The Top 10 Under-Covered Stories of 2016 (10-1)

I welcome you to my first multi-article series on this blog: Top 10 Under-Covered Stories of 2016. With the end of a year comes the typical best of, worst of, craziest, etc. stories of 2016. I have never, if my memory serves correctly, seen an article detailing the stories in a single year that were under covered or went without many articles discussing them. Sure, everyone knows about Trevor Story’s ridiculous first week, injuries to the Mets’ pitching staff, and the Cubs breaking their 108-year World Series champion drought (there are also 108 stitches on a baseball…coincidence???), but I hope to bring to light some stories that were not reported on much, if at all, during this calendar year. Before we get going, I just want to make it clear that this list is not ordered in any particular way. Let’s jump right in.

#10 Mike Trout is a Very Good Baseball Player

“But Max, Trout was MVP this year! And he’s always amazing! Isn’t this supposed to be the list of ‘under-covered’ stories? What gives?”

Well, reader, let me indulge you. There are very few people who actually understand how good Mike Trout is. I’m not saying that to sound pompous or better than anyone, it’s just a fact. Yes, everyone knows that Trout is perennially one of the top three players in the big leagues, and everyone also knows that he’s only 25 years old. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Trout is going to retire as the best position player of all-time. Save this, so when Trout is getting inducted to the HOF 20 years from now, you can Tweet the link to this blog post and say “heard it here first!”

On a more serious note, let me explain to you just how good Mr. Trout is, and why it needs to be talked about more. Trout’s triple-slash (through 2997 games) is .306/.405/.557 (AVG/OBP/SLG). This is not a perfect comparison, but Mickey Mantle hit .298, Rickey Henderson got on base at a .401 career clip, and Ken Griffey Jr. had  a .538 SLG. Trout has also hit 163 HR through five seasons (not including 2011, where he only got 135 PA); Griffey only hit 132 long balls in his first five years. (Check out @theaceofspaeder on Twitter for more stats like this).

Here’s a list of players who bested each number in Trout’s triple-slash during their career: Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Hank Greenberg, Manny Ramirez. That’s seven players. Ever. If you want to exclude Ramirez because he is a PED user, fine by me; that chops the list down to six players. If you add to this the fact that Trout has only been playing for five full seasons (he got only 135 PA in 2011) and prorate his stats out to a 20-year career (daring, I know) he will be only the second player ever to hit 600+ HR and have 500+ SB. The other? Barry Bonds.

I’ve mentioned WAR on here before and how that, like many other stats, is an imperfect stat, but it gives us a nice tool to use to compare players in a basic way. The average WAR7 (7-year peak of highest WAR during career) of a Hall of Fame CF is 44.5 Trout has 45. He’s only played five seasons. That means that even if he decides to sit out these next two seasons to pursue his dream of being a weatherman (seriously, he’s a good one too) he could still be in the conversation for the Hall of Fame, ignoring the fact that he hasn’t played 10 seasons. He also has the eighth-highest WAR7 of any CF ever. Again, that’s only in five seasons, so assuming he posts his career-average WAR numbers for the next two years, he’ll end up with 66.9 WAR7, which will be good for third all-time, behind Willie Mays and Ty Cobb.

Please keep in mind he has only played five full seasons. Have I said that enough?

What do you do when you have a player with these numbers? You put him in the hall. What do you do when you have a player with these numbers in six total seasons, when that player is only 25 years old? You sit back and watch him masterfully display his talents so that you can tell your grandkids, or great-grandkids, how you were alive to see the greatest player of all-time on the field, in person.

#9 The Texas Rangers Minor League System Did Some Pretty Terrible Things

If you’ve been following the new MLB collective bargaining agreement at all, then you’re probably aware of the presence of a certain clause which indicates that bullying and hazing of certain types are now off-limits. I want to make this crystal clear: I’m not condoning any form of bullying in any way, because when we look the other direction with regards to bullying and hazing in professional sports, we get a situation like that of Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. With that said, the policy seemed to come out of left field. Folks have speculated that it was due to the Rangers farm system incident, in which players from the Rangers’ academy  in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic, sexually abused an underage teammate.

I don’t really think that a “no hazing allowed” clause in the new CBA is going to be able to prevent incidents like this from happening in the future, but it’s good that both the players and owners of Major League Baseball are acknowledging the incident.

