Another Year with Joe Blanton, Great Reliever

The price of relief pitching is on the rise. Baseball die hards are currently having a fierce debate about reliever valuation, but it’s relatively clear that teams are willing to pony up for quality back of the bullpen arms. The recent deals for Ken Giles, Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Will Smith demonstrate as much. Clubs want good relievers (who can blame them!) and they are allocating more resources toward their acquisition.

I’m not an economist, but I imagine teams would rather acquire a high-quality reliever who isn’t expensive than one who is. Unfortunately, market forces tend to get in the way and you wind up trading lots of prospects for a couple seasons of reliever help. Unless you’re the Dodgers. If you’re the Dodgers, you take a gamble on Joe Blanton‘s 2015 season and get a setup man at utility-infielder prices.

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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 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, MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo, and John Sickels, and also who (c) is currently absent from a major-league roster. Players appearing on a midseason list or, otherwise, selected in the first round of the current season’s amateur draft will also be excluded from eligibility.

In the final analysis, the basic idea is this: to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents or performance might otherwise warrant.

*****

Daniel Gossett, RHP, Oakland (Profile)
Back in March, ESPN’s Keith Law visited the backfields of Oakland’s complex in Arizona. The result of that visit: a very positive impression of right-hander Daniel Gossett.

From the report he filed:

“He looked great Friday, thanks to a new cutter at 86-89 mph with sharp break downward as much as to the side, along with a fastball at 91-96 mph (sitting 94) that he was blowing by hitters. He showed a solid average changeup at 82-85 mph and a power curveball that was kind of slurvy but hard at 82-83 mph”

Gossett has looked great on a number of other days since that Friday in May, it would appear. Originally selected by Oakland in the second round of the 2014 draft out of Clemson, the 23-year-old right-hander was adequate but not dominant during his first extended tour of affiliated baseball last year. This season, however, has been a revelation for him. After producing nearly a 21-point strikeout- and walk-rate differential over nine starts with High-A Stockton, Gossett has nearly replicated that sort of control of the zone in Double-A. He’s been particularly strong of late, recording a 17:2 strikeout-to-walk rate against 49 batters in two starts (13.0 innings) since last week’s edition of the Five.

Here’s footage of Gossett from June, recording a strikeout with a curve and two fastballs, the latter of which was reported at 93 mph:

Domingo Leyba, SS/2B, Arizona (Profile)
Dawel Lugo, 3B/SS, Arizona (Profile)
Ildemaro Vargas, 2B/SS, Arizona (Profile)
This triumvirate appears here together because (a) they’re all employed by the same organization and because (b) whatever differences they possess as ballplayers, said differences are a function more of degree than type. The type in question: a contact-oriented hitter with usable power who’s also likely to produce net-positive defensive value. Regard, by way of illustration, certain numbers recorded by this triumvirate during the present month:

The Arizona Three in August
Player Level Age PA BB% K% ISO lgISO* wRC+ Pos
Domingo Leyba Double-A 20 88 10.2% 6.8% .077 .114 129 SS-17, 2B-3
Dawel Lugo Double-A 21 78 2.6% 9.0% .171 .114 128 3B-14, SS-5
Ildemaro Vargas Triple-A 25 101 9.9% 4.0% .128 .146 142 2B-20, SS-3
*Average isolated-power figure in relevant league.

Ildemaro Vargas has been a fixture among the Five this year. Indeed, with his appearance here, the former indy leaguer settles into third place on the arbitrarily calculated Scoreboard one finds at the bottom of this post. Dawel Lugo, for his part, has previously been included among the Next Five. Originally signed out of the Dominican for $1.3 million by Toronto in 2011, he moved to Arizona last August in the deal that sent Cliff Pennington to the Blue Jays. Signed originally as a shortstop, Lugo has moved to third predominantly — partly in deference to Leyba, it would appear, and partly just because it was inevitable. After producing better-than-average contact and power figures with High-A Visalia, he was promoted in early July to the Southern League, where he’s continued to exhibit almost precisely the same profile. He’s succeeded, at 21, in a league for which the average age is 24.0.

