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The Best of FanGraphs: April 25-29, 2016

by Paul Swydan - 4/30/2016 - Comments (0)

Each week, we publish north of 100 posts on our various blogs. With this post, we hope to highlight 10 to 15 of them. You can read more on it here. The links below are color coded — green for FanGraphs, brown for RotoGraphs, dark red for The Hardball Times and blue for Community Research.

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Sean Manaea Comes to Oakland

by Dan Farnsworth - 4/29/2016 - Comments (1)

As Susan Slusser with the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Wednesday, Sean Manaea will be called up to start Friday’s game in Oakland against Mike Fiers and the Houston Astros. Manaea made a decent case for making the rotation out of spring training, tallying 16 strikeouts in 14.1 innings, but the seven walks allowed over the same period gave the A’s enough reason to start him in Triple-A Nashville.

Across three starts in Nashville, he has been lights out on the mound. Only three runs have crossed the plate against him in 18 innings pitched, while 21 batters have struck out and just four have reached via free passes. That level of performance was enough for Oakland to feel comfortable bringing him up to the majors in lieu of a fourth appearance for the Sounds. But what can we expect from him out of this start, and (presumably) those going forward in an A’s uniform?

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Saying Nice Things About A.J. Pierzynski

by Paul Swydan - 4/29/2016 - Comments (13)

A.J. Pierzynski has played baseball for a very long time. He’s one of the few players to predate not only the PITCHf/x era (2007-present), but also the Baseball Info Solutions era (2002-present). He’s one of just six active players who played in the 1990s — the others are Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, Bartolo Colon, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. They are all well celebrated and beloved players. Pierzynski does not fit in that group.

If you’re familiar with Pierzynski, you likely know that his opponents generally have not been all that fond of him. A Google search for “A.J. Pierzynski hate” turns up plenty of results. Rather than focus on that, I thought it would be fun to find some nice to things to say about Pierzynski.

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Gordon Suspension Magnifies Concerns for League, Players

by Craig Edwards - 4/29/2016 - Comments (58)

Major League Baseball is now in its second decade of testing and suspensions, so we should be past surprises when it comes to the type of players getting caught for using performance-enhancing drugs. The controversy surrounding Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire might have made PEDs famous in baseball, and Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, and Alex Rodriguez have all been suspended by MLB for PED use, but there’s no single type of player using PEDs. Bartolo Colon, Freddy Galvis, and Dee Gordon have all tested positive, as well — Gordon representing the most recent case after testing positive for exogenous testosterone and clostebol. In most cases, a suspension is held up as an example that the system works and that MLB is catching users. Given Gordon’s contract situation, however, that might not be the case here.

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The Slider Moves Differently to Different Locations

by Eno Sarris - 4/29/2016 - Comments (2)

I gave Royals’ right-hander Chris Young a bit of an incredulous look — “You’re throwing the slider a ton this year!” He shrugged. Sure. “It’s okay, you can throw it inside and out, and it’s been good. But it moves a little differently depending on where you throw it.”

Young then mimicked the release point when trying to throw a slider inside to a right-handed hitter, and then he showed where the release point might be when throwing it outside to a right-handed hitter. One was straight to the plate, and the other had more side-to-side finish to it.

If you’ve pitched competitively — or, at least, possess more experience than my own, which is limited to throwing a whiffle ball to my kid while he imitates Julio Franco — this may be old hat to you. But to me, it was surprising and also totally logical at the same time. I immediately wanted to know what this looked like.

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The Unfathomable Reality of a (Temporarily) Awful Joey Votto

by Owen Watson - 4/29/2016 - Comments (11)

It’s always a little dicey writing negative articles. Pointing out deficiencies simply isn’t as fun as pointing out strengths, and there’s something that just feels, well, a little wrong about basing work on something a player is trying so hard to do well. That doesn’t feel like it pertains to this article about Joey Votto, however, mostly because he’s always been extremely good at baseball, and will almost certainly be extremely good at baseball in the near future. Votto has a great contract, an incredible career under his belt, and the prospect of many more wildly successful seasons. The dude is smart and awesome, and we’re simply not too worried about him. However — and the however is important — for really the first time in his career, Votto has been terrible at the plate for almost a full month. That’s at once unbelievable and utterly fascinating, and it’s the reason why we’re here.

