MLB - The So What (5/18/17)

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

Generally, this blog tends focus on things that for teams and fans are inherently negative - critical players missing time. Even if the conclusion is that it does not mean much - whether due to length of injury, schedule, current place in the standings or quality of the player and the roster around him - the angle is rarely one of true optimism. We could easily find ourselves right back in the same place this week. In fact, many of the topics we have covered in future weeks are popping back up this week. Ryan Braun is on the DL. Miguel Cabrera now has an oblique strain. The closer situation league wide remains a bit of a mess. And things have somehow only gotten worse for the Mets (and here), Giants, Mariners (and here) and Pirates (those four teams now have a COMBINED 10.5% chance of making the playoffs). We have written about them all before ... and it is a little depressing.

So let's focus on some better news. Several key players for teams with high hopes before the season either just returned from injury or appear likely to do so soon. One of those players is David Price, a former Cy Young award winner who has been dealing with elbow soreness since Spring Training. He is likely to join the Boston Red Sox, the preseason favorite to win the American League, soon. Boston is 21-18 without him and has outscored opponents by ten runs on the year. The Red Sox are currently four games out of first place in the AL East, yet would actually earn a Wild Card berth if the season ended today.

The Red Sox rotation that includes Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz has been predictably very good. Sale, acquired in the offseason from the White Sox, has objectively been the most valuable pitcher in baseball to-date. He sports a 2.15 ERA and 1.80 FIP in 58 innings with a 13.0 k/9. Defending Cy Young winner Rick Porcello has an ERA of 4.23, yet a FIP of 3.94, K:BB ratio of 4.8 and batting average on balls in play of .341 project future success the rest of the way. Rodriguez goes 3.05 ERA and 3.40 FIP. And Pomeranz has struggled a bit with a 5.29 ERA and 4.66 FIP, but he is still striking out 10.3 batters per nine innings and will likely see his home run rate go down. The Red Sox bullpen remains elite as well anchored by 18.2 ridiculous innings from Craig Kimbrel thus far (2 ER, 35 K, 2 BB, 6 hits allowed and 12 saves).

The other spot in the rotation has featured a revolving door of knuckleballer Steven Wright (career 3.97 ERA/4.34 FIP), journeyman Kyle Kendrick (career 4.68 ERA/4.81 FIP) and Brian Johnson (8 ER allowed in 9.1 career innings). Today, 28 year old Mexican League import, Hector Velazquez, is going to make his MLB debut. The Red Sox are 2-6 in games started by those players and 19-12 otherwise. Adding David Price to the mix should not only improve the rest of season outlook for the Red Sox, it should solidify the Red Sox as having the league's best pitching staff overall. Price is a 31 year old, likely in his prime (if the injury does not accelerate his decline) with a career 3.21 ERA, 3.25 FIP and 3.8 K:BB ratio in 1,671 innings. Last year for the Red Sox, he had a 3.99 ERA with a 3.60 FIP and 4.6 K:BB.

What does it mean:

Based on 50,000 simulations of the rest of the season without Price at all, the the Red Sox project to win 89.7 games, have a 79.5% chance at the playoffs and are the fifth most likely team to win the World Series behind the Dodgers, Astros, Nationals and Cubs. In this scenario, the Red Sox pass the Orioles for the AL's top Wild Card, yet still trail the Yankees by four games in the division. With David Price healthy the rest of the way, the Boston Red Sox would be expected to win 92.0 games, make the playoffs 89.4% of the time and increase chances to win the World Series from 9.9% to 12.4%, which is the fourth best mark in MLB in that simulations. David Price adds 2.3 wins to the Red Sox projections for 2017 and increases their chances of making the playoffs by almost exactly ten percent. Though ahead of New York in World Series win probability, that's still not enough to top the Yankees in the division.

The Texas Rangers are 21-20, which is already eight games out of first place in the AL West. However, it still qualifies the team for second place in a weak division and puts the Rangers just one game back of the Red Sox for the second Wild Card spot. Adrian Beltre, who has been working through a calf injury since before the season, started running close to full speed recently and is expected to only be out for another two to three weeks.

Since his rookie season in 1998, Beltre has never missed more than 51 games in a year (he will likely top that on this DL stint alone) and has exceeded 150 games played 11 times, including last season. He has been reliable with respect to health as well as performance. Even last season at 37 years old, he went .300/.358/..512 with a strikeout rate of just 10.3% and exceptional defense at third base. If he comes back at full strength and can come close to matching those numbers, it would likely aid the Rangers bid at the postseason.

Joey Gallo, a 23 year old slugger, has filled in for Beltre this year, hitting 12 home runs in 41 games with a slugging percentage of .511. He has also hit just .191 and gotten on base at a .307 rate while playing sub par defense. He would be better suited for 1B or DH, which is where he may head once Beltre comes back (an injury to Carlos Gomez may push Shin-Soo Choo to the OF and see Mike Napoli and Gallo manning the DH and first base roles).

