Spring Training Notes on MLB Opening Day



Good Morning!

While all of us sane folks were sleeping the regular season kicked off with the Mariners edging out the A's 9-7 over in Japan. Former Milwaukee outfielder Domingo Santana hit the first home run of the year. The game also featured a touching moment for Ichiro:

It is my understanding, the Mariners plan a similar move tomorrow in order for the legendary hitter to receive another ovation from the new crowd.

Big Deals

Yesterday featured a pair of big contract extensions. The whopper, of course, was the 12-year $430M deal signed by Mike Trout. I'm sure Kris Bryant and his rep took note. Later in the afternoon word came out that Alex Bregman has agreed to a 6-year $100M extension with Houston, which I'm sure was of great interest to Javy Baez and his camp. The Trout deal will likely a ceiling for any extension talk for Bryant, while the Bregman deal will likely be the floor for talks with Baez. Neither situation aligns perfectly, but at this point, I'm sure negotiations with Bryant will now include a $400M+ price tag, with Boras eyeing the potential to top Trout's deal if Bryant decides to test UFA in two years. Any deal for Baez will probably kick off in the $150M+ range as Baez was one year ahead of Bregman on the arbitration ladder. Contract length on both deals will obviously factor in but we at least have decent comps for current market value now.

A Quick Scare

As if the Cubs didn't have enough health questions on their pitching staff already, Yu Darvish exiting his start yesterday afternoon with an apparent hand or finger injury. It was revealed afterwards to be a minor blister issue. So, hopefully Darvish will remain on track and continue to build momentum from his strong spring training into the regular season.

The pitching health woes extend to the Minors

Remember all those tweets and occasional article where I mentioned I wasn't sure how the Cubs were going to squeeze all of their starter prospects into their Minor League rotations? Yeah, that's no longer a problem.

The current list of pitchers questionable for Opening Day is long, and extends through each level in the system. In Iowa, Adbert Alzolay is definitely a no-go at the start of the year. Now, it appears Alec Mills and Colin Rea are not throwing as well. Further down: Matt Swarmer and Eric Leal (Oscar de la Cruz will also miss the start of the year due to suspension) are on the shelf for Tennessee, Erich Uelmen in Myrtle Beach is too. The only affiliate that appears healthy is South Bend. The situation in Iowa has gotten desperate enough that Jen-Ho Tseng and veteran Christian Bergman appear to be locks for the rotation, and Trevor Clifton is being stretched back out to take a spot as well, even though the Cubs initial intention was to use him out of the pen this season. With 3/5 of the projected rotation hurt, it is very possible one of Michael Rucker or Keegan Thompson begin the season in Iowa as well.

None of the seven starters are seriously hurt, at least according to limited reports, so the hope is the depth will be rebuilt relatively quickly, but it bears watching none the less.

The affiliate bullpen arms appear to be in far better health, and the logjam for jobs in Iowa is still intense, even if the picture is clearing somewhat. As of now I am projecting Dillon Maples, Rowan Wick, James Norwood, Duane Underwood, Dakota Mekkes and Allen Webster to open as the right-handed options, with all but Mekkes and Webster on the Cubs 40-man roster. Randy Rosario and Kyle Ryan will fill out the left side. Tony Barnette and Xavier Cedeno look like they will open the year on the IL. If any of these arms end up beginning the year in Chicago (Maples and Webster seem like the most likely options to me) or another injury crops up hat would open the door for Junichi Tazawa, Alberto BaldonadoMatt Carasiti, or Carlos Ramirez to earn a job in Iowa.

I believe the team would like to hang on to at least a couple of those extra arms so we could see a veteran or two stay back in EXST just like Ryan did last year to work in the Pitch Lab while they await an opening. With Addison Russell and de la Cruz scheduled to make a returns to the 40-man roster about 50 days from now, there will be a cascading effect down through the system as room is made.

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  • I've been sick on and off the past 7-10 days so the posts have been scarce of late, but hopefully I can now ramp back up as we approach the regular season.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Wondered if you were feeling poorly. Welcome back. Hope you're feeling better each day. I missed your input.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Hi Michael, I read that you had Matt Swarmer on the shelf... he’s actually 100% healthy and feeling better and stronger than he ever has! He throws today. Hope you can check him out, you’re going like what you see if you’re in the area today. Thanks.

