Michael Conforto Is Ahead of the Book on Him

A casual stroll down the stacks of the FanGraphs hitting leaderboards for outfielders yields many interesting takeaways, but perhaps none more interesting than this: among the top 10 outfielders by wRC+, there’s a 23-year-old who played only 45 games above High-A before being called up to the majors last year. He came into this season with the expectation of being a left-handed platoon bat, and now he’s leading the majors in hard-hit rate and hitting third everyday in the sixth-best offensive lineup in baseball. A year can change a lot of things, and it has changed more for Michael Conforto than for just about anyone else in baseball.

Conforto had about as successful a short stint in the majors during 2015 as one could hope for out of a young player with little experience in the high minors — he posted a 134 wRC+ in 56 games, hit a few important home runs in the playoffs, and outperformed the established historical expectations for players in his position. Conforto was good for 2.1 WAR in those 56 games, and the Mets went from a .505 team without him — 3.0 games back in their division — to a .631 team with him, comfortable winners of the National League East. The August/September 2015 Mets weren’t just Conforto, of course, but the Mets needed an offensive jolt, and he provided it. Conforto’s introduction represented a tidy dividing line between mediocrity and wild success, and we’d be fools not to at least recognize the narrative convenience of that line.

That type of introduction to the major leagues is hard to live up to — and yet! Here we are, a month into the season, and Conforto has lived up to them. More than lived up to them, in fact. He’s probably created new expectations, and they’re even loftier, almost impossible ones. We know how easy it is to be wrong about April numbers. It’s folly to think that April assures us of what’s going to happen for the rest of the season. But, while we shouldn’t necessarily expect this current level of production out of him moving forward, he’s showing us a few real improvements so far this season that merit some attention. Conforto isn’t truly this good (no one is), but there’s a reason he’s currently this good.

Let’s start with who he was in 2015. Describing Conforto as a dead-pull hitter in 2015 wouldn’t be accurate, but he was close: he ranked 35th from bottom in terms of batted balls to the opposite field (out of 361 qualifying hitters, min. 190 PAs). Interestingly, he had a hole in his swing, and it was on the inside part of the plate — not really where you’d expect to find it for such a pull-happy hitter. Take a look at his isolated power per pitch location from 2015:

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 12.59.53 AM

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FanGraphs Audio: August Fagerstrom Remains Employed

Episode 649
August Fagerstrom certainly has written for MLB.com — and, almost just as certainly, does write currently for FanGraphs, by which site he’s employed as some manner of editor. He’s also the guest on this edition of FanGraphs Audio, during which he discusses the relationship between Oakland left-hander Rich Hill and the Fibonacci spiral, Boston knuckleballer Steven Wright and that moment when information becomes an impediment for major leaguers, among other sundry topics.

This episode of the program is sponsored by SeatGeek, which site removes both the work and also the hassle from the process of shopping for tickets.

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 45 min play time.)

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Play

Sunday Notes: Fredi’s Leash, Headley, Happ, Miller, more

In 2011, in his first year at the helm in Atlanta, Fredi Gonzalez led the Braves to 89 wins. The following year, he led them to 94 wins. In 2013, that total climbed to 96. Bobby Cox’s replacement was skippering one of the best squads in baseball.

Things have changed. Gonzalez wears the same uniform — there’s still a tomahawk on his chest — but his team has been stripped of its stars. The Braves are in full rebuild mode, and while that’s not his doing, wins are nonetheless at a premium. Fair or not, Gonzalez has a target squarely on his back.

Nothing appears imminent, but it’s not unreasonable to believe that the Fredi-must-go movement will ultimately get its wish. In his own words, the club is losing in “all kind of different ways.” Regarding their record, he added that “Nobody expects us to win 120 games and boat race the division, but my expectation is that we’re going to be competitive; I want to win games.”

He isn’t winning many. Atlanta heads into May a worst-in-baseball 5-18. Gonzalez knows the score. He also wants to stay. Read the rest of this entry »


The Best of FanGraphs: April 25-29, 2016

Each week, we publish north of 100 posts on our various blogs. With this post, we hope to highlight 10 to 15 of them. You can read more on it here. The links below are color coded — green for FanGraphs, brown for RotoGraphs, dark red for The Hardball Times and blue for Community Research.
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Crowdsourcing MLB Broadcasters: Day 10 of 10

Other radio-broadcast ballots: Arizona / Atlanta / Baltimore / Boston / Chicago AL / Chicago NL / Cincinnati / Cleveland / Colorado / Detroit / Houston / Kansas City / Los Angeles AL / Los Angeles NL / Miami / Milwaukee / Minnesota / New York AL / New York NL / Oakland / Philadelphia / Pittsburgh / St. Louis / San Diego.

