The Ball Threatens to Overshadow Baseball

With the postponement of Wednesday’s scheduled ALCS Game 4, the de-juiced baseball remained a hot topic of discussion, particularly in New York, where the Yankees appeared to catch a game-changing bad break on Didi Gregorius‘ fifth-inning fly ball that instead of becoming a three-run homer that would have swung the lead in their favor, was caught at the warning track. Players and managers are talking about it, fans are talking about it, analysts are talking about it — here in New York City, even on the 10 pm local news. Like it or not, it’s an issue that won’t go away, in part because of MLB’s stubborn insistence that nothing has changed, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, as well as the reality that the league actually owns about 25% of Rawlings, the manufacturer of the baseball (the other 75% is owned by Seidler Equity Partners, founded by Peter Seidler, the leading investor of the Padres). While none of this invalidates what the players on the field are accomplishing, everybody is suddenly playing or watching a very different game than we’d grown accustomed to during the regular season.

On Saturday, our own Craig Edwards reported that Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said that his team’s analytical department had noted that fly balls are traveling four-and-a-half feet less far than normal. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported on Wednesday that officials from two unnamed teams (quite possibly those of the Astros and Yankees, since Passan was reporting from New York) “concurred that whatever batch of balls has been used during October is not performing the way the ones in the regular-season did.”

The change concerns the drag on the baseball, which according to the work of Baseball Prospectus’ Rob Arthur has increased sharply relative to the regular season, strongly suggesting that different balls are being used. Arthur estimated that 50% more homers would have been hit if the regular season ball were being used. On Thursday, Arthur published a new piece showing that the postseason baseballs are also affecting pitchers, producing slightly less vertical break (by about 0.4 inches) on curveballs, and that “Sliders are cutting across the zone a little less; sinkers staying a little more buoyant… [The changes] all seem to hover on the border between just large enough that baseball’s tracking system can detect them and just small enough that a major-league hitter probably wouldn’t care.” Read the rest of this entry »


The Astros Need to Solve Masahiro Tanaka’s Slider

If Masahiro Tanaka has a signature pitch, it’s his slider. When he first came over from Japan in 2014, nearly half of his strikeouts came on the splitter despite throwing it only a quarter of the time. In his first three seasons in the majors, Tanaka threw his splitter more often than any other pitch and batters put up a feeble 37 wRC+ against it, while whiffing on the pitch 19% of the time. But in 2017, Tanaka used his slider more often than the splitter. In 2018, that trend continued; he got better results from his slider than he did with the splitter. This season the disparity in usage and effectiveness grew. Tanaka struggled with his splitter due to changes in the baseball, but even after re-configuring the splitter in July, his slider has remained his best pitch.

Against the Astros in Game 1 of the ALCS, Tanaka got eight swings and misses. Every single whiff came on the slider. Here’s how Tanaka’s usage of his slider has compared to that of his splitter this season:

Read the rest of this entry »


So You Wanna Buy a Baseball Team

In a postseason full of headline-grabbing stories (the ball is de-juiced! Gerrit Cole is a cyborg! The Nationals win in the playoffs now!), a quiet bulletin came out on Wednesday. Bloomberg’s Scott Soshnick reported that Major League Baseball will now allow investment funds to take minority stakes in teams.

The news cycle moved on. The Yankees-Astros game was postponed! What will A.J. Hinch and Aaron Boone do with their rotation flexibility? Did you know Juan Soto isn’t yet 21? There are big baseball things happening right now! Investment mumbo-jumbo has a way of fading to the background.

I’m here to tell you that it matters. Not in an urgent, baseball-ends-today way, but in a way that could change the nature of the sport long-term. This story might not be on everyone’s radar right now, but it’s important to consider the ramifications and conflicts of interest that can arise from a small change.

To understand what this decision means, we’ll need a little background. First, let’s talk about what an investment fund is. It’s a broad term by design, one that encompasses many different ways of pooling together money. Without further comment from MLB, we can’t know the exact specifications of what they’ll allow, but we can make some educated guessed. A college endowment? Definitely. A special purpose fund raising money from 100 rich people to invest in teams? Certainly — one has already been started, and it plans to raise $500 million to purchase minority stakes.

