Prospect Watch: AL East Prospects.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
A highly-regarded 2013 draft pick, Chance Sisco has shown a solid, developing bat so far in 2014. The young catcher is hitting .290 through 43 games while also flashing gap power. The left-handed hitter has an .835 OPS against right-handed pitching but has struggled against southpaws in a small-sample size as witnessed by his .353 OPS in 25 at-bats. With Matt Wieters‘ future in Baltimore looking cloudy, Sisco could be the backstop of the future.
Boston Red Sox
A third round draft pick back in 2010, Sean Coyle fell off the prospect map after a slew of unproductive minor league seasons and injuries. Challenged with a promotion to Double-A in 2014, the dimimutive infielder has responded well. Through 34 games, Coyle is hitting .347/.403/.551. He’s showing solid gap pop and has stolen nine bases in as many tries. Strictly a second baseman until 2014, the infielder has now made 12 appearances at the hot corner with mixed results. He could eventually develop into a solid big league contributor from the bench — if a starting role is not in the cards.
It’s been a disappointing season in Boston to date but pitching prospect Henry Owens is giving Red Sox fans something to look forward to in the future. The 6-6 lefty — who is still just 21 years old — currently has a 2.24 ERA through 12 Double-A starts. As well, he’s allowed just 43 hits in 72.1 innings of work. With 32 walks issued, he’s almost put more men on base via the free pass than by allowing a hit. He’s also shown swing-and-miss stuff with 74 punch-outs.
New York Yankees
The 32nd overall selection in the 2013 draft, Aaron Judge didn’t make his pro debut in 2014 thanks to an injury suffered after signing. He’s making up for lost time, albeit in Low-A ball. The hulking outfielder (6-7, 230 pounds) is currently hitting .318/.414/.507 through 59 games. Twenty-two of his 67 hits have gone for extra bases and he’s also getting on base at a strong clip due to his willingness to talk the free pass (34 walks). Judge, 22, is a tad bit old for the league so a promotion should be just around the corner.
It’s not often that Yankees prospects get overlooked by Peter O’Brien has quietly put up 21 home runs in just 59 games. Splitting the year between High-A an Double-A, the 23-year-old backstop has produced a .938 OPS. Unfortunately, he’s not doing much outside of hitting for power. He’s hitting just .237 in 29 Double-A games and has walked just 10 times all season (along with 55 Ks) leading to a .314 on-base percentage. He’s seen time behind the plate in 2014 but has also played some outfield; he appeared in 38 games at the hot corner in 2013. O’Brien may not have the defensive chops to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues but he plays the position well enough to serve as an offensive-minded utility player and third-string catcher.
Tampa Bay Rays
Blake Snell — a 6-4, 180 pound lefty — is having a breakout season. He showed flashes of promise in 2013 but walked 73 batters in 99.0 innings. He’s trimmed his walk rate from 6.64 BB/9 last season to 4.24 in eight Low-A appearances in ’14, followed by a 1.90 in two High-A starts after a recent promotion. He’s also produced an eye-popping ground-ball rate throughout the season with more than three ground-ball outs per ball in the air. With a little more development, the 21-year-old hurler has a chance to be at the top of the Rays’ prospects list by the end of the year.
Toronto Blue Jays
With trades of catching prospects Travis d’Arnaud and Yan Gomes, the Jays’ depth behind the plate has been thinned in recent years. However, the organization is receiving a boost from an unexpected source. Derrick Chung was a 31st round draft pick out of Sacramento State University in 2012 as a fifth-year senior. A 24-year-old utility player at the time of his selection, the prospect is now already 26 but he’s made huge strides behind the plate since moving back there permanently in 2013. So far this season, he’s thrown out 37% of base runners attempting to steal and he’s improved both his receiving and game calling. At the plate, he’s hitting .311/.388/.807 in High-A ball and has shown more pop while striking out just 20 times in 46 games.
Listed at 5-5, second baseman Jorge Flores is one of the shortest players in professional baseball. The former 19th round draft pick (2012 out of Central Arizona College) hasn’t let his size hinder him as he’s reached Double-A in just his third pro season. The 22-year-old Mexico native is hitting .400 through his first seven games at that level after producing a .308/.374/.365 line (with just 10 Ks) in 32 games at the High-A ball level. Flores has spent time at both second base and shortstop through his career and could eventually develop into a sparkplug back-up role if he doesn’t settle in at a starting position.