On to the incident itself: it has been reported that some older Rangers prospects, namely 19-year-olds Rougned Odor (no, not Golden Gloves winner Rougned Odor) and Yohel Pozo, forcibly held down younger teammates (16-year-olds) and masturbated them. Additionally, the incident was apparently not isolated, as in this sort of thing had happened before.

I remember getting a banner on my phone about the event, but I do not recall seeing any articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, or any other very reputable newspaper about the incident. In my book, this is front-page news. The fact that newspapers and more major media outlets did not expose this story, to me at least, is a travesty. What the Rangers’ prospects did was terrible, but my gut (in addition to some reports) tells me that academies in the Dominican Republic and other foreign countries are not necessarily policed as heavily as they should be. Obviously trainers, coaches, and the like are overseeing the daily workout of each of the prospects, but I find it hard to believe that the coaches maintain the same stringency off the field as they do on it. In any event, most people I have talked to did not hear about this incident until I brought it up with them in person, and even then I did not know much about the specifics of the abuse without doing some independent research.

Thankfully, this is the only thing on this list of significant magnitude, and I hope that when I whip this list up for 2017 we have a list free of hazing, bullying, and the like. I hope the prospects who perpetrated the abuse are brought to justice (and released by the Rangers, but knowing how the sports business works that’s pretty unlikely to happen if they have any upside) and that those prospects who were targeted are able to move on.

#8: The Nationals are in Trouble

They won’t be in trouble this upcoming year. Perhaps not even the year after or the year after that. But the trouble is coming.

The Nationals had perhaps the most successful season of the young franchise’s history in 2016, and even though they lost in the NLDS, they went out with a bang by dealing a slew of prospects for White Sox CF Adam Eaton. This team is poised, much to my chagrin, to win the NL East again in 2017 (the Mets will definitely challenge them, provided their pitchers stay healthy) and the team is in a very good spot for the future, having locked up aces Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer to long-term deals. They also have league wide top-10 prospect Victor Robles waiting in the wings in addition to lesser-known but still solid prospects such as Erick Fedde, Pedro Severino, and Austin Voth to complement him. In short, the Nationals, talent-wise, are in a solid spot to compete very seriously for the time being, and will likely finish near the top of the National League each of the next few years.

What about that is troubling, you ask? In terms of players, the Nats are set for the foreseeable future. However, due to the structure of some of the extensions and free-agent deals they have signed, the team will be financially handicapped in some regard in every season from 2022-2030.

Why is nobody talking about this? Probably because we’re thinking half a decade down the road. But let me just run down their situation quickly: Max Scherzer is due $15MM each season from 2022-2028 (Spotrac). That seems like a bargain until you realize that his contract ends in 2021. Stephen Strasburg is also due deferred money: $10MM each year from 2024-2030 (Spotrac). His deal ends in 2023. By no means is $25MM a year from 2024-2028 the end of the world, and the $15MM or $10MM they are handicapped in the other years from 2022-2030 probably will not make a huge dent in their financials, but it’s noteworthy that the Nats elected to defer as much money as they have.

The structure of the Strasburg extension and Scherzer contract also reveals one of the main reasons Mets LF Yoenis Cespedes turned down the Nats’ $100MM offer last offseason (2015-2016 offseason): there was a lot of deferred money involved. This is apparently corroborated by Jon Heyman, who indicated that there were “heavy deferrals” in Cespedes’ contract payouts in the Nats deal; the full value of the deal was going to be paid out over 15 years, instead of just the five seasons he would be under contract.

Whether or not this financial roadblock even comes to fruition for the Nationals remains to be seen considering how far down the road all of this is, but I also haven’t discussed the fact that Scherzer and Strasburg (assuming Stras opts in to his contract in 2020) are due between $45MM and $60MM combined per season from 2019-2021. If nothing else, this will be an interesting situation to monitor going forward, and I figured it was worth mentioning, since no other reporter seems to have done so this season.

#7: The Dodgers are ACTUALLY in trouble

You’ve probably heard about this one already, but the extent of the Dodgers’ financial woes was unbeknownst to me until I did some research independent of the banner on my phone from ESPN.

A little bit of background: in 2012, a Magic Johnson-led ownership group bought the LA Dodgers. This seems to have helped them in a lot of respects. For example, their average attendance has risen from about 36,000 in 2011 (the year prior to new ownership) to around 45,000 in 2016. Obviously not all the credit can go to the ownership, but they deserve at least some of it. It also probably helps that the team has made the playoffs in four straight seasons, but I digress.