  • In reply to AdamRosenthal:

    He was sidelined by a blister, but it apparently wasn't a big deal, as you are correct in that he did get back on the mound yesterday. So, he may still be on track for Opening Day.

  • And Craig Kimbrel is still available and is talking to division rival Milwaukee. This could get interesante...

  • Hope you're feeling much better, Mr. Ernst...

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    Just Spring allergies.

  • There is an article about clutch hitting on ESPN right now, and primarily compares the clutch hitting of Descalso (good) with G. Stanton (less good). This article illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of relying on metrics to measure a player's value.

    I believe in clutch hitting. It's real. Managers and GMs, most players and certainly agents, will pooh-pooh it, because the mental aspects of playing under pressure get in the way of things like proper execution and preparation, which is far more controllable and therefore, coachable.

    But relying on metrics to define clutch hitting does not work, because there is a lot of context (a yawning gap) that is almost impossible to quantify when it comes to clutch hitting.

    I define clutch hitting as batting with runners in scoring position, in any inning (In Any Inning), where the lead is at stake. A run could tie a game or take the lead for a team. This doesn't mean other situations are not clutch, but we know for a fact that all of these situations are, because the object of the game is to win, not to accumulate stats.

    The context problem with comparing someone like Stanton, (or KB for that matter, we hear whispering a lot in this blog about his relative inability to hit in clutch) with Descalso, is that for the former a pitcher's goal in most situations is to pitch around him while in the latter the last thing they want to do is give up a walk.

    So what does this mean? In many cases (most?), the ceiling for Stanton in this situation is a walk, while the sky is the limit for Descalso. In fact, because Descalso is a patient hitter, these situations are better hitting situations than normal. A pitcher, if he is smart, will not walk Descalso in this situation. So if he falls behind, Descalso knows very likely he will get a hittable pitch, moreso than if there is nobody on base. Stanton does not have this luxury, nor will he ever.

    The really good power hitters will tend to skew lower in "clutch" hitting situations, and the below average power hitters will skew higher (especially if they have a good batting high) because of this.

    I believe in clutch hitting, it's just that this type of context is rarely accounted for, if ever. If it is, it will be one sentence tucked away deeply in the article, but only to cover the writer's behind. But the mentality of the pitcher vs. Stanton and vs. Descalso in these situations is completely different. Stanton simply will not be given the opportunities that Descalso will, because the game is about winning, not stats. Winning dictates this.

  • In reply to HefCA:

    Very interesting. Good post, Hef.

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    Thanks. The concept of clutch hitting in baseball (or clutch pitching for that matter) is something I am almost unreasonably passionate about. It can't be measured by the current metrics, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. In fact, I believe the traditional metric (RISP in 7th inning or later) is so obviously bogus that it was created only as a smoke screen to get people to forget about it. It's just that difficult to measure, statisticlly speaking, that it is better to invent a stat that disproves it than to try to truly measure it.

    For one thing, pressure is not binary. There are potentially many, many levels of pressure. Some levels make a competitor strive harder, for sure, but there are some that are difficult to handle. For anyone who has played competitive sports, this is intuitive. For others, it is not.

    Most stats in sports have a binary outcome. 1 for good, 0 for bad. Whether it's BA, ERA, K %, BB%, (OK, slugging is an exception). Outcomes that are not binary-related are more difficult to measure. And how do you measure something that is "pressure level 5" vs. "pressure level 2", for example, for a given player? You probably a psychiatrist, because that will be dependent on the player.

  • In reply to HefCA:

    "You probably need a psychiatrist". Sheesh. See, I get too passionate when talking about this.

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    In reply to HefCA:

    I am going to take the opposite side on this and see where the conversation leads. I am equally passionate that Clutch "Situations" exist but that there isn't an inherent difference between one player and another player in their ability "in the clutch" over and above simple talent level in the player. Nor that there is a difference between how well a player performs "in the clutch" as opposed to "not in the clutch."

    I applaud that you actually give a definition for "clutch" (BA RISP) rather than a more vague definition of "I know it when I see it." I can also see your point that not all "pressure" is identical. For instance, batting with runners in scoring position if you are ahead is less stressful than batting with runners in scoring position if tied/behind. And if your team is behind, could a simple single tie or reverse that advantage.

