Archive for Rays

Alex Cobb on Rekindling a Relationship with His Split

Two weeks ago, Eno Sarris wrote about how Alex Cobb’s split-change has gone missing. The Tampa Bay Rays righty had a very good one before undergoing Tommy John surgery in May of 2015, but the arduous road back extracted a heavy toll. The changeup is a feel pitch, and — cue up some Righteous Brothers blue-eyed soul — Cobb lost that loving feeling.

Fortunately for the 29-year-old hurler, it’s not gone, gone, gone. As a matter of fact, his relationship with his signature offering is already being rekindled. Cobb threw his split-change just 10 times in the game about which Eno wrote. In ensuing outings that number has climbed to 13, and most recently to 23.

I haven’t spoken to Cobb since he last pitched, but I did talk to him after he faced Boston on April 16. That was the game where he threw 13 split-changes, along with 36 curveballs and 44 fastballs. He wasn’t particularly pleased with his performance, but he was thinking positive thoughts. Rather than feeling forlorn, he was looking forward to an inevitable reunion with a pitch he holds dear to his heart.

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Cobb on why his changeup went missing: “If I had that answer, it would be here. But I do have ideas. Going into Tommy John surgery, you hear that the overall feel of pitches comes back slowly, and the changeup is usually the last one to come back.

“It has nothing to do with [flexor-group muscles, as Eno theorized]. I feel completely normal. When people say ‘feel on a pitch’ — especially a changeup — it’s usually a mechanical thing. Feel isn’t what the ball feels like. It’s not a literal term. It’s the way your body feels, in rhythm, over the rubber. We’re talking about inches, even fractions of inches, of changes that impact the flight of the ball.

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Coaching Matt Bush

Once someone who’s erred has done his time, apologized, and satisfied society institutionally, there’s the matter of going on with life. This is true with every crime, however horrible, and the things Matt Bush did were horrible. He’s served his time — 39 months — and hopes we can forgive him. But that’s almost of secondary concern to him, at this point: life, and living, remains.

And Matt Bush, now perhaps the closer for the Texas Rangers, is doing his best to be a good baseball player because that’s the path in front of him. He believes any success he experiences in that role is due to the help he’s gotten. “Our pitching coaches are great, man, really great,” he suggested multiple times in our talk before a game against the Athletics this week.

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Steven Souza, Jr. Is Showing Signs of Coming Into His Own

Steven Souza, Jr. is showing signs he might be ready to break out. Fourteen games are far too few to make any determinations, but the numbers are promising. The Tampa Bay Rays slugger is slashing .320/.424/.520, and six of his 16 safeties have gone for extra bases. Every bit as notable is the fact that he’s drawn nine free passes, and fanned just 13 times, in 59 plate appearances.

Power has never been a problem for the 27-year-old Souza. Making consistent contact has. Coming into the season, he was a .234/.309/.404 hitter with a propensity for being punched out. All of a sudden, he’s the one doing the punching.

When I asked Souza why he’s gotten off to such a good start, he offered a fairly generic answer.

“I really don’t know,” Souza told me on Saturday. “Right now I’m just running into some balls, finding some holes, finding the barrel. I don’t get too caught up in the analytics stuff. I’m a guy who can’t overthink things, so I just try to keep it simple. Right now the ball is falling for me.”

For a baseball reporter, “I just try to keep it simple” is a commonly heard phrase. It’s an honest answer, but at the same time, a more concrete reason is often lurking behind the facade. Souza is hitting the ball harder than ever before — at least in terms of big-league success — and simplicity is rarely a new concept for a professional athlete.

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Logan Morrison on Thinking (But Not Too Much) About Hitting

Logan Morrison is older and wiser, and he’s off to a strong start this season with the Tampa Bay Rays. Over 46 plate appearances (including this morning’s game), the 29-year-old first baseman is slashing a healthy .302/.348/.535, with three round trippers. Thanks in part to a grand salami and a .350 batting average with runners on base, he’s tied for the team lead in RBI, with 10.

