Sunday, April 16, 2017

Predicting the 2017 Season—American League

Though the baseball season is well underway, I still have preseason loose ends to tie up. Earlier this month, I issued my usual—and simultaneously unusual—National League predictions for the 2017 baseball season. For those new to the blog, these aren't your average team previews. Instead, I predict the final win-loss records in each division but also issue a few wildly specific predictions for each team. Then, at the end of the season, I'll look back and see how insightful—or hilariously off the mark—I was. Here's part two of this doomed exercise: the American League.

AL East

1. Boston Red Sox (102–60, 1st playoff seed)
  • Pablo Sandoval will scream back to relevance with 25 home runs and a positive number of Defensive Runs Saved.
  • Blake Swihart will rake in AAA as Sandy León sits below the Mendoza line. A change will be made by Memorial Day.
  • All of Boston's unreliable starting pitchers from last year, including Drew Pomeranz and David Price (when he pitches), will right the ship. While Price is out, Eduardo Rodríguez will provide similar value.
  • Boston's staff will lead baseball in complete games and shutouts.
  • Carson Smith will return as the AL's best reliever in the second half.
  • The Red Sox will defeat the Nationals in a five-game World Series. More Boston fans than Washington fans will attend the games in DC.

2. Toronto Blue Jays (87–75, 1st Wild Card)

3. Tampa Bay Rays (85–77, 2nd Wild Card)
  • Chris Archer will again be one of the best pitchers in baseball, and Blake Snell will join him in a monster breakout year. The Rays will have the league's best rotation.
  • Jake Odorizzi will pitch a shutout over the Blue Jays in the Wild Card game, but then Tampa Bay will be swept by Boston in the ALDS.
  • Steven Souza will finally have the 20/20 breakout season everyone expected, Colby Rasmus and Matt Duffy will both match their career-high WARs, but the Rays will still have the division's worst offense.

4. New York Yankees (83–79)
  • Greg Bird and Aaron Judge be the mini modern Mantle and Maris, going back and forth all season as the Yankees team leader.
  • Luis Severino and Michael Pineda will both lower their ERAs below 4.00.
  • Clint Frazier will be traded away at midseason for rotation help after not conforming to the "Yankees way."

5. Baltimore Orioles (80–82)
  • With a .330 average, 40 home runs, 120 RBI, and a Gold Glove to satisfy traditionalists and 8.5 WAR and 30 DRS for the stat nerds, it will finally be Manny Machado's turn for an MVP award.
  • Every Oriole starting pitcher except Wade Miley will give up more runs in 2017 than in 2016—yes, even Ubaldo Jiménez.

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians (93–69, 2nd playoff seed)
  • After the injury bug bit nearly their whole rotation last fall, the 2017 Indians will become the rare team to use only five starting pitchers the entire year. It will be a big factor in getting them to the ALCS.
  • On the strength of his creative bullpen use, Terry Francona will win a second straight Manager of the Year award.
  • Michael Brantley will get injured again and finish the year with fewer than 200 plate appearances.

2. Kansas City Royals (82–80)
  • Jorge Soler will lead Kansas City position players in WAR.
  • Eric Hosmer will have the 20th-best season for a first baseman in the American League—and will get the first-largest contract for one this offseason.
  • Another injury-plagued season for Lorenzo Cain will end up being a blessing in disguise for the Royals, who will afford to keep him this winter after all.
  • With a 2.50 ERA and 240 strikeouts, Danny Duffy will win his first Cy Young Award.

3. Detroit Tigers (76–86)
  • Jordan Zimmermann will rue signing with Detroit as he becomes a pure contact pitcher (setting a career low in strikeout percentage), but the Tigers' league-worst defense fails to convert them into outs.
  • After the Tigers' 10th blown save of the year—in May—Brad Ausmus will finally be shown the door.
  • With the team hovering around .500 at the trade deadline, ownership will finally give the OK to blow it all up and rebuild.

4. Chicago White Sox (73–89)
  • Tim Anderson will respond to his recent contract extension by virtually evaporating as an offensive force. He will show next to no power, will walk fewer than 10 times, and will split the season between pinch-running duties and AAA.
  • Carlos Rodon will shave a run off his ERA and step neatly into the role of White Sox ace after José Quintana is traded.
  • Lucas Giolito will put it together at AAA and make a tantalizing White Sox debut: giving up two runs and striking out 14 over seven innings (in other words, he will finally be the Stephen Strasburg clone Nats fans always wanted him to be).

5. Minnesota Twins (68–94)
  • This will be the year that José Berríos and Byron Buxton right the ship. With them leading their respective sides of the ball, the Twins will begin to look like a franchise with a direction again.
  • Brian Dozier will be a completely different hitter, hitting just .210 with 10 home runs and nearly 200 strikeouts.
  • Miguel Sanó will slug 40 homers but have a WAR of 1.0 thanks to atrocious defense.

AL West

1. Houston Astros (89–73, 3rd playoff seed)
  • For his next trick, José Altuve will captivate America this summer with a hitting streak that hits 50 games.
  • Alex Bregman won't be terrible, exactly, but he'll put up a decidedly meh first full season in the bigs.
  • Carlos Beltrán will continue sipping from the fountain of youth. His full-time DH-hood will enable him to hit 30 homers.
  • For the third straight year, Lance McCullers will put up an ERA of 3.22—but he'll do it over 200 innings and lead the AL in strikeouts.
  • Chris Devenski will step into the starting rotation and post a 1.50 second-half ERA.