In late November, it was reported that the Dodgers may be forced to cut payroll in the upcoming seasons or face suspension of owners and/or mandatory approval by the Office of the Commissioner of expenditures. Considering that the team has had a payroll close to $300MM per season, nearly $100MM over the luxury tax, this should come as no surprise to anyone. The Dodgers’ ownership group has spent exorbitantly on players since taking over, with an estimated $1 Billion or more in contracts being doled out since the beginning of the 2012 season. This normally wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that the team is in immense amounts of debt (some sources estimate $1.5 Billion). And when teams get into debt, MLB takes over. Not a good situation for the fans, or the team, so it would be best if that did not end up happening.

With that being said, the news of the Dodgers’ debt came and went in late November of this year, and was largely forgotten about. Because of the news, I was not expecting them to pursue any free-agents heavily, but here we are one month later, and both RP Kenley Jansen and 3B Justin Turner have new multi-year deals worth over $60MM ($80MM/5 years for Jansen, $64MM/4 for Turner).

I can’t pretend to know the inner workings of the Dodgers’ organization in and out, but this does not exactly look to be heading down a path of cutting costs and saving money to lower their debt. MLB apparently mandates that teams in massive amounts of debt submit a plan detailing how they will right the ship in the coming years. This is not that path.

#6: Achievements

Yes, this is almost a lazy cop-out. Almost.

Everyone knows about Max Scherzer’s 20 strikeout game, Trevor Story’s monstrous seven homers in his first six games, Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter, and the legend of Gary Sanchez. But not everyone knows all of the under-the-radar achievements that happened this year. Otherwise they wouldn’t be under the radar.

Michael Fulmer had a pretty good year. He was the rookie of the year, and he’ll get a mention in a later section of this article. But one of the most impressive parts of his season went unnoticed by almost everyone. Interestingly enough, Fulmer joined elite company (Fernando Valenzuela) with his rookie achievements.

Everyone knows about “Fernandomania.” Valenzuela threw five shutouts in his first eight starts, and finished his first eight starts with a 0.50 ERA. Fulmer’s rookie year wasn’t quite as impressive, but he did tie Valenzuela’s record for most innings pitched as a rookie without surrendering a run (33.1). Well done, Mike.

I talked about Mike Trout earlier in the series, and he’s as surefire a Hall of Famer as there is in the current MLB, but Miguel Cabrera certainly challenges him for that title. Cabrera had his 12th season with 100+ RBI this past year. RBI in general is a really bad stat for determining a player’s skill level; it’s great for telling you what the player has already done, but bad for telling you what the player will do. With that said, there’s no doubting that Cabrera is a first ballot HOFer. He joins A-Rod, Pujols, Ruth, Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Bonds, and Manny Ramirez as the only players to ever have 12 or more seasons of 100+ RBI. As good as Cabrera is, he doesn’t get that much credit anymore. But he’s still fantastic. Keep hacking, Miggy.

Perhaps it’s because he didn’t win the Cy Young (he wasn’t even a finalist), and perhaps it’s because he’s a reliever, but Zach Britton was ridiculously good this past year. People talked about it all the time after Buck Showalter infamously left him on the bench in the Orioles’s Wild Card Game loss, but aside from that there wasn’t much chatter. It’s unfortunate, because he had one of the best seasons for a reliever ever. I’m just going to go ahead and paste what I wrote about Britton earlier in the offseason:

Britton had a 0.54 ERA this season over 67 IP. Yeah, go ahead and read that again because that’s a serious stat. He gave up seven runs all season, only four of which were earned, and had a streak of 43 straight appearances (from May 5 to August 22) where he didn’t allow a single earned run. That’s 41.1 consecutive innings. In that same time period he gave up a paltry 19 hits and 14 walks (good for a 0.800 WHIP) and added 48 Ks (10.5 K/9). The dude was literally unstoppable this season. He didn’t give up a single lead all year, and after April (I know it’s an arbitrary cutoff date) he allowed only one earned run. In five months. That’s a 0.16 ERA. But the incredible dominance doesn’t stop there.