    However, I disagree with your comments about stats being binary. Yes, they are binary. But in many ways baseball is binary. Yes, I use things like exit velocity when evaluating a player because not all outs are the same in one sense. A screaming line-drive at 115 MPH that is caught because it happens to have gone straight to the 3rd baseman and, had it been 20" left or right would be a hit, possibly extra bases. I would view that as positive, or, at least, less negative, in my general evaluation of the guys talent. But it doesn't affect my judgment of how he did in that situation; it is still an out. The pitcher might do a quick exhale and a couple fielders laugh because they release the tension of avoiding disaster. That's very different than Heyward hitting his 8th 3-hopper in a row right to the 2B. Or even a pitcher who accidentally squibs the ball of the end of his bat, it rolls 40 feet into 'no-man's land' and is safe at 1st. But the results are, very much, binary. 2 of the players got out. One of them did not and now his team has a baserunner. If I am simply told: Here are 3 players "results." 2 of them made outs and one of them got a hit I would raise "sample size" issues. Because, given only that information I might be fooled into taking the weak hitting pitcher. But the result IS BINARY. He is the one who helped his team. He got on base and didn't make an out. Remember, when evaluating a player based on BA RISP those runners deserve at least as much credit as the hitter who drives them in.

    I read in a book last year that a lot of what we evaluate in baseball might actually be the result of "randomness." First off, let me try to explain what I mean. There is a randomness to baseball hitting. Better hitters tend to get hits more often than less talented hitters. But it is possible that WHEN those hits come is random, or close to it. So, let's say that a player has 200 H. That is likely a really good hitter. More than likely he will deliver his share of hits in all kinds of different situations. But maybe not. If this is true then "clutch" as well as "hot/cold" are possibly illusions. The analogy for this is stars in the sky. Their placement relative to one another is close to random when viewed from Earth. Yet people have, since before the beginning of recorded history, seen "patterns" in them (constellations).

    So I can get my head around that there are different levels of pressure. Let's go with your example of at least 5 levels of pressure (I realize you didn't officially say, "There are 5 and only 5 levels of pressure and here are their characteristics..."). Then we have to multiply that times the number of players in MLB ("that will be dependent on the player"). Then we have to assess undefined non-binary outcomes in each of those pressure levels. This is nebulous at best, IMO. When confronted with something like this I suppose we could interpret it as, "WOW. This is complicated. But I believe that the fact that you can't disprove this because it is so complicated is evidence that clutch hitting might simply exist but be prohibitively difficult to quantify." That is not an irrational conclusion. But to me it isn't the simplest conclusion. To me the simpler explanation is that good hitters will hit well, worse hitters won't hit as well (as measured by binary results). This doesn't mean that a player will hit equally well in every single situation. Not because of "pressure" but because those happened to be the majority of his PAs where he failed to get a hit/BB, not K, etc. Because we can "slice-and-dice" stats now into all kinds of different splits doesn't mean that we can interpret those splits to mean more than they should.

    Do I sometimes use splits? Yes, I do. Because they can sometimes illustrate things. I like a lot of different stats. But I try to see them in context. I also like WPA, WAR, RE24, wRC+, BABIP, etc are all useful stats. But we need to see them in context. It is highly possible that because they are computed differently, they can lead to a skewed result when we only look at one of them. We need to look at as many data-points as possible when looking at a player. And, as you point out, Hef, "clutch" is difficult to even define, much less calculate.

    So are there clutch situations? Absolutely. And we are likely to remember instances where a given player "came through"--or, conversely, failed to come through--in those situations. In those situations I would rather have someone at the plate (or on the mound) that is a simply better player and take my chances than try to find someone who excels in that "split." But I disavow that a PLAYER is a "clutch player" (better than his normal ability in a clutch situation OR better than most players of similar ability in a clutch situation). To me the likelihood that "getting a hit" in a given situation is difficult to separate from "noise." Obviously this doesn't "disprove" that there is such a thing as "clutch" but I find it such a nebulous concept.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    A good clutch hitter doesn't get himself out and poor clutch hitter does. He might chase or freeze. He might grip the bat too tight trying too hard resulting in slowing his swing speed etc. Stats told us Schwarber would be a good leadoff. A few more 'hat tricks' batting at the top of the order and Kyle would have out of baseball. Statistics are important. They just are not the whole story.

