While you've been admiring ESPN's MLB home page this season, you've probably noticed the Ohtani Tracker. We even gave it its own place on the menu bar, right between "MLBRank Top 100" and "More." It's an auspicious presentation.
The Ohtani Tracker has been a little quiet lately, given that Sho-Babe Ruth-tani hasn't hit since June 4 or pitched since June 6. Worse, as of this writing, we don't know if he's going to do either, both or neither again during the 2018 season. It's a limbo likely to dangle over us for the next few weeks.
The story of Shohei Ohtani has been unbelievably compelling. Here is a 23-year-old bidding not just to work regularly as both a starting pitcher and a designated hitter, but to do both at an elite level. This isn't a Brooks Kieschnick situation, where a fringe player is leveraging his unusual versatility to shore up two end-of-the-roster spots for a team, thus creating an opening for someone else. The hope for Ohtani was to be the offensive complement to Mike Trout the Angels sorely needed, while heading up a rotation that lacked an ace.
For two months, it went better than anyone could have expected. At the plate, Ohtani had a .907 OPS and six homers while displaying top-shelf power on contact and an advanced approach. According to Bill James Online, only three Angels have posted more offensive win shares than Ohtani, even though nine of them have had more plate appearances. Meanwhile, he has posted a 3.10 ERA on the mound with 61 strikeouts over 49 1/3 innings. Only Tyler Skaggs has more pitching win shares on Los Angeles' staff.
Alas, Ohtani's unquestioned early success only whetted our appetites. We want more. We want it now. Can he win 10 games and hit 10 homers in the same season? Only Babe Ruth did that, and he only did it once. Now, though, Ohtani is injured and may be looking at surgery. His season might be done, leaving us with only a glimpse of what he might've otherwise accomplished in an unforgettable rookie campaign.
If Ohtani is done, the season is ruined. Except: It's not.
For years, as the popularity of baseball and its place in contemporary culture have been discussed, there has been a persistent line of thinking that MLB, like its NBA brethren, needs to do a better job of promoting its stars. Make the sport more personality-driven. We look at rankings of the most popular athletes and see how a retired player like Derek Jeter remains the most recognizable baseball player, and something seems askew.
There is something to that thinking. It would clearly be good for the game if its stars were a little more embedded in the collective cultural consciousness. However, it's a challenge because of the nature of the sport.
For one thing, there is only so much any player, even Trout, can do on a nightly basis. In the NBA, if LeBron James is playing, you know you're likely going to get 27 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists. That's an average, but it's one that adheres closely to nightly reality. Maybe he goes off for a special night, maybe he has an off-night. Either way, as long as James is playing, you know he's going to be a fulcrum on which the game teeters.
That is not really true in baseball, especially when it comes to position players. Trout might have a big night. He's more likely to have one than anybody else. But he might also go 2-for-4 with a walk, all coming with the bases empty and all resulting in a left on base. It's a good night, but it might not have impacted the game that much, because the impact is so dependent upon what the rest of the team does. And Trout may well have an 0-fer -- he has had 25 hitless games already this season. And Trout is the best player in the world, having what could end up as the best season anyone has ever had. It's the nature of baseball.
In basketball, if you buy a ticket to a game because James is in town and you want your kids to see him play, but arrive at the arena only to find out he's being rested, you feel hoodwinked. In baseball, star players are rested sometimes and star pitchers only go once every five days. People show up at the park for the atmosphere and the team. Obviously they want to see Trout or Ohtani or Aaron Judge or Mookie Betts or Sean Doolittle (hey, we all have our reasons), but the experience of attending the game is not all that dependent on who is playing in it. Bad teams are harder to watch than good ones, but that has to do more with the stakes of the game, not so much who is or isn't in the lineup on a given day.
In other words, relax, because whatever happens with Ohtani, the 2018 season will be fine. It will be incredible. The postseason will be one we'll never forget. There will be pennant races and great individual achievements and heartbreaking injuries.
Just off the top of my head:
• Races! The Yankees and Red Sox are poised to give us a real pennant race for the first time since, well, that's hard to say. It's all but impossible for two teams to win 100 games and one of them miss the playoffs. Before the second wild card, teams could win 100 games and not win the division but still make the playoffs. Now, though, winning a wild card puts you in that coin-flip game. You'd rather be in that game than miss the playoffs, but if you're going to the postseason, you want to skip the win-or-go-home game if you can. It might not be the Dodgers-Giants in 1951 or the Twins-White Sox-Tigers-Red Sox in 1967 or the Braves-Giants in 1993, but we could have a 100-win team playing the coin-flip game, and two 100-win teams trying like hell to avoid it. That should lead to some tense Yankees-Red Sox action down the stretch.
• Trout! Did I mention Trout might be on his way to the best season anyone has ever had? We've been discussing this for a month now, and his pace only hastens. Right now, Trout is on pace for 13.4 WAR, 54 homers, 106 RBIs, 131 runs and 31 steals. And if you think the RBI pace is low, consider that Trout has a 1.184 OPS with runners in scoring position but has been walked nearly a third of the time in those spots. Can you blame the pitchers?