Britton had an 80% ground ball rate, good for first among pitchers with a minimum of 60 IP in 2016. The difference between Britton’s ground ball rate and the next-highest ground ball rate (Sam Dyson, 65.9%) is greater than the difference between the second and fiftieth best (Francisco Liriano, 52.0%) ground ball rate. As I mentioned earlier in the article, ground balls result in outs about 75% of the time. Of course there’s going to be the occasional grounder that sneaks through for a single, but that means that on average, 60% of the time an opposing batter puts the ball in play, it’s a ground out. This is also very useful in inducing double plays, which Britton got four of on the entire season, although you don’t need a ton of double plays when you don’t allow many baserunners in the first place.

If you want to read more about Britton’s dominance and why he should have won Cy, click here.

In the relief dominance area, we also have Edwin Diaz. He was a rookie last season and did not get anywhere close to enough love. The fantasy community drooled over his strikeout upside and his save totals once he became the Mariners closer, but for a guy who struck out 88 of 214 batters faced this year, the general baseball community didn’t give him enough love. His K/9 was second-best all-time for a rookie: 15.33 (.06 Ks, or one strikeout, behind Craig Kimbrel‘s rookie mark of 15.39). He was very good, and expect more of him in the future. I’ll have more on relievers later in the series.

There exists a litany of other under-the-radar achievements I can list here, but I’ll only give you one more: Nolan Arenado led the league with 41 HR and 133 RBI. Not that exciting on its own, but when you combine it with the fact that he has led the NL in HR and RBI for two straight years, you get a very interesting stat: he’s the first guy since Phillies’ 3B Mike Schmidt in 1980 and 1981 to lead the NL in both categories in two straight years. Arenado is only 25 and has hit 81 HR in the past two seasons. Look for him to be an MVP contender for the next several years to come, although if the Rockies don’t start winning, the BBWAA might give him some trouble (looking at you, Jon Heyman).

#5: We’re Headed in a Peculiar Direction

Everyone hates strikeouts. By the same token, everyone loves homers. This presents a problem, because on the current path we’re on, the MLB is trending towards a league of just strikeouts and homers.

Obviously that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but let me humor you. Strikeouts in the major league are at an all-time high. In fact, we’ve been trending in that direction since 2008.

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As you can see, over the past 9 seasons the number of strikeouts in the MLB has drastically increased, and each of those seasons is the record for strikeouts/game and K% (meaning that 6.77 K/GM was the record and then it was broken in 2009, again in 2010, etc.) There are two possible conclusions:

  1. Pitchers are getting a lot better. Velocity is increasing, spin rates are increasing, and as a result, hitters are having a tougher time.
  2. Hitters are selling out for power a lot more than before.

My guess is mostly the first, but some of the second. Since Major League Baseball begun tracking pitch speeds in 2002, the average MLB pitcher’s fastball velocity has increased 3.3 MPH, from 89.0 to 92.3. Slider and curveball speeds have increased each year, too. I couldn’t readily find the stats on spin rate, but my guess is that spin rate has steadily increased each year as well.

Let me just give you some historical perspective as to the skyrocketing number of strikeouts in the majors in recent years. In 2016, the average qualified MLB hitter had around 115 strikeouts. In 2010, the average qualified MLB hitter had around 100. Here’s a table detailing the growing number of strikeouts the average MLB player has had over the years:

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The league leader in strikeouts hasn’t changed that much, only about 50 Ks over the past 36 years, but the average player in 2016 struck out nearly two times as much as the average player in 1980. If the trend continues, we’re going to see a lot less of the 2015 KC Royals’ style of play of putting the ball in play and moving runners over small ball style, and a lot more of the 2015 Mets’ play: dingers and Ks.

Speaking of dingers, 2016 was nearly a record year for those as well. Many have speculated as to what could possibly be the underlying cause, perhaps it’s something in the water, climate change, or juiced up baseballs. Regardless of the cause, the fact of the matter is that 2016 had the second-highest homer rate of any season all-time (trailing only 2000). Yes, that includes all the seasons of the steroid era. An unprecedented 36 players hit 30 or more HR in 2016, and of those 36, eight of them were over 40 HR.

In 2000, the only year there were more homers than 2016, 45 players were over 30 HR. The uptick in homers from recent seasons has been drastic, though. In 2015, there were only 19 players with 30 HR or more; in 2014, 11 players; in 2013, 14. I love watching guys launch homers, and I would assume most fans do as well, but if play continues down this path, we might end up with an MLB that is largely strikeouts and homers.

