Mailbag: Optimism, Mike Ford, Rob Manfred, Yankees and Sign-Stealing

Happy Friday, everyone. Yesterday sure was a day for Major League Baseball, huh? I’m not sure what really to believe — it will take a lot more than random Twitter accounts posting wrinkles in players’ jerseys for me to be convinced about buzzers — but a few active players, like Cody Bellinger, Chris Archer, and Tommy Pham, are being vocal on Twitter. One thing is very clear: the cheating scandal is not going away any time soon.

In the meantime, we have another mailbag today with four great questions. As always, if you’d like to be included in a future edition, shoot us a line at viewsfrom314 [at] gmail [dot] com, reach us on Twitter, or use our contact form. We answer our favorites each Friday. Let’s get to it.

JJ Asks: I started watching MLB Network’s Top 10 Right now (for CF and LF) and in just two shows, the Yankees already have three players (Gardner, Hicks, and Stanton). It’s likely they’ll have a Top 10 shortstop, second baseman, catcher, right fielder, starting pitcher, and relief pitcher, too.  Am I wrong to be irrationally confident going into 2020? 

The short answer here is pretty obvious: you are absolutely not wrong to be “irrationally confident” going into 2020. I guess it depends what you mean by that — you can’t assume the Yankees are just going to walk their way to a World Series — but I actually think not being confident going into 2020 is much, much more irrational. The Yankees are very good and are absolutely among the very best teams in baseball. In fact, I’d argue that they are the best team in the league. Adding Gerrit Cole is that big of a deal.

There is some statistical basis for this too if you want proof that I’m not just being a massive homer. As Derek detailed yesterday, Dan Szymborski released the ZiPS projections for 2020. He covered some of the more interesting elements yesterday, so check that out. But there is another element to the projections: they emphatically say that Yankees should be really, really freaking good.

The baseline for a replacement level team — i.e. one with players that accumulate exactly 0.0 WAR over the course of a season — is something like 48 wins. (In other words, a game better than the Tigers last year.) So, with that as a starting point, you can simply “add the WARs” to 48 and get the team’s projected win total. The graphic above shows the projected WAR for the Yanks next season, which is in the 54-55 range. That’s a projection of 102 wins, which is pretty nuts.

Of course, this is an extremely imprecise science. Projections are riddled with caveats, assumptions, and statistical methods; they are not a rock-solid bet. Plenty can change between now and the end of the season. But what this does show us, pretty clearly in my opinion, is that the Yankees are a damn good team. It’s hard to win 100 games. It really is! And yet, I’m comfortable saying I think the Yankees will do it (again) this season. Very cool!

It’s hard to ask for too much more going into a season than this. So no, you are not wrong to be confident going into 2020. There’s a long way between now and next Halloween, but it should be a very fun summer in the Bronx.

Jonathan Asks: I was looking through the zips comps and was particularly pleased with the Cole to Maddux comp. I know ZIPS is conservative so it was great. However, I was most shocked with the Ford to Tino Martinez comp. I thought Ford was a decent platoon bat. But Tino Martinez? Tino was a very solid player who was integral to the  Yankees dynasty of the late 90’s. Ford has been a fringe big league player forever. Am I missing something? (I am also confused as you have mentioned in your blog how they made Torres into Babe Ruth with over 40 homers)

No, I don’t think you’re missing something per se. I got into this a bit in the last thoughts post I did, specifically regarding Ford’s Steamer projection. That one projects him to hit .254/.340/.485 (115 wRC+) with a 10.5% walk rate — better even than my personal favorite Luke Voit. ZiPS loves Ford even more, projecting him to hit .257/.340/.481 (116 wRC+) in about 500 plate appearances. (ZiPS, though, does think Voit will be better, with a 122 wRC+ in about the same number of plate appearances. This makes sense to me.)

I confess to being initially surprised at this but a deeper dive makes it pretty clear why the projections are what they are. As I detailed the other day, here are some of Ford’s peripherals:

  • Average Exit Velocity: 91.9 mph (87.5 mph)
  • Launch Angle: 15.6 (11.2)
  • Expected wOBA: .365 (.318)
  • Hard Hit Rate: 45.6% (34.5%)
  • Walk Rate: 10.4% (8.5%)
  • Strikeout Rate: 17.2% (23.0%)
  • Chase Rate: 23.9% (31.6%)

He hits the ball hard and into the air, lays off junk, and makes contact. That’s a great profile. Of course, this is all a bit of a limited sample — it’s just 163 plate appearances — but that’s all very encouraging. You can’t fake the results. Those at-bats happened. Finally, while I understand the skepticism, here’s a good nugget for you: Ford’s 163 plate appearances in 2019 were two more than Voit’s 161 in 2018. He could very well be the real deal, just like Voit was.

Chris Asks: I wanted to ask if you believed the commissioner deserves more fault in the chaos that has surrounded the sport? Yes, he took action (moreso than Bud during the PED-era), but two core tenets of his job are to ensure a level playing field and uphold the game, both of which he completely failed at. Do you agree?

I absolutely think this is true. Randy really hit at some points of this the other day in what I thought was an excellent article, but there is another element here that you hinted at. MLB’s crisis communications strategy really hasn’t evolved since steroids. They waited until it became a full-blown PR problem –only after The Athletic published the piece with Mike Fiers going on the record — before taking any action. I firmly believe that was a mistake.

It is pretty obvious that the league knew that this was an issue long before Fiers came out and said so. Numerous teams reported Houston for this. Remember back in 2018 when Cleveland explicitly warned Boston about it before the ALCS? Players and analysts have long been suspicious of the way the Astros do business. It’s not like “wow, the Astros are obnoxious and potentially doing something bad” came out of nowhere.