• Scherzer! Putting pitcher WAR in historical context is tough because of the evolution of workloads, but Max Scherzer is second to Trout, with a pace of 11.0. His other per-162 paces: 25-5, 2.00 ERA and 354 strikeouts. We are watching a Hall of Fame career coming into full bloom.
• Trades! Manny Machado will most likely be playing for a non-Baltimore team two months from now, and the team he joins will tack a few points on to their probability of winning this year's World Series. Josh Donaldson could be on the move. So, too, might Jacob deGrom, or at least that's been bandied about lately in the whisper mill. DeGrom, about the only good thing going for the Mets, just reached the ace tier in my starting pitcher ratings, giving us a magnificent seven in that group.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, we want Ohtani back, but if we don't get him, we will be just fine. Because we still will have baseball, and with that comes the magic of limitless possibility.
What the numbers say
Overrated ... and underrated stars
The other day, I wrote a story about the Atlanta Braves. It was a pretty long story, and even though I'm the one who wrote it, there were a couple of words that stuck in my craw -- "criminally underrated."
Those words were in reference to the Braves' Freddie Freeman, who has continued to climb the WAR leaderboard with another hot streak. He's currently second to Scherzer in the National League, putting him in contention for a serious run at the MVP trophy. Freeman also is the runaway leader in the early NL All-Star balloting, not just at first base but among all players. That would indicate Freeman isn't underrated at all, much less criminally so, but nevertheless, that's been Freeman's calling card for a number of years. Underrated.
The "overrated" and "underrated" labels are an easy device for a sportswriter because they are inherently subjective. But can they be quantified? Can we know if a player crosses over from one to the other?
Part of it depends on who is doing the rating. If it's a bunch of Atlanta baseball fans, chances are Freeman has not been underrated at all. If it's the American baseball fan writ large, then we might be able to use All-Star voting to determine whether a player is appropriately recognized, though there are plenty of nonperformance factors at play. Alas, I can't really test this idea because, best I can tell, there isn't a good database for historical All-Star voting.
That leaves us with the other group that does plenty of rating: media hacks like me. While we do plenty of rating in the various forms of media, we also do some ratings that have real-world consequences: awards voting. And, thanks to the sublime Lahman database, I was able to grab historical awards voting.
After pulling up the voting data, I adjusted each season's MVP votes to put it on the same scale of the current era, where we have two voters in every city and a first-place vote is worth 14 points, giving us a 420-point maximum for any player. I decided to focus strictly on the integration era, or since 1947.
Using Fangraphs.com, I created a database of WAR numbers for every player since 1947. This step won't thrill everyone, but that's what I did. However, it's important to acknowledge that this method does not imply WAR is a perfect metric for determining a league's most valuable player. It's a tool, a good one, but should be looked at in conjunction with other factors.
For each season and for each league, I ranked the players by WAR and assigned them the number of MVP points they "should" have had by using the 14-9-8 system, modified so the top 40 players in a league have at least one "should" point. From there, it was just a matter of looking at the differences. If a player had more actual MVP points than he "should," then he has been overrated and vice versa. Now, for the results, or at least the highlights.
• On both a per-season and cumulative basis, the most underrated player since 1947 has been Willie Mays. Over his career, Mays should have had 5,198 MVP points. He actually had 2,550, a shortcoming of 120 points per season. Mays won the MVP award in both 1954 and 1965, but he led the National League in WAR nine times. In 1956, Mays ranked second in WAR but finished just 17th in the balloting. Yes, I realize WAR did not exist in 1956, but there were other subtle indications of Mays' excellence that season, like 36 homers, 40 steals, a .557 slugging percentage and more walks than strikeouts.
• The most overrated player on a per-season basis is active: Colorado's Nolan Arenado. Do I agree with that? Not really, but this result did make me look at Arenado's Coors Field-inflated numbers with some fresh eyes. I'd still like to have him on my team, especially doing his Brooks Robinson routine at third base.
• The most overrated player on a cumulative basis has been Juan Gonzalez, likely because WAR is not swayed by flashy RBI totals. I have no problem with this result.
• Among active players, the most underrated has been ... no, it's not Freddie Freeman, the reason for all this trouble in the first place. In fact, this method suggests Freeman has been treated just about right by MVP voters over the years (207 expected points; 285 actual). No, on a per-season basis, it's Clayton Kershaw. If you don't like a pitcher getting this nod, then it's Chase Utley. Kershaw and Utley are also the answers for being underrated on a cumulative basis. Now, armed with that knowledge, Utley and Kershaw can sit together in their Dodger Stadium clubhouse and grumble.
Since you asked
A Brave new world
Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos took the Atlanta job last fall either in the best of, or the worst of, circumstances. His predecessor, John Coppolella, along with a couple of his assistants, were banned from baseball for misdeeds in the international player market. And the Braves subsequently had to relinquish their rights to 13 prospects. Still, he joined an organization brimming with talent. We've seen some of that talent hit the ground running this season, as the Baby Braves remain in the thick of the playoff race into the middle of June.