Recently, the present author began the process of process of reproducing the broadcaster rankings which appeared on this site roughly four years ago. The purpose of those rankings? To place a “grade” on each of the league’s television and radio broadcast teams — a grade intended to represent not necessarily the objective quality or skill of the relevant announcers, but rather the appeal those announcers might have to the readers of this site. By way of MLB.TV feeds, the typical major-league telecast offers four distinct audio feeds — which is to say, the radio and television commentary both for the home and road clubs. The idea of these broadcast rankings was to give readers an opportunity to make an informed decision about how to consume a telecast.

Below are another collection of six ballots for radio broadcast teams.

For each broadcasting team, the reader is asked to supply a grade on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 representing the highest mark) according to the following criteria: Charisma, Analysis, and then Overall.

Charisma is, essentially, the personal charm of the announcers in question. Are they actively entertaining? Do they possess real camaraderie? Would you — as is frequently the case with Vin Scully — would you willingly exchange one of your living grandfathers in order to spend time with one of these announcers? The Analysis provided by a broadcast team could skew more towards the sabermetric or more towards the scouting side of things. In either case, is it grounded in reason? The Overall rating is the overall quality of the broadcast team — nor need this be a mere average of the previous two ratings. Bob Uecker, for example, provides very little in the way of analysis, and yet certainly rates well overall, merely by force of personality. Finally, there’s a box of text in which readers can elaborate upon their grades, if so compelled.

***

San Francisco Giants

Some relevant information regarding San Francisco’s broadcast:

  • Play-by-play coverage is typically provided by Jon Miller.
  • Color analysis is typically provided by Dave Flemming.
  • Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper appear from the TV side sometimes.

Click here to grade San Francisco’s radio broadcast team.

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Sean Manaea Comes to Oakland

As Susan Slusser with the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Wednesday, Sean Manaea will be called up to start Friday’s game in Oakland against Mike Fiers and the Houston Astros. Manaea made a decent case for making the rotation out of spring training, tallying 16 strikeouts in 14.1 innings, but the seven walks allowed over the same period gave the A’s enough reason to start him in Triple-A Nashville.

Across three starts in Nashville, he has been lights out on the mound. Only three runs have crossed the plate against him in 18 innings pitched, while 21 batters have struck out and just four have reached via free passes. That level of performance was enough for Oakland to feel comfortable bringing him up to the majors in lieu of a fourth appearance for the Sounds. But what can we expect from him out of this start, and (presumably) those going forward in an A’s uniform?

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Saying Nice Things About A.J. Pierzynski

A.J. Pierzynski has played baseball for a very long time. He’s one of the few players to predate not only the PITCHf/x era (2007-present), but also the Baseball Info Solutions era (2002-present). He’s one of just six active players who played in the 1990s — the others are Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, Bartolo Colon, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. They are all well celebrated and beloved players. Pierzynski does not fit in that group.

If you’re familiar with Pierzynski, you likely know that his opponents generally have not been all that fond of him. A Google search for “A.J. Pierzynski hate” turns up plenty of results. Rather than focus on that, I thought it would be fun to find some nice to things to say about Pierzynski.

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Gordon Suspension Magnifies Concerns for League, Players

Major League Baseball is now in its second decade of testing and suspensions, so we should be past surprises when it comes to the type of players getting caught for using performance-enhancing drugs. The controversy surrounding Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire might have made PEDs famous in baseball, and Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, and Alex Rodriguez have all been suspended by MLB for PED use, but there’s no single type of player using PEDs. Bartolo Colon, Freddy Galvis, and Dee Gordon have all tested positive, as well — Gordon representing the most recent case after testing positive for exogenous testosterone and clostebol. In most cases, a suspension is held up as an example that the system works and that MLB is catching users. Given Gordon’s contract situation, however, that might not be the case here.