2. Seattle Mariners (83–79)
  • Félix Hernández will post a career-low strikeout rate and flirt with his career-low ERA of 4.52 from 2006. 
  • Drew Smyly will make up for it, though, pitching to a 3.20 ERA thanks to an uber-low BABIP driven by the M's' great outfield defense (40+ DRS).
  • James Paxton will finally pitch to his 2.80 FIP.
  • Jean Segura will be be huge bust. Without the aid of an inflated BABIP and Chase Field, he will return to the .270-ish wOBA that has characterized three of his five MLB seasons. Mitch Haniger will turn out to be the more valuable addition from that trade, even in the short term.
  • Prospects Tyler O'Neill and Dan Vogelbach will be on-base machines from the time they are promoted to the majors. Only with them playing significant roles will the Mariners be a complete enough team to break their playoff drought, now at 16 years. 

3. Texas Rangers (77–85)
  • A team that benefited from incredible luck last year will be one of the unluckiest this year. They will have a losing record in one-run games, and they will lead the AL in days spent on the DL.
  • Jurickson Profar will win the batting title.
  • Carlos Gómez will revert back to his Astros form, and he will begin losing playing time to a resurgent Delino DeShields Jr., who will sport a .350 OBP and 30 stolen bases.
  • Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross will both be lucky to post ERAs under 5.00 in Arlington.

4. Los Angeles Angels (75–87)

5. Oakland Athletics (73–89)

Monday, April 10, 2017

Predicting the 2017 Season—National League

They may be a week late, but it will take more than an ill-timed cross-country roadtrip to keep me from cogitating on the upcoming current baseball season. I don't do season previews in the usual sense—no doubt you've already read a zillion of those from analysts more plugged in than I. Instead, I predict the final win-loss records in each division but also issue a few wildly specific predictions for each team. Then, at the end of the season, I'll look back and see how insightful—or hilariously off the mark—I was. First up: the Senior Circuit.

NL East

1. Washington Nationals (97–65, 2nd playoff seed)
  • Bryce Harper will post another monster season even better than his 2015. He will surpass Mike Trout with over 10.0 WAR. He'll again be the runaway MVP.
  • Over half of the Nats' lineup will be worth more than 4.0 WAR: Harper, Adam Eaton, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Daniel Murphy. Jayson Werth, improbably, won't be far behind, with one last gasp as an offensive catalyst.
  • For the third straight season, Mike Rizzo will swing a deal for a closer at the trade deadline—and this time it will be for no less than Drew Storen. Disaster will, predictably, ensue.
  • Washington will advance beyond the NLDS for the first time and defeat the Cubs in a thrilling seven-game NLCS. Unfortunately, they'll run into a buzzsaw in the American League champion.

2. New York Mets (91–71, 1st Wild Card) 
  • Jacob deGrom will be fully healthy and join Noah Syndergaard as a top Cy Young contender, as both exceed 200 innings (and 200 strikeouts).
  • Steven Matz will also break out with an ERA below 3.00. Matt Harvey will be respectable again, but that will only make him the team's fourth-best starter.
  • With Lucas Duda suffering through lingering back problems, Jay Bruce will play a lot of first base. He will finally win over Mets fans by giving them a .750 OPS there, as well as enabling a strong season by Michael Conforto with the move.
  • Amed Rosario and Asdrúbal Cabrera will end the season on the left side of the Mets' infield, with José Reyes banished from Flushing for good.

3. Miami Marlins (77–85) 
  • World Baseball Classic number-eight hitter Giancarlo Stanton will be the first Marlin ever to top 50 home runs, leading the National League.
  • While Wei-Yin Chen will return to a 120 ERA+, Edinson Vólquez will again have negative value.
  • Led by Kyle Barraclough's 5.0 K/BB ratio, the Marlins will trail only the Dodgers for the NL's stingiest bullpen.
  • By the end of the season, Jeb Bush will be the proud new owner of the Marlins.

4. Atlanta Braves (71–91) 
  • Jaime García will finally pitch a full season and do it well, setting himself up to be one of next winter's better free agents.
  • Jim Johnson will fall apart for the second time in his career, as his fastball velocity dips to below 90 miles per hour. Opponents will hit .350 off him before his midseason release.
  • The safest prediction on this page: Dansby Swanson will be your 2017 NL Rookie of the Year.
  • Traffic woes and shoddy construction will get SunTrust Park off to a rough start. Attendance will be well below estimates; the park will draw fewer fans than Turner Field did last season.

5. Philadelphia Phillies (64–98) 
  • Vince Velasquez will prove he belongs in the starting rotation, pairing his well-known 25% strikeout rate with 18 quality starts.
  • Velasquez, Jeremy Hellickson, Aaron Nola, and Jerad Eickhoff will at times this spring resemble a poor man's Phearsome Phour, but how many of them will be around at the end of the season? The guess here is not Nola (Tommy John surgery) or Hellickson (traded).
  • Clay Buchholz will lead the league in home runs allowed (32).
  • The no-name offense will be the lowest-scoring in baseball.

NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs (100–62, 1st playoff seed) 
  • Wade Davis will struggle with his control in his recovery from injury. By the end of the season, Koji Uehara will have more saves.
  • The rotation will be the closest thing to a weakness on the North Side. Kyle Hendricks will regress to league average, and the fifth starter's job will remain unsettled for most of the year.
  • Jason Heyward has a big bounceback in him. He'll hit .290/.350/.450, paired with his usual 20 Defensive Runs Saved, for a 5.0 WAR season.
  • Ben Zobrist, on the other hand, will run into a brick wall. His modest value with the bat will be offset by the worst defensive season of his career.

