October 2, 2018

Worrisome? More Like Worried a Lot

There's something I've been extremely concerned about with this Cubs team throughout the second half.

Is it the inconsistent starting rotation? Well, on the season the starters put up just 8.9 WAR, topping only the Giants, Padres, Reds, and Marlins, not coincidentally the four worst teams in the league. That 11th place finish is quite a fall from their Jake-Arrieta-fever-dream heyday:

Ouch. But that's not it.

How about the injury-ravaged bullpen? I mean, I have already posted one extremely well-received bullpen-related complaint. And while the relievers did finish fifth in WAR (4.0), more than one-third of that total is currently unavailable with Pedro Strop (0.8) and Brandon Morrow (0.6) out.

Still, that's not it, either.

So it's gotta be the bats, right? Despite being of an age where, if they're not going to improve, they should at the very least not decline, five of the Cubs' seven (semi-)regulars age 26 or younger actually got worse this season.

*Tom Hanks voice* WILLLLLLLLLLLLLSON! Anyway, you can see that thanks to Javier Baez's 33-point gain, the average wRC+ only dropped three points. But the Average-No-Javy dropped by nine points, to just barely above league average.

Most of this was caused by a severe power outage.

Every single non-Baez returning player—even Ben Zobrist, who actually saw his wRC+ jump by a whopping 41 points (even more than Baez's!)—had their ISO drop from last year, by an average of 50 points. That's, uh, significant. For context, almost all of Baez offensive breakout can be attributed to an increase in power, as seen in both his HR/FB (up to 24.3% from 19.7 a year ago) and the resultant increased ISO (also buoyed by a career best 22.1% line-drive rate). Baez's ISO increased 57 points this year. Essentially, the average Cub regular lost as much power as Baez gained.

Double ouch. And yet, we still haven't hit on it. But it starts with this:

Those are first half records on the left, second half on the right. And the Cubs, who ended the first half with a .591 winning percentage, plummeted all the way down to a .580 winning percentage in the second half. That 11-point plunge can only mean one thing: they are clearly terrible and we might as well welcome them to they're "doom!"

Damn that was a long way to go to sneak in a Killface reference. Because by wins and losses, the Cubs have basically been the same team, although they did go from the best record in the NL in the first half to the fourth-best in the second. But take a closer look at the first half standings, this time with runs scored / allowed and the associated expected win-loss records:

In the first half, the Cubs had the best record, but were also quite nearly the league's unluckiest team in terms of run differential, as they underperformed their expected win total by three. They then followed it up with this:

I've sorted by Pythagorean expectancy, where the Cubs were the 10th-best team in the National League in the second half. While based on how the last few days have gone it might not have seemed like it, the Cubs were exceptionally lucky in the second half. The luckiest team in the entire league, in fact, and by a pretty substantial margin. And that is what has worried me the most: Since the All-Star break, the Cubs have the underpinnings of a decidedly average team.

Now, here's the beauty of it all: This team still won 95 games! They (essentially) tied for the best record in the National League! They've made the playoffs for the fourth straight year! Their run of success is completely unprecedented in my time on the planet, and, quite frankly, we've all been spoiled by it. Because despite the unreliable rotation, the thin bullpen, and the regressing bats, this is still baseball, and the Cubs have a shot to win the whole damn thing. And given that they've already won one more World Series than I ever thought I'd see in my lifetime, I'll most certainly take it. Worries and all.

September 14, 2018

Prior to a few weeks ago, I never thought it wood happen again

In what's news to literally no one at this point, Dusty Baker absolutely abused Kerry Wood and (especially) Mark Prior down the stretch of the 2003 season. I mean, just look at this insanity:

While pitch counts hadn't gone completely mainstream as we were still in the heart of the These-Nerds-and-Their-Damn-Computers-Are-Ruining-the-Game Era, plenty of people were rightly outraged at the time. And thankfully, in the relatively short amount of time since, we have made so much progress that there is a zero percent chance of something like that ever happening again.