How Well do Players Predict Challenges?Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Friday night, the A’s were playing the Orioles in Baltimore, and it was tied up in the bottom of the tenth when Adam Jones singled with Nick Markakis on second. Markakis rounded third and tried to score, but Brandon Moss managed to throw him out, Derek Norris applying the tag a millisecond before Markakis swept the plate. The Orioles challenged the ruling, and one of the broadcasters noted that Markakis didn’t really respond negatively to the call, implying he didn’t think he was safe. The ruling was upheld, the inning ended with Nelson Cruz getting thrown out trying to straight-up steal home, and the A’s subsequently won in the 11th. As close as the Orioles came, they could only reflect on missed opportunities.
Intuitively, it makes sense that players would respond more emphatically if they felt like they were wronged by a call. It follows that player response might be a worthwhile indicator of eventual replay-review outcome. Sometimes, plays are challenged after a potentially wronged player reacts demonstratively. Sometimes, plays are challenged after a potentially wronged player doesn’t do that. Is there anything we can learn from what we’ve seen to date? Let’s find out, using the phenomenal Baseball Savant Instant Replay Database.
The database has challenged-play information, and it also includes a lot of links to video. So I decided to watch a lot of videos of challenged tag plays and force plays. Not every play has a linked video, and not every linked video includes enough information, but in all, I watched and made records from more than 200 video clips. I was interested in two things: reaction of the player against whom the initial call went, and outcome of the challenge process.
At first, I had three classifications:
no emphatic response
mild emphatic response
extreme emphatic response
I figured that there might be differences between the two emphatic-response sub-groups. It became clear, though, that I should just go with two classifications: no real response, or some kind of response. It’s still subjective, and I might’ve mis-classified a clip or three, but I think I grouped them well enough. Usually, it was obvious.
Before the data, let’s look at some examples. Four .gifs will follow.
No real response, call upheld
No real response, call overturned
Negative response, call upheld
Negative response, call overturned
Bonus Carlos Gomez .gif (call upheld)
Now to get into the numbers. We’ll keep the tag plays and the force plays separate, and you’ll see why.
No real response: 5 overturned, 16 upheld (24% overturn rate)
Negative response: 16 overturned, 15 upheld (52% overturn rate)
No real response: 42 overturned, 44 upheld (49% overturn rate)
Negative response: 38 overturned, 31 upheld (55% overturn rate)
Obviously all the samples are limited, and because the classifications are subjective there are some real error bars here, but this is mostly for fun so let’s take the numbers seriously. With tag plays, we see a possibly meaningful difference. If there’s a review, and if the unfortunate player didn’t react emphatically, there’s been a 1-in-4 chance of an overturned call. However, if there’s a review, and if the unfortunate player did react emphatically, there’s been a 1-in-2 chance of an overturned call. It’s worth remembering that a lot of tag plays happen at home, and because runs are so important, it will take less for a manager to attempt a challenge.
Still, it’s roughly a coin flip, even if the player doesn’t like it. Probably, this has to do with the fact that it’s hard to focus on both a tag and on timing of touching a base. If you’re a player sliding into home, you might not know precisely when you’re actually on the plate, instead of the dirt. If you’re a player applying a tag, you might not know precisely when the runner got his hand or foot in. Remember, a challenged play has to be close enough to warrant a challenge in the first place. They’re usually bang-bang plays, and so players serve as only so much of a reliable indicator.
It’s different with force plays. Again, if there’s a review, and if the unfortunate player did react emphatically, there’s been about a 1-in-2 chance of an overturned call. But if there’s a review, and if the unfortunate player didn’t react emphatically, there’s also been about a 1-in-2 chance of an overturned call. Straight-up, the numbers show a slight difference, but it isn’t very big so it’s hard to believe in. Player response still essentially leads to a coin flip, but in the absence of a player response, it’s still been a coin flip.
With force plays, there is no tag. There’s no direct player-player interaction, so a player doesn’t get the sensation of physical contact. It’s pure timing, and a player just has to listen for a baseball arriving in a glove, or for a cleat touching a base. For tag plays, the people who know best might be the players involved. For force plays, the people who know best might be observers elsewhere on the field or in the dugout. At least, they seem to know about as well as the involved players do. Emphatic player response still predicts outcomes as well, but the absence of such a response doesn’t mean the absence of a good overturn possibility.