2. Saint Louis Cardinals (89–73, 2nd Wild Card) 
  • Yadier Molina's pedestrian .250/.300/.380 slash line will inaugurate the decline phase of his career.
  • Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha will both rebound to above-average ERAs (say, 3.70), and Lance Lynn will pick up where he left off before surgery, but Carlos Martínez has permanently supplanted them as the Cardinals ace.
  • A bone-headed strategic move by Mike Matheny will be the reason for the Cardinals' extra-innings loss to the Mets in the Wild Card Game.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates (81–81) 
  • The most important question for the 2017 Pirates will be answered early, when Andrew McCutchen wins Player of the Month for April. He'll finish with a classic McCutchen season: .300/.400/.500.
  • Jameson Taillon will zoom past Gerrit Cole as Pittsburgh's best pitcher, and his 2.50 ERA will put him squarely in the Cy Young conversation.
  • The Pirates will have the NL's best outfield—but its worst infield.
  • Jung Ho Kang's personal and legal problems will prevent him from returning to the Pirates, and the once-revelatory third baseman will wash out of Major League Baseball.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (72–90) 
  • Yeah, Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana may strike out a combined 300 times, but who cares? They will both be fantasy studs, especially in OBP leagues. Look for 20 homers and 30 steals from Broxton, and a mirror-image 30/20 season from Santana. Both will get on base at .350 clips despite .250 batting averages.
  • As quickly as Jonathan Villar's stock rose, it will come crashing down. He'll hit just .240, and his runs scored and stolen bases will both be slashed in half.
  • Junior Guerra may not be the second coming of Zack Greinke, but he'll continue to give the Brewers a chance to win every time out. He'll be the Jordan Zimmermann of Milwaukee's rebuilding effort: not the best pitcher on their next winning team, but still good enough to contribute to it.

5. Cincinnati Reds (61–101) 
  • Anthony DeSclafani will endure another frustrating season of injuries. His recovery from a sprained UCL will last nearly all season, until he debuts in late September—and throws a no-hitter in his one and only start.
  • This will finally be the year that gets Bryan Price fired. Then again, if 2015 and 2016 didn't do it...

NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (92–70, 3rd playoff seed) 
  • Every Dodgers starting pitcher will miss at least eight starts. Even last year's reliable Kenta Maeda will be plagued by some of the "irregularities" found in his physical when he first signed out of Japan.
  • Every year, Clayton Kershaw has found a way to top his seemingly untoppable season from the year before. How will he do it this year? By tossing a 21-strikeout perfect game—by every measure, the best pitching performance in baseball history.
  • A 2.79 ERA. 6.3 hits per nine innings. A 9.7/4.8 K/BB ratio. Kershaw's first full season, or Julio Urías's?
  • Yasiel Puig will match his 137 wRC+ from September of last year, after a demotion to the minor leagues.
  • LA's uncertain left-field situation will be solved when Cody Bellinger forces himself into the lineup in mid-siummer.

2. San Francisco Giants (84–78) 
  • Despite the addition of Mark Melancon, the bullpen will still be a weakness for the Giants. Ironically, their fans will look on longingly as the likes of Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo dominate elsewhere in California while the San Francisco relief corps comes in below average.
  • Handing starting jobs to Eduardo Núñez and Jarrett Parker will prove to be a fatal move for a team in need of offensive help. As age saps talent all around the diamond, San Francisco will post its worst offensive season since the 2011 squad's 91 OPS+.
  • On the bright side, one Giant will finally get his due: Madison Bumgarner will take home the Cy Young trophy.

3. Colorado Rockies (83–79) 

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (74–88) 
  • The D'Backs will be better almost automatically, as Greinke, Shelby Miller, and A.J. Pollock all revert to the mean.
  • Robbie Ray will take a huge step forward, shaving more than a run off his ERA and leading the league in strikeouts.

5. San Diego Padres (68–94) 
  • Even with the help of Petco Park, the Padres will have the worst rotation in baseball. 
  • In just 30 innings pitched, Carter Capps will have the highest WAR of any Padre pitcher.
  • The Padres will run out 61 different players in 2017, breaking the MLB record for most men deployed in a season.
  • Travis Jankowski will pull a Kevin Kiermaier, amassing eye-popping value on the strength of defense alone. Oh, and he'll lead Major League Baseball in stolen bases.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Wisconsin Superintendent Race Rated 'Safe Evers'

Hands-down the strangest regularly scheduled statewide election date is the first Tuesday of April in the year after a presidential election. Every four years, Wisconsin voters use their annual "Spring Election" to choose a new superintendent of public instruction—the only constitutional officer in the nation who never appears on a November ballot. And the next incarnation of this political Leap Day will soon be upon us.

On Tuesday, April 4, Wisconsinites will go the polls to choose either Tony Evers or Lowell Holtz to be their state superintendent for the next four years. Although the position is nonpartisan, the campaign has featured all the drama and wedge issues of a high-profile gubernatorial race—attack ads, backroom deals, and alleged conflicts of interest among them. That makes it a worthy pit stop for my ongoing project to handicap not just superintendent elections, but all constitutional-officer elections nationwide. Here's the state of play in the Badger State:

Heading into the campaign, Evers might have had good reason to doubt his ability to win a third term at the helm of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The incumbent has enraged Republicans in Madison with his liberal views, including his support for Common Core. His traditional backers in the Wisconsin Democratic Party appear weaker than ever, having failed to carry the state for either Hillary Clinton or Russ Feingold (both expected to win handily) last November. One of Evers's staunchest supporters in his first campaign, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, has been weakened by Wisconsin's anti-labor Act 10. National trends have also been dire for Democratic state superintendents: after their latest decimation on the local level in 2016, Democrats no longer hold a single superintendent post chosen by partisan election, and Evers is one of just three left-leaning nonpartisan superintendents.

