Author Archive

On the Shrinking Strike Zone and Lengthening Games

For the last few years, Jon Roegele (among others) has been doing excellent work showing that the strike zone was getting larger with every passing season. Specifically, pitchers and catchers had started getting calls on pitches below the knees that they hadn’t gotten previously, and the rise of the called low strike led a pervasive myth that hitters had`gotten too passive, putting the onus on the batters for the decrease in run scoring, when the reality is that batters were being called out on pitches they couldn’t do anything with anyway.

With strikeout rates again at an all-time high, MLB has apparently decided to take some action after a few years of studying the issue. According to a Jayson Stark report from last weekend, the competition committee approved a tentative plan to “effectively raise the lower part of the strike zone to the top of the hitter’s knees”, beginning as early as next year, assuming the rules committee also approves the plan, and the issue will apparently be raised with the players during CBA negotiations, so they may have a voice in the changes as well.

And you can be sure that some of those players won’t be happy about the proposal. For instance, here was Adam Wainwright‘s reaction to the report.

“It’s a horrible, horrible idea,” he said. “One, I’m a pitcher. And I’m a pitcher who likes to keep the ball low. Two, and mainly, all this talk about making the games shorter — what part of raising the strike zone up is going to do that? … They want more offense. I understand that. But taking 45 seconds off for an intentional walk one out of every three games isn’t going to make up for the added balls in the gap by raising the strike zone, in my opinion.”

At least Wainwright is honest and admits his bias right up front. This is a change that could potentially make his job harder, and like most self-interested individuals, he’s against things that have a negative consequence for him personally. But note that Wainwright doesn’t just stop at saying that he’s against it because he’s a pitcher, but he’s against it because he thinks it’s counterproductive to MLB’s other stated goal, which is to reduce the length of games back under three hours. As Wainwright and others would have you believe, instituting a smaller strike zone will lead to even longer games, and so MLB is barking up the wrong tree.

Except that the evidence suggests that this probably isn’t going to be the case.

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FanGraphs Summer Tour With Pitch Talks

Last month, I mentioned that we were going to be partnering up with the Pitch Talks guys, and would be helping with their efforts to bring the fantastic baseball speaker series to the U.S. this summer. Today, we’re excited to announce what the summer tour is going to look like.


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Dave Cameron FanGraphs Chat – 5/25/16

Dave Cameron: Happy Wednesday, everyone. Unless you’re Matt Harvey, I guess.
Joe S: Has to be asked… What would you have done with Harvey?
Dave Cameron: This is the kind of thing that’s basically impossible to say we know better from the outside. Maybe Harvey wouldn’t respond well to doing the phantom-injury thing, and maybe he’s just got too much pride to try to figure things out in the minors. I think, in this case, the Mets just know more than we do, so it’s not really worth saying that we’d do things differently.
Curtis: What is the most impressive thing about the Mariners hot start? How good their record would be if they could actually be .500 at home?
Dave Cameron: The bullpen has probably been the biggest factor. It looked like it could have been a disaster, but they’re getting good innings from reclamation projects like Nuno, Montgomery, and Peralta. And it looks like they stole Nick Vincent from SD.
Erik: What is the logic behind allowing some types of draft pick trading but not others? Do you see this changing after the next CBA? Or is it somehow in the interests of either the players or the owners to keep it this way?

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The Orioles Sold a Draft Pick Again

Since the trading of some types of draft choices was allowed in the most recent CBA, we’ve seen teams use their “competitive balance” selections as currency, often swapping them for role players in minor mid-summer trades. As noted in this MLBTradeRumors post from last year, players traded for draft picks include the likes of Bryan Morris, Bud Norris, and Gaby Sanchez, although they have also been included in deals for better players like Jon Lester as part of a larger package.

