Last Year’s Best Pitch By the Numbers

How would you judge a pitch? How would you determine the best pitch in baseball?

By velocity? It’s tempting, because every mile per hour of velocity does add effectiveness to a fastball. But movement is important, and release point, or deception. Consider that Darren O’Day‘s rising 87 mph four-seam fastball had the highest whiff rate of any four-seamer in baseball last year. Probably because they were expecting more sink from his arm slot, at least that was his theory.

By movement? Also tempting, movement provides us the easiest visuals. And movement is also linked to good outcomes for changeups and curves. Brett Cecil‘s curve got more whiffs than any other curve, all while having three inches less horizontal movement and six inches less drop than your average curve. Weird.

So we’re left looking at results in order to judge pitches. Which results we look at are important, and how we look at them of course. Let’s set up a way to judge pitches simply and look at how they rank.

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Wei-Yin Chen’s semi-secret (and valuable) skills

Wei-Yin Chen just got a contract that could bring him just shy of nine figures by the time he’s done. If he doesn’t opt out, and the sixth year vests, he gets $96 million.

Here are some other facts about the new Marlins’ lefty. By strikeout rate, he’s 79th out of 132 qualified starters over the last three years. He’s 112th in home runs per nine innings over that same time frame. He’s no sinkerballer that gets by on worm-burning ground balls, either: He’s 110th in ground balls since 2013 began.

But there are a few spots where Chen rates much more highly. And it’s because he sits atop those leaderboards that makes him a good value signing for the Marlins, even at what seems like a hefty price to some.

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Why the Cubs shouldn’t trade Jorge Soler

If the playoffs had never happened, you might scoff at the idea that Jorge Soler is a foundational piece for the Chicago Cubs.

Soler? The guy that was one of the thirty worst players in baseball last year? The guy that couldn’t make contact, couldn’t take a walk, didn’t show the power he was supposed to show, and then ran circles in the outfield? That guy?

Yes, that guy. He’s one of next year’s best break-out candidates. Because of his age, and demonstrated skills to date, Soler is in a group that does well. And his biggest hurdle? He’s jumped it before.

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2016’s Biggest Bust

Normally, we spend this time of the year thinking about good things. The Baby New Year brings with it a fresh outlook. We look excitedly upon our team’s signings and dream of the upcoming season. We hope.

And yet, this is also the time of year when projections come out. Dark, foreboding things, those projections. Rooted only in the harsh reality of numbers, they are a sobering dash of cold water.

Those projections have a particularly tough message of Yoenis Cespedes and his fans. The flashy, powerful outfielder has the biggest gap between last year’s production and next year’s projections. He’s supposed to fall off nearly four wins in production next year by FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement statistic, as projected by Steamer. As a free agent, that’s rough thing to be known for.

But the harder you look at this fact, the more it tells you about what Cespedes does well, what he doesn’t do well, and how those strengths line up with how projections work.

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Why the A’s rebuild can’t work like Houston’s or Chicago’s

The Houston Astros seem to have struck gold with a great young shortstop in Carlos Correa, who was a perfect midseason addition to the Astros’ young, talented lineup as the team rode its power and 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner to a playoff berth. The Chicago Cubs have great young position players popping up left and right, and have spent good money in the past 12 or so months to add some reliable veterans to that core. Both teams appear to have very bright futures.

The Oakland Athletics, meanwhile, just signed a reliever with a lengthy injury history to a three-year deal (Ryan Madson) and traded away their 25-year-old third baseman (Brett Lawrie) for two mid-level pitching prospects.

It’s fair to question those moves. It’s fair to wonder why they seem to be moving in two directions at once. In fact, it’s fair to ask where the team is headed, to ask what in the world A’s executive VP of baseball operations Billy Beane is up to now.

So I did.

At last week’s baseball winter meetings, I asked Beane, he of the “Moneyball” fame (book and movie), why he wouldn’t do a tear-it-down, sell-all-assets rebuild like the Cubs and Astros did, like the Braves and Brewers appear to be doing now, and maybe what the Reds are in the early stages of doing. Doesn’t that approach help you get higher draft picks and collect talent for your next run? Doesn’t that help you find those young, cost-controlled players that drive winning teams?

Beane saw things differently — and uniquely, of course.

