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The Game Plan: How the Indians Almost Won It All

This is August Fagerstrom’s last piece here. As he announced on Tuesday, he has taken a position with a Major League team, and that organization will now benefit from the insights that we will miss. August wrote this piece before officially leaving, but we wanted to save it for after the World Series storm had calmed down, since it deserved not to get overshadowed by Chicago’s celebration.

What will be remembered about this year’s postseason, for the rest of history, is the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. It hadn’t happened in 108 years, if you didn’t hear. That’s the big takeaway here. Beyond that: Game Seven. Game Seven was crazy! We’ll be talking about Game Seven for years.

The other part of the equation is the Cleveland Indians, and the story that seems most likely to be remembered about them was how far they got with so relatively little. The team with the super-rotation at the beginning of the season that was left with scraps at the end. Despite missing two of their three best starters in Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, Cleveland held three of baseball’s most threatening lineups in Boston, Toronto, and Chicago to 42 runs in 15 games, good for a 2.69 ERA, while tossing a record-setting five shutouts. They rode Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen as far as they could, but even guys like Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt (?!) handed the ball off to the Millers and the Allens with a lead more often than not.

Throughout the postseason, every Indians pitcher was quick to mention the game plan, the approach, and the way catcher Roberto Perez attacked the hitters. Part of that is typical athlete speak, sure. Almost always, these guys are going to deflect and give credit to their teammates. But what does that really mean? What goes into a pre-series, or even pre-game scouting report? Who’s the brains behind that operation? How many brains are behind that operation? And what happens when it makes its way out onto the field?
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Ben Zobrist Will Not Be Underrated by the History Books

The nation finally got to know Ben Zobrist last year. Six years after the Rays utility-man-turned-superstar emerged as one of baseball’s best players, he got to play on the game’s biggest stage, and he became a champion. His previous three postseason appearances never made it past the first round; his World Series in 2008, he was still a part-time player. Last year, Zobrist was a key cog, a player for whom the Royals traded at the deadline, a player who they potentially might not have won the World Series without. But he wasn’t the story. The story was Eric Hosmer‘s mad dash, the story was Ned Yost, the story was Wade Davis and the bullpen, the story was the Royals defense. Ben Zobrist was a secondary player, as he’s unfairly been his entire career.

This time around, Zobrist is no longer a secondary player. This time around, Zobrist is the Most Valuable Player. Zobrist finally had his moment, and baseball’s longtime most underrated player will never be underrated by the history books again. These two championships, and this MVP, are here forever.

Zobrist slashed .357/.419/.500 over 31 plate appearances in the World Series, and led the Cubs with 0.72 Win Probability Added. With the bat, context included, no Cubs hitter did more in the World Series to contribute to this championship than Zobrist. His biggest hit of all came in Game Seven.

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Cleveland’s Center Field Decision

You never want to overreact too strongly to what happened the night before. You never want to overreact too strongly to what’s happened in a postseason series, or even an entire postseason. A hallmark of a great manager is often knowing when to ride their guys out and when to take action, and players are so much more than one- or seven- or 20-game samples that it’s rare to see enough in such a short time to reasonably warrant a change.

It’s easy to forget that, per plate appearance, Tyler Naquin was actually Cleveland’s best hitter this year. That’s a real thing that happened, and that occurred over 116 games and 365 plate appearances. We know, for a fact, that Naquin possesses the ability to do great things at the plate, because he is literally the same person that just did great things at the plate. Naquin was a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate, even favorite, for much of the year, though it’s easy to forget that now, after a rough postseason was punctuated by an even worse Game Six of the World Series.

For the postseason, Naquin’s hitting .190/.227/.286. He’s struck out in over half his plate appearances, and he’s walked once. Again, that’s a nine-game, 23-plate appearance sample. It’s important to always compare that to the 365-plate appearance, 135 wRC+ sample, for context. That doesn’t change the fact that Naquin, most recently, has struggled. Less recently, but still recently, he’s struggled, too. Over the final two months of the regular season, he ran an 83 wRC+, the power he showed in the first half having almost completely disappeared. He hasn’t hit a home run since his infamous pinch-hit, walkoff, inside-the-park homer against the Blue Jays all the way back on August 19. That’s two-and-a-half months without a dinger, and even that one didn’t leave the yard.

And so after last night, a game in which Naquin struck out in both his plate appearances, including Cleveland’s highest-leverage plate appearance of the game, and perhaps more notably was involved in, and possibly was the culprit of the first-inning fly ball mishap that kept the inning alive for the Cubs and led to two runs, plenty of Cleveland fans have called for Naquin to sit Game Seven in favor of Rajai Davis, despite right-hander Kyle Hendricks being on the mound for the Cubs.

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August Fagerstrom FanGraphs Chat — 11/1/16

11:56
august fagerstrom: November baseball chat!

