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From the World Series to the KBO

What Jeff Manship’s MLB exodus tells us about the changing nature of how teams value old-school stats and new-age numbers

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The last time Jeff Manship appeared on a major league mound, his team was one win away from a world championship. Granted, the win wasn’t likely to come on that day. The Indians were trailing by five runs in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series when the low-leverage righty was summoned to face the bottom of the Cubs’ order: Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward, and Javier Báez. Manship retired the first two Cubs batters, but Báez singled, which was all it took for Terry Francona to call for Zach McAllister.

That outing ended Manship’s contribution to Cleveland’s pennant run: three games, 2 1/3 scoreless innings, 0.007 championship win probability added. He didn’t pitch in the most pivotal moments, and even as Cleveland’s bullpen became one of the postseason’s top stories, no one mentioned Manship in the same sentence as fireman Andrew Miller or quasi-closer Cody Allen. Still, he was pitching in some of the season’s biggest games for one of baseball’s best teams, and he wasn’t pitching poorly.

The Indians lost Game 6 and, the day after Manship’s last MLB outing — for now, or maybe forever — they lost Game 7. One month after that, they non-tendered him, despite bringing back their eight other arbitration-eligible players. “All told, he contributed 82 2/3 innings of 2.07 ERA ball during his time in Cleveland, which ought to set him up for an opportunity with another organization,” Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors wrote in response to the decision, which made Manship a free agent. Less than two months later, Manship, who just turned 32, signed a one-year, $1.8 million contract not with another major league team, but with the NC Dinos of the Korean Baseball Organization — almost certainly not the landing spot Adams had in mind.

“There aren’t many players who are going from his performance levels and the World Series to Korean baseball,” Manship’s agent, Scott Boras, says via phone. Boras’s observation presumes some consensus about how we judge players’ performance. But Manship belongs to a breed of player whose old-school stats and new-age numbers tell dramatically different stories about their abilities. And this winter, he found himself at the mercy of a market where teams, to his detriment, are listening to the latter story more intently than ever before.

“I’m still more of the old-school mentality, ERA and all that standard stuff,” Manship tells me on the phone Thursday, a few hours after emerging from the MRI machine that would seal his deal with the Dinos. And according to that “standard stuff,” very few relievers have been better than he has since he signed a minor league deal with the Indians in December 2014.

Prior to the 2015 season, though, the standard stuff suggested that Manship didn’t belong in the big leagues. From 2009–14, the former 14th-rounder had recorded a cumulative 6.46 ERA in 139 1/3 innings for the Twins, Rockies, and Phillies. Manship credits a calmer mound demeanor and a move to the third-base side of the rubber — which he says gave him greater extension — for his 2015 turnaround, although one also could credit a full-time transition to the bullpen (and the corresponding ripple effects on his pitch mix and speed). That combination of causes — coupled, perhaps, with good fortune — produced a 0.92 ERA in 39 1/3 innings, which he followed up with a 3.12 figure in 2016.

Manship’s main claim to fame is his evocative name, but his back-of-the-baseball-card stats during his hiatus from starting are equally arresting. Manship’s 2.07 ERA from 2015–16 ranked 10th among pitchers with at least 80 innings in the majors. Adjusting for the league and parks he pitched in makes that mark even better: He ranked sixth in ERA- (FanGraphs’ adjusted ERA metric) and fifth in ERA+ (Baseball-Reference’s version). By Baseball-Reference’s pitching WAR, which depends primarily on runs allowed, Manship ranked 23rd on a per-batter basis. Nor was he loose with other relievers’ runs, allowing only 25 percent of his inherited runners to score (compared with the 30 percent MLB average). By any measure, Manship excelled at preventing runs. Or, to describe what he did more precisely, at getting outs without allowing runs — every pitcher’s primary goal.

The only qualified pitchers who posted better ERA+ marks over the same span were Zach Britton, the Orioles closer who finished fourth in last year’s AL Cy Young voting; Wade Davis, who finished sixth in 2015 AL Cy Young voting and who, this winter, was acquired by the best team in baseball; Aroldis Chapman, who just landed an $86 million free-agent contract; and Miller, who’s re-revolutionizing the late-inning reliever role. Claiming the three spots after Manship were fellow 2016–17 free agents Brad Ziegler, Mark Melancon, and Rich Hill, who just commanded a combined $126 million. Clayton Kershaw sat one spot below Hill.

