NERD Game Scores for Friday, May 6, 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
Washington at Chicago NL | 14:20 ET
Scherzer (38.0 IP, 91 xFIP-) vs. Lackey (33.1 IP, 85 xFIP-)
It represents a classic case of “stating the obvious” to note how this game features, in the Cubs, probably the best major-league team in the majors, and also, in the Nationals, something not much worse than the best major-league team in the majors. Likewise, observing that Max Scherzer is an elite pitcher recalls for many of us that gentleman who pointed at the sky and made certain remarks on the subject of its blue-ness. Is John Lackey elite? Perhaps not. But his name is a byword for competence. In short, this game offers quality all around — plus also a version of Tommy La Stella who’s produced seven extra-base hits in fewer than 50 plate appearances.

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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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The Angels and Giants Are Making Unprecedented Contact

Is it still cool to talk about contact hitting, or are we past that? I don’t think we should be past that. Not yet, not as long as the Royals remain the defending champions. So, you remember all this stuff. It was a big part of the Royals conversation during last year’s playoffs. Yeah, the Royals had a really strong bullpen, and an incredible team defense, but they wound up mostly defined by their insistence on putting the ball in play. For better or worse, that’s the association. The Royals were the contact team. As a matter of fact, they were arguably the best contact-hitting team since at least 1950. I personally don’t care too much about what happened before 1950, not when I’m talking about statistics.

The Royals are a loyal organization, so they brought back a lot of their players. There’s been a little mixing up, but for the most part they’re still the familiar Royals, so it shouldn’t surprise you they’re again running a low strikeout rate. It’s a pretty sticky metric, strikeouts. As much as the Royals have put the ball in play, though, they’ve so far been surpassed in that regard. Filter out pitchers, and the Royals have baseball’s seventh-lowest rate of strikeouts. They’re a little higher than the A’s. They’re a little higher than the Marlins. And so on, and then there are the two standouts. To this point, at least as far as not striking out goes, the Angels and Giants have been on another level.

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Jeremy Sowers: From Flawed Southpaw to MBA Ray

Jeremy Sowers doesn’t turn 33 until later this month. He’s young enough that he could still be pitching. Having succumbed to shoulder woes and ineffectiveness, he’s instead embarking on a new career with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Drafted sixth overall in 2004 out of Vanderbilt, Sowers never did fulfill expectations on the mound. In four seasons with the Cleveland Indians, the left-hander logged a 5.18 ERA while winning just 18 of 48 decisions. Known more for moxie than velocity, he fanned 10% of the batters he faced across 400 innings of work.

Unable to sufficiently school hitters, Sowers stepped away from the game and returned to the classroom, earning an MBA from the University of North Carolina. Now he’s back in baseball. After a summer spent interning with the Orioles, Sowers is currently a major-league operations assistant with the Rays, a position he sees as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Sowers talked about his path from first-round pick to entry-level baseball ops on a recent visit to Fenway Park.

———

Sowers on working for the Rays: “Just because I played does not qualify me as an absolute source of information about this game. I think I offer a unique perspective, but my value is only increased by hearing out and understanding everybody else’s perspective. To use a really crappy movie analogy, in Sling Blade, everybody is trying to figure out how to make a lawnmower work. All of a sudden, the one character is like, ‘I reckon there’s no gas in it.’

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We’ve Never Seen This Felix Hernandez

I recognize that this is a sensitive subject at a lousy time. I mean, the Mariners are winning, winning on a fairly sustained basis, and Felix Hernandez owns a lower ERA than Stephen Strasburg and Noah Syndergaard. According to our playoff odds page, the Mariners have a better than 50% chance of getting to the postseason, which for Felix would be his first-ever taste of those stakes. Mariners fans aren’t looking to be worried. Not now, not when they have circumstances to appreciate.

