The Nationals Don’t Need Bryce Harper

The best thing to happen to the Washington Nationals this offseason might be Bryce Harper turning down the $300 million contract offered by the club at the end of the season. Rather than allocating vast resources to one free agent superstar, the Nationals made smaller moves to shore up their weak spots, signing starting pitcher Patrick Corbin on Tuesday to bolster their rotation and adding two catchers earlier in the offseason.

It wasn’t clear if the Nationals would be able to compete without Harper. But according to some forecasts, they are already better without him. They have improved themselves in a National League East where every team — save for the Miami Marlins — seems intent on trying to dramatically improve this offseason.

After the Nationals finished 82-80 last season, FanGraphs projects them as the sixth-best team in the majors at the moment — the best team in the division — with a 91-71 forecasted record. While it’s unclear whether the Nationals still want to compete for Harper, they don’t need him to improve over last season.

Baseball is a weak-link sport, meaning that the quality of the minor contributors on a team is more important than in a sport like basketball, where star power is paramount. Baseball, by rule and nature, spreads around opportunity more uniformly. A slugger hits only once every turn through a lineup, an ace pitcher pitches once every five days. The same is true for the light-hitting starting shortstop and the back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. While it’s possible to win with a stars-and-scrubs approach, that’s inherently riskier, given that one injury can derail a club’s entire season. That’s one reason that a successful MLB team rarely allocates more than 16 percent of its payroll to one player.

With this in mind, the most efficient way to improve may be to strengthen the weakest links of a roster, not to target brand-name stars as saviors. A team can improve itself quickly and often more efficiently by bringing the most underperforming areas of its roster closer to, or exceeding, average production. It’s an idea the NEIFI analytics company attempted to quantify. (NEIFI co-founder Adam Guttridge was hired by the Mets to lead their data-science department.)

While Corbin wasn’t cheap — he signed a six-year, $140 million contract — he upgrades what was a top-heavy Nationals staff that had question marks after Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Perhaps the Corbin signing was made possible by payroll flexibility coming from the club moving away from resigning Harper. Corbin could provide a similar production bump as Harper for a lesser cost. With his 3.5 forecasted WAR, Corbin projects as a 2.8-WAR upgrade over the Nats’ incumbent fifth-best starting pitching option, Joe Ross. (The Nationals project to receive 2.7 WAR from right fielders without Harper. Harper projects to produce 4.9 WAR in 2019.)

But even before signing Corbin, the Nationals had cheaply and significantly improved upon their weakest link.

The Nationals’ catchers have been among the most ineffective positional groups in recent seasons. Since 2015, the club ranks 27th in catcher wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. That mark doesn’t even include catcher framing metrics, in which the Nationals were also one of the worst teams in 2017 (-10.7 framing runs) and below-average last season (-4.5 framing runs), as reported by Baseball Prospectus. And according to weighted runs created plus, a measure of offensive ability that adjusts for park and run-scoring environments,1 Nationals catchers were 27th in the majors, with a wRC+ mark of only 64.2

So it makes sense that the Nationals made upgrading their catcher group a priority in acquiring Yan Gomes in a trade with the Cleveland Indians last week and signing Kurt Suzuki to a two-year, $10 million deal in mid-November.

At a time when catcher is the weakest offensive position in baseball (84 wRC+), Suzuki and Gomes are average performers compared with all hitters but virtual stars compared with the rest of the catching field. Suzuki posted a 108 wRC+ with the Braves last season (and a 127 mark in 2017). Gomes had a 101 wRC+ in Cleveland (on top of a 92 career mark). The players represent a major upgrade over Matt Wieters, who entered the past two seasons as the club’s primary catcher. Gomes, who will likely be the starter, is an above-average defender for his career.

Consider the upgrade Gomes and Suzuki would have provided over the past two seasons. Nationals catchers combined for 0.5 WAR IN 640 plate appearances last year, according to FanGraphs. Gomes and Suzuki combined for 4.2 WAR (3.3 WAR when adjusted for 640 plate appearances). In 2017, Nationals catchers produced an MLB-worst -1.2 WAR. In 692 plate appearances in 2017, Gomez and Suzuki combined for 4.3 WAR. Catcher depth is key as the position requires more off days and the risk of injury is higher.

For comparison, Harper has averaged 3.8 WAR over the past three seasons.

Harper has superstar upside, but he could require a record contract commitment — and the Nationals have an outfield loaded with talent in Adam Eaton and young stars Juan Soto and Victor Robles.

