Archive for Daily Graphings

The Ridiculousness of Aaron Sanchez’s Sinker

Aaron Sanchez was optioned to High-A Dunedin over the weekend, though of course that’s not indicative of his performance at work. Sanchez is a legitimate Cy Young contender this year, maybe even the frontrunner in the eyes of some, and while players typically get sent down to the minors because their organization doesn’t care much for what they’ve done on the field, Sanchez was optioned because the Blue Jays care too much. He just turned 24, and he’s a massive part of the organization’s future, and the move was simply made to skip one of his turns in the rotation in an effort to limit the workload of Toronto’s prized, young arm.

That workload requires monitoring, of course, because no one expected Sanchez to do what he’s done this year. You likely know the Aaron Sanchez story by now. You know he spent the majority of his first two seasons in the majors working out of relief, and now that he suddenly looks like an ace, that he’s already exceeded his previous season-high in innings by more than 20. And if you know about that, then you know about the sinker that leads Sanchez’s arsenal.

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Stephen Strasburg Has a Problem

There ought to be no shame in a pitcher struggling at Coors Field. Many of the greatest pitchers on the planet have been humbled in that stadium and, last week, Stephen Strasburg became merely the latest among them. Allowing nine runs before being pulled in just the second inning, Strasburg posted what was far and away the worst performance of his career. He’d never previously given up more than seven runs in a game and his game score of 1 was not only his lowest mark ever, but is tied for seventh worst in baseball this season. Ideally, this could be written off as a Coors fluke for one of the game’s best pitchers, but instead it’s served to illuminate the frustrating reality that Strasburg has struggled mightily of late.

Over his last six outings, Strasburg has given up 26 runs in 30.2 innings pitched. Crunch the numbers and you’ll find that works out to a decidedly un-ace-like 7.63 ERA. These six outings have caused his season ERA to rise more than one full run, from 2.51 to 3.59. The good news is that there’s more than a little hope to be found in his peripheral stats. Over this awful stretch, his FIP is a massively more palatable 3.25, largely on the strength of a solid 29.1% strikeout rate and a roughly league-average 7.8% walk rate. It also likely won’t surprise you to learn that he’s posted an inflated .388 BABIP during this rough patch. Unfortunately, this is not to say Strasburg’s swoon has been entirely devoid of red flags.

In mid-June, Strasburg hit the disabled list with a back injury. Considering a back injury was the primary culprit in Strasburg’s first-half struggles last season, this latest DL stint was an unavoidably alarming development. Fortunately, he made a swift return to the mound. Any hopes that he’d escape the performance struggles which plagued him a year ago, however, have been derailed by his recent stretch. Whether those struggles are directly related to the injury is unknowable, but there are observable things about Strasburg which have changed since his return.

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What Byron Buxton’s Struggles Have Meant Historically

Back in June, Eno Sarris discussed with Byron Buxton some adjustments the latter had made in his attempt to succeed at the major-league level. Then, about two weeks ago now, shortly after Buxton was sent back down to the minors, August Fagerstrom discussed whether any of the aforementioned adjustments had helped or hurt Buxton’s production. We know both that (a) Buxton has attempted to make adjustments and that (b) he possesses tools that have distinguished him, at points, as the top prospect in all of baseball. We also know that his stat line is pretty much terrible so far. Here I’d like to ignore the tools and focus only on that latter part. What does Byron Buxton’s awful stat line tell us about his potential for future success?

In August’s piece on Buxton, he mentioned Milton Bradley, Jackie Bradley Jr., Carlos Gonzalez, Brandon Phillips, and Miguel Tejada as examples of players who struggled and then recovered. Surely there are other examples of players who fit that description — and probably an even greater number of players who were terrible from the start and quickly found themselves out of the league. Before finding those players, we should acknowledge just how difficult the transition to major-league can be, especially for a player like Buxton, who’s still just 22 years old.

