Sunday 20 December 2020

I Thought Cavan Biggio was Overrated but he's Probably Not

2021 will be Cavan Biggio's third season in the bigs, kind of.  2019 was a 100 game debut, and 2020 was obviously a shortened year, given Covid.  He's played 159 games, totalling just shy of 700 plate appearances, the equivalent of a single, full, normal season.  One season doesn't exactly tell us a whole lot about a hitter!

Granted, those 700-ish PA's have been pretty good for the most part.  Among qualified hitters since the start of the 2019 season, Biggio ranks tied for 7th in walk-rate, behind names like Trout and Soto, and ahead of some pretty good hitters like Freeman, Votto, Yelich and Donaldson.  He ranks 7th in Fangraphs-WAR among 2nd basemen (sidenote- that list of 2B includes Max Muncy, who played just 82 innings at 2B this year,  as well as Whit Merrifield who played 92; Biggio himself plays a few different positions obviously) with 4.0, and he's closer to 5 for B-Ref.  He's a quality baserunner, even beyond the 20 SB/0 CS ratio, which is excellent for someone who walks so often and is at the top of the order.

Now I realize that I'm kind of cherry-picking complaints here a bit, but I like Keith Law.  I quite enjoy board games, and food, and baseball, and Keith is fairly well-versed in all of that stuff, so I read his stuff a lot.  Keith REALLY doesn't think Biggio is good.  He's been vocal about it, and when Biggio does good stuff, Jays fans are quick to shit on Law on twitter or in his chats or wherever else they can find him.  To wit, in no particular order:

Klawchat, 2/27/20 

lucas: Will Cavan Biggio ever hit enough to be a regular? The sky high walk rates make me believe he at least has a good approach at the plate?
Keith Law: No, I don’t think he will.

Klawchat- 5/31/18
Cavan Biggio's breakout reminds me of Kingery adding HR pop out of nowhere last year.   
Do you buy Biggio as a regular in the bigs?
Keith Law
Where does he play? Kingery is a 7 runner and 7 defender at second. Biggio is none of those things.

Klawchat- 8/27/20

cool guy
what did scouts miss about cavan biggio?
Keith Law
Nothing. This season so far is such a tiny sample that there are weird outlier results all over the place -
unless you think Mike Trout is really a .333 OBP guy.

So yeah, he doesn't like Biggio.  But Biggio's been good! What should we believe?!?  Is there something he's seeing that we're not?

I think the obvious factor that we'd need to look at is whether or not he's good at stuff aside from drawing walks.  He's not a great defender, but he's at least competent and can play multiple positions without creating panic (sample size!).  He doesn't hit the ball particularly hard, per statcast, and the walks are at least somewhat cancelled out by the strikeouts.

We've certainly got to keep in mind that being good at baseball/being a good hitter isn't entirely correlated with big exit velocities, and the ability to play 2B (or multiple positions, for that matter) certainly has a lower threshold for success with the bat than a 1B or LF.  As Biggio is able to provide value beyond just walks with his baserunning and with his glove/arm, the threshold of what is acceptable in terms of the value he provides with his actual hitting lowers, naturally, even if the baserunning value is tied directly to his walk-rate and/or hitting ability.

So, then, if he's not a particularly good hitter (i.e. bat-to-ball), but has an elite-level plate discipline, what should we expect moving forward?  Shouldn't we assume that he'll walk less if he's not as much of a threat to hit the ball with authority?  Pitchers would be more likely to attack the zone and less likely to nibble, right?

Well... First of all, it wasn't exactly a secret that Biggio was patient.  Teams had plenty of time to scout Biggio after his 2019 rookie year, but he didn't stop walking in 2020.  You could do the bare minimum like checking his baseball card stats as an advanced scout and see that he walks a shitload.  Every team has access to the Statcast data and probably lots more, and those front offices are all full of people way smarter than I who do this for a living.  Second, he actually sees slightly more pitches in the strikezone than the average batter. It's close, and the sample is small, but it's there for now.  Within that same link, however, we should notice that he's seen fewer first-pitch strikes than average, and I wouldn't expect that to continue.  Pitchers probably will attack him harder on the first pitch.  Afterall, he's only swung at 18% of first pitches (scroll to plate discipline), vs. 28% league average.  They'll just groove BP fastballs down the middle on 0-0 and get ahead, then he won't walk as much, right?!

