NERD Game Scores for Wednesday, May 4, 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.

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Most Highly Rated Game
Arizona at Miami | 19:10 ET
de la Rosa (23.2 IP, 79 xFIP-) vs. Fernandez (28.2 IP, 71 xFIP-)
One comment regarding this game is that the merits of Miami right-hander Jose Fernandez are conspicuous. He’s young, throws hard, and possesses a refulgent light inside him that bathes everyone around. These truths are self-evident and achingly self-evident. Another comment regarding this game is that Rubby de la Rosa has produced consecutive brilliant starts, recording a 16:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio — and conceding just a single total run — in 13.0 total innings versus Pittsburgh and then St. Louis. One difference he’s exhibited: almost completely abandoning his (well-regarded) changeup while throwing more sliders than ever.

Here’s video footage depicting three of those sliders from his most recent start:

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Corey Dickerson Is Hunting Endangered Game

The Rays are big fans of Corey Dickerson. You don’t have to just take my word for it. Consider that the Rays exchanged a valuable trade commodity to get him. And since Dickerson has joined the roster, the Rays have at times gushed over his swing and his approach. They love his natural aggressiveness, and they love the way the ball comes off of the bat. Dickerson is skilled, for a purely offensive player, and if anything the Rays would like more hitters like him.

Dickerson is a great individual indicator of the Rays’ move toward a more aggressive lineup. As they say, Dickerson goes up there prepared to take a swing. Okay, now, think about aggressive hitters. Think about aggressive power hitters, and how they succeed, and how they fail. Dickerson has seen new opponents in a new league, but what they’re doing might in one sense not be surprising at all. Provided you forget about Dickerson’s background.

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Here Are Andrew Miller’s 10 Biggest Spots

Originally I wanted to sit here and write about the Reds’ godawful bullpen. But then the research started bumming me out, so I turned my focus to the opposite of the Reds’ godawful bullpen, which is Andrew Miller. I find Miller to be much more pleasing, so here comes stuff about him.

You might remember that, before the year, Miller sustained a fracture in his non-throwing wrist. So there was concern that he’d have to be sidelined for a while, which would deal a blow to the Yankees’ biggest strength, but Miller opted to play through the discomfort. He’s so far allowed an OPS of .273. He has an xFIP- a little over 0, an ERA- of exactly 0, and an FIP- somehow under 0. No less deliciously, Miller is presently the only pitcher in baseball who’s gotten a higher rate of swings at pitches out of the zone than at pitches inside of the zone. Andrew Miller basically turns hitters into pitchers, except he turns them into pitchers who have to be hitters. To make matters worse for them, they’re effectively pitcher-hitters at the highest-leverage spots. Andrew Miller is good.

There are so many ways to demonstrate how Andrew Miller is good. That paragraph demonstrates it. Everything after this demonstrates it. I decided to pull up Miller’s log of plate appearances on the year, and sort them by leverage. I looked to see how Miller has done in the toughest of the tough situations. Miller so far has 33 batters faced. Here are the 10 most important showdowns.

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Jason Heyward Has Made Some Weird Decisions

I don’t know what the scariest thing is about the Cubs. It might be that they have baseball’s best record, and a historically excellent run differential. Or maybe it’s that they have baseball’s best record, and a historically excellent run differential, while Jason Heyward has been a worse hitter than Alexei Ramirez (who has been a bad hitter). Heyward hasn’t gotten going yet, not even a little bit, and the Cubs have barely noticed. You might feel like the Cubs are overhyped. I get it. And, you’re wrong.

Let’s preface this with something. We’re about to talk about Heyward’s offensive struggles. Heyward has a career 116 wRC+, and he’s 26 years old, so he’s probably not broken. Not beyond repair. His career wRC+ in the first month is 96 — he’s genuinely something of a slow starter. There’s every reason to expect that Heyward is going to settle into a groove at some point. Typically, given enough time, good players find their level. This doesn’t mean Heyward hasn’t had a bad start, though. He knows it. The coaches know it. And to this point, Heyward has shown a somewhat unusual plan of attack. Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, I don’t know.

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Adam Conley Looks the Same, Is Not

Adam Conley is surprising some with his sophomore effort, just by seemingly repeating what he did in his debut last year. His velocity, ERA, WHIP — even his swinging-strike and ground-ball rates — are all about the same as they were in 2015. But he’s different! In important ways.