In all, even when a player responds emphatically, it’s led to an overturn just over half the time. Meaning those players have frequently been wrong. With a tag play, it’s worth considering how a player responds. With a force play, it’s less so. One thing players are not is objective. They’re also not impartial observers of the plays in which they’re involved, armed with the additional benefit of slow-motion instant replay.
One last thing:
Tag Plays vs. Force Plays
Tag plays: 31 negative responses, 52 total (60% response rate)
Force plays: 69 negative responses, 155 total (45% response rate)
Players have been more likely to respond negatively to close tag plays than to close force plays. The difference isn’t enormous, but it’s there and it’s to be expected. For one thing, players apply direct tags or have tags applied directly to them, so they feel like they have more information. Also, there’s just more at stake, as most force plays occur at first, while a lot of tag plays occur at home. There’s more emotion involved and investment involved, because the leverage of the decision is higher. A close call at first might or might not change the score. A close call at home does change the score, so players are going to care more about the judgment. Certain players around the league are just non-confrontational sorts no matter what, but among the rest, you can expect a higher reaction rate at home. Not that that tells you a lot about whether or not they’re right. They just have a greater desire to be right.
Max Scherzer and the Incentives to Self Insure.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Over the winter, Max Scherzer turned down an offer from the Tigers that would have paid him $144 million over six years, and instead, decided to play out his final season in Detroit and then see kind of offers he will get as a free agent. Given pitcher attrition rates, Scherzer was certainly taking on a significant risk to pass up that kind of contract. Jeff Zimmerman’s research pegged Scherzer as having a 31% chance of landing on the disabled list at some point in 2014, and a significant injury likely would have forced Scherzer to forego pursuing any kind of long-term deal this winter. By turning down the offer, Scherzer appeared to have made a big bet on himself and his future health.
However, as Scherzer noted to Tom Verducci over the weekend, he actually hasn’t taken on nearly as much risk as we might have thought. Instead, he sold the risk to an insurance company for what was presumably a better rate than the one the Tigers offered. And I fully expect this to become a trend, with third-party insurance agencies stepping in to correct a market imbalance in Major League Baseball.
As I noted back in February, the outcomes on recent long-term extensions have skewed very heavily in the favor of Major League teams. There have been a handful of pre-free agent contracts where the player made out better than they would have had they not signed the deal, but most of the time, the players have ended up leaving money on the table. And often, quite a lot of it.
The argument in favor of these deals — and one that is trotted out every single time a player signs a team-friendly extension — is that the marginal utility of the first few million to a player dwarf the utility of all subsequent millions. By guaranteeing themselves $10 or $15 or $20 million in future income, the player no longer has to worry about finding a post-baseball career, and can live comfortably without fear of an injury or other factor derailing their career before they get to arbitration or free agency. This argument has merit, as the value of a dollar certainly has some diminishing returns once you get into the kinds of paychecks that Major League players make. The hundredth million isn’t worth the same as the first million.
But that argument fails to capture the nuances of the risk/return market, and ignores the fact that MLB teams themselves are not the only party willing to buy risk. The options for a player are simply not limited to taking a long-term deal from an MLB team or personally carrying all of their own risk until free agency. And as long as Major League teams are making offers to players that put too low of a price on the risk that the player is buying, players like Scherzer are going to be incentivized to look for secondary risk-purchasing markets. And that’s what insurance companies specialize in.
We might not think of it in these terms, but each of us sell personal risk to insurance companies every year. Auto insurance is required by law, but odds are, you probably have more than the minimum coverage on your vehicle, so you have willingly sold some of your risk of getting into a car accident for some percentage of your monthly income. The same is true with homeowner’s or rental insurance, health insurance, life insurance, and even pet insurance. As human beings, we generally have a desire for stability over the unknown, and we’re willing to trade some of our income to hedge against disaster events.
Large corporations fill the market with products that essentially transfer risk from an individual to an investor, and these companies are very good at pricing risk so that the aggregate of their premiums collected return a higher rate than the policy claims they pay out. From an investor perspective, there is little practical difference to selling someone insurance versus buying stock in a company or a fund; they are essentially looking for a return on their investment that outpaces market averages or brings a lower rate of risk for that same level of return. There are billions of dollars being invested every day, and everyone is after the same goal; the best possible return for a given level of risk.
Of late, Major League teams have been buying the risk of future injury or performance decline at severely discounted rates, and that kind of market inefficiency begs for competition. The prices that players have been selling their risk for have to look very appealing for risk-seeking investors, and third-party insurance companies are drawn to any market where risk and reward are not in balance.
