Spring Training and the World Baseball Classic are fine and all but let’s face it, you’re currently staring down a drought of 151 days without a baseball game that meant anything. 151 days without a daily statistical record that’s immediately uploaded into baseball-reference and Fangraphs for further analysis.
151 days since the Cubs had a party in the middle of Progressive Field. 151 days since Kyle Schwarber….
That all changes today, Sunday, April 2nd, 2017. The Indians may open tomorrow in Arlington, but there are three Major League games today and that’s more than good enough.
Here a few topics, trends and observations that I think will be most interesting to watch in the upcoming baseball season. Happy Opening Day!
The American League Central May Stink This Season (Except Cleveland)
The Chicago Cubs had last season’s largest margin of victory in the Division races at 17.5 games and health had a lot to do with it.
While the Cardinals and Pirates and even the Brewers are probably due for a bit of a rebound this season, the Cubs are almost certainly due for a regression. A lot of things have to break your way to win 103 games like the Cubs did last summer, and they certainly had their share of luck to go with their immense talent last year.
In a league where 50% of all pitchers land on the disabled list each season, what are the odds that the Cubs get 152 starts out of their top five-man rotation again this season? And besides the Schwarber injury (which, granted, cost him the entire regular season), the Cubs had excellent health among the rest of their offensive core. Unless the Cubs are also ahead of the curve on injury prevention, they seem due for a large regression on total games played by their core contributors while also playing head to head against a more competitive division.
The Indians have the exact opposite scenario – their health almost certainly has to trend upward and their division got a lot worse over the offseason either by attrition or aging curves.
What the Indians accomplished last year in marching to Game Seven of the World Series with a fractured roster was not an accomplishment that needed years to put in perspective. It was stunning in the moment and stands as a frightening prospect for the rest of the league to consider going forward.
If the Indians even have average health and/or better timing on some of those inevitable pitcher injuries, they look to be a much better team than the one that relied almost strictly on Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen through 15 postseason games last October and November. Remember, Kluber started 40% of the postseason games last season and Miller set an all-time postseason record for innings by a reliever at 19.1 innings. Is it any surprise that both just ran out of gas in Game 7?
Meanwhile, in the rest of the AL Central:
- The Twins lost 103 games last year and did nothing to improve their immediate fortunes. They have a stable of young, interesting prospects who are breaking into the bigs like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Miguel Sano and Jose Berrios. As interesting as they are, those four combined for only 3.4 WAR last year. This is not a team poised for a breakthrough in 2017, especially adding virtually no Major League talent this offseason.
- The White Sox are now probably even behind the Twins after dealing away Chris Sale and Adam Eaton this offseason. When, not if, Jose Quintana is traded this season, they’ll have traded the three best players from an 84-loss team. They received a boat load of talent back for sure and may be interesting in a few years, but for now the White Sox and Twins exist as bottom-feeders to be exploited.
- The Tigers apparently tried to deal away a few of their own aging players this offseason and failed to deal a single one because of decreasing performance and enormous contracts. They just cut $13 million worth of dead pitching weight at the end of Spring Training in Mark Lowe and Mike Pelfrey, they’ll have Anibal Sanchez and his $16.8M salary and 5.87 ERA in the bullpen to start the season, and their second-best hitter from last season (JD Martinez) is in a walking boot. Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander are 34, Ian Kinsler is 35, and Victor Martinez is 38. And most recently, owner Mike Ilitch passed away at age 87. The Tigers have kept the payroll over $200 million trying to win before Ilitch passed. What happens now?
- The Royals have the most potential of any Central foe as a lot of their offense looks to rebound from injury-plagued seasons and almost all news out of the Royals spring in Arizona was positive. However, the starting pitching looks weak after the tragic death of 25-year-old Yordano Ventura and the bullpen is a far cry from the three-headed monster of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera of World Series season’s past. Only Herrera remains and it seems unlikely the bullpen will paper over the starting pitching deficiencies as well as they did in 2014 and 2015. Most importantly, cornerstones Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer are all free agents after the season and one or more may be dealt if the team isn’t in the running at the All-Star break. This team is as likely to be gutted as they are to mount a surprise challenge in the Central.
I’m not saying the Indians are a lock in the Central. Injuries and under-performance will happen and baseball is just, well, weird. But you have to like their chances more than any other team in baseball, maybe even the Cubs.
Will Teams Continue to Increase Shift Usage?
Shift data is complicated and imperfect for many reasons outside of the scope of this article, but what we know for certain is that usage of the shift is up, up, up across all of baseball. Consider Fangraphs’ new shifting data going back to 2011, when the shift first started appearing in greater numbers.
The mystery here is that no one even seems to definitively know if shifting is working. It probably helps.