Late last year, in the midst of a decent debut with the Marlins that saw him hitting 94 mph on the radar gun and shutting out the Mets on their way to the World Series, the lefty starter saw a picture of himself and froze. “I really didn’t like what I saw,” Conley told me a few days before he no-hit the Brewers for seven-plus innings this year. “It didn’t look like what I thought I looked like.”

Maybe the image was something like this one from his start against the Nationals late last season. “I could see in the picture that my front side was gone completely and my foot wasn’t down,” Conley says. “My foot is floating through the air and I’m trying to throw the ball.”

But once he saw that thing, he was convinced. He had to get back to the things he’d heard growing up, when he took the drive to Pete Wilkinson’s camp to work on his pitching mechanics. He had to get away from results-oriented development — “throughout the minor leagues, they would talk about results a lot,” he said — and get back to making sure his process was good.

The effort was two-pronged. He had to make sure he was getting his power from the right places, and he had to make sure his pitches worked together. The results brought him back to where he was, in a more sustainable way, with differences that appear once you look under the hood. And as he describes it all, you start to hear all of the things that we’ve been hearing recently as the new numbers have caught up to the pitching coaches.

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Finding a Trade Partner for Ryan Braun

Over the weekend, Ken Rosenthal reported that the possibility of Ryan Braun being traded “was becoming more realistic”, as Braun is off to a fantastic start to the 2016 season, and he’s starting to put some distance between himself and the BioGenesis scandal that cost him half the 2013 season and a good chunk of his reputation. Since the suspension, Braun hasn’t played up to his previously established levels of performance, and when combined with his contract and the baggage surrounding how he handled his failed test, he was mostly an immovable object.

But with Braun hitting .372/.443/.605 — yeah, that is heavily inflated by a .409 BABIP, but his early season strikeout rate is back in line with Peak Braun levels, and he can still hit the ball a long way — and only four guaranteed years left on his deal after this season, dealing Braun is starting to look like something that could happen. It’s almost a certainty that the Brewers will take on some of his remaining contract in any deal in order to get better talent in return, with the question of how much of the remaining ~$90 million they’ll keep on their books being settled depending on how well he keeps hitting and what other sluggers hit the market this summer.

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On the Prospect of Owners Getting “Duped” by PED Users

Dee Gordon‘s recent suspension has renewed the conversation about how to deter and punish PED users. The issue is complicated for a number of reasons. One specific reason — which I discussed this past Friday — concerns the possible benefit to owners of PED suspensions. Teams who employ aging players with large contracts actually benefit when those players are penalized by suspensions without pay. The longer the suspension, the greater the benefit. The principal examples of this at work involve the Yankees (with Alex Rodriguez and his PED suspension) and the Angels (and their frustrations concerning Josh Hamilton‘s lack of suspension for substance abuse).

The noteworthy aspect regarding Gordon’s case, of course, is that he had just received a five-year, $50 million extension this winter. Naturally, the Marlins’ decision to offer Gordon an extension was based, in no small part, on his excellent 2015 season. But was Gordon’s success in 2015 based at all on the positive effects of PEDs? And when he returns to the club in the second half, will he be able to match that success without the aid of PEDs? Did Gordon essentially “dupe” the Marlins into $50 million?

The issue has little to do with moral integrity, but is instead purely financial. The possibility exists for a player to use PEDs, sign a big contract, then get suspended and see his performance decline while the owner remains on the hook for the contract. Players object to this sort of scenario because they see money going to players who are cheating instead of those who play clean. Owners, who have had little problem benefiting from players’ performances even if they are cheating, naturally object to the prospect of owing guaranteed money to players who are unable to provide production at a level commensurate with their contract.

While there is certainly a possibility of PED users benefiting from a large extension or free-agent contract, the questions is, has it actually happened? For this post, I attempted to identify situations in which an owner had been “duped” in this manner during the previous dozen years of PED suspensions.

Major League Baseball began suspending players in 2005, but the suspensions at that time were only for 10- days, hardly an indication that MLB was really ready for meaningful enforcement. Beginning in 2006, the penalty was increased to 50 games, and then in 2014, the current 80-game penalty for first-time offense was instituted. While MLB also suspends for amphetamines, the penalties are less stringent, and the stigma is not anywhere near the same. For the purposes of this post, those cases have been omitted. That leaves us with 31 players and 35 suspensions of at least 50 game since 2006.