Last year, though, the Orioles and Dodgers created a new kind of trade for a competitive balance pick, taking out the desired player aspect of the deal, and turning it into a simple cash proposition. Last April, the Orioles decided they didn’t want to pay the remainder of Ryan Webb‘s 2015 salary — roughly $2.8 million — and so they gave the 74th overall pick in the draft to the Dodgers in exchange for LA taking Webb’s contract. The Dodgers didn’t actually want Webb, as they showed by immediately DFA’ing him upon receipt, and the deal stood as the first time two teams had clearly decided that it would be mutually beneficial for one franchise to purchase a draft pick from the other.

A year later, the Orioles decided to do it again, so last night, they traded the 76th pick in the draft to the Braves, along with the roughly $3 million remaining on Brian Matusz‘s contract, in exchange for two non-prospects. For the Orioles, the competitive balance selections might as well be renamed “$3 million rebate checks,” because that’s apparently how Dan Duquette sees these selections.

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Yoenis Cespedes Is Still Playing Like a Superstar

Last winter, coming off the best season of his career, Yoenis Cespedes hit the free-agent market, and promptly heard crickets. He watched David Price and Zack Greinke break $200 million in early December, and then saw Jason Heyward set the market for outfielders with a $184 million deal a week later. And then he sat and watched a bunch more pitchers get paid, while he, Chris Davis and Justin Upton sat around waiting for offers that never came. Finally, in January, all three eventually found homes, but Cespedes was unable to land the big deal he was looking for, instead taking a three-year deal from the Mets that gave him the chance to hit the market again this winter, if he so chose.

A quarter of the way through the 2016 season, Cespedes opting out of the last two years of the deal is now a foregone conclusion; the only way he wouldn’t hit the market this winter is if the Mets re-do his deal before he gets there, or if he blows out his knee between now and October. Cespedes has not only carried over last year’s second half surge, but he’s even somehow building on it.

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Let’s Talk About the Phillies’ Playoff Odds (!)

It’s May 19th, and the Phillies are in first second place in the National League East. Yes, the Phillies. The team that generated a 1,000 “tanking is ruining the sport” articles this winter has, six weeks into the season, the third-best record in the National League. As Jeff Sullivan noted this morning, their remarkably excellent bullpen has been one of the primary drivers of the early success, with David Hernandez and Hector Neris surprisingly emerging as dominant forces in the middle innings, and Jeanmar Gomez driving another nail into the coffin of the necessity of a “proven closer”. And yet, despite being in second place at this point, if you look at our current playoff odds, you wouldn’t actually know that the Phillies are off to a great start.

chart (29)

See that flat line across the bottom? That’s the Phillies. Their 24-17 start hasn’t moved the needle, at all, on our forecasts expectations for their chances of reaching the postseason. Okay, that’s not exactly true; they’ve gone from a 0.1% chance of winning one of the two Wild Card spots in our preseason forecast all the way up to a 0.3% chance of getting to the play-in game now. But their odds of hanging on to the NL East? Still close enough zero to round down when displaying one decimal point.

This is, to some, puzzling. A question in my chat yesterday brought up the point that our system is far more bearish on the Phillies hot start leading to postseason success than others; Baseball Prospectus gives them a 2.3% chance of winning the division and a 7.6% chance of getting a Wild Card spot, for 10% overall odds of reaching the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight is even more bullish than that, putting them at 4% to win the NL East and 13% to reach the postseason. So why is our system so stubborn relative to others attempting to look into the same crystal ball in order to see what the final standings will look like in October?

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The Cause of Lengthening MLB Games

Over at ESPN, Jayson Stark talked to Rob Manfred about the fact that, a year after chopping six minutes off the length of the average Major League game, those gains have been almost entirely lost in the first six weeks of 2016. Included in that piece was this chart, which shows the trend over the last 11 years.