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Jordan Zimmermann, a value at $100 million

It took five years and $110 million for the Detroit Tigers to bring right-handed starter Jordan Zimmermann into the fold. That’s hardly a small token, though these days, that still qualifies as a second-tier contract among starting pitchers. If you look at traditional rate stats — strikeouts and walks, for example — Zimmermann clearly belongs in that second tier; he’s not the pitcher guys like Cole Hamels and Jon Lester have been over the past five years. He also doesn’t have their stuff, at least not when judged by the strikeout. What Zimmermann does have is much harder to get a handle on. The basic term would probably be his unique command, but it’s not an easy thing to put your finger on when it comes to stats.

A pitcher with great command might intentionally throw a ball outside the zone — even at the risk of walking a hitter — on purpose. So we can’t just use walk rate to determine command. But pitchers with great command also have a tendency to get to two strikes quickly without being damaged as hitters sit back and look for better pitches to hit. Elite pitchers also can do this, but more because hitters can’t hit their pitches, and the elite guys can also finish off hitters with that stuff. But in many cases, what makes a second-tier pitcher just that is they don’t have that put-away stuff.

That definitely describes Zimmermann, whose 7.32 K/9 rate ranked 50th of 78 qualifying pitchers. But here’s the thing about the Wisconsin native: When it comes to getting to two strikes, Zimmermann is among the elite. And though the swinging (or called) strike three is a lot more glorious, as it’s the surest way to get the out, Zimmermann has proven just as effective as getting hitters out once he gets two strikes.

The relative lack of K’s, the “second-tier” label … these are reasons Zimmermann, still in the prime of his career at age 29, could be had for $22 million per year versus the bigger dollar figures we’ve seen in recent years. But here’s the thing: He’s a better value than many of those making more money, including the aforementioned Hamels and Lester, and here’s why:

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Finding the Next Cy Young Winner

As we approached the 2015 season, who could have foreseen Chicago Cubs 29-year-old right-hander Jake Arrieta — and his 34-32 career record and 4.48 career ERA — being even in sniffing distance of a Cy Young Award? Few people, if anyone, can honestly claim to have felt that would be the case.

However, sabermetrically speaking, there were at least indications as far back as June 2014 that Arrieta would have a breakthrough season in 2015. He did. Magic was made. He was nearly unhittable the last two months of the season. Which leads me to ponder this question on the day the 2015 Cy Young Award winners are announced: Who is next year’s Arrieta?

I’m talking about a pitcher who is nowhere near Cy Young consideration this year but has at least offered indications that a giant step forward is possible.

The first thing that’s necessary in an exercise like this is to learn from history, so I looked at Steamer projections for past Cy Young winners headed into their award-winning seasons, then compared their actual results to their projected numbers. That juxtaposition gives us some facts about past winners, and those facts might give us a road map to find future winners. First, let’s look at what past award winners have taught us.

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Making the $100m player

Someone is going to win the nine-figure lottery this offseason.

Every offseason for the past 10 years, at least one MLB player has signed a contract for at $100 million-plus. Some of those players have actually proved to be worth the lofty dollar figure; others haven’t. Thus, the focus for every team is determining which guys to pay big money to.

We know, at least generally, that giving a pitcher nine figures usually doesn’t work out well. Both Barry Svrluga at the Washington Post and Ted Berg at USAToday have looked at those contracts and didn’t like what they found.

But position players are a slightly better bet. Of the 12 $100 million contracts that have been handed out to position players, either via free agency or as extensions, and have run their course by now, six of them actually turned out to be bargains compared to the open market. Another couple were relatively decent deals, and only three of them were absolute disasters.

(Quick aside: To judge these contracts, I summed up the player’s wins above replacement over the life of the contract, divided that number by the salary, then took the cost of a win on the open market over the life of the contract and compared the two. If the player was cheaper than the average win, he was a “good contract.”)

Even if you add in the contracts that expire after next year — meaning Ryan Howard is in the mix — teams spent less per win above replacement on those 15 players with $100 million contracts than the open market spent on all wins above replacement during those years. So there’s really nothing wrong with signing a position player to $100 million — as long as it’s the right player.

The best $100 million position players can provide us some guidelines for this year’s free-agent class and also for players who aren’t even free agents yet.

With that, let’s build the $100 million man.

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Boston’s Bounce-Back Duo

The 2015 season didn’t go quite as planned in Beantown. A Boston Red Sox team that many expected to win the division — and perhaps have a nice playoff run — instead finished dead last in the AL East.