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August Fagerstrom FanGraphs Chat — 5/3/16

12:05
august fagerstrom: let’s do a chat!

12:06
august fagerstrom: I wanted this week’s chat soundtrack to be the new Drake record, but unfortunately it’s horribly boring, so instead watch the new Radiohead video and then listen to a bunch of other Radiohead while you’re at it

12:07
Bork: Hello, friend!

12:07
august fagerstrom: Hi, Bork!

12:08
Shawn: Outside of a few bad pitches, Matt Moore has looked great so far this year. Think this is the year he finally puts it all together?

12:08
august fagerstrom: I’ve never been a big Moore believer, but I touched upon him a bit in the Rays post I wrote last week. Everything he’s doing — velocity, movement, command — either looks exactly like rookie season Moore, or better

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Jose Iglesias, Defensive Metrics, and the Value of Going Right

Jose Iglesias is a shortstop capable of doing some pretty terrific things on a baseball field. I say that now because there’s going to be plenty of .gifs in this post that paint Iglesias in a not-so-positive light, and it can be a weird feeling to make a player look bad based solely upon which clips you’ve hand-chosen to show, so here, look at all the incredible things Jose Iglesias is capable of doing on defense. There. Those are the kinds of plays that earn you a reputation.

And Iglesias has certainly earned a reputation. He had earned the reputation before he ever stepped on a big league field. He was named the best defensive infielder in the Red Sox system by Baseball America from 2009 to 2012. In 2010, he was named the best defensive shortstop in the entire Eastern League, and received those same honors in the International League each of the next two seasons. From that same publication’s scouting report of him in 2010, as the No. 1 prospect in Boston’s farm system a year before his MLB debut:

Iglesias is an exceptional defender who could challenge for a Gold Glove in the big leagues right now. He plays low to the ground, using his quick feet, lightning-fast hands and strong arm to make all the plays. His instincts and body control also stand out, and he made just seven errors in 57 games at short last season. He’s fearless in the field, almost to the point of overconfidence, but he makes more web gems than mistakes.

The reputation was what it was, and it’s since carried over to the big-league level. And yet, in about two full season’s worth of major-league playing time at shortstop (1,991 innings), Iglesias has but three Defensive Runs Saved to his name. Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average actually has him below average, crediting him with -0.8 runs saved over the course of his still-short career. Ultimate Zone Rating is the only defensive metric with anything more than an average assessment of Iglesias’ defense, and even that pegs him as a +13 defender over two seasons, which is certainly good, but still comes up short of the perennial Gold Glove types around whom Iglesias’ name is mentioned.

Understandably, folks have been skeptical of these assessments. It’s something our very own Neil Weinberg addressed last fall. As a community, our understanding of how to properly evaluate defense has always lagged behind other facets of the game, but the good news is, it’s getting better every day! It’s still far from perfect, but between the arrival of Statcast and advancements made by Baseball Info Solutions and Inside Edge, we’ve got more pieces to the puzzle than ever before. And they’re already helping explain some of our outliers, guys whose performance by the metrics have never aligned with the scouting reports or eye tests. Like Dexter Fowler, who we discovered was playing more shallow than any center fielder in baseball, and that it was killing his defensive metrics. The Cubs realized this, and have repositioned him. Let’s see if we can’t use some of these same advancements to better figure out the Jose Iglesias mystery.

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NERD Game Scores for Tuesday, May 3, 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.

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Most Highly Rated Game
Philadelphia at St. Louis | 20:15 ET
Nola (33.0 IP, 67 xFIP-) vs. Wacha (29.1 IP, 93 xFIP-)
Despite their 15-11 record, the most likely outcome for the 2016 iteration of the Phillies remains the very dim one intimated by this site’s preseason projections. The club’s BaseRuns record — which metric strips out sequencing — is the fifth-worst in the majors. The team’s hitters, meanwhile, have produced the second-worst collective WAR. They possess a 0.1% probability of qualifying for the postseason. What oughtn’t be ignored, however, is the starting rotation. As a group, they’ve recorded the league’s highest strikeout rate and fifth-best collective WAR. Entirely central to that effort has been right-hander Aaron Nola. Despite having produced an average fastball velocity of just 90.0 mph, Nola has nevertheless parlayed impressive command and largely unhittable curveball into one of the league’s best pitching lines.