Which, this seems to be an opportune moment upon which to note that the third player being discussed here, Domingo Leyba, is still actually just 20, rendering him one of the youngest field players in all of Double-A. Signed originally by the Tigers out of the Dominican for $400,000 in 2012, Leyba was traded to Arizona (along with Robbie Ray) in the deal that sent Didi Gregorius to New York and Shane Greene to Detroit. After passing the entire 2015 season at High-A Visalia, Leyba started the 2016 campaign there, as well. Whether due to real adjustments or greater physical strength oe randomness, his numbers on contact improved by some measure — and, following a mid-July promotion to Mobile (roughly a week after Lugo’s own promotion), he’s both made more contact and drawn more walks while facing more advanced competition.

Max Schrock, 2B, Oakland (Profile)
Schrock appears here less because of his performance over the last week — although he continued to exhibit his customarily excellent contact skills, etc. — and more because of the Breaking News in which he played a part yesterday. A basic summary of that news: Schrock was sent to Oakland from Washington in exchange for left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski. The author’s own towering thoughts on the matter appeared in full at the site here yesterday. With a view to repeating myself, however, here’s a passage from that post, on the matter of major leaguers who possess Schrock’s basic skills:

[E]ver since that mid-winter’s post celebrating Schrock’s virtues, he’s acquitted himself almost perfectly, first recording the lowest strikeout rate among all Low-A batters and, more recently, recording almost the lowest strikeout rate among High-A batters — while also producing a roughly league-average isolated-power figure at both levels. That combination of extreme contact and satisfactory power — combined with the capacity to occupy a place on the more challenging end of the defensive spectrum — is a deceptively valuable one. Players who’ve paired those skills at the major-league level have been almost uniformly helpful.

To find major leaguers who possess Schrock’s basic skill set, I identified all the qualified players over the first half of this decade who recorded an elite strikeout rate (under 11%, in this case, which accounts for roughly 10% of batters each year) and exhibited roughly league-average power (.130-.160 ISO) and produced a positive positional adjustment. The results of that search appear below. (Note: catchers have been excluded because their positional adjustment renders them otherly.)

Max Schrock Comparables, 2011-15?
Name Team Season PA K% ISO wRC+ Pos WAR
Jose Reyes Mets 2011 586 7.0% .156 142 5.6 5.9
Robinson Cano Mariners 2014 665 10.2% .139 137 1.4 5.2
Ian Kinsler Tigers 2014 726 10.9% .145 103 2.4 5.2
Jose Altuve Astros 2015 689 9.7% .146 123 2.2 4.5
Andrelton Simmons Braves 2013 658 8.4% .149 91 7.0 4.5
Dustin Pedroia Red Sox 2012 623 9.6% .160 114 1.9 4.5
Jose Reyes Marlins 2012 716 7.8% .146 110 7.3 4.1
Jimmy Rollins Phillies 2011 631 9.4% .131 103 6.1 3.6
Ian Kinsler Rangers 2013 614 9.6% .136 104 0.7 2.6
Martin Prado D-backs 2013 664 8.0% .135 104 0.8 1.9
Average 9.1% .144 113 3.5 4.2
*Excludes catchers.
**Also possibly excludes reason.

The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.

Greg Allen, OF, Cleveland (Double-A Eastern League)
Austin Davidson, 2B/3B, Washington (High-A Carolina League)
Zack Granite, OF, Minnesota (Double-A Southern League)
Dinelson Lamet, RHP, San Diego (Double-A Texas League)
Pablo Reyes, 2B/SS, Pittsburgh (High-A Florida State League)

Fringe Five Scoreboard
Here is the top-10 list of players who have appeared among either the Fringe Five (FF) or Next Five (NF) so far this season (which is to say, today). For mostly arbitrary reasons, players are assessed three points for each week they’ve appeared among the Fringe Five; a single point, for each week among the Next Five.

Fringe Five Scoreboard, 2016
Name Team POS FF NF PTS
1 Sherman Johnson Angels 2B 12 5 41
2 Greg Allen Indians OF 8 7 31
3 Ildemaro Vargas D-backs 2B/SS 7 3 24
4 Jharel Cotton LAN/OAK RHP 5 6 21
5 Max Schrock WAS/OAK 2B 6 1 19
6 Aaron Wilkerson BOS/MIL RHP 5 2 17
7 Tim Locastro Dodgers SS 4 3 15
Yandy Diaz Indians 3B/OF 4 3 15
9 Jaime Schultz Rays RHP 4 2 14
10 Chad Green Yankees RHP 4 1 13

The One Problem With Kris Bryant’s MVP Case

Kris Bryant is everything you could want in an MVP candidate. He hits, he runs, he plays defense, he moves around, he’s in there every day — Bryant is an outstanding player on an outstanding team. You don’t have to worry about the Cubs wasting him, and not going to the playoffs. If Bryant’s teammates are doing him any harm, it could be because there are too many good ones — even without Bryant, the Cubs would be fine. It speaks to the roster’s strength, but Bryant is the best regular. He’s maybe, or probably, the best all-around player in the National League.

