning is instituting an international draft, and that was the focus of Kiley McDaniel’s essay. Will this be the last piece ever published publicly by Kiley, who now has a major league job? Well, only time will tell, but you should probably buy the book just in case it is. In this particular excerpt, Kiley muses on whether what happened in Puerto Rico after the draft was instituted there will happen to the Dominican Republic.

If there’s one draft, and maybe even if there are two, scouts have speculated that MLB—in an effort to streamline and control the signing process—could move the international signing age to 18, coinciding with the draft. International scouts point to Puerto Rico as a cautionary tale about a baseball hotbed which, due to being added to the domestic draft pool, had its signing age jump from 16 to 18 a few decades ago. The talent dropped off significantly.

Upon further inspection, it appears the age shift happened after a historic wave of talent, and we may be coming into another one, including Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor and Twins pitcher Jose Berrios, and 2016 may be the best draft class from the island in some time.

While the example is weaker now with Puerto Rico’s resurgence, the case for Dominican talent drying up always was weak. Puerto Rico has options for young people, like basketball or advanced education, various industries, etc. In the Dominican, baseball is still almost the only way for most young boys to get ahead through sports, and the economy depends on MLB’s money. Changing the signing age would shift incentives and the development process, but that process is efficient now and would be efficient then. The free market has teams paying players who are trained by buscones—agent-prospectors—who put resources toward players as young as 12 years old. The Dominican Republic will always be a power in producing players, regardless of slight rule changes.

More developed countries with strong economies and more diverse sports cultures, like Venezuela, may see a shift if the signing age changes and buscones become less aggressive in developing players at a younger age. That said, since we’re starting with the secondary countries and not the Dominican or Cuba, the effect would be lessened. I think MLB should try to dictate as little as possible about the broad parameters of how/when teams can scout and sign players, since unintended consequences have caused more problems than they solve.

Solving problems is something sabermetricians are often trying to do. But one sabermetrician opened up a whole new world when he looked at the game in a new light. Phil Birnbaum explains in his piece, titled “Random Developments.”

What’s impressive is not just that Beane recognized this, but how it’s now almost the consensus wisdom in mainstream sportswriting—how short playoff series are pretty much a crapshoot.

This is now a popular subject even outside sports, how to separate luck from skill. Nate Silver published The Signal and the Noise in 2012. More pertinently, that same year saw the release of Michael Mauboussin’s The Success Equation—Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing. His book is aimed at the business market, especially the finance industry–Mauboussin is a Wall Street investment specialist–but his examples draw heavily on the “luck” literature from sabermetrics, with Tom Tango’s contributions (some of which I’ll get to shortly) among those most prominently discussed.

And that literature, as far as I can tell, began in response to the debate about pitchers and balls in play.

McCracken’s DIPS theory, so contrary to intuition, sparked a vigorous debate. Adherents said, “Look, the BABIP correlation from year-to-year is low, so Voros was right.” Skeptics said, “Look, knuckleball pitchers seem to generate low BABIPs over their entire careers, so Voros was wrong.”

Of course, those arguments are extremist caricatures. The question isn’t black and white: “Do pitchers have control, or don’t they?” The question is, “What proportion of observed variation in pitcher BABIP represents real differences in talent?”

In other words: How much? How much of BABIP is luck, and how much isn’t?

It wasn’t luck that caused the 1904 World Series to be cancelled. In his piece on the subject, titled “The 1904 World Series,” Adam Dorhauer put together an impressive explanation on how it all came to be — or not be, as it were. Two of the central figures were John McGraw and John T. Brush. Dorhauer gives us a little backstory on them here:

McGraw was, in some ways, an unlikely ally for Brush. While he later became publicly dismissive of the junior circuit, McGraw was actually one of the first big stars to sign with the American League in 1901. He had strong personal and business ties to Baltimore, a city occupied by the AL. He had even twice refused to report to Brooklyn as a player before joining Brush’s Giants in New York.