He’s still colorful. Morrison has long been good with a quip, and while his hitting approach has matured, his personality remains engagingly offbeat. That’s good new for scribes and fans alike — everyone loves a snappy quote — and LoMo supplied several when I spoke to him over the weekend.

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Morrison on his career thus far: “I’d say I’ve had some ups and downs. There have been some speed bumps along the road, but I’m still here. They’re trying to get me out, but I’m still here.

“I was 22 years old when I got called up. I didn’t know [crap] about anything I was doing. I thought I did. I thought I had it all figured out, and I actually did pretty well that first half-season. I carried it over into the next year, too, but then I got hurt and got off the tracks a little bit. Then I got hurt again. I had to have another surgery on the same leg.

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Where Did Alex Cobb’s Changeup Go?

Alex Cobb once had a power changeup so nasty we gave it a nickname. The Thing even had progeny: Cobb taught the grip to Jake Odorizzi, and Thing Two is now the latter pitcher’s best secondary pitch.

Likely the product of what appears to be an organization-wide focus on the changeup, Thing One was an impressive pitch. Unfortunately, it’s gone. At least for now. For the moment, it doesn’t resemble what it used to be, and Cobb is using it less and less often with each start. The weird part is, Cobb might still be okay, anyway.

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Mallex Smith: Bunt Machine in the Making

The Tampa Bay Rays had 12 bunt hits in 2016, with Kevin Kiermaier’s four leading the way. Expect Mallex Smith to surpass both of those numbers this season — not just the individual mark, but the team total, as well. The 23-year-old speedster already has one in the books, and if all goes to plan, more are on the way.

Mallex Smith is a bunt machine in the making. That’s not a pejorative. The kill-the-bunt crowd isn’t off base, but their primary target is the out-surrendering sacrifice. Smith’s aim is to reach safely, and to then wreak havoc once he’s on. There’s no questioning his ability to do the latter. Smith led the minors with 88 steals in 2014 (as MLB.com’s Jim Callis sagely predicted he would), and he’s a perfect three-for-three since donning a Tampa Bay uniform.

Acquired over the offseason — he went from Atlanta to Seattle to Tampa on January 11 — Smith isn’t conventional in a modern-day sense. Launch angles and exit velocity are in vogue, and the 5-foot-9 outfielder is all about electricity. He fashions himself a jackrabbit, which is exactly how his first-base coach sees him.

“Mallex is a very dynamic athlete who can do things you don’t see a lot on a baseball field these days,” opined Rocco Baldelli, who as a player was dubbed The Woonsocket Rocket. “There just aren’t a lot of players that fit that sort of speedy, athletic profile in 2017. He really endears himself to that role. He knows what he is as a player.”

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Is Chris Archer’s Changeup Taking the David Price Path?

While pitcher wins and losses have been abandoned by many as a means to assess a pitcher’s effectively, the traditional measurement of performance from a bygone era is still attached to every pitcher in the game. And even though pitchers have limited control over the ability to win and lose games, Chris Archer’s 19 losses last season do tell a story. They tell a tale of frustration, of an uneven campaign, and of poor luck on balls in play (and out of play) even as his underlying skills and fielding-independent numbers were suggestive of a pitcher who deserved a better fate.

Despite Archer’s 27.4% strikeout rate and the 19.5-point differential between his strikeout and walk rates (K-BB%), the Rays still managed to lose 23 of the 33 games Archer started.

But his Opening Day start against the Yankees suggested that Archer might be poised not only to bounce back by traditional measurements, but that he might be ready to leap to a new level of underlying performance thanks to an improved pitch.

After working as a top-of-the rotation arm mostly via a fastball-slider combo, Archer might have a new important variable for opponents to consider: an improved changeup.

Archer threw 13 changeups in the season opener versus the Yankees, and many of them were of the fading-, diving-, bat-missing, lefty-neutralizing variety.