Anthopoulos is a Montreal native who got his start with the Expos, before going on to become the 2015 American League Executive of the Year with the Blue Jays. After that, he became part of the braintrust in Los Angeles under Dodgers vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. Now, Anthopoulos is tasked with returning the talented Braves to the glories of their 1990s and early 2000s predecessors. I had a chance to chat with him during my recent trip to Atlanta, a period in which he was hard at work with his staff in preparation for last week's draft.
When it comes to the draft, I'm interested in how things evolve when it comes to someone who's been in your position for a while now. I assume that you develop certain traits that you identify in a younger talent that you are attracted to, but does it become easier or harder to filter through guys? Do you have to guard against becoming too set in the criteria that you use?
Alex Anthopoulos: In theory, the longer you do it, you should be better, just from experience. You've made more mistakes, so there is more to learn from. The only caveat to that is there is so much more information right now that can really paralyze your thought process. We can overcomplicate things. There have always been psychological tests and so forth, but now we just have more. On the one hand, it should only help you inform your decision. You're trying to separate guys, and having all of this data is great. But knowing how to weight it, that's really challenging. But it would be an interesting study: Are we [as an industry] better in the draft than we were 20 years ago or 10 years ago? Do we have a higher rate of return with the higher picks?
When you took over in Atlanta and had a chance to do an evaluation of the talent on hand, how did that inform the way you approached the offseason in terms of immediate objectives?
When I got the GM job in Toronto, I had been in the organization a long time. I was an assistant GM, I was in scouting, so I knew the organization up and down. I knew the players, I knew the staff. Even though, on one hand, I came into this job with experience, I had never experienced coming into a brand new organization with no ties, no relationships. The role of general manager and the responsibilities that come with it, I was familiar with that. I knew what to expect. But the new organization, I wasn't. So I actually reached out to a few GMs who had gone through the same thing, who had come to brand-new organizations, and asked if there was anything they would change, anything they would do differently in hindsight. I think I spoke to three of them. And all three of them told me, "You know what, I just wish I had moved a little slower." They all said they moved on a player more quickly than they should have because they didn't know the player as well as they could have.
"Look, young players -- some perform, some get hurt, some regress. All of a sudden, we might have a lot more holes at the end of 2018 than we thought we did." Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos
You're always anxious. You want to make the team better. All I knew from the outside was that there was a lot of young talent here. All the previous regimes and scouting departments had done a fantastic job collecting and accumulating a lot of talent, even though the team wasn't winning at the big-league level. It was just a matter of, let's make sure we are not too quick to dismiss ... someone. Let's give the young guys as much opportunity as we can.
When I look at rosters, I always look at breakout and collapse potential, and even tried to incorporate that into my simulation model. How important is the variability that comes with young teams when you are talking about "surprise" teams in one form or another?
When I talked to everyone in the organization, going through reports and on the phone, there wasn't really a consensus on every player. I could talk to 10 people, and five would say this player is going to be a star, and another five would say, "We're not sure, the jury is still out." There was never really a consensus. So even though I didn't know the evaluators, wasn't necessarily familiar with the information that we had internally, there was still [much] undecided internally. So that was a big part of it, looking around and giving guys opportunity and saying, "We're going to find out who is part of this core and who isn't." At least we would have a much better indication. We were going to want as much payroll flexibility as possible going forward because, look, young players -- some perform, some get hurt, some regress. All of a sudden, we might have a lot more holes at the end of 2018 than we thought we did. We may have fewer. The hope is, and we're still not there yet, is that we fill as many positions on this team as possible internally. That will just free up dollars for us to do other things, whether it's in the free-agent market or the trade market.
Conversely, what if our young players don't take a step? What if they regress, or there are injury concerns? We've got an elite-level player like Freddie Freeman, a stud defender like Ender Inciarte -- we have players that we still want to capitalize on. How can we continue on to take a step in 2019? That's where the payroll flexibility is going to come in. Right now, two months in, [Ozzie] Albies looks outstanding. Dansby Swanson has been very good. Johan Camargo has been coming on. [Austin] Riley is in Triple-A, so we feel good about that spot. ... I can go through the whole team, but it could have gone the other way. We just didn't know, but 2018 was a critical year for us to find out what we had.
Coming right up
Here's to the next 1,000 ...
The Angels have six games scheduled between now and next Friday's column. If Mike Trout plays in them all, then when the Angels take on Toronto at home next Thursday, Trout will be making his 1,000th appearance in a big-league uniform. Suffice to say, it's been a grand grand for Trout.
Including the 40 games Trout played when he broke into the majors in 2011, he has played fewer than seven full seasons and he missed 48 games last season because of an injured hand. (Please don't let your stars dive into a base.) Officially, though, he's in his eighth season. According to baseball-reference.com, only Ted Williams, Albert Pujols and Mickey Mantle had more WAR than Trout over the first eight seasons of a career. If Trout maintains his 2018 pace, he'll easily pass Pujols and Mantle.
Williams (72.6 WAR) is safe, but because of the time he missed flying fighter planes in World War II, he was 30 by the time he finished his eighth season. Pujols was 28. Meanwhile, Mantle, like Trout, was just 26. What a player. Can't wait to see what happens over the next 1,000.