Author Archive

FG on Fox: The Texas Rangers’ Window Is (Briefly) Closed

The 2014 season was, in no uncertain terms, a disaster for the Texas Rangers. Injuries destroyed a promising club and left them in the basement of the American League West with a 67-95 record, losing more games than even the lowly Astros.

As easy as it might be to write 2014 off to injury, the Rangers as currently constructed don’t appear much better than the club that limped to those 95 loses. With 2015 just around the corner, the biggest move of their offseason so far was the one to acquire Ross Detwiler from the Nationals and decline their contract option on Alex Rios, making him a free agent.

The Rangers front office believes it can better with the some health and the absence of “cursed by a coven of witches” bad luck. Their two huge acquisitions ahead of 2014 — Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder — were both known for their durability and production before coming to Texas. Both players ended up vastly underperforming and managed just 700 plate appearances combined, where they hit a meagre .243/.345/.370 with 16 home runs – replacement level production from two superstars paid $38 million for their troubles.

Both players can’t help but improve on their 2014 seasons but what does that net the Rangers? Three more wins? Maybe four? They used 40 different pitchers (including three different position players) as the wide-ranging injuries pushed green players into positions they were not prepared to fill. They won’t have Martin Perez back until late this season (if at all) but the team as constituted looks like Darvish and Holland and pray for rain.

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Assessing Steve Pearce’s Breakout

The Baltimore Orioles are good at many things. Their greatest skill is probably confounding expectations. The rest of the league zigs and then the O’s zag their way into the playoffs, twice in the last three seasons.

While the rest of their division — the rest of baseball, really — gears up for a run at the playoffs, the Orioles sat back. Their off-season to date can best be described as “somnambulant”, They lost Andrew Miller, Nick Markakis, and Nelson Cruz to free agency, declined some options and added, um, Wesley Wright? That’s it.

Considering the state of their disabled list at the end of the season, returning Matt Wieters and Manny Machado from injury (and Chris Davis from suspension) will go a long way to improving their club. But there’s another reason the Orioles haven’t rushed out to apply quick fixes to their club – the unlikely emergence of Steve Pearce.

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Alex Rios And Problems of Perception

Everybody remembers the movie Inception, right? Nice visuals, convoluted premise, and that killer score – a more than sufficient popcorn delivery system. Fun fact: the main plot point of inception, that an idea can be planted in someone’s subconscious without them realizing, is real!

At some point this summer, exasperated Texas Rangers writer/blogger/fanalyst Jamey Newberg tweeted something to the effect of “Alex Rios is one of those players whose production will never line up with his numbers.” At first, I was offended. A player produces what he produces, his numbers reflect his….production. But the thought, the idea that a player is less than his final stat line, it stayed with me. I couldn’t shake it.

Then the offseason rolled around. The crop of available outfielders is charitably described as “very much ungood” and then a bunch of guys signed. One of those signees, Nick Markakis got four years and an AAV north of $11 million, to the surprise of many. And then, piling shock on top of shock, Rios himself signed a one-year deal with the Royals for $11 million.

There are plenty of reasons to scoff at the big outfielders contract. Entering his age-34 season, Rios comes off a rough season in Texas. He produced right at replacement level in 2014, displaying a worrisome lack of power (just four home runs and a career-low .118 ISO) and he missed time with injury, as older players are wont to do.

But more than most players, Rios’ problems are matters of perception. There are many reasons to not like Rios as a player or this signing in a vacuum, all factors that I believe contribute to the shrugs and disbelief when news of his Kansas City contract broke.

Most pressing, the concern expressed by the Rangers fan above: does his production lag behind his numbers?

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What Do The Marlins See in Dee Gordon?

Unpopular opinion time: the Miami Marlins are the not a band of penniless rubes ready for the exploitin’ by the Dodgers slick-talkin’ front office army. The Marlins are a lot of things, but clueless is not one of them. They don’t have much in the way on field success — minus a couple of championships — but the Marlins could very well have the best player development record in baseball. The Marlins never-ending prospect churn seems to have produced more than its share of talent, and that’s probably not an accident.

