MLB - The So What (4/20/17)

By Paul Bessire
Each Thursday during the MLB season, we will use 50,000 simulations of the rest of the MLB season to analyze the major personnel changes of the week. This will likely be in response to players placed on or soon to come off the disabled list, but could also include prospect call-ups (actual or speculated), suspensions or notable changes to rotations, bullpens or lineups.

Like with the rest of our MLB content, we will look at impact in the context of teams. Simulation is uniquely prepared to address these topics, since it can account for the actual schedule a team plays and what the adjusted roles look like with and without the player to decipher the true impact a player (or players) has on his team's projected win total, likelihood of making the postseason and more. You know what has changed. Now you'll know what to make of it - the "so what" of MLB news.

Being the first iteration of this article, I figured I'd give a quick introduction. The initial version of this weekly Thursday column was tentatively titled the Regression Report and would review what to expect from the season's recent extreme performers. It turns out that's not that unique of an idea (h/t great work done at Fantasy Pros). And, while understanding who a player is and should be are critical to our inputs, that's still not really who or what is. The Predictalator can run every actual or hypothetical game 50,000 times to assess each team's chances of winning a game. It relies on inputs from individual players to simulate games, but the output that is of interest is largely on the team level. Providing appropriate context is key.

I have long thought that WAR was a confusing topic (and not just because everyone seems to have a different way of calculating it). If I take a healthy Josh Donaldson (more on him later) off of the Blue Jays in 2016 and place him on the Chicago Cubs, that does not automatically mean that the Blue Jays would be expected to win 81 games and have no real chance at the playoffs and that the Cubs would be expected to win 111 games - 16 more than any other team in baseball. WAR is a solid metric by which we can measure all players on a relatively similar level and compare overall impact.

Even in baseball, which is primarily an individual sport with minimal interactions relative to other sports, everything is relative. Players mean different things to different teams. Ballparks matter (check out the work I posted on Ervin Santana). Lineups matter. Schedules matter. That's where we come in. Simulation can review the actually, likely impact of any change - including the compounding nature of multiple missing or added players.

With that, here are some of this week's most notable "So Whats?"

Starling Marte, the 28 year old Pittsburgh Pirate, who recently replaced Andrew McCutchen as the everyday center fielder, is now suspended for the next 80 games. This blog is about context of that suspension and not why it occurred, so we will not pass judgment other than to assume that he will be cleared to play after 80 games.

The most interesting and telling piece to this story right now is that on the Fangraphs Team Profile for the Pirates, there is currently an outfielder named UNKNOWN highlighted in red that seems to be serving as placeholder for what the Pirates actually do. That's not promising for Pittsburgh. For now, it looks like Adam Frazier will play right field mostly and that McCutchen, who is a well below average outfielder, will shift back over to center field, which should have a very tangible impact on the pitching staff. Phil Gosselin, is the only other player on the current roster who is listed as an outfielder and he has played seven career MLB games in the OF (John Jaso and Josh Harrison may be used in the outfield as well).

What does it mean: Playing the rest of the season of the Pirates schedule 50,000 times without Starling Marte, the Pirates, who are currently just 6-9, finish last in the NL Central with 72 wins. They have just a 1.3% chance of making the playoffs in that scenario. While we were not too high on Pittsburgh before the season (literally our best over/under season win total play was on Pirates UNDER 82.5), that's still five wins shy of our original projections for the team. With Marte, who is a better center fielder than any current Pirate and who has a career .288/.344/.446 slash line entering his prime, for every remaining game, the Pirates would finish 76-86, ahead of the Brewers and Reds and with a 10% chance to make the playoffs. Obviously, suspended for 80 games, his actual impact should be about half of that.

Starling Marte's 80-game suspension means almost exactly two projected wins for the Pirates and decreases their chances of making the playoffs from an already fairly low 10% to just 6%.

Third baseman Josh Donaldson is out for 2-4 weeks with a calf injury. While we could devote this entire section to the perennial MLB contender, Donaldson, two members of the starting rotation - J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez - are also on the disabled list. No one expected to miss more than the next month.

Donaldson is a still-in-his prime slugger with a career .870 OPS and 131 home runs in his last four seasons. He had a .310/.429/.586 slash line in 35 plate appearances this year, while playing his usual league average or better defense. For the time being, he is being replaced by Darwin Barney, who has been a pretty good fielding SECOND BASEMAN for his seven year career, yet has just 32 career starts at third base (including five already this year). He also slashes .250/.298/.344 and has just 25 career home runs (he happens to be EXACTLY one month older than Donaldson as well). Ouch.