There’s more than a month left to go, so various leaderboards are going to change. Performances will change, and perceptions will go along with them. That being said, Kris Bryant has to be thought of as the NL MVP front-runner. By which I mean, I assume he has the most support. And, what a player to throw your support behind! In so many ways, Bryant would be deserving. There’s just one little problem. That one little problem is basically the entire counter-argument.

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One of Baseball’s Best Pitches Is Missing

There’s a sense that Jake Arrieta isn’t quite what he’s been before. It’s not entirely untrue — a season ago, Arrieta put together a historic campaign. He set the bar so high for himself that it would be next to impossible to meet the updated expectations. But, you know, Arrieta’s still been terrific. Last year, opponents batted .185. This year they’ve batted .183. He ranks fourth among qualified starting pitchers in ERA, and even since his ERA dipped under 1 around the beginning of May, it’s been just a little over 3. Last year’s National League Cy Young came down to Arrieta, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw’s hurt. Greinke’s already allowed 19 more runs than he did a season ago. Arrieta is doing just fine.

He simply seems a wee bit less automatic. From the perspective of an observer, he’s made it more difficult to take outs for granted. From the perspective of an analyst, Arrieta’s command has wobbled. And what’s maybe most interesting here: Arrieta apparently doesn’t have a feel for his slider. Or cutter. Or whatever. You know what I mean. Arrieta has managed a low ERA while, underneath, he’s had trouble finding what had been one of the truly elite pitches in the game.

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An Early Look at the Catchers in the 2017 Draft

We’re continuing a series of scouting reports on 2017 draft-eligible high-school players. I’ve already filed reports on left-handed pitchers, which you can find here. Today we’re discussing catchers.

High-school catching is often one of the draft’s most fruitless positions and 2017 looks like an average group.

M.J. Melendez, C, Saint James School (AL)

Height: 6’, Weight: 160, Commitment: Florida International

Melendez’s father, Mervyl, Sr., is the head baseball coach at Florida International and indeed that is where M.J. (Mervyl, Jr.) is committed to play ball in college. At this point, it’s unclear to scouts whether or not that will have any impact on Melendez’s signability.

This is the best prep catcher I saw this summer but it’s hard to glean anything from a statement like that because depth at premium positions (especially among high schoolers) is very volatile, draft to draft.. Melendez has special defensive traits. He is lithe, loose and twitchy with uncommon athleticism and movement skills for a catcher, as well as an average receiver with plus raw arm strength. I had pop times as low as 1.94 to second base and 1.5 flat to third. Melendez also has some potential with the bat (which I’ll get into later) but he’s very raw offensively and is going to be drafted primarily because of his defensive ability. So where are catching prospects like this typically selected? Here’s a brief rundown of early-round high-school catchers from recent years:

2016: Cooper Johnson is the best defensive prep catcher in the class but falls due to weird signability issues. Of the 30 catchers taken in the first 10 rounds of the draft, only five of them are high schoolers and all of them (Andy Yerzy, Ben Rortvedt, Mario Feliciano, Payton Henry, Sam Huff) are bat-first prospects.

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Money Is Buying Wins Again in 2016

If the playoffs started today, the Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, and St. Louis Cardinals would be in the playoffs on the National League side. The top-five payrolls in the NL belong to those same five teams. Over in the American League, the Cleveland Indians seem likely to make the playoffs while the New York Yankees likely will not — and the Los Angeles Angels aren’t anywhere near the playoffs, but these are merely exceptions to the rule. Anecdotally it certainly seems like money matters this year after several years of parity. Digging into the numbers of the relationship between money and wins, the numbers indicate that a team’s payroll really is more important now than at any other time in the last decade.