Meanwhile, conservative education advocates threatened to spend big money to elect a Republican identifier to the seat. Two filed to run in the February jungle primary: Holtz, the former superintendent of the Beliot School District, and John Humphries, an educational consultant. The two couldn't seem to get out of each other's way: just before the primary, Humphries alleged that Holtz had offered him a $150,000-a-year job in his administration and a private driver if Holtz would drop out and endorse him. Each accused the other of being a liar; only Evers stayed above the fray. In the first round of voting on February 21, Evers took a full 70% of the vote, with Holtz at 23% and Humphries at 7%. Evers and Holtz thus advanced to the April runoff.

With Humphries out of the race, Holtz, a supporter of school vouchers, hoped to attract national education-reform groups (and their money) to his cause with an issues-driven campaign. Instead, though, it was a liberal group, One Wisconsin Now, that made the biggest impact on the race with a well-coordinated opposition-research effort. Through a series of open-records requests, One Wisconsin Now unearthed a slow drip of stories questioning Holtz's competence and ethics. First, it was revealed that Holtz used his school (and therefore government) email address to solicit political support. Then it turned out that, as superintendent of the Whitnall School District, he donated some of the district's old football bleachers to the private school his own children attended. Performance evaluations revealed that Holtz had retired after a falling-out with the school board over his poor communication skills. The same problems appeared evident in his previous gig at Beloit, where he was reprimanded for a "lack of communication with the Board regarding significant matters," including his attempt to hire his wife for a position with the district without fully briefing the board.

Evers seized on Holtz's ethical shortcomings in his first TV ads this week, and they are likely to keep coming: as of the last campaign-finance reports in mid-February, Evers had $238,000 cash on hand compared to Holtz's $15,000. Although the conservative has reported $64,500 more in late contributions since then, it remains to be seen whether it will be enough for him to go up on TV—and it is certainly not enough to match Evers's resources.

No polls have been released on the race, but given Evers's dominating showing in the jungle primary, he appears poised to defeat Evers by at least double digits, and perhaps up to 40 points. What's more, Evers's strong lead in fundraising and Holtz's terrible press make a conservative comeback unlikely. There's no reason to rate this race anything less than Safe Evers.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Free-Agent Fantasy Baseball: 2017

Is it just me, or was this the longest hot-stove season ever? The other day, Pedro Alvárez—a 22-home-run hitter who in any other year would have been snapped up—finally signed a contract for 2017. He's not an anomaly, either; such big names as Jake Peavy, Ángel Pagán, and Jonathan Papelbon remain free agents well into spring training (and the WBC).

Hence the delay in publishing this post. A new tradition here at Baseballot is annually building the best possible 25-man rosters solely from the ranks of free agency. Then, at the end of the season, I look back and see how my "fantasy" team fared. Last year, my stint in the GM chair was an unqualified bust: my best estimate for my team's record was 65–97, and I saddled my imaginary franchise with a couple stinkers of a contract. So, naturally, I resolved to give it another whirl. Now that the offseason is complete, I've gone through the winter's entire crop of free agents and "signed" whom I deemed to be the best investments (and shrewdest bargains). This article, then, will be a unique tour through the best free-agent deals of 2016–2017.

Here are the ground rules for our little game. The goal is to simulate the real job of being a GM as faithfully as possible: our pretend team signs any free agent to the actual contract that he agrees to with a real major-league team. We have to fill every position on our team as if it were really taking the field: five starting pitchers, a bullpen with options from both the left and right side, one starting position player at each position (including DH), and a bench that can back up every spot on the field. Like a real GM, I forced myself to stick to a budget: the $195 million luxury-tax threshold that many teams are using as a de facto salary cap. And like a real GM, I made myself interact with events in real time, as they happened; I didn't allow myself to look back at the end of the offseason, after the market had played out, and choose the cheapest options. Instead, after news of a signing broke, I gave myself 48 hours to think it over and decide whether to add that player (and that contract) to our books—with no knowledge of any signings that came after.

Finally, to properly incentivize me not to mortgage the future with burdensome long-term contracts, I didn't just start a team from scratch. Instead, I carried forward the "franchise" that I started last year, inheriting its talent as well as its payroll obligations. Seven men from the 2016 edition of our team are under contract for 2017 as well: Jason Heyward, Hyun Soo Kim, Jed Lowrie, Álex Guerrero, Chase Headley, John Lackey, and James Shields. My first executive decision of the offseason was to release Guerrero, who had just one year and $5 million left on his contract. As a major-league bust now playing in Japan, he's not going to provide any value to our team, and his roster spot will be better used on someone new.

The team also held options on two other players: Hisashi Iwakuma and Jason Hammel. Again, to simulate real life most accurately, I chose to do what their true-life teams (the Mariners and the Cubs, respectively) did: pick up Iwakuma's option for $14.3 million and decline Hammel's option for a $2 million buyout. Iwakuma thus took Guerrero's place in the gang of seven carryover players.