Is that a bad thing? That’s for you to decide.

#4: The Reliever Revolution

I’m double-dipping here in a way, because I have discussed specific relievers earlier in the series, and I also had a whole post about Zach Britton a month or so back. But the direction Major League Baseball is going in with regard to relievers will result in more big paydays for guys like Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon, so this deserved its own section.

In case you haven’t been keeping up with offseason free-agent signings, the three relief pitchers I mentioned above all received monster contracts for relief pitchers (Chapman got 5/$86MM, Jansen got 5/$80MM and Melancon got 4/$62MM). And that’s because relievers are becoming more and more integral to the game.

The logic and motives behind the reliever revolution are deeply rooted in baseball history, so I’ll give a quick rundown of the nuts-and-bolts of the evolution of relief pitching. Bear in mind that this is an extremely rudimentary history. If you’re interested in learning more on the history of arm injuries, I strongly recommend picking up a copy of The Arm by Jeff Passan.

In the early ages of baseball as we know it (we’re talking from around 1900 to around 1930) starting pitchers used to pitch the entire game. I’m not exaggerating; according to Fangraphs, in 1901 relief pitchers pitched a total of 85 innings over the course of the entire season, and that’s not a per-team average, that’s every relief pitcher in the league combined. In each season from 1900-1920, relievers never accounted for more than 1813.2 innings pitched, or between 0.5 and 8.0% of all innings pitched over the course of the season.

Originally, relief pitchers were just failed starters and you’d be hard pressed to find many games pre-WWII where a team used more than two pitchers. In the 1950s and 1960s, relievers became more commonplace in the game, and in the 1970s virtually every team had a closer, or “fireman” as they were called in those times, in addition to a staff of other relievers. That staff of a few relievers has evolved into teams of around 7-8 relief pitchers in today’s game. Now, relief pitching is an art.

This is just a reference point, but during the 1920 season, there were 35 pitchers in all who threw 250 innings or more, and 10 of those pitchers threw over 300 innings. Since 2000, there have only been seven individuals who have thrown 250 innings or more in a single season (Curt Schilling and Roy Halladay both did it twice), and no individual has thrown 300 innings in a season since Steve Carlton in 1980. David Price led the big leagues in 2016 in innings pitched and he only got to 230. Needless to say, we’re seeing a trend here: more relievers, fewer starters.

The past 19 seasons comprise the top 20 seasons for relief pitcher use. That is to say that in the past 19 seasons (1997-2016), relievers have thrown the most innings ever. 2016 actually had the most innings thrown by relief pitchers overall: 15893.2 IP. The bump in innings thrown by relief pitchers can be partially attributed to the fact that more games are going on; there are 30 teams in the majors and each team plays 162 games as opposed to 1920 in which there were only 16 teams that played 154 games each. Still, we can compare the percentage of innings pitched. As I mentioned before, relievers from 1900-1920 threw anywhere between 0.5 and 8% of the total innings; in 2016 relievers threw about 33%, or one-third, of all innings pitched.

This is purely anecdotal, but we can see the increase in reliever usage by just looking at the postseason. Aroldis Chapman threw 5.1 innings in three days in the World Series, and that includes the infamous home-run he gave up to tie the game in game 7. He was clearly overworked, but Maddon kept going to him because he trusted Chapman the most out of any of his pitchers, which goes to show how crucial relief pitchers have become in the modern day. I could go on about how Joe Maddon misused Chapman, and how everyone will remember Maddon as the “genius” manager, not the one who nearly cost the Cubs the world series, but that’s a blog post for a separate day Andrew Miller is another great example of this: he struck out 40 guys in 27.2 innings in the playoffs, furthering the notion that relief pitching has become a more integral part of the game.

It’s become common practice for starters to be removed from the game around 100 pitches, sometimes even earlier than that. The Tampa Bay Rays have started utilizing relief pitching in an extremely unique way, and one that has been sabermetrically proven to be very advantageous. Rays’ manager Kevin Cash has been yanking his starters after only two times through the batting order, which can sometimes result in extremely short starts even by today’s standards. The stats back his decisions up, though: a pitcher’s OPS-against jumps nearly 70 points between the first and third time he faces a lineup. Cash constantly defends his decision to pull starters after only two trips through the lineup, saying the following: “It worked out in our favor quite a bit. When it didn’t work out, we had to answer some questions.”