Orrrrr?  Looks like he swings at approximately as many first pitches that you'd expect him to, given the amount of first-pitch strikes he's seen.  I think we can expect him to see more first-pitch strikes moving forward as the small sample catches up, but I also think the chart above would indicate that his walks aren't necessarily a matter of him seeing fewer pitches in the zone, or getting ahead in the count early, but rather staying patient and catching up in the count when he gets behind.  It's hard to throw strikes! He doesn't see a notably different distribution of pitches down the middle or in the borderline area than anyone else, and doesn't even do much damage on pitches over the heart of the plate anyway.

I had honestly come in to the number crunching thinking that he was due for some regression since so much of his value is tied to his walk-rate and I expected the walk-rate to fall, and that if, say, Cleveland insisted on Biggio being included in a Lindor deal, that we not hesitate.  I'm not so sure now.  That's probably a bad example, because yes, Lindor for Biggio is something we should be happy about if it were to happen.  Steamer projects .237/.354/.406, a 14.6% walk-rate, and strikeouts in 25.2% for his PA's, and ZiPS is even less optimistic, but they're still seeing 2.5-3 WAR.

I'm fairly certain that those projection systems cite historic examples of players that are similar and then correct for anomalies in their statlines, and I think projection systems are a lot more likely to dislike Biggio given how few players have historically fit the same mould.  Someone who strikes out as often as he does is historically not getting many at-bats until recently.

There are just relatively few batters who walk anywhere near as often as Biggio does who also have as low a wOBA.  I've done my damndest to find a player who walks as much that has an xwOBA as low as his, and, well, it's just not there.  That one dot right above Biggio is Yasmani Grandal, who shows up 3 times in the general area; he's of course a really good catcher who actually does happen to hit the ball with authority, but is otherwise probably the best comparison I can find for Biggio offensively.

I was able to take the statcast leaderboard, sorted by BB-rate, download the CSV and filter all qualified batters who, in single seasons since 2015, walked in 14.5 to 16.5% (i.e. +/- 1% of Biggio's 2020 season) of their at-bats in that given season.  I count 32 players within that range, and Biggio has the lowest xwOBA (which takes in to account steals!) of all of those players, one of the lowest isolated power totals, and one of the lowest average exit velocities.  We're really just comparing Biggio with some of the more elite hitters in baseball and confirming that he's not as good offensively as they are... not exactly a groundbreaking discovery!

Having said all of that, we probably shouldn't expect the 4 WAR pace that he's started his career on, and we certainly shouldn't expect even more that that from Biggio.  If he has room to grow offensively, it would likely involve swinging the bat more, especially at pitches down the middle, which almost certainly means that he's bring more aggressive and chasing slightly more, trading walks for hits and outs.  The thing with that, though, is that he doesn't swing at many bad pitches, which would be the pitches that typically get put in play softly.  Keith Law says he's not worth a roster spot, which I think we can pretty confidently dismiss at the moment; at his absolute worst, he's still a competent defender who can get on base with empty power, and at his best, provides an above-average super-utility player who can play multiple positions.  He's more than worth a roster spot if he's able to maintain a walk-rate anywhere near what we've seen, and I've not seen any data that would indicate that he isn't.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Aaaand We're Back: 20/21 Offseason, Springer Edition

 So I think we're going to do this again.  At least for a while.  I realize that the last like 12 posts begin the same way, but whatever.  Updating this page regularly in the past was something that was made possible by the fact that I hadn't been working an actual job way back when, but rather was playing internet poker and living rent-free in my folks' basement.  In the several years since this page was updated regularly, I've left the poker world, got a real job, got married, had a kid, bought a house and more, not leaving a ton of time for baseball and writing.  Of course, now that there's a plague destroying the world, I'm working from home, if at all.  The Blue Jays are exciting again, and they're trying to add a bunch of stuff this offseason, and I pretty much just refresh Twitter and MLBTR with any spare time I've got.

So then, I suppose we can let 'er rip again, yeah?

We all know that the Jays are looking to add in multiple spots this offseason, and that they've been linked to pretty well every available player under the sun.  I'm not sure how much the Jays front office is willing to add this year from a payroll perspective, but we're only a couple years removed from payrolls in the $160MM+ range, and Cots is forecasting something like $76MM as of right now when considering arbitration salaries for Teoscar Hernandez and Ross Stripling and Robbie Ray having re-signed.  Adding $50MM in one offseason seems like a lot for most teams and most years, but $125MM seems like a downright reasonable payroll for a team with Rogers as an owner and leaves plenty of flexibility for future seasons.  Is adding $60MM farfetched?  $70MM?  In the midst of a pandemic?  Not sure!  I think they're more likely to take on extra money for a longterm and/or high-impact piece rather than a rental, but we'll see.