So let’s start with a chart. Here’s a readout of Votto’s monthly wRC+ figures since he was called up to the majors in September of 2007. We could have gone with a rolling average, but the monthly delineation gives us a few clear reference points. Mouse over the chart for more information:

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Jeff Sullivan FanGraphs Chat -- 4/29/16

by Jeff Sullivan - 4/29/2016 - Comments (0)

9:10
Jeff Sullivan: Well dammit friends

9:10
Jeff Sullivan: Let’s just baseball chat

9:10
Jeff Sullivan: Hello

9:10
Guest: Jeff, OMG did you fix Chris Archer???

9:11
Jeff Sullivan: Chris Archer didn’t need very much fixing, which helps

9:11
Jeff Sullivan: It’s like trying to fix David Price

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The Goods and Bads of Lorenzo Cain's Struggles

by August Fagerstrom - 4/29/2016 - Comments (8)

Lorenzo Cain has had a rough go of it so far. That much we can say with absolute certainty. Cain’s coming off a seven-win season in which he finished second runner-up — behind Josh Donaldson and Mike Trout — for the American League MVP, and there was also that whole world championship thing. The Royals weren’t — and aren’t — a team built around stars, but if there was a star of last year’s champs, Cain was the guy. It was also something like his breakout season, and while Cain isn’t young at 30 years of age, he’s certainly not old enough that we entered the offseason wondering whether he could sustain most or all of that breakout. Cain was the de facto star, and there was little reason to believe he wouldn’t continue being the de facto star.

Through 20 games of Kansas City’s victory lap, he’s been anything but. The only number you really need to know for now is 64, which is Cain’s wRC+ in 83 plate appearances. It’s a bad number. We know that. The bigger questions are ones like, “Why is the bad bad?” and, “Is there any good in the bad?” and, “Am I being the best version of myself?” We probably won’t get to all of that, but we’re going to try.

Let’s start with a good thing!

A good thing: Lorenzo Cain is walking a bunch! That’s a good thing. Because walks are good, and he’s doing them a lot. It’s not like Cain has just totally lost control of the strike zone and is suddenly going all Josh Hamilton on everything. When Josh Hamilton started going all Josh Hamilton on everything, it was almost like a flip switched and his career was put on hold until further notice. There’s beating yourself, and there’s getting beat. Beat yourself and the opponent doesn’t even have to do any of the work. Cain, at the very least, seems like he’s making pitchers work. This has been one good thing.

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The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

by Carson Cistulli - 4/29/2016 - Comments (11)

The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced a few years ago by the present author, wherein that same author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own fallible intuition to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.

Central to the exercise, of course, is a definition of the word fringe, a term which possesses different connotations for different sorts of readers. For the purposes of the column this year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion in the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above who (a) received a future value grade of 45 or less from lead prospect analyst Dan Farnsworth during the course of his organizational lists and who (b) was omitted from the preseason prospect lists produced by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and John Sickels, and also who (c) is currently absent from a major-league roster. Players appearing on an updated prospect list or, otherwise, selected in the first round of the current season’s amateur draft will also be excluded from eligibility.

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Here Comes Taijuan Walker

by Jeff Sullivan - 4/29/2016 - Comments (14)

You’ve read articles like this before. That’s because Taijuan Walker has been a somebody for years, and we’ve all been waiting for him to kick it up. When you know a player is already hyped, you’re predisposed to think the most of any encouraging performances. It’s a bias, is what it is, leading observers to get ahead of themselves. I think, in the past, it’s been easy to get too excited about Walker. He needed to show more. But that’s why this is a post now. He’s showing more. Taijuan Walker is showing signs that he might be almost complete.

You remember that something seemed to click for Walker toward the end of last May. Through nine starts, he had 23 walks and 39 strikeouts. Through the remaining 20 starts, he had 17 walks and 118 strikeouts. That got people excited, and rightfully so, because those are tremendous indicators of improvement. But something was missing. Something was just a little bit off — over those 20 starts, Walker ran a near-average ERA. He had the strikes, and he had the whiffs, but he didn’t have the contact management. He was tantalizing, but unfinished.

I’m not declaring that Walker now is finished. That’ll take more proof. But Walker, this year, has carried over the walks and the strikeouts. In that sense, he looks exactly the same. Yet he’s allowed just one home run. He’s giving up far less solid contact, having dramatically increased his rate of grounders. Coming in, Walker was missing one thing. It seems he could be finding it.

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Jose Fernandez Has Two Breaking Balls

by Eno Sarris - 4/28/2016 - Comments (11)

Sometimes you just have to ask. Different systems have different answers for the pitching mix that Jose Fernandez brings to the mound each game. So I did ask him. I said, “Do you consider your breaking ball a slider or a curve?” And the Marlins’ righty said, “I got both. I can throw both. I trust them both equally.” It was a group scrum, not the time for a real in-depth thing, but just knowing there are two there can set us on a path.