So I know this post might be interpreted as a bit of a bummer. It’s not meant that way; these are just observations. And no part of me presently thinks that Felix is toast. It’s just, there are things to talk about. What Felix has been doing, he’s never before done quite like this. It’s looking like he could be beginning a new chapter.

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Urias and De Leon Look Close to the Big Leagues

Heading into the season, there were a lot of question marks about the Dodgers rotation, but so far, the team’s struggling offense and bullpen have received a big boost from a pitching staff led by Clayton Kershaw and Kenta Maeda; their starters currently rank fifth in WAR. Ross Stripling has been a nice early surprise for the team, and while Alex Wood‘s ERA remains too high, his underlying metrics suggest that he still can help the team. Scott Kazmir’s struggles are perhaps most worrisome, but if he can stop giving up home runs, he should be serviceable as well.

And if any of the big leaguers falter, there is help on the way. In the minors, Jose De Leon made his first start of the 2016 season on Tuesday, the delay being partly due to a minor ankle injury and also the product of an effort to keep his innings low in the early going. When de Leon’s debut came the day before Julio Urias’ most recent start, I decided to watch both via MILB.tv.

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Dallas Keuchel’s Attempts to Adjust Back

Just a couple weeks back, Dave Cameron examined the things that should worry us about Dallas Keuchel. He was more nuanced, but we could break it down into three components: lower velocity, fewer calls on the black, and fewer swings. For a guy that had the third-lowest zone percentage in baseball last year, the latter two seem hugely important for his success. So I asked the Astros’ lefty what he’s doing about those things.

Lower Velocity

Asking a pitcher about velocity is a delicate thing. Big increases mean whispers, and big declines mean… whispers of another sort. And then there’s the brutal march of time that fritters away our athleticism, day by day. You walk on egg shells.

But they know their radar-gun readings. And though age should have stolen about a tick from Keuchel, it looks like he’s down more than a tick and a half on the radar gun, from 89.6 mph last year to 88.0 this year. But that’s comparing all of last year to this year’s April, and also ignoring a slight uptick in recent games. If you compare last week’s velocity to last year’s April velocity, Keuchel is only down 0.8 mph, well in the normal range for a 28-year-old pitcher.

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The Case for Francisco Lindor as Baseball’s Best Shortstop

The case has been made for Carlos Correa. It was even made on this very site last year. He was the number one overall draft pick. He was last year’s American League Rookie of the Year. He’s been called Alex Rodriguez, with better makeup. He’s even been called the best player in the major leagues (maybe). When we ran our preseason staff predictions a couple months back, 11 of 55 FanGraphs employees chose Correa to win the American League MVP. Beside he and Mike Trout, no other player received more than four votes. The public opinion on the matter seems almost unanimous: Carlos Correa is viewed as baseball’s best shortstop, just 126 games into the 21-year-old’s major league career.

But there’s a 22-year-old, just 123 games into his major league career, who wasn’t Rookie of the Year and received zero preseason MVP picks, whose case for baseball’s best shortstop might be just as strong as Correa’s. It’s time we consider whether it’s actually Francisco Lindor who is baseball’s best shortstop.

The argument might not have to be complicated. Correa gained his status so quickly due to the hype and the performance. Both need to be present for a player to be accepted as a bonafide superstar in less than a calendar year. It’s when the two collide that lofty claims like “baseball’s best shortstop” or “MVP candidate” start to seem reasonable. So let’s start with the hype.

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It’s Time to Buy into Daniel Murphy

Yesterday, Daniel Murphy went 4-5, hitting his fourth home run of the season in the process, and driving his batting line for 2016 up to .398/.449/.663. His 192 wRC+ ranks third best in the big leagues, and he’s behind only Manny Machado, Dexter Fowler, and Mike Trout on the WAR leaderboards. In the aftermath of yesterday’s hit barrage, I sent out the following tweet.

Many of the responses argued that Fowler is ahead in that race, which is certainly a reasonable argument given what he’s done for the Cubs thus far. A bunch of other responses were essentially along the “small sample size” lines, though. Like this one, for instance.

