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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Does Coors Field Make Rockies’ Batters Worse on the Road?

Denver is where pitchers’ peripheral numbers go to die.

Humidors and huge outfields have mitigated the issue a bit, but that’s still the first thing that comes to mind for most stat heads when the words “Coors Field” are uttered: Oh, those poor, poor pitchers.

There’s evidence, though, that the ballpark messes with hitters, too. Rockies hitters have the biggest home/road splits in baseball over the past five years … even after you correct for park effect. By weighted runs created plus, they’re 17 percent worse on the road than at home, whereas the league average home and away split is 10 percentage points lower.

In other words, Coors Field seems to giveth at home and taketh away on the road. When I asked Rockies hitters about this and checked the numbers, a clearer picture emerged: The Rockies are pitched differently at home, and their response to that difference seems to lead to problems on the road. All along, we thought pitchers were the only ones negatively affected by playing half their games at Coors Field; turns out, hitters are affected, too.

Let’s get to the root of what’s happening. First, we’ll look at how things are different at home, then explain how it’s affecting the Rockies’ performance on the road (at least those not named Nolan Arenado, who actually has more home runs and a higher OPS on the road this season).

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Batters Striking New Fear This Year

We’ve seen it happen time and time again, and the numbers agree: when a player shows power, pitchers adjust. They try to defuse that power bat by throwing fewer pitches in the zone, and fewer fastballs.

What we’d like to do here is turn the tables on this process by analyzing various hitters’ power situations based on which batters this season are seeing fewer pitches in the zone and fewer fastballs, and vice-versa.

It seems we can, and to do so we’ll use a few cool stats. The newest is Heart%, a stat created by Bill Petti that measures how often a pitch crosses the plate in the heart of the strike zone. We’ll also look at O-Swing%, which measures how often a hitter reaches at pitches outside the zone. And we’ll judge power using Isolated Slugging Percentage — slugging percentage minus batting average, or basically an extra-base hit rate.

Examining these statistics can help us identify which hitters likely have sustainable power breakouts and are worth targeting or keeping — and which fading sluggers would be best to avoid or let go.

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Gregory Polanco struggling with league’s adjustment to him

Coming into the 2014 season, Pittsburgh outfielder Gregory Polanco was a top prospect with all the tools that make scouts drool — power, patience, contact, defense, and speed. He was Keith Law’s 13th-best prospect that offseason, and he played well enough in the spring to force himself onto the Pirates’ roster.

A good but not great debut, then just 22-year-old, showed hints of future glory, as his overall work compared decently to the debut from a young, toolsy outfielder named Carlos Gonzalez.

But Polanco has had difficulty capitalizing on that promise this season. And now, nearly 600 plate appearances into his major league career, the questions about his potential are getting louder, particularly his ability to hit for power and hit left-handed pitching. Using his appraisal of the situation and the statistics as a guide, maybe we can see if the shine has actually dulled on what was once star-level promise.
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The Cleveland Indians Rotation: Legendarily Bad Luck?

The Cleveland Indians have plenty of talent in their rotation. They have Corey Kluber, last year’s AL Cy Young award winner, who has excellent command of a sweeping, knee-buckling breaking ball. They also have Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, who have fastballs that average 95 mph and are good enough secondary pitches to join Kluber in the double-digit K/9 rate club. And they have Trevor Bauer, who has good velocity and something like 10 pitches in his arsenal.

It’s an excellent rotation — and yet Indians starters have the sixth-worst ERA in baseball (4.41).

As it turns out, this disconnect between stuff and results has actually reached a historic level. Only four rotations in history have ever had a bigger gap between their FIP — an expected ERA based on strikeouts, walks, and home runs — and their ERA.

Let’s see if we can figure out why the Indians’ rotation is less than the sum of its parts right now.

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Chris Heston, now with more Chris Heston

On July 13, 2013, Chris Heston was designated for assignment by the San Francisco Giants to make room for the recently signed Jeff Francoeur. He was released by the team eight days later.

At that point, the pitcher was throwing in the mid-80s and posting mediocre strikeout numbers, not to mention the righty was suffering from elbow problems. It was undoubtedly the low point of his career.

Now less than two years later, Heston already has a no-hitter under his belt, firing an 11-strikeout no-no at Citi Field on Tuesday in just his 13th big league start. He was masterful, not only striking out Mets hitters, but also keeping the ball on the ground (87 percent of the balls in play were ground balls).

With the win, Heston placed his name next to some of the greats in Giants history while also improving his argument for remaining in the rotation when it’s back to full health. Two years after the low point of his career, he’s quite possibly at the high point right now.

So what changed? His body. At least that’s what the pitcher said earlier this season when I asked him about his newfound stuff.

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Brian McCann: Keep calm, carry the pitching staff

Let’s face it, New York Yankees catcher Brian McCann is known more for his offense than his D. He has hit 18 or more homers in nine consecutive seasons and has an .807 career OPS. He has won five Silver Slugger awards — and no Gold Gloves — and has been named an All-Star seven times, more on the strength of his offense than his glove work.

But guess what — he’s pretty good at defense, too. In fact, when you examine McCann’s performance in peripheral catcher-defense stats such as framing, blocking balls in the dirt and calling a game, just one catcher has been better over the past three years: Yadier Molina (of course it’s Yady — who else would it be?). But while the only currently active Molina brother is widely acclaimed for his defense, McCann doesn’t seem to get his due respect.

