Let’s Watch Brayan Pena Try to Beat the Shift

An important point to remember is that defensive shifting isn’t new. As much attention as the shift gets these days from broadcasts and other media, teams have been moving their defenders around for decades. What’s changed are two things: shifts now are a little more individualized, and shifts now are a hell of a lot more common than ever before, by leaps and bounds. Used to be a few guys would get shifted against. Now it isn’t even unusual to get shifted against, since it’s not like it’s only the elite hitters worth a bit of strategizing. Pull and spray tendencies, after all, are similar across the board.

It isn’t just the greats that get shifted against, which is how you end up with situations like the Pirates shifting against Brayan Pena. It doesn’t matter that Brayan Pena isn’t a good hitter — if there are ways to make him worse, any gain is a gain. It’s strategy, on the Pirates’ part, to shift against Pena. And for every strategy, there is a counter-strategy. What you’re about to observe is Brayan Pena trying to beat the Pirates’ shift, from Tuesday night. Did I already mention that Brayan Pena isn’t a good hitter? Yes, okay, good, that’s going to come up again.

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The Pitchers’ Duel of the Season, At Least

The best and the worst thing about baseball is that, during the season, it’s almost never not going on. Every single day brings a new slate of games, and if you actually step back and think about it, it’s kind of overwhelming. The Brewers are off to a hot start, at 15-6. All they have left is another 141 baseball games. The upside is that, if there’s a lousy baseball day, there could be a better baseball day right around the corner. The downside is that, if there’s an incredible baseball day, in a short amount of time it’s yesterday’s news. Baseball allows for only so much time to reflect.

Case in point: it’s Wednesday, and at this writing, on Wednesday, the Marlins and Braves have already finished a game. Because the Marlins and Braves have already played Wednesday, there’s less will to think about what the Marlins and Braves did Tuesday. But just Tuesday night — last night — the Marlins and Braves competed in a classic. As things turned out, Jose Fernandez and Alex Wood put together at least the pitchers’ duel of the season, and perhaps the pitchers’ duel of the last many seasons.

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The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced last April by the present author, wherein that same ridiculous author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own heart to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.

Central to the exercise, of course, is a definition of the word fringe, a term which possesses different connotations for different sorts of readers. For the purposes of the column this year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion in the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above both (a) absent from all of three notable preseason top-100 prospect lists* and also (b) not currently playing in the majors. Players appearing on the midseason prospect lists produced by those same notable sources or, otherwise, selected in the first round of the amateur draft will also be excluded from eligibility.

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FG on Fox: Let’s Stop Screwing Left-Handers

After a two-decade stretch of offensive prowess, pitching is dominating Major League Baseball once again. The “Year of the Pitcher” has turned into the “Half Decade of the Pitcher” and at this point we might as well call it an era, because these changes don’t look like they’re going away any time soon. Whether it’s Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, or most recently Jose Fernandez, it seems like every team features a staff ace that used to be described as a once-in-a-generation talent. What was rare is now commonplace

As FOXSports’ own Rob Neyer has written on several occasions, the shift towards lower-scoring games has been a direct result of a rapidly increasing trend towards more strikeouts. 2013 set the record for highest average strikeout rate — 19.9% — but that isn’t really such an accomplishment anymore; the league has actually broken the all-time record for seasonal strikeout rate in each of the last six seasons.

And 2014 is just continuing the trend; the current league average strikeout rate of 20.8% would easily break the 2013 record. This is not a trend that seems to be peaking, only ever increasing, and at some point, MLB will be forced to confront the issue that the game is moving away from hit-it-and-run towards swing-and-walk-back-to-the-dugout. The league has shown that, if pitching begins to dominate too much, they will intervene to make things more equitable and move the sport back towards a more reasonable balance; after the 1968 season, they lowered the pitching mound, and in 1973, the American League adopted the Designated Hitter.

Things aren’t quite to those extremes yet, but the offensive levels of 1972 and 2014 maybe aren’t as different as you might think. The last year that pitchers had to bat in the AL, MLB as a whole hit .244/.311/.354; this year, MLB is hitting .248/.317/.389. There’s more power now than there was then, but the rate of hits and outs in the game are nearly equal to what they were before the DH existed. Having the National League adopt the DH would force offensive levels up, but it wouldn’t do much to turn the game away from its affection for strikeouts.