Since Scherzer is the most recent player to publicly note that he self-insured, let’s look at how the risk-pricing calculations might work. Let’s create an outcome probability matrix based on Scherzer’s profile.
Outcome Occurance Percentage Expected Future Contract
Stays healthy, performs better than 2013 15% $200,000,000
Stays healthy, performs same as 2013 20% $190,000,000
Stays healthy, performs worse than 2013 25% $160,000,000
Stays healthy, performs much worse than 2013 10% $100,000,000
Minor Injury, performs well when healthy 10% $150,000,000
Minor injury, doesn’t perform as well 10% $80,000,000
Major injury, value tanks 10% $30,000,000
Weighted Average 100% $144,000,000
Since this is more of an object lesson than a break-down of what Scherzer should sell his risk for, these numbers are made-up, but I think they have some basis in reality. And, not coincidentally, the weighted average comes out to $144 million, the amount that Scherzer turned down from the Tigers; these are the kinds of outcomes you can get when you make up the numbers. We could say that perhaps the Tigers calculations looked something like this, even if they didn’t lay it out exactly this way.
This matrix gives Scherzer a 70% chance of staying healthy all season — with various outcomes relative to his 2013 performance within that range — and then a 30% chance of getting injured, with different levels of injuries and performances requiring differently sized discounts. I set his base level pay in the worst case scenario outcome at $30 million, as even if Scherzer’s elbow exploded tomorrow, there’d still be a long line of teams lining up to pay for his rehab as long as they got a few discounted years after he got back from surgery. Short of death, Scherzer isn’t really at any risk of not getting paid some significant amount of money this winter. The only question is how much he’s going to get paid.
So let’s say that Scherzer wanted to sell the risk of the negative outcomes occurring, guaranteeing himself a minimum payout of $100 million, with the insurance company agreeing to make up the difference between the $100 million and the amount he is guaranteed in his next deal. Based on this matrix, there’s a 10 percent chance that the insurance company would have to pay him $70 million, a 10% chance that the company would have to pay him $20 million, and an 80% chance that they wouldn’t have to pay anything. Thus, a $100 million guarantee would be a break-even proposition for the insurance company with a $9 million premium.
Of course, there’s no incentive for the insurance company to just break-even, as they’d need a significant return on their money in order to invest in Max Scherzer instead of just parking their money the market. At a 15% return on their money, they’d ask for $10.35 million. So, using our totally made up numbers, Scherzer could agree to pay just over $10 million out of the total value of his next contract and have no risk of earning less than $100 million. The policy would reduce his top-ending potential from $200 million down to $190 million, but as everyone always argues, what’s the practical difference between $190 and $200 million anyway? This way, Scherzer gets to test free agency, pick where he wants to spend the rest of his career, and have no concern that an injury is going to cost him the monstrous payout he’s in line for.
Obviously, the risk profile and future expected dollars are going to be different for every player, but policies like this are almost certainly cheaper than taking the kinds of long-term deals that MLB teams have been offering of late. Players who have not yet made enough money to support their family for the rest of their lives should be incentivized to sell a portion of their risk, but the prices MLB teams have been putting on that risk simply doesn’t reflect a balance between risk and return. MLB teams aren’t the only ones with money who want to buy risk. Until teams start making offers that are more aligned with the actual risks the players are selling, there’s going to be a market for third-party insurance companies to step in and take advantage of the inefficiency.
The market for buying and selling risk is very well established, and the prices that outside parties will pay to relieve a player of his risk-burden are likely much cheaper than the discounts MLB teams have been offering players in order to sign long-term contracts. A long-term deal with a team can come with some ancillary benefits beyond just guaranteed money — no-trade clauses being a big one — but the primary reason players have been taking these deals is to rid themselves of disaster risk. But you don’t have to sell six, seven, or eight years of future incomes at discounted prices to divest yourself of disaster risk, and neither should Major League players. If the teams themselves aren’t going to offer competitive prices for the risk carried by a player, then perhaps third-party insurance companies will correct the market for them.
What’s Eating the Tigers?Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
A few weeks ago, it all looked so simple. The Tigers were steamrolling foes, and the rest of the division members languished. Detroit held a seven-game lead in the American League Central, and in fact had the best record in baseball. Fast forward three weeks and they have been the worst team in the AL since, with only the Colorado Rockies performing worse in the National League. It’s been an unexpected turn of events for sure, and it has flattened the AL Central standings. The Tigers still stand as the overwhelming favorite to win the division, but there is definitely more doubt now than there was in mid-May.