In general, the premise of this tweet is mostly correct. When you have a large sample of a player’s career performance, you shouldn’t overreact to a 25 game hot streak, and believe that the most recent performance cancels out the longer history the player has provided for evidence of what he’s capable of doing going forward. In Murphy’s case, though, we’re well past the point of this being a 25 game hot streak. For most of the last year, Daniel Murphy has been one of the best hitters in baseball.

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Eno Sarris Baseball Chat — 5/5/16

10:52
Eno Sarris: Be here shortly! In the meantime
12:01
Eno Sarris: challa!
12:01
Matt Harvey: Are you worried about me?
12:01
Eno Sarris: Look a little doughy, not doing well in the fifth, velocity dropping off, it’s hard to change fitness in the middle of the season, but I’m less worried about him than a guy like Keuchel at 88 mph.
12:02
Inquiring Monde: I think I know the answer to this q given your podcast/love of Nola, but here goes: trade Travis Shaw to get back Nola in a redraft?
12:02
Eno Sarris: Shaw looks like a .260/20 type third baseman, which I like a little less than a strong fantasy #2.

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How to Score Runs Off Noah Syndergaard

There’s a vestigial anchor from my baseball past that I drag around — it’s called Red Sox fandom, and it’s attached to a barely seaworthy vessel whose form is an email group of mainly older Boston fans. Most of the debates that happen on the email chain are really just individual manifestations of the argument surrounding process vs. outcome. Like a lot of traditionally-minded baseball fans, most of the members of the group are outcomes people, as baseball fans have been taught to be for the past 100-plus years — focusing on ERA, batting average, etc. I tend to find myself more on the process end of the spectrum, and lately I’ve been thinking about this debate as it relates to pitching — and especially as it relates to Noah Syndergaard

You could argue that no one’s process is better than Syndergaard’s right now — and, most recently, Jeff Sullivan actually has argued that. If the goal of pitching is to limit base-runners — and thus limit runs — the right-hander is about as good as it gets. I like quick ERA estimators like strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%) partly because I’m lazy and partly because I think they’re nifty, and currently Syndergaard is second in K-BB%, which is the best quick ERA estimator we have. Strikeouts? Elite. Walks? Elite. Velocity? Arsenal? Unparalleled. The processes he’s taking to influence positive outcomes are second really only to Clayton Kershaw this season, and for the most part, he’s been rewarded for them. But there is one glaring issue he still has — laid bare in his past two starts — which we’ll get a lot of chances to see below.

All of that said, the main question we’re going to be answering today is: how does a team score runs off of Syndergaard? Every pitcher has to give up runs at some point, no matter how impressive their talent. Today, we engage in a fun exercise to examine those runs. So let’s go through a month’s worth of starts!

A primer for what we’re about to discuss: looking at Statcast data through Baseball Savant, Syndergaard has the lowest average exit velocity among pitchers with a minimum of 60 batted-ball events. Those events include both hits and outs, and it’s testament to the type of contact against him — and the frame for a lot of what we’ll be looking at today. Here’s a reminder of what exit velocity generally means for outcomes. Now let’s jump in, with the understanding that we’re going to skip over his first start of the season, as he didn’t give up any runs. Onward!

Start #2, 4/12/16, 1 ER: Derek Dietrich single. Exit velocity: 74 mph.

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NERD Game Scores for Thursday, May 5, 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
Washington at Chicago NL | 20:05 ET
Ross (22.2 IP, 105 xFIP-) vs. Hendricks (23.0 IP, 73 xFIP-)
Of the 136 starters to have recorded 20-plus innings so far this year, only five have recorded a lower average fastball velocity than Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks. Two of those five are knuckleballers. Another is Jered Weaver, whose fastball is so slow… How slow is it?… It’s so slow, one could author a slim collection of poorly conceived and executed jokes just like this one about it… And yet, what one finds is — despite Hendricks’ relative dearth of arm speed — is an equal and opposite amount of success. He induces grounders. He hardly walks anyone. He’s posted a league-average strikeout rate. Today, he also starts for the Cubs.