(A warning to clubs pursuing Harper and Manny Machado: Of the five highest-paid players in MLB history, three — Alex Rodriguez three years into his deal, Giancarlo Stanton three years into his deal and Robinson Cano five years into deal — were eventually traded to New York clubs, and the other two, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, are nearly untradeable.)

The Nationals are paying Suzuki a relatively modest $4 million in 2019, and Gomes is owed a club-friendly $7 million. In other words, the Nationals are paying a relative bargain if Gomes and Suzuki upgrade the position by 3 or more WAR, roughly what Harper has brought to the outfield in recent years. Without Harper, they had payroll flexibility to improve elsewhere.

For every win above replacement, a player on the open market in 2017 could be expected to receive more than $10 million. By that measure, the Nationals have done well. With Corbin and the catcher upgrades, they project to have improved by 6 WAR at a cost of $34.3 million in 2019 when combining Gomes and Suzuki’s salaries with Corbin’s.

The Nats are not the only NL East team to have filled voids.

Josh Donaldson signed a one-year, $23 million deal with the Braves after averaging 3.2 WAR per season the past two years. The defending NL East champs elected to take on short-term risk to seek reward in adding the talented but injury-prone Donaldson. With the addition, the Braves strengthened one of their few weak links and now project to be average or better at every position except left field.

The Phillies had too many weak links last season, ranking 22nd or worse in six position groups according to Baseball-Reference.com: shortstop, second base, third base, left field, center field and right field. They addressed arguably their weakest link entering 2019, shortstop — ranking 30th in WAR last year — in landing Jean Segura from the rebuilding Seattle Mariners.

Segura averaged 4 WAR the past three seasons, according to FanGraphs, and is signed to a club-friendly five-year, $70 million deal through 2022, with a club option for 2023. (The Phillies also shed the contract of Carlos Santana in the deal and added bullpen arms Juan Nicasio and James Pazos.) Segura is a borderline star. The Phillies have cash to fill other voids, and they need to do just that to beat their 78 projected wins. They could use that cash on either Harper or Machado, both of whom have reportedly been in their sights.

As the for the Mets, new general manager Brodie Van Wagenen has been in search of brand-name star talent. In Cano, the Mets added a well-known star. But Cano does not directly address the Mets’ weaknesses. Second base tied with left field as the Mets’ most productive position group last season. Jeff McNeil had projected to be the club’s most valuable position player (3.0 WAR) — just shy of Cano (3.4 WAR projection), according to FanGraphs projections.3

While Cano has aged well, he did turn 36 in October. He’s going to decline at some point. After receiving cash contributions from the Mariners, Van Wagenen — a former agent with no front office experience — gave a deal to Cano that amounts to a five-year, $60 million contract. Cano and elite reliever Edwin Diaz — who will upgrade a need area — cost the Mets dollars and two top 100 overall prospects in their No. 3 (Jarred Kelenic) and No. 4 ranked prospects (Justin Dunn) in the trade.

The Mets ranked 20th or worse in the majors in production at catcher, first base, shortstop, third base and in their bullpen last season. The Mets didn’t need a star second baseman. They needed to strengthen their weakest links.

Alex Bregman Is Not Interested In That Crap Out Of The Zone

With two outs and a man on base in the ninth inning Sunday, Alex Bregman grimaced after connecting on a Craig Kimbrel offering. He had just missed a game-tying homer, instead hitting a fly ball that fell into Andrew Benintendi’s glove on the warning track in front of the Green Monster for the final out. Game 2 of the American League Championship Series was over. The series was tied, and Fenway Park collectively breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Even Bregman’s outs are increasing the heart rates of the opposition this October. Bregman became one of the best players in baseball during the season, and he’s elevated his game even further this postseason. Though in a small sample of just five postseason games, the 24-year-old has a .417/.708/1.000 slash line fueled by 10 walks (against one strikeout). He’s reached base in 18 of his 24 plate appearances this October.

Bregman’s batting eye — along with opponents’ unwillingness to give him much to hit — is making some history. According to Major League Baseball research, Bregman is just the first player to draw 10 walks through five games of a postseason since Dodgers outfielder Jim Wynn did it in 1974. The only player before Bregman to draw at least three walks in back-to-back postseason games was Cubs outfielder Jimmy Sheckard — in 1910.

Bregman, a spoil of tanking for the Houston Astros as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, is getting something akin to the Barry Bonds treatment. Over his past three postseason games, the LSU product has drawn eight walks, matching Bonds in 2002 for the most by any hitter over a three-game span in postseason play.