An Archer change against Jacoby Ellsbury

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My Favorite Reliever of the Month

Here’s an excerpted note from the top of a FanGraphs player page you’ve presumably never visited:

RotoWire News: Pruitt has made the Opening Day roster for Tampa Bay, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reports. (3/30/2017)

Here’s Topkin, writing a little about Pruitt. Here’s Bill Chastain, also writing a little about Pruitt. I should tell you that the specific Pruitt here is Austin Pruitt, who is a 27-year-old right-handed pitcher. A quote from the team:

“We’ve got unique situations where guys can provide lengthier innings,” [manager Kevin] Cash said. “I think looking at it, Austin will be used as a multi-inning [guy]. But those multi-inning roles could come in a 2-1 ballgame. We wouldn’t hesitate to do that with him.”

Pruitt has been a starter, in the minors. He’s about to be a reliever. A particular kind of reliever, a kind of reliever that might be becoming increasingly prevalent. I like Austin Pruitt a lot, and so, allow me to try to sell you on him.

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Top 31 Prospects: Tampa Bay Rays

Below is an analysis of the prospects in the Tampa Bay Rays farm system. Scouting reports are compiled with information provided by industry sources as well as from my own observations. The KATOH statistical projections, probable-outcome graphs, and (further down) Mahalanobis comps have been provided by Chris Mitchell. For more information on the 20-80 scouting scale by which all of my prospect content is governed you can click here. For further explanation of the merits and drawbacks of Future Value, read this. -Eric Longenhagen

The KATOH projection system uses minor-league data and Baseball America prospect rankings to forecast future performance in the major leagues. For each player, KATOH produces a WAR forecast for his first six years in the major leagues. There are drawbacks to scouting the stat line, so take these projections with a grain of salt. Due to their purely objective nature, the projections here can be useful in identifying prospects who might be overlooked or overrated. Due to sample-size concerns, only players with at least 200 minor-league plate appearances or batters faced last season have received projections. -Chris Mitchell

Other Lists
NL West (ARI, COL, LAD, SD, SF)
AL Central (CHW, CLE, DET, KC, MIN)
NL Central (CHC, CIN, PIT, MIL, StL)
NL East (ATL, MIA, NYM, PHI, WAS)
AL East (BAL, BOSNYY, TB, TOR)

Rays Top Prospects
Rk Name Age Highest Level Position ETA FV
1 Willy Adames 21 AA SS 2018 60
2 Brent Honeywell 21 AA RHP 2018 55
3 Jose DeLeon 24 MLB RHP 2016 55
4 Jesus Sanchez 19 R OF 2020 50
5 Jake Bauers 21 AA 1B 2018 45
6 Josh Lowe 19 R CF 2021 45
7 Chih-Wei Hu 23 AAA RHP 2018 45
8 Lucius Fox 19 A SS 2021 45
9 Casey Gillaspie 24 AAA 1B 2017 45
10 Adrian Rondon 18 R 3B 2021 45
11 Garrett Whitley 20 A- OF 2021 45
12 Daniel Robertson 23 AAA UTIL 2017 40
13 Austin Franklin 19 R RHP 2021 40
14 Justin Williams 21 AA OF 2019 40
15 Jacob Faria 23 AAA RHP 2017 40
16 Ryne Stanek 25 AAA RHP 2017 40
17 Jake Fraley 21 A- OF 2019 40
18 Diego Castillo 23 R RHP 2017 40
19 Chris Betts 20 A- C 2020 40
20 Resly Linares 19 R LHP 2020 40
21 Michael Santos 21 A RHP 2019 40
22 Kevin Padlo 20 A 3B 2020 40
23 Taylor Guerrieri 24 AA RHP 2017 40
24 Hunter Wood 23 AA RHP 2017 40
25 Jaime Schultz 25 AAA RHP 2017 40
26 Greg Harris 22 AAA RHP 2018 40
27 David Rodriguez 21 R C 2019 40
28 Jose Alvarado 21 A+ LHP 2017 40
29 Brandon Koch 23 R RHP 2018 40
30 Ryan Boldt 22 A- CF 2019 40
31 Jhonleider Salinas 21 R RHP 2020 40

60 FV Prospects

Signed: July 2nd Period, 2012 from Dominican Republic
Age 21 Height 6’1 Weight 180 Bat/Throw R/R
Tool Grades (Present/Future)
Hit Raw Power Game Power Run Fielding Throw
40/55 55/60 40/55 45/40 40/45 60/60

Relevant/Interesting Metrics
Slashed .270/.370/.430 as a 20-year-old at Double-A.

