Archive for Astros

The Tools of Baseball’s Fly-Ball Revolution

There’s a revolution happening in the batting cage. We’ve noticed that batted-ball data is changing slightly and that hitters are saying different things about the intentions of their swings. But on the ground, where these hitters are training to improve, a few new tools have appeared that are helping those hitters to realize their intentions with better results. Those tools make a link between hitting and pitching that may open our eyes to the possibility of better development practices in both places.

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The Cubs, Astros, and Paying the Young Superstars

Major League Baseball has an interesting economic system, including a pay scale that is intentionally designed to limit the salaries of young players in order to funnel more money to veterans. All players with less than two full years of experience (and most with less than three) effectively have their salaries dictated to them, with no recourse to move the needle in any real fashion. Until a player becomes arbitration eligible, teams get to decide how much they want to pay a player in a given year, and there is nothing the player can do to change that number.

So, naturally, most pre-arbitration players make something close to the league minimum. With no market forces to force prices upwards, or even an arbitration panel to select between two options, there is just nothing in place to push pre-arb salaries up, and teams generally haven’t seen much value in paying higher wages to pre-arb players than they have to.

That might be slowly changing.

This week, the Cubs agreed to pay Kris Bryant $1.05 million for 2017, the highest salary ever awarded to a player with less than two years of service. Bryant’s salary is $50,000 more than Mike Trout got from the Angels back in 2014, and a $400,000 raise over what he made last year. Clearly, the Cubs wanted to reward the reigning NL MVP for helping bring the Cubs their first championship in over a century, and likely also wanted to avoid the negative publicity that would come from looking cheap right after reaping the financial benefits of a World Series title. In addition to giving Bryant the highest pre-arb contract a team has ever doled out, the Cubs also gave out substantial raises to Kyle Hendricks ($760K), Addison Russell ($644K), and Javier Baez ($609K).

Meanwhile, over in Boston, the Red Sox offered Mookie Bets $950K, but he declined to sign the contract, saying that he had a different price in mind. Because Betts has no actual leverage, the Red Sox simply renewed his contract unilaterally at their $950K offer. Betts will now get the third-highest salary for a pre-arb player ever, but he also took what he felt was a principled stand in not actually signing a contract that pays him less than he feels he’s worth.

So, in a few high profile examples, we’ve seen teams give significant raises to their best young players, perhaps attempting to buy some goodwill or some positive publicity for the kind of money that doesn’t really have any impact on a team’s bottom line. But this is still the exception, as most teams continue to determine pre-arb prices by simply creating an algorithm that looks at a player’s statistics and gives them an extra $10K or $20K above the league minimum depending on how they’ve performed in their first few years in the majors.

By simply citing a calculation that treats everyone the same way, teams can claim some degree of equity in a system designed to be unfair to these players, and the salary-by-algorithm model takes away most of the need for negotiation. The team simply says “this is what our model spits out”, and then, most organizations leave a little wiggle room to move up $5K to $10K from the calculated wage in order to give the agent the chance to tell the player they were able to negotiate his salary up slightly.

But this kind of no-leverage-negotiation doesn’t always go well, and some teams use the renewal ability to create a disincentive to not sign the contract, which often creates a small story for the media and pushes the wage structure back into the public eye, where fans are reminded that their best young players have no real say in their early-career wages. This is likely what happened in Houston last week, when the Astros renewed Carlos Correa for the league minimum, which is $535,000 for 2017.

We don’t know the specifics of the negotiation, but in talking with people who work for other teams, the belief within the game is that a minimum renewal for a player of Correa’s stature was probably threatened in order to try and induce him to sign the contract the team offered, and then the team felt obligated to follow through once Correa wasn’t willing to sign. This is a different approach from the one Boston took, where they didn’t create a punitive secondary offer for not signing, and Betts was able to take a cost-free stance on not signing his contract. Correa’s resistance to signing for what Houston may have originally offered likely did cost him some money.