Even if Buxton doesn’t get another plate appearance this season — a scenario which seems unlikely given the possibility of a September call-up — he’ll end his age-22 season having recorded 356 career plate appearances. In the last 50 years, only 334 position players have reached 350 PA by the end of their age-22 season — or, roughly 13% of all players over the last 50 years who’ve recorded at least 350 PA total. Of those 334, only around 40% have produced even average offensive numbers (100+ wRC+), and just one-third of those players have actually excelled at the plate (in this case, recorded a 120 or greater wRC+). Out of all position players to record at least 350 plate appearances in the majors, the population to produce a line above 120 wRC+ by age 22 is under 2%. Increasing the pool to all position players — regardless of plate-appearance thresholds — drops the percentage of players who excelled by age 22 to under 1%. Essentially, simply making the majors at Buxton’s age and earning the playing time Buxton did is a feat unto itself, and success at that age is rare.

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Sunday Notes: Espinoza, Anderson, Clippard, Segura, Groome, more

Prior to changing organizations, Anderson Espinoza would sometimes be compared to a young Pedro Martinez. From a projectability standpoint, it wasn’t far-fetched. Signed by the Red Sox out of Venezuela two years ago, Espinoza was lanky with long fingers, and he possessed advanced feel for his off-speed pitches. Last year in the Gulf Coast League his fastball flirted with triple digits.

Espinoza is 18 years old now, and in the Padres system. Acquired by San Diego from Boston at the trade deadline in exchange for Drew Pomeranz, the high-ceiling right-hander is currently pitching for the Fort Wayne TinCaps in the low-A Midwest League. The raw stuff remains, but his physical resemblance to Pedro is fading.

Espinoza has gained 22 pounds since last season — “a lot of working out and a lot of eating” — and he now weighs a solid 202 pounds. “A strong guy who can get even stronger,” he aspires to better maintain his velocity deep into games.

Espinoza recognizes the value of velocity, but it’s no longer a main focus. Read the rest of this entry »


Dave Righetti on Pitching

Dave Righetti was a good pitcher. In a 16-year career spent mostly with the New York Yankees, he threw a no-hitter and saved over 250 games. He might be an even better pitching coach. “Rags” has held that position with the San Francisco Giants since 2000, and in the opinion of many, he’s among the best in the business.

Righetti’s reputation is well deserved. Under his tutelage, Giants pitchers have made 22 All-Star teams, won two Cy Young awards, and thrown five no-hitters. More importantly, the club has gone to the World Series four times and captured three titles.

Righetti talked about his philosophies — and the repertoires and pitch selection of members of the Giants’ staff — when the team visited Fenway Park in July.

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Righetti on location and changing speeds: “Changing speeds on any pitch is essential, even if it’s a 95-mph fastball. If you can’t back off on it at times and throw it 90, people are going to time it out. The last thing you want to do is throw your hardest fastball every pitch.

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Willson Contreras Has Developed into an Everyday Catcher

When Willson Contreras began to shoot up prospects lists last year, it wasn’t because of his defense. The now-24-year-old third baseman-turned-catcher was a fringe prospect who had never cracked a top-100 list until he came out of nowhere to slash .333/.413/.478 in Double-A last season — his fourth year spent behind the dish. Contreras’ breakout at the plate began earning him recognition from scouts, as Baseball America, ESPN, Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com all ranked Contreras as a top-75 prospect coming into this season. Regarding his work behind the dish, however, questions remained.

BP’s Christopher Crawford called Contreras a “work in progress” behind the plate in this year’s preseason scouting report, adding that “receiving is the big focus point right now, as he’s still learning how to frame pitches and call games.” Baseball America made note of Contreras’ “inconsistent receiving and blocking skills that need more development.” Most every scouting report on Contreras echoed a similar sentiment: great athleticism for a catcher, cannon for an arm, but the receiving and blocking needed work. Receiving is far and away the most important defensive skill for a catcher to possess, and so Contreras’ development (or lack thereof) in this area would go a long way toward determining his long-term value, or even future, behind the plate.