11:56
august fagerstrom: cool thing

11:57
august fagerstrom: chat soundtrack is Anthony Rizzo’s walkup music, which isn’t the kind of thing I’d typically listen to but has been stuck in my head since Game 3 and is awesome when played loud in Wrigley

11:57
august fagerstrom: same with this, which they sometimes play between innings

12:06
august fagerstrom: ok, let’s do it

12:06
Daniel: Lester available out of the bullpen. True or False: He can only enter the game at the start of an inning or when nobody is on base.

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Javier Baez Has Muted His Own Hype

It’s never enjoyable to be the one who rains on a parade. To spoil someone’s hype, to kill someone’s vibe. Hype is an extension of excitement, of enjoyment, and enjoyment is a shared interest among us all. At the same time, it can be important not to let the hype get out of control. When the hype gets out of control, it begins to exceed reality, and disappointment is born out of unmet expectations. Just as the desire for enjoyment is a shared interest among us all, so, too, is the avoidance of disappointment.

Luckily, I’m not about to break any news here when I tell you that Javier Baez has looked a mess at the plate during the World Series, so I can’t take all the credit for raining on the parade and spoiling the hype. The hype is being spoiled right there, on the field, for all to see. I’ve had nothing to do with that. I’m just here to take note, because the 180 from Baez’s fantastic NLDS and NLCS is nearly as remarkable as what happened in those series themselves, and it serves as a necessary reminder not to let the hype get out of control and exceed reality.

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The Cubs Got Back to Being the Cubs

When a team makes it to the World Series, it’s probably best that they– hold on. Let me re-start that. When a team has one of the best regular seasons in major league history and then goes on to make it to the World Series, it’s probably best that that team continues playing in a similar fashion to the way they played up until that point. That is, if they’re interested in capitalizing on that regular season by winning the World Series. The Cubs are very interested in that proposition.

All along, of course, these Cubs have been interested, but through the first four games of this World Series, we didn’t see as much of the regular season Cubs as we expected. The world-beating Cubs. We certainly didn’t see those Cubs in Games Three and Four at Wrigley, when Cleveland pushed Chicago’s backs to the wall by outscoring them 8-3 in two games on their home turf to take a 3-1 series lead. But in Game Five’s potential Cleveland clincher, Chicago’s last home game of the year, they gave their fans one last taste of what their historical season looked like, whether that history is rewarded with a World Series victory or not.

These Cubs all year played defense. That defense, along with their pitching staff, turned balls in play into outs as well as most any team in baseball history. Saturday’s Game Four loss featured two errors, and they led to early runs. The night before, the game’s only run came on a ball that dropped feet in front of Jorge Soler and was preceded by a wild pitch that put the go-ahead run 90 feet away from home. The Cubs looked sloppy in their losses, and the Cubs haven’t looked sloppy all year.

The Cubs went back to not being sloppy in Sunday’s 3-2 win. Let’s take a trip around the diamond.

For as much that gets made about Jon Lester and holding baserunners, it’s actually pretty tough to steal off him and battery-mate David Ross. Ask Francisco Lindor, who’s learned that the hard way not once, but twice this series.

This is all just so Cubsy. You see Lester staring down a runner who’s practically standing over second base already, and he doesn’t do a dang thing about it. Except for deliver the ball home in about 1.2 seconds to David Ross, who gets it to second in a remarkable 1.7 seconds. And then there’s Javier Baez, who’s probably responsible for shaving two-tenths of a second off Ross’ already elite pop time by doing Baez things: positioning himself in front of the bag — whereas most second baseman would wait on top of it — to get the ball into his glove faster, and then letting the ball travel into his glove, as his glove travels into Lindor.

All three parties here deserve credit for their remarkable parts in this caught stealing, which was huge, by the way. Lindor represented the tying run in Jon Lester’s final inning with Cleveland’s best hitter against left-handed pitching at the plate, with formidable bats in Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez waiting after him. Two-tenths of a second more by anyone involved — Lester in his delivery, Ross in his exchange, Baez with his positioning and application — and the tying run is scoring on a single. Instead, Napoli led off the next inning with the bases empty against a hard-throwing righty.

That’s three Cubs players who contributed defensively. Let’s keep moving around the infield.

That’s Jose Ramirez busting ass down the line on a ball that’s an infield hit more often than it’s not, runners on the corners with no outs down two more often than not, that instead turned into runner-on-third-one-out-and-this-inning-ended-up-being-scoreless because Addison Russell improvised with his arm slot and showed David Ross that he’s not the only one with an elite pop time. And with all that Russell did, we’re back to runners on the corners with no outs down two, and probably worse, if not for Rizzo’s pick, one of the little things he does consistently that make him an elite defensive first baseman even without the flashy diving plays and catches made while climbing over the tarp.

Speaking of which, let’s move on over to third.

That ball came off Brandon Guyer‘s bat at 95 mph, right down the line. That ball went right into Kris Bryant‘s glove, as he dove into foul territory. That ball went right into Rizzo’s glove, as he stretched and scooped. The scoops, man. The scoops.

Hey, Jason Heyward played.

Yeah, turns out he didn’t have to climb the wall. Under normal circumstances, this could’ve been a routine catch. Not normal circumstances, though. It was another windy night in Chicago. If any right fielder knows how to read a ball off a bat, it’s Jason Heyward, and the read off this bat was one row foul, within reach. The wind brought it back three row’s lengths toward the field, and Heyward adjusted in a way that few other right fielders would.