Scouting Report
The barrel-chested Adames might ordinarily project to move off shortstop given his build, but it seems to me that Tampa has a rather liberal organizational philosophy about what constitutes a viable defensive shortstop and Adames isn’t going to be any more offensive there than aging Asdrubal Cabrera and Yunel Escobar have been in recent years.

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The Rays Have the League’s Best Outfield Defense

The Rays just traded for Peter Bourjos, a soon-to-be 30-year-old worth zero WAR over the past two seasons. The Rays are giving up basically nothing, because just a couple months ago, Bourjos signed a minor-league contract with a go-nowhere team. You don’t want to read a blog post about Peter Bourjos. I don’t want to write a blog post about Peter Bourjos. But he’s one part of a bigger-picture collection — the Rays are assembling another fantastic outfield.

Another fantastic defensive outfield, I should say. Heaven knows if Bourjos is going to actually hit. As you know, it all begins with Kevin Kiermaier, who might be the best defensive outfielder in the world. And the Rays are no strangers to having good defense out there; they were fifth by both DRS and UZR last season, and they were first by both measures the season before. Kiermaier is good enough to carry a group by himself. This year, though, he won’t have to do that.

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You Actually Will Believe Who Signed Derek Norris

Earlier this offseason, the Rays signed the player who served as last year’s starting catcher for the Washington Nationals, Wilson Ramos. Ramos & Co. produced 4.4 WAR from the catcher spot last season for the Nats, the position’s second-most production.

Over the weekend, the Rays reportedly agreed to terms with Derek Norris, a player with whom the Nationals recently cut ties for an arguably inferior catcherMatt Wieters. (Wieters projects to produce 0.7 bWARP — a metric that includes framing value — in 2017, Norris 1.1 bWARP.) As to why Washington might make such a curious decision, there are a number of theories. One possible explanation, however, is the relative chumminess of Wieters’ agent with Nationals ownership.

So, in summary, the Rays now have the Nationals’ starting catcher from a year ago, and one of Nats’ top replacement options for Ramos as recently as a month ago.

The Rays’ interest in Norris was one of the more seemingly inevitable news items in recent weeks, as the devoutly analytical club otherwise appeared ready to enter the season with only inexperienced catchers — a combination of Curt Casali, Luke Maile and Jesus Sucre — from which to choose as they patiently wait for Ramos to return from the torn ACL he suffered last September.

Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reports that the one-year deal is worth “less than $2 million.”

Writes Topkin:

Signing Norris gives the Rays a more experienced option behind the plate …. Norris has made 446 big-league starts for Oakland and San Diego, Casali has made 116, Sucre 77 and Maile 43.

He chose the Rays over several other teams based on the opportunity for more playing time.

Perhaps the signing also speaks to the team becoming more conservative — or pessimistic, perhaps — regarding Ramos’s timetable to return behind the plate. MLB.com reported last month that Ramos might not be able to catch until August.

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Kevin Kiermaier and the Continuing Problem of Arbitration

Back in 2010, the Rays used their 31st round draft pick on a right fielder from Parkland College, a JC that hadn’t produced a Major Leaguer since Juan Acevedo, who was drafted in 1992. This particular pick was the 941st selection in that draft, and no player taken 941st overall had ever made the majors. The Rays offered just a $75,000 signing bonus, as expectations for the long-term value received by a 31st-round pick are generally not very high.