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Yu Darvish’s Stellar Return Puts Texas in Position for October

Here’s the good news: the Texas Rangers have the best record in the American League and a seven-game division lead. Here’s the less-good news: our playoff projections give them roughly one-in-10 odds of relinquishing their division lead before the end of the season due, in part, to the worst rest-of-season winning percentage projection of any current first-place team. One of the primary reasons projection systems are down on the Rangers relative to other first-place teams is that they’ve struggled with run prevention this season and a key cause of that struggle has been their difficulty filling out a five-man rotation with healthy, reliable starting pitching. However, the top of their rotation features a stealth Cy Young candidate in a weak field, Cole Hamels, and an ace who is increasingly looking like another Tommy John success story: Yu Darvish.

Since rejoining the rotation for good after the All-Star break, Darvish has been among the best pitchers in the American League on the strength of a 2.70 ERA, 3.32 RA9 and a major-league-leading 28.0-point strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%). But one of the most encouraging things to see with Darvish is that he’s been able to go deep into games. It wasn’t until his most recent two starts that he crossed the 95-pitch threshold this year, and yet he’s currently riding an active six-game streak of going six innings or more in his starts. Things have been going extraordinarily well of late for Darvish and it’s worth taking a look at what has and hasn’t changed for Darvish and whether or not he’s truly “back.”

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Kris Bryant Might Be the Best All-Around Player in the NL

Yesterday, Kris Bryant did what he’s best known for; hit the crap out of the baseball. In the Cubs 9-6 victory over the Brewers, Bryant went 5 for 5 with a double and a pair of home runs, giving him 30 homers for the season. The big day raised his season line to .296/.392/.564 and pushed him up to a 152 wRC+, second in the NL, behind only Daniel Murphy. This isn’t exactly breaking news, but Kris Bryant can really hit.

But Kris Bryant is also really good at a bunch of other things that don’t get as much attention, and given his monstrous production yesterday, I thought it would be a good time to talk about all the other reasons why Kris Bryant might be the best all-around player in the National League.

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Brad Miller Becomes a Slugging Corner Infielder

Eight hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify in 2016 have recorded an isolated-power figure (ISO) between .255 and .264. These eleven players populate the leaderboard from #20 up to #13, which for the most part is populated by a proverbial who’s who of power hitters. Daniel Murphy might surprise you, but the other seven are very much the players you would expect to see.

MLB ISO Ranks, 2016
Rank Name ISO
13 Brian Dozier 0.264
14 Nelson Cruz 0.261
15 Daniel Murphy 0.260
16 Yoenis Cespedes 0.259
17 Khris Davis 0.259
18 Mike Napoli 0.258
19 Chris Carter 0.257
20 Evan Longoria 0.255

You might not have expected to find that Evan Longoria has found his power again or that Yoenis Cespedes is following up on his 2015 breakout, but this is a list of power hitters. Now, of course, it’s clear I’m setting a trap. That’s how this works. I’m going to show you a bit of data that looks right and then I’m going to show you adjacent data that is supposed to be shocking. That bit of data concerns the player with the 12th-highest ISO in 2016, who’s delivered more extra bases per at-bat than Cespedes, Cruz, Davis, et al. That player is Rays shortstop Brad Miller.

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Noah Syndergaard Has a Major Problem

I don’t remember hearing much about controlling the running game until the whole Jon Lester episode. I mean, it’s always been important, but it was one of those baseball subtleties until it became public knowledge that Lester went a whole season without attempting a single pickoff. That opened up the gates, and, last year, Lester allowed more stolen bases than anybody else. He yielded 44 out of 55 attempts, and the next-worst steal total was seven behind. Lester knew it was something he had to work on. The Cubs knew it, too. To Lester’s credit, this year he’s allowed just 19 steals. That’s still a lot, relatively speaking, but it’s not astronomical.

Lester is no longer the obvious guy to run against. It does help that he’s left-handed. Steven Matz has allowed 20 stolen bases. That’s third-most. Jimmy Nelson has allowed 22 stolen bases. That’s second-most. Noah Syndergaard has allowed 40 stolen bases. That’s first-most. That’s more than the Indians. That’s more than the Royals. Runners have been unsuccessful just four times in 44 attempts. Noah Syndergaard does a lot of things right, but when it comes to controlling his baserunners, he’s got a real problem.