From a pure publicity standpoint, the Cubs and Red Sox certainly look better in this ordeal than the Astros do, but I don’t think this is all as simple as “Chicago good, Houston evil”.

After all, the extra money the Cubs are giving Bryant in his pre-arb years pales in comparison to the money they cost him by sending him to Triple-A to begin the 2015 season, which delayed his free agency by a year. Not long ago, the Cubs chose to use the rights given them under the CBA to create as much value for their organization as they could, even though it came at the expense of Bryant’s future earnings. The Astros could argue that they are simply doing the same thing, using the rules that everyone agreed to in order to maximize the amount of money they have available to spend on free agents.

But a league-minimum renewal for Correa certainly doesn’t help the Astros reputation, which already could use some work. Even if they don’t believe that paying Correa a bit more than the league minimum is likely to buy them any future discount in arbitration or extension pricing — and there’s not much evidence to suggest that a player is going to leave a large amount of money on the table as a thank you for giving him an extra $50K or $100K a couple of years ago — it would seem that at least a few other organizations are acknowledging that there’s some value in rewarding young superstars with raises substantial enough to show up in a player’s bank account, rather than calibrating the salary algorithm to hand out minuscule increases simply because they can.

In the end, the Astros can probably say this will all be forgotten, and they’re probably right about that. And while it’s easy to make them the bad guys here, they’re participating in the system that the MLBPA has pushed for, and the union has made little effort to escalate the salaries of young players, instead focusing their efforts on trying to get teams to be able to pay as much as possible to veteran free agents. By giving pre-arb players no leverage in negotiations, the reasonable expectation is that teams are going to hold down costs for those players, and the union has continued to agree to that system as the accepted salary scale.

But with the Cubs and Red Sox bucking the trend, at least with a few of their best players, the Astros don’t look great here. And perhaps that negative P.R. will become the thing that puts at least some upwards pressure on salaries for young superstars. With teams rolling in money from their local TV contracts, there doesn’t seem to be much benefit to holding a hard line on wages for franchise players. Even though the Cubs gesture to Bryant is probably not going to get them any kind of discount on a long-term contract, and they can’t really be lauded for player-friendly tactics given how they handled the timing of his debut, at least there appears to be some move towards compensating the game’s best players a bit more than before.

In the end, the wage structure that takes money from guys like Bryant, Betts, and Correa and gives it to less-talented veterans is still one the union has tacitly endorsed, and if the players want this system to change, they’re going to have to impress upon their union to fight for a different pay model in the next CBA negotiations. But perhaps the Cubs and Red Sox paying their stars nearly $1 million each will make it less palatable for future teams to follow the Astros model, and baseball’s equivalent of peer pressure can serve as something of a market force for players who have no other leverage.


J.D. Martinez Debunks Conventional Wisdom, Thinks a Tipping Point Is Near

Editor’s Note: the following post contains spicy language.

J.D. Martinez had just concluded a chat with a Tigers beat reporter when I approached him Monday afternoon. I sensed him preparing to escape my forthcoming interview request in the Joker Marchant Stadium clubhouse as I walked in his direction. He’d just risen from the cushioned chair in front of his locker and picked up a cardboard box of personal effects as I introduced myself. His body language wasn’t suggestive of much interest in engaging in conversation with me and, to be fair, I was a stranger. We had never spoken. He had just finished playing six innings of an exhibition game and was presumably was looking forward to the rest of the day.

But then I explained why I was interested in speaking with him. He rested the box on a laundry cart, freed his hands, seemed to warm to the idea (or possibly not), and opened up.

I wanted to ask Martinez whether baseball is on the cusp of a fly-ball revolution, whether we’re about to see the sort of approach already adopted by Martinez, Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner — all of whom have experienced great personal success — become more widely adopted and accepted in the majors. Jeff Sullivan and I have written quite a bit about the potential fly-ball revolution in recent weeks as you can read here, here, here and here. But Monday offered a chance to get a key perspective from an early adopter and perhaps a significant influencer.

