A Carlos Correa Redux, and More Baseball Thoughts
As you might know, I’m in the final days of writing my new book, WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL, a countdown of the 50 (plus!) most magical moments in baseball history. This is the part of writing a book where I basically think about nothing else. I’ll be talking to my daughters about school or something, but I’ll be thinking about Josh Gibson. I’ll be getting an estimate on a car repair, but I’ll be thinking about Johnny Vander Meer. I’ll be trying to go to sleep, and my mind will be buzzing about, say, the best barehanded catches in baseball history.
I dream about baseballs bouncing off of Jose Canseco’s head.
It’s actually a little bit disconcerting how all-consuming it is right now. I’ve got a beard going, I’m wearing the same clothes. You know, I heard an unsettling story about the chess genius Paul Morphy: They say he used to walk around New Orleans at the end of his life shouting out chess moves. I fear that will be me, walking around our neighborhood bellowing, “Gionfriddo! Lazzeri! Bat flip! Here comes Sid Bream! See you tomorrow night!”
Then again, I will soon be done with the manuscript, and I’ll send it to the publisher, and I know I’ll desperately miss this time of pure immersion in baseball.
In any case, a whole bunch of new baseball things have been happening in real time, and I haven’t really had a chance to comment on them, so here’s a little roundup baseball post for you. And then I’ll get back to work!
Correa Back to the Twins?
This Carlos Correa thing is the weirdest free-agent scramble I can remember. It isn’t just that after a circuitous, multi-team adventure and some obviously dire physicals, he ended up back with the Twins, though that is plenty weird.
No, it’s more the timeline. When the Giants signed Correa to a 13-year, $350 million deal back in mid-December, it seemed nothing less than an effort to keep the franchise relevant. Everybody can see what has happened in the National League West. The Dodgers are obviously a powerhouse. The Padres clearly decided to enter the space race. The Giants were kind of beside the point. Take away their unexpected 107-win season in 2021, and this has been a pretty moribund franchise the last five years.
So they tried to get Aaron Judge. They tried to get Trea Turner, They tried and tried to get in with all the big names. Nobody was buying. And then Correa happened.
Correa was their shot at getting back into the big time.
And then, suddenly, he wasn’t. We all went to sleep one evening having perhaps heard rumblings about a dubious physical, and we woke up with Correa signing with the Mets. It was jolting, and a bunch of San Francisco fans lost their minds, and you couldn’t really blame them. The Giants, again, were unremarkable.
Now it was the Mets who had Correa — he cost them a mere $315 million. Petty cash to owner Steve Cohen. He had been threatening to blow up baseball for a while — few people in this world are more dangerous than a Mets fan with money — and now Cohen was delivering on that promise. The Mets would have far and away the largest payroll in baseball history and they were coming for the World Series trophy. There was no way that Cohen would let a balky physical change his mind.
Only … time passed. And the deal wasn’t getting finalized. It was so strange: We kept hearing that it would work out, that the Mets weren’t about to let Correa go, but the details needed to be hammered out, but there was something about Correa’s ankle in the physical that was more disturbing than they originally thought.
And then, again, in a sudden announcement, Correa was going back to Minnesota to play with the Twins again (and for less than the 10-year, $285 million deal they had originally offered him).
And, voila, like nothing, Correa passed his physical with the Twins.
In the end, I obviously don’t know what structural damage there is in Correa’s ankle. I mean, he’s been pretty healthy the last three years. I’m sure there are some long-term concerns there, but, hey, aren’t there long-term concerns about everyone? Injuries can happen anytime, anywhere; when you sign ANYONE to a 10- or 12-year deal, you know full well that tomorrow isn’t promised.
My guess — and it’s entirely a guess — is that the Giants and Mets did see something troubling in the physical report, but that really they were feeling buyer’s remorse. The Giants’ interest in Correa seemed relatively tame; they REALLY wanted Judge. They REALLY wanted Turner. I get the sense that Correa felt a bit like a door prize to them — a $350 million door prize — and when they saw a distressing medical report, they saw a way out.
The Mets are a little bit harder to explain, but again, as a guess — Correa’s signing seemed a rash impulse buy from Cohen, not unlike Elon Musk and Twitter. It happened so incredibly fast (and while Cohen was on vacation in Hawaii), and I think when morning came, Cohen was like: “Wait a minute, what have I done here?” When the medical report popped up the way it did, I think Cohen was like: “OK, I still want him, but only on our terms.”
And then Minnesota swooped back in because the Twins REALLY want him.
It’s no surprise that his physical in Minnesota was fine.
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The Baseball Tango
OK, here’s the Tom Tango question that has been raging on social media.
You have two players, and these are their slash lines (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage).
Player A: .315/.364/.511
Player B: .260/.364/.511
At first glance, this SEEMS to be a pretty straightforward question: The only difference you can see is that Player A has a 55-point edge in batting average. So it seems like the question is asking whether you prefer hits or walks.