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Yasmany Tomas Is Finally Pulling the Ball in the Air

A poor base-runner and fielder who strikes out a lot and also doesn’t walk much needs to have a batting average like Tony Gwynn — or otherwise hit for a ton of power — to be a worthwhile player. This is the plight of Yasmany Tomas. He doesn’t run well and plays poor defense at one of the less challenging positions. He strikes out in a quarter of his plate appearances while walking just once every 20 times up. Expecting a Tony Gwynn batting average is impossible, and, up until a few weeks ago, Tomas wasn’t bringing much power either. The entire package rendered him a replacement-level player at best.

With eight home runs in the last ten games, however — and 12 in the last 19 games — Tomas is providing a glimmer of hope that he will not be a $68.5-million bust since signing with Arizona Diamondbacks before last season.

In 2015, Tomas parlayed an elevated .354 BABIP into just a .273 average, due largely to the strikeouts. The lack of walks led to an on-base percentage of only .305 on the season. He didn’t bring much power either, recording only nine home runs and a .128 ISO. The final product: an 88 wRC+ and -1.3 (that’s negative 1.3) WAR. Tomas got off to a good early start last season by taking the ball the other way. Of course, doing so muted his best tool, which was — and remains — his raw power. Out of the 211 hitters last season who recorded at least 400 plate appearances, Tomas’ 31.7% pull rate was 192nd, just ahead of Alcides Escobar. Outside of great all-around hitters like Ryan Braun and Paul Goldschmidt, the hitters around that range consist mostly of speedy, slap-happy type hitters. Not the type of company Tomas would want to keep, in other words.

Compounding Tomas’ pull problems last season was his inability to get the ball in the air. Tomas’ 54.9% ground-ball rate was 12th highest in MLB last season, and his 23.2% fly-ball rate was 15th lowest. Again, those numbers are more common among slap hitters who lack Tomas’ raw power. His problems last season were evident in his spray chart, seen below.

chart (13)

Note, on the pull side, how there’s roughly one black dot (home run) for every two blue dots (fly balls in the outfield). If he could pull the ball in the air, there was a decent chance — again, with his raw power — that Tomas would be able to hit it out. But the changes were few and far between. Tomas recorded a total of 297 batted balls last season but pulled just 94 of them (31.6%). Of those, only 17 (18.1%) were fly balls. Twenty-four percent of his pulled fly balls left the park, but because he gave himself so few opportunities, his power numbers were weak.

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Team Ball-in-Play Analysis: AL Central

Our series of divisional team BIP analyses rolls on. Most recently, we examined the NL East. Today, the AL Central. We’ll use granular data such as plate-appearance frequencies and BIP exit speed/angle as of the All-Star break to project “true-talent” club records.

About 90 games’ worth of balls in play is a fairly substantial sample size, one that enables us to make fairly educated guesses about the true-talent level of each team. We’ll compare our projections to club’s actual records at the break, examining the reasons for material variation along the way. Read the rest of this entry »


Pitchers Have Taken Notice of Mookie Betts

It’s been pretty much impossible to ignore what Mookie Betts has been up to. I know that FanGraphs has been rather pro-Betts from the beginning, but even we didn’t think he was likely to hit for this much power. So, he’s exceeding everyone’s expectations, on the way to becoming a legitimate candidate for the league MVP. Dave has written about Betts plenty. He just wrote about him the other day, in fact. And there’s one thing Dave has pointed to a few times: Pitchers should probably change the way they’re pitching. They look at Betts and see a little guy, so they’ve peppered the zone. Results would suggest they should attack with greater caution.

Even now, Betts still sees a lot of strikes. That much, there’s no denying, and any downward trend has been gradual. Maybe that’s going to prove to be a lagging indicator — maybe we shouldn’t expect the zone rate to plummet until 2017. But an adjustment has taken place. It’s been quiet, and it hasn’t even worked out to this point, but pitchers have caught on to the fact that Betts represents a hell of a threat in the box.