Even Ben Zobrist was making sneaky good plays in left:

That’s the kind of play that usually doesn’t get appreciated in real time by viewers, but goes a long way within a dugout and within a clubhouse.

“Don’t understatement how important that play was that Zobrist made keeping that a single,” manager Joe Maddon said. “A lot of times that would have turned into a double. That was a great play by Zo. Eventually we kept them from scoring.”

That’s every player but the center fielder contributing something “plus” in a one-run World Series win. I’m a big fan of the term “run prevention unit,” because as much as a Gold Glove Award insinuates the pinnacle of defensive achievement as being an individual task, defense is often played on the team-level, which isn’t always apparent in the game of baseball. On Sunday night, the Cubs played team defense. Three men played crucial roles in a crucial caught stealing. A first baseman helped ensure two fantastic plays actually turn into outs. How often do you see the diving play that should’ve been out, if only? For the Cubs, the should’ve been outs become outs. The Cubs played team defense.

Hell, they even used two guys to catch a pop fly:

The return to status quo didn’t just occur in the field. It occurred at the plate. The Cubs chased, uncharacteristically, throughout the first four games of this series. During the regular season, they ran one of baseball’s lowest team chase rates. According to BaseballSavant, they offered at 31% of pitches outside the strike zone. In the first four games, that rate spiked by 30%, helping lead to their lowest four-game stretch of run production all season.

And, while Javier Baez has reminded us all that he’s still very much an incomplete package with his plate discipline in this series, Kris Bryant got back to laying off the low-and-away breaking pitch and had himself a game:

chart4

Ben Zobrist was flawless:

chart5

The Cubs chased just 28% of Cleveland’s offerings outside of the zone, getting back under their elite season total.

And then they pitched, too. Lester Lester’d, and the back-end of the bullpen shut the door with three dominant innings the way they did for much of the regular season, except this time, it was just all Aroldis Chapman. That’s the one way the Cubs didn’t look like themselves on Sunday night, but for Cubs fans, that was a deviation from the norm that was finally welcome.

The Cubs now head back to Cleveland, fresh off a reminder of why they were the best team in baseball. Are the best team in baseball. The deficit is still very real, and the Indians are still very much favorites in the series. The Cubs remain the team most likely to play the closest thing to a perfect game of baseball. And perfect isn’t even required to win two more games.


The Difference Between Cleveland and Chicago’s Bullpen

When it became very clear that the 2016 Chicago Cubs, the 103-win Chicago Cubs, were potentially one game away from their historical season coming to a disappointing finish, the pitcher standing on the mound was Travis Wood. Wood had just been brought in to face the left-handed Jason Kipnis, and Wood had just thrown three balls in four pitches to Jason Kipnis, and then an 87-mph cutter breaking right toward the heart of the plate. Kipnis hit the very hittable cutter 10 rows deep into the right field bleachers at Wrigley Field, on a windy night in Chicago when would-be home runs were becoming warning track fly outs all evening long. Not this one.

Nothing was stopping this ball, off the bat at 105 mph, from landing in the bleachers (and then immediately being thrown back onto the field), from giving the Indians a 7-1 lead in the game, and from getting the Indians one step closer to the 3-1 lead in the World Series which they now possess. And when that ball was on its way out of the playing field, Aroldis Chapman, Hector Rondon, and Pedro Strop, the three most important Cubs relievers during the regular season, looked on from the third-base bullpen, none of them having thrown a single pitch in the game.

Rondon eventually mopped up Wood’s mess — and Justin Grimm‘s and Mike Montgomery‘s mess, too — throwing two scoreless innings, striking out two of the eight batters he faced while pumping fastballs that touched 99 mph. And the fact that it was Rondon who mopped up the mess caused by lesser relievers, while Chapman and Strop contributed nothing, highlights the key difference between the bullpens of the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians in this World Series.
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The Unlikely Kyle Schwarber Defense

Rather than Andrew Miller, it was Bryan Shaw who was stretched past his typical workload in Cleveland’s 1-0 World Series Game Three win on Friday, throwing 31 pitches in a rare multi-inning appearance. Rather than Andrew Miller, it was Bryan Shaw who wound up throwing the high-leverage middle relief innings, handling four of Cleveland’s five highest-leverage at-bats before Cody Allen‘s ninth inning. And, rather than Andrew Miller, it was Bryan Shaw who faced lefty Kyle Schwarber when he came off Chicago’s bench.

Everyone in the stadium was waiting to see when Schwarber would get his at-bat. Cody Allen was warm in the bullpen when Schwarber entered the game at at a time when one swing of the bat would have tied things up, but manager Terry Francona stuck with Shaw. Dave Cameron had written hours earlier about this very tango, suggesting that Francona flip-flop the accustomed usage of deploying Miller first, instead saving him for the later innings to make life tougher on Schwarber and Joe Maddon. What Cameron didn’t consider — and why would he have? — is that it wouldn’t be Miller or Allen facing Schwarber at all.