There are 15 teams this season whose opening-day payrolls exceeded $130 million. Among those 15 teams, only the Los Angeles Angels possessed a losing record through Tuesday’s games, and if the playoffs started today, the top half of teams by payroll would claim nine of the 10 available playoff spots. Of that bottom 15, the only teams with a winning record are the Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros, Miami Marlins, and Cleveland Indians. Cleveland would represent the only team among that group to qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today. If this seems unusual, it is. And it isn’t.

Last season at around this time, I looked at the relationship between wins and payroll and found that there was nothing significant. The correlation coefficient between wins and payroll was .17, and that number had been part of a decline that had been occurring over the previous decade. As Brian MacPherson pointed out when he researched the issue the year prior, the relationship between wins and payroll had been declining since the start of this decade. At the end of last season, the correlation coefficient for wins and payroll in 2015 was a very low .22, but in discussing the issue last year, I pointed to two causes for concern (if a lack of parity is concerning).

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Oakland Acquires Improbable, Inevitable Future MVP in Trade

In January of this year, the author of this post, following some statistical perambulations, arrived at the conclusion that Max Schrock, a 13th-round selection out of the University of South Carolina during the most recent (2015) draft, would someday win an MVP award. The basis for that conclusion: no SEC batter in 2015 had produced numbers more similar to Josh Donaldson‘s — during Donaldson’s own final year as a collegiate player (also in the SEC) — than Schrock. And Donaldson himself had just collected an MVP award in the American League. So, by a very liberal application of the transitive property, I concluded that Schrock would as well.

There were, of course, a number of reasons to suppose that Max Schrock would not win an MVP award in the major leagues. There remain a number of reasons. Chief among them is probably this: the best player of the current era — and possibly any one’s era ever — has received only one MVP award during his first four seasons in the majors and faces a non-negligible chance of extending that record to one in five years. If Mike Trout is capable of just a 20% conversion rate on MVP awards, everyone else’s chances are dramatically lower.

Moreover, there’s the matter of Schrock himself. Because, here’s a type of prospect who rarely develops into a perennial MVP candidate: a 5-foot-8 hitter. And here’s another kind: an infielder who’s incapable of playing a competent shortstop. And here’s a third sort: a player who’s selected in the 13th round. How many 5-foot-8, 13th-round second basemen have been recognized as their respective league’s best? I lack the requisite ambition to perform the search. But none seems like a reasonable answer. Let’s assume none or somewhere close to none. Indeed, even Josh Donaldson, whose ascent to stardom is regarded as improbable, is a former first-round selection. And features physical attributes that suggest the ability to hit for power. And offered, as a young player, the possibility of defensive value as a catcher. (And continues to offer it as a markedly above-average third baseman.) Schrock possesses none of these redeeming qualities.

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A Very Mike Trout Home Run

Last night, Mike Trout went 3-for-6 with a double, a homer, two runs, and an RBI. The Angels won, 8-2, over the Blue Jays, but let’s get back to that home run. Here’s what Mike Trout’s body looked like just moments before making contact with a pitch that went over the left field fence:

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 1.32.46 PM

We all know what a typical home run swing looks like, and it sure doesn’t look like that. We also know what a normal baseball player looks like, and it sure doesn’t look like Mike Trout.

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Projecting Max Schrock, the Return for Marc Rzepczynski

A 13th-round pick last year, infielder Max Schrock — received by Oakland today from Washington in exchange for left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski — has made something of a name for himself by putting up strong offensive numbers in the lower levels. He’s hitting .333 between two levels of A-ball this season, largely due to an 8% strikeout rate. That’s encouraging coming from a middle infielder with speed and decent power. As a result, he’s become a regular on Carson Cistulli’s Fringe Five column.

Despite his strong performance, KATOH isn’t a huge fan of Schrock. My system pegs him for 2.9 WAR over his first six seasons by the traditional method and 2.8 WAR by the method that integrates Baseball America’s rankings. That puts him in the #150-#200 range in terms of prospects. To help you visualize what his KATOH projection entails, here is a probability density function showing KATOH+’s projected distribution of outcomes for Schrock’s first six seasons in the major leagues.

Schrock

While Schrock’s hitting has been very good, KATOH dings him for being just 5-foot-8, and also for playing second base rather than shortstop. Second baseman with good numbers in the low minors don’t pan out all that often. There are some obvious exceptions to that statement, but it’s worth pointing out that those exceptions all provide defensive value, while Schrock has been eight runs below average at second base, according to Clay Davenport’s numbers.