But wait, there's more! According to the arcane rules of baseball transactions, I also had two more players who were not technically "under contract" but were still under team control for 2017: José Abreu and Nori Aoki. Were I a real major-league team, I would have had the choice to either non-tender them or enter the arbitration process to sign them for 2017. The non-tender and arbitration process happens over the winter right alongside the free-agent season, but from the beginning I never really doubted that I wanted to keep these two valuable, affordable players. Aoki eventually avoided a possible non-tender by agreeing to a one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Astros—a cheap price for an extremely consistent above-average hitter. Meanwhile, Abreu and the White Sox avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $10.825 million contract. Of course, I'd have been willing to pay up to twice that for this 100-RBI slugger.

Add it all up, and I entered the offseason with nine names already penciled in for 2017. Once the price tags for Aoki and Abreu were officially set, I had $123,358,333 in predetermined payroll obligations for 2017. Given our budget of $195 million, that meant I had $71,641,667 to spend on free agents for the remaining 16 spots on our roster: two or three starting pitchers, an entire bullpen, a starting catcher, a starting second baseman, a starting outfielder, a DH, a backup catcher, a backup infielder, and a "wild card"/utility player to fill any final holes.

Starting Pitchers

This year's crop of free agents was notoriously weak, but nowhere more so than at starting pitcher. The best starter on the market was universally agreed to be Rich Hill, who was uninspiring enough to have only merited a one-year, $6 million deal last offseason. This year, he ultimately signed for three years and $48 million—not a bad price, but then you remember that he's basically guaranteed to miss half the year every year with blisters. So who's the second-best pitcher on the market? Probably Hammel, who posted a very characteristic 105 ERA+ last year in Wrigley and has averaged 1.8 fWAR the past three years. Frustrated that I couldn't have him at the very affordable ($12 million) option year from his Cubs contract, I nonetheless targeted him early on to fill out the front end of my rotation.

In the meantime, I tied up the back end with two capable innings-eaters: R.A. Dickey ($8 million) and Bartolo Colón ($12.5 million). Both 40-somethings signed one-year deals with the Braves very early in the offseason. It was appropriate: like the rebuilding Braves, our team was also looking for low-cost stopgaps who won't embarrass us to serve as bridges until more permanent starting-pitching solutions hit the free-agent market in future years.

From those November signings, though, it was a long wait for Hammel. February 1 came and went, and the righty remained unsigned. Did the Cubs know something the public didn't—an injury, perhaps—when they declined that option? Was I saving a slot in my starting rotation for a savior who would never come? Thankfully not—Hammel inked a deal with the Royals just a week before spring training, and it was worth the wait: two years for a mere $16 million, including a $5 million salary in 2017. Against all odds, our team actually saved money by declining that option and resigning him—and now he is under team control for just $9 million in 2018 as well.

Relief Pitchers

This was an offseason that saw the all-time record for biggest contract given to a relief pitcher broken not once, but twice. I don't understand it. Relief pitcher is always the deepest position in free agency, and plenty of respectable pitchers are always available for a fraction of what Aroldis Chapman signed for. The issue is that they're not as consistent as the A-list relievers—but given the small sample sizes involved with pitching in relief (a third of the innings of a starting pitcher for even the most hard-working fireman), is that really so surprising? The key is to find a pitcher who slumped in the previous year but retains strong peripheral stats. I found one such candidate in Casey Fien, who signed with the Mariners for just $1.1 million in early December. Fien struggled to a 5.49 ERA in 2016 despite entering the campaign with a career 3.54 FIP and 4.58 K/BB ratio. An improbable 24.5% HR/FB rate inflated his 2016 ERA, but an elite spin rate on both his fastball and his curve is good reason to expect a bounceback.

Another such candidate I brought on board was Drew Storen, the perpetually unlucky former Nationals closer. In Washington, Storen's two high-profile choke jobs in the playoffs overshadowed a career 3.02 ERA there, and last year his 5.23 ERA between Toronto and Seattle belied a 3.69 K/BB ratio and 3.51 SIERA. Finally, I opted for another former closer in Shawn Tolleson, who signed with the Rays for a mere $1 million guarantee in mid-January. He quickly lost the Rangers' closer job in 2016 on his way to a 7.68 ERA, but that was thanks to a .372 BABIP, 59.9% LOB%, and 24.2% HR/FB percentage. His xFIP was dramatically better at 3.89, in line with his excellent 2014–2015, when he had a 143 ERA+.

For the token lefty in my 'pen, my first choice was Brett Cecil (an awesome 138 ERA+ and 3.98 K/BB ratio the last three years), but he signed for way too much (four years, $30.5 million). I waited patiently for the market to cool off, but it showed no sign. Mike Dunn signed for three years and $19 million, but there were still plenty of names available, so I kept waiting. Boone Logan signed for one year and $6.5 million, but there were still other names available, so I kept waiting. Jerry Blevins signed for one year and $6.5 million, and, well, it was getting late in the offseason, but I had come this far, right? Finally, my patience paid off—one of the last southpaws to come off the board was J.P. Howell, who hitched up with the Blue Jays for only $3 million over one year. Like the rest of my relievers, Howell had a down year in 2016, but by his standards this merely meant "barely below average" (a 4.09 ERA). His K/BB ratio actually improved over 2015 (from 2.79 to 2.93), and his SIERA of 3.36 was virtually unchanged from his career norms.

Leaving my bullpen shopping until the last minute, when players are scrambling for jobs, paid off in another way as well. In mid-February, I got a player I never would've expected to be able to afford at the beginning of the offseason: Sergio Romo. Romo is, without exaggeration, one of the best relievers in baseball, posting a 1.8 fWAR in 2015 albeit missing time with injury in 2016. Nevertheless, according to FanGraphs, he allowed the second-lowest exit velocity on batted balls of any pitcher last year. For a mere $3 million for one year, I got to install the newest Dodgers reliever as my closer.