Anyway, I've got my preferred course of action for the offseason and the odd plan-B to go along with it, but with the offseason being so fluid and the Jays having a bunch of positional and financial flexibility, we're probably in a situation where the Jays have 20 different roadmaps, depending on who they're able to sign and who they can trade/trade for.  Lots of speculation here on my part, but my preferred course of action for the offseason hinges on Centre Field, as I think the Jays' best offseason move is to sign George Springer (MLBTR predicted 5 years, $125MM).

I think Springer makes the biggest impact for this team (on the position player side, at least), and the contingency plans are fair at best.  He's projected for 4+ WAR via both ZiPS and Steamer, far ahead of Jackie Bradley Jr.  But what's next if they're able to land Springer?  Signing Springer creates a bit of a logjam in the corner OF spots, with Gurriel, Hernandez and Grichuk fighting for two spots.  We've heard plenty of chatter about Gurriel being a trade chip, but I think the ideal play under this scenario is to move Grichuk instead.  The obvious problem there is that he's owed $31MM over the next three years, and there's just not a lot of value there.  It's not that the contract is so bad from a $/WAR perspective; he's projected to be worth somewhere in the 1.5 WAR area if you're inclined to believe ZiPS or Steamer, and probably only needs to provide something shy of 4 WAR over the balance of the contract to see that $31MM in value.  The problem is that we're in a world where Adam Eaton just signed with the White Sox for 1 year and $7MM with a club option and projects to similar value, (even if they arrive there in different ways-- Eaton provides more OBP and less power), without the extra commitment, so it's fairly unlikely that you're going to convince someone to give up useful assets to take his contract.

More likely is that, if traded, Grichuk is used to offset another contract coming back.  We can dream on Yu Darvish (3 years, $61MM left), if the Cubs are even willing to move him, and I think that one actually works if the Jays add some prospects.  Not sure if Kris Bryant is available either, but Baseball Trade Values seems to think that Darvish and Bryant, with all their salary, could be had for some nice prospects and Grichuk to offset the salaries a little:

No idea if the Cubs would ever do this, but it certainly works for the Jays.  Adding Darvish ($22MM/$19MM/$18MM) and Bryant (~$20MM) and subtracting Grichuk ($10.33MM in '21-'23) nets an addition of about $33MM to the current payroll and addresses the hole in the infield and adds a pitcher.  If the theoretical Springer deal is backloaded slightly, it adds flexibility for bullpen additions until Bryant is off the books and leaves room for Groshans or Martin if either is ready and needs a spot for 2022.  This trade isn't really contingent on a Springer signing other than having an extra outfielder, I suppose.

The more likely scenario is that nobody is interested in Grichuk and that it's Gurriel that gets moved.  He projects as a ~league-average player with upside with a cheap contract, which makes him someone that another team might actually want.  Signing Springer and adding pitching for Gurriel certainly doesn't hurt, whether it's Blake Snell, Sonny Gray, or some other pitcher that we've not heard about in trade rumors yet.

Jackie Bradley definitely works as a backup plan; he's a left-handed batter that would be joining a primarily right-handed lineup, and he defends very well.  MLBTR predicted that he'd sign a 2 year deal at $8MM a year, which is a commitment that leaves a lot more room to add elsewhere on the roster than what Springer would cost.  It's a bottom of the order bat, but he's had success in spurts previously and had a good 2020 (119 wRC+ over 217 PA's).

My biggest concern is with the entire offseason is what to do in CF if you miss out on both.  The Mets are a strong fit for Springer, and it was reported today that there are multiple teams interested in JBJ's services as well.  The Jays have a backup plan at C if Realmuto signs elsewhere-- the internal options of Jansen, Kirk and McGuire, assuming he survives the offseason without being moved/DFA, is perfectly fungible.  If they miss on, say, LeMahieu, they can pivot to Lindor, or to Justin Turner, or to Bryant, or to Correa, Semien, etc, by virtue of having Biggio and Bichette (and Vlad?) able to play multiple infield spots.  If they want to sign another SP and miss Bauer, they've got options with Paxton, Walker, Tanaka, or Odorizzi, or move to the trade market.

CF isn't exactly flush with options though.  The drop-off between Springer and JBJ is fairly wide, and the options behind JBJ (Pillar? Almora?) kinda make you want to stick with Grichuk as a plan C.  I think the flexibility at all the other spots is part of the reason that the Jays have been so patient to this point; gotta add an infielder, not specifically a 3B or 2B or SS.  CF is just so fucking dodgy on this roster though, and there are so few quality options out there, relative to the options at other positions.

And it's really that flexibility that this whole Blue Jay offseason is built upon, isn't it?  As a team with plenty of budget space available, I think a Springer signing moves the needle and maintains that flexibility moving onward through the offseason and improving the team as much as possible.