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The Nationals' Hot Start Has Had Some Help

by Jeff Sullivan - 4/28/2016 - Comments (69)

I feel like I just wrote this recently somewhere, but I guess I’ll write it again. In baseball, people don’t pay too much attention to strength of schedule. In part this is because numbers aren’t easy to come by. In probably larger part, this is because strengths tend to mostly even out. That’s true over full seasons, for sure, but there’s no reason it should be true over smaller samples. Like, here’s a stat for you. Pitchers Aledmys Diaz has faced so far have allowed a combined .877 OPS. Pitchers Brad Miller has faced so far have allowed a combined .653 OPS. Is it any wonder why Diaz is presently out-hitting Miller? That’s an enormous gap, and it isn’t going to remain so enormous.

Let’s turn our attention to the overall standings. By wins and losses, no one has been better than the Cubs. That’s no surprise. They’re even with the White Sox, which is a bigger surprise. Then you find the Nationals. Though they’ve lost a couple in a row, they’re still 14-6, and while we expected the Nationals to be pretty good, we didn’t expect them to be this good. Of course, we’re kind of still waiting for the Nationals to play a major-league opponent.

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Ranking April's Most Dominant Pitching Performances to Date

by Blengino - 4/28/2016 - Comments (6)

It’s almost time to rip the first page from the regular-season calendar, and many players and moments have already left indelible marks that will live on in our memories. From Trevor Story to Kenta Maeda, from the Cubs and Nationals on the good end to the Twins and Astros on the bad, it’s been an exciting ride thus far.

There are a number of dominant pitching performances already in the books, with Jake Arrieta‘s second no-hitter in as many years an obvious highlight. Just a week before his vanquishing of the Reds, the Phils’ Vincent Velasquez and the Cards’ Jaime Garcia unfurled identical game scores of 97 in complete game victories over the Padres and Brewers, respectively. Since it’s still early in the season, and sample sizes remain quite small, let’s use batted-ball data in a more laid-back, fun manner, and attempt to split some hairs among these three gems, and crown one as April’s most impressive pitching performance.

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Pitchers Can't Seem to Get the (A)Led(mys Diaz) Out

by Craig Edwards - 4/28/2016 - Comments (58)

Note: the editor of this post played no part in the composition of its despicable title. All grievances should be directed to the author, Craig Edwards.

Baseball is full of April surprises. Players who come seemingly out of nowhere. Albert Pujols was one such player back in 2001. So was Chris Shelton back in 2005, Devon Travis last year, and Trevor Story already this season. As Trevor Story has seen his production decline, another surprise has risen in the form of Aledmys Diaz, the Cuban-born shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. While many players have come over from Cuba after having received considerable attention and bonus money, Diaz entered baseball in the United States with much less fanfare. Two years after his signing, he is having one the most surprising — and one of the best — starts to a season of all time.

With few exceptions, Cuban players take an unusual route to professional baseball in the State — due, of course, to the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. For Diaz to sign with an MLB team presented difficulties. Under the rules at the time of his defection, players from Cuba who (a) were 23 or older and (b) possessed a certain amount of professional experience, were exempt from international bonus pools. When Diaz entered the country in the middle of 2013, he indicated he was born January 8, 1990 (1/8/1990) which would have made him a free agent exempt from bonus pools. Other documentation contradicted that statement, indicating he was born on August 1, 1990 (8/1/1990). Due to the inaccuracy, MLB prevented him from signing for another six months.

Diaz worked out for many teams, eventually signing with the Cardinals to a four-year, $8 million contract in March. By the time Diaz started playing for the Cardinals, it had been a year since he had played competitive baseball on a regular basis. Diaz hit pretty well in 2014 but, due to injury, played in fewer than 50 games between High-A and Double-A — a result, possibly, of the increased workload after a period away from the game. Diaz then started slowly in 2015 — so slowly, in fact, that the Cardinals decided in July they could put him through waivers and remove him from the 40-man roster ,as they didn’t want to risk doing the same to Pete Kozma. With around $5 million remaining on the contract, there were no takers. Immediately thereafter Diaz started hitting, and he has not stopped.

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Mallex Smith: Atlanta's Speedy Role Model Smells the Roses

by David Laurila - 4/28/2016 - Comments (7)

Mallex Smith is a speed burner. He’s also a big leaguer. Atlanta called up the 22-year-old outfielder earlier this month when Ender Inciarte went on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. He’s off to a slow start — Smith has reached base just 12 times in 50 plate appearances — but a bright future lies ahead. The Braves’ 2015 Minor League Player of the Year is coming off a season in which he slashed .306/.373/.386, with 57 steals, between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett.