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The Argument for Carlos Santana, Starting Left Fielder

In 2014, the Cleveland Indians conducted a little experiment. Lonnie Chisenhall was still struggling as a third baseman, both offensively and defensively, and the club had had enough of Santana’s miscues behind the plate. In an attempt to maximize both the amount of offense in their lineup and Santana’s versatility, they began working him out at the hot corner in spring training, and an Opening Day, he was their third baseman. At first, things were OK — he’d field a bunt barehanded or make a diving play on a sharply hit grounder, but as soon as the Indians became comfortable enough putting Santana there everyday, things became a disaster. The experiment lasted just 26 games and 225.2 innings. Santana accrued -5 Defensive Runs Saved and a -6 UZR, good for a -39.5 UZR/150. He’s been a first baseman/designated hitter since.

Until tonight, apparently. Tonight, in a swing Game Three of the World Series, we’re apparently going to see the debut of Carlos Santana, Starting Left Fielder.

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Fact-Checking Jake Arrieta

Potential rooting interests notwithstanding, last night’s World Series Game Two was pretty brutal, as far as World Series games go. It was a cold, wet, dreary night in Cleveland. One team’s win expectancy was greater than 90% by the fifth inning. It lasted more than four hours. The Indians made six pitching changes. The Cubs made more mound visits than pitches. Trevor Bauer started for Cleveland, and of his 87 pitches, just 53 were strikes. Jake Arrieta started for Chicago, and of his 98 pitches, just 55 were strikes.

Tough game to watch, all around. So, rather than dissect the game, let’s dissect Jake Arrieta’s postgame press conference. These things aren’t always very revealing, but in the spirit of the current political season, maybe some fact-checking can reveal some truths.

* * *

Q. You started off a little rocky and then you got it back. How did you turn it around?
JAKE ARRIETA: “Well, I think really controlling my effort is when I was able to get locked in. I kind of had my foot on the gas a little too much at the start, trying to do more than I needed to.”

The first pitch Arrieta threw was his hardest of the night! As easy as it can be to write off something like “I had to get locked in” as a ballplayer cliche, these are human beings who are prone to unintentional rushes of adrenaline, and this is, after all, the freaking World Series. Arrieta hit 95 on the first pitch of the night to Carlos Santana, and then never hit 95 again. He was all over the place in the first, throwing just 43% strikes, his lowest strike rate of any inning, and walking Francisco Lindor on four consecutive pitches with two outs. The adrenaline effect is real. It looks like it was real for Arrieta last night, and it may help explain part of his early-game troubles to command his pitches.

speed-php

Q. You started off a little rocky and then you got it back. How did you turn it around?
JAKE ARRIETA (cont.): “Then I really got back to just executing good pitches towards the bottom of the strike zone. With the cutter going one way and the sinker going the other way, trying to be as aggressive as I could, and allow those guys to put the ball in play and let the defense work.”

In the first inning, 57% of Arrieta’s pitches were in the lower half of the zone or beyond. After that, it was 56%. The first-inning issue wasn’t necessarily leaving the ball up, but there’s a different between “pitches toward the bottom of the strike zone” and “good pitches toward the bottom of the strike zone.”

Lower-half pitches in the first:

jake-arrieta

After the first:

jake-arrieta1

It’s tough to compare one inning to 4.2, but I think I’ll allow it. That really bad slider off the plate in the first didn’t come back. Those three middle-middle pitches didn’t come back. It seems like there’s a higher percentage of pitches catching the bottom edge of the zone.

Q. You started off a little rocky and then you got it back. How did you turn it around?
JAKE ARRIETA (cont.): “Then in the sixth, I think that maintaining a consistent feel and on a night like this with the weather the way it was can be tough. So I tried to keep the body warm and ready to go the best I could.”

Nope.

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-2-05-49-am

It was rainy, windy, and in the low-40s by a lake in Ohio. Wearing short sleeves is not how one tries to keep the body warm, you absolute madman.

Q. You mentioned the conditions, how did they affect your choices? And how would you compare tonight to that Game 2 you started in Citi Field last year?
JAKE ARRIETA: “Pretty similar, I would say. I think the temperature was probably close to what it was at Citi Field.”

Last night’s first-pitch temperature: 43 degrees, cloudy.

Last year’s first-pitch temperature: 45 degrees, partly cloudy.

Q. You mentioned the conditions, how did they affect your choices? And how would you compare tonight to that Game 2 you started in Citi Field last year?
JAKE ARRIETA (cont.): “I think keeping my hand as warm as I could in between innings to not lose feel in the fingertips, because for, not even just a starting pitcher, but for a pitcher, you want to have that consistent feel off your fingertips, especially on your breaking ball, to maintain consistency with how you execute those pitches.”