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The Best Year at Second Base… Ever

The group of young shortstops emerging in major-league baseball has gotten a lot of deserved attention, with Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Corey Seager — all 23 or under — potentially ushering in a renaissance at the position. Third base gets a lot of attention, too, offering a combination both of young stars (like Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, and Manny Machado) and the American League’s most recent MVP (in Josh Donaldson). Historically, second basemen tend to generate less attention — perhaps because players often end up at second only when they appear unable to adequately handle shortstop or lack the size to play third. This season, however, second basemen have turned the tables and are having quite possibly the best collective season ever at that position

Second basemen have not typically been responsible for great offensive seasons as a group. Last year, Wendy Thurm looked at offense by position throughout history. Second basemen, Thurm found, have generally hovered around the low-90s when it comes to wRC+, easily below average. The graph below shows the league-average wRC+ for second basemen over the past 50 years, including this one.

Screenshot 2016-08-17 at 12.31.16 PM

Second base has rarely reached (or crossed) the 95-wRC+ threshold. This season, however, they’ve produced a 101 wRC+ on the season. We can go back further and the trend continues. In the last 100 years, the only time second basemen have recorded a collective mark above 100 wRC+ is 1924, the year Rogers Hornsby hit .424/.507/.696 and accounted for more than 5% of second-base plate appearances. With Hornsby, second basemen produced a collective 103 wRC+; without him, it would have been 96 on the season. This year’s top second baseman, Jose Altuve, has recorded an impressive 167 wRC+ is impressive, but that figure doesn’t have nearly the same impact as Hornsby’s did in the 1920s.

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Max Pentecost: A Jays Prospect Shoulders Multiple Surgeries

On May 12, Max Pentecost played his first game in nearly two years. Drafted 11th overall in 2014 by the Blue Jays out of Kennesaw State, the right-handed-hitting catcher was just 25 games into his professional career when he was shelved with a shoulder problem. It took three surgeries to get him back on the field.

A lot of head-scratching was involved. Pentecost went under the knife for a second time last spring — the initial surgery having failed to alleviate the pain — and once again the results were insufficient. His throwing shoulder still ached, and no one could explain why.

The a-ha moment came when a member of Toronto’s medical staff attended a talk by Dr. Craig Morgan, an orthopedic surgeon who had operated on Curt Schilling’s shoulder. The symptoms Morgan described were markedly similar to what Pentecost had been experiencing. An MRI followed, and soon thereafter Pentecost was undergoing yet another surgical procedure, this one a subacromial decompression. Based on early results, it appears to have done the trick.

Hurdles remain. The 23-year-old former first-rounder is getting closer to full strength, but he’s yet to return behind the plate. The Blue Jays have limited him to DH duties, which means he has some catching up to do defensively. Offense hasn’t been a problem. In 267 plate appearances for the low-A Lansing Lugnuts. Pentecost has slashed a lusty .314/.375/.490 with seven home runs.

His next at-bats will come with Dunedin. Pentecost has already reported to Toronto’s High-A affiliate and will be activated once he’s fully recovered from a minor injury unrelated to his thrice-surgically-repaired shoulder.

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Pentecost on his third shoulder surgery: “A lot has gone into it and I still don’t really know what was in there. We don’t know for certain if that was the original injury or if it was something caused by having pretty much a newly structured shoulder. But something was wrong and we got it fixed. So far it’s helped a lot, and hopefully my shoulder continues to get better.

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The So-Far Disastrous Crop of 2016 Free Agents

Let’s go back in time nine months. Fresh off the Royals World Series victory, MLB teams were making plans for how to reshape their teams for 2016. And for many of those teams, those plans included making a run at one of the many quality players available in free agency. After some years of slim pickings on the open market, there was suddenly a pretty terrific crop of players available to sign, with the market being especially deep in starting pitching and outfielders. And with teams flush with cash, a lot of players changed teams this winter, getting big paychecks in the process.

Seven players signed deals worth at least $100 million in guaranteed salaries. Eight players signed contracts that gave them the right to opt-out of their deal at some point and re-enter the free agent market if their value goes up. Middle relievers and bench players made multi-year deals a standard for players who used to have to go year to year. This past winter was, by any definition, a league-wide spending spree.