That bit of context is important to keep in mind when reading that Kevin Kiermaier, that long-shot prospect Tampa selected seven years ago, just signed away the likely remainder of his productive years for $53.5 million in guaranteed money. At a time when many of the best young players in baseball have eschewed the early-career extensions that the previous of generation of stars signed up for, Kiermaier’s context helps explain why he’d sign a deal that will, more likely than not, cost him money down the road.

By signing a six year contract that likely includes an option for a seventh year — the Rays generally don’t sign long-term extensions that don’t include team options — Kiermaier is agreeing to sell his first three free agent years in exchange for a significant guaranteed income stream right now. And given that he didn’t get a big signing bonus and has made close to the league minimum in his first few years in the majors, this is legitimately life-changing money for him. Even after taxes and agent fees, he’s now going to bank at least $30 million during his big league career, allowing him to retire comfortably whenever he’s done playing.

For a guy who wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school, wasn’t even considered the best prospect on his JC team — Baseball America put RHP Danny Winkler ahead of him on the Illinios state draft preview — and was never considered any kind of top prospect, it’s probably not easy to turn down this kind of money. But while Kiermaier is probably happy to know he can play most of his career with the same team and retire a rich man, this is the kind of contract that should incentivize the MLBPA to fight for a total overhaul of the arbitration system.

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The Power of Pitch “Lineage”

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – When we think about Tampa Bay Rays pitching over the last decade, the image of opposing hitters flailing helplessly over the top of changeups — offerings with velocity separation and depth — is likely one of the first to come to mind. That’s what comes to my mind. I think about hitters whiffing at Rays’ changeups, even on occasions when they’ve anticipated the pitch. I think about pitchers who have possessed pedestrian velocity and breaking stuff, who may not might have otherwise had much of a major-league career without the pitch. I think about a pitcher like James Shields, a founding father of the Rays’ changeup philosophy and track record.

Since 2010, the Rays lead baseball in runs produced above average by means of the changeup, according to FanGraphs pitch-type linear weight (174.8). The next closest club is the Mariners with a mark of 108.0. The Rays lead baseball in changeup usage (14.7%) since 2010, as well.

When I traveled to Rays camp last week to write about the Rays’ high-fastball philosophy, I also wanted to ask longtime Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey about the club’s changeup philosophy. My assumption was that Rays coaches teach the pitch well, that it’s part of an organizational philosophy. And while Hickey and the Rays value the pitch, he said philosophy alone doesn’t explain the club’s success with the pitch from pitchers like Shields and David Price, to Alex Cobb and now Jake Odorizzi.

“It’s not so much a philosophy as it is a lineage,” Hickey said.

Hickey said what explains the club’s success with the pitch isn’t so much a product of organizational philosophy, or coaching, as it is the result of pitchers with effective changeup grips passing along their craft to teammates.

“James Shields was arguably the best pitcher I had at the time [when Hickey arrived in 2006], and what Shields had was a really, really good changeup. And without the changeup he’s probably a major-league pitcher, but he’s not a 10-year, 225-innings-a-year guy,” Hickey said. “And here comes a guy like Jeremy Hellickson, who, without his changeup, is a pretty good minor-league pitcher. What happens is guys start to mimic each other. When David Price came in, he didn’t even possess a changeup. He threw a four-seam fastball and a slider. He’s watching Shields do his thing. He’s learning a changeup. He comes back with a pretty good changeup. Just like with Cobb and Odorizzi. They kind of mimic each other and teach each other.”

And for that reason, perhaps clubs should place a premium on pitchers who possess elite pitches and are able to share and articulate their grips and practices.

Pitchers also know each other’s stories. Shields credited the changeup with saving his career, according Joe Smith to of the Tampa Bay Times:

When he “lost” his curveball in the minors, he lived off his changeup, a pitch he said can be easier to throw for a strike than a breaking ball. In one minor-league game, Shields remembers 65 of his 85 pitches were changeups. “At that point I was on the brink of release,” he said. “I was trying to do anything to be successful.”