Arrieta may not have made the best life choice for keeping the body warm, but as far as keeping the hand warm, it seems like he did a fine job, because last night’s success had plenty to do with his breaking pitches. As our own Jeff Sullivan detailed back in late-August, a big part of Arrieta’s midseason skid had to do with his struggles against left-handed batters. This, coming on the heels of his excellent slider disappearing. Against lefties in 2015, Arrieta was able to paint the outer edge of the zone, back-dooring his breaking pitches in at the last second. During much of 2016, rather than starting his breaking pitches outside the zone and back-dooring them to the edge, he was too often starting them on the edge and moving them to the middle of the plate.

Last night, Arrieta threw 36 breaking balls to lefties out of 71 pitches — 51%, almost double his season rate. And here’s the location of those pitches to lefties:

chart2

Arrieta absolutely lived on the outer half of the plate, and you see all the purple in the bottom-left quadrant of the zone, indicating well executed back-door sliders, and enough light blue in the area, too, indicating those big, looping curves that catch the zone at the last second.

He was wild, but he managed to keep the walk total down, and he was wild out of the zone, rather than being wild with hittable mistake pitches. When Arrieta was able to find the zone, it was with pitches that stuck to the game plan, and with his movement, pitches that stick to the game plan are tough to square up.

And the press conference? Good. More insightful than most. Mostly truthful and supported by the evidence. I give it an 8/10. But, my God man, put on some sleeves.


The Corey Kluber Pitch That Turned the Cubs Into Mush

Several hours before the first pitch of the World Series opener in Cleveland on Tuesday night, a reporter opened the press conference with Indians Game Two starter Trevor Bauer by asking him what it was that he enjoyed about watching Game One starter Corey Kluber when he was at his best. Probably nine in 10 pitchers answer this question with some form of stock response, praising Kluber for the way he competes, his intensity on the mound, or his routines in between starts (Indians players love Kluber’s routines). Whenever nine out of 10 someones would say any one thing, Trevor Bauer is always that 10th guy.

“I like the two-seam fastball,” Bauer said, matter of factly. “That’s a pitch I’m fascinated with. A pitch I started throwing mostly by studying his, and figuring out exactly why it moves and all the science behind it. So I enjoy watching that because sometimes it moves a lot, and it’s really fun to see the reactions to it.”

Bauer spent blocks of time during the 2015 offseason watching film at 1,000 frames per second of Kluber’s two-seam fastball, studying its spin axis and the way Kluber achieves that spin and movement based on the way it comes off his fingers. That year, Bauer threw more than 350 two-seam fastballs, having thrown just seven in his career before learning it by studying Kluber. This year, the two-seam fastball trumped the four-seam as Bauer’s go-to offering, and he threw it more than any other pitch, turning himself into a completely different type of pitcher in the process.

On Tuesday night, we saw just why Bauer went to such lengths to mimic Kluber’s two-seamer, as it was the biggest reason Cleveland’s ace was able to carve up perhaps baseball’s best lineup, allowing just three baserunners in six scoreless innings while striking out nine, and turning Chicago’s biggest threat, Anthony Rizzo, into mush.

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August Fagerstrom FanGraphs Chat — 10/25/16

11:53
august fagerstrom: hello!

11:53
august fagerstrom: World Series chat!

11:53
august fagerstrom: I went to bed at 5AM last night!

11:54
august fagerstrom: get those questions in and I’ll kick things off about 5 after

11:55
august fagerstrom: Chat soundtrack: Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

12:02
august fagerstrom: alright, let’s just get it going now

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How the Indians Can Win the World Series

The night before the 2016 World Series is set to begin in Cleveland, our playoff odds list the Chicago Cubs with a 66% chance to take home the trophy, which is a remarkably one-sided projection, given the nature of how baseball is played and how any series, let alone one played by two teams who emerged as champions of their respective leagues, often feels like nothing more than a coin flip. But our odds list the Cubs as 2:1 favorites over the Cleveland Indians, and FiveThirtyEight’s odds are almost identical.

These Cubs outscored their opponents by more than 250 combined runs this season, completing one of the most dominant regular seasons in baseball history, and they’re playing at nearly full strength, even improbably adding the slugging Kyle Schwarber, who’s been out since April 7 with torn ligaments in his left knee, to the their World Series roster. These Indians, admittedly, a great team in their own right, outscored their opponents by 101 runs — the fourth-best run differential in baseball this year, although a much more typical number — and are playing without a borderline ace pitcher in Carlos Carrasco, with a limited version of star pitcher Danny Salazar, with a drone-inflicted Trevor Bauer, and now apparently with a hobbled Jason Kipnis, too.

It’s impossible to fault the odds for saying what they do. The Cubs are clearly the better team, clearly in better shape. But a one-in-three shot is still a one-in-three shot, and this is a Cleveland sports town that just saw their Cleveland Cavaliers come back from a 3-1 NBA Finals deficit to dethrone the Golden State Warriors, at a time when the Warriors were being considered 40:1 favorites entering Game Five, so these fans probably don’t care too strongly for the odds.