A fifth-round pick by the Padres in 2012, Smith was acquired by Atlanta in the December 2014 Justin Upton deal. He talked about his call-up, and his deep appreciation for where baseball has taken him, prior to yesterday’s game at Fenway Park.

———

Smith on getting called up from Triple-A: “I got called into the office and that was just to say, ‘We don’t know.’ They said we had to wait and see. I was told I wasn’t going to play that day, and the reason why. It wasn’t until after the game that it was a definite.

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Eno Sarris Baseball Chat -- 4/28/16

by Eno Sarris - 4/28/2016 - Comments (1)

1:34
Eno Sarris: The game has gone
12:00
Erik: The Phillies are over .500! That must mean they suck at everything, even tanking, right? Are they being decent in any way that’s actually sustainable?
12:01
Eno Sarris: Hey I love their staff, loved it from the beginning. Eickhoff, Nola, Velasquez, Franco… Franco… and eventually JP Crawford! They have some decent pieces and will have some money to spend. Their rebuild won’t take forever.
12:01
George is Curious: Has your opinion of Rich Hill changed any since last week? I sat him for his past two starts and boy did he make me pay for that. And now I see he’s atop the leaderboard for most-improved pitcher projections?
12:03
Eno Sarris: Yeah but, watching it, I don’t get it. He relies on throwing a curveball half the time, and in the zone more than anyone, so to some extent he’s relying on non-swings. Has no fastball command, so there will be games with five or six walks. He’s super risky to me. And I haven’t even gotten into the injury risk.
12:03
Howard: So after spending time with the padres what did you learn about them? Other than the fact that they are going to be terrible this year.

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The Rays' Rotation Has Already Improved

by August Fagerstrom - 4/28/2016 - Comments (8)

It was barely a month ago that we ran our annual positional power rankings series. Perceptions of players and teams ought not to change too much after just a few weeks of baseball, but the neat thing about having projections is around is that they update themselves every night. Never by much, but they’re constantly re-evaluating to reflect whatever’s happened by the appropriate amount. In this sense, they’re like an overreaction guide, holding your hand through the early goings of a season and letting you know just how much to make of Player X’s early-season struggles/successes. Like, for example, if you’re wondering whether to freak out about Rich Hill, you look to see how much the projections have changed since the start of the year, and you listen to the projections when they tell you that it’s perfectly OK to freak out.

And just as the projections can be used as a guide to gauge how much early-season performances mean for players, they can do the same for teams. Team projections are just a composite of a bunch of player projections, after all. And while no one individual has improved their projection nearly as much as Hill, something stuck out to me while doing the research for that post:

Most-Improved Pitcher Projections, Preseason to Now
Name Team Pre_ERA Pre_FIP Pre_E/F RoS_ERA RoS_FIP RoS_E/F E/F_DIF
Rich Hill Athletics 4.17 4.18 4.18 3.77 3.75 3.76 -0.42
Jhoulys Chacin Braves 4.23 4.21 4.22 3.91 3.89 3.90 -0.32
Noah Syndergaard Mets 3.12 3.02 3.07 2.89 2.73 2.81 -0.26
Matt Moore Rays 4.11 4.25 4.18 3.89 3.98 3.94 -0.25
Drew Smyly Rays 3.47 3.70 3.59 3.28 3.50 3.39 -0.20
Taijuan Walker Mariners 4.05 3.98 4.02 3.88 3.77 3.83 -0.19
Vincent Velasquez Phillies 3.71 3.68 3.70 3.54 3.49 3.52 -0.18
Jaime Garcia Cardinals 3.40 3.44 3.42 3.25 3.24 3.25 -0.18
Blake Snell Rays 4.11 4.24 4.18 3.96 4.06 4.01 -0.17
Jerad Eickhoff Phillies 4.38 4.37 4.38 4.20 4.22 4.21 -0.17
SOURCE: ZiPS+Steamer projections
-Minimum 100 projected innings pitched

In the interest of full disclosure, the Rays don’t possess the most improved rotation, overall. That’d be the Phillies, by a sizable amount. I’ve written about the Phillies and their ubiquitous curveball usage, but frankly, while it’s fun that they’ve seemingly accelerated their rebuild with an already-good rotation, it still doesn’t really matter, in the scope of 2016, that the Phillies have the most improved rotation. But for the Rays, who have the second-most improved rotation with another gap separating them from third, it does matter, because the Rays aim to compete.