What about a pension fund? Pension funds’ preferred tax status mirrors that of college endowments, and the two invest in very similar ways. A hedge fund? Baseball will have to spell out the rules, but that doesn’t seem so different from letting endowments or pensions own minority shares, and it’s certainly not much different than a special purpose vehicle. Heck, hedge funds are largely specialized investment pools already, and endowments and pensions make up a sizable portion of hedge fund assets under management. Read the rest of this entry »


Job Posting: Cubs Research and Development Analyst Roles

Please note, this posting contains multiple positions.

Position: Biomechanics Analyst

Description:
The Chicago Cubs are seeking a biomechanics analyst to join the Research and Development group in Baseball Operations. This role will primarily focus on the analysis of motion-capture biomechanical data. The analyst will work closely with the player development and the R&D team to develop methods and improve the effective understanding of biomechanics and how they relate to player performance and injury prevention.

Responsibilities:

  • Research, develop and test methods and models based on kinematic and biomechanical data for the purpose of player evaluation and injury risk assessment
  • Coordinate usage and collection of data in the Cubs’ hitting and pitching labs
  • Effectively present analyses through the use of written reports and data visualization to disseminate insights to members of baseball operations
  • Collaborate with physical trainers and physiologists to implement evidence-based recommendations in areas of throwing mechanics and injury rehabilitation
  • Collaborate with coaches and player development personnel to implement evidence-based recommendations in areas of pitch and swing mechanics
  • Work with web development team to integrate new statistical analyses, models and data visualizations into Cubs web applications
  • Identify, diagnose and resolve data quality issues

Qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s degree in a scientific field such as applied math, engineering, statistics, physics, neuroscience, biomechanics, physiology
  • Experience with SQL
  • Experience with programming languages (e.g., C, Python, or R)
  • Working knowledge of motion-capture technologies, force plates, and biomechanics as they relate to baseball
  • Passion for working with new motion tracking technologies
  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills

To Apply:
To apply, please complete the application that can be found here.

Position: Analyst, Research & Development

Description:
The Chicago Cubs are seeking analysts to join the Research and Development group in Baseball Operations. This role will focus on conducting core research to further the knowledge-base of the Chicago Cubs. The analyst will work closely with the entirety of the R&D department to develop methods to process data, improve the effective understanding and application of data, and disseminate analytic insights throughout the organization. Analysts may focus their efforts towards collaborating with the Amateur Scouting, International Scouting, or Player Development departments as strengths dictate.

Responsibilities:

  • Research, develop, and test methods and models for the purpose of player assessment, development, and acquisition, as well as the optimization of in-game strategy
  • Effectively present analyses through the use of written reports and data visualization methods to communicate relevant findings
  • Work with web development team to integrate new statistical analyses, models, and data visualizations into Cubs web applications
  • Incorporate new analysis into existing data processes to improve automated reporting
  • Identify, diagnose, and resolve data quality issues
  • Conduct in-depth evaluations of amateur and professional prospects
  • Handle data and analysis requests from the coaching staff and other departments within Baseball Operations
  • Examine and leverage data streams from new technologies that offer innovative data solutions

Qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s degree in an quantitative field such as statistics, engineering, applied math, physics, quantitative social sciences, computer science, operations research
  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills
  • Proficiency with SQL and at least one statistical programming language (e.g., C, Python, MATLAB, or R)
  • Working knowledge of advanced baseball statistics
  • Familiarity with advanced statistical modeling techniques
  • Relevant experience working in baseball preferred

To Apply:
To apply, please complete the application that can be found here.

Response Expectations:
Due to the overwhelming number of applications the Cubs receive, they unfortunately may not be able to respond in person to each applicant. However, the Cubs can assure you that you will receive an email confirmation when you apply as well as additional email notifications whether you are selected to move forward for the position or not. Please note, the Cubs keep all resumes on file and will contact you should they wish to schedule an interview with you.

The content in this posting was created and provided solely by the Chicago Cubs.