Average Time Of Game
2006 2:48:11
2007 2:51:13
2008 2:50:38
2009 2:51:47
2010 2:50:46
2011 2:51:57
2012 2:55:58
2013 2:58:51
2014 3:02:21
2015 2:56:14
2016 3:00:26

The four minute and 12 second gain from last year to this year is actually larger than any of the per-season gains made during the 2011-2014 stretch when MLB games lengthened quickly; that kind of rise in game length is clearly frustrating to Manfred, especially after the gains they made last year. As the commissioner notes to Stark in the piece, MLB believes there are a variety of factors contributing to the longer games, with players not taking the pace-of-play initiatives as seriously this year, cold weather, and simply the structural change in results all contributing. Stark points out that walks and strikeouts are both up again, so overall pitches are up, and more pitches equals more time. But let’s try to go beyond that and look and see if we can quantify the differences in game length this year.

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Dave Cameron FanGraphs Chat – 5/18/16

Dave Cameron: Happy Wednesday. Let’s see if we can do better than Steve Delabar did last night.
Q-Ball: Hi Dave! When are you going to unleash the new prospect writer on a chat?
Dave Cameron: Eric Longenhagen will be chatting here on Friday this week, giving you all a chance to pepper him with questions and get to know him a bit better. We’ll find a permanent spot in the chat schedule for him in the not-too-distant future, and he’ll do weekly chats (and podcasts) in addition to his writing on the site.
Zonk: The Pirates are in contention, and rolling Jon Niese and Jeff Locke out there. Meanwhile, Glasnow and Taillon continue to mow down AAA batters. Why are the Pirates waiting to bring them up? Are they waiting on the Super-TWo deadline?
Dave Cameron: Taillon hasn’t pitched much the last few years, and Glasnow still has significant command issues. Keep in mind the lesson of Jose Berrios; the jump to the big leagues isn’t always as easy as it appears, and it does more harm than good to put a kid on the yo-yo between the big leagues and the minors.
Dave Cameron: They’ll be up this summer, but rushing it isn’t a great idea.

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The Cardinals’ Missing Magic

Over the last couple of years, we’ve talked a lot about the Kansas City Royals and the ability of certain teams to sustainably beat estimates like the BaseRuns expected records we publish on our standings page. Famously, the Royals have won far more games than our numbers thought they would — over the last three years, they’ve won 25 more games than their BaseRuns Win% would suggest — making two straight World Series appearances and winning last year’s fall classic along the way.

Interestingly, though, with less fan fare, Missouri’s other team has also been winning far more often than BaseRuns suggested was likely. Over the last three years, they’ve won 23 more games than their BaseRuns expected record, nearly as many as the Royals. Last year, they won 11 more games than expected on the strength of an historic clutch performance. As Ben Lindbergh noted in a Grantland piece last summer, the Cardinals pitching staff was insanely good at stranding runners last year, so their run prevention ended up being fantastic even as their pitchers routinely danced with danger.

Six weeks into 2016, however, the tables have turned. The Cardinals are just 20-18, already finding themselves eight games back of the Cubs in the NL Central, except BaseRuns thinks they should actually be 25-13, which would give them the second best record in all of baseball. A year after posting one of the largest positive differences between expected record and actual record, the Cardinals have already won five fewer games than expected, and if they continued at this pace, they’d post the largest negative differential for any team in a single season.

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The Worrisome Trend for Troy Tulowitzki

Among the many surprises of the 2016 season, the fact that the Blue Jays struggling offense is being carried by good performances from their starting rotation has to rank near the top of the list. Toronto bashed their way to the postseason last year, but with Russell Martin (.185 wOBA) and Ryan Goins (.198 wOBA) giving the team absolutely nothing at the plate this year, the bottom of the Blue Jays order has been a rally-killing black hole. And the lack of offense from those two have put pressure on the rest of the line-up, which means that the continuing struggles of Troy Tulowitzki have been a bit more obvious this year.