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    In reply to 44slug:

    That may all be true. But here is a question. Does the player also sometimes "chase" or "freeze" when it isn't a "clutch" situation? My guess is that, probably, yes he does.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Sometimes sure, but they also might hit more relaxed and chase and freeze less in a less crucial game situation. Players are different under pressure good and bad.

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    In reply to 44slug:

    Of course that is true that some players chase and freeze less than another player in a crucial game...sometimes--and, of course, sometimes not. Though that could be due to any number of factors over and above some mysterious "clutch" skill.

    Here's the thing. I keep getting "clutch doesn't fall under the stats." But, as evidence, I keep getting things like, "Clutch is BA RISP" (which is a publicly available stat). Chasing pitches out of the zone (which is a stat). People COUNT this stuff. And you can slice-and-dice the stats into ever more precise things (BA RISP after the 7th inning, in a game within 2 runs, during a lunar equinox...). Eventually you wind up with, finally, a number that proves/disproves "clutch." But you also, likely, have a very small sample size. Or comparing fundamentally different players.

    For instance, Javy Baez is, beyond question, a better player than Ben Zobrist. But he is more likely to strike out in a high leverage situation not because he is responding to the "pressure" of the situation. But because Javy Baez is going to strike out more than Ben Zobrist in virtually ALL situations. Does this mean that Javy "isn't clutch" or that Zobrist is? To me, not necessarily. By the time you are done slicing-and-dicing the stats to get the number you want you are susceptible to the situation I mentioned above with one player that hits a screaming line drive right at a fielder and it results in an out, another player who might get out meekly, and another that did not hit the ball as hard/well as the other two but gets a hit. Does that mean that the player who got a "hit" is "more clutch" or that they simply got lucky. Yet if that moment is important enough we are likely to remember it. And that memory will over-shadow our judgment. We will remember "that time he did that awesome thing" and forget all the times that he failed. Then we will also remember that time that a guy failed (which happens, in baseball, more often than not) and ignore other times, perhaps less critical, certainly less memorable, that he succeeded.

    Are there things that are unquantifiable in baseball? Yes. There are. But the number of things that are unquantifiable is quite a bit less than it was 40 years ago, 25 years ago, 10 years ago... And even those things are starting to be measurable, if only by proxy, by stats. And that is just with publicly available and free sources of information (like baseball reference, fangraphs, etc.).

    As I said before, "clutch" situations are generally so nebulous that they quickly become, generally, "whatever I say they are." Which means, to me, that it is a concept that will never be proven or disproven. Because we can't seem to come to an agreement on what is a clutch situation. Even if we want to have multiple "levels" of clutch. I can get my mind around that. For instance, "clutch early in the game but not late." Or "Clutch in the regular season but not post-season." Or "Clutch when the game is meaningless but not when the game has post-season implications." Or "Clutch in May but not October (Dave Winfield vs Reggie Jackson according to George Steinbrenner)."

    But if you want me to believe that "clutch" is real I need it to be something definable. Something PRE-dictive. A situation that I can look for, and as many instances of that situation as I can find, and watch how the player(s) respond. But to do that I would also want to know a baseline of what the player USUALLY does (see my example of Javy Baez and Ben Zobrist above). My hypothesis is that the difference would get lost in the noise. Weird stuff happens when evaluating a player based on a small sample size. Which, in about a week, we will all be reminding one another. Again, there ARE clutch situations. To me the quintessential one is Ben Zobrist in Game 7 (or Rajai Davis for that matter). But those are just MEMORABLE examples. To me it is not fair to say these players are "clutch" because I remember them coming through. To me, nor is calling Kris Bryant "not-clutch" because he didn't get a hit in that memorable 10th inning. But he damn near hit a 2-run homer that would have paved his way to greatness if that were still necessary. He hit the ball harder than Montero did later in the game, and in a more critical situation in my mind, and yet some people want to give Montero credit for a "more important" hit than Zobrist's because Edwards suddenly lost his control with one out to go (and, no, to me that isn't Edwards "not being clutch" but simply the noise of what can happen over a 2-3 batter stretch).