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How You Get a Bryce Harper Slump

Bryce Harper was in a slump! You might not have noticed. Right around the middle of April, it seemed people decided Harper had somehow taken another step forward. And maybe he has, I don’t know, but if he has, he hasn’t done it since the middle of April. As a matter of fact — I’m writing this late Wednesday, and when I look at the leaderboards over the past seven days, Harper is tied for dead last in WAR. I don’t recommend you make a habit of looking at WAR over seven-day periods, but Harper is Harper, and last is last. There was a real and legitimate slump. Could be there still is.

Let me make it clear right now that I’m not concerned. Not about Harper, not at present. I thought he was great at the beginning of April, I thought he was great in the middle of April, and I think he’s great now at the beginning of May. Everyone is entitled to the occasional off-week. I just do think there’s something we could learn from examining how what’s happened has happened. Bryce Harper slumped! Why?

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Aaron Nola Has Baseball’s Best Curveball

How do you identify the very best pitches? It’s actually not easy, since every pitch in someone’s repertoire has an effect on every other pitch. So let’s say this: I don’t know if Aaron Nola‘s “true-talent” curveball is the best in the game. What I know is, to this point, it’s been the most effective curveball in the game. By lots! Here’s the top of the run-value leaderboard for curves in 2016:

  1. Aaron Nola, +9.5 runs
  2. Jerad Eickhoff, +3.6
  3. Carlos Carrasco, +3.2
  4. Justin Grimm, +3.1
  5. Aaron Sanchez, +3.0

Nola’s value is nearly the sum of the next three values combined. How great is +9.5 runs? Only one pitch so far has a higher value, and that’s Jose Quintana‘s fastball, at +10.0. Quintana has thrown almost 400 fastballs. Nola has thrown fewer than 200 curves.

We’ve written plenty about the Phillies so far. Countless people have, because the Phillies have surprised, and it’s no secret the key to that has been unbelievable pitching. This has become the core of the Phillies’ whole rebuild, and they love what they’re getting from Eickhoff. They love what they’re getting from Vincent Velasquez. But you can’t forget about Nola. Nola was always thought of as the safe, polished one, but now he’s flashing upside, such that he might be the best of them all. He might be turning into one of the best, period, and the curveball is fueling his ascent.

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Twins Pitcher Jose Berrios Should Be Fun to Watch

Jose Berrios has a 6.75 ERA. His FIP is 5.63. He’s walked 16% of the batters he’s faced this season. He’s averaging more than 20 pitches per inning, and in two starts he has completed just 9.1 innings. He also has three good, major league-quality pitches with the potential for a fourth. He’s struck out more than 30% of the batters he’s faced. He could win Rookie of the Year, and — with arguments to come from Lucas Giolito, Tyler Glasnow, Alex Reyes, Blake Snell, and Julio Urias — he might be the most exciting pitcher to make his big-league debut this season.

Berrios doesn’t turn 22 until the end of the month, but he has ridden a quick and steady ascent to the majors. In 2014, he dominated High-A and held his own in a handful of starts at Double-A. Kiley McDaniel ranked him the 24th-best prospect in baseball during the 2014-15 preseason before he proceeded to mow down opponents in Double-A and Triple-A, striking out more than 25% of batters at both levels and walking less than 6% of them. Berrios entered Spring Training with an outside shot to win a starting job, but struggled with command in both his major-league and minor-league games.

In three minor-league starts this year, Berrios still produced his share of walks. But also struck out 20 of the 66 batters he faced and allowed just three runs, earning a promotion when Ervin Santana hit the disabled list. His first two starts have been a mixed bag, featuring both flashes of the potential that make him a top prospect with a comp to Pedro Martinez and show how he can be successful in the big leagues, but also an inability to consistently attack hitters in the strike zone, leading to unfavorable counts and walks.