Naturally, there are going to be baseball traditionalists out there who think Cash is off his rocker for employing his strategy, but as long as it’s working, there’s no reason to criticize. Keep in mind that the Rays don’t exactly have a ton of talent on their roster, so their W-L record probably doesn’t correlate to the success they are having with their methods. However, what the Rays are doing is just the tip of the iceberg with regards to reliever strategy.

If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, again, I strongly recommend picking up a copy of The Arm, but here are other things that MLB teams should be doing with their pitchers that they aren’t doing:

  1. The 3-3-3 method: the team has three units of three pitchers who each pitch three innings every time out, and the units rotate every third game. This would theoretically allow the pitchers to stay fresh while also limiting the number of times they face the opposing lineup. Obviously this would never happen in real life, at least not any time soon. It’s a fantastic thing to theorize about, but too outlandish to be implemented, plus pitchers have complained about not having well-defined roles (starter, closer, set-up guy, etc.) If you want to read more about 3-3-3, click here.
  2. Getting rid of defined roles. Simply put, your best reliever should be called upon in the highest-leverage situations in the game. Take the Dodgers for example: if a game is tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 7th inning and the Cubs are in the field with the bases loaded in and nobody out, which reliever do you want pitching in that situation? I would 100% want Kenley Jansen in the game, because he is the Dodgers’ best reliever by far, but since he is the “closer” and can only be called upon in artificially manufactured situations (the save is an extremely contrived stat, but that’s also a blog post for a different day) he won’t get in the game the Dodgers will probably put someone else in. But if the Dodgers are losing 5-2 in the 9th, Jansen’s not going to pitch. If he’s the best relief pitcher, what’s the point of keeping him in the bullpen (looking at you, Buck Showalter.

I’m sure the direction we’re heading doesn’t make baseball traditionalists happy. To them, I say: bring on the fireballing relievers.

#3: Rookies are taking over

No, we’re not going to have a league full of only rookies any time soon. With that said, it’s becoming more and more imperative that teams find prospects that will come up and play at a high level once they enter the league. That may seem like common sense, but that’s only because it’s the system we’ve seen in recent years. It’s time for another brief baseball history lesson. If you want to read more, check out The Game by Jon Pessah and Players by Matt Futterman.

When baseball started, players would originally stay with one team for their entire career unless the team decided to trade them. In the 1960s, players came to the realization that the owners were virtually dominating the sport and players were not being compensated fairly, a practice that had been going on for decades. An example of management shafting the players from a salary perspective is the case of Ralph Kiner. Kiner led the league in home runs for seven consecutive years, including his rookie season in 1946. In spite of this, after his seventh straight season leading the league in homers, 1952, Branch Rickey, the GM of the Pirates, cut his salary to $75,000 from $90,000. In today’s money, that’s a cut of about $530,000 to $480,000. It’s not a significant sum of money compared to what players are making today, but it was what the players were stuck with. Obviously they wanted to make more money, so in 1966 the players formed a union.

In 1974, Catfish Hunter became the first free agent ever, and the modern era of free agency began. Since then, player contracts have skyrocketed, but not without a fight from the owners. From 1985-1987, the owners colluded in order to keep the price of free agent contracts down, and that ended with the owners having to pay the players millions of dollars as a result of a loss in court.

Once free agency started becoming a more viable option for players, the best strategy for owners was to purchase their way to victory, hence the Yankees winning so frequently. George Steinbrenner was notorious for buying all the best available players, and had to face little-to-no penalty because of the lack of a salary cap or luxury tax. There still is no hard salary cap, but the penalty for exceeding the luxury tax threshold has gotten exponentially more severe than it was in the late 20th century. This has resulted in a shift in baseball from an emphasis on purchasing the best players to an emphasis on growing the best players.

2015 was a particularly good year for rookie hitters in terms of WAR; all the rookies in the majors combined for their highest WAR ever. The past 11 seasons (dating back to 2005) are all in the top 14 seasons in terms of offensive WAR for hitters. This can partially be attributed to the emergence of very good rookies like Corey Seager, Aledmys Diaz, Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and others, but keep in mind that WAR is a counting stat, so the more rookies that are playing, the higher the WAR for all rookies will generally be.