At some point, even the thrifty Marlins decided to roll up their stake and make a move. The moves are still Marlins-sized, but this isn’t your typical Marlins deal. This time, the Marlins are trading pre-arb players OUT and bring established players IN, so this is not the run-off-the-mill Marlins sell-off. Something is afoot. Something is amiss. Could they be making their team…better?

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The White Sox Load Up, Look Interesting, Remain Nimble

Are the White Sox going For It? A move like signing Adam LaRoche to a two-year deal might have looked like advanced place-holding with a chance of contention, but signing a reliever (Zach Duke) to a long-term deal (three years!) sends a slightly different message, especially when examined together.

Adding Jeff Samaradzija looks entirely different. Trading a solid prospect like Marcus Semien for an upper-middle class rotation stalwart just one year from free agency suggests the White Sox have designs on something greater than just existing in 2015. Signing a high-priced closer like David Robertson to a long term deal? That’s an act of aggression, a shot across the rest of their division’s bow and signal of intent to all Wild card comers. They didn’t just add a closer, they added one of the better relief pitchers in baseball, a valuable strikeout machine who looks like he can survive when his fastballs wanes.

Adding more good players? That’s a recipe for a good team. But is it enough?

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What Can We Learn from The Josh Hamilton Contract?

Two years ago, the Los Angeles Angels signed Josh Hamilton to a whopping, surprising five-year contract that paid the mercurial outfielder $125 million dollars. The deal came one year after the Halos signed Albert Pujols in perpetuity for a twice-weekly fistful of diamonds, so Hamilton’s mammoth contract came as a shock.

After his two seasons in Anaheim, the deal doesn’t exactly look like a winner. Hindsight being what it is, is it easy to say the signing was doomed from the start. A look back through the archives both here at Fangraphs and at MLB Trade Rumors shows a lot of first guessing and some otherwise hilarious comments from around baseball. There were plenty of red flags around Hamilton, from his health to his performance and just about everything in between.

At the time of the deal, Hamilton was headed into his age-32 season and coming off a 43 homer year. He was unquestionably talented but also eminently questionable. The approach, the off-field history, the spotty medical records; all of it made for a bizarre free agent pursuit. The team that knew him best wouldn’t guarantee a fifth year, according to reports. The Angels rushed in with five years and no strings, much to the chagrin of Rangers GM Jon Daniels.

With two years of history on our side, we can see flippantly say this contract was doomed from the start. The biggest question is this: did Jerry Dipoto and the Angels front office offer Hamilton this deal knowing it was bad the moment he signed it?

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Toronto Keeps Upgrading, Adds Josh Donaldson

After the 2011 season, it seemed improbable that the Blue Jays would ever trade Brett Lawrie. He was the native son who exploded onto the scene, bounding his way into the hearts of baseball fans from Victoria to Corner Brook. Always a great hitter in the minor leagues, Lawrie hit .293/.373/.580 with 9 home runs in a 40-game big league tease that set completely unrealistic expectations .

Three injury-ravaged and underwhelming seasons later, Lawrie and three prospects are gone and Josh Donaldson is the new starting third baseman in Toronto as the Blue Jays try to accomplish one goal: reach the playoffs for the first time in a generation. No passport or sentiment will stand in their way as they try to end a long streak without playoff baseball.

Adding Donaldson is a significant upgrade for the Jays, as any team would expect when they pick up one of the premier players in baseball. Conservatively, switching out Donaldson for Lawrie is about a two win upgrade on talent alone. Lawrie’s spotty injury history and inability to translate his minor league offense at the big league level suggest it might be an even bigger gulf.

With two top-ten MVP finishes and 53 total home runs in the last two years, the Jays get a star – a star moving from an offensive sinkhole to a very friendly space for right-handed power hitters. Donaldson is an older player, heading into arbitration for the first time (he’s a Super Two) as well as his age-29 season. Unlike the A’s side of the deal, the four years of control that come with Toronto’s new third baseman is purely secondary to his ability to help them win in 2015.

The Jays wanted an upgrade and, according to Alex Anthopoulos, it was the inclusion of Lawrie in the talks that brought this deal to life. They sell low on Lawrie, who always hit before struggling (mightily at times) at the big league level. He’s as talented a player as there is, one Oakland hopes they can reshape into a more well-rounded big leaguer.

