The Best of FanGraphs: April 14-18, 2014

If you missed the inaugural post of The Best Of FanGraphs, you can do so here. In case you don’t feel like clicking through though, here is how this post is structured:

We’ll pull from the whole FanGraphs family, picking 10-15 stories that we feel you really should read before the week draws to a close. The links are color coded — green for FanGraphs, burnt sienna for RotoGraphs, purple for NotGraphs, dark red for The Hardball Times and blue for Community. They are listed in this order as well in each day, just for the sake of consistency.

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Making a Pitcher Out of Edinson Volquez

The Pirates signed Edinson Volquez as a reclamation project, and it was easy enough to explain. A season ago, Volquez posted a 5.71 ERA, which is terrible. But he also posted a 4.24 FIP and a 4.07 xFIP, and on that basis alone, one could’ve argued that Volquez still had a place in the league. His pitches had remained the same as ever. The results didn’t follow, but the Pirates were willing to take a chance, just as they’d taken chances on other seemingly damaged pitchers in the recent past. Some got no better, but some were repaired.

Stop now and take a look at things. Between 2008-2013, out of pitchers who threw at least 500 innings, Volquez put up the second-worst walk rate and the second-worst strike rate. Now, out of qualified pitchers in 2014, Volquez is putting up a top-20 walk rate and a top-20 strike rate. Used to be, Volquez would throw about six of every ten pitches for strikes. So far this month, he’s thrown about seven of every ten pitches for strikes. There’s tweaking Edinson Volquez, and there’s making him a whole new guy. What might be a reasonable explanation for this?

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The Diamondbacks Still Can Reload

When the Diamondbacks won the National League West division in 2011, they looked like they had a pretty decent future. This week, things don’t look quite as rosy. According to our Playoff Odds page, only four teams have less of a shot at reaching the postseason as of this writing — the Astros, Twins, Cubs or Marlins. None of those teams were expected to contend for a playoff berth this season. The Dbacks were. Unless things change fast, they will not actually contend for a playoff spot, and then the question becomes how can the organization right the ship?

Since Jonah Keri had a great look over at Grantland at how we got to this point, and since I try to follow the mantra of Chris Tucker/Smokey and not bring up old ‘ish, I won’t waste your time repeating it. Here though, if you don’t feel like clicking through, is the money quote:
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Great Months in Terrible Seasons

Earlier this week I looked at some notably terrible months by hitters in seasons that otherwise turned out to be very good. As I said there, while we might know that it is too early in the season to be worried about individual hitters who are slumping, it is difficult not to let extreme early season lines get to us. Some players are smoking the ball unexpectedly at this point as well, and although the point can be made either way, looking at some individual cases in which hitters had great single months during otherwise horrible seasons might also be interesting.

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The Rise of the Offensive Catcher

You probably are well aware that offensive levels in baseball have collapsed over the last few years. We’re well past the “Year of the Pitcher” and are now at a point where run scoring is as scarce as it was back in the 1970s. It seems like no one can hit anymore, or at least, no more than one or two guys per team anyway. For various reasons, the recent trends in baseball have almost all gone in favor of the pitchers.

But not quite all. There is one place in baseball where offense is actually trending upwards, and that trend is behind the plate.

Last March, Mark Smith wrote about the improved offensive levels of catchers in recent years, but with another year of data and our new by-position split leaderboards, I think it’s worth pointing this out again. Especially because, for the first few weeks of 2014 at least, the trend seems to only be accelerating.

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Jason Collette – Baseball Chat Transcript

Comment From Shawn Kelley
Am I worth hanging on to after David Robertson returns?
    Jason Collette: In AL leagues, yes, you still have value 

Comment From Autodraft Problems
My autodraft left me with Andrus, Segura and A. Ramirez. Any advice on moving a surplus at one position?
    Jason Collette: Play one at utility unless you have a dire need elsewhere. 

Comment From randplaty
Are getting swinging strikes more important than getting called strikes? Should we worry about Andrew Cashner, who has an extremely low swinging strike rate this season?
    Jason Collette: Just get strikes. If the stuff is moving so much it is fooling batters and locking them up so be it. Zero concern with Cashner on my end. 

Comment From Alam
What are your thoughts on Matt Cain?
    Jason Collette: More hittable right now and all of those flyballs that never left the yard in previous years are catching up with him now. 

Comment From Guest
Arenado for Homer. What side do you like OBP, and Whip leauge
    Jason Collette: Bailey’s worst baseball is behind him. I’d be trying to buy him up everywhere I could right now. 

Comment From Tony the Tiger
Hi Jason. Thanks for doing the chat today! I have to replace Calhoun for the next six weeks, and the only half decent options available are J.B. Shuck and Daniel Nava. Who would you target of the two?
    Jason Collette: I’ll go with Nava – more upside in the bat. 

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FG on Fox: Do Umps Favor Aces?

As long as there are humans in charge of the strike zone, there are going to be inconsistencies. And as long as there are inconsistencies, there are going to be suspicions of bias.