Manship crashed that company, but he still couldn’t cash in. The Indians waved him away even though he was in line to make only about $1.2 million in arbitration. Their reasoning was likely similar to that of the 29 other teams that weren’t eager to give him a guaranteed spot, and it’s no mystery to Manship.

“Some of my advanced statistics weren’t as good because I walked too many guys and gave up too many home runs, so I know that hurt me,” Manship says.

Over the past two seasons, Manship’s Fielding Independent Pitching — a measure based on a pitcher’s walk, strikeout, and home run rates that predicts future ERA better than ERA does — was 3.93. None of the other 375 pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched had a FIP that much higher than his ERA; the next-biggest gap was almost three-tenths of a run narrower. Manship was bailed out by a low batting average on balls in play over that period, which tends to be partly a product of luck.

“I understand how they calculate [FIP], but sometimes I think at the end of the season … where people are still saying ‘Oh, well his ERA should have been this,’ but it wasn’t that, it was this …there are certain things that I kind of disagree with,” Manship says. “But at the same time, I do realize a lot of those advanced stats actually are great indicators.” Case in point: Manship’s ERA-FIP gap from 2009–14, when his ERAs were inflated, was the third-biggest in the other direction, which portended improvement and may have helped him get his shot in Cleveland.

The problem for players like Manship (and the agents who stand to take cuts of their salaries) is that teams are no longer looking at the surface stats. Granted, it’s not as if teams were previously clueless or completely unable to tell fluky performances from repeatable ones: In 2015, Baseball Prospectus writer Russell Carleton found that while ERA had historically been a slightly better predictor than FIP of whether a team would bring back a pitcher for the following year, FIP predicted the return rate better than ERA in many individual seasons (some of which came before FIP was invented). Even so, teams have become much more methodical about shrinking their knowledge gaps. Shortly after Neal Huntington was hired as Pirates GM, he answered a fan’s query about the stats his front office would use to evaluate players, providing a laundry list of numbers and acronyms, none of which was ERA. That was almost a decade ago. Since then, publicly available metrics have grown more numerous and more sophisticated at removing the veil of actual runs allowed, and most (if not all) teams have developed proprietary valuation and projection systems.

Unfortunately for Boras — who, let’s be honest, will make ends meet regardless of Manship commission — the stats see his client as a player who’s recently led a charmed life and who projects as a roughly replacement-level pitcher. As Boras puts it, “The execution level of a pitcher at the major league level, and maybe factors that relate to [teams’] internal numbers, they often may end up being in a different category.” It doesn’t help that by bullpen standards, Manship isn’t a hard-throwing pitcher — or, in Boras-ese, “a velocity-based employee.” His sinker averaged 91.9 mph in 2016, which ranked 63rd among 87 righty relievers who threw the pitch at least 100 times.

Because most veteran players weren’t introduced to “process”-based stats during their development, as many of today’s prospects are, it often falls to agents to break the news that teams aren’t paying for the traditional “outcome” stats that the older players still prize. “It is definitely the agent’s job to explain the new stats and the lack of importance of the old stats,” writes Rod Blunck via email. Blunck, who works on statistics and contracts for Octagon, one of the largest sports and entertainment talent agencies, adds, “This is my no. 1 job now and it’s not only educating the players but the agents as well. The same stats have been used for a century to determine who is good and who is bad; it’s been a very hard habit to break.”

According to Blunck, the only “actual numbers” that still matter to teams — as opposed to the versions adjusted and corrected for context — are “durability stats,” although he notes that an agent can try to bypass the stat-savvy front office and “appeal to an owner if they have a star.” Boras has used that gambit to great effect before, persuading Mike Ilitch, Ted Lerner, and others to pony up long-term contracts for aging players, but even the ultimate owner whisperer couldn’t have made much of a case for Manship’s “iconic value.”

What he could do was argue that the normal rules of regression wouldn’t apply to this particular player. “A lot of the metrics that teams use are broad-based, and when players have metrics along those lines, they normally aren’t successful,” Boras says. “When there’s an outlier like Jeff Manship who has success, yet he follows a metric line that to teams illustrates [he] is normally not successful, the job is for everyone to make sure we understand that we’re looking at an individual and not a mass of information. And largely when you’re looking at masses of information and gross evaluations, you’re not going to get to who the individual is.”