To put some faces to Schrock’s statistical profile, let’s generate some statistical comps for the undersized second baseman. I calculated a weighted Mahalanobis distance between Schrock’s performance this year and every A-ball season since 1991 in which a batter recorded at least 400 plate appearances. In the table below, you’ll find the 10 most similar seasons, ranked from most to least similar. The WAR totals refer to each player’s first six seasons in the major leagues. A lower “Mah Dist” reading indicates a closer comp.

Please note that the Mahalanobis analysis is separate from KATOH. KATOH relies on macro-level trends, rather than comps. The fates of a few statistically similar players shouldn’t be used to draw sweeping conclusions about a prospect’s future. For this reason, I recommend using a player’s KATOH forecast to assess his future potential. The comps give us some interesting names that sometimes feel spot-on, but they’re mostly just there for fun.

Max Schrock’s Mahalanobis Comps
Rank Name Mah Dist KATOH+ Proj. WAR Actual WAR
1 Chad Akers 2.51 2.8 0.0
2 Jesus Mendoza 2.65 1.4 0.0
3 Lonnie Webb 2.91 2.1 0.0
4 Miguel Flores 2.94 3.3 0.0
5 Scott Hairston 3.20 2.5 5.2
6 Ralph Milliard 3.40 1.4 0.2
7 Kary Bridges 3.45 1.9 0.0
8 Delwyn Young 3.46 1.6 0.5
9 Marty Malloy 3.58 1.8 0.0
10 Alberto Callaspo 3.64 2.7 7.3

As Dave Cameron pointed out, Rzepczynski is a mediocre left-handed reliever, and a month of his services probably could have been had for next-to-nothing. Schrock probably won’t win any MVP awards, but there’s a pretty decent chance he’ll be a useful role player in a couple of years. That’s demonstrably more than next-to-nothing.


Joey Votto’s Most Joey Votto Game

Excuse me there. May I have just a minute of your time? Maybe five. I know there’s a playoff race going on. I know Gary Sanchez is hitting all of the home runs and Rich Hill is back. I know the Royals are surging and the Giants are freefalling, and that’s all well and good, but would you mind if I spent some time this afternoon talking about a game played by a last-place team three weeks ago? I’m bringing it up now because I’m afraid we all missed it when it happened, and I can’t let that go on any longer. You see, since the start of June, Joey Votto‘s been safe more than he’s been out, and in the midst of this ridiculous run, he had what may be the most Joey Votto game of all the Joey Votto games, and that seems like the sort of thing of which we should all take note. I’m glad I have your attention. Let’s begin.

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Eno Sarris Baseball Chat — 8/25/16

12:34
Eno Sarris: Something weird happens to your Limbic System when you have kids. It’s like someone turns on the hose, and suddenly you’re sitting there listening to a song you’ve heard a million times and you’re wiping tears from your face.
12:02
Eno Sarris: I’m here!
12:02
Gary: Let’s assume Benintendi is fine for next year. Better keeper: him or Brantley in a points league?
12:02
Eno Sarris: I’d rather take a shot on Benintendi’s power, he looked really impressive at the plate.
12:02
Al: How much value does a manager actually provide and is there a quantifiable metric to show how their decisions impact the win-loss total?
12:03
Eno Sarris: My guess is 2-4 wins, and no. Which sucks, because I got my first vote this year, and it’s for AL MOY.

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Nationals Play Scrabble, Probably Lose

One of the recurring themes over the last year has been the high price the market is putting on relief pitchers. Ken Giles and Craig Kimbrel brought back monster returns in trades last winter, while even decent middle relievers were getting two or three year deals as free agents. At last month’s trade deadline, Aroldis Chapman got the Yankees a terrific haul. It’s clearly a good time to be selling relief pitching.

And today, it looks like those rising prices have trickled down to mediocre lefty specialists, as the Nationals gave up a legitimately interesting prospect for a five week rental of Mark Rzepczynski. The guy nicknamed Scrabble is a useful situational reliever, having held lefties to a .270 wOBA in his career — don’t put any stock on his 2016 reverse split, which is all BABIP driven — but he’s useless against righties (.351 career wOBA allowed) so he’s effectively a one out guy.