But as we approach the end of the first year of these contracts, there seems to be one developing theme; the teams that spent the most money in free agency probably wish they hadn’t.

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Imagining the All-World Defense Team

The Cubs have had baseball’s best defense this season. They rank first in Defensive Runs Saved, with 58 runs above average, giving them a 10-run lead over the second-place Houston Astros. They rank first in Ultimate Zone Rating, with 50 runs saved, giving them a 15-run lead over the second-place Toronto Blue Jays. They’re turning a historically high number of balls in play into outs, and while a number of factors influence a team’s BABIP, Chicago’s elite defense is among the most important.

We’ve seen what a truly elite defense can do for a mediocre pitching staff over the past couple years, with the Kansas City Royals. We’re seeing what a truly elite defense can do with a great pitching staff right now, with the Chicago Cubs. But, while the 2013 Royals had the best defense on record during the current 14-year era of advanced defensive metrics, it’s not like that team reached the ceiling of what a defense can be. That team wasn’t built by a mad-scientist general manager whose only goal for the season was to experiment with the upper bounds of defensive performance. It was just a really, really good defense. I’d like to play the role of that mad-scientist general manager for a second, based off this chat question I received on Tuesday:

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 2.49.21 PM

Apologies to Joe for making you wait. Hopefully you understand that your question was a bit complex for an instantaneous chat-room response. I’d like to think that your excellent question being rewarded with a full article makes up for the delay.

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Projecting Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves Cornerstone

Last night, Dansby Swanson, 2015’s first overall pick, debuted for the Atlanta Braves. After destroying High-A pitching to the tune of .333/.441/.562 in April, Swanson spent 84 games at the Double-A level. He hit a less exciting, but still respectable .261/.342/.411 at the latter stop.

During his brief stay in the minors, Swanson didn’t stand out in any particular area offensively, but was better than average across the board. He posted a healthy 11% walk rate this season, a .151 ISO, and made enough contact (recording an 18% strikeout rate) for it not to be a concern. Even his 13 steals indicate a guy who’s fast, if not exceptionally fast.

Swanson is a good hitter, but his bat alone doesn’t make him a particularly exciting prospect. What really sets him apart is that he’s a good hitter who also happens to play a mean shortstop. Eric Longenhagen noted yesterday that he thinks Swanson will be a plus defender at short. The data support that observation. In just 105 minor-league games at short this year, he’s been a +19 defender according to Clay Davenport’s model.

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There Simply Isn’t an AL Cy Young Frontrunner

When I started researching a post about the American League Cy Young Award, I was prepared to make a case in favor of Chris Sale. I know you’re not always supposed to go into these things with an outcome in mind, but, look! The rest of this post proves I wasn’t too biased. When I got a little into the work, I started imagining a somewhat contrarian argument in favor of Danny Duffy. That turned into my pursuit, until I became more convinced to support Corey Kluber. I was just about ready to begin a draft. Then I told myself, no, look at the numbers. The favorite should be Aaron Sanchez. I’ve assembled cases for all these guys. A few more, too. Start to finish, this wasn’t supposed to take more than a couple hours.

I wish I could give you something better. I wish I could give you a reason to lean toward one name. Truth be told, there are plenty of those reasons, but many of them point toward different names. It’s the middle of August right now, and there’s roughly a quarter of the season left. That’s going to settle the Cy Young race, because at least as far as I can see it, right now there’s just a multi-way tie.

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Kevin Kiermaier’s Got a New Plan

Kevin Kiermaier missed a good chunk of the season after breaking his glove hand in late May, and that’s a shame, because when Kiermaier is in the field, he’s among the most exciting players in baseball. Kiermaier is must-see television with a glove in his hand. Decidedly less so at the plate. He’s been roughly a league-average hitter through 1,100 career plate appearances, and so it’s understandable that when we’re paying attention to Kiermaier, it’s usually for his defense.

But I want to flip the script for a minute. The Rays are bad, and Kiermaier missed time, and we’re usually paying attention to the defense, so this may have been easy to miss, but Kiermaier’s undergone some rather radical changes at the plate, relative to last season. Cutting to the chase:

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