Judging by the way the winter ended for Manship, that line wasn’t working on major league teams. “It’s very easy to hang up the phone and say, ‘I’m more comfortable with someone who [throws harder],’” Boras says. “And sometimes they write [a player’s stats] off to say, ‘Well, he just had an irregular year.’” Boras counters that argument from teams with: “When your statistics are over two years, like Jeff’s are, that is a harder argument to make.” Of course, Manship pitched fewer major league innings in the past two major seasons than some hard-working relievers tallied last season alone, although he also threw 30-plus stellar Triple-A innings in 2015. Ultimately, Boras says, that made his free agency “one of the rare instances where the values in the international markets, which were extreme for Jeff, exceed the initial interest level that the teams have had here.”

Manship, who admits he was initially disappointed and frustrated when the Indians non-tendered him, says the decision to sign with the Dinos got easier as the winter went along. Some of the major league teams that had contacted Boras about him delayed making a formal offer as the saturated relief market (another factor that may have hurt Manship) developed. “From what I had heard, a couple of the teams were only interested in minor league deals with spring training invites, and then a couple others were interested on a major league deal, it’s just nothing had happened yet,” Manship says. With no kids to transplant, he and his wife started to see a season abroad as an exciting adventure, as well as a way to return to the rotation (which Manship prefers to relief) and a life-changing payday.

Manship will make more in Korea in 2017 than he’s made in the majors to date. “I saw what my projection for arbitration would be, and this definitely surpassed that, so it really did seem like a no-brainer for me,” Manship says. MLB teams’ increased interest in KBO players — as evidenced by the recent signings of South Koreans Hyun-jin Ryu (Dodgers), Jung-ho Kang (Pirates), Byung-ho Park (Twins), Seung-hwan Oh (Cardinals), Dae Ho Lee (Mariners), and HyunSoo Kim (Orioles) — have made Manship confident that Korean baseball is “definitely advancing, it’s getting better and better each year.”

The Dinos, who’ve had recent success with foreign players such as Charlie Shirek, Eric Hacker, and Eric Thames (who returned to the big leagues with the Brewers this winter after posting Bondsian slugging percentages in three KBO seasons), had even fewer misgivings. For the past five years, the Dinos have evaluated potential imports using the two-man team of analyst Seonnam Lim and scout Steve Park. Each offseason, Lim uses stats to rank every minor league player, and he and Park whittle down the rankings to a provisional list of 70-plus players for Park to see in person, mostly with Triple-A teams. Park watches each target from behind home plate while Lim, on the opposite end of the diurnal cycle, watches online from Changwon and exchanges instant messages with the distant scout. “If a player is statistically great but looks bad in observations, we drop him, and vice versa,” Lim writes via email. “The chemistry between us is our best asset.”

Lim and Park devote at least as much time to assessing each player’s willingness to play in Korea and probable price tag (as well as his organization’s willingness to let him leave) as they do to judging his talent, although they also claim to have discovered the “secret sauce” of skills that best translates to the KBO. They’ve been scouting Manship since his days as a Triple-A starter, and they’re giddy that they got him. Lim says that in years past, Manship’s most recent seasons would have put him out of their price range, but the market has changed. “When we first saw Jeff, we were not at a position where we could even discuss nor dream about scouting him, but Asian teams nowadays tend to pay much bigger money to foreign players, especially during this winter,” Lim says. “It came to a level where his price had suddenly become much reasonable and at an amount that is actually possible for us to endure, given his recent record and ability.”

The KBO’s maturation gave Manship a desirable destination. But he might not have needed a suitor on the other side of the world had he posted the same stats in a less-enlightened era. “It used to be that agents were the educated ones going against an ex-player who may not have the same training,” Blunck says. “That has changed.” And the gap may only be growing as teams gain access to rich new data sources such as Statcast, whose full feed isn’t delivered to agents. “We don’t have what they have,” Blunck says of Statcast. “We are considered outsiders.”

Boras, for one, is trying to combat teams’ information advantage by recruiting his own quants. “I don’t think there’s anybody in baseball, including a major league team, that has more data inferences than we do,” Boras says. “I’ve got more staffing, I’ve got a larger database, we have more attention [on] this than anyone. And our job is to look at a player in a variety of ways. We have our own algorithms, we have methods of value that are not traditionally based.”

At this point, though, the only people who do use traditional methods to gauge value are the players who produce it. And unfortunately for the few of them whose superficially strong stats are exposed under a modern microscope, not even one of Boras’s famous binders can make a FIP near 4.00 look like an ERA close to 2.00.

An earlier version of this piece misspelled Seonnam Lim’s name as Seonnam Lin.