The chart below shows league-average plate-discipline numbers as well as Berrios’ own numbers over his first two starts.

Jose Berrios Plate Discipline After Two Starts
O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone%
League Average 29.3 % 63.1 % 45.4 % 62.3 % 85.9 % 77.9 % 47.7 %
Jose Berrios 28.3 % 54.2 % 39.7 % 60.0 % 84.4 % 74.7 % 43.9 %

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Job Posting: Houston Astros Senior Baseball Systems Developer

Position: Houston Astros Senior Baseball Systems Developer

Location: Houston

Description:

The Houston Astros are seeking a Senior Baseball Systems Developer for the team’s Baseball Research and Development group. The Senior Baseball Systems Developer will collaborate with the analytics team to build infrastructure and design systems that encourage the effective understanding and application of information throughout Baseball Operations.

If you are passionate about understanding the game of baseball, enjoy the challenge of solving a diverse array of problems and want to work in a collaborative team environment where your contribution will make a difference, this is the position for you.

Responsibilities:

  • Create and maintain web and desktop applications.
  • Integrate video within applications.
  • Build reports and data visualizations.
  • Assist in building a data structure that facilitates analytical research.
  • Implement complex data models.
  • Produce ad hoc queries to support the R&D team.
  • Help evaluate and test new technologies.

Qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s degree or higher in computer science or related field.
  • 7+ years of relevant work experience.
  • Expert in C#, ASP.Net, JavaScript (jQuery) and SQL.
  • Knowledge of CSS, HTML, Web API, functional programming, SSIS and SSRS.
  • Experience working with big data and scalable systems is a plus.
  • Familiarity with mobile app development (PhoneGap) is a plus.
  • Experience with baseball, baseball data and understanding of sabermetric concepts.
  • Possess excellent problem solving capability and the ability to quickly learn new technologies.
  • Good interpersonal, verbal, and written communication skills.

To Apply:
Please apply here.


The White Sox Have Two Aces

Chris Sale is the best pitcher in the American League, and one of the true aces in baseball. He’s made the All-Star team four straight years, and has finished in the top six in Cy Young voting in each of those seasons as well. He may be overshadowed in Chicago by what Jake Arrieta is doing right now, but Chris Sale is still recognized as one of the game’s best pitchers.

Chris Sale has a teammate, though, who you probably wouldn’t recognize unless he walked up to you and said “Hi, I’m Jose Quintana, and I’m really good at my job.” And he should consider doing just that, because Jose Quintana is indeed really freaking good at his job.

WAR, Past Calendar Year
Name IP BB% K% GB% HR/FB LOB% BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP- WAR RA9-WAR
Clayton Kershaw 247.1 4% 34% 50% 9% 80% 0.262 50 49 54 9.8 9.8
Jake Arrieta 240.1 6% 27% 57% 8% 83% 0.230 37 61 68 7.5 11.3
Chris Sale 230.0 5% 32% 42% 12% 76% 0.293 71 65 67 7.0 6.1
David Price 217.0 5% 27% 41% 9% 76% 0.306 74 68 74 6.2 5.9
Dallas Keuchel 232.0 6% 24% 60% 14% 75% 0.301 80 73 69 5.9 5.8
Jose Quintana 216.0 5% 22% 47% 7% 79% 0.317 68 69 83 5.9 6.7
Zack Greinke 227.2 5% 23% 47% 8% 82% 0.252 57 75 84 5.7 8.7
Max Scherzer 231.0 5% 30% 36% 12% 80% 0.272 79 79 76 5.6 5.8
Jacob deGrom 179.0 5% 28% 47% 8% 78% 0.267 61 63 72 5.5 5.5
Corey Kluber 217.0 5% 28% 42% 11% 72% 0.281 86 72 75 5.5 4.6

Over the past 365 days, Quintana is tied with Dallas Keuchel for the fifth best WAR among pitchers in baseball. If you prefer the runs-allowed version of WAR, he’s fourth. No matter how you evaluate a pitcher, Jose Quintana has been amazing for the past year, and yet, he’s still somehow rarely discussed as one of the game’s elite.