Finally, I was hoping to snag Joe Blanton to fill my final bullpen slot, but the Mets' signing of Fernando Salas in mid-February (one year, $3 million) was an offer I couldn't refuse. SIERA has been in love with Salas the past few years: 2.82 in 2014, 2.65 in 2015, and 3.72 in 2016. Despite that recent spike, he still posted an above-average ERA last year and finished the season on a 19-strikeout, zero-walk tear with the Mets. Of course, only about two weeks later, Blanton signed for pretty much the same price ($4 million), but that's the uncertain exercise of team-building for you.


Initially, catcher looked like the hardest slot on my roster to fill—it's already the scarcest position on the free-agent market, so finding a good catcher there is nearly impossible. When Jason Castro signed with the Twins for $24.5 million over three years, I became worried that the catcher market would be so out of control I would have to play in the shallow end. Fortunately, this ended up not being the case. Wilson Ramos, clearly the best catcher available, fell to the Rays for just $12.5 million over two years due to a torn ACL suffered at the end of 2016. Although he is expected to miss the first half of 2017, having an above-average catcher at an affordable salary for one and a half years after that wasn't something I could pass up.

The rest of the catching market was also super affordable: Welington Castillo for one year, $6 million; Matt Wieters for one year, $10.5 million. At those prices, I was tempted to snag myself another starting-caliber receiver—when else are they going to be this cheap?!—but even those modest price tags proved impossible to fit into my budget so late in the offseason. By the new year, I really only had room for small transactions here and there, so I was forced to turn to a traditional backup catcher: Alex Avila, who had a .359 OBP last year and figures to get a decent number of at-bats against righties in Detroit.

Second Baseman

I flirted with the idea of moving Jed Lowrie to second and signing Ian Desmond to play shortstop, but Desmond's five-year, $70 million deal with the Rockies was just too rich for my blood—plus they signed him to play first base, basically confirming that his shortstop-playing days are behind him. Instead, I put all my eggs in a long-sought-after basket: José Miguel Fernández, the Cuban infielder I've coveted since his first attempt to defect in 2014. Back then, he was a 26-year-old on-base machine, considered the third-best player in Cuba and ready to step onto a major-league team. Unfortunately, politics have since robbed him of two years of his prime. After failing to defect, he was suspended from the Cuban national team in 2015; then, he defected successfully and spent 2016 establishing residency and looking for work. The Dodgers finally signed him this January to a minor-league deal with a $200,000 signing bonus—far less, surely, than he would have received had he arrived in mint condition. At the time, I was elated with the signing; the Dodgers had a gaping hole at second base, and Fernández looked primed to share in or even seize the starting job there. Once I inked Fernández and his bargain-basement contract into my fantasy team's starting lineup, though, the Dodgers pulled a deft double play: they traded for Logan Forsythe and signed Chase Utley to plug their hole at the keystone. That makes our signing of Fernández likely to be a low-impact one, but at least it barely cost us any dough.

Outfield/Designated Hitter

These were the two open spots in my lineup where I knew I needed to add significant offense. Problem was, our budget really only had space for one big-ticket signing. I knew early on that it wouldn't be Yoenis Céspedes—his $27.5 million average annual value would have been a third of my total winter expenditures, all on one player. Instead, I set my sights on the second tier, and I found my man in Carlos Beltrán. With 89 wRC and a 122 OPS+ last year, the 39-year-old has proven that he can produce runs even in old age—yet at $16 million for one year, he's almost half the cost of Céspedes. (And in an advantage over other mid-tier sluggers like Josh Reddick, there's no such thing as a bad one-year deal.)

As the market developed, though, I began to wonder if Beltrán had been the right call. The later signings of Matt Holliday ($13 million) and Carlos Gómez ($11.5 million) to cheaper one-year deals gave me slight buyer's remorse. Meanwhile, I watched as the very best free-agent hitters settled for contracts that were frankly far more reasonable than we've come to expect: Justin Turner for $64 million/four years, Edwin Encarnación for $60 million/three years, and even José Bautista for $18.5 million/one guaranteed year and two option years. None of those deals would have been crippling to our imaginary franchise in the long term, but they all would have significantly broken the bank for 2017. With Beltrán in the fold, I had to look for not only a budget option, but also—given that Beltrán is primarily a DH at this point—specifically an outfielder.

Michael Saunders would have fit the bill nicely, but when he signed with the Phillies, it was for $9 million—a little pricey for a guy who amassed only 262 at-bats in the two years prior to his breakout 2016. I passed, but my options dwindled as the offseason ran its course. ($37.5 million over three years for a guy—Mark Trumbo—with the same amount of fWAR over the last three years as Daniel Nava? No thanks.) By the end of January, it looked like I had painted myself into a corner—but then Colby Rasmus dropped into my lap. Rasmus matched Saunders with 1.4 fWAR in 2016 but, because the Rays waited until he was the last outfielder in the bar at closing time, they snagged him for only one year and $5 million. Rasmus has been a frustrating player: in 2015, he showed offensive potential, hitting 25 home runs with a 116 OPS+. Then he was terrible offensively last year (a .641 OPS) but saved an astounding 20 runs on defense. For $5 million, it's worth taking the gamble that he can combine his 2015 batting value (9.6 runs above replacement), 2015 baserunning value (5.2), and 2016 fielding value (14.9) into another season to rival his 5.1 fWAR showing in 2013.