Of course, the Nationals already have exactly this kind of pitcher in Oliver Perez, who they signed for $7 million over two years last winter. Perez hasn’t been as good as they hoped this year, and has been particularly bad lately, getting torched for a .473 wOBA in August. But he’s still held lefties to a .316 wOBA this year after keeping them to just a .230 wOBA last year, and is at .306 for his career; you’d have to really overreact to five bad innings in August to think that the Nationals needed to give up real value to improve their lefty specialist for the playoffs.

For the right to marginally upgrade their LOOGY, a guy who might face four or five batters in an entire playoff series, the Nationals surrendered a 21 year old currently running a 131 wRC+ in high-A ball. Max Schrock isn’t an elite prospect or anything, but he’s been a fixture on Carson’s Fringe Five all year, based on his strong contact rates and at least a little bit of power. As a diminutive second baseman, it’s easy to look at Schrock as a limited upside guy, but with Jose Altuve on the verge of getting AL MVP votes, we should remember that the idea of firm upside ceilings are much less concrete than is often thought.

Schrock’s more likely future is as a bench bat, but even if he’s just Alberto Callaspo 2.0, giving that up for a marginal gain in lefty specialists seems weird.

So why did the Nationals do this? Well, the deal was announced as Rzepczynski and cash for Schrock, so presumably, Oakland is paying some of the remaining ~$800K or so left on his contract this season. But according to sources in the game, Rzepczynski actually cleared waivers before this trade was completed, so the Nationals could have simply had him for just a the waiver fee, and kept a legitimately interesting prospect in their system.

So, effectively, the Nationals just sold a decent prospect for some cash savings in order to bolster the least important part of their bullpen. I know the value of relievers is going up, but deals like this still seem silly to me. Maybe Scrabble will get a big out or two in October and it will seem worth the long-term cost, but Rzepczynski seems like the kind of guy the Nationals should have gotten for next to nothing. When the market is inflating reliever prices to the point you have to give up a legitimately interesting 21 year old for a five week rental of a LOOGY, maybe it’s just time to stop paying market prices for relievers and go with what you already have.


Yu Darvish’s Night at the Plate

We are currently in the 20th year of regular-season interleague play. I’m not sure exactly how many repetitions it takes for an event to transition from exciting novelty to mundane part of the schedule, but somewhere along the way interleague play has done just that. We now accept that this is a world where things as bizarre as Marlins/Mariners series will occur from time to time because it’s become a part of the routine. However, on occasion something happens to remind us why interleague play has any value. It doesn’t happen often, but it did happen last night, when interleague play set the stage for Yu Darvish to step to the plate and hit the first home run of his professional career.

It wasn’t the first home run hit by an American League pitcher this season — that honor belongs to Anthony Ranaudo — but, with all due respect to Ranaudo, it was the first by a pitcher of Darvish’s caliber in a long time. Since the debut of interleague play in 1997, there have been 21 American League pitcher home runs, from Bobby Witt‘s on 6/30/97 to Darvish’s last night. As you would expect, the number of top-tier pitchers on that list after Darvish is small: Mark Buehrle, Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett (twice), and CC Sabathia (twice). You can include post-peak Doc Gooden if you’re so inclined, and then, of course, there’s Felix Hernandez, who hit that beautiful grand slam off Johan Santana at Shea Stadium back in 2008.

It’s such a rare feat that there are still four American League teams – Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, and Minnesota — which have yet to record their first pitcher home run in the DH era. Given that rarity and the particular absurdity of how it all played out last night, it’s worth taking a look at Darvish’s night at the plate.

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NERD Game Scores for Thursday, August 25, 2016

Devised originally in response to a challenge issued by sabermetric nobleman Rob Neyer, and expanded at the request of nobody, NERD scores represent an attempt to summarize in one number (and on a scale of 0-10) the likely aesthetic appeal or watchability, for the learned fan, of a player or team or game. Read more about the components of and formulae for NERD scores here.

***

Most Highly Rated Game
Baltimore at Washington | 19:05 ET
Jimenez (94.2 IP, 116 xFIP-) vs. Scherzer (174.0 IP, 82 xFIP-)
You probably didn’t expect to find that a late-August game started by Ubaldo Jimenez — who, for whatever his virtues, now possesses both below-average command and velocity — would be identified as the day’s most promising by an algorithm designed to identify such things. That said, you also didn’t expect your uncle Danny to remain on nodding terms with sobriety all the way till the end of your wedding reception, and yet that’s precisely what happened. These aren’t miracles, per se, but brief respites from a labyrinth of difficulties.