Tulo didn’t hit that well after coming over from Colorado in the mid-summer trade last year, but his defense at shortstop allowed him to remain a valuable contributor, and because the team was scoring six runs per night, his lack of offense didn’t seem like a big problem. Now, with the team scoring four runs per game, Tulo’s .172/.275/.336 line is a bit more problematic, and the offensive issues magnify his own struggles. Thankfully for the Blue Jays, there’s one easy sign to point to as reason for hope; Tulo has a .190 BABIP, which ranks 190th out of 194 qualified hitters so far this year. That isn’t going to last, and Tulo’s ability to still hit for some power and draw walks means that he should be a productive hitter once again after that number corrects itself with more time.

But it isn’t true that Tulowitzki’s problems are just bad luck. There are some legitimate reasons to think that age might just be slowing his bat in an irreversible way.

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Dave Cameron FanGraphs Chat – 5/11/16

Dave Cameron: Alright, let’s do this.
Ben: Cubs vs Red Sox World Series.
Dave Cameron: Certainly possible. Probably even the most likely option at this point.
Dave Cameron: But most likely WS match-up is still like a 100-1 shot or something.
Drew: Having trouble finding the Trade Value series. What am I doing wrong? Also, when do we get new ones?

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Stephen Strasburg’s Extension Is a Win-Win

Last night, in the middle of his start against the Detroit Tigers, news leaked out that Stephen Strasburg had agreed to a seven year, $175 million extension with the Washington Nationals. As Jeff Sullivan noted last night, this is seen as surprising news, as Scott Boras clients usually end up testing free agency, and Strasburg was four months away from being not just the best free agent on the market this winter, but the only high-end pitching option available.

And it’s not like the Nationals broke the bank to keep Strasburg away from free agency. The 7 year, $175 million total essentially matches the contract figures that Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez received in their long-term extensions three years ago, except Strasburg’s actual contract is valued significantly less than those two, because it also includes $70 million in interest-free deferrals. Once you account for the payment structure of Strasburg’s deal, the net present value is $135 million, which is the NPV a player would get if he signed a 7 year, $158 million contract without backloading or deferrals.

That total puts Strasburg south of not only Hernandez and Verlander (not even accounting for the inflation that has happened in MLB salaries since those deals were signed) but even less annually than Jon Lester, who got $155 million from the Cubs for six years. Lester was selling his age 31-36 seasons when he signed with Chicago, while Strasburg would have been selling his age 28-34 seasons had he entered the market this winter; combined with his superior stuff and the dearth of alternatives on the market, I would have guessed that Strasburg would have been able to do significantly better than this as a free agent.

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The Cubs Look Like a Perfect Baseball Team

On Thursday, the Nationals arrived on the north side of Chicago to begin a four game series that was billed as a potential NLCS preview. The 20-6 Cubs were squaring off with the 19-8 Nationals in a match-up of two of the best teams in baseball, and while it’s still early, the series was supposed to serve as something of a test for a Cubs team that spent April beating up on a lot of weak opponents.

Test passed. Javier Baez‘s 13th inning homer yesterday gave the Cubs a four game sweep over Washington, which followed their three game sweep in Pittsburgh, so the boys from Chicago’s north side have now have a seven game winning streak, with all seven games coming against legitimate contenders. Questions about early season strength of schedule can now be put away, and with the way the Cubs are not only winning games but crushing their opponents, it’s pretty clear that this Cubs team is currently in a class of their own.

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The Garrett Richards Injury and the Mike Trout Question

For the last week or so, the Angels have been pretty vague about what’s going on with Garrett Richards. He missed a start due to “fatigue” and “dehydration”, but they hadn’t given any real indicators that his arm was bothering him. Apparently it was, however, as Jeff Passan dropped this bomb this morning.

This is a huge blow to the Angels, not only because Richards is really good, but because the Angels pitching staff without him is atrocious. Here’s what our current depth chart forecast for Anaheim’s starting rotation looks like, with Richards included.