See: As Tango calculated it, if each player had 700 plate appearances, Player A would give you 49 more singles and Player B would walk 49 more times.
If that really is the question, the answer is clear: You’d take the hits. Of course you would. A single is sometimes better than a walk, while it’s hard to think of a scenario where a walk is better than a single.
BUT, that’s not what the question is asking. Because, if you will notice, they have the same slugging percentage. That means Player B has to make up for the difference in power. How much more power? There are numerous ways you can do it. In Tango’s 700 plate appearance scenario, Player B has to have 24 extra bases with doubles, triples and home runs.
So, you could have Player B with eight more triples and everything else the same.
You could have Player B with six more homers.
Tango decided to do it so that Player A had 12 more doubles and Player B has 12 more homers.
So back to the question: When you consider the two players, one has quite a few more hits, the other has more walks and slightly more power. Which one is more productive?
For Tango, it’s a simple thing: Their on-base percentages and slugging percentages are the same. So the answer is: It’s too close to call. No need to go into it any deeper. And his larger point is: Batting average has absolutely nothing to do with it. He’s grown really annoyed at how people will use batting average as a sort of tiebreaker for determining which player is more productive. He insists that’s just wrong.
And I suspect he’s right.
Don’t get me or Tango wrong: We’re only discussing production here. It’s perfectly reasonable for someone to prefer the style of a hitter with a higher batting average because they find that sort of baseball more enjoyable. Who among us doesn’t love Tony Gwynn?
But in terms of value, pure value, as Ben Clemens writes today at FanGraphs, batting average “adds no useful information if you already know OBP and SLG.”
Hey, if you feel like it, I’d love if you’d share this post with your friends!
Let’s hit a couple of players on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, starting with a personal favorite: Matt Cain.
I absolutely loved the way Matt Cain pitched. He came at you, directly, fastball, curveball, slider, change-up, no tricks, no regrets, give me the ball, get out of the way, come back to me in seven or eight or nine innings.
With Cain, it was an annual joy to me to see how his actual earned run average was lower than his xFIP — his expected Fielding Independent Pitching number that is figured using only his strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed.
Every year, he’d have a 2.89 ERA and his xFIP would be 4.16 or he’d have a 2.89 ERA and his xFIP would be 3.82.
And you’d go: How does he do it? How does he outperform his expectations like that every year? And the best answer I could come up with is the same one that Bugs Bunny came up with when he walked off a ledge but didn’t fall. “I know this defies the Law of Gravity,” Bugs said. “But, you see, I never studied law.”
I remember back in 2010, I was covering the Rangers-Giants World Series, and Cain pitched a beautiful Game 2 — 7 2/3 shutout innings, four hits, got even tougher when Texas had runners in scoring position — and we asked him how he did it.
“Executed pitches,” he said plainly. He didn’t expand on that. It didn’t need expansion. That was how he did it. That was how he always did it, whether he was throwing the easiest perfect game I ever saw (at no point in that entire game did it seem like he would lose it) or just pitching on a random Tuesday night in Atlanta.
Through age 27, Cain seemed on a plausible Hall of Fame track — he had thrown 200-plus innings six years in a row and he had a career 124 ERA+ — but he was rarely healthy after that. He retired just before his 33rd birthday. He showed some real emotion in his final game, the first time he allowed himself to do that.
“I put everything I could into this,” he said, his eyes still red from tears. “I’ve experienced all. And I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.”
In 2011, while playing for the Boston Red Sox, Jacoby Ellsbury hit .321/.376/.552 with 119 runs, 46 doubles, 32 homers, 105 RBIs and 49 stolen bases. He led the league with 364 total bases. He also won a Gold Glove. Few have had such a complete year.
At that point in his career — and he’d only just turned 28 — he was a lifetime .300 hitter, he’d twice led the league in stolen bases, once led in triples, he was good for 100 runs a year, his power was obviously coming into play.
He got hurt the next year, but the following season, 2013, he put up another terrific year. He led the league in stolen bases for the third time, scored 92 runs, he led the Red Sox to the playoffs, and was terrific in those playoffs. If you had asked me for Hall of Fame odds at that exact moment, I’d have said he had a real shot.
Then he signed with the Yankees and it all went downhill, and he retired at 33. Well, technically speaking, I guess he has never retired. He got hurt, and then they found he had a hip thing, and then he had a foot injury and a shoulder injury and the Yankees tried to get out of paying him, and he filed a grievance against them, and, well, it just ended.
Was the decline predictable? Maybe so. Obviously, he relied on his great speed, and speed doesn’t age, well unless you’re Rickey. But I’d say — and maybe this comes back around to the whole situation with Correa — that baseball is a grueling sport, and there’s no predicting what’s next. It’s hard to stay at your peak for very long. Ellsbury was one helluva player.*
*He also had a knack for reaching base on catcher’s interference — in 2016, he reached base that way 12 times, a big-league record. That should get him into the Hall of Fame in some form or other.