McGraw’s path to the AL began in 1899, when the owner of Baltimore’s NL franchise, Harry Von der Horst, bought a share of the Brooklyn Bridegrooms (subsequently rechristened the Superbas) and transferred several of Baltimore’s stars, along with manager and co-owner Ned Hanlon, to Brooklyn. As arguably Baltimore’s biggest star, McGraw was among the players Brooklyn most wanted. However, McGraw and teammate Wilbert Robinson refused to report to their new team. The two had opened a successful sports bar called The Diamond Cafe in Baltimore and elected to stay and operate the business, even if it meant walking away from the game. Rather than risk losing the two entirely, Von der Horst agreed to keep them on the Orioles roster.

This was a rare victory for a player fighting ownership for control over his own destination, but it was short-lived. The Orioles folded after the 1899 season, and McGraw and Robinson were again assigned to Brooklyn. Once again, they refused to report. The two managed to successfully engineer a trade to St. Louis on the condition that they would be free to leave at the end of the year, scoring yet another rare victory, this time against the reserve clause. (Ironically, despite twice refusing to report to Brooklyn as a player, Robinson is best known for his later career as Brooklyn’s manager, where he was so influential and beloved the team was actually named after him for a while.)

The idea behind getting the reserve clause stricken from their contracts was that the American League was beginning to make its move and would be putting a team in Baltimore the following year. After playing out the 1900 season in St. Louis, McGraw and Robinson both quickly signed with the new AL Baltimore franchise as free agents.

Robinson was at this point 36 years old and near the end of his playing career, but McGraw was in his prime and still one of the game’s premier third basemen. He had also established himself as a capable manager after taking over the 1899 Orioles in Hanlon’s absence. As one of the game’s most valuable commodities, McGraw was offered partial ownership of the Baltimore franchise as part of his deal with the AL.

So McGraw was, at least on the surface, one of the last people Brush would have counted on to help him take on the AL. And this was before McGraw married Blanche Sindall, a Baltimore native, following the 1901 season. The one thing that McGraw and Brush had in common, however, was a strong, shall we say, distaste for Johnson.

Elsewhere in History, editor extraordinaire Joe Distelheim writes about the city of Detroit as it relates to the Tigers’ World Series championship in 1984. Here, Joe eloquently describes the Motor City:

Detroit. A couple of years after the Tigers’ championship season, the city hung a huge black fist, sculpted of bronze, right downtown as a tribute to boxer Joe Louis. More than one wag observed that it was just as well the city didn’t claim Casanova.

Memorably, when the Republican National Convention came to the city in 1980, Time magazine described Detroit as “Cleveland without the glitter.” That remark might not have made the local newspapers; their unions were on strike that week. That kind of town.

Shortly hereafter, we break into the Analysis section, which is the longest it’s been in my four years working on the Annual. Eno Sarris’ story is — as it is every year — one of the highlights. Here are the first four paragraphs to his piece, titled “Command Is a Moving Target:”

“Hey, raise your hand if you’re a catcher,” Dave Hudgens remembers asking his newly assembled team in the spring. “How often do you hold your mitt out there and the pitcher sticks it?” His question was greeted with laughter.

Hudgens, currently serving as the hitting coach for the Houston Astros, was trying to make a point about how hitters should treat plate discipline, but this realization should be a sobering one for any fan of the game. Pitchers don’t do a great job of putting the ball right where they want it. Sportvision and Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) created a COMMANDf/x metric that tracked the catcher’s glove from target to catch and found pitchers missed the glove by an average of 13 inches. They miss by almost the width of the plate…on average!

You might just throw your hands up and give up on command, instead focusing on finding pitchers with great stuff. Some of the pitchers I’ve talked to agreed with this idea. Colin McHugh talked of focus and execution when I talked about command: “An aggressive pitch executed poorly is better than a non-aggressive pitch executed well,” the Astros’ righty said.