Eno Sarris has documented the changeup grips of Cobb and Odorizzi, and it was to Cobb where Odorizzi turned when looking to add another pitch. He had struggled with more conventional changeup grips in the past. Cobb has an unusual split-changeup grip. As AL East batters know well, the pitch has excellent depth and movement.

“I could just never take enough off a changeup,” Odorizzi said. “The grips never allowed me to have that separation. So I go and try [Cobb’s grip] through a normal arm speed, and it was more about movement than speed differential. Sometimes it’s 5-6 mph differential… I need the movement.”

Owen Watson wrote about the evolution of Price’s changeup last offseason.

The Rays have handed down elite changeup grips and philosophy from one rotation arm to the next. While there was a dip in the club’s effectiveness with the pitch the last two seasons — in part because of Cobb’s injury — Rays’ pitchers have generally become more effective with the pitch since Shields arrived at the major-league level. Even after the departure of an arm like Shields, the changeup forebear who was traded after the 2012 season, the Rays have continued to changeup well:

Now, of course, Rays coaches and officials certainly encourage use of the pitch. They’ve identified pitchers with plus changeups to acquire like Jose De Leon.

“I’ve always been a huge advocate of changeups,” Hickey said. “I like changeups because it’s the easiest pitch to throw in the strike zone [amongst] non-fastballs. If you have a nasty curveball, that’s great. But if it gets to a 3-1 count, and the bases are loaded, and you don’t want to walk that guy in, you are probably not snapping off a hook. Hellickson is a great example. I remember one time it was bases loaded, it was 3-1, and he threw three consecutive changeups and struck the guy out. That’s why I like it.”

Here’s another example of Hellickson throwing a full-count changeup with the bases loaded back in 2012:

“When I personally became a huge advocate of the changeup is when the strike zone shrunk. I really think the strike zone shrunk after Camden Yards opened, and the PED era, and everybody is hitting 50 home runs,” Hickey said. “We used to joke you had to throw it in a damn shoebox. You couldn’t do that with a lot of offspeed stuff. You don’t see a lot of fastball-curveball starters. It was fastball-changeup-slider starters.”

And while the strike zone grew every year from 2008 to -15 according to PITCHf/x data, it shrunk last season.

“Another reason I’m a big advocate of it is there is nothing to identify it,” Hickey said. “A curveball might have a little hump to it, have some spin to it, a slider might have some spin to it.”

Hickey also believe it is the “easiest pitch to physically teach.”

And the Rays pitchers have taught the pitch to each other as well as any club in the sport. It makes their story less about an organizational philosophy, and more about the importance of handing down a skill from one generation to the next, having a master craftsman teach an apprentice.


Tampa Bay’s Cult of the High Fastball

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – When Jake Odorizzi arrived to the Rays’ spring headquarters in February of 2013 following Tampa Bay’s trade of James Shields to Kansas City, he was summoned into a conference room at the Rays spring training facility, which rests in a rural and remote part of southwestern Florida. Present in a conference room were then-general manager Andrew Friedman and pitching coach Jim Hickey among others. Odorizzi remembered the meeting was informal and relaxed, but there was an important message presented, one Odorizzi had never heard in his professional career.

“They said ‘We like what you do. We like your stuff,” Odorizzi recalled to FanGraphs in the Rays’ clubhouse last week.

For years, Odorizzi had heard from coaches and others in the Kansas City and Milwaukee organizations that he needed to make significant changes to his pitching philosophy. Odorizzi felt his fastball played better in the upper reaches of the strike zone, but the Brewers, who selected Odorizzi with the 32nd overall pick in the 2008 draft, and later the Royals — where Odorizzi was traded as part of the package for Zack Greinke — informed Odorizzi he must pitch in the lower part of the zone.