Not to mention, there is clear antipathy toward the Astros from other players. This has all the markings of an open secret within the league. I personally think that they hoped that the players would stick to the code of omerta and just sweep it under the rug. Obviously, Fiers did not do that. He deserves credit for speaking out and putting his name on it. He made this an issue that couldn’t be ignored.

Now, it is true that Manfred has taken some steps to “stop” the sign-stealing. He sent that letter after the Apple Watch debacle in 2017 and levied some harsh penalties against (some) of the Astros organization. We’ll see what happens with Boston and Alex Cora, but I honestly wouldn’t be shocked to see Cora get a lifetime ban. (Caught twice with two teams? Come on now.)

With that said, though, this is rapidly spiraling out of control. Yesterday’s fracas with the buzzers is just another example of why letting this fester internally was a terrible idea. Players on other teams don’t trust the league and believe that what the Astros did was even worse than what was reported. Maybe that’s true, or maybe it isn’t. But what we do know is that this is getting out of control. The league is letting social media control this story. It’s a failure from top-down, and one that could have been avoided by handling this properly from the get-go. Instead, we’re here — and the league has nobody to blame but itself.

James Asks: My cousin who loves the Astros tells me that since Beltran worked for the Yankees that means the Yankees must have also cheated. What is that logic?

Embed from Getty Images

There are a few things going on here. First, Beltrán was instrumental in the Astros cheating apparatus. That much is obvious and has been since the beginning. Second, Cora stoked the flames here in London back in June, saying that Beltrán the Yankees’ “biggest offseason addition.” He talked about Beltrán’s attention to detail and how must be helping the Yankees in that regard. He even used the word “devices.” Check it out:

Does this mean anything? No, it does not. But all of this reads differently in light of the new revelations. Finally, in the original Athletic report, Beltrán reportedly argued that the Astros were behind the times for not stealing signs. He argued that other teams he’d played for were doing it. Of course, Beltán recently played for New York at that point. So I’ll admit this: there is some smoke with Beltrán. There’s no use denying it. If it were the Red Sox with this smoke, I’m confident we would all be making the connections. Admit it — you know it’s true.

*John Sterling Voice* HOWEVA, there is no indication at this time that the Yankees are under investigation. In fact, the league has repeatedly said that the Yankees are not under investigation. Not to mention, the Yankees themselves, from CC Sabathia to Aaron Judge to [checks notes] Luis Cessa, have all been adamant and outspoken about this scandal. I don’t think that would happen if they were doing anything close to what Houston did. I really don’t.

On the other hand, I just argued that Manfred is trying to sweep this scandal under the rug. I am confident that Manfred does not want the Yankees tied to this, nor the Dodgers for that matter. Just a few weeks ago, remember, MLB argued the scandal was limited to Houston. That didn’t work out too well, did it?. It would not shock me to learn that the Yankees recently were doing something bad. It wouldn’t. But there’s no reason to worry — at least not yet.

For now, let’s just enjoy this offseason, because it has been a doozy. Here’s a recap:

  1. Yankees sign Gerrit Cole, formerly the Astros’ best pitcher.
  2. Major League Baseball investigates Houston, a big rival, for its role in a massive cheating scandal.
  3. During said investigation, the league finds evidence to implicate Boston. As such, Major League Baseball investigates Boston for cheating.
  4. Both teams fire their managers.
  5. The Mets, a crosstown rival, fire Carlos Beltrán in more fallout.
  6. The Astros are accused of even MORE cheating.
  7. Major League Baseball repeatedly says the Yankees are in the clear.

When you put it like that, it makes sense for an Astros fan to hope for the Yankees to get tied up too, no?

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4 Comments

  1. mosher

    Beltran has long had a reputation for being great at stealing at signs and figuring out when pitchers tip. These things are both legal and have long been part of the game, and I’m 100% sure Beltran has passed along this knowledge throughout his career. Duquette has also said that he had conversations w/ him and that he said he had no idea about the video rule, the stringency w/ which it was to be enforced, etc.

    If it turns out that this somehow translated to the Yankees last season, I wouldn’t be shocked. I would be at least mildly surprised though. The adamancy of the players combined with their K% seems to point in the opposite direction. What I think is more likely is that Beltran gave clinics and updates on what he learned from watching opponents like he always has, and that’s not against the rules.

    I doubt that any investigation into the Yankees is forthcoming, Manfred seems like he’s doing his damndest to move on from this as fast as possible. Because of this, I’d be surprised to see anything happen to any Sox other than Cora.

    If it turns out that the Yanks are caught, I support the same types of penalties already doled out.

  2. CountryClub

    I think the Yankees were probably doing some shady stuff up until that memo came out from MLB. Not necessarily to the extent of what Houston and Boston ended up doing, but they will probably over the line. But, I do think a mandate came from Cashman to knock it off when MLB sent out that letter.

  3. chip56

    I don’t know if the Yankees cheated. I’m perfectly willing to accept that they did; much like I’m perfectly willing to accept that players not named in the Mitchell Report did steroids.

    Here’s the thing: if the Yankees cheated, then they didn’t get caught. And them not getting caught, doesn’t make what the Astros and Red Sox did any better.

    Put another way, next time you get pulled over for speeding, try telling the cop that you shouldn’t get a ticket because everyone else was speeding too.

  4. RetroRob

    If you’re looking for some humor in the whole sign-stealing scandal, this fan-made video hits the spot. Yesterday was crazy in social media land, from the Beltran dismissal, all while Mike PIazza was having a street named for him, Trevor Bauer, Mike Trout being accused of HGH usage, Beltran’s niece, etc. The short clips receives RetroRob’s highest endorsement.

    https://twitter.com/jquadddddd/status/1218021838443438081

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