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The Single Best Sign Out of Astros Camp

Everyone loves to observe a rebuild, so along those lines, we’re all waiting to see where the White Sox ultimately deal Jose Quintana. The Yankees have been in there, and the Pirates have been in there, but another team to draw frequent mention has been the Astros. As the Astros have been evaluated, it’s been my impression that the rotation is considered the potential weakness. Hence the Quintana link. You get how this works.

You’ve presumably noticed that Jose Quintana doesn’t play for the Astros yet. The Astros themselves are inclined to open the year with what they already have. Among the in-house options is a free agent the team signed fairly quietly last November. The Astros inked Charlie Morton to a two-year, sort of speculative contract after he was injured last year in his fourth start. Morton is entering his mid-30s, and he has an extensive injury history. Plus, there’s the 119 career ERA-. What grabbed the Astros’ attention was this:

Before Morton got hurt, he was throwing harder than ever. He had his hardest sinker, his hardest curveball, and his hardest splitter, plus a new-ish, hard cutter. Among pitchers who started games in both 2015 and 2016, Morton had the third-biggest fastball-velocity improvement, behind only David Phelps and James Paxton. It was enough to take a chance, considering Morton’s injury was to his leg. There’s upside in ground-ball pitchers with new velocity.

The question was whether the velocity bump would be real. So far, so good.

Morton, who saw a velocity spike last March and April before blowing out his hamstring, said afterward he felt like the ball came out of his hand well. His sinker sat between 94 and 96 mph, according to one scout’s radar gun.

The bulk of spring-training results are pretty much useless. Velocity is one of those things that’s difficult to fake. Beyond that, historically, spring velocity has been a little lower than regular-season velocity, since pitchers are still working up to 100%. So: It’s early, but it’s very encouraging. Charlie Morton seems to still have that zip, at a time when not having the same zip would be forgivable. More velocity tends to make pitchers better.

Morton’s sinker is a proven ground-ball pitch. With more speed, it would also become a less hittable pitch. He trusts his splitter, and as far as his curveball goes, last year’s closest pitch comp was Stephen Strasburg‘s curveball. Morton’s curve ranked 10th in average spin rate, out of 507. He’s there ahead of names like Jeremy Hellickson and Lance McCullers. The Astros also intend to have Morton keep using that cutter to keep lefties honest.

It doesn’t mean anything’s a lock. It certainly doesn’t mean Morton will stay healthy enough to make 20 or 25 starts. But the Astros took a chance, and based on how Morton is throwing, he resembles a legitimate power pitcher with ground-ball and putaway stuff. The Doug Fister flier didn’t pan out. This one could make a good rotation great.


Last Year’s Unluckiest Changeup

In baseball, luck is a tricky concept. In some cases, it’s used to describe an event that’s within the normal distribution of outcomes but far from the mean. In other cases, what we call luck might actually be the first signs of an outlying skill for which we simply lack a sufficiently large sample to identify.

We’ve developed a new understanding on one kind of luck in recent years — namely, the sort that occurs with a batted ball. With Statcast data, we can look at the shape and size of a ball in play and try to decide what the batter “deserved” from that sort of ball in play. Then we compare it to actual outcomes. The difference between the observed and expected outcome is luck.

What if you want to look at a luck on a specific pitch type, though? How would you do it? You could look at the results on the pitch and basically use the Statcast-type process from the other side of the ball. What sorts of balls in play did that pitch produce, and what sort of results should those balls in play have produced? The problem with that approach is that you’re slicing a pitcher’s repertoire into small samples when you start talking about balls in play off a specific pitch. Even David Price, for example — who led the majors in innings last year — allowed fewer than 300 balls in play on his most frequently thrown pitch, the fastball. Secondary pitches are, almost by definition, thrown much less often. Variance isn’t the exception in such cases, but the rule.