So, how did this all happen? Let’s break it down.
Torii Hunter‘s defense: It’s been a couple of years since the Tigers were even a neutral defensive team. The hope was this season that with the team adding Ian Kinsler and Nick Castellanos to the everyday lineup and moving Miguel Cabrera back to first base that the team’s defensive performance would improve. So, far it hasn’t. Here are the team’s UZR/150 marks:
2012: -4.9, 27th of 30
2013: -3.1, 21st of 30
2014: -7.7, 26th of 30
Small sample caveats apply, but so far things have been worse than ever. On a player level though, things focus on a single player — Hunter. Both his UZR and UZR/150 are the worst in the Majors among qualified players, and only Yunel Escobar has a worse DRS. Once upon a time, the man affectionately called Spider-Man was a pretty good fielder, and has eight Gold Gloves to his credit. But even in his best days, his defensive impact was likely overstated, and now it is pretty bad. His range simply isn’t what it once was, even in the corner. And yet, Hunter has been treated like an All-Star by his new manager, Brad Ausmus.
In his game logs, we can see that he has been removed from seven games that he started this season, but in six of them the Tigers had at least a five-run lead and in the seventh he came out for a knee injury he suffered during the game. In other words, the Tigers don’t see his defense as an issue. It is, and it is most likely costing the team games. To add insult to injury, he isn’t hitting much lately either — over the last 14 days, his 12 wRC+ is the worst on the team. Don Kelly is rarely the solution to problems, but in this case, he needs to play a little more, be it in full games or caddying for Hunter after the seventh inning.
Justin Verlander. Somehow, the team’s best pitcher has been its worst. Even in the early going, when he was good, he wasn’t that good. Let’s break his season into two fairly distinct blocks.
March 31 – May 9: 8 GS, 54.0 IP, 43 K, 21 BB, 1 HR, 2.67 ERA / 2.88 FIP / 4.27 xFIP, 93.1 MPH fastball
May 14 – June 5: 5 GS, 32.0 IP, 18 K, 14 BB, 5 HR, 6.75 ERA / 5.38 FIP / 5.48 xFIP, 93.5 MPH fastball
Well, at least velocity isn’t the problem. Essentially, the problem is that Verlander is working out of the zone more frequently, but batters are swinging at said out of the zone pitches less frequently. He’s throwing fewer fastballs and more curveballs, and with good reason. According to Brooks Baseball, his whiff percentage on four-seamers is just 6.62% this year, down from 10.29% in 2013 and 10.13% in 2012. The same is true of his slider, as batters have been swinging at it and missing at lower percentages than they have in the past. In short, Verlander is not fooling people right now.
Joe Nathan and Phil Coke. Who could have seen this coming? Well, OK, Coke was pretty foreseeable. He really wasn’t any good last season. And perhaps another velocity drop from Nathan should have been easy to forecast, but then, he had an even bigger velocity drop last season, and was just as lights out as ever then. But perhaps he has simply passed the velocity point of no return. He is getting strike one easily enough, but at his reduced velocity, batters are swinging less and making more contact, and that is a recipe for exactly what he has been — a disaster. It may be Joba Chamberlain or Al Alburquerque time very shortly if this continues.
Things are not localized to just these four players. Neither Austin Jackson nor Alex Avila have hit well lately, and both Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello have been cuffed around on the mound. But if there is a real concern, it’s that this run of bad play has been really bad. Two of the first three losses in this string were walk-off losses, and there was another walk-off loss and one other run loss mixed in, but in the other nine games the team has simply had its hat handed to them. They have lost those other nine games by four, seven, 10, eight, 10, four, two, six and four runs. Overall, since May 19, they have been outscored by 50 runs, and they have somewhat cancelled out the four walk-off/one-run losses with two one-run wins of their own.
This isn’t to say that the Tigers are suddenly a bad team. Far from it. They still have Cabrera, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, and Victor Martinez has been hitting everything. But with Scherzer and Martinez (and Hunter) set for free agency at season’s end, there may be suddenly be some pressure on a team with an already-poor farm system to make a big splash at the trade deadline in order to finally get that elusive title for their owner, and that is certainly not the position that most thought the Tigers would find themselves in this season.