Effectively Wild Episode 1444: Ball Don’t Lie

EWFI
Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller discuss the Nationals’ sweep of the Cardinals, why the Nationals are good and fun, Stephen Strasburg and the history of no. 1 draft pick pitchers, Gerrit Cole’s performance in ALCS Game 3, how Wednesday’s rainout affects the Yankees and Astros, and the Angels’ opioid problem and hiring of Joe Maddon as manager. Then (36:22) they talk to writer and researcher Rob Arthur about the de-juiced postseason ball, how we can tell that the ball is behaving differently, how much balls vary from pitch to pitch and game to game, how the ball affects pitches, why the ball change reflects poorly on MLB, whether the change was intentional or unintentional, and what offense might look like in 2020.

Audio intro: Guided By Voices, "Calling Up Washington"
Audio interstitial: Gillian Welch, "Wrecking Ball"
Audio outro: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, "Rumors"

Link to ESPN report on Skaggs and the Angels
Link to The Athletic report about MLB opioid testing
Link to Rob’s recent research on the ball
Link to Ben on the ball
Link to Jeff Passan on the ball
Link to Michael Baumann on the ball in 2020
Link to Rob on the ball and pitch movement
Link to Gerald Schifman on shadows
Link to Ben on MLB marketing
Link to order The MVP Machine

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Anthony Rendon Isn’t Underrated Anymore

In 2017, The Ringer called Anthony Rendon baseball’s “unknown superstar.” A year later, at the conclusion of the 2018 season, Beyond the Box Score described Rendon as “constantly overlooked.” I’m pretty sure there’s a law somewhere that says that when you write about Rendon, you have to describe him using the word “underrated” or one like it. But rules were made to be broken, and this one has run its course. Rendon is too good to be underrated any more. He has a strong case as being the best third baseman in baseball — which is an incredibly deep field — and an even better case as one of the top 10 players in the game overall.

Let’s start with the top-line figures and then get into the mechanics. Here are baseball’s WAR leaders since 2013, when Rendon made his debut for the Nationals:

WAR Leaders, 2013-2019
Player wOBA PA WAR/100 PA WAR
Mike Trout .424 4,499 1.39 62.6
Josh Donaldson .382 4,148 0.98 40.6
Mookie Betts .377 3,629 1.03 37.2
Buster Posey .348 3,898 0.95 36.9
Paul Goldschmidt .391 4,626 0.77 35.8
Christian Yelich .374 4,043 0.83 33.6
José Altuve .363 4,594 0.72 32.9
Anthony Rendon .366 3,927 0.83 32.7
Freddie Freeman .386 4,424 0.73 32.5
Manny Machado .349 4,533 0.71 32.0

Read the rest of this entry »


ALCS Rainout a Mixed Bag for Pitchers

The Yankees and Astros both won over 100 games in the regular season but nobody beats Mother Nature. When a rainstorm causes cool terms like “bomb cyclone” or “explosive cyclogenesis” to be bandied about, you know you’re not expecting a light drizzle. Yankee Stadium is currently dry, but with a system the size of the mid-Atlantic barreling up the coast, it didn’t make sense for MLB to pretend that tonight’s ALCS Game 4 was going to take place. Just look at the radar, courtesy of the National Weather Service:

Yikes. The rain provides the Yankees and Astros with an extra off-day now at the expense of losing an off-day between a possible Game 5 and Game 6. This isn’t a big deal for the hitters, but it will result in some revised pitching plans. In a five-game divisional series, teams can generally muddle through with a three-man rotation. Due to the 2-2-1 format, no team plays on three consecutive days, and while the Game 1 starter would have to pitch Game 4 on short rest, the Game 2 starter can pitch in a possible rubber match on normal rest. This extra rest gives teams the flexibility to either stretch their best three starters or, as the Nationals demonstrated, use starting pitchers in relief more aggressively.

But short of baseball going to some kind of impractical 2-2-1-1-1 format, that doesn’t quite work in a seven-game series. So unless you’re going to have your entire rotation do it 1930-style, you’ll need to use a fourth starter. That isn’t an ideal situation for either the Yankees or the Astros. From a pure projection standpoint, it’s actually doesn’t move the probabilities. The Astros get an immediate benefit in that they avoid a Bullpen vs. Bullpen Game 4; ZiPS takes bullpen depth into consideration and Yankees enjoy a significant projected edge in any such bullpen game. Before the rainout, ZiPS projected the Yankees to have a 56%-44% edge in a home bullpen duel, so it’s a nice game to delay if you’re Houston.

