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Sunday notes: T.J. Zeuch, the Freezing Cold Stove, and a little WAR

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday marked the end of the Arizona Fall League, and fortuitously not only did Peoria make the televised championship game, but T.J. Zeuch was the starter. Having missed the Fall Stars game when he pitched, I was especially happy for the opportunity to watch him (and the other Blue Jays).

It was really a tale of two games for Zeuch. In the first two innings, he was consistently squared up for good contact, yielding 5 hits to the 10 batters faced. It wasn’t all very hard hit, as they all went for singles and some just found the right spots, but just 2 of 9 balls in play were kept on the ground (one smashed), and that has to be Zeuch’s bread and butter.

After Zeuch was bailed out of the second inning on a diving catch in the right-centre gap, he came back out and was much better. He needed just six pitches in a perfect 3rd inning, including two ground outs. Of the 11 balls in play from this point onwards, 8 were on the ground.

Zeuch touched a 97 in the first inning, but other than that he settled into a range of 92-94, touching 95 once or twice. At time he threw pitches in the 88-90 range which I wasn’t sure about - maybe his changeup? His primary offspeed pitch was his slider in the 83-88 MPH range, which he used about two dozen times in his 70 pitches. He mixed in his curveball a handful of times, which isn’t that different than his slider, just slower at 79-81 and thus breaking deeper.

Zeuch threw 70 pitches, 49 for strikes. On 35 swings, he missed 7 bats for an 80% contact rate. The one really annoying thing early on was be got a number of batters to two strikes, and thennot only didn’t finish them off, but got squared up.

Andrew Case followed Zeuch and retired the four batters he faced. His pitches were all in the 86-92 MPH range, with the exception of one curveball at 79. At the bottom end, his slider at 86-87 got some swings and misses, though without major velocity separation from his fastball at 90-92.

The offensive highlight was Lourdes Gurriel hitting a double off the wall that just missed being a home run. He made some smooth plays in the field (a lot of the ground balls off Zeuch went to him), though a couple of hard hit ground balls ate him up that he had some chance to make.

The GM meetings were held this past week, which traditionally kicks off the Hot Stove season....except nothing is happening or has happened. No free agents have signed, and there have been only three minor trades (unsurprisingly, all involving Jerry DiPoto). This is particularly the case since under the Shapiro/Atkins regime, the Jays have been very aggressive early.

While the inactivity is definitely leading to ennui, my thinking is it actually may be to the great advantage of the Jays. As has been discussed in great depth, they’re in a bind as to whether to go for it in 2018, or sell off some short term pieces as part of a short rebuilding/reloading process.

Whichever way they chose, my chief concern was that they decide on a path, and commit to it. It they’re going to contend, there’s some glaring areas of need that have to be addressed, including and perhaps chiefly though free agency. But it absolutely no sense to sign a Lorenzo Cain, or Alex Cobb, or Lance Lynn to provide a significant upgrade, and then turn around and trade Josh Donaldson or even J.A. Happ.

In order words, playing it by ear and seeing the market for Donaldson and Happ relative to the prices for free agents and letting that determine the direction wasn’t going to work (as would be ideal in a perfect world).

But now, with the hot stove off to such a glacial start...perhaps there’s room for more strategic flexibility. Nothing yet has occurred, either with the Jays or more broadly across MLB, that forecloses either path. The fork in the road is still ahead on the horizon.

With American Thanksgiving this week, it should be pretty quiet and then it’s only two weeks until the Winter Meetings, which is always the most likely time for major trades. Realistically, the strategy was probably already set, and their hand will likely be forced before the Winter Meetings with free agents starting to sign. But it would be very interesting (and unforeseen to me) if they were able to go into the Winter Meetings with both strategic options/paths intact.

Earlier this week, Jose Altuve was announced as the winner of the 2017 AL MVP Award over Aaron Judge in a one-sided affair with Altuve capturing 28 of the 30 first place votes. The magnitude surprised me, considering that that by common value metrics, it was close or Judge was ahead (8.3-8.1 Altuve by Baseball-Reference WAR, 8.2-7.5 Judge by FanGraphs WAR, 7.4-6.4 Judge by WARP) and that Judge had the huge power numbers, majestic home runs, and played in New York for a team that didn’t make the postseason by much.

A couple days ago, Bill James posted an interesting article suggesting that in fact it was not close at all, and Altuve was easily the most valuable player in 2017. The crux of his point is that WAR is ultimately about runs as opposed to actual wins, the 2017 Yankees significantly underperformed their team WAR, and most to the point, Aaron Judge was a significant part of that.

James is really making a broader argument, that WAR must be adjusted to how it actually translates into wins. In other words, it must consider context as opposed to being entirely context neutral (though James concedes that for future projections, you want the context neutrality).

And there’s a certain logic to this proposition. In fact, Baseball-Reference basically starts from this on the pitching side, since it uses actual runs allowed (RA/9) and adjust sfrom there (though they don’t do that with hitting). Whereas FanGraphs is really more about trying to measure underlying skills, with the translation to wins really being window dressing. In truth, everything is measures in runs (relative to average), then translated to replacement level, and then translated to wins reall to present on a more intuitive scale. It’s not strictly necessary.

I don’t really agree with James’ general argument, because I’m more interested in a measure of underlying skill. Though I would have no problem with a version of WAR that actually did what he wanted, as in the longer term it mostly even outs and where it doesn’t you should probably lean towards what actually happened (for example, Marco Estrada’s ability to suppress contact is a skill).

But I do agree with him as it relates to MVP voting. The MVP is about looking backwards at what actually happened. The fact that Judge underperformed in critical situations might not be likely to reoccur in the future, but it actually happened in 2017 and hindered his team’s chances of winning games.