In this case, the main attraction is less Jimenez and more a combination of Max Scherzer (who’s built of electricity) and Jimenez’s club, the Orioles (whose postseason fate is among the least clear in the majors).

Readers’ Preferred Broadcast: Washington Radio.

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The Next Stage of Nolan Arenado

Walks, I think, have suffered from something of a marketing problem. And analysts were in large part responsible, back in OBP’s heyday 10 or 15 years ago. The walk felt underrated, and so in some circles it became maybe overrated. Analysts loved players who walked. But other players didn’t respond so well to that, because, to them, you don’t go up there trying to walk. You go up there trying to hit. In truth, everyone has always seen eye to eye — the goal is to reach base, by avoiding an out. But some damage was done. Low-walk players got tired of talking about their low walk totals. It seemed like a nonsense concern, coming from somewhere outside of the game.

Nolan Arenado has historically been a low-walk player. And, like others, he wasn’t real jazzed to talk about that. An excerpt from this past April:

Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado couldn’t have thought it possible that he’d receive so much attention for not swinging.
[…]
Although the interest in his walks elicited a bemused eye-roll and a sardonic, “Great topic,” Arenado had fun with the subject, and with teammate Carlos Gonzalez.

Arenado didn’t want to hear criticism about his low walks. And, without question, he’s been successful while aggressive. Yet walks aren’t really the point. Walks are a proxy. Drawing a walk means a hitter didn’t swing at too many pitches out of the zone. No hitter wants to swing at too many pitches out of the zone. If you read on in the linked article, you see Arenado talking about how he was seeing the ball better. Arenado talked about what felt like better discipline. That’s all anyone’s ever wanted. And, say, Arenado’s stat line looks new.

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Let’s Talk About Ryan Howard

I want to share a leaderboard with you that I can’t stop thinking about. These are the top-five National League first basemen in the second half by wRC+:

Second-Half NL First Basemen wRC+ Leaderboard
Player Team PA wRC+
Joey Votto CIN 154 226
Ryan Howard PHI 66 191
Freddie Freeman ATL 155 179
Adrian Gonzalez LAD 137 149
Paul Goldschmidt ARZ 158 140
Min. 60 PA
Stats through start of play Tuesday 8/23

I cannot fathom a more perfect depiction of the frustratingly beautiful juxtaposition of expected/unexpected outcomes which is so integral to this absurd bat-and-ball game we watch each day. It would be easy to pick Votto, Freeman, Goldschmidt and Gonzalez as top offensive performers among National League first basemen. But Ryan Howard?! That Ryan Howard?!

The thing about Howard is that it’s not as though he snuck onto that leaderboard. He has a 191 wRC+ in the second half! Only four other players in all of MLB have a higher wRC+ since the All-Star break: Votto, Gary Sanchez, J.D. Martinez, and Jose Altuve (min. 60 PA).

What’s more, Ryan Howard’s offensive surge is in true old-school Ryan Howard fashion, which is to say he’s hitting the snot out of the ball. Thanks to a remarkable seven home runs in just 66 plate appearances, he’s posted a .403 ISO and .742 slugging percentage. Of the 294 players with 60 or more plate appearances this half, 142 of them — nearly half! — have a lower OPS than Howard’s SLG%.

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Gary Sanchez Is No Jesus Montero

Jesus Montero is still just 26 years old, and he’s having a pretty decent season at the plate. He’s batting over .300, and he has his OBP close to .350 and his slugging percentage close to .450. All things considered, that’s not a bad campaign. But for the fact that Montero has spent the summer in Triple-A, and he’s split his time between first base and DH. He’s mostly been the DH.

It’s hard to believe now that Montero spent three consecutive years within the Baseball America prospect top-10. Though the pop remains in his bat, there’s pretty much nothing else to speak of, and Montero has stood as a cautionary tale to those who’ve been high on Gary Sanchez. Not only did they rise through the same system — Montero and Sanchez have had similar roles and similar strengths, with similar criticisms and similar questions. They even made similar first impressions. At least for the time being, Montero is there to keep Sanchez fans grounded.