Ummm. Well...

Allow me to rephrase: There is a zero percent chance of a manager overworking two young starters like that again. But there is something similar happening right now, a mere 15 years later. Right here in Chicago, too. Because except for the future value of the assets involved, what Joe Maddon is doing to his bullpen is just as unconscionable as what Dusty Baker did to Wood and Prior in 2003. I mean, just look at this insanity:

Joe Maddon has pitched Jesse Chavez, Steve Cishek, and Justin Wilson six times each in the last eight games, spanning nine days. Or, if you prefer: Of the seven days the Cubs have actually played games, each has pitched on all but one of them. (Meanwhile, lazy bones Carl Edwards, Jr. has been off twice, the goldbricker. Twice!) This is simply not enough rest, and someone is going to get hurt.

Someone, that is, besides Pedro Strop.

I started writing this post before Strop's injury, which was a somewhat fluky thing not related to being an abused bullpen arm. In fact, Strop was among the fresher guys in the pen, because Joe has him as The Closer and the Cubs, sadly, haven't had many leads of late. At the same time, batting Strop in that situation—up 4-3, one out, bases loaded in the tenth, where the very limits of his withered pitcher legs unaccustomed to sprinting might potentially be *ahem* strained—was a result of Joe's compulsion, as he had already burned through the four other guys he trusts the most, with two of them (Cishek and Wilson) coming in to get just one out.

Yes, I know these games are important. Yesterday's win was huge, as was Tuesday's. But for more than a week now, Joe has been managing every day like it's Game 7 of the World Series. And it's not. (Nor, if we're being honest, is that where Joe does his best work.) Even the strongest, most durable arms can only take so much, and these guys need more rest. Poor Jesse Chavez has pitched 13 times in the last 20 games and hasn't had two consecutive days off since August 22-23; he'd have more downtime if he worked at an Amazon warehouse. And so while I generally like Joe as a manager, he needs to start using his main arms less often and letting them work for longer. In short, he has to start trusting them, or there's not going to be anyone left to trust come playoff time.

September 9, 2018

Mack Draft Picks Made Me Jump, Jump

I know I'm a little late to the party, but as someone who considers himself to be a sports knower, I figured I should probably get my thoughts on the Khalil Mack deal on the recordthis site has a notary on staff, right?so that in the future, everyone will be clear as to just how little insight I have into this shit.

Before we fully get into it, virtually every statement of value that follows should be read with the understood caveat, Barring a catastrophic injury to Khalil Mack. That risk is certainly a part of the equation when trading a number of playerseven in pick formfor one guy, but it also seemed ridiculous to throw that in 17 different times over the course of this post.

I also felt compelled to write about the trade in part because I was surprisingly dissatisfied with the analysis of it by the normally astute Bill Barnwell, who I regard as the best NFL writer around. From Barnwell's analysis:
Teams rarely trade two net first-round picks in moving up for rookie quarterbacks, who offer the most surplus value of any player in the league. The moves up for Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, for example, included two first-round picks in a swap to move up for one first-round pick. 
Sorry, Bill, but that makes no sense. Those teams didn't trade a net of two picks only because they got a pick instead of a player in return. The end result was the same: both the Chiefs and the Texans traded two first round picks to acquire one guy. While I get that acquiring a player on a rookie contract can have a lot of value, there's also a much greater likelihood that guy bombs out. Mack is the surest of sure things. There's also this:

Essentially, the Bears are getting Mack a year early. Additionally, if this trade had been consummated on draft day like Mahomes and Watson's deals, the Bears would have given up Roquan Smith and Kylie Fitts (plus next year's 1st and 3rd). Instead, they keep all three for this year. Getting that extra year of your own picks—and also, only losing a 6th next year instead of a 3rd—PLUS AN EXTRA YEAR OF KHALIL FREAKING MACK provides the Bears a substantial amount of surplus value. By the end of the 2020 season, the Bears will have gotten three seasons out of Mack, and the Raiders will have gotten three seasons—two rookie, one second year—out of Chicago's two first rounders. There is virtually no way Mack doesn't provide the Bears far more production over the course of those three seasons.