What does it mean:

Playing the rest of the season of the Rangers' schedule 50,000 times from this point with Adrian Beltre healthy, Texas projects to win 80.6 games and make the playoffs 14.9% of the time. They rank third in the AL West ahead of the Mariners and A's) and 18 games behind division favorite, the Houston Astros. With Beltre remaining out of the lineup from here on, the Rangers would project to win 77.8 games and have a 6.8% chance at the playoffs. Beltre is worth 2.8 wins, but it's an important 2.8 wins for a team hovering around .500 as it more than doubles the team's chances of making the playoffs. Without Beltre, the Rangers project to finish 21 games behind the Astros, who narrowly edge the Los Angeles Dodgers as World Series favorites in this example.

Since he was never really an elite prospect and floundered in his first three years in the big leagues, J.D. Martinez may not yet be a household name. However, over the past three seasons since being acquired by the Tigers, the 29 year old has hit 83 home runs while slashing .299/.356/.540. Furthermore, Martinez is the poster child for the fly ball revolution in baseball as one of the earliest champions from this generation of hitters of an elevated swing plane. Despite what we saw in his first three seasons in Houston, the power and potential are real.

Martinez was recently activated from the DL and already has four home runs in 21 plate appearances. He is slashing .467/.619/1.267, which is ridiculous and totally unsustainable, yet fun to note (also worth noting is that the Tigers are somehow just 2-3 in those games). He is not a great defender and is coming off a foot injury, so he likely remains a liability in the outfield, but that bat is valuable.

With Miguel Cabrera only expected to be out a couple of days and Martinez back in the lineup, the Tigers are back to full strength. At .500 and (also) just one game back in the Wild Card, how does the rest of the season look?

What does it mean:

Playing the rest of the season of the Tigers' schedule with JD Martinez (and Miguel Cabrera) healthy, Detroit projects to win 81.8 games and make the playoffs 32.1% of the time. They rank second in the AL Central, 4.5 games behind the Cleveland Indians and rank tenth in World Series win chances (though at just 1.4%). With Martinez not in the lineup from here on, the Tigers would project to win 80.8 games and have a 26.4% chance at the playoffs. Losing Martinez would decrease the Tigers' expected slugging percentage as a team by 11 points. Thy fall to 12th in World Series chances in that case. And, because of the timing of this article, if Cabrera and Martinez missed the rest of the way, Detroit is projected to win 78.7 games and make the playoffs 19.2%.

Thus far we shined a light on three American League teams getting a boost from key players who have yet to play this season. Shifting to the National League, one of its best players is set to get an MRI after getting hit by a pitch on his wrist. That player stars for a team that is in second place in its division. He ranks second in the NL to Bryce Harper in wOBA and is slashing .341/.461/.748 on the season with a league-leading 14 home runs. He has been one of the best players in baseball for four seasons and is a career .290/.376/.495 hitter. That player is Freddie Freeman (I know, the picture above gives it away).

Vastly underrated, the 27 year old is just reaching his prime, yet is now facing a potential 8-10 week absence if his wrist is broken as some fear. Of course, he plays for the Braves who never expected to contend and are eight games back in the NL East despite being in second place. They are 16-21 overall and have been outscored by 19 runs on the year. Before the season, sports books gave the Braves a projected win total of 73.5 wins, the fifth lowest mark in baseball (the Predictalator had the team with 75.4 wins). The Braves lost 93 games last year and have not topped .500 since 2013.

One may assume that the Braves are young and playing for the future (and that's probably mostly true), but the current iteration of the team has five regular starters (out of eight) over the age 30 (plus two 40+ year old starting pitchers and a 33 year old closer). Those players may not be in the five year plan, but they were brought in to keep the team interesting while prospects like Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Mauricio Cabrera and Kevin Maitan (ok, that may not even happen in the next five years) mature and young players like Julio Teheran, Ender Inciarte and Freeman come into their own. How interesting is this team without Freeman?

What does it mean:

Based on 50,000 simulations of the rest of the season without Freeman at all, the Braves project to win 72.2 games and have a 1.9% chance at the playoffs. With Freeman healthy the rest of the way, the Atlanta Braves would be expected to win 74.2 games and make the playoffs 3.8% of the time. Freeman is worth two full wins the rest of the way to the Braves. If they were a better team otherwise, his impact would be magnified. He does double the team's chances of making the playoffs, but that's not likely either way. Freeman out of the lineup also decreases the team's overall on base percentage by nine points and its slugging by 16 points. Even if he is out for the next two months, the impact to the Braves' prospects is slightly less than one projected win. It's big news in fantasy and a star player that too often flies under the radar, just not very meaningful for a team that is not good regardless.