Yet Gary Sanchez is no Jesus Montero. I get that the parallels are many. But the profiles are dramatically different. Sanchez is looking like he can hit. Even more importantly, Sanchez is looking like he can catch.

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The Royals Are Having the Most Royals Month Ever

On July 31st, the Royals were basically dead in the water. On the day before the team had to make a final buy, sold, or hold decision, KC stood at 49-55, 12 games out of first place in the AL Central. They’d been outscored by 59 runs. And to top it off, Wade Davis had to go back on the DL with a flexor strain, signaling that he hadn’t been able to get past the arm problems that had already cost him part of the season. The Royals hadn’t been very good with him in 2016, and now were looking at likely spending the rest of the season without one of the main reasons they’ve been able to win the last few years.

And yet, despite four months of struggles and Davis’ absence, since the calendar flipped over to August, the Royals have been almost unbeatable. They’ve reeled off 16 wins in 21 games, including their last nine, and have breathed some life back into a season that looked to be dead and buried. The graph of their end-of-season expected record tells the story pretty well.

chart (40)

In a season of ups and downs, August has been the biggest up so far, and unsurprisingly, the Royals have been winning games with the same kind of crazy formula that allowed them to make a couple of postseason runs the last two years.

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Video: Trevor Bauer on Managing His Sinker’s Movement

Imagine you’re floating on a raft down a lazy river. It can’t be so hard to imagine, it’s still August. In one hand, naturally, you’ve got an adult soda; the other, you place into the water to check the temperature. Suddenly, you’re headed — slightly but perceptibly — towards the bank on the same side as that hand you’ve submerged. Now stop imagining.

In layman’s terms, what you’ve done is to use your hand as a rudder of sorts. That’s one way of characterizing the effect. What you could also say, however, is that you’ve disrupted the laminar flow, creating a force that alters the direction of the object within the flow. Those aren’t layman’s terms.

Whatever the precise words you’re using, they’re all relevant to a baseball flying through the air. The seams cause drag in different ways, and that drag causes movement. Physicist Alan Nathan does a better job explaining it both here and elsewhere, but that’s a simple way to understand the relationship of the seams to movement.

Trevor Bauer is currently showing the best horizontal movement on his sinker of his career. That’s what this graph illustrates:

Brooksbaseball-Chart-57

When I asked him about it, he agreed that it was good earlier in the year. Not recently, though. “Recently, it’s been shit,” he told me Tuesday afternoon. And you can see that, yes, indeed, the horizontal movement has been more erratic than it was earlier in the year.

Brooksbaseball-Chart-58

Part of that is just the fact that the body changes slightly over time. It’s related to the difficulty in improving command. Little muscles act differently as they get more or less fatigued than the muscles around them. “I also overhauled my delivery a couple of years ago, and I’m starting to get better muscle memory for this new delivery over time,” Bauer pointed out. So that’s helped him get to this point where he’s commanding the ball better, which has allowed him to throw the front-door sinker to lefties more often this year, a big part in putting up his best strikeout- and walk-rate differential this year (and overall numbers) against lefties of his career.

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Tyler Clippard on Beating BABIP and the Limits of FIP

Tyler Clippard has always been a smart pitcher. That’s evident from his erudition as well as his results. Based on my experience, the 31-year-old reliever is equally adept at discussing his craft and flummoxing opposing hitters with solid-but-unspectacular stuff.

As noted in this past Sunday’s Notes column, Clippard has recorded the lowest BABIP against (.237) of any pitcher to have thrown at least 500 innings since 2007. That’s when the righty broke into the big leagues. Pitching for the Nationals, A’s, Mets, Diamondbacks and now the Yankees, Clippard has 45 wins, 54 saves and a 2.94 ERA in 539 appearances (all but eight out of the bullpen). Augmenting his ability to induce weak contact is a better-than-you-might-expect 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s made a pair of All-Star teams.

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Clippard on his BABIP and creating plane: “Someone brought it to my attention a few years ago. I guess it didn’t surprise me when I learned that. I’m constantly trying to figure out ways that I can pitch to get the weakest contact, whether it’s from my arm slot or my pitch selection. That’s kind of how I’ve always pitched. I’ve always tried to maximize my room for error. I’m not a guy who is going to have pinpoint command, so I’m always trying to create more plane, more deception.

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