But they had their moments, and a 78-84 record isn’t exactly horrific. And now as we look forward, there’s still a lot of promise with this franchise, as indicated by their still-favorable No. 3 ranking in ESPN Insider’s MLB Future Power Rankings, posted Wednesday. Not only do they have the most talent among MLB teams in their minor league system, according to our survey, but they still have established, veteran, major league talent and are still in a very good position financially.

And you know who, according to our early FanGraphs projections, will key the Red Sox’s bounce-back 2016 campaign? None other than two of the three worst regulars in baseball this year: Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Let’s take a closer look at those two players from a historical context.

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Jacob deGrom, Frankenpitcher

When Jacob deGrom was drafted by the Mets out of Stetson University in the ninth round of the 2010 draft, he was a 22-year-old shortstop that sometimes flashed a plus fastball as the closer. Then he only pitched 26 innings in the Mets organization before he needed Tommy John surgery. When he arrived back in camp in 2012, he was a blank slate.

So, when he walks to the mound in the deciding Game Five against the Dodgers today, after sporting the sixth-best ERA among qualified starters this year, he is the product of the Mets organization. The team’s development system helped add the curveball, and the slider, and the changeup, and he brought that plus fastball (with a slight tweak) and great command.

A pitcher is only as good as the sum of his parts, and in this case, each part is as impressive as the whole. In the spirit of that development, let’s compare deGrom’s pitches to the models of yesterday’s game, and to the best of today’s game.

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Andrew Heaney’s Two Tiny But Important Tweaks

For three straight years before he even played a major league game, Andrew Heaney was ranked among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects. There was a buzz about him coming up, and he was considered the Marlins’ No. 1 prospect after the 2013 season. A polished young arm with great command and an elite slider, he was expected to hit the ground running.

He didn’t.

After starting the season with a dominant stretch in Double-A, Heaney was mediocre in Triple-A but received a big league summons. In five starts last season with the Marlins, he posted a 5.83 ERA and allowed six homers in 29 1/3 innings. Not good.

Three months later, in the span of 24 hours in December, he was traded twice. Two teams simply preferred to have other players, and though the pitcher had fun with it …

.. some of the shine had come off his prospect status in the process.

And now? The Angels rookie has a fine 3.29 ERA and 1.16 WHIP as he starts Thursday night in Texas with the Angels’ season hanging in the balance. He has recovered most of the excitement around his future, and all it took was two tiny tweaks that helped the young left-hander make the most of his stuff.

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No batting gloves: Is it superstition, science … or something much simpler?

Whether you credit longtime major leaguer Bobby Thomson — who is most famous for his Shot Heard Round the World — for first wearing batting gloves, or whether you remember the more iconic appearance of Mickey Mantle wearing a single white glove in a 1960 episode of “Home Run Derby” as the start of the trend, it’s common knowledge by now that a high percentage of pro baseball players wear batting gloves.

There are a few no-gloved hitters out there, however, and when asked why they don’t wear them, the answers usually include some blend of superstition and mechanical explanation. While we could easily dismiss both of those replies as ballplayers just being ballplayers, it does hit upon the interesting relationship ballplayers have with their psyche (superstition) and hands (mechanics).

Let’s take a closer at both sides of the explanation.

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Carlos Martinez is More Than Just a Fastball

The first thing you might notice when you watch Carlos Martinez throw are the numbers on the radar gun: 96, 97, 98. The Cardinals’ young righty throws the fifth-fastest four-seam fastball among starters in the big leagues, after all.

For all that velocity, though, the four-seamer might be his worst pitch. Among his pitches, it’s the only one that is not above-average by whiff rates, and it’s also allowed the highest slugging percentage on balls in play this year. “All the hitters who face me are looking for the four-seamer,” Martinez laughed when I pointed out that the pitch has his worst homer rate.

The pitcher’s response? Tighten up the rest of his pitches, one by one. That’s how he’s become a top-20 starter this year by strikeout rate, ground-ball rate, and ERA.

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How Marco Estrada and his modest fastball are succeeding in a fireballer’s league

Once a pitcher’s average fastball drops below 90 mph, pitching in the major leagues gets a lot more challenging. For instance, a pitcher is 16 percent more likely to give up a home run on a fastball clocked at less than 90 mph than one at more than 90. As such, continuing to pitch in the major leagues is more challenging as well, as teams just don’t hand the ball to these guys very often. Of the 146 pitchers who have thrown 500 or more four-seam fastballs this year, only 14 of them have averaged less than 90 on the pitch.

The league’s throwing harder every year, and it’s getting harder to live on the edges. Just look at how all fastball velocities are distributed this year.