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Ten Bold Predictions for the Coming Season

Over at the fantasy blog, they’ll be publishing their annual bold predictions soon. Those posts, as usual, will cater to the roto side of things. They’re fun to write. And, even though I’m no longer editing RotoGraphs anymore, I’d like to continue the tradition. So I’ve decided to do a version that’s aimed more at the real game.

Let’s stretch our imagination and make some predictions that are a little bit sane (they should be rooted in reality to some extent), but also a little bit insane (since the insane happens in baseball every year anyway). Back when I did this for fantasy, I hit 3-for-10 most years. Doubt I do it again, for some reason.

What follows are my 10 bold predictions for 2017.

1. Dylan Bundy will be the ace he was always supposed to be.
Once picked fourth overall and pegged as the future ace of the Orioles, Bundy had a terrible time in the minor leagues. Over five years, he managed only 111 innings between injuries. There was Tommy John, of course, but lat strains, shoulder-calcification issues and between-start bouts of elbow soreness have dogged him throughout, as well. At least he was good while he was in, with an ERA in the low twos and great rates to support those results.

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Last Season’s Most Underrated Rookie

I got to participate in the voting for last season’s American League Rookie of the Year award. Like almost everyone else, I agonized over whether to go with Gary Sanchez or Michael Fulmer, before ultimately settling on the latter. Tyler Naquin rounded out my ballot. It was the most common ballot — there were a dozen, out of 30, that read like mine.

If I had a fourth-place slot, I would’ve found room for Christopher Devenski. As is, Devenski showed up on five ballots, finishing third on four and second on one. There were many rookies last year who were pretty good. Devenski, somehow, has seemingly flown under the radar. He was so good!

If I wanted, I could leave it at this — there were 142 different pitchers in all of baseball who threw at least 100 innings. Here are the best of them, by ERA-:

  1. Clayton Kershaw, 43
  2. Kyle Hendricks, 51
  3. Chris Devenski, 52

But you could look at the fact that Devenski allowed just four homers and conclude he got lucky. He probably did. Doesn’t mean he didn’t get better and better. It’s Devenski’s second half that really stands out. After the All-Star break, he threw 49.2 innings. Here are some percentile rankings out of everyone who cleared 25 post-ASB frames.

Down the stretch, Devenski threw strikes like Max Scherzer, and he missed bats like…well, also Max Scherzer. He compelled hitters to constantly chase out of the zone, in part a testament to his outstanding changeup. But you shouldn’t come away believing Devenski was some kind of soft-tosser; by September he was throwing his average fastball around 94 miles per hour.

Devenski was underrated because he wasn’t really a starting pitcher. He did start a few times, but he predominantly relieved, without closing. As you know, statistically speaking, relievers have it easier. Yet Devenski wasn’t a reliever of the conventional sort. The last bar in the plot above reads PA/GR. That’s out of a different sample pool — all relievers with at least 10 appearances in the second half. The category itself refers to average plate appearances per relief appearance. Devenski was close to the top. He wasn’t a matchup guy, or a one-inning guy. He was more of a multi-inning swingman, which makes his numbers all the more remarkable. He was that good, for dozens of pitches at a time.

Borrowing from Texas Leaguers, Devenski made a midseason change that could’ve driven his greater success.

As the season wore on, Devenski all but abandoned his curveball, replacing it with a sharper slider. He showed excellent command of the pitch, and opponents missed it nearly half of the time they swung. Here’s Devenski using the slider to get back in the count:

The slider gave Devenski a consistent third pitch. In the second half, he threw it 22% of the time. He threw his fastball 40% of the time. And he threw his changeup — this changeup — 32% of the time.

Lefties would see all three pitches. Righties would see all three pitches. And Devenski’s over-the-top delivery presumably added some measure of deception. His fastball comes with a good amount of rise, and the changeup plays off of it perfectly. The slider is why the Astros are still thinking about Devenski as potentially becoming a starter. He might work well for five or six innings at a time. It’s already clear he can work well for two or three.