How do the Indians shift? Here’s their total number along with league ranking:
2016: 1,011 (20th)
2015: 776 (14th)
2014: 559 (11th)
2013: 308 (13th)
2012: 469 (3rd)
2011: 192 (3rd)
The Indians value the shift more and more every season, yet they also value it less than the rest of the league. Here are 2016’s ten playoff teams in terms of overall MLB shift ranking:
Giants – 12th
Rangers – 13th
Blue Jays – 17th
Indians – 20th
Orioles – 21st
Nationals – 22nd
Red Sox – 23rd
Dodgers – 24th
Mets – 27th
Cubs – 30th
So most playoff teams were in the bottom half in shifting. And the Cubs, who had one of the all-time great defenses last season, were dead last in shifts. What does this tell us? Why do teams shift more and more? I don’t pretend to know, but it’s something I plan to ponder while watching baseball this summer.
Last Year’s Home Run Spike
There were 14% more home runs hit in 2016 than there were in 2015. Last year was actually the 2nd highest home run season in MLB history and just barely. The largest single season for home runs were the halcyon days of 2000 when sixteen players topped 40 and everyone’s hat sizes were a notch or two larger, and that season had only 83 more than 2016.
Seven players hit 40 or more last season, but most of the damage was done by middle infielders and slap hitters who set career highs in the teens and twenties. Consider just the Indians players who set career-highs in home runs last season (not counting youngsters like Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Tyler Naquin, of course):
Home runs in 2015 were actually 17% higher than in 2014, though. But 2014’s home run totals were the lowest in a non-strike year since 1993. So are the offensive doldrums coming to an end?
Historically, there are two notorious home run spikes that I’m aware of: 1987 and 1930. Consider those seasons:
1987: Home runs were up 17% and overall runs were up 7%. The next season saw a drop of 29% in home runs and 12% in runs.
1930: Home runs were up 16% and overall runs were up 6%. 1931 saw a drop of 32% in home runs and 13% in runs.
2016’s gains were 14% in home runs and 5% in total runs. One season aberration or trend towards more offense? History says it was an aberration. Unless there’s some sort of revolution in hitting approaches?
The Fly-Ball Revolution
I’ve heard a lot of baseball writers and podcasters talking about 2017 as potentially the year of the swing plane revolution. While you may not be too excited if you’re not a baseball physicist, there may be some connection here in rising home run rates and hitters’ new approach to pitcher’s increasing velocity and usage rates of deep bullpens full of fireballers.
If conventional baseball wisdom was to swing down on the ball and look for line drives and ground balls through the infield, a renegade sect of independent hitting coaches are challenging hitters to have a slight uppercut on their swings and try for fall balls and ultimately more doubles and home runs. The Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond recently had an article featuring names you might here more of in the near future – Doug Latta and Bobby Tewksbary.
The physics are far too deep to delve into here, but consider the following players who have notoriously retooled their swings according to this philosophy in the past few seasons: Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Justin Turner, JD Martinez…. in fact, Martinez had a great interview (caution, spicy language up in here) with Fangraphs’ Travis Sawchick about how he thinks a tipping point is near.
While I haven’t heard of any Indians players drastically altering their approach in 2017, it will be interesting to watch teams like the Pirates and Athletics and particular players like Mitch Haniger in Seattle who have bought into the approach.
Maybe this is something Tyler Naquin should consider?
The “Andrew Miller” Guy in Every ‘Pen
As innovative the current crop of young executives are in baseball, Major League Baseball is at its heart a league full of copycats. You can bet that teams who have success in the postseason will start trends the following season. Watching a handful of Spring Training broadcasts this season, it seems a lot of teams are looking for that “Andrew Miller Guy” in the bullpen.
Miller, of course, was the proto-typical failed starter turned ace reliever, but his usage in the postseason was something baseball hadn’t seen since the firemen relievers of the 1970’s – a flame-thrower who will come into the game at any time and through two or more innings in the highest leverage spots without consideration of accruing “saves”.
Miller’s 2016 postseason statistics will never fail to amaze – 10 games, 19.1 innings, 12 hits allowed, 5 walks, 30 K’s. Five of those hits and three runs (along with two home runs) were in his last two games when it seems likely he was just out of bullets.
This year several teams will open the season with middling minor league starting pitchers on the Major League roster to see if they can capture some of that “Andrew Miller Guy” magic. Two notable examples may be in Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. The Phillies have 27-year-old Adam Morgan in this role. Morgan went 2-11 with a 6.04 ERA and 7.5 K/9 in 113.1 innings with the Phils last season. The Rays will go with 27-year-old career minor leaguer Austin Pruitt who most recently was 8-11 with a 3.76 in 28 Durham starts with an 8.2 K/9. But Pruitt struck out 18 in 16.2 Spring Training innings, so the Rays will see what they have in a different role.
The good news for the Indians is that they certainly are not worried about their own “Andrew Miller Guy”. They have the real deal in their own bullpen.