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The Month Pinch-Hitting Got Easier

Baseball’s brilliant chaos attracts fans of all sorts of analytical dispositions. Some people like to go with their gut, some trust their radar gun, and others prefer to dive into the spreadsheets. No matter with which group you align most closely, it’s very likely you agree with the following: pinch-hitting is super hard.

The precise difficultly is a matter of some debate, but everyone is pretty much on board with the concept. Batters perform worse coming off the bench than they do when they are already in the game. This was one of the notable findings in The Book and plenty of research has picked up on it from there.

But, uh, here’s a weird thing:

PH 1

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Dave Cameron FanGraphs Chat – 5/4/16

12:02
Dave Cameron: Back after a nice vacation last week, so let’s try to get two weeks worth of questions in today.
12:02
Alan: As a miserable Atlanta fan, can you give me some hope? And when’s the earliest you could see this franchise back in the mix for a playoff spot?
12:03
Dave Cameron: Have you seen what Swanson and Albies are doing in the minors? There’s a real chance that could be your starting middle infield next year, and those guys could represent a massive improvement from the disaster that Aybar/Peterson have been. Inciarte is still a nice player when he gets healthy, Freeman will bounce back. They are halfway to a decent lineup. The pitching stinks, so this will take a few years, but there are pieces in place.
12:03
O’s Lover: Is it time to give up on Schoop? All predictions had his breakout year coming – too soon to pull the plug?
12:04
Dave Cameron: He is what he is; a powerful slugger with lousy command of the strike zone.
12:04
S: Rockies fans have to be encouraged by Jon Gray so far, right?

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Chris Sale Is Pitching to Contact Now

I was talking with my father about Miguel Cabrera recently, and about how he’s undeniably one of the best hitters either of us have ever seen. One of the things we found so fascinating is that Miggy has seemingly never had to adjust. He’s got this approach, and that approach has been damn near unbeatable going on 14 years now. He’s been waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more for pitchers to exploit him, but there is no exploiting Miguel Cabrera, so he just keeps doing what he’s always been doing. Over the last decade, Cabrera’s swing rate’s always been between 46% and 51%. The contact rate’s always between 79% and 83%. The pull rate, always between 35% and 41%. Ground-ball rate, never wavering from the 39% to 42% range. There’s sure to have been little tweaks here and there, but for the most part, Miguel Cabrera’s been adjustment-free more than a decade, and he’s one of the greatest hitters of all time.

Of course, Miguel Cabrera is the exception. Seriously, the exception. Mike Trout‘s had to adjust. Bryce Harper‘s had to adjust. Hell, even Clayton Kershaw spends some of his off time looking for another piece. Everyone in baseball is adjusting, constantly, which benefits their own employment status as well as mine.

You know Chris Sale as one of baseball’s very best pitchers. Over the last two-plus years, he’s got baseball’s second-best strikeout-walk differential, third-best FIP, fourth-best ERA, and fifth-best xFIP. He’s no Kershaw, but it’s very simple to make the argument that he’s the next-best guy. But Sale’s not content with the next-best guy. Just like Trout and Harper weren’t content with where they were, Sale wants Kershaw status. I’d guess that Sale, personally, has no doubts he can get there.

And so Sale’s made an adjustment. It’s always tough to tell, especially this early in the season, whether the changes we’re seeing in a player’s process are intentional or moreso a product of their environment. It becomes a lot easier to cipher out when the player comes out and lets us know it’s the former. Chris Sale, the American League’s greatest strikeout artist, made a conscious decision to become a more contact-oriented pitcher, and he’s doing it.

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