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The Slider Moves Differently to Different Locations

I gave Royals’ right-hander Chris Young a bit of an incredulous look — “You’re throwing the slider a ton this year!” He shrugged. Sure. “It’s okay, you can throw it inside and out, and it’s been good. But it moves a little differently depending on where you throw it.”

Young then mimicked the release point when trying to throw a slider inside to a right-handed hitter, and then he showed where the release point might be when throwing it outside to a right-handed hitter. One was straight to the plate, and the other had more side-to-side finish to it.

If you’ve pitched competitively — or, at least, possess more experience than my own, which is limited to throwing a whiffle ball to my kid while he imitates Julio Franco — this may be old hat to you. But to me, it was surprising and also totally logical at the same time. I immediately wanted to know what this looked like.

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The Unfathomable Reality of a (Temporarily) Awful Joey Votto

It’s always a little dicey writing negative articles. Pointing out deficiencies simply isn’t as fun as pointing out strengths, and there’s something that just feels, well, a little wrong about basing work on something a player is trying so hard to do well. That doesn’t feel like it pertains to this article about Joey Votto, however, mostly because he’s always been extremely good at baseball, and will almost certainly be extremely good at baseball in the near future. Votto has a great contract, an incredible career under his belt, and the prospect of many more wildly successful seasons. The dude is smart and awesome, and we’re simply not too worried about him. However — and the however is important — for really the first time in his career, Votto has been terrible at the plate for almost a full month. That’s at once unbelievable and utterly fascinating, and it’s the reason why we’re here.

So let’s start with a chart. Here’s a readout of Votto’s monthly wRC+ figures since he was called up to the majors in September of 2007. We could have gone with a rolling average, but the monthly delineation gives us a few clear reference points. Mouse over the chart for more information:

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Jeff Sullivan FanGraphs Chat — 4/29/16

9:10
Jeff Sullivan: Well dammit friends

9:10
Jeff Sullivan: Let’s just baseball chat

9:10
Jeff Sullivan: Hello

9:10
Guest: Jeff, OMG did you fix Chris Archer???

9:11
Jeff Sullivan: Chris Archer didn’t need very much fixing, which helps

9:11
Jeff Sullivan: It’s like trying to fix David Price

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The Goods and Bads of Lorenzo Cain’s Struggles

Lorenzo Cain has had a rough go of it so far. That much we can say with absolute certainty. Cain’s coming off a seven-win season in which he finished second runner-up — behind Josh Donaldson and Mike Trout — for the American League MVP, and there was also that whole world championship thing. The Royals weren’t — and aren’t — a team built around stars, but if there was a star of last year’s champs, Cain was the guy. It was also something like his breakout season, and while Cain isn’t young at 30 years of age, he’s certainly not old enough that we entered the offseason wondering whether he could sustain most or all of that breakout. Cain was the de facto star, and there was little reason to believe he wouldn’t continue being the de facto star.

Through 20 games of Kansas City’s victory lap, he’s been anything but. The only number you really need to know for now is 64, which is Cain’s wRC+ in 83 plate appearances. It’s a bad number. We know that. The bigger questions are ones like, “Why is the bad bad?” and, “Is there any good in the bad?” and, “Am I being the best version of myself?” We probably won’t get to all of that, but we’re going to try.

Let’s start with a good thing!

A good thing: Lorenzo Cain is walking a bunch! That’s a good thing. Because walks are good, and he’s doing them a lot. It’s not like Cain has just totally lost control of the strike zone and is suddenly going all Josh Hamilton on everything. When Josh Hamilton started going all Josh Hamilton on everything, it was almost like a flip switched and his career was put on hold until further notice. There’s beating yourself, and there’s getting beat. Beat yourself and the opponent doesn’t even have to do any of the work. Cain, at the very least, seems like he’s making pitchers work. This has been one good thing.

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The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced a few years ago by the present author, wherein that same author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own fallible intuition 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 who (a) received a future value grade of 45 or less from lead prospect analyst Dan Farnsworth during the course of his organizational lists and who (b) was omitted from the preseason prospect lists produced by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and John Sickels, and also who (c) is currently absent from a major-league roster. Players appearing on an updated prospect list or, otherwise, selected in the first round of the current season’s amateur draft will also be excluded from eligibility.