The problem you run into with this model is that the rainout doesn’t really add an extra day of rest, it simply moves it. Since there are only two days of rest for a Game 4 starter to pitch in Game 7 now, both teams end up repeating the dilemma of either using a fourth starter — particularly problematic for the Astros — or going with a bullpen game. Read the rest of this entry »


Howie Kendrick Is the Kind of NLCS MVP You Want to See

This could be the story of a kid with an awkward swing getting cut from his junior college ball team and never playing again, but it isn’t.

This could be the story of a rookie who debuted with the Angels by starting a slick double play, but never learned to hit, got sent back to the minors, and lived out the rest of his baseball days eating peanut butter and jelly and not hearing the phone ring.

But it’s not that either.

This could be the story of a young player who got spread too thin as his team experimented with playing him all over in the infield. “Things happen everyday in baseball,” Howie Kendrick told the L.A. Times in 2006. “One day I might be an outfielder. I’m open to moving anywhere.” And he did. He’s played 190 games in the outfield, so far.

This could be the story of a talented hitter trapped behind a middle infield logjam at the top of the Angels’ farm system. Or buried in their lineup under 700 pounds of struggling sluggers named Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and Mark Trumbo.

Or a debatable starter who became the smiling face on the poster for “Batting Average Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story.” Or a veteran infielder relegated to the corners, sideswiped by strained hamstrings and a sore abdomen.

But it’s not any of things. Not entirely, anyway. Read the rest of this entry »


The Stars Aligned for the Nationals

With their sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, capped off by a 7-4 win last night, the Washington Nationals are bringing the World Series back to the nation’s capital for the first time since 1933.

No team gets to the World Series without their fair share of luck, and the Nationals certainly have seen things go their way so far this October. But at the end of the day, talent reigns supreme. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that the Nationals were a superior team to the Cardinals. They produced 48.3 WAR this season, more than 10 wins above the Cardinals’ aggregate of 37.9. Washington’s hitters produced a wRC+ eight points higher than St. Louis’; their pitchers produced a FIP- six points lower. The Nationals were simply better across the board. What’s arguably most exciting for fans in Washington is that their top talent has stepped up when things have mattered most.

One of my favorite statistics to follow during the postseason is Championship Win Probability added, or cWPA, housed on the website The Baseball Gauge. It’s very similar to WPA in that it calculates how each plate appearance during every game has changed each team’s odds of winning the World Series. The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh has covered cWPA in the past, such as in this piece about players who made late-season debuts and contributed to a postseason run, or in this one when analyzing the relative “mundanity” of the 2018 World Series. As you might expect, Nationals players are dominating in cWPA this postseason. Four of the top five individual cWPA leaders don the Nationals’ red, white, and blue: Read the rest of this entry »


For the Nationals, a Bumpy Road Led to a Beautiful Place

The Washington Nationals are World Series bound following Tuesday night’s sweep-completing 7-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. They couldn’t be much hotter. Since a September 18 loss to the team they just vanquished, the Dave Martinez-managed Nationals have won 18 of their last 21 games.

How remarkable was their turnaround from the 19-31 start that had Martinez firmly in the crosshairs? The 2005 Houston Astros, the 1973 New York Mets, and the 1914 Boston Braves are the only other teams to have made it to the World Series after being 12 games under .500 at any point during the season.

The Cardinals deserve some credit of their own. The Mike Shildt-skippered squad went 47-27 in the second half, then beat the favored Braves in the NLDS. They simply had the misfortune of running into a pitching-rich Nationals team that has now punched its ticket to the Fall Classic.

Here are perspectives from participants on each side, gathered prior to, and after, Games 3 and 4.

———

Following Game 3, I asked Martinez about team’s confidence level, which is undoubtedly the highest it’s been all season. With the early-season struggles in mind, just how important is confidence to a team’s success? Read the rest of this entry »