His talent is undeniable, Lawrie is perhaps the defensive equal of Donaldson at third base, and like Oakland’s Fielding Bible Award winner, Lawrie is a former catcher. Perhaps Oakland can get the countless moving parts of his swing in order and awaken the one tool that brought him to the big leagues at 21.

Toronto also gives up a very promising international free agent in Franklin Barreto, a shortstop at 18 with his stock on the rise, fast-rising pitcher in Kendall Graveman, and slightly stalled prospect in Sean Nolin. In terms of bulk control years, the Jays give up a lot. But that future surplus value finishes a distant second to the chance the Jays are building the best team in their division.

Some might look at the Jays rotation and wonder if they have the talent to win a championship. To that I say: look around. The state of the game swung so heavily in favor of pitchers, adding Donaldson’s bat to the likes of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista — to say nothing of Russell Martin — suggests the Jays believe the road to the postseason is paved with extra base hits.

Like the Red Sox, the Jays seem focused on piling more offense on top of their already-deep pool of sluggers. In Donaldson the Blue Jays add another home run threat who actually strikes out at a below-league average rate. As the league heads in one direction, it appears Toronto is headed in another.

It is easy to search for additional meaning in this trade and the Blue Jays interest in Josh Donaldson. Simply put, they targeted a great player they thought could help their team win a division title and more. They added a player who saved more than 30 runs with his glove since 2012 while putting up a 125 wRC+. His 14 WAR over the last two years trails only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen. Rather than hope their third baseman realized his potential, Toronto acquired one of the best in the game.

It also signals Toronto is serious about overhauling their clubhouse culture, though there is no better cure for a divided clubhouse than a whole pile of wins. Any team that boasts Reyes-Martin-Bautista-Encarnacion-Donaldson at the top of their batting order figures to give pitchers fits, though another left-handed bat in that mix (Reyes switch hits, the rest are all righties) must be a priority.

There is still work to do in Toronto, as huge questions loom in left field as well as second base. Their presumed starting center fielder is 43 big league plate appearances into his career (barely 200 PA above A-ball for Dalton Pompey, another Canadian.) They might not be done yet, but adding an elite ballplayer for the second time in two weeks is a nice way to head into the Winter Meetings.

Deals like this are how teams climb from the 80-85 win treadmill to the 90-win tier of World Series favorites. As they did with Russell Martin, the Blue Jays looked at a decent (and affordable) spot on their roster and thought they could improve it. They gave up a chunk of their identity and whole lot of prospect capital to do it, but it looks like these aren’t your older brother’s Toronto Blue Jays – though I’ve said that before.


Let’s Find a New Team for Yoenis Cespedes

The Boston Red Sox, as you might have heard, currently have an outfield glut. There is ten pounds of outfield meat in their five pound bag. Something has to give, and that something is likely Yoenis Cespedes.

When the Sox acquired Cespedes from Oakland in the Jon Lester trade, it felt more like a rental than a long-term investment in the player. Cespedes’ unique contract allows him to become a free agent at the end of the 2015 season, so Boston put themselves in an enviable position. They received an established big leaguer in exchange for their walk-year ace and got an up-close and personal look at a potential big free agent bat.

Whether or not a look under Cespedes’ hood informed their decision to sign both Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, that’s the route they went down. Now Cespedes is trade bait, the precious “right-handed power” commodity in a marketplace clambering for those skills. He’s headed into his age-29 season, he’s owed $10.5 million this year, and there’s going to be a line around the block to bid for his services. Where might he land?

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Is Nick Swisher Done?

Nick Swisher is, in a word, divisive. His larger-than-Brohio personality tends to overshadow his abilities on the field. Put another way: almost everybody has an opinion on Swisher, few of which are based solely on his playing ability.

After you post a .208/.278/.331 line with 8 home runs in just over 400 plate appearances, perhaps you want more folks focused on your broisterous off-field brosona than an injury-plagued disappointment.

If the rumors drifting out of the GM meetings are to believed, Cleveland isn’t swayed by their popular player’s personality, instead focusing on what it might take to be rid of the remaining two years and $30 million (plus a $14 million vesting option for 2017) left on the contract he signed in ahead of the 2013 season. Ken Rosenthal intimates that Cleveland would like to free themselves of Swisher’s deal, perhaps taking a different bad contract coming back the other way.