Devenski is going to be a key part of the Astros’ enviable pitching depth, no matter his role. Whether he’s rotation insurance or a steady presence in the bullpen, he’ll provide something every manager wants. As he showed over last season’s final three months, he can pitch as well as almost anyone else, and this from someone who was a completely unheralded prospect. A 25th-round draft pick who was included as a PTBNL for Brett Myers. You can give the White Sox some credit for identifying and developing Jose Quintana. In a similar but opposite way, I guess Devenski was an oversight.


The Most Interesting New Houston Astro

The Astros’ 2015 season ended because of a total bullpen meltdown. Before that, the bullpen had been fairly steady, but the Astros made damn sure there wouldn’t be a repeat. And so, last year, the Astros led all of major-league baseball in bullpen WAR. They finished fourth in bullpen WPA, and they project to be strong as a unit once again. There’s Michael Feliz, coming off an FIP- of 76. Luke Gregerson is coming off an FIP- of 70. Ken Giles finished last year at 62. Will Harris finished last year at 55. Even Christopher Devenski finished last year at 55, having thrown maybe the quietest 100-odd excellent innings I can recall. And then, as you read down the depth chart, you come across the name James Hoyt. Let me tell you about James Hoyt.

Hoyt is 30 years old, and only last year did he make his big-league debut. That usually isn’t a promising sign. Hoyt came to the Astros from the Braves in the Evan Gattis trade, and you’ll remember that Gattis has an incredible backstory, involving rehab, depression, going undrafted, and being a janitor. When Gattis was first emerging, consensus was that he was one of the best stories in the game. Now, I don’t know if Hoyt’s story is as good as his teammate’s. To my knowledge, Hoyt has never been an inpatient in a psychiatric facility. But in the deal, there were two amazing stories packaged together. And Hoyt might now be on the verge of making a name for himself.

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Mike Elias on Drafting and Developing Astros Pitchers

In November 2014, we ran an interview with Mike Elias, who was then Houston’s director of amateur scouting. Two-plus years later, he has a new title and more responsibilities. The 34-year-old Yale University product now has the title of Assistant General Manager, Scouting and Player Development.

Elias addressed several subjects in the earlier interview, but very little of the conversation was about pitching. This time around, we talked exclusively about pitching. The scouting process — including injury-risk assessments and offspeed deliveries — was the primary focus, but we also delved heavily into last year’s first-round pick. With the 17th selection of the 2016 draft, the Astros took 6-foot-7 right-hander Forrest Whitley out of a San Antonio, Texas high school.

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Elias on how scouting pitchers has, and hasn’t, changed: “It has definitely evolved, but it is still, and I believe it always will be, most reliant on the opinions of the scouts who have seen the players in person, and know the players personally. Our scouts still spend much of their time getting a good seat behind home plate and evaluating the pitcher’s stuff, command, and delivery. They look for future improvement in those areas. Another big part of what they do is learn about the player off the field, through conversations with coaches and acquaintances, and getting to know the player himself.

“The thing that changed is the amount of information outside of the scouting report we receive. That extends from the player’s performance stats — that’s if he’s a college kid — to video analysis of his delivery. Every team does that, although every team does it a little differently. And a lot of radar technology has become available over the last few years. It has spread from just being in major-league parks to trickling down through the minor leagues and even into most college environments. Even high-school fields, throughout the major tournaments with Perfect Game.

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Why the Astros Didn’t Catch Chris Correa

The St. Louis Cardinals’ former director of amateur scouting, Chris Correa, is serving 46 months in jail for gaining unauthorized access to the Astros’ player information/evaluation database, codenamed Ground Control. A few days ago, MLB announced St. Louis’s penalty: they’d have to send $2 million and their top two draft picks to Houston.

