Friday, July 1, 2016

The Side Effects of Bunting

            The Braves, Phillies, Brewers, Rockies, and Reds are near the bottom of the standings in the National League, but they are all in the top five in one category… Sacrifice bunts.
             Back in the day, bunts seemed to be an essential part of the game of baseball. Get a runner on, get him over, and get him in. That’s “ABC baseball” and it’s something teams swore by until the recent sabermetric revolution many teams began following.
            Pitchers bunting is one thing, but far too often it seems like teams are having more and more batters sacrifice their at-bat in an effort to squeeze one run out of an inning. Regardless if the opposing pitcher has walked two batters and looked totally off, teams continue to bail them out by giving away outs. It’s almost as if teams are settling for one run when they could potentially score two or three runs easily, if they wouldn’t give away an important out.
            Over the weekend, I watched the Braves and Mets play… I found myself becoming more and more angered at the decision-making put in place by the Braves decision making. During the game Friday night, Tyler Flowers led off the ninth inning with a single and Erick Aybar was hit by a pitch… Thus, giving Atlanta two base runners with no outs. With the winning run at the plate and no outs, Brian Snitker called on Chase d'Arnaud to pinch hit. He immediately hit into a double play while trying to advance the runners with a bunt. Nobody seems to want to ask why he’d call upon his pinch hitter to bunt (if you’re going to do that, why not just use a starting pitcher instead of wasting a bench bat?). But this move was a classic Barves moment and yet another game lost by Atlanta via poor managing. 
Freddie Freeman bunting... Because why not? (AP Photo/John Raoux)
            After all of that, the Braves found themselves in a similar situation during the game Saturday night. Jace Peterson led off the inning with a single and Ender Inciarte followed with a sacrifice bunt. Traditional fans may see this as playing for a run, but this essentially gave the Mets a free out and opened up first base. Which, the Mets immediately intentionally walked Freddie Freeman to set up a double play. Nick Markakis hit directly into the defense and the Mets turned a game ending double play.
            This is just a small snippet of a disastrous season that the Braves are going through. It’s also just another reminder of how important it is to have a manager and front office that embraces a more analytical approach. It’s easy to second-guess managers when things do not work out, but there’s an abundance of data available to illustrate how bunting only decreases a team’s chances of scoring a run.
            The most surprising stat to me is that the Angels have 23 sacrifice bunts. That’s right, an American League team has had 23 sacrifice bunts…. That’s five more sacrifice bunts than the closest American League team (Royals) and the Angels have more bunts than eight National League teams. The Angels have played 15 interleague games, but looking over their team stats, I found that they’ve had no sacrifice bunts by pitchers. This is a lineup that features five batters with an OPS+ over 100 and arguably the best player in Major League Baseball, Mike Trout. If you do a quick Google search for “Mike Scioscia bunting” you’ll be rewarded with numerous articles expressing their anger towards his calls for sacrifice bunts. What’s even more appalling to me is how the Rockies can have the second most bunts in baseball (32) and the majority of those bunts are by DJ LeMahieu, who has a .326/.394/.496 slash line… And he’s the guy dropping down sacrifice bunts and giving himself up for lesser hitters to drive runners in.
            The Braves, Reds, Phillies, Brewers, Rockies, and Angels are a combined 195-264 this season. Personally, I don’t think it’s much a coincidence that the worst teams in baseball are some of the most frequent bunters in the game. The majority of these teams employ “old-school” managers who seem more worried about managing to not lose rather than managing to win.
            The bunt will never truly go away. As long as the National League continues to go without the DH, we will always see pitchers batting and trying to lay down sacrifice bunts. That might also be changing given the offensive explosion by National League pitchers at the plate this season. In Madison Bumgarner’s last start, San Francisco elected to forgo having a DH in the line-up and allowed Bumgarner to bat for himself. The result? Bumgarner went 1-for-4 at the plate with one run and a strikeout. His hit, however, was a line drive to center field that had 103-mph exit velocity, according to MLB StatCast. Will more teams follow suit and allow their star pitchers, who can swing the bat, a chance to bat for themselves? Or will they always be reduced to dropping down bunts because that’s what “the book says to do!!”  By the way, where can one purchase the book that old-school managers go by? Is it located next to the aisle where they sell hats to tip? Hmm… In the end, I guess it is easier for managers to justify a batter bunting instead of swinging away in a run-scoring situation. However, baseball is an ever-changing sport. Some teams have adapted, but others are being left in the dust. Some teams are complaining about shifts, bullpen micro-managing, and pitching limits on young pitchers, but they seem to have no problem with putting themselves at a run scoring disadvantage by bunting. Here’s a great clip from the movie “Moneyball” that sums up things nicely. 