What they would care for is an Indians championship. Here’s five keys to that happening:

No. 1: Run Like Hell on Jon Lester

This one can happen, starting tonight. Jon Lester is starting Game One for the Cubs, and we all know about Jon Lester’s little problem: he can’t throw to first. Like, really, he just can’t throw a baseball to first base. It might literally be the weirdest thing about an already weird sport, but for whatever reason, he can’t do it from a fielding position, and he just won’t do it from the rubber. The Kansas City Royals made this very clear when they stole seven bases on him and Derek Norris in the 2014 American League Wild Card game, and the Los Angeles Dodgers made this very clear when they toyed with him all throughout the Game Five of the NLCS last week.

But what’s funny about all that toying, as I wrote, is that they never actually ran. Thing is, Lester’s delivery is exceptionally quick to home, and catcher David Ross‘ pop times to second base are exceptionally quick, and as a pair, they can actually be rather difficult to successfully steal against, even given the lengthy leads Lester’s pickoff inability affords baserunners.

That being said, they’ll have a hard time throwing out Rajai Davis if he reaches first, and he’ll be starting against Lester. The Indians have already come right out and said they plan to test Lester, given the opportunity, and given their status as the AL’s best base-stealing team this year combined with Terry Francona‘s hyper-aggressive postseason managing style, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Indians try and turn World Series Game One into a repeat of Lester’s 2014 Wild Card disaster, getting them Game One with a shot to put this thing away early if they can just…

No. 2: Win Two Games Started by Non-Kluber Starters

I understand that “win baseball games” isn’t a particularly insightful piece of advice, but in this case, it seems compelling, as this very circumstance is a big part of what’s led to Cleveland’s improbable postseason run in the first place. Without Carrasco or Salazar in the rotation for the first two rounds of the playoffs, nobody thought Josh Tomlin was going to be able to handle the imposing lineups of Boston and Toronto, until he did, and everyone counted out the Indians when they threw Ryan Merritt into the fire against the Blue Jays, until he pitched the Indians into the World Series. With Corey Kluber potentially starting Games One, Four, and Seven, the Indians could realistically hope for two wins in games started by their ace, needing just two more by the rest of the pack to seal the deal.

These underpowered Indians starters were able to navigate Toronto’s overpowering lineup by picking a game plan and sticking to it, a game plan that might be similar to the one they employed against Toronto, which aims to…

No. 3: Get the Cubs to Hit Ground Balls

The Cubs were arguably baseball’s best offense this year, and one defining characteristic of that offense is their love for fly balls. Only four teams hit the ball on the ground less often than Chicago, and guys like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Willson Contreras are looking to get the ball into the air almost every time they step to the plate, as that’s how they inflict the most damage. The Indians were able to keep the Blue Jays on the ground by throwing them a steady diet of breaking pitches, but the Cubs were one of the five best teams in baseball this year at producing against breaking pitches, according to our PITCHf/x run values (the Indians were No. 1 by a landslide).

Instead, the key to keeping the top of the Cubs’ lineup on the ground will have less to do with pitch selection and more to do with pitch execution, like pitching away from Bryant — the other half of Cleveland’s game plan against Toronto — and low and away from Rizzo.

That’s one key for Cleveland’s pitching, while one key for their hitting might be to…

No. 4: Pounce on Jake Arrieta’s Fastballs

In Lester, the Indians may find a subtle advantage in their ability to capitalize on his weakness in holding runners on first base. In Hendricks, the Indians may find a subtle advantage in their ability to excel against all pitches slow and/or bendy, but Jake Arrieta, to me, represents their most difficult challenge. What the Indians’ lineup really struggles against is premium velocity, and Arrieta is Chicago’s hardest-throwing starter, averaging more than 94 mph on his fastballs, which he throws roughly two-thirds of the time, a percentage that could even increase, given Cleveland’s struggles with the pitch. If guys like Jose Ramirez, Mike Napoli, and especially Tyler Naquin can catch up to Arrieta’s heat, it will go a long way toward neutralizing perhaps Chicago’s strongest starting pitching matchup against Cleveland.

So, run on Lester, get good outings out of Bauer and Tomlin, keep the Cubs’ balls in play on the ground, and jump on Arrieta’s fastballs. Those are all ways the Indians can get out to early leads, which, in actuality, is the single biggest key for the Indians to win the World Series, as early leads allow Francona to…

No. 5: Continue Getting the Most Out of Andrew Miller

I’ve somehow gone more than 1,000 words without mentioning the MVP of the ALCS, Andrew Miller, who’s turning in one of the most dominant postseason pitching performances on record. The first step in the “How to Beat Andrew Miller Handbook” is “Don’t Face Andrew Miller,” and the best way to make that happen is to not let the Indians get out to a lead. The Indians turned into one of the best teams in baseball the moment they got a lead this year, and that effect has only been amplified following the midseason acquisition of Miller and Francona’s rampant usage of him in the postseason. When the Indians have carried a lead through five or six innings, Francona has turned to his two-headed bullpen monster of Miller and Cody Allen to work the remaining three to four innings, and the Indians have appeared almost unbeatable.