“When I was with Milwaukee early on, and with Kansas City in the lower minor levels, I was never really a lower-in-the-zone type of guy,” Odorizzi said. “When I was in Milwaukee, they kind of told me in a roundabout way ‘Well, if you don’t learn to pitch down in the zone, you’ll never make it to the big leagues.’ This was in 2008, 2009 which was, shoot, nearly 10 years ago. Pitching up in the zone consistently, purposefully, was unheard of. You pitch down in the zone, you get ground balls. I could pitch down in the zone, but I had more conviction when I did not consciously think about it and let [the fastball] do its own thing, let it take off a little bit.

“It was comforting for me to finally have an organization [the Rays] say ‘We like what you’re doing.’”

Odorizzi is an interesting pitcher at an interesting point in time. In recent years, the ground ball, and pitching down in the zone, has become more and more valued as shifts have increased dramatically and proliferated, as teams try and better avoid extra-base hits. The top five ground-ball seasons on record at FanGraphs have all been posted in the past five seasons. But the philosophy has become so common that hitters like Josh Donaldson and J.D. Martinez have begun to adjust and preach a get-the-ball-in-the-air philosophy, which can be an effective counter-punch to the popular two-seam pitching approach.

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The High-Fastballingest Team in the League

The quick background: Travis Sawchik talked with J.D. Martinez about his fly-ball-oriented approach, and at one point Martinez said opponents were making adjustments to him. The player himself didn’t want to go into specifics, but it didn’t take much digging to see that Martinez is vulnerable against pitches up. It’s not something unique to him — I followed that post with this post, talking about the recent home-run spike. League-wide home-run rates skyrocketed against pitches in the lower third of the zone. They also went up against pitches in the middle third of the zone. They didn’t budge at all against pitches in the upper third of the zone.

Which is interesting! It supports the idea that more players have changed their approaches and swings to attack pitches down. Now, unless you’re super-human, you can’t, as a hitter, protect against everything. Fly-ball hitters tend to be vulnerable closer to the belt. There seems to be an ongoing shift toward more fly-ball hitters. This all got me thinking about pitchers who like to elevate. And when we’re talking about elevating, we’re pretty much exclusively talking about fastballs, since you rarely want to elevate the other stuff. You know whose pitchers like to keep their fastballs up? Tampa Bay’s, more than any other team.

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Kevin Kiermaier, Breakout Candidate

Kevin Kiermaier has long been underrated in the mainstream baseball world. He provides value in ways that tend to get overlooked or, at least, receive less attention. You probably know, for example, that Kiermaier is an elite defensive player. You’re probably aware that Kiermaier is an above-average baserunner. You might also know that Kiermaier has recorded a league-average batting line despite having faced the most difficult pitchers and that he owns a pair of piercing green eyes.

The total package is quite valuable. Kiermaier has already produced 13.1 WAR for his career over parts of three major-league seasons. He produced more than five wins in 2015, and per 162 games, he’s a 5.8 WAR/season player for his career.

I’m guessing most in the FanGraphs community consider Kiermaier to be a star. If things go well, everyone else might believe that this year, too.

Yesterday, Baseball Prospectus editor Aaron Gleeman posted some of PECOTA’s top breakout picks for hitters in 2017. Some of them aren’t all that surprising: I think a lot of people suspect there is more in the bats of Byron Buxton and Gregory Polanco and Addison Russell. But one name on the hitters list did jump out at me, and that was Kiermaier’s.

Wrote Gleeman:

WARP has long viewed Kiermaier as one of the most underrated players in baseball and now PECOTA thinks he has a chance to add above-average offense to otherworldly defense. Last season Kiermaier upped his power and plate discipline, but it went largely unnoticed because he hit just .246 and missed two months with a broken hand. If he continues to be plus-20 runs in center field Kiermaier is a star no matter what, but PECOTA sees untapped offensive upside in the 27-year-old. At the 60th percentile he’d reach 6.0 WARP and at the 70th percentile or higher he’d be among the MLB leaders in WARP, combining amazing defense with an .800 OPS.

Kiermaier’s top age-27 PECOTA comp? Vernon Wells. While the older version of Wells wasn’t productive, the 27-year-old version recorded a 128 wRC+ as a center fielder in a six-win campaign.