Friday, June 10, 2016

Atlanta is not rebuilding like the Cubs.

With the Braves and Cubs about to square off this weekend in Atlanta, you're undoubtedly going to hear commentators compare the two clubs and their rebuilding processes. 

(David Banks - Getty Images)

However, there are some stark differences between the two franchises. First off, the Cubs completely remade their entire front office. While Theo Epstein garners most of the attention, the additions of Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod shouldn't go unnoticed. All three worked together in Boston and helped them finally get over the preverbal hump (the New York Yankees.) It also doesn't hurt to have one of the best managers in Major League Baseball in Joe Maddon. 

When you compare that to the Braves, they fired a successful General Manager in Frank Wren and replaced him with John Hart and later on, John Coppolella. John Hart, John Schuerholz, and Bobby Cox all still have important roles with the franchise. While these men have all had successful and accomplished careers, shouldn't the front office be rebuilt with the rest of the team? It makes you wonder just how much freedom someone like Coppolella is allowed to have when he has so many old school guys around him. 

Getting back to the rebuilding efforts of both clubs, the Cubs have taken a very different route to their successful rebuild. First and foremost, the have an ownership group that allows the front office to spend on international talent as well as allows them to spend on the amateur draft. If you look at their draft philosophy, they very much differ from the Braves. Unlike Atlanta, the Cubs believe in taking college hitters with early first-round picks, and they have done so for three straight Drafts. Those hitters being: Kris Bryant ('13), Kyle Schwarber ('14), and Ian Happ ('15). Bryant and Schwarber have already provided huge value for the Cubs and Happ is rated as the third best second base prospect (by  When asked about Draft philosophy, Cubs’ top scouting and player development executive Jason McLeod told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun Times that, “We certainly don’t walk away from pitching,” McLeod said, stressing the club’s best-player-available philosophy. “We’ve talked also about how the history of the draft will tell you if players are close on evaluations, the college hitter is the way to go. They usually pan out the best.” 

When you take a look at the Braves' drafting philosophy, they've totally abandoned taking college bats. Since firing Frank Wren at the end of the 2014 season, Atlanta has drafted seven high school pitchers within the first two rounds during the '15 and '16 drafts. The front office did well in trading Shelby Miller for Dansby Swanson, but that's more about the Diamondbacks being in "win-now" mode and making a desperation move. Atlanta did very well for themselves in getting Swanson, but it feels more like a case of Arizona making a terrible move. The Braves organization is loaded with interesting pitching prospects, but there's only one potential impact bat (Swanson) and he was one of the best college hitters available in the '15 draft. 

If you look around Major League Baseball, more and more teams are deciding to go with college bats that can make an immediate impact. Michael Conforto (Mets), Trea Turner (Nats), A.J. Reed (Astros), and Stephen Piscotty (Cards) are all college bats who have already made an immediate impact or are on the cusp of breaking into the majors. (Even Bryce Harper spent a year at a Junior College).  

The Braves philosophy seems to be more like teams from the 1990's, in that they take power pitching with "projectable bodies" that are prone to breaking down over time. Much like the book Moneyball mentioned, teams continuously take high school pitchers who "look the part" instead of going with college pitchers who do not require much time to develop. Under Frank Wren, Atlanta successfully took college pitchers like Mike Minor, Sean Gilmartin, Craig Kimbrel, and Alex Wood. Not only were these pitchers able to be major league contributors soon after draft day, but they proved to be solid value picks because they've already completed their college careers and do not have the leverage of using a college commitment to gain more bonus money. 

High school players are like the ultimate lottery ticket. Some teams have hit big and been greatly rewarded, but far too often teams take players who just look the part and it can hurt the franchise for years to come. College pitchers, in my opinion, tend to be more projectable and require less time to develop. They've already been pitching in the equivalent of Double-A ball (especially in powerhouse conferences like the ACC, SEC, and PAC-12). 

The Cubs' rebuild has been successful due to their willingness to not only take college bats, but also find gems in trades. It's clear that they have a tremendous analytics department that have found things in players that other organizations either don't care about or don't want to work on. The best two examples of this are the trades for Jake Arrieta and Anthony Rizzo. Both were top prospects, but their previous organizations gave them up after waiting on them to reach their potential. Thanks to an ownership that is engaged to the team, they've been able to spend big not only on impact free agents like Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and Jon Lester, but they brought in Joe Maddon to tie all the pieces together. 