Consider the pitches Bregman has seen this postseason and the restraint he has shown:

Bregman entered play Tuesday having been thrown 103 pitches this postseason (20.6 per game). Of those pitches, only 40 have been in the strike zone. Only J.D. Martinez, Yasiel Puig, Gleyber Torres and Christian Yelich have seen a smaller share of pitches in the strike zone than Bregman has.1

Of the 63 pitches thrown to him outside the strike zone, Bregman has swung at just six, the lowest chase rate among any postseason batter to have seen 50 pitches. Consider his take on this full-count pitch Sunday night, in the charged Fenway environment against hard-throwing Red Sox reliever Ryan Brasier:

Bregman’s improved discipline is not just an October development: It’s what fueled his 2018 breakout.

Only Joey Votto and Andrew McCutchen chased pitches out of the strike zone less often this season than did Bregman, who swung on just 18.1 percent of those pitches. Mookie Betts and Aaron Hicks ranked fourth and fifth.

Bregman has improved his batting eye since reaching the majors in 2016. He dropped his out-of-zone swing rate by 5.8 percentage points from last season. Yasmani Grandal, Ian Happ and Gregory Polanco were the only players to make greater year-to-year improvements in laying off of balls out of the strike zone.

“He’s having quite a season because of the preparation he’s doing, the lessons he’s learning, and the application in the game has been unreal,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch told the Houston Chronicle in September.

While strikeouts continue to set record levels each year in the majors — from 21.6 percent of place appearances in 2017 to 22.3 percent in 2018 — the Astros posted the game’s lowest strikeout rate last season (17.3 percent) and the game’s highest slugging mark en route to a World Series title. This season, only the Cleveland Indians (18.9 percent) struck out less often than the Astros (19.5 percent).

Bregman embodies this teamwide trend. The infielder is not just more selective in terms of swinging at pitches in the zone; he’s also finding pitches he can pull and drive for power. In 2018, he recorded just the sixth season this century of at least 30 home runs and 50 doubles with fewer strikeouts than walks.

The Astros teach that a hitter should swing at a pitch only if he can conceivably drive it for an extra-base hit. Astros hitting coach Dave Hudgens told The New York Times last summer: “I don’t want guys swinging at a pitch unless they can hit a homer. I don’t want guys swinging at a pitch unless they can do damage. If you go in with that mindset, you’re not going to miss your pitch as often.”

Bregman has always hit more balls in the air than on the ground. He ranked fifth this season in total volume of line drives and fly balls with 334. But he also increased his pull rate, perhaps encouraged by the inviting proximity of the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park to the right-handed batter’s box. His quick hands and short arms allow for a short bat path. And by crowding the plate, he’s able to cover the entire zone and pull outside pitches. His 24 home runs hit to the pull side (left field for Bregman) tie for sixth in the majors. This is all before getting to other aspects of his game like his defense at third base, which has looked exemplary so far this postseason, giving the Astros two shortstop-quality defenders on the left side of the infield.

The Astros didn’t know they needed another superstar, but they have one in Bregman, who is challenging Mike Trout and Mookie Betts for status as the best player in the American League. As the Astros battle for a World Series berth, Bregman might be the best player in baseball when it matters most.

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The Brewers Are The Rare Team To Win The Offseason And The Actual Season

Winning the offseason — signing the marquee free agent and/or making the headline-grabbing trade — does not correlate strongly with actual winning. The San Diego Padres “won” the 2014-15 offseason by adding Craig Kimbrel, James Shields and a host of other players, then went on to lose 88 games the following season. The previous winter, Seattle shocked the baseball world by outbidding the Yankees for All-Star Robinson Cano, but the Mariners still haven’t made the playoffs since 2001. In December 2011, the Los Angeles Angels signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract — a contract that quickly became one of the great albatrosses in the sport. The deal has compromised the Angels’ ability to improve their club; Angels star Mike Trout has participated in only three playoff games in his career.

But last winter, something unusual happened: The Milwaukee Brewers won the offseason and went on to win in the actual season. The Brewers, who will begin the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, acquired the best player in the trade market last winter in Christian Yelich and the best player in the free-agent market in Lorenzo Cain. They also found an undervalued arm in Jhoulys Chacin.

These big-name acquisitions exceeded expectations. In total, no team had a better year-to-year roster overhaul than the Brewers — and it wasn’t close.

The Brewers added 18.90 wins above replacement1 from outside their organization in 2018. The next closest teams were the Tampa Bay Rays (11.93 WAR) and Houston Astros (9.05). In terms of net gains and losses from last offseason, the Brewers’ departing players accounted for -0.02 WAR of value in 2018 with their new teams, making their net WAR gain from offseason transactions 18.92. The next closest clubs? The Red Sox (7.78) and Reds (5.43). Yelich (7.61 WAR), Cain (6.30) and Chacin (2.50) accounted for 39.7 percent of Milwaukee’s WAR this season.