The finish line is within arm’s reach, and Andrew Miller’s arms are long as hell. With no more series remaining after this one and an entire offseason to recover, all bets are off with regards to how far Francona pushes Miller, and it wouldn’t be a surprise for him to turn the dial up a notch, even from the unprecedented usage we’ve seen thus far. Steps one through four are how the Indians can get the ball into the hands of Miller with the lead. Step five is how they can win the whole [damn] thing.


The 2016 World Series’ Nastiest Pitches, Almost Objectively

Even though run-scoring spiked to its highest total in seven years this season, these playoffs have been dominated by pitching like few others. With managers getting more out of their shutdown relievers than ever before and pitchers like Jon Lester, Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller, Marco Estrada, and Kenley Jansen turning in dominant appearances while shouldering heavy workloads, perhaps it’s no surprise that these playoffs include the lowest-scoring ALCS in history. And with a World Series matchup that features one of the best run-prevention units the sport has ever seen and a pitching staff that just held the Blue Jays and Red Sox to a combined 15 runs in eight games, the World Series seems likely to continue as a low-scoring, pitcher-dominated affair.

With pitching potentially taking center stage for this year’s fall classic, so do the individual pitches themselves. And so, allow me to continue an exercise I’ve performed for each of the previous two World Series, in which I attempt to (somewhat) objectively identify the nastiest pitches we’ll see throughout this final seven-game series.

What makes a pitch nasty? Well, in part, the way it looks, which is informed by the combination of velocity and movement. So that’s half of our criteria right there. Dominant results also make a pitch nasty, and there’s no two better results for a pitcher than a swinging strike or a ground ball, so that makes up the other half of the process of these pitches being selected. Velocity, movement (horizontal + vertical), whiff/pitch, ground ball/ball in play, all relative to the individual pitch type and ranked based on the sum of four z-scores.

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The Math Behind Jon Lester’s Harmless Oddities

Jeff Sullivan wrote a post this morning about Jon Lester and the running game. He mentioned that I’d also be writing a post about Jon Lester and the running game, but with a greater emphasis on the numbers side of it. This is that post.

Before we get to the actual numbers, a note about Jon Lester himself. In a way, for much of his career, Lester almost been consistent to a fault. To the point where his greatness borders on boring, or forgettable. In nine years since taking on a full workload, he’s made between 31 and 33 starts in each season, always 191 and 219 innings. He had a three-year run of his ERA- being 71, then 73, then 75, and four of his nine FIP- have been between 73-76. His fastball has sat between 91.8 and 93.5 miles per hour — right at or below average — in each of those nine years. Lester’s had his two best seasons by ERA in the last three years, but even then, his FIP- figures have read: 75, 75, 82. Just consistent ol’ Jon Lester. Nothing remarkable here.

And yet, somehow, the longer Lester remains consistent, the more we realize he’s one of the most fascinating and unique specimens in the game. We realize he simply refuses to attempt a pickoff throw to first base, and that’s because when he’s forced to field a ground ball and make an overhand throw to first, he just literally can’t do it. The pitcher just cannot throw. We realize that he’s maybe the worst hitter, ever, like in MLB history. And so we watch each one of his starts with amazement, as the gifted, elite athlete is unable to hide his inexplicable ineptitudes, and as the opposition just… fails to exploit them?

Give the Dodgers credit. They sure as hell tried. Kind of. At the very least, they sure as hell put put all of Lester’s bizarre quirks front and center stage in their 8-4 NLCS Game 5 loss on Thursday night. It’s just, none of it mattered.

The Dodgers wasted no time letting Lester know that they knew. This was the first pitch Lester threw:

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So You Want to Beat Andrew Miller: A Walkthrough

Congratulations, [National League champion], on winning the National League pennant and advancing to the World Series! By this point, no matter what happens, you’ve had a hell of a year. You fought through [early-to-midseason adversity], [previously unheralded player] stepped up and made a name for himself, [star player] cemented his status as one of the true greats in the world, and [famous front-office executive or manager] really has a group to be proud of here. This has truly been a run to remember.

And now you’ve got one more task before you can put a bow on this season once and for all: the Cleveland Indians. The Indians didn’t have as rocky a road as you did to get here; they swept the Red Sox in the ALDS, nearly swept the Blue Jays in the ALCS, and have won 10 of their last 11 games dating back to September 30. And, while there’s a lot of praise to go around for those victories, you and I both know you biggest individual challenge that awaits you in the World Series: the 6-foot-7 swamp monster that comes out of their bullpen the moment they get a lead by the name of Andrew Miller.

He just won the ALCS MVP. In this postseason, he’s thrown 20 scoreless innings, striking out 31 with just three walks. The last time he gave up a run was more than a month ago, on September 7. He’s recorded more than three outs in every one of his postseason appearances. In every game he’s pitched, the Indians have won. If you want this World Series, that might mean conquering Miller at least once, so, since you asked, I put together that comprehensive walkthrough you wanted. This wasn’t easy.