Current announced starters to replace Sanchez and Happ are Mat Latos and "Casey Lawrence." Sanchez is a 24 year old with a career 2.92 ERA (though 3.85 FIP) and 329 MLB innings pitched. Lawrence has walked five batters in his two career MLB innings and had an ERA above 4.00 and a K/9 of just 6.0 in 162 minor league innings last year. He is also five years older than Sanchez. Happ is already 34 with 1,223 innings of MLB play. In his last three years with the Blue Jays, he has an ERA under 3.50 and a FIP just above it. Latos is actually just 29 years old, yet has had an ERA of 4.95 and 4.89 in his last two MLB seasons, including last year when he had a FIP of 5.32 in 70 MLB innings and gave up 1.4 HR/9.

This is meant to be presented objectively, yet the gross disparities between the lost players and their replacements really drives home the need for such analysis - even if only for a couple of weeks.

What does it mean: Playing the rest of the season of the Blue Jays schedule 50,000 times without any of those three players, the Blue Jays, who are currently just 3-11, finish last in the AL East with 71 wins. They have just a 1.7% chance of making the playoffs in that scenario. That is 13 wins fewer than Vegas' preseason expectations and 12 fewer than the Predictalator's. All three playing for Toronto the rest of the season (and everyone else staying healthy) would project to win 79 games (even after the 3-11 start) and have an 18% chance at the playoffs.

Fortunately, for the Blue Jays and their fans, none of these injuries appears to be significant. If all three players come back within a month, the Blue Jays would project to win 77 games and have a 13% chance at the postseason.

Four week injuries to J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez and Josh Donaldson mean two fewer wins for the Blue Jays and five percent less of a chance of making the postseason. For Donaldson specifically, the impact of missing a full season of him (as a total hypothetical) would cost the Blue Jays 4.4 wins and reduce chances of making playoffs by 13.5%.

The Mets are loaded with talent, namely in the rotation, yet have been plagued recently by injuries. Not that long ago, Mets fans dreamt of a starting five in the rotation that included former star prospects Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz. Wheeler is finally back after two mostly lost seasons, though he has had some bad luck thus far this year. Harvey is presumably healthy after just 92 innings pitched and a 4.86 ERA last year. And deGrom remains elite. Syndergaard, however, is dealing with a finger injury that forced him out of his last game (though not likely serious) and Matz is trying to work back from the DL with elbow issues. Additionally, closer Jeurys Familia is serving a suspension for domestic violence related issues.

While position players Brandon Nimmo, Lucas Duda, Travis d'Arnaud and (of course) David Wright are also banged up, let's focus on each pitcher. For the starters, we will replace each player individually with Robert Gsellman (who happens to be essentially an average - not replacement - starting pitcher in the MLB). Will the Mets ever have their dream rotation (plus closer)? Let's examine what that would look like.

What does it mean: Playing the rest of the season of the Mets schedule 50,000 times with Syndergaard, deGrom, Harvey, Wheeler, Matz and Familia, New York, which is 1.5 games back of the Nationals for first place in the NL East at 8-7, projects to win 87.2 games and have a 64.7% chance of making the playoffs (still fall short of Nationals in NL East).

Replacing Syndergaard for the rest of the season: The Mets win 84.1 games and have just a 46.1% chance to make the playoffs. Syndergaard is worth 3.1 wins and 18.6% chance at playoffs. He is the only pitcher that, if lost, would take the Mets from more likely than not to make the playoffs to less than 50%.

Replacing Matz for the rest of the season: The Mets win 86.5 games and have a 63.7% chance to make the playoffs. Matz is worth 0.7 wins and 1% difference in chance at playoffs.

Replacing Harvey for the rest of the season: The Mets win 85.4 games and have a 56.9% chance to make the playoffs. Harvey is worth 1.8 wins and 7.8% difference in chance at playoffs.

Replacing deGrom for the rest of the season: The Mets win 85.2 games and have a 55.5% chance to make the playoffs. deGrom is worth 2.0 wins and 9.2% difference in chance at playoffs.

Replacing Wheeler for the rest of the season: The Mets win 87.1 games and have a 64.6% chance to make the playoffs. Wheeler is worth 0.1 wins and 0.1% difference in chance at playoffs.

Replacing Familia for the rest of the season (bullpen looks like what it has been thus far): The Mets win 86.0 games and have a 59.9% chance to make the playoffs. Familia is worth 1.2 wins and 4.8% difference in chance at playoffs.