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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.

Read the rest on Just a Bit Outside.

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.

Read the rest on Just a Bit Outside.

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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FG on FOX: The Benefits of Situational Pitching

Statistical analysts have long been fascinated with the idea of clutch hitting. Often times, those who who have provided memorable hits have been assigned an ineffable quality, with the idea that they can raise their game when runners are in scoring position, with two outs, or late in games. The reality is most great clutch hitters are simply good hitters, and over time hitters put up roughly the same numbers regardless of the situation.

For pitchers, the situation is slightly more complicated. Hitting is reactive – one can only take what they are given. Pitchers have more control in big spots, and often their pitch usage with runners on base or in high leverage situations varies from their normal pitch sequencing.

It’s a matter of bearing down. We hear often that a pitcher “needs” a strikeout in a given situation, and often pitchers attack batters with that very outcome in mind.

For some hitters, this is the most important part of an opposing pitcher’s scouting report. Miguel Cabrera is a born hitter, the kind of guy who can rope doubles and hit opposite field home runs while falling out of bed. His unique skills and seemingly innate ability to put the bat on the ball allow him to spend less time in the video room than most players. In fact, he barely studies opposing pitchers much at all.

In a profile of Cabrera’s approach I wrote in 2013, he explained that most of his video work comes from just watching pitchers with runners on base or looking at what they throw from the stretch. It’s the only information he wants because he feels it gives him an edge when his team needs him most.

Some players don’t want that kind of information, but a hitter like Cabrera – the rare talent that can sit on one pitch and still react to others — it can make all the difference during the game’s most dramatic moments as many pitchers make specific and deliberate adjustments when confronted with runners in scoring position.

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The Dodgers Surprising Offensive Trait

What do you know about the Los Angeles Dodgers? We know they’re the glamor franchise in baseball right now. They have the enormous TV deal and the largest payroll in the league. They just won their second straight National League West crown. They’re good, as one expects such an expensive club to be.

Expensive teams tend to employ well-known players, and the Dodgers don’t want for names. But the way they go about their business is, in my mind, something of a mystery.

The Dodgers have a great rotation and sort of a terrible bullpen. Their offense is good but is it best in baseball good? According to wRC+, that is exactly where it ranks. Their non-pitching offensive players put up a 116 wRC+, tied with the Pirates for best in baseball.

Despite playing a ballpark that is actually favorable to home runs, the high-output Dodgers offense didn’t hit many bombs. They don’t have a prototypical power bat in the middle of their order, until you remember Adrian Gonzalez slugged 27 home runs this year and Matt Kemp put up a 140 wRC+ this season. As a team, they hit 134 home runs, fewer than the Mariners and just two more than the Giants, a team they outscored by almost 50 runs.

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Which Royals’ Stolen Base Made The Biggest Difference?

It doesn’t feel like corny sentiment to say the Kansas City Royals stole the American League Wild Card from the Oakland A’s. The Royals lineup does not inspire much in the way of fear but this ragtag bunch hung nine runs on the A’s best starter and its (rightly) maligned bullpen.

They did so while hitting just two extra base hits, both of which came in the 12th inning. Eric Hosmer tripled and Salvador Perez yanked the walkoff double down the line compared to 13 singles and three walks. Without the benefit of big bats, the Royals instead did what the Royals do – they swiped and stole and small ball’d their way to victory, just as our fearless leader suggested they should mere hours before the game began.

They stole seven bases on the night, equalling the record for a postseason game. While none of these steals are likely to reach “Dave Roberts Game 4” levels of notoriety, five of the seven thefts came around to score. Let’s look at each steal, ranking them by win probability added to see which was truly the biggest steal of the night.

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Matt Holliday is the Cardinals, the Cardinals are Matt Holliday

As far as very good Major League outfielders go, Matt Holliday is probably among the most anonymous. Despite owning a career 139 wRC+ and signing a $120 million dollar contract in 2010, he’s probably best known for getting hit in the beans that one time and not touching home plate with the winning run that other time.

But year after year, Holliday methodically bangs out .300/.390/.500 seasons. He hits enough home runs to be a power threat but not enough to elicit “oohs” and/or “ahhhs” from visiting fans. He looks enough like The Thing to keep from holding the casual fan’s gaze for too long. He just sort of exists, a very productive presence on the outside of the collective unconscious.

In his own way, Holliday is the physical embodiment of the team he plays for, the St. Louis Cardinals. Unsettlingly consistent, easy to overlook but difficult to beat, and extremely annoying for opposing fans and players. Like the villain in a really boring horror film.

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2014: Year of the Graybeard

Because this is an internet baseball column in the year 2014, Derek Jeter was its original subject. The world doesn’t really need another Jeter column, especially one that smugly notes the uncanny similarities between Jeter’s season as a 40-year old shortstop and the 2007 season of Omar Vizquel, the last man to qualify for the batting title as a quadragenarian in the middle of the diamond.