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Ryan Merritt Pitched the Indians into the World Series

Because of course he did. This morning, I wrote all there was to know about Ryan Merritt, the 24-year-old, soft-tossing, non-prospect, left-handed pitcher who was set to start Game 5 of the ALCS for the Cleveland Indians with all of 11 innings of major league experience under his belt and the opportunity to end the Toronto Blue Jays’ season and clinch the American League pennant for Cleveland. The conclusion, based on all available data, film, and reports? “Probably, this isn’t going to go well for Cleveland.” The actual results? Shutout ball for 4.1 innings, perfect for 3.1, and a whole lot of champagne and cigar smoke in the visiting clubhouse at the Rogers Centre.

Because, baseball. Because, 2016 Cleveland Indians. When Michael Brantley‘s season was over before it began, Jose Ramirez simply stepped up and turned himself into Michael Brantley. When Marlon Byrd got hit with a season-ending PED suspension at the end of May, spreading an already-thin outfield even thinner, Tyler Naquin emerged as a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate. When Yan Gomes separated his shoulder and the Indians failed to land Jonathan Lucroy at the trade deadline, Roberto Perez stepped in and handled the pitching staff so well that most Indians pitchers, when asked about the rotation’s dominant run in the postseason, haven’t been able to wait for reporters to finish their questions before his name falls off their lips. And so, of course, when Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar each suffered season-ending injuries in the final month of the season and Trevor Bauer went all Victor Frankenstein and was betrayed by his own creation, Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt made it seem like no one was missing. Like this was how they drew it all up from the start.

And of course, saying Merritt pitched the Indians into the World Series makes it sound like an isolated effort, when in fact the bullpen threw as many innings in Wednesday’s 3-0 pennant-clinching victory as he did. If anyone, on their own, truly “pitched the Indians into the World Series,” it was ALCS MVP Andrew Miller, who threw another 2.2 scoreless innings, bringing his postseason total to 20, with 31 strikeouts and three walks. Miller, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen did as much of the work as the starter, as they have for much of the postseason, but there was no work to be done if Merritt didn’t keep the game in check and hand the ball off to the bullpen with a lead. Cleveland’s lineup did its part, and Merritt did more than his own.

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Everything You Need to Know About Ryan Merritt

Listen, we can all be adults here. We all understand what’s going on, in that none of us understand what’s going on. The Cleveland Indians are a few hours away from playing Game 5 of the ALCS, a game that could advance them to the World Series, and they’ll be handing the ball to Ryan Merritt in the first inning. Ryan Merritt, a 24-year-old who’s faced all of 37 batters in his major-league career, which began with a mop-up relief appearance against the Texas Rangers back in May of this year. Ryan Merritt, a lefty whose fastball sits at 87 mph and tops out at 90. Ryan Merritt, who has never appeared within the top 10 of an Indians prospects list.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m some Ryan Merritt expert. Who is? About 48 hours ago, I knew as much about Ryan Merritt as the rest of you. What follows is simply a collection of more or less public information compiled from data, film, and scouting reports. Let’s get to know Ryan Merritt.

The biographical information is always a good place to start. The Indians selected Merritt in the 16th round of the 2011 draft. That’s not a very high round! He was picked 488th overall. He doesn’t have a particularly imposing frame, at 6-foot-0, 180 pounds, though BaseballAmerica’s 2015 scouting report calls it an “athletic frame.” He cracked Double-A last year, and pitched well, to the tune of a 3.51 ERA and 3.25 FIP in 141 innings. In 143 Triple-A innings this year, he ran a 3.70 ERA and 3.82 FIP.

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August Fagerstrom FanGraphs Chat — 10/18/16

12:02
august fagerstrom: hello!

12:02
august fagerstrom: I now have bagels, so I am ready to begin the chat

12:02
Bork: Hello, friend!

12:02
august fagerstrom: hello, Bork!

12:03
Bork: Is Bauer done for the off-season? That finger looked naaaaaaaaasty.

12:04
august fagerstrom: well, if the Indians advance, they wouldn’t *need* Bauer until Game 3 of the World Series, which is on October 28

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Trevor Bauer’s Bleeding Finger Was a Blessing in Disguise

As Trevor Bauer walked off the pitching mound at the Rogers Centre and into the visiting dugout in the first inning of Monday’s ALCS Game 3, his right pinky finger bleeding and leaving a trail of blood behind him with each step — like a wounded Hansel in the forest — the home crowd in Toronto erupted into cheer and applause. Some were genuinely clapping out of the good nature of their heart, giving support to the wounded athlete who gave it his all. Some had perhaps more malicious intent, jeering at the outspoken pitcher whose jabs at the Blue Jays fanbase on Twitter have persisted for months. And some were likely just cheering as fans of the Blue Jays, believing their home team’s win expectancy had just risen now that Cleveland’s bullpen had been forced into action following just two outs and four batters.

What that last group of fans might not have realized is that, in a one-game scenario, the introduction of Cleveland’s bullpen into the game actually represented an advantage for the Indians. That the Blue Jays likely had a much better shot at putting up runs by facing Bauer two, or even three times, than enduring a barrage of well-rested Cleveland relievers in four-out spurts for the entire game. That, as far as Game 3 was concerned, Bauer’s bleeding finger was actually a blessing in disguise for the Indians.

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