Is there any daring or deep-pocketed team out there willing to roll the dice with Swisher’s age-34 and 35 seasons? Is $30 million of their precious payroll worth the gamble that Swisher returns to his previous levels of production?

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Why Isn’t Jason Heyward a Center Fielder?

“If he was such a good outfielder, why doesn’t he play center field?” This is a common refrain echoing around the hallways of UZR Incorporated, a not-entirely baseless question that generally pertains to highly rated corner outfielders. If they’re such defensive dynamos, why not put them in the most important outfield position?

Those in the know recognize that their high advanced stat scores are relative to their peers, so a collection of bad outfielders can help prop up a good corner OF glove. But the question still demands an answer, an answer I think it deserves in the case of Jason Heyward – what’s stopping the Cardinals from playing him in center field every day?

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The Nationals Should Consider Trading Jordan Zimmermann

The Washington Nationals are in an enviable position. The team won 96 games for the second time in three years before bowing out in the division series. They are a talented group, well-built with one of the best rotations in baseball plus a high-octane offense to match.

They are certainly a World Series favorite for 2015 with the talent on-hand. They’re also a team coming to a crossroads. They are in the enviable position of choosing between living for today or planning for the future. Or, most likely of all, they’ll take care of one without tossing the other aside.

As the hot stove season heats up, a number of high-profile Nats names will pop up with regularity. Among their core talent, they have four very good players heading towards free agency at the end of the 2015 season. Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, and Denard Span all figure to attract their share of attention as the Nats cannot retain all four players at market prices – to say nothing of workhorse reliever Tyler Clippard.

So what options might general manager Mike Rizzo explore? A rumor connecting Zimmermann and the Chicago Cubs was quickly shot down, but the logical match of the two clubs demonstrates the world at the feet of the Nats front office. They have multiple options in front of them, the best of which requires trading the man who threw a no-hitter in his final regular season start of 2014.

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What does Brandon Morrow Offer?

A quick look over a list of free agent pitchers produces many different types of arms. Top-end near-aces, mid-rotation stalwarts, backend veterans, and high-ceiling lottery tickets. Brandon Morrow is an intriguing lottery ticket for any team willing to take the plunge. Long on promise but short on results, Morrow is the kind of electric arm that front offices simply cannot resist.

At some point, however, potential and stuff lose some of their magnetism. When a guy’s only thrown 90 odd innings over two years, you start to wonder if maybe he isn’t worth the risk?

The thing about Brandon Morrow, of course, is this has always been the knock on the hard-throwing right hander. Remember, this was a pre-arb pitcher traded to Toronto for reliever Brandon League and a minor league outfielder still yet to surpass double-A.

Like so many other power arms, Morrow flashed brilliance and looked the part of a top-of-the-rotation ace at times. Other times, he lacked command, floundered through laborious starts and struggled to stay healthy.

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On Game Theory, 0-2 Meatballs, and You

There was an interesting read kicking around baseball twitter this week, written by A’s fan and blogger Ken Arneson. In it, the computer scientist wonders about a great many things, the most interesting — to me — is his section on pitch selection. It’s Game Theory, I guess, but Arneson lays out four simple criteria for pitchers as they make pitch decisions:

  1. Choose a pitch the batter is likely to predict incorrectly
  2. Choose a pitch the pitcher is likely to throw with good speed, location, and movement
  3. Choose a pitch which will result in a suboptimal swing path, resulting either in a miss or weak contact
  4. Choose a pitch which, if not put in play, worsens the batter’s Prediction State for the next pitch

Makes sense, right? Easier said than done but it at least provides some food for thought. Not long after reading this, and for reasons that are entirely my own, I found myself watching highlights of old A.J. Burnett and Josh Johnson starts. Two power pitchers with filthy stuff, the videos or great starts from yesteryear showed what happens when pitchers like this have it all working.

One thing I observed made me think of the checklist above: both pitchers were able to freeze batters with 0-2 fastballs. Rather than waste pitches, these fastballs were seemingly thrown right down Main Street, middle/middle, over the heart of the plate.

Any pitch thrown in that location could be best described as “suboptimal” but, for pitches with stuff to spare on their best days, it worked as an effective pitch. They froze batters who twisted themselves into knots worrying about the hammer or an elevated fastball, the catalyst for chases.