The well runneth dry of middle infielders. Only one, Lowrie, carries over from the 2016 team, forcing us to sign someone new to back up not only him at shortstop, but also our new starting second baseman. Unfortunately, the market was historically thin at shortstop; Sean Rodríguez was the only halfway respectable option, and after coming off an aberrant 126 OPS+ season, he ended up costing an unreasonable $11.5 million over two years. So I had to get creative—and I plugged my backup-infielder hole with Cuban amateur Lourdes Gourriel Jr. The son of Cuban superstar Lourdes Gourriel Sr., the younger Gourriel projects as an average hitter with decent pop but, crucially, can play all over the field. He played mostly left field and second base in Cuba and worked out at shortstop and center field in his major-league showcase. The Blue Jays finally signed him to be a middle infielder, "or possibly a third baseman." Best of all, he came cheap: $22 million over seven years, including just $600,000 in 2017. Although his immediate value will be limited (Toronto plans to start him in the minors), that's a huge break for a cash-strapped team like ours.

Clearly Ross Atkins and I think similarly, because his Blue Jays also inked maybe my top target of the offseason: Steve Pearce. Pearce was on my all-free-agent team last year as well, and all he did was hit .288/.374/.492 with 2.0 fWAR. That doesn't even account for his value in position-switching: he covered first, second, third, left field, and right field at various points last year. An excellent lefty masher, Pearce hits well enough to not only back up all around the field, but also platoon with the left-handed-hitting Fernández, Aoki, and/or Rasmus.

So there you have it: the Baseballot all-free-agent fantasy team for the 2017 season. Unfortunately, it ended up costing me slightly more than my allotted budget. Salary obligations for these 25 total up to $200,043,333 guaranteed, with a maximum payroll of $211,193,333 if all incentives are met. Let's say I have a very generous team owner or something; just go with it. Now, with actual, meaningful baseball games just a few weeks away, let's sit back and see how this team performs. Watch this space at the end of the season, when I simulate how a team with their stats would have placed in the standings. Then we'll see if I'm as good at judging baseball talent as I am at sticking to a budget!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Race Ratings for the 89th Academy Awards

You can expect an explicitly political show this Sunday at the Oscars: at other awards shows this year, virtually every winner—from the most famous actress to the lowliest techie—has let loose with their opposition to Donald Trump. So I figure it won't hurt much if I bring one other element of politics to Hollywood—election handicapping.

Political forecasting sites like Inside Elections give each race a rating on a Solid-Likely-Leans scale, and for the past few years, I've done the same with each Oscar category. The idea is to give casual awards watchers an idea of the conventional wisdom for each of the 24 Academy Award mini-races. Check out this year's race ratings below; for my personal picks (which sometimes diverge from the conventional wisdom!), click here.

Best Picture: Solid La La Land
With a record-tying 14 nominations, this modern movie musical is primed to pull off the rare Oscars-night sweep.

Best Director: Solid Damien Chazelle
La La Land helmer Chazelle won the nearly identical precursor prize, Outstanding Directorial Achievement at the Directors Guild of America Awards, virtually guaranteeing he will be the youngest Best Director winner in history, at 32 years and 38 days.

Best Actor: Tossup
The closest major race of the night pits Casey Affleck of Manchester by the Sea against Denzel Washington's self-directed effort in Fences. Affleck has been the assumed frontrunner all season, but Washington won the Screen Actors Guild Award, and actors represent the largest segment of Academy voters. If Washington wins, he would be the seventh actor to earn three Oscars—and the first African American.

Best Actress: Solid Emma Stone
Stone carries La La Land, a film we know Oscar voters love. Competitor campaigns by Jackie's Natalie Portman and Elle's Isabelle Huppert just haven't gotten off the ground.

Best Supporting Actor: Likely Mahershala Ali
Ali (whose full first name is Mahershalalhashbaz) has had a great year, starring in the Netflix shows House of Cards and Luke Cage and appearing in Best Picture nominees Hidden Figures and Moonlight. This win may be for Moonlight, but really it's for an excellent all-around body of work.

Best Supporting Actress: Solid Viola Davis
After being robbed of the 2011 Best Actress Oscar for The Help, Davis is finally back at the dance for Fences, and no one else stands a chance.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Solid Moonlight
Competitors Lion and Arrival have both won precursor awards in this category, but not while Moonlight was nominated opposite them. The consensus seems to be that Moonlight was Hollywood's second-favorite film this year after La La Land, so it's favored here, but that's more a collective educated guess than a mathematical certainty.

Best Original Screenplay: Leans Manchester by the Sea
This category is an old-fashioned horse race between La La Land and Manchester by the Sea. Manchester's script has drawn plenty of praise, and musicals have historically struggled in the writing categories. But then again, the possibility of a La La Land sweep looms large.

Best Foreign Language Film: Tossup
The German black comedy Toni Erdmann was a solid frontrunner in this category until January 27, 2017, when President Donald Trump signed his now-infamous executive order banning citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. Included in the ban was Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who subsequently lacerated Trump and said he would not attend the Oscars as a result of the order. Since then, Farhadi's film The Salesman has picked up momentum in this category, to the point where many pundits now are picking it to win on a sympathy vote.