For pitchers it’s a bit of a different story, and it’s certainly more difficult to differentiate by looking at WAR because WAR for pitchers won’t tell us as good of a story as innings pitched. Looking at innings pitched, though, we can see that the usage of rookies has drastically increased; of the last seven seasons, six of them are in the top 15 for innings pitched by rookies, and of the past 17 seasons, 12 of them are in the top 15 for innings pitched.

It seems that recent collective bargaining agreements have placed a greater emphasis on developing, not buying, the best players. I don’t really have an issue with this, and I think it’s a lot easier to like players that are home grown and stay with their original team for their entire career (David Wright, Justin Verlander, and Joey Votto, for example) and watching the meteoric rise of rookies like Story, Seager, and Gary Sanchez creates a great story. And the fans of baseball love stories.

 

 

#2: The defensive shift is a fantastic creation, and it might soon be going by the wayside

According to Vin Scully, the defensive shift has been around since 1877. The frequency with which it is presently used is extremely high, and the frequent use of the shift is relatively new, but the shift is not a recent creation.

Since 2011, there has been a 1,223% increase in the usage of shifts. That means that for every one shift that was used in 2011, about 12 shifts were used in 2016. Despite this, the MLB BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, has risen from .294 to .300 over the same span.

I personally love defensive shifts, and while I hate when Mets players roll over ground balls directly into the shift, it’s extremely satisfying to watch guys drop bunts down the third base line for singles and hit through the shift. Beating the shift has become an art form. It’s even gotten to the point that infield defenses are shifting over against righties; Alex Rodriguez had to face three players on the left side of the infield in a portion of his at-bats this past season.

My philosophy is this: teams are trying to win games. If shifting their defense gives them the best chance of doing that, why not shift? The only negative of shifting is if the guy slaps the ball the other way, then he has a higher likelihood of getting a hit. Aside from that, it’s generally a good strategy to limit grounders getting through the hole between the first and second basemen. And the shift ultimately should make hitters more well-rounded; players need to learn how to hit the opposite way better and earlier in the league, which may mean that we have a generation of shift-beaters in the wings.

Those shift-beaters may never get to show off their skills, though. Rob Manfred, when he assumed office at the beginning of 2015, said he would be open to the idea of banning shifts. After he said that, sportswriters and fans obviously took their sides, but the whole ordeal was mostly blown out of proportion because it was still before spring training had even started and people needed some baseball news to talk about. The talks of banning the shift had died down to a degree, but the fire was reignited when, this past August, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that he wanted the shift to be banned.

Girardi likened playing defense in baseball to playing defense in basketball, saying: “It’s an illegal defense, like in basketball. Guard your man, guard your spot.” There are so many things wrong with this quote, but the first is that, aside from the pitcher and the catcher having assigned spots, the other seven players can be anywhere on the field behind the pitcher. Four infielders and three outfielders has been convention, but what’s preventing managers from playing five-man infields or four-man outfields? Absolutely nothing. Is bringing a fifth defender into the infield in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game an illegal defense? No, and I’ve never seen a manager complain about another team employing that strategy.

Also, defense in baseball and defense in basketball are nothing like one another. In basketball, you play defense to prevent the other team from advancing the ball toward your basket. In baseball, you play defense to prevent the other team from getting the plate. In essence, it’s the same idea (you want to prevent the other team from scoring), but you aren’t allowed to impede the runner from scoring physically, only by tagging him out or forcing him out. So no, Mr. Girardi, the shift is not anything like basketball, nor is it an illegal defense.

Hopefully we never see the shift go away. If the shift is like anything else in sports, there will be a period of time for which it is the pervasive strategy and has a high rate of success, and then there will be a period of time when people figure out how to beat it. I look forward to when hitters will be able to go opposite field with ease. If some managers want to eradicate the shift, they should get their players to focus on hitting the ball to the opposite field with consistency. Yes, it’s that simple.

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(Image credit: Denis Poroy/Getty Images via Business Insider)

#1:  The Astros are poised to be a perennial title-contender for years to come.

In 2014, Sports Illustrated declared the Houston Astros “Your 2017 World Series Champs” (it’s a fantastic read and I highly recommend you read the entire piece). Obviously the job of a sports magazine, or any magazine, for that matter, is to sell issues, so it’s understandable that SI made such a definitive claim on the cover of their magazine.