From a network-security perspective, the case is interesting. It illustrates how difficult true network security really is, which raises the strong possibility that another team will attempt this in the future (if indeed one isn’t doing it right now).

Here’s a timeline of the incident up until it was made public:

  • March 2013 – April 2014: Correa accesses Ground Control using passwords of various Astros staff. (Source: David Barron and Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle.)
  • June 2014: Deadspin posts leaked documents that were retrieved from Ground Control, mostly regarding trades or potential trades during the 2013 season. This action causes the Astros to contact MLB, who contacts the FBI to begin an investigation into the breach. (Source: Derrick Goold and Robert Partrick of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)
  • June 2015: Michael S. Schmidt of the New York Times reports that the Cardinals are the prime suspects in this investigation.

Why didn’t the Astros detect the unauthorized access themselves? I don’t know anything about how they ran their security team, so I can only speculate. But I do have several years of experience in the network-security industry. I’ll use those to provide a perspective.

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The Astros Have a Completely New Look

To whatever extent the Astros are going to have issues, they probably won’t have to worry too much about the lineup. As Mike Petriello recently wrote, said lineup looks to be incredibly deep. Based just on Steamer and our present depth charts, the Astros project to have easily the best-hitting lineup in the American League. The Red Sox come in second, but they trail by more than 30 runs. Steamer is just one system, and ZiPS will join it soon, but the point is made clear: The Astros offense looks good. They’ll score a bunch.

Yet something else has taken place, quietly. As the Astros have built a better order, there’s also been a rather significant side effect. I can’t tell you whether it’s been intentional, or whether it’s been a coincidence. But if you can believe it, the Astros are going to make contact. In fact, they project to be very nearly the best contact-hitting lineup in the game.

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Switch-Hitting with the Two Jonathan Villars

“I’m a completely different hitter from each side of the plate,” Hank Conger told me one time. He went on to describe how he had more loft in his swing from one side. Switch-hitter Billy Burns said about the same thing, speculating that his relative lack of experience hitting from the left side was the cause for his lack of power on contact from that side. “My muscles aren’t as strong there,” he told me in July of 2015. Even if a player is capable of hitting — even hitting well — from both sides of the plate, that doesn’t mean he’s the same type of hitter from both sides. Subtle differences are bound to be present.

All of this may explain a strange thing that happened to Jonathan Villar last year.

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The Cardinals Got Off Light for the Astros Hack

It wouldn’t be fair to refer to MLB’s disciplinary record as toothless. There exists a relatively tough PED policy, and as of not all that long ago, there also exists a relatively tough policy on domestic violence. And last summer, the Red Sox were dealt a decently severe penalty for international signing violations, even though their behavior wasn’t exactly unique to them. The Red Sox were hit hard. Individual players have been hit hard when they’ve crossed the line. There’s not a consistent history of the commissioner being too light.

What we have now, though, are two penalties that have drawn similar reactions within the league. Many teams and team-people thought the Padres got off way too easy when A.J. Preller was suspended a month for withholding medical information in trade talks. And now, there’s a similar consensus belief about the penalty dealt to the Cardinals for Chris Correa’s repeated hacks of the Astros. Everyone had been waiting for a while to see how baseball would deal with an unprecedented conduct violation. In the end, the Cardinals are out a couple draft picks.

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The Adjustments that Made the Hall of Famers

The truth about a Hall of Fame career is that there’s no single magic moment that makes it happen. There’s no way you can put together the sort of resume that ends in Cooperstown unless you make many changes along the way. Baseball is that demanding.

When it’s all over, though, there’s time for looking back and for giving thanks. Because in order to make all those adjustments, the players had to receive advice from truth-peddling coaches and players along the way. For every adjustment, there was a trusted source that helped at just the right time.

So, along with the help of Alyson Footer of MLB.com, Bill Ladson of MLB.com, and others, I asked our newest Hall of Fame trio about their path to the big leagues.