This brought me to Baseball Savant and then it brought me here. I come bearing GIFs.

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The Obvious Lessons of One Dimensional Hitters

The past week has been particularly instructive for those interested in the real world implications of the word “value.” Despite league-wide offense nearing 40 year lows, some good hitters found themselves either looking for work or on the move with salary concerns in tow.

If you asked most armchair general managers, they would  jump at the chance to add a hitter claiming a 135 wRC+ over the last two years, especially for the low price of $7.5 million for 2015 (plus an option for 2016.) But that describes Adam Lind, traded by the Blue Jays (so they weren’t forced to decline his 2015 option) for Marco Estrada, a swingman who plans on taking the “serviceable” descriptor to its logical conclusion.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals declined the option they held on Billy Butler, another homegrown talent and hitter guy with a reasonable price tag ($12.5 million for 2015).  This is hardly shocking as Butler comes off his worst professional season and the Royals are a team for which times are perpetually tight. But given the going rate for a hitter projecting to produce 20% better than league average, $12.5 mil is a steal, no?

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FG on Fox: Will the Real Eric Hosmer Please Stand Up?

Eric Hosmer looks the part. If you wonder why guys like Hosmer are extended impossibly long lengths of rope at the big league level, you don’t have do much more than look at him. Watch him play first base and listen to a batting practice session and it becomes very easy to understand the hype behind the Royals starting first baseman.

The back of Hosmer’s baseball card betrays his “top of the class” eye test scores. When that tantalizing talent finally starts to deliver, it’s a big moment for fans of the club. When that blue chip talent starts fulfilling his destiny during the first playoff run in 29 years, it’s a dream come true.

Such is the euphoric state of the Kansas City Royals and Eric Hosmer. While it isn’t the first time in his career that he started both looking and producing like a cornerstone infielder, it comes at the most opportune time imaginable. The Royals are dangerously close to winning the World Series and the former third overall draft pick is instrumental in their progress.

He’s drawn more walks in October than any single month during the regular season. He’s hitting the ball with power, counting two homers, two doubles, and a triple in 12 postseason games. The high-leverage nature of these extra base knocks helps muddle the “he turned a corner!” picture. This follows a September in which he knocked another 12 extra base hits after missing most of August with a hand injury.

The problem with putting too much stock in this tiny stretch of great play all is the not insignificant memory of 2200 league average plate appearances. Swing changes and adjustments to approach are well and good, but there is a very large pile of evidence that suggests we already know what kind of production we can expect from the big left-handed hitter.

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Two Jake Peavys

Two different guys named Jake Peavy pitched in the Major Leagues in 2014. One made 20 lacklustre starts for the Boston Red Sox. He was hit hard and hit often and, strangely a little wild. His walk rate brushed up against 10%, higher walk rate than at any point since his first full season in the big leagues.

Another guy named Jake Peavy made a dozen starts for the San Francisco Giants. Starts that were worth about 2 WAR, a nice bump given their playoff race context. He was miserly in his distribution of both home runs and walks – dropping his BB% below 5% and coughing up just three home runs in a Giants uniform. He was very good and was quickly identified as the second best starting pitcher on a playoff team.

The Giants would not be in the World Series without that Jake Peavy. He gave the Giants options (moving Tim Lincecum to the bullpen, an act of mercy for all involved) and now they’re here, competing for their third title in five years. Somebody in San Francisco saw something in Peavy that, with a little fine tuning, could help the Giants win the World Series.

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Why Didn’t Nori Aoki Bunt?

When Nori Aoki came to the plate with runners on second and third with one out in the third inning against Madison Bumgarner, fans on Twitter called out for the slap-hitting outfielder to bunt. Instead he struck out and the rally fizzled. With the game over and the Royals offense stymied but for one Salvy Perez home run, the question remains: should Aoki have laid one down, a safety squeeze or something similar from the Royals vast small ball playbook?

Aoki has 70 “official” bunt attempts over his three-year career, reaching safely more than 30% of the time. Just 20% of those attempts came against left-handed pitchers, as Bumgarner is. Among those attempts, six could be classified as squeezes and four successfully plated runners, according to the Baseball Reference Play Index.