#25 Angels

Garrett Richards   159.0 8.4 3.2 0.7 .298 72.7 % 3.39 3.41 2.8
Hector Santiago 140.0 8.1 3.5 1.1 .292 74.2 % 3.89 4.29 1.3
Jered Weaver 137.0 5.6 2.5 1.4 .288 70.0 % 4.54 4.84 0.5
Nicholas Tropeano 114.0 8.5 3.3 1.1 .303 71.6 % 4.09 4.03 1.1
Matt Shoemaker 84.0 7.6 2.3 1.2 .298 71.5 % 4.04 4.07 0.9
Andrew Heaney   62.0 7.5 2.6 1.0 .301 72.0 % 3.83 3.91 0.7
C.J. Wilson   40.0 7.6 3.7 0.9 .295 70.8 % 4.06 4.14 0.4
Tyler Skaggs   39.0 8.7 3.2 0.8 .294 73.7 % 3.42 3.60 0.6
Kyle Kendrick 16.0 5.3 2.3 1.2 .292 71.5 % 4.23 4.59 0.1
Total 790.0 7.6 3.0 1.1 .296 72.1 % 3.93 4.08 8.4

Hector Santiago is a FIP-beater, so he’s better than that projected WAR makes him look, but after him, it’s a dumpster fire. And in Passan’s story, he notes that Andrew Heaney may also need Tommy John surgery, so we might be crossing his ~60 innings off that list as well, if his rehab-to-avoid-surgery plan isn’t successful. And Tyler Skaggs just went for an MRI after getting scratched from a Triple-A start last week; the current diagnosis is biceps tendonitis, but it’s an arm problem for a guy with a history of arm problems.

At some point in the not too distant future, the Angels rotation could be Santiago-Weaver-Tropeano-Shoemaker-Kendrick, which wouldn’t be good enough to contend even if supported by the offense of the 1927 Yankees. And the 2016 Angels aren’t exactly an offensive behemoth.

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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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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
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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Dave Cameron FanGraphs Chat – 5/4/16

Dave Cameron: Back after a nice vacation last week, so let’s try to get two weeks worth of questions in today.
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?
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.
O’s Lover: Is it time to give up on Schoop? All predictions had his breakout year coming – too soon to pull the plug?
Dave Cameron: He is what he is; a powerful slugger with lousy command of the strike zone.
S: Rockies fans have to be encouraged by Jon Gray so far, right?

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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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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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Jake Arrieta: King of Weak Contact

Ever since Voros McCracken revealed his DIPS theory, stating that pitchers had little control over the outcomes of batted balls, people have been looking for exceptions to the rules. The first ones identified were knuckleballers, who consistently and relisably post some of the lowest BABIPs of any pitchers during their careers. From there, it was found that flyball pitchers, especially ones who generate a lot of pop-ups, can also run relatively low BABIPs over long periods of time. And then there are guys like Bronson Arroyo, who don’t easily fit into a bucket of pitcher-types, but managed to suppress outs on balls in play for over a few thousand innings, showing that he had some ability to induce weak contact.

Often times, the guys who fit the mold of a FIP-beater are guys who wouldn’t be in the big leagues if they hadn’t figured out how to exploit this advantage. The list of guys that we have to write the “FIP is wrong about them” disclaimer currently includes the likes of Chris Young, Marco Estrada, Jered Weaver, Tyler Clippard, and Darren O’Day. You’ll notice that these guys all throw in the 80s, and in Weaver and Young’s case, the low-80s. The guys who don’t conform to the normal range of BABIP variance use their ability to generate weak contact to offset their lack of stuff. They can’t dominate the strike zone — O’Day is the exception to that point — so they get batters out by allowing the kinds of contact that their fielders can get to. I’m sure they’d rather just strike everyone out, but since they can’t do that, they’ve learned to succeed in another way.

But while Weaver and Estrada are still chugging along, soaking up innings and keeping their teams in the ballgame, there’s a new king of weak contact in Major League Baseball. And to make life unfair, he also happens to throw 95.

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