While the Braves are rebuilding, they haven't followed the same path as the Cubs. The Braves seem set on eating up bad contracts to gain draft picks and instead of taking impact college bats or pitchers, they're taking their chances on high school arms that will take much longer to develop. They've made several trades that just seem like they're spinning their wheels. Giving up cost controlled arms for players like Hector Olivera or signing aging vets like Nick Markakis who give the team no real upside. Fans see this team competing in 2017 or 2018, but unless they spend big in the free agent market, this rebuild looks like it's going to take until 2020 at the earliest. So far, there's just not enough to believe this team will suddenly compete by the window first put in place by the front office. At this point, it's unclear what the goal is for this organization. They have some nice pieces in place, but outside of Dansby Swanson, there's no immediate impact bat. Will this team actually be committed to spending on free agents? As we saw with the previous front office, spending on free agents is what ultimately cost Frank Wren his job. With the players that have been traded away, they made no attempt to sign young players like Jason Heyward or Justin Upton long term.... If those players were deemed too expensive, how can they justify spending tons of money later on for older players down the road? Especially with ownership that refused to allow the previous GM Frank Wren the ability to add salary to improve upon a 96 win team... The free agent market continues to get more and more expensive, especially for younger players with power potential. We're not too far away from seeing players like Bryce Harper potentially ask for $400M+ deal. Can the Braves really afford to play ball in that market? Time will only tell. 

There's really no comparing these two franchises. The Cubs have the front office and ownership in place to fuel success for many years down the road. They have a different philosophy and approach to building a team and so far, it's been very successful. The Braves on the other hand have been doing what teams have always done, taking high profile high school arms and praying that one of the dozen or so will actually pan out. In the end, saying these two franchises are following a similar path is just lazy journalism. When you look deeper, it's clear that vastly different ideas are in place for both franchises. Will this old school approach by Atlanta actually work? I guess we will check back in 2020 to see. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Would Yoenis Cespedes be a good fit in Baltimore?

With rumors circulating that the Orioles have an interest in Yoenis Cespedes, it's still up for debate whether or not he would be a solid fit for Baltimore.

(Maxx Wolfson/Getty Images)

Much like current Orioles' outfielder Adam Jones, Yoenis Cespedes is a guy who can hit home runs, but doesn't offer much more on offense besides his power. Playing his games in the AL East and at least 81 home games at Camden Yards would boost his power totals (on paper anyway), but he'd essentially be replacing Chris Davis and his 47 home runs. It should also be noted that even with a batting average of .262, Davis still reached base at a .361 clip... He's not just a "one outcome" guy like Cespedes. He's constantly getting on base and providing opportunities for his teammates, which is something that Yoenis Cespedes hasn't proven he can consistently do over the course of his career.

There's no denying that Yoenis Cespedes is a talented player, but he doesn't help the Orioles the way he could help a team like the Mets. The Mets feature a lineup full of hitters who can get on base and Cespedes is the one big bat that could drive the runners in... On the Orioles, only one hitter last season (outside of Davis) got on base over 32% of the time. Does it matter if Cespedes hits 30 home runs on a team that can't get people on base? That would make for a lot of solo home runs... The Orioles as a team had a .307 team on-base percentage in 2015 (the Mets featured eight players over .320 OBP). The Mets have an in-house option who could replace most of the production Cespedes provided with Michael Conforto. It's worth noting that in 56 games, Conforto took 17 walks... In 57 games with the Mets, Cespedes took 16 walks... Cespedes was very valuable to the Mets down the stretch, but you could also make the case that Michael Conforto was the "real MVP" for the Mets over the same period.

The Orioles did manage to finish 9th in MLB in runs scored, but finished near last in team walks (418). They also finished 5th in the league in strikeouts... In contrast to teams like the Cubs, who strikeout often, they don't walk enough enough to counter the strikeouts and wasted outs. If you need proof, the Orioles hit 217 team home runs last season, which placed them at 3rd in all of MLB. However, they only scored 713 runs. The Toronto Blue Jays on the other hand, hit 15 more home runs (232) and led MLB in runs scored (891.) The difference? The Blue Jays got on base at an incredible .340 clip (as a team.) There's no denying that home runs are valuable, but while the Orioles are sending warning shots, teams like the Blue Jays are essentially pulverizing other teams with their power and on-base skills.

Would a player like Yoenis Cespedes help this offense? I'm included to think he wouldn't. He would essentially be Adam Jones 2.0 and I just don't see him making a big enough impact to warrant his asking price.