*****

Jeff Bagwell

On Power: “I think my hitting coach, Rudy Jaramillo and I – you know, when I was in the minor leagues and all that kind of stuff, I used to hit a lot of balls with back, excuse me, topspin. And then I kind of learned how to change my hands a little bit and get a little bit of backspin and all that kind of stuff, and that carried the ball…

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Larry Andersen on the Slider that Cost Boston Bagwell

Larry Andersen is famous for being traded for Jeff Bagwell. Phillies fans know him for his fine work on the club’s radio broadcasts. In terms of his playing career — he pitched in the big leagues from 1975 to 1994 — Andersen is known for having one of the best sliders in the game.

His best years were with the Astros when he was in his mid- to late 30s. From 1986 to -90, the right-handed setup man appeared in 293 games and fashioned a 2.55 ERA and a 2.53 FIP. His 445 innings over the stretch were sixth-most among relievers.

His signature pitch was elite. As Rob Neyer wrote at ESPN back in 2004, “Larry Andersen perfected his slider to the point where he rarely bothered throwing anything else.” In the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Larry Dierker was quoted as saying his former teammate had the best slider he’d ever seen.

Anderson told me about his slider midway through the 2015 season.

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Andersen on why his slider was so effective: “The way I threw it — this is from talking to guys I faced, and ended up playing with — it looked like a fastball. A number of them told me: ‘I swear it’s a fastball; it looks like a fast one.’ That’s the key. Hitters aren’t committing to hit the ball when it’s three feet in front of the plate, they’re committing to the ball when it’s halfway there. The best hitters obviously pick up the spin, but if they see fastball and commit, and it’s not a fastball, they’re not going to have much luck.

“I basically tried to throw my slider how I would grip a four-seam fastball. I would kind of just rotate my fingers to the side of the ball a little more. That was probably more my cutter. I really had three pitches with one grip. It was essentially more pressure, and where my fingers were placed on the ball.

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2016’s Best Pitches Thrown by Starters

On Tuesday, we looked at the best pitches in baseball last year when judged by whiffs and grounders. One thing we learned in that exercise: they were all thrown by relievers. Makes sense. They get a lot of advantages when it comes to short stints and leveraged situations. Let’s not hold it against them because the rest of the reliever’s life is very difficult. On the other hand, let’s also celebrate the starting pitchers separately, because many of them have pitches that are excellent despite the fact that they have to throw more often, to batters of both hands.

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2016’s Best Pitches by Results

While the 2016 campaign is over and the flurry of moves after the season has come to a halt for the moment, a whole year’s worth of data remains to be examined. Today’s post is an easy one and a fun one. Let’s find the best pitches that were thrown regularly last year.

Before we begin: the word “results” appears in the headline, but I’m not going to use results judged by things like singles and doubles and the like. The samples gets pretty small if you chop up the ball-in-play numbers on a single pitch, and defense exerts too much of an influence on those numbers. So “results” here denotes not hit types, but rather whiffs and grounders.

I’ve grouped all the pitches thrown last year, minimum 75 for non-fastballs, 100 for fastballs. I combined knuckle and regular curves, and put split-fingers in with the changeups. So the sample per pitch type is generally around 300 — a lot less for cutters (89) and a bunch more for four seamers (500) — but generally around 300 pitches qualified in each category. Then I found the z-scores for the whiff and ground-ball rates on those pitches. I multiplied the whiff rate z-score by two before adding it to the ground-ball rate because I generally found correlations that were twice as strong between whiff rates and overall numbers like ERA and SIERA than they were for ground-ball rates.

The caveats are obvious. Pitches work in tandem, so you may get a whiff on your changeup because your fastball is so devastating. This doesn’t reward called strikes as much as swinging strikes, so it’s not a great measure for command. On the other hand, there isn’t a great measure for command. By using ground-ball rate instead of launch-angle allowed, we’re using some ball-in-play data and maybe not the best ball-in-play data.