Instead, I’d like to suggest an alternative remedy that doesn’t require any new rules or any change to an existing rule. That alternative? Help Major League umpires move the strike zone back over the plate. More specifically, to make this adjustment when left-handed batters are at the plate.

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Zack Greinke on Curveballs

Earlier in the week, we talked about the evolution of Zack Greinke‘s pitches. Mostly the piece was about the dalliance of his slider and his cutter over his career. Left on the cutting room floor was a mini conversation we had about his curveball. It didn’t fit the narrative because it wasn’t about an adjustment he’d made. But what he said did send me on a journey through the numbers.

Turns out, Greinke’s curve — despite being his third-best pitch and owning average peripherals — improves when compared to its true peers.

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FanGraphs Chat – 4/23/14

Dave Cameron: It’s Wednesday chat day and the queue is open.
Dave Cameron: And while we wait for the chat to start, a recent picture of the puppy.
Dave Cameron: Queue is very full today, so just as a fair warning, there are going to be a lot of unanswered questions. I’ll get to as many as I can.
Comment From Benji
Can Melky have another MVP type season like he did with the Giants?
Dave Cameron: Probably not, but I think he could be a solid +3 win player for them.

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The Indians Are Missing The Easy Ones

Pitching and defense are inextricably intertwined, and that shouldn’t be a controversial statement. Any pitcher who isn’t striking out 100 percent of the batters he’s facing is relying on his defense for help. Any defense can only do so much to stop an opposing offense when their pitcher is giving up an endless amount of homers and line drives. It all comes together as run prevention, which is a team effort, and it’s why we have things like FIP & xFIP and de-emphasize or totally ignore things like ERA & wins that attempt to give the pitcher all of the credit (or blame).

That being the case, sometimes it’s fun to look at ERA-FIP, which shows you the gap between the two, and is a nice rough way to look at what pitching staffs are being helped (or not) by their defenses. Ideally, the teams with the biggest gaps, in either direction, should correspond to the teams with great or terrible defenses. If you look at starting rotations in 2014, you’ll see a few things stand out. First, you’ll notice that the Diamondbacks have an ERA 2.00 runs higher than their FIP, which is probably less about defense than it is about the fact that they’re a flaming dumpster fire that, if they keep things up like this, will give me a nice juicy “this is among the worst rotations ever” topic in a few days. But among teams functioning on some plane of reality, you’ll see that the Indians are the next-worst team, with an ERA 1.62 runs higher than their FIP, and that the Braves are the best, with an ERA 1.42 runs below their FIP.

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Prospect Watch: Borenstein, Sappington

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.


Zach Borenstein, OF, Los Angeles Angels (Profile)
Level: Double-A   Age: 23   Top-15: 15th   Top-100: N/A
Line: 58 AB, .241/.333/.448, 2 HR, 8 BB, 20 K

Coming off of a strong offensive season in the California League, Borenstein’s performance in 2014 will help determine if he’s a true prospect or a suspect.

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Nathan Eovaldi: Bartolo Colon Meets Yordano Ventura

While there’s a chance you have your own personal anecdotes, most of us are familiar with Nathan Eovaldi for one thing: He’s a starting pitcher who throws super hard. I guess that’s two things. But so far this year, he’s got baseball’s second-fastest average fastball among starting pitchers, behind only Yordano Ventura. Eovaldi has been doing this since he first reached the majors, and he’s one of those live arms on the Marlins that leads people to think the staff has enormous upside. There’s all kinds of sex appeal in a starter who can throw 98 mph.

Most people equate good velocity with good stuff. And I think good velocity leads to one of two assumptions . Either the guy is an unhittable ace, or he’s tough to hit but wild. Basically, there’s the thought that good velocity means a low contact rate, and then it’s just a matter of how many strikes get thrown. But this year, Eovaldi’s been doing something different to the extreme — pitching like a guy with a very different profile. Nathan Eovaldi has been blending Ventura’s fastball with Bartolo Colon‘s approach.