    To me the beauty of baseball is the unpredictability of it. We can use history as a guide to what will likely happen. Even what WILL happen over the long haul. But that has almost no bearing on what will happen in THIS instance. Similar to how we know that, short of shenanigans (such as, but not limited to, weighted coins, or someone who, through diligent practice, can flip all heads/all tails), that if flipped a sufficient number of times, half the time the coin will come up heads, and half the time it will come up tails. But just because the last 10 flips have been heads doesn't mean that the coin "owes" you tails on the next flip. Just like all the others, it is 50-50.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    I probably agree with most of what you say here. For the most part, results are binary, when talking about baseball outcomes. No argument there.

    But measuring the amount of pressure, and therefore using that to compile a stat (like clutch hitting) is not a binary thing. Is there more pressure for a batter hitting with the lead runner on base when his team is 20 games below .500 than another batter in the same situation whose team is in the playoff hunt? How about a guy on a good team but in May vs. a guy on a good team in the middle of the playoff chase (Aug-Sep.)? Or a guy on a good team in a playoff chase, playing against another team in the same playoff chase? How about playing that team on the road vs. playing that team at home?

    These are all different ways to apply pressure to a person, and probably have varying amounts of pressure as a result.

    My point is that not all pressure situations are the same, even when the result could be identical (tying or leading run on 2nd). In fact, they are wildly different.

    My other point is that you have to take into consideration the point of view of the pitcher for that particular batter. If the goal is to "not get beat" by the guy, but to generally pitch around him (someone like Stanton), then that will have a dampening affect on his ability to "hit in the clutch" since probably his ceiling is a walk in that situation. But if the goal is that 'you gotta get this guy out here' (like a Descalso), then a smart, patient hitter should do even better in the clutch since he should understand this and will know his chances of getting a "hitters pitch" are very high if he can get ahead in the count.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to HefCA:

    I would love to hear how you would compile a stat of "pressure." I am not saying that there is no pressure in baseball. But here's an anecdote for you. Mickey Mantle once commented that he wished he played on a bad team because then he could just worry about his personal stats and not "what's best for the team." But late in his career he played some meaningless late-season games. During that time he found out it was "low pressure" but also hard to keep his focus. Pressure isn't necessarily a universally negative thing. To be sure if I were Zobrist in the 10th inning of Game 7 knowing they just walked a guy to get to me my pants would have been discolored by things other than "dirt." But I am not a MLB player. But to me "clutch" is something that we think we intuitively understand but it is a concept usually without definition. Or at least not an agreed upon definition.

    To me most players have their "clutch" ability "sliced-and-diced" by all kinds of people. One will look at BA RISP. Another will look at High/Med/Low leverage. Another will point to RE24. Another will look at WPA. All of these are valid stats. But they are each measuring something. And that something may or MAY NOT be "clutch."

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    PS I have seen this discussed other places on the internet, this was by far the most interesting.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    I read in a book last year...............

    Which specific book are you speaking of?

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    In reply to HJW49:

    I listened to a couple baseball books in quick succession but I believe this was Brian Kenny's "Ahead of the Curve."

    Available everywhere you can buy books/audiobooks.

    I don't remember the details but I remember that was how I understood it and it was a "record-scratch moment" as I was driving down the interstate.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Looks good thanks

  • I’m glad the season for As & Mariners is under way.... but the real season starts in “Happ” more days.

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    It's good to have you back Michael. All the best from now on.
    It's being reported (by Jeff Passan) that the Sox and Eloy have come to terms with a long term deal. It's 6 yrs for $43 Million and could go to 8 yrs for $77 M. There are more and more long term deals being signed now. If Eloy is as good as advertised then it's a very team friendly deal.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    If he is a star caliber player from the jump like Bryant than it works out well for White Sox. If it takes him a couple of years to build up to it like Javy, then probably ends up neutral.

    One difference is Eloy will have nominal to no value on defense so it all has to be about offensive production for him.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    It could be a team friendly deal. In fact it might be reasonably likely. But there is a >0 possibility that it could also become a millstone.

  • MLB did a horrible job of promoting opening day in Japan. I watched ESPN last week watching all the conference hoops tournament and not once did I see ESPN running adds about A's and Mariners opening up in Japan.

  • In reply to WaitTilNextYear:

    Why would MLB advertise opening day in Japan outside of Japan? The stadium looked full and I'm sure the ratings were through the roof in Japan for Ichiro's swan song.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    Are you serious??? Why would MLB and ESPN advertise in the United States??? People are baseball fans. I believe there could be Oakland or Seatle fans living here??? Just very poorly done.

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