The Brewers won the offseason … and the NL Central

MLB teams by net wins above replacement (WAR) for the 2018 regular season

team Net WAR
Milwaukee Brewers +18.92
Boston Red Sox +7.78
Cinncinati Reds +5.43
Cleveland Indians +3.97
Toronto Blue Jays +3.95
New York Yankees +3.77
San Francisco Giants +3.33
Minnesota Twins +3.26
Houston Astros +2.73
Philadelphia Phillies +2.15
Atlanta Braves +1.94
Tampa Bay Rays +1.84
San Diego Padres +1.48
Los Angeles Dodgers +1.45
Seattle Mariners +0.73
Colorado Rockies -0.47
Oakland Athletics -0.49
Texas Rangers -1.46
Washington Nationals -1.53
New York Mets -1.84
Baltimore Orioles -2.47
Pittsburgh Pirates -2.49
Chicago Cubs -5.55
Los Angeles Angels -5.81
Arizona Diamondbacks -5.91
Chicago White Sox -5.93
St. Louis Cardinals -13.27
Miami Marlins -13.59
Detroit Tigers -15.01
Kansas City Royals -16.22

Sources: Fangraphs, Baseball-reference.com

One reason it’s so difficult to translate offseason success to the actual playing field is that predicting player performance is a difficult task in just about every sport — even a sport rich in data like baseball. Injury and misfortune can derail the best of plans.

Another reason is tied to a macro-level trend in baseball: Free agency has been devalued.

Because of both performance and financial motivations, teams are prizing cheaper, younger talent more. The average age of an MLB player in 2004 hit a post-World War II high of 29.2, but that has gradually declined to a 21st-century low of 28.2 years this season. Testing for performance-enhancing drugs, which began in earnest in 2004, has also likely played a role in the disappearance of 30-somethings — ages when players are typically acquired as free agents. Simply put, it’s more difficult to buy a competitive team in baseball, while the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros have won titles with homegrown efforts and given MLB a blueprint in the past several seasons.

Yet Milwaukee defied the odds and — partially through spending — got itself a contending team. As the industry zigged, the Brewers zagged.

Conventional wisdom has it that small-market baseball teams must be homegrown because there is no financial mechanism like a salary cap to level the playing field, though baseball’s strengthened penalties for exceeding the luxury tax are acting something like a soft cap.2 But the Brewers, ranking 23rd in opening day payroll, had the second lowest amount of homegrown production this season, according to MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, who found that only the Oakland A’s had a lower share of homegrown WAR than the Brewers’ mark of 17 percent.

The Brewers’ offseason and in-season success is tied to being opportunistic. The team took advantage of a suppressed free-agent market to land Cain, an effort perhaps aided by clubs saving dollars to pursue Bryce Harper and Manny Machado this coming offseason. Star-level free agents often sign before New Year’s Day, but it wasn’t until late January that Cain reached a five-year agreement worth $80 million. While the back end of the deal might not turn out to be favorable for the club, the 32-year-old Cain’s 6.3-win season has already covered much of the expense in terms of performance value. Among 2017-18 free agents, no one was more valuable than Cain this season — even J.D. Martinez, who is guaranteed $30 million more over five years.

While teams have become more leery of free agency, they’ve also become less likely to part with prospect talent. Milwaukee went against the grain here, too, in acquiring Yelich, who may very well be the NL MVP. The Brewers surrendered four prospects — including their top prospect, Lewis Brinson — to acquire Yelich. The 26-year-old is under club control through the 2022 season at $51.3 million.

All clubs are interested in free-agent bargain hunting to fill out their rosters — and the Brewers did well here, too, in signing Chacin to a two-year, $15.5 million deal. Chacin’s 2.50 WAR was third only to Miles Mikolas (4.47 WAR)3 and Jake Arrieta (2.65 WAR) among free-agent starting pitchers signed over the winter.

With the Brewers, Chacin and Yelich have gotten more out of their abilities. Chacin’s slider usage rate has increased to a career-high 43.9 percent; in run value per 100 pitches, it was the 11th-best slider in baseball. Yelich became more aggressive in swinging in early counts in the second half, and his home run-to-fly ball rate surged to 48.1 percent.

The Brewers were also able to avoid the overpriced relief market, returning Josh Hader and Corey Knebel — their top two relievers from 2017. Their bullpen is the strength of their pitching staff.

Milwaukee invested wisely. The Brewers saw undervalued players and opportunity last winter. Because of that, this high-import, small-budget team is four wins from the World Series.

Neil Paine contributed research.

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