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The Most Improved Pitchers Thus Far by Projected WAR

Since nearly the first day of the season, each player page at FanGraphs has featured — in addition to the assortment of 2014 projections made available during the preseason — both a rest-of-season and updated end-of-season projection for both the Steamer and ZiPS systems. In what follows, the author has utilized that data to the end of identifying five pitchers whose end-of-season projections have most improved since the beginning of the season.

Depending on what question one is specifically hoping to answer, there are a number of ways to attempt such an endeavor. What follows is the methodology I’ve used, however, with a brief explanation of certain choices.

What I’ve done is to:

1. Find the preseason projections for each pitcher according both to Steamer and ZiPS.

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FanGraphs After Dark Chat – 4/22/14

Paul Swydan: Hi everybody!

Jeff is off tonight, so I’ll be flying solo. So fill up the queue and we’ll talk some baseballs at 9 pm ET.

Paul Swydan: OK, let’s do this!
Comment From Matt
I just traded Xander Bogaerts, Michael Pineda for Mark Trumbo. We use R/HR/RBI/SB/OBP/Slugging….My HR/RBI are worst in league by a lot already and I have both Choo and Votto to offset OBP. Good trade?
Paul Swydan: I guess that depends on how much we should buy Pineda. And if it’s a dynasty league. If it’s a redraft league, I think you did a good job of filling needs. If it’s a dynasty league, I don’t like it very much. Esp w OBP as a category.
Comment From TheGoodPhight/David
What are the odds that Cliff Lee’s FA contract is the best large contract (100MM+) ever?
Paul Swydan: I think it’ll be up there. It’s definitely an area where I would like to see more research. IIRC, Manny Ramirez’s deal was pretty good. And A-Rod’s FIRST deal was more than worth it. I’m sure there are others. But Lee is definitely going to be up there if he keeps this up.

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Cliff Lee is Still Awesome

Last night, Cliff Lee dominated the Dodgers, throwing eight shutout innings, while striking out 10 batters without walking anyone. In other words, it was just your normal Cliff Lee start. For the season, Lee now has 38 strikeouts against two walks; this is just what he does. But just because we’re used to Cliff Lee’s ridiculous command doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remember to appreciate it.

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Lineup Genius in Cleveland

The Cleveland Indians weren’t supposed to make the playoffs in 2013. They did, briefly, thanks to a 10-game winning streak to end the season. But analysts, pundits and other words for sports bloggers were not impressed enough by the Indians come-from-behind success to predict a return engagement in 2014. Maybe they’re right. As of this writing, Cleveland resides in the basement of the American League Central, but they’re also just two-and-a-half games behind the division-leading Detroit Tigers.

One thing seems certain: Some very smart people are working for Team Cleveland. In addition to their focus on those intangible things we’ve had such a hard time measuring — like manager influence and chemistry — the club has also made some smart decisions about the roster’s composition.
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The Baseball Equivalent of Hitting on 16

Fairly early in life, I’d venture to guess that many of us learned to play basic card games, from poker to rummy to blackjack. These games were often learned at home from parents or other older relatives, in a family bonding type of setting. At an early stage in this process, someone likely sat us down and handed down some helpful hints as to how to play the game well – if the dealer is showing a face card in blackjack, for instance, it might make sense to take another card – a hit – if you are holding 16, otherwise a scenario in which you would almost never take another card. Playing the game thusly doesn’t mean you’re always going to win, of course – it simply tilts the odds ever so slightly in your direction.

Whether you’re playing bridge, Scrabble, Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit, there are “little things” you can do within the rules that enhance your chances of winning. It’s called game theory, and understanding it is vital to success in any endeavor that includes an element of chance. Odds are that utilization of data has become more commonplace in your workplace, and is integral to the management of businesses of all types. For some reason, despite the proliferation of data and its increased usage in baseball today, basic tenets of game theory continue to go unheeded by managers/organizations, and unnoticed by announcers/traditional media/bloggers. Case in point – this past weekend’s Mariners-Marlins series. Read the rest of this entry »

Jeff Sullivan FanGraphs Chat — 4/22/14

Jeff Sullivan: Hello there friends and enemies!

Jeff Sullivan: I have been later than this in the past!

Comment From TigersFan
Are we witnessing the beginning of the sharp decline of Miguel Cabrera?