Sometimes these are specific and a little paranoid. There are fans who believe umpires are biased against their favorite teams. Other times these paranoia are general and accepted without actual hard proof. For example, there’s a common belief that pitchers considered aces get the benefit of a bigger strike zone, that they’re given the benefit of the doubt around the borders, and this is just a part of the game, and there’s nothing to be done about it, really.

But is this really a part of the game?

We can accept it, or we can investigate it, and we might as well investigate it before we decide whether or not to accept it. This wouldn’t have been an option in the ’90s, when people believed Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were getting calls. But we’ve had PITCHf/x data for the past several years, and we can make use of it toward this end. What strikes zones do aces get, relative to the non-aces?

We’ll cover the window between 2008-13. First, we must define an ace. This is subjective, but I’m going with a definition of at least five Wins Above Replacement, based on runs allowed. In other words, an ace-level season is defined as a season worth at least five WAR as a starting pitcher within the six-year window. This gives me a sample of 99 pitcher-seasons, or about 17 a year, which sounds fine to me. These seasons will be compared against other, inferior starting pitcher-seasons, of at least 50 innings each.

The next step is the more complicated step, involving a little math. For every pitcher’s season, we have to figure out what the strike zone was like that they pitched to. It turns out this is actually pretty simple. Over on FanGraphs, we offer PITCHf/x-based plate-discipline data. You can see the rate of pitches thrown in the strike zone, and you can see the rate of swings at pitches out of the strike zone. FanGraphs also offers raw strike and pitch totals. From all this information, one can calculate an “expected strike” total.

This can then be compared to the actual strike total. If a pitcher got more actual strikes than expected strikes, it can be said he pitched to a more favorable zone. If a pitcher got fewer actual strikes than expected strikes, it can be said he pitched to a less favorable zone. The theory here is that ace-level pitchers end up with more actual strikes than expected strikes, because they get more calls off the edges.

For every pitcher-season, I calculated the difference between actual strikes and expected strikes, per 200 innings. So what do we find from the resulting data?

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Prospect Watch: McMahon, Rondon, and Garcia

Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on multiple rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list.

Ryan McMahon, 3B, Colorado Rockies (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 19   Top-15: 5th   Top-100: N/A
Line: 58 PA, .326/.439/.783, 6 HR, 10 BB, 13 K

After a romp through the Pioneer League last year, McMahon is continuing to crush the ball, and he projects well going forward.

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Why Would A Pitcher Pitch Against The Shift?

On April 10 in an outing against the Toronto Blue Jays, Dallas Keuchel was pitching Jose Bautista outside in the fourth inning.

That much isn’t really surprising, because since September of 2009, Bautista has done the bulk of his damage by pulling the ball. What was curious to me, however, was that Keuchel was pitching Bautista well outside despite the fact that the Astros defense was employing a heavy shift. It seemed counterintuitive, since I had assumed – though I hadn’t previously given it much thought – that a pitcher would be best served by pitching into a shift and giving the batter something he’s more likely to pull.

As it turns out, Keuchel was probably using the proper approach.
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Jason Castro and Making a Framer

The first step was identifying pitch-framing as a skill. I don’t mean to diminish all the work that was done — it was phenomenal work, and illuminating work. We can’t stop talking about it! But there are other steps, or if you prefer, follow-up questions. Three of them:

  1. How much does pitch-framing matter?
  2. Is there a pitch-framing aging curve?
  3. To what extent can better pitch-framing be taught?

As far as No. 1 is concerned, we’ve got a lot of educated guesses. As far as No. 2 is concerned, it doesn’t seem like there’s much of an aging curve at all. And as far as No. 3 is concerned, it’s interesting to look at certain case studies. It seemed like J.P. Arencibia improved a season ago after working pretty hard on his receiving technique. And now we’ve got the case of Jason Castro, which, given his team, probably isn’t a coincidence. Well, no, it definitely isn’t a coincidence. I’ll get to that!

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FanGraphs Audio: Both Insult and Injury with Aaron Gleeman

Episode 442
Aaron Gleeman is a contributor to NBC’s Hardball Talk and longtime proprietor of He’s also the guest on this edition of FanGraphs Audio — during which episode he relates all the damage he’s caused.

Don’t hesitate to direct pod-related correspondence to @cistulli on Twitter.

You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or other feeder things.

Audio after the jump. (Approximately 1 hr 1 min play time.)

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Masahiro Tanaka’s Non-Secret Weapon

Two things, both from Wednesday. Before the first game of a Yankees/Cubs doubleheader, the YES Network broadcast was profiling scheduled starter Masahiro Tanaka. They, of course, had very positive things to say, and at one point, Al Leiter remarked, “what I like is that he’s attacking the zone.” No nibbling, with that guy. Aggressive, polished rookie.

Later, Wednesday night, I got an email from Dave Cameron, asking if hitters should just stand there with their bats on their shoulders, since Tanaka doesn’t throw strikes. Why not force him to come into the zone? Is he even able to come into the zone often enough?

Two analyses by two analysts of one pitcher on one day, arriving at basically opposite conclusions. Leiter said Tanaka attacks the zone. Dave said Tanaka doesn’t attack the zone. What’s going on here? It’s time to gush some more about Masahiro Tanaka.