It’s a low-percentage play, all things considered. But Nori Aoki versus Madison Bumgarner is a low percentage play in relative terms. Playing for one run so early in the game is a bit much, even for the Royals, especially in a situation offering a run expectancy of 1.2 runs. It’s a high floor/low ceiling play when jumping on a struggling Bumgarner was probably the right choice.

No Royals scored, so looking back with hindsight makes the decision look bad automatically. Kansas City blazed their trail to the World Series by making questionable decisions and “putting pressure on the defense.” With a strong bunter and an ace still looking for his groove on the mound, the decision is never an easy one. Consider some of the possible outcomes should Aoki have squared to bunt in the fateful third inning.

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FG on Fox: Divergent Strategies, Dominant Bullpens

Not all bullpens are created equal. This postseason, the Kansas City Royals are putting on a show with their backend arms, blowing the doors off any and all competition with their unsubtle charms. What they lack in nuance they make up for in pure, unadulterated filth.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the Giants feature a bullpen that couldn’t be more different than the high-powered Royals relief corps. Where the Royals are young, the Giants are old. Where Kansas City is cheap, the Giants relievers are lavishly paid.

It’s a study in contrasts, right up until the moment when you get around to studying their results. Because this October, the way the Giants pen racks up outs is second to none. Consider the postseason results of these two groups, both forced to run the full Wild Card gauntlet.

2014 postseason IP H R HR K% BB% K-BB% AVG ERA
Kansas City Royals 35 22 7 1 25.7% 9.3% 16.4% .179 1.80
San Francisco Giants 35.1 20 7 7 22.6% 8.3% 14.3% .164 1.78

The manner in which they conduct their business might be different but they are getting spotless results. The Giants benefit from their wizened manager deploying them expertly, eschewing set inning roles and instead using whichever of his four main guys is better suited to the situation at hand.

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FG on Fox: Ambushing First Pitch Fastballs

Good things happen when batters swing at the first pitch of at bat, as they boast a .336 average and .526 slugging percentage on the first pitch this year. Like I said, good things happen when you swing at — and more importantly, make contact with — the first pitch, though of course, this data doesn’t count all the first pitch swings that resulted in fouls or whiffs. Still, swinging early can lead to very good results.

Sometimes called “ambushing” the pitcher, first pitch swings can be even more valuable during the postseason, as hitters and pitchers become more familiar with the patterns and traits of the opposition. Recent history informs pitch decisions as starters face the same team twice or even three times during a seven game series, and for pitchers, familiarity really does breed contempt.

On the whole, batters are more and more willing to swing at the first pitch in October. During the regular season, batters offered at the first pitch 27.4% of the time. Early in the 2014 playoff season, that number is on the rise. Through the division rounds, batters came out hacking more than 32% of the time, using Pitchf/x data made available by Baseball Savant.

Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals stands out as one of the most unlikely hitters to approach his plate appearances this way, but also one of the most successful in these playoffs. As shown at Fangraphs last week, Carpenter hit two home runs and a double on the first pitch against the Dodgers, flummoxing Clayton Kershaw and subverting existing scouting reports on the patient All Star infielder.

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How Matt Carpenter Destroyed the Dodgers

There was no baseball last night. There will be no baseball tonight. This is the fault of a great many people, too many to list here. The cynical might say some blame falls at the feet of Don Mattingly and Matt Williams. Others insist the entirety of the blame belongs there.

Mattingly tried his best and Clayton Kershaw turned in two starts (or parts of two starts) unbecoming of a presumptive MVP and Cy Young winner. But if you’re looking for the true catalyst of the Dodgers’ demise and the author of a short series win, look no further than Matt Carpenter.

The Cardinals’ third baseman was unconscious during the division series, clubbing a home run and double apiece in the first three games of the series. In the deciding Game Four, he went 0-4 but his mark on this series remains indelible.

All that extra base pop is slightly out of character for Carpenter, who claimed the same high-OBP as his 7 WAR campaign of 2013 only without the extra base power. He hit just eight home runs during the regular season, only one player hit for less power while still producing more than 10% better than league average.

None of this makes Dodgers fans feel any better. How could L.A. let off-brand Joe Mauer beat them so soundly during the Division Series? Carpenter bested the Dodgers in three key ways.

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