Jeff Sullivan: Miguel Cabrera has sucked. But Robinson Cano has sucked, Matt Holliday has sucked, Prince Fielder has sucked, Allen Craig has sucked…

Jeff Sullivan: I’m most willing to believe Cabrera’s still just trying to piece everything together coming back from injury. But we can at least probably conclude that Cabrera isn’t going to get any *better* than he’s been in his MVP seasons

Comment From Vliet
Jeff – your thoughts on Drew Hutchison. Thks!

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Prospect Watch: Early Fallers

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.

Bubba Starling, OF, Kansas City Royals (Profile)
Level: High-A   Age: 21   Top-15: 8th   Top-100: N/A
Line: 74 PA, .133/.284/.250, 1 HR, 9 BB, 24 K

The former fifth-overall pick continues to struggle with his swing, leading to increasingly poor output as he climbs the ladder.

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Charlie Blackmon and Mike Trout in the Same Sentence

Funny thing about the WAR leaderboard is, as much as it’s still very early in the season, familiar names are starting to find their places. There’s Mike Trout. Of course there’s Mike Trout. If “WAR” didn’t sound so damned good, the stat might be called Wins Below Trout, and one would reasonably expect him to lead baseball from now through the end of the year. There’s Chase Utley, and as much as the Phillies have fallen apart around him, Utley remains one of the better all-around players in baseball, despite the injuries he’s been through. There’s Troy Tulowitzki, and of course Tulowitzki is one of the elites for as long as he can stay on the field. There’s Justin Upton, who has flashes of superstardom. There’s Freddie Freeman, who’s young enough to have this much upside. There are good players, and real good players, and some early surprises, and among the early surprises is Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon.

If you read FanGraphs, you’re more than a casual baseball fan, so you’re more likely to have heard of Charlie Blackmon. Also, if you read FanGraphs, you’ve read Carson Cistulli, so you’re more likely still to have heard of Charlie Blackmon. Blackmon has long been one of Cistulli’s crushes, but the thing about Cistulli’s crushes is that he deliberately falls in love with the fringey and unheralded. Those players aren’t supposed to blossom into stars, not anywhere outside of Cistulli’s head, but here we are and we have to acknowledge what Blackmon’s been up to since winning a job with the Rockies out of camp.

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FanGraphs Audio: The Dave Cameron Abides

Episode 443
Dave Cameron is both (a) the managing editor of FanGraphs and (b) the guest on this particular edition of FanGraphs Audio — during which edition he endures the slings and arrows of outrageous internet connectivity.

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 31 min play time.)

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When Should You Be Allowed to Bunt?

Quick answer: whenever you feel like it. Longer answer: to follow.

You’ve already had the entire weekend to forget about last week, and over the weekend, there was an incident involving Carlos Gomez and Gerrit Cole that cleared the benches and that will lead to suspensions. So you’re forgiven if you don’t remember much from Friday, but from Friday, I’d like to present to you a sequence of events. Prior to the Gomez sportsmanship incident, there was a sportsmanship incident in a game between the A’s and the Astros with Jed Lowrie and Bo Porter right in the middle.

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An Early Look at wOBA Differential

The season is still only three weeks old, and basically anything can happen over the course of 20 baseball games. The Brewers aren’t the best team in baseball, the D’Backs aren’t the worst, and Jesse Chavez isn’t going to win the Cy Young Award. But, at the same time, the most recent data is also the most informative data, and there are some numbers that can have meaning quicker than others. While you shouldn’t care too much about a team’s Win-Loss record on April 21st, we can boil down early season team performance into numbers that a bit more heavily represented by skill rather than randomness.

One of my favorite ways to look at team performance is wOBA differential. It’s basically the same concept as run differential, but strips away the heavy factor that sequencing can have on runs scored and runs allowed. The order of events matters in the outcome of past results, but holds little predictive value, and by looking at non-sequenced results, we can get a better idea of how a team has performed than if we also introduce the timing of those events into the mix.

wOBA differential isn’t perfect, of course; it doesn’t include baserunning, for one, and teams can move the needle a little bit by how often their baserunners advance, but that portion of the game is fairly small relative to everything else. By and large, wOBA differential gives you a pretty good idea of how teams have played thus far. So, let’s get to the numbers.

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