When we ran the positional power rankings, we split the starting pitching rankings into two halves. The Rays made the cut for the first half, but just barely. Just over a month ago, the forecast had the Rays’ rotation ranked 15th, with a projected group WAR of +13.0. Now, the Rays are ranked eighth, with a forecast that would put the group around +15 WAR over a full season. It only took 21 games for the projections to give the Rays’ rotation an extra two wins in the future, based on what they’d seen.

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The 2016 All-KATOH Team

by Chris Mitchell - 4/28/2016 - Comments (14)

Last week, lead prospect analyst Dan Farnsworth published his excellently in-depth prospect list for the Washington Nationals, which concluded his “Evaluating the Prospects” series. Previously, Baseball America published their top 100 prospects list, as did Baseball Prospectus (top 101), Keith Law, MLB.com and newcomer 2080 Baseball (top 125). Additionally, I put out KATOH’s top-100 list back in January. All of these works attempt to accomplish the very same goal: identifying and ranking baseball’s best prospects. But KATOH goes about it in a very different way than the others. While most others rely heavily on scouting, KATOH relies exclusively on statistical performance.

On the whole, there’s a good deal of agreement between KATOH and the more traditional rankings. Many of KATOH’s favorite prospects have also received praise from real, live human beings who’ve watched them play. JP Crawford, Corey Seager, Orlando Arcia and Julio Urias all fall within this group. However, there are other KATOH favorites who’ve received very little attention from prospect evaluators. The purpose of this article is to give these prospects a little bit of attention.

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The Most and Least Generous Strike Zones

by Jeff Sullivan - 4/28/2016 - Comments (12)

On a few occasions over the winter, I theorized that we might be seeing the beginning of the end of pitch-framing value. It has nothing to do with the idea of an automated strike zone. Rather, I think there are two factors. One, umpires have an increasing awareness of framing reputation, and that can have effects, even if they’re not intended. And two, as teams develop and acquire better framers, that raises the floor, and in turn it raises the average, making it more difficult to stand out. You know — if everyone has a good framer, no one has a good framer. That sort of thing. I do genuinely think that we’re in a transition period.

But things are still transitioning. This is something that would play out over several seasons, not one or two. Framing is very much still alive, meaning the idea of differing strike zones is very much still alive. Fair? Unfair? Don’t know! But we’ve got numbers. Here come some early-season numbers.

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The Astros Are In Trouble

by Jeff Sullivan - 4/27/2016 - Comments (45)

Let’s take a look at what we’re dealing with, here. This is a simple plot of AL West division playoff odds over time, beginning with the start of the season, through, I don’t know, right now? About an hour ago, I guess.

odds

The calendar on my wall tells me it’s still April, and the much smaller calendar on my computer agrees, so this early you don’t expect many big huge shifts in playoff probabilities. Long ways to go, and all that. Looking at the image above, you see teams kind of holding steady. The Rangers are close to where they started. The Angels are down a little bit. The A’s are up a little bit. The Mariners are up even more. All of those teams are bunched together — they’re separated by just 1.5 games. But then you have the Astros. Based on our own math, the Astros opened as overwhelming division favorites. They’ve already coughed that up, and then some. Odds are based on projections, and projections are imperfect. I get that. So here’s a fact: At 6-15, the Astros presently have the worst record in the American League. It doesn’t mean they’re a bad team, but it does mean they’re a team in real trouble.

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WAR: Batters
Dexter Fowler2.0
Manny Machado1.8
Josh Donaldson1.5
Jose Altuve1.5
Nolan Arenado1.4
WAR: Pitchers
Noah Syndergaard1.5
Stephen Strasburg1.4
Johnny Cueto1.3
Jose Quintana1.3
Clayton Kershaw1.2
WPA: Batters
Bryce Harper1.77
Jean Segura1.52
Paul Goldschmidt1.30
Nick Markakis1.28
Josh Donaldson1.24
WPA: SP
Chris Sale1.49
Jordan Zimmermann1.23
Mat Latos1.15
Jake Arrieta1.09
Kenta Maeda1.07
WPA: RP
Brad Ziegler1.03
Ryan Madson1.01
Matt Albers0.94
Kenley Jansen0.92
Wade Davis0.92
Fastball (mph): SP
Noah Syndergaard98.2
Nathan Eovaldi96.6
Kevin Gausman96.2
Garrett Richards95.8
Luis Severino95.6