Best Animated Feature: Likely Zootopia

Best Documentary Feature: Solid O.J.: Made in America

Best Cinematography: Solid La La Land

Best Costume Design: Leans Jackie

Best Film Editing: Solid La La Land

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Likely Star Trek Beyond

Best Production Design: Solid La La Land

Best Original Score: Solid La La Land

Best Original Song: Solid "City of Stars"

Best Sound Editing: Leans Hacksaw Ridge

Best Sound Mixing: Likely La La Land

Best Visual Effects: Solid The Jungle Book

Best Documentary Short: Tossup

Best Live-Action Short: Leans Ennemis Intérieurs

Best Animated Short: Likely Piper

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Oscars Really Do Spread the Wealth Around

If it's February, it's time to indulge in hobby-making over a different kind of election here at Baseballot: the Academy Awards. Notoriously difficult to predict due to a lack of hard data and polling, the Oscars often force prognosticators to resort to fickle historical precedents, working theories, and, worst of all, gut instinct.

One of those working theories is that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences likes to "spread the wealth around." The idea is that the Academy has many favorite people and movies that it would like to honor, but it only has a limited number of awards to bestow, so it tries to sprinkle them around strategically so that everyone deserving gets a prize for something. At first, it seems a stretch of the imagination to think that a disparate voting bloc could be so coordinated and strategic in its thinking. Academy members aren't making decisions as a unit; their results are an aggregation of thousands of individual opinions. However, the Academy is still a smaller and more homogenous electorate than most, and their preferences may reflect the groupthink of the Hollywood insiders who dominate their ranks. Sure enough, a dive into the data shows that the Academy may indeed lean toward distributing the wealth evenly.

One of this year's hottest Oscar races is that for Best Actor. Will Casey Affleck join the club of Oscar winners for his portrayal of a Boston janitor in Manchester by the Sea, or will Denzel Washington take home his third trophy for hamming it up in Fences? If you believe that the Oscars spread the wealth around, you'd probably lean toward Affleck—and history suggests that's a good bet. At the last 15 ceremonies, a past Oscar winner has gone up against an Oscar virgin 47 times in one of the four acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress). A full 32% of nominees in those 47 races were past winners, so, all things being equal, past winners should have won at around an equal rate. However, all things clearly were not equal, as those past winners prevailed just seven times out of 47: 15%. Looking at the same data another way, they won just seven times out of their 75 nominations—a 9% success rate. That's far lower than a nominee's default chances in a five-person category: one out of five, or 20%.

Some caution is still warranted, though. Oscar history is littered with famous counterexamples: the time two-time winner Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) stole Best Actress from underneath the overdue Viola Davis's (The Help) nose at the 2011 ceremony, or when Sean Penn (Milk), a prior winner for Mystic River, edged out Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler at the 2008 awards. In addition, the converse of spreading the wealth isn't necessarily true. Even if the Oscars make a concerted effort to keep extra statuettes out of the hands of people who already have them, they probably don't bend over backward to reward undecorated artists who are "due."

Finally, there may be a difference in wealth-spreading between the acting categories, where the nominees and their records are well known, and the craft categories, where the awards are thought of as going to films, not people. This can explain the wide inequalities in categories like Best Sound Mixing. Sound mixer Scott Millan has won four Oscars in his nine nominations, and legendary sound engineer Fred Hynes won five times in seven tries. By contrast, Greg P. Russell, nominated this year for mixing 13 Hours, has compiled 17 nominations and has never won. And the all-time record for most Oscar nominations without a win goes to mixer Kevin O'Connell, who is a 21-time nominee, including his bid this year for Hacksaw Ridge. Unfortunately, both will almost certainly lose this year to La La Land mixer Andy Nelson, who has two wins in his previous 20 nominations. Even if this isn't because of the longstanding trophy inequality in Best Sound Mixing, it is certainly consistent with it.

Within each ceremony, the Academy also appears to spread the wealth fairly evenly among movies. Of the last 15 Oscars, seven can be considered "spread the wealth" ceremonies, while only three can really be considered "sweeps" (2013 for Gravity, 2008 for Slumdog Millionaire, and 2003 for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King); five are ambiguous. Granted, this is a subjective eyeballing of the data, but I have some hard numbers too. The median number of Oscars won by the winningest film of the night over the last 15 years is five—a respectable total, but not one that screams "unstoppable juggernaut." Twelve of the 15 ceremonies saw the winningest film take six Oscars or fewer. Eight of the 15 years were below the average mode of 5.4 Oscars, represented by the black line in the chart below:

More stats: during the same 15-year span, anywhere between nine and 14 feature films (i.e., not shorts) per year could go home and call themselves an Oscar winner—but 10 out of 15 of the years, that number was 12, 13, or 14 films. Just five times was it nine, 10, or 11 films. Finally, at nine of the 15 ceremonies, the standard deviation of the distribution of Oscars among feature films was less than the average standard deviation, again represented by the black line. (A low standard deviation means that the values in a dataset tend to cluster around the mean—so a year when four films each won three awards has a low standard deviation, but a year when one film won 11, two films won two, and the rest won one has a very high standard deviation.)

With only three ceremonies in the past 15 years boasting significantly above-average standard deviations, it's clear that a low standard deviation is the norm—which means it's typical for more films to get fewer Oscars. In other words, spreading the wealth.

Of course, the pattern is only true until it isn't. Every so often, a juggernaut of a movie does come along to sweep the Oscars: think Titanic, which went 11 for 14 at the 1997 ceremony. This year appears poised to deliver us another of these rare occurrences. La La Land reaped a record 14 nominations, and according to prediction site Gold Derby, it is favored to win 10 trophies next Sunday. Don't let overarching historical trends override year-specific considerations, like the runaway popularity of Damien Chazelle's musical, when making your Oscar picks.