Here’s the interesting part: the 2017 season is fast approaching and the Astros are built for success right now. They don’t get a lot of love, though, and that’s because they finished 3rd in the AL West in 2016 after losing in the ALDS in 2015. Not exactly the direction a franchise that’s built to win now wants to be going.

That being said, I think the Astros missing the playoffs was mostly a fluke. For starters, Houston’s pitching staff got pretty unlucky in terms of ERA this season; their team SIERA (a predictive ERA estimator, more here) was 3.83 and their team ERA was 4.06 (Fangraphs). In short, this means that the Houston pitching staff gave up about 1/3rd of a run per 9 innings more than they should have. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but this means that over the course of about 12 games, they gave up about three more runs than they would have with a league-average defense and league-average luck on balls in play. Three runs is a huge difference, especially considering that 53 Astros games this season ended with only a one-run difference between the Astros and their opponents (the Astros were 28-25 in such games). This is reflected in their team BABIP (batting average on balls in play) against; Astros pitchers combined for the fifth-highest BABIP against in the league, which is a result of a combination of any number of things, but probably chiefly results from bad luck.

From a hitting standpoint, the Astros were not spectacular last year, but they were definitely solid. They struck out a lot (4th-most) but also walked a healthy amount (6th-most). The team also was in the top third of baseball in both line drive percentage (line drives go for hits about 70% of the time) and hard hit percentage (Fangraphs). Obviously a team that is in the top-5 in the big leagues in strikeouts is going to have to rely a lot on the long ball because getting a rally started will generally be more difficult, but we can see that they were not doing everything wrong.

From a non-sabermetric standpoint, their 2017 team is stacked. This is a preview of what their starting lineup could look like this upcoming season (click here to see their 25-man roster):

  1. George Springer, RF (R)
  2. Jose Altuve, 2B (R)
  3. Carlos Correa, SS (R)
  4. Carlos Beltran, DH (S)
  5. Alex Bregman, 3B (R)
  6. Brian McCann (R)
  7. Josh Reddick, LF (L)
  8. AJ Reed, 1B (L)
  9. Jake Marisnick/Nori Aoki (R/L)

Brian McCann, 7-time all-star is hitting sixth. That should give you an idea of how deep this lineup is. And that doesn’t even include bench guys like Cuban slugger Yulieski Gurriel, Colin Moran, (the Astros #7 prospect), or Teoscar Hernandez (#8). They also have prospects very close to the majors like 20-20 threat Derek Fisher (no, not that Derek Fisher) and third base slugger J.D. Davis.

Now to pitching. Their rotation figures to be some combination of the following pitchers:

  1. Lance McCullers (career 3.22 ERA in ~200 IP)
  2. Dallas Keuchel (2015 Cy Young)
  3. David Paulino (MLB #70 overall prospect)
  4. Joe Musgrove (MLB #83 prospect entering 2016)
  5. Chris Devenski (Finished 4th in AL ROY voting in 2016)
  6. Collin McHugh
  7. Mike Fiers
  8. Charlie Morton

And that doesn’t even include their ridiculously stacked bullpen, which features fireballing duo Ken Giles (career 12.6 K/9) and Michael Feliz (13.2 K/9 in 2016).

They also have a very deep farm system which should keep their MLB roster supplied with talent for years to come. I already mentioned Musgrove, Paulino, Bregman, Hernandez, Fisher, Davis, and Devenski, all of whom have between five and six years of team control left, but that only scratches the surface of their farm system.

Each of the Astros’ top 5 prospects sit in the MLB top 100 (the average team has around 3), and their #1 prospect, Francis Martes, who profiles as a #3 starter or elite reliever in the majors, sits at #29 overall. The Astros also have first-round outfielders Kyle Tucker and Daz Cameron (son of elite outfielder Mike Cameron), both of whom figure to make it up to the big leagues at some point in 2019 or 2020. Their prospect pitchers include Forrest Whitley (#69 overall prospect) and Franklin Perez, who has a 10.5 K/9 in two minor league seasons.

Their pitching will continue to be really good, it’s just their hitting that needs to come around. If the hitting shows up in 2017, which I fully expect it will, the Astros should have no trouble giving the Texas Rangers (who finished an MLB-record 36-11 in one-run games in 2016, a trend that is surely unlikely to continue) a run for their money in the AL West.

(Image Credit: MLBShop.com)

 

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