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Easily Consumed Nerd Data from George Springer’s Debut

Deadly accurate demographic information for the present site reveals that nearly all FanGraphs readers are either (a) busy executives or (b) busy executives on the go — in either case, one finds, the sort of people who can’t spend the day in explanation.

With a view to serving that particular demographic, the author presents the following — i.e. a small collection of numbered facts regarding celebrated Houston prospect George Springer‘s debut, all of them (i.e. all the facts) of the sort which might appeal to those with a soft spot for the scientific method.

1. Over six plate appearances in an 11-inning game, Springer walked once, struck out twice, and recorded an infield hit — producing a single-game .263 wOBA (box).

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George Springer, Archie Bradley & The Service-Time Dance

The Houston Astros added outfielder George Springer to their major league roster on Tuesday night and batted him second in the lineup in their game on Wednesday against the Kansas City Royals. Springer had an infield hit in five at-bats plus a walk in his debut.

Astros fans — indeed, fans of young baseball talent — have been pining for Springer’s call up since last season when he batted .301/.411/.600 in 589 plate appearances with 37 home runs and 45 stolen bases between Triple-A and Double-A. That followed his successful 2012 campaign in Double-A and high Single-A, when he posted a .302/.383/.526 line in 581 plate appearances. In February, Baseball America ranked Springer as the 18th best prospect. My colleague Marc Hulet put Springer at No. 14 on his Top 100 prospect list.

Yet Springer remained in the minors, without even a whiff of the big leagues last September, when the Astros expanded their roster. And he was sent back to Triple-A during spring training, with no place on Houston’s 40-man.

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Eno Sarris Baseball Chat – 4/17/04

Eno Sarris: Will be here at top of hour. In the meantime
Eno Sarris: Never thought I’d like a Buddy Holly cover.
Comment From JEB
Do you believe in Neil Walker’s recent power surge, or should I drop him when Reyes comes of the DL?
Eno Sarris: I’ll take the ZiPs RoS (17 HR more) over Steamer (12 HR). 20 HR, career high, modest, sounds right.
Comment From JEB
Think Santos will keep the job when Janssen comes of the DL?

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The A’s Low-Risk, Reasonably High-Reward Rotation

There are a couple of very broad ways for pitchers to keep the opposition off of the scoreboard. One is to impose your will, maximizing K’s and minimizing BB’s – in most cases, pitchers excelling in those areas possess obvious, in-your-face tools and skills that are very easy to see. The other way is much more subtle – to manage contact, optimizing the batted-ball mix allowed and minimizing the authority with which the ball is impacted. Sometimes, pitchers more skilled in this area fly beneath the radar a bit compared to their more dominant counterparts. If you can accomplish both, however, you’ve got something. Based on the very early returns of the 2014 season, the Oakland A’s might have something. Read the rest of this entry »

Prospect Watch: George Springer Edition

Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list.

George Springer, OF, Houston Astros (Profile)
Level: MLB   Age: 24   Top-15: 2nd   Top-100: 14th
Line: 61 PA, 14.8% BB, 24.6% K, .353/.489/.647 (.455 BABIP) [Triple-A]

Super athlete. Superstar? Springer showcased his skills during a stellar debut last night.

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Brandon McCarthy Is Bulking Up

When we last talked to Brandon McCarthy, he was looking for a change-up. He didn’t find it. But he did find what he hopes will be the key to a successful — and full — season this year: Bulk.

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The Strike Zone is (Still) Getting More Consistent

Not long ago, I pointed out a couple hilarious game strike zones called by Sean Barber and Clint Fagan. Both umpires called balls on pitches well within the usual zone, and both umpires called strikes on pitches somewhere around the shins. They were awful displays of umpire judgment, but after that, Barber called a much better zone in his next game, and far more importantly, both Barber and Fagan are Triple-A umpires and not regular major-league umpires. The regulars are better than the prospects, just like we see with the players.

And about those regulars — I’ve pointed out in the past that they seemed to be calling more consistent strike zones. One of the neat things about a post like that is that it can be updated, and now that we’ve got a few hundred games finished in 2014, I come bearing some further encouraging news.

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Time of Game and Instant-Replay Review

There was a variety of reasons for why certain people were opposed to instant-replay expansion. It was certainly an affront to baseball purists, who’d already had to deal with replay on boundary calls. Replay reviews would serve to disrupt the flow of the game, irritating observers and players alike. But maybe most importantly, replay threatened to slow down a slow game. Baseball doesn’t exactly fly by at a dizzying pace at the best of times, and the game hasn’t been in need of additional minutes of nothing. Baseball was thought by some a boring sport before agreeing to sometimes spend several minutes stopping the game to look at the same play over and over.

It’s the middle of April and we have some early results. There have been nearly 70 challenges, and those games have lasted an average of 197 minutes. If you’re not super good at mental math, that’s three hours and more than a quarter of another hour. That’s too long, considering baseball is supposed to be maybe three hours of programming. The easy assumption, then, is that replay is to blame. But while the current replay system could use a little bit of polish, there’s also a lot more that needs to be said.

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