If Kiermaier goes from being a plus-plus glove and league-average bat, to a player with a plus-plus glove and better-than-average bat, he will be (or should be) near the top of the AL MVP voting. He finished third in bWAR (7.3) in 2015, but 17th in AL MVP voting.

So is this breakout possible? Maybe it’s already happening.

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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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LoMo Returns, Rays Continue Opportunistic Offseason

The Rays are one of the under-the-radar teams that the FanGraphs and PECOTA projection systems forecast to be in the AL Wild Card mix.

As Jeff wrote last month following the Logan Forsythe-for-Jose De Leon deal, the Rays have continued to add years of control and surplus value this offseason. While the Rays do not necessarily need pieces like Mallex Smith and De Leon for 2017, they have moved some of today for more of tomorrow. It’s generally a good practice for a small-market club that must constantly balance the present with the future. I wrote last month that the Rays would be wise to remain opportunistic and fill their second-base void internally and take advantage of the overcorrection against bat-only players that Dave Cameron identified earlier this offseason.

The market has long overpaid one-dimensional power hitters. This, though, feels like more than just a simple market correction. When perfectly useful players on one year deals for $7 million can’t get moved for even a non-prospect, it feels like the pendulum has swung too far the other way. It’s time to jump on this, contenders; these bargains won’t last forever.

And the Rays responded this week by signing one of the remaining such bats in Logan Morrison, who was, of course, with the club last season. There was such a supply of these bat-only, or bat-mostly, players that it caused Eno Sarris to wonder if they would all even find homes this offseason, so we’re happy to report Morrison, Chris Carter and Mike Napoli have all indeed found teams willing to employ them this week.

With their collection of transactions to date this offseason, the Rays have added a quality controllable arm, an interesting outfielder, while losing little, if any, production at second, first and in the rotation. The Rays are quietly one of the offseason’s winners.

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Major League Baseball and Workers’ Comp

Largely overlooked amidst the hoopla surrounding last weekend’s Super Bowl, DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the National Football League Players Association, weighed in on an obscure bill currently working its way through the Illinois state legislature. If enacted into law, the proposed legislation — presently dubbed Illinois Senate Bill 12 — would amend the state’s workers’ compensation laws to decrease the benefits provided to professional athletes who sustain career-ending injuries on the playing field.

This possibility led Smith to threaten that, if Senate Bill 12 were to be signed into law, the NFLPA would officially encourage players to steer clear of signing with the Chicago Bears. As Smith stated over the weekend, “If you’re a free-agent player and you have an opportunity to go play somewhere else… isn’t a smarter financial decision to go to a team where a bill like this hasn’t passed?”

The fact that the NFLPA would take such a public stance against the proposed Illinois legislation raises the question of what potential impact Senate Bill 12 would have on Major League Baseball players, and, more generally, how workers’ compensation laws affect MLB in the first place.

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Another Way Kevin Kiermaier Is Underrated

Kevin Kiermaier is underrated. How do I know? I guess I don’t know, but by and large, Kiermaier is not considered one of the best players in baseball. This despite having performed like one of the best players in baseball. The last three years, by WAR, Kiermaier has been as valuable as Robinson Cano, Andrew McCutchen, and Yoenis Cespedes, all while collecting far fewer plate appearances. Kiermaier is projected to be as valuable as Carlos Correa and Giancarlo Stanton. The numbers are in love, and they paint a certain picture. Kiermaier is presently the most important player on his team.

Being a FanGraphs reader, you at least kind of know what Kiermaier is about. He’s underrated because his standout skill is outfield defense, and he swings a roughly average bat. I’ll say this: Although Kiermaier’s UZRs are extreme, DRS loves him even more. He has a career outfield UZR of +60. He has a career outfield DRS of +81. That would be another two wins, more or less.

So, the major reason Kiermaier’s underrated: His strongest skill is underrated. Beyond that, it doesn’t help him that he’s played for a nationally invisible ballclub. Let me add a third reason. For this part, I’m going to call in Jorge Soler.

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