Nobody needs to read that column. The Jeter farewell tour is almost over, and those who want it go to away will be happy and those who appreciate the generation of superlative play Jeter provided will be sad. My opinion on the matter doesn’t really matter. The exercise did bear fruit in one way, however. Looking that the Yankee Captain’s age-40 season (poor, even by 40-year old infielder standards) got me thinking about Jeter’s age-35 season, which was truly one for the ages.

It was 2009 and the Yankees won the World Series, thanks to Jeter’s heroics and a host of very pricey teammates all contributing in significant ways. But Jeter was incredible that year, posting a 130 wRC+ and just under 7 WAR* – it works out to be one of the ten best age-35 seasons since World War II.

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Where Do the Braves Go From Here?

Unlike the previous iteration of the “Where Do The _____ Go From Here”, the immediate future of this week’s focus, the Atlanta Braves, remains very much unwritten. The Braves are 5.5 games out of a National League Wild Card spot with one team to leap frog. Should a litany of things break their way, they’ll play at least one game of significant significance.

That said, the Braves finding themselves in that pivotal play-in game would represent a serious reversal of fortune. Right now, and for much of the last month, the Braves look bad. Their offense is abysmal, one of the worst in baseball in the second half of the season, and they just watched their main rival celebrate a division title in their own soil. Their ongoing presence in the playoff race is more a testament of the rather putrid NL Wild Card class, currently featuring a Giants team that opted not to win a single game during the summer months and the Milwaukee Brewers, currently showing the Braves what a real slump looks like.

The problems with the Braves are relatively minor. They won 96 games last year, which we know to be extremely good. They hung in the Wild Card race and at the top of the NL East all season despite losing 40% of their starting rotation before the year even started, and then losing their lottery ticket starter before they even got to scratch it. But the issues the Braves currently face are largely issues they might have addressed in the offseason.

After their surprisingly terrific 2013 season, Braves GM Frank Wren balanced a need to improve a club that perhaps misrepresented its true talent one year against very real budgetary concerns in the next. Other than nabbing Ervin Santana on a one year desperation deal and acquiring Ryan Doumit for mildly inexplicable reasons, they stood pat and are now paying the price.

“Why mess with a 96 win team?” you might wonder. The Braves did indeed post 96 wins in 2013, but the talent they had on hand at the start of 2014 projected to win 82-86 games. Right now, the problem for Atlanta is this team is about as good as it should be. They came into the year with a question marks at a few spots in the lineup and did nothing to address them. The Braves needed underperformers like B.J. Upton to rediscover their old form while the upstarts such as Chris Johnson needed to repeat their production of the previous season. Or they could make a push to improve their team and push themselves into 90 win territory, It didn’t happen.

So now we’re left to take stock of the Atlanta Braves, now and in the future.

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Changing Up With the Count 3-0

There are a few things that most people reading this know about 3-0 counts, or at least there some things we think we know about what happens when the count runs 3-0. We know the strike zone gets very big and we know batters take the vast, vast majority of the time. We also know only the best hitters get the green light in this count.

While bat still stay largely on shoulders with the count 3-0, more and more hitters do offer at these pitches – the 3-0 swing rate increased every year since 2009. If you’re going to get a good pitch to hit, why not swing? Since only the best hitters get to unload, the ones understood to be the best judges of the strike zone, the chances of a positive outcome increases. As a rough measure, consider the drop off in slugging from 3-0 to 3-1 is slight compared to the drop from 3-1 to a full count.

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The Most Unheralded Reliever in Baseball

Who is the best reliever in baseball over the last two years? If we made a list, the usual suspects would shoot straight to the top. Craig Kimbrel is a given, Koji Uehara was essentially unhittable for one calendar year, Kenley Jansen skews “untouchable” and Aroldis Chapman is in his own world. Greg Holland and Wade Davis surely jump to mind without much searching, Sean Doolittle and David Robertson deserve attention for their high-leverage work.

There is one reliever that is conspicuously absent from that list (because I excluded him!) but since the start of the 2013 season, this closer boasts some unbelievable numbers. Pitching to 41 ERA- (fifth best among qualified relievers) and a 51 FIP- (third) while posting roughly 5 RA9-WAR and 4 fWAR, both of which place him among the elite stoppers in baseball.

The reliever in question is Mark Melancon, the setup guy-come-closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Melancon went from being well-traveled to a brief sting in AAA to become the very best of a stout group of relievers holding the Pirates in the playoff race for the second straight season.

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Where Do The Diamondbacks Go From Here?

Nobody could ever accuse Kevin Towers of being anything less than bold. Few teams have been as interesting as the Arizona Diamondbacks over the last few years. Setting aside the quality of his moves, the sheer volume and often puzzling circumstances surrounding them garnered Arizona more headlines than such a middling team typically deserves.

His moves cut against the grain of prizing young, cheap talent and instead focused on a loose set of criteria, most of which was derived from the ability to play above one’s tools. It didn’t make the team better but it sure spilled a lot of ink. The problem is a simple one: a general manager’s job is to win and make money for the club, not generate think-pieces and schadenfreude. The Diamondbacks didn’t win and now Towers is out as the general manager, with the search for his replacement beginning in earnest (the list of candidates is as long as your arm.)