But there’s still a spread when it comes to command, and there are a few ways we might improve our understanding of this undeniable, yet difficult-to-measure skill, especially if we ask the pitchers to help us understand it better.

Understanding things better is the goal of the entire analysis section. Each essay has its own individual aim, of course. In Owen Watson’s piece, he delves deeper into the relationship between velocity and leverage to see if pitchers really can go to “the well.” But it wasn’t just velocity that he looked at.

One final wrinkle remains in regard to spin and leverage. A batter’s swing rate also falls with the spin rate changes that correspond to increased leverage for these offspeed pitches. Change-ups, sliders, and curveballs with more spin aren’t offered at by batters as often as those with less spin. This means hitters might be less prone to making contact with pitches in high-leverage situations, but they also may be less liable to swing in the first place. This would make sense, as pitcher walk rate increases dramatically during high-leverage situations.

Are you intrigued yet? Maybe one more example will do the trick. Neil Weinberg’s article, titled “Analyzing Catcher Pop Time,” uses Statcast data that was kindly provided to us by the good people at Major League Baseball Advanced Media. Why catcher pop time? Weinberg answers that question here:

The pitcher plays an important role, so the catcher can only do so much to catch would-be base stealers. The base runner travels a certain distance before the ball gets to the catcher, and that initial distance is the responsibility of the pitcher. If the runner is 50 percent of the way to second when the catcher gets the ball, the catcher has a better chance to throw him out than if the runner is 60 percent of the way there.

This makes pop time an attractive statistic for measuring catchers. The actual time it takes to get the ball from home to second is almost entirely independent of all other actors. It is an individual statistic. Certainly the batter could interfere, the middle infielders could receive the ball poorly, or the pitch could put the catcher in a bad throwing position, but in general, pop time is exclusively a measurement of the catcher and is independent of the outcome of the play.

The speed with which the catcher delivers the ball is a true measurement of the catcher’s performance. It doesn’t cover every aspect of catcher defense, but it is an important aspect, and it doesn’t require a great deal of complicated analysis to understand. One aspect it misses is the accuracy of the throw, as an ankle-high throw can come in a bit slower than a head-high throw to the same overall effect. But in general, we can agree pop time is superior to caught stealing rate or even some type of statistic that measures caught stealing rate while controlling for the pitcher and other contextual factors.

Pop time gives you a precise measurement of how long it took the catcher to get the ball to second. If a catcher fires off an elite throw, we want to be able to credit him even if the pitcher took forever on that specific pitch. Even pitchers with good times to the plate occasionally will take their time, and we want to be able to credit catchers for how well they performed regardless of the circumstances of any one situation. Catchers who throw well help their teams to some degree, and statistics that shine light on good throwing catchers would be useful for understanding catcher defense, which remains a trickier business to measure than the other positions. Weinstein’s work indicates we should care more about pitchers’ times to the plate than catcher pop time if we care about stolen bases, but pop time remains an important way to evaluate the catcher’s role in stolen base prevention.

While teams very likely track this data for their own players and upcoming opponents, we previously haven’t had public, comprehensive data on catcher pop time. You can watch games with a stopwatch in hand, but you can’t watch every game with a stopwatch in hand. However, thanks to MLB Advanced Media’s Statcast system, which debuted in all 30 parks for 2015, we now have a comprehensive way to measure this essential aspect of the sport’s most important defender.

It’s a great look at a stat that hopefully will become more commonplace in the years to come.

These eight excerpts represent but a fraction of the awesome material. From Dave Cameron to David Kagan, Jeff Sullivan to Jeff Zimmerman, Alex Remington to Alex Skillin, and to several authors who don’t share a first name, there is a multitude of great stuff in store for you this year. I can’t wait for you to read it.

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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8 years ago

Hi Paul, any idea when this bad boy will be available on the Kindle int he UK? Just as I asked last year, I go on holiday at the weekend and was once again hoping to take it with me 🙂