But average-launch-angle allowed is problematic in its own way, and ground-ball rate is actually one of the best ball-in-play stats we have — it’s very sticky year to year and becomes meaningful very quickly. Whiff rates are super sexy, since a swing and a miss represents a clear victory for the pitchers over the batter — and also because there’s no room for scorer error or bias in the numbers. And while the precise way in which pitches work in tandem remains obscure in pitching analysis, we can still learn something from splitting the pitches up into their own buckets.

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Do the Astros Need Jose Quintana?

The White Sox are blowing it up, having traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton in blockbuster deals on back-to-back days at the Winter Meetings. They are almost certainly not done, with other attractive veterans like David Robertson and Todd Frazier as trade chips, either this winter or before the summer trade deadline. But for teams looking for make a bigger splash, the White Sox have one more big trade to make, as they haven’t yet moved Jose Quintana, one of the game’s best pitchers, and a guy who is signed for four more years at bargain prices.

And for a while now, whenever anyone asked where I thought Quintana would end up, I would name the Houston Astros as the best fit. The Astros already have a very good team, but they’re a step below the best teams in baseball, and adding a frontline pitcher like Quintana seems like a way for a team with a strong young core to solidify their status as contenders both this year and for the future. Quintana’s modest salary would not prevent them from keeping any of their young stars in Houston, and since he’s around for the next four years, they could justify giving up some of the valuable young talent for which they might not have room.

The Astros have the means to get Quintana, and as a contender who could use an upgrade to keep up with Boston and the big boys in the National League, it’s not that hard to make a case for why they should push hard to land Chicago’s other ace. But the more I looked at the Astros roster, the more I began to wonder whether Houston really needs Quintana after all.

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A Very Stupid Jose Altuve Hypothetical

There are certain club options we just take for granted. Andrew McCutchen has only one guaranteed year remaining on his deal, but it’s almost unimaginable that his employer might turn down his $14.5-million club option for 2018. Similarly, Chris Sale has only one guaranteed year remaining, but then he has consecutive club options, worth $12.5 million and $15 million, respectively. These are very good players, so for all intents and purposes, McCutchen’s locked up two years, and Sale’s locked up three.

I was wondering last night just how bad McCutchen would have to be in 2017 for his option to be declined. I then quickly one-upped myself. The McCutchen answer was maybe somewhat interesting. But what about an even more team-favorable option? Enter Jose Altuve. Altuve is under guaranteed contract for 2017. Then he has a club option, worth $6 million. And, for the sake of being thorough, that’s followed by another club option, worth $6.5 million. The question to be addressed: How bad would Altuve have to be this year for the Astros to not want to pay him $6 million the year after?

This hypothetical is exceptionally stupid. Let’s get on with it, then.

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2017 ZiPS Projections – Houston Astros

After having typically appeared in the very famous pages of Baseball Think Factory, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections have been released at FanGraphs the past few years. The exercise continues this offseason. Below are the projections for the Houston Astros. Szymborski can be found at ESPN and on Twitter at @DSzymborski.

Other Projections: Arizona / Chicago NL / San Diego / Toronto / Washington.

Batters
Broadly speaking, the deployment of an average — which is to say, a two-win — player at every spot in a club’s starting lineup will lead to an average group of position players. With that logic in mind, these ZiPS projections offer an encouraging portrait of the 2017 Houston Astros, insofar as two wins represents more or less the floor for the club’s field-playing starters.

The foundation of the offense is marked both by youth and talent: Jose Altuve (696 PA, 5.8 zWAR), Alex Bregman (557, 3.5), Carlos Correa (682, 6.5), and George Springer (590, 3.5) are all 27 or younger. They also constitute the four Houston batters projected to record three or more wins in 2017. Among the starters, ZiPS offers the least optimistic forecasts for Carlos Beltran (521, 1.6) and Yulieski Gurriel (525, 1.6), although even that pair is expected to produce something within a rounding error of two wins.

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