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Jaime Garcia, Improved by Injury?

Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia has never thrown 200 innings. He’s had three major surgeries. He’s now 29 and was an afterthought going into the season, not mentioned at all in some team previews, and viewed as a bonus if he ever got healthy.

It’s been a tough time, and even the pitcher admits as much: “I’ve been through so much, with so many injuries, and it’s been tough,” he told me before a game against the Giants.

Is there a chance, though, that he’s come out of all of this improved as a pitcher? He’s currently showing the best ground-ball rate of his career, a number that would make him second in baseball if he had enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, and he’s slated to pitch a big September game against the second-place Pirates this weekend.

He credits the struggle to get here as a learning process that taught him more about his mechanics, his stuff, and his approach.

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What Happened to Alex Wood’s Strikeouts?

Dodgers starter Alex Wood was 15th in strikeout rate last year among starters. This year, he’s all the way down to 67th. That’s a difference of more than two strikeouts per nine innings, and the second-biggest drop among qualified starters. His velocity isn’t down much, he’s throwing the same pitches, and they seem like they look the same. So what happened to Alex Wood‘s strikeouts?

Turns out, a combination of mechanics and approach has robbed him of some effectiveness. In each case, though, there’s hope. The pitcher admitted that he’s thinking about both, and had answers for the way forward, at least.

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Sam Fuld and Scouting the Umpire

Sam Fuld had played 575 games without an ejection going into Monday’s game with the Orioles. Behind the plate, though, was umpire Brian Knight, one of the league’s most prolific ejectors. When that unstoppable force met that immovable object, we know who won. The player was sent to the showers early.

Fuld’s ejection for arguing the call can’t be undone, but the moment still offers plenty to unpack. He was called out for running out of the basepath and obstructing the throw to first base, so at issue are the mechanics of a bunt out in front of home plate.

But maybe more important is that Fuld — admittedly — may have failed to scout the guy behind home plate as well as he could have.

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Three Things Carlos Correa Does Every Day To Get Better

He’s the youngest player in baseball, but he doesn’t sound like it.

“Every single day I go out there, I try to get better,” Carlos Correa told me recently. That’s something you might hear from any player, young or old. But in Correa’s case, any credit of his improvement is often deflected toward someone else. Everything comes back to the people that have helped him and taught him and played with him. When asked of the adjustments he has made as a hitter, Correa said, “Well, the hitting coaches here have helped me a lot.”

He is all of 20 years old, and already Correa is in the conversation for the best shortstop in baseball. Of course he has great natural talent — most big leaguers do — but it’s that maturity, that self-awareness, that openness to learn from anyone and everyone around him … that is what has made Correa so good at such a young age.

But there’s more to it than that. Like every major leaguer, he has had to make adjustments as he has developed, and there are certain things he must work on every single day to stay on top of his game.

With that, here are the three secrets to Carlos Correa‘s success, directly from the player himself.

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Ryan Braun Changed — Or Did He?

If you split the career into halves, you’d be tempted to say that Ryan Braun has changed, fundamentally. At least when it comes to his balls in play, his ratios have changed somewhat dramatically the last three years.

But it’s important to remember that the league has changed over time, too, and that’s something the slugger is quick to point out. In the context of the league changes, Braun’s changes don’t look nearly as drastic. In fact, you might wonder if he’s changed at all.

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Which Closers Are About to Lose Their Jobs?

At this point of the season, there is still time for fantasy owners to make up ground in some categories — one of them being saves. Every year, a handful of teams make changes in terms of the man who will be getting those save opportunities down the stretch, and forward-looking owners can exploit those changes to their own benefit.

The list of statistics that are *not* statistically associated with closer change is long:

* ERA, projected or past
* Three-Year Fielding Independent Pitching stats
* Experience closing
* Shutdown percentage
* Whether the pitcher was the favorite or a bullpen committee member

These things don’t seem to matter much when it comes to closer changes. Maybe it’s because the samples are so small that these stats don’t do a great job capturing what’s happening in the bullpen. If you look at the list of things that *have* been shown to matter, not only is the list shorter, but the statistics become meaningful much faster. Here they are:

* Reliever strikeout rate
* Reliever velocity
* Reliever handedness

The short version? If you bet on the righty with the most gas and strikeouts in the pen, you’re going to be correct more often than you’ll be wrong. And that’s all we can hope for when it comes to our fantasy teams.

So let’s turn this lens on the current bullpens around MLB and see what we can find. Maybe we’ll predict the next closer change.

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