I intentionally chose the word production there, because value is a much more complex concept. And here's what Barnwell had to say about paying Mack market value as one of the premier defensive players in the NFL:
Unless he's the Defensive Player of the Year four seasons in a row, the Bears aren't going to get much at all in the way of surplus value on this contract. At best, given the way the top of the defensive market will grow, they're probably looking at $10 million to $15 million over the next four to five years if everything breaks right. ... Paying two first-round picks for the right to possibly gain $15 million in excess value just doesn't make economic sense.
He's right, to an extent. But constructing a team is not a simple accounting exercise, and at some point, overall talent level matters. Even with their recently signed, market-value extensions, would Aarons Rodgers and Donald not command a huge return if they were on the market? Of course they would, because to win, you need impact players. You could have a team of nothing but players on seventh-round rookie deals who each deliver third round production, but all that "surplus value" isn't going to win you squat. At some point, you need guys in various spots—particularly at high-impact ones like QB or, say, edge rusher—who are going to produce at a much higher level than others who play their position. 

With that out of the way, let's move onto the picks, particularly those in 2020, because that's what really stood out to me when I learned the details of the deal. While I would love to know exactly what has to happen for the Raiders 5th rounder to be included, I have been unable to find the conditions anywhere; if you've come across that information, please share it in the comments. Without anything to go on, I'm going to assume the pick only conveys if Mack is unable to play a certain number of games, meaning we should probably all be rooting for it not to happen. Because of that assumption, I'm also looking at this as if the Bears will not get the pick, because if they do it probably means a poor outcome that's unlikely to be salvaged by a single Day 3 selection.

To compare the various picks, I'm using Chase Stuart's more-accurate-than-Jimmy-Johnson's-version-that-he-used-to-try-to-bamboozle-stupid-front-offices-into-giving-him-a-king's-ransom-for-higher-picks draft value chart, which is based on five-year approximate values.

I've assigned a draft position to the picks by creating tiers and then taking the approximate average selection for each. Contenders (the 12 playoff teams) choose 21st to 32nd, so I've chosen pick 26. On the other extreme, for the bottom 12 teams in the league, I've chosen pick 6, while pick 16 represents a middling team. Here's what that looks like (I've highlighted the good outcomes for the Bears in green, the bad in red, just like a real adult business person professional work product dashboard!):

Looking at the extremes, if this trade helps boost the Bears to contender status while the Raiders struggle under Coach Hooter Ogler, the difference between the 2nd round pick the Bears receive and the 1st they give up will amount to a late 5th rounder. Or if you add that 2.5 points to the 3rd rounder they're giving up, it's equal to a late 2nd round pick. And Khalil Mack for a 1st and a 6th a year from now, and a 2nd in two years is an insanely good deal.

However, if the outcomes are reversed and the Bears continue their devolution into Brownsdom while the Raiders recreate their Chucky glory days, then the Oakland 2nd is nearly canceled out by the Chicago 3rd. Deducting that 1.2-point differential basically lowers the value of the Bears first-round pick by a single slot. Which makes the deal far less good from a value perspective and also a massive disappointment, because the whole point of acquiring Mack was to springboard the Bears back to relevance, not to continue to be a steaming pile that selects near the top of the draft.

And so, whether this ends up being a great trade or near-disaster is almost totally dependent on Mitchell Trubisky, actually. If Trubisky is the franchise quarterback the front office believes him to be—and don't get me wrong, I'm highly skeptical that he is—the team will be a contender and this will end up being a very good deal. If he's not, well ... I'll still consider it a decent trade, but only because I am supremely confident this franchise would have botched those picks anyway.