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Gregory Polanco Has Shortened Up

Event

Gregory Polanco has been an absolutely fantastic baseball player, having started to turn potential into results at the plate.

Explanation

Polanco has committed himself to various swing adjustments, as expertly documented by expert Travis Sawchik.

Further, unnecessary evidence for the explanation

Below!

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FanGraphs Audio: Dave Cameron on Not Specifically PEDs

Episode 650
Dave Cameron is the managing editor of FanGraphs. During this edition of FanGraphs Audio he examines the unprecedented talent among baseball’s young players; Dexter Fowler, Andrew McCutchen, and the the influence of data on outfield positioning; and, finally, the science of deterrence as it pertains to Dee Gordon and PED suspensions.

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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The Phillies Have Had an Almost Perfect Start

If the season ended today, it would be chaos. There would be significant protestation from players, owners, and fans alike, all parties confused by the suddenly truncated schedule. But if matters were allowed to proceed from there, the National League would have the Mets grab one wild-card slot. The other entry would be determined through a different one-game playoff — that one played between the Pirates and the Phillies.

The Phillies! It’s understood that anything can happen on any given day. What that means is that anything can also happen during any given month. And here the Phillies sit, tied for baseball’s fifth-best record. The Phillies came in as a clear contender for baseball’s worst record, but they have a better record than the defending champs. They have a better record than everyone in the AL West, and also the NL West. The Phillies have won six games in a row — baseball’s longest active streak — and they’ve completed series sweeps against the Nationals and Indians. A handful of teams in the league are rebuilding. The Phillies have had the best start of any.

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Nomar Mazara and the Rangers’ Good Problem

You’d rather have the Rangers’ problem than the Braves’ problem. See, the Braves problem is that they just don’t have enough competent players to field a competitive major-league baseball team. The Rangers problem seems to be that they’re soon to have too many competent players. An embarrassment of riches isn’t necessarily a problem, per se, but it’s something of an inefficiency, and it’s the kind of thing that can result in at least one deserving employee feeling less than pleased by his role in the workplace.

Nomar Mazara wasn’t supposed to be in the big leagues this soon, but Shin-Soo Choo‘s strained right calf accelerated Mazara’s timeline, and now that the 21-year-old rookie is here, it doesn’t seem like he’s going away any time soon. In Mazara’s first game, he homered. Through his first 17, the preseason consensus top-25 prospect has run a 127 wRC+, showed a knack for controlling the strike zone, impressed scouts with his ability to adjust, and even made an impact with the glove. The Rangers are in the business of competing for a World Series championship this year, and when a team is in the business of competing for a World Series championship, it does so by fielding a 25-man roster comprised of its best 25 players. Nomar Mazara is one of those players.

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Are These the Best Young Hitters in Baseball History?

It is no secret that baseball is in the midst of a youth revolution. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are, of course, two of the best players we’ve ever seen at their respective ages. They both look like they’re on the path to inner-circle Hall of Fame careers, barring health problems. They are the Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle for our generation.

But the depth of remarkable young talent around the game doesn’t stop at Trout and Harper. In another time, where those two superstars weren’t dominating the sport, the simultaneous rise of Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, and Kris Bryant would lead to numerous stories about the sport entering a golden age of third baseman. Except third base might not even be the most loaded position right now, as the young shortstops breaking into the game now include Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts, Corey Seager, and Addison Russell, with J.P. Crawford, Trea Turner, Orlando Arcia, and Dansby Swanson representing a pretty remarkable next wave; the first three of those four will likely arrive in the majors later this summer.

The future of the sport is clearly in good hands, but the most amazing thing about the present group of young players flooding the game is that they aren’t just hype and potential; they’re already some of the best players in the game. In fact, in terms of early career production, this may be the best young group of hitters the game has ever seen.

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This Represents the First Edition of the Year’s NERD Scores

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.

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A Brief Introduction
As the title indicates flawlessly, what this post represents is the first edition of NERD game scores for the 2016 season. As the brief italicized paragraph above indicates, NERD scores themselves 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.”

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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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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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