The Diamondbacks team  Towers inherited wasn’t a world beater, though it did claim the 2011 National League West crown. One could convincingly argue that the franchise is actually in worse shape now compared to Towers’ first day on the job. What exactly has the outgoing general manager left the next person to fill his chair? More than you might think.

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Pitchers Hitting – Hidden Wild Card Factor?

Most pitchers are bad hitters, as we all know. Most pitchers look so out of place at the plate that it is a great source of both comedy and debate. Why should we continue this charade? Why should this paean to a by-gone era, propped up under a pretense of “strategy,” continue to degrade the quality of the game we all love?

That debate is better left until another day in another setting with well-established ground rules and adult supervision. Today, we can just look at the impact of pitchers hitting, specifically on their impact on the Wild Card chase.

On Tuesday night, Clayton Kershaw made more than his typical contribution to the Dodgers’ cause. Sure, he pitched brilliantly and shut down an otherwise powerful offense. But Kershaw worked his way on base against Doug Fister in the fifth inning and then “helped his own cause” by dashing from first to third on a bounding single to center field. Read the rest of this entry »

The Nationals’ Lineup, Not Their Rotation, Makes Them Great

The Washington Nationals are a good team, probably the best in the National League. After they made headlines for winning games via walkoff only, they settled down and started winning games the traditional way. With a seven-game lead in the NL East, the Nats are all but a lock to at least qualify for the postseason this year. As of today, their playoff odds sit at 99.9%, with a 99.3% chance of holding on to the division crown, the highest marks in baseball.

By Base Runs and Pythag, their talent on-hand appears to be slightly better than their record shows. The Nats are a team best characterized as a great pitching team, with a formidable starting rotation and steady bullpen supported by strong defense. Their offense doesn’t get its due, boasting a 98 wRC+ for the season – though their non-pitchers rank among the best in the game.

It is somewhat surprising to see the Nats offense rank so high, given their high strikeout rate and lack of a single offensive force (Jayson Werth’s 136 wRC+ is best on the club, ranking him 21st among qualified hitters). But it is this offense that I believe makes them even more troubling for potential playoff opponents. The Nationals deadline deals and improving health might make the prospect of facing their lineup even scarier come October than a rotation stacked with studs. Read the rest of this entry »

Different Process, Same Results for Andrelton Simmons

“With his defense, he doesn’t need to do much at the plate” is a common refrain heard in regards to the best defensive players in the game. Elite players at premium positions get a lot of rope, so valuable is their glove work. Especially at key, up-the-middle positions, the offensive bar is set so low that any contribution from the game’s best defenders can be considered a bonus.

In 2013, Andrelton Simmons was among the most productive players in baseball, thanks to his beyond-superlative defense. To the surprise of many, Simmons also slugged 17 home runs, offsetting his struggles to get on base to produce a nearly-league average season. His 91 wRC+ surpassed the average shortstop last season, which is a recipe for a successful season. If you hit better than most of the peers while definitely fielding better than most of your peers, you’re doing something right.

As 2014 began, Simmons and the Braves were clearly not content with his production levels and vowed to change him, to bring his swing under control and make him a more complete hitter. In June, Braves hitting coach Greg Walker explained to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it was a matter of identity for Simmons, one he needed to adjust. “You’ve got to make a decision on what type hitter you want to be. Do you want to be low-average guy, a power guy, and deal with a lot of failure?”

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Colby Rasmus, Enigma

The Toronto Blue Jays season is a two-part story. What began as a pleasant surprise quickly descended into a lucid, waking nightmare. Two Blue Jays’ outfielders heading into free agency embody each of those characteristics. While Melky Cabrera is putting together a brilliant platform season before heading to free-agency, Colby Rasmus seems to have spent all the good will he earned with his strong 2013 campaign.

Rasmus, as you probably know, was terrific last year. He hit 23 home runs and posted nearly 5 WAR in just 120 games. He looked every bit the future star the Blue Jays thought they had when they acquired him at the 2011 trade deadline. Unfortunately for Rasmus, his 2014 looks much more like his forgettable seasons in the woods following his 2010 breakout as a 23-year-old in St. Louis.

The soft-spoken Jays center fielder has long been a magnet for criticism and scrutiny, due in no small part to his frank father/coach/mentor and to the personality clashes with his former manager and Hall-of-Famer, Tony La Russa. On the field, Rasmus is a devoted tinkerer at the plate and the author of wildly divergent periods of production.

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The Weekend in Weird Home Runs

Weird home runs have a very specific appeal. Most homers we see are products of bad pitches left in hittable spots. Flat sliders or errant fastballs, hangers and changeups left up in the zone, the usual. For folks who consume baseball in bulk, it takes something special to quicken our collective pulse.

It is hard to break through the din, however. While each homer is a tiny miracle in its own right, it takes something extra to stand out. This past weekend featured two very interesting and very noteworthy home runs. Two shots that stand out and demand a little extra attention.

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