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Here Comes Taijuan Walker

You’ve read articles like this before. That’s because Taijuan Walker has been a somebody for years, and we’ve all been waiting for him to kick it up. When you know a player is already hyped, you’re predisposed to think the most of any encouraging performances. It’s a bias, is what it is, leading observers to get ahead of themselves. I think, in the past, it’s been easy to get too excited about Walker. He needed to show more. But that’s why this is a post now. He’s showing more. Taijuan Walker is showing signs that he might be almost complete.

You remember that something seemed to click for Walker toward the end of last May. Through nine starts, he had 23 walks and 39 strikeouts. Through the remaining 20 starts, he had 17 walks and 118 strikeouts. That got people excited, and rightfully so, because those are tremendous indicators of improvement. But something was missing. Something was just a little bit off — over those 20 starts, Walker ran a near-average ERA. He had the strikes, and he had the whiffs, but he didn’t have the contact management. He was tantalizing, but unfinished.

I’m not declaring that Walker now is finished. That’ll take more proof. But Walker, this year, has carried over the walks and the strikeouts. In that sense, he looks exactly the same. Yet he’s allowed just one home run. He’s giving up far less solid contact, having dramatically increased his rate of grounders. Coming in, Walker was missing one thing. It seems he could be finding it.

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Crowdsourcing MLB Broadcasters: Day 9 of 10

Other radio-broadcast ballots: Arizona / Atlanta / Baltimore / Boston / Chicago AL / Chicago NL / Cincinnati / Cleveland / Colorado / Detroit / Houston / Kansas City / Los Angeles AL / Los Angeles NL / Miami / Milwaukee / Minnesota / New York AL.

Recently, the present author began the process of process of reproducing the broadcaster rankings which appeared on this site roughly four years ago. The purpose of those rankings? To place a “grade” on each of the league’s television and radio broadcast teams — a grade intended to represent not necessarily the objective quality or skill of the relevant announcers, but rather the appeal those announcers might have to the readers of this site. By way of MLB.TV feeds, the typical major-league telecast offers four distinct audio feeds — which is to say, the radio and television commentary both for the home and road clubs. The idea of these broadcast rankings was to give readers an opportunity to make an informed decision about how to consume a telecast.

Below are another collection of six ballots for radio broadcast teams.

For each broadcasting team, the reader is asked to supply a grade on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 representing the highest mark) according to the following criteria: Charisma, Analysis, and then Overall.

Charisma is, essentially, the personal charm of the announcers in question. Are they actively entertaining? Do they possess real camaraderie? Would you — as is frequently the case with Vin Scully — would you willingly exchange one of your living grandfathers in order to spend time with one of these announcers? The Analysis provided by a broadcast team could skew more towards the sabermetric or more towards the scouting side of things. In either case, is it grounded in reason? The Overall rating is the overall quality of the broadcast team — nor need this be a mere average of the previous two ratings. Bob Uecker, for example, provides very little in the way of analysis, and yet certainly rates well overall, merely by force of personality. Finally, there’s a box of text in which readers can elaborate upon their grades, if so compelled.

***

New York Mets

Some relevant information regarding the Mets’ broadcast:

  • Play-by-play coverage is typically provided by Howie Rose.
  • Color analysis is typically provided by Josh Lewin.
  • Like six other guys maybe appear for select games.

Click here to grade the Mets’ radio broadcast team.

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Jose Fernandez Has Two Breaking Balls

Sometimes you just have to ask. Different systems have different answers for the pitching mix that Jose Fernandez brings to the mound each game. So I did ask him. I said, “Do you consider your breaking ball a slider or a curve?” And the Marlins’ righty said, “I got both. I can throw both. I trust them both equally.” It was a group scrum, not the time for a real in-depth thing, but just knowing there are two there can set us on a path.

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The Nationals’ Hot Start Has Had Some Help

I feel like I just wrote this recently somewhere, but I guess I’ll write it again. In baseball, people don’t pay too much attention to strength of schedule. In part this is because numbers aren’t easy to come by. In probably larger part, this is because strengths tend to mostly even out. That’s true over full seasons, for sure, but there’s no reason it should be true over smaller samples. Like, here’s a stat for you. Pitchers Aledmys Diaz has faced so far have allowed a combined .877 OPS. Pitchers Brad Miller has faced so far have allowed a combined .653 OPS. Is it any wonder why Diaz is presently out-hitting Miller? That’s an enormous gap, and it isn’t going to remain so enormous.

Let’s turn our attention to the overall standings. By wins and losses, no one has been better than the Cubs. That’s no surprise. They’re even with the White Sox, which is a bigger surprise. Then you find the Nationals. Though they’ve lost a couple in a row, they’re still 14-6, and while we expected the Nationals to be pretty good, we didn’t expect them to be this good. Of course, we’re kind of still waiting for the Nationals to play a major-league opponent.

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Ranking April’s Most Dominant Pitching Performances to Date

It’s almost time to rip the first page from the regular-season calendar, and many players and moments have already left indelible marks that will live on in our memories. From Trevor Story to Kenta Maeda, from the Cubs and Nationals on the good end to the Twins and Astros on the bad, it’s been an exciting ride thus far.

There are a number of dominant pitching performances already in the books, with Jake Arrieta‘s second no-hitter in as many years an obvious highlight. Just a week before his vanquishing of the Reds, the Phils’ Vincent Velasquez and the Cards’ Jaime Garcia unfurled identical game scores of 97 in complete game victories over the Padres and Brewers, respectively. Since it’s still early in the season, and sample sizes remain quite small, let’s use batted-ball data in a more laid-back, fun manner, and attempt to split some hairs among these three gems, and crown one as April’s most impressive pitching performance.

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Pitchers Can’t Seem to Get the (A)Led(mys Diaz) Out

Note: the editor of this post played no part in the composition of its despicable title. All grievances should be directed to the author, Craig Edwards.

Baseball is full of April surprises. Players who come seemingly out of nowhere. Albert Pujols was one such player back in 2001. So was Chris Shelton back in 2005, Devon Travis last year, and Trevor Story already this season. As Trevor Story has seen his production decline, another surprise has risen in the form of Aledmys Diaz, the Cuban-born shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. While many players have come over from Cuba after having received considerable attention and bonus money, Diaz entered baseball in the United States with much less fanfare. Two years after his signing, he is having one the most surprising — and one of the best — starts to a season of all time.

With few exceptions, Cuban players take an unusual route to professional baseball in the State — due, of course, to the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. For Diaz to sign with an MLB team presented difficulties. Under the rules at the time of his defection, players from Cuba who (a) were 23 or older and (b) possessed a certain amount of professional experience, were exempt from international bonus pools. When Diaz entered the country in the middle of 2013, he indicated he was born January 8, 1990 (1/8/1990) which would have made him a free agent exempt from bonus pools. Other documentation contradicted that statement, indicating he was born on August 1, 1990 (8/1/1990). Due to the inaccuracy, MLB prevented him from signing for another six months.

Diaz worked out for many teams, eventually signing with the Cardinals to a four-year, $8 million contract in March. By the time Diaz started playing for the Cardinals, it had been a year since he had played competitive baseball on a regular basis. Diaz hit pretty well in 2014 but, due to injury, played in fewer than 50 games between High-A and Double-A — a result, possibly, of the increased workload after a period away from the game. Diaz then started slowly in 2015 — so slowly, in fact, that the Cardinals decided in July they could put him through waivers and remove him from the 40-man roster ,as they didn’t want to risk doing the same to Pete Kozma. With around $5 million remaining on the contract, there were no takers. Immediately thereafter Diaz started hitting, and he has not stopped.

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Mallex Smith: Atlanta’s Speedy Role Model Smells the Roses

Mallex Smith is a speed burner. He’s also a big leaguer. Atlanta called up the 22-year-old outfielder earlier this month when Ender Inciarte went on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. He’s off to a slow start — Smith has reached base just 12 times in 50 plate appearances — but a bright future lies ahead. The Braves’ 2015 Minor League Player of the Year is coming off a season in which he slashed .306/.373/.386, with 57 steals, between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett.

A fifth-round pick by the Padres in 2012, Smith was acquired by Atlanta in the December 2014 Justin Upton deal. He talked about his call-up, and his deep appreciation for where baseball has taken him, prior to yesterday’s game at Fenway Park.

———

Smith on getting called up from Triple-A: “I got called into the office and that was just to say, ‘We don’t know.’ They said we had to wait and see. I was told I wasn’t going to play that day, and the reason why. It wasn’t until after the game that it was a definite.

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