I examined what makes McCann a good catcher and spoke with the Yankees backstop, as well as his manager, about the importance of McCann’s defensive skills, and what the catcher has learned over the years about his work behind the plate.

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Surgery to success: The story behind Shane Greene’s breakout

There wasn’t much hype about Shane Greene as he slowly made his way through the minor league ranks, and seemingly for good reason. He was a 15th-round pick, not a big-bonus guy. He didn’t make any national prospect lists before or after the draft. His stuff didn’t seem that great, including a changeup that was clearly a work in progress. And his minor league numbers were mediocre at best; in 562 career minor league innings, he had a 29-43 record, 4.39 ERA and 1.48 WHIP. That doesn’t exactly scream “can’t-miss prospect!”

But just look at him now.

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How Framing Changed Andrew Cashner

Sometimes, framing can seem like an invisible skill, a game of centimeters that we can barely see, a practice that affects the game around the edges. Something you might shrug your shoulders at. You wouldn’t feel that way if you were Andrew Cashner, though. Not since the Padres’ pitcher has had to change his approach this year because of the framing he’s getting behind the plate.

Last year, Cashner had the second-best framer in the game behind the plate most days in Rene Rivera. Rivera stole 170 extra strikes last year by Baseball Prospectus’ excellent catcher framing stats, second only to Buster Posey. “It’s a difference maker, for sure,” said Cashner of that skill behind the plate. Look how wide Rivera’s called strike zone was last year with the Padres.

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Fastball movement, location the keys to Garrett Richards’ breakout

As recently as March 2014, Los Angeles Angels right-hander Garrett Richards was considered a league-average starting pitcher/middle reliever with decent velocity and a good slider. Now just 14 months later, he’s considered one of the top pitchers in the American League. What were the keys to his 2014 breakout performance, and will it continue?

Richards has always had good stuff — in his first three years in the league (2011-13), Richards got whiffs on 9.5 percent of the pitches he threw, which would be top 40 this year among qualified pitchers — but he really didn’t post good strikeout totals until 2014. He posted a mediocre (or worse) 6.3 K/9 rate in 2013, which at that point was the highest mark of his career. But he jumped that rate to 8.8 K’s per 9 last season, ranking 19th in the majors among qualified pitchers in that metric, and he has a respectable 8.2 K/9 rate this season.

So I took a closer look at Richards’ repertoire and metrics in an attempt to find out what’s behind the breakout, then asked the pitcher himself for his thoughts.

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Matt Carpenter Must Be More Aggressive

If Matt Carpenter is known for anything in the major leagues, it’s for what hedoesn’t do: swing the bat. That may seem counterintuitive for a player generally considered to be one of the best hitters on one of baseball’s best teams, but it’s an accurate depiction of Carpenter’s approach at the plate. Last year, no qualified hitter offered at fewer pitches than Carpenter, who had only a 32.8 percent swing rate. Over the course of his three full seasons, his 36.1 percent swing rate is easily the lowest. In other words, approximately two times out of three, Carpenter watches the pitch go by.

To put it another way, some hitters swing at pitches outside the strike zone more often than Carpenter swings at pitches overall. It’s simply who he is, and it’s a large part of how he has managed to find success in the big leagues; over the past two seasons, he’s 15th in walk rate and ninth in on-base percentage. His patience has made him a star — he was one of only 15 hitters worth at least 10 WAR combined in 2013-14 — and it also has made him rich, as the Cardinals guaranteed him $52 million over six years through 2019.

With that kind of recent track record, it’s easy to think that Carpenter should just keep on doing exactly what he’s doing and continued success would follow. But despite the excellent on-base skills and overall value, a quiet truth of Carpenter’s 2014 was that his slugging percentage dropped more than 100 points from the year prior, and Carpenter turned from an elite bat into merely a good one. With an aging Cardinals offense relying more than ever on Carpenter this year, the numbers demand that Carpenter change his approach. Simply put, he has to swing more. He has to be, in some ways, the anti-Matt Carpenter. And he can start in Sunday night’s season opener (8 ET, ESPN2) against the Cubs. Read the rest of this entry »


Five Breakout Candidates For 2015

As we unveil the players ranked 51-100 in the 2015 BBTN 100, let’s also look ahead to next year and predict five unranked players this year who are positioned to land on next year’s list. This discussion won’t include top prospects like Kris Bryant, Joc Pederson or Noah Syndergaard because their talent is well-known and everyone expects great things from them.

Today we’ll focus on five young players who have already had a small amount of big league success and could find themselves with much-higher public profiles — and possible places in the 2016 BBTN 100 — after what should be productive 2015 seasons. Read the rest of this entry »


Are We Overrating Madison Bumgarner?

How much do October heroics count for, really?

For the San Francisco Giants, what Madison Bumgarner did for them last autumn added up to a world title. It took a lot of moving pieces to get that third title in five years, but easily the most important part was Bumgarner doing things we’ve never seen, at least on that stage. In 52 2/3 postseason innings, Bumgarner allowed a mere six earned runs, and he carved his name into baseball history by throwing five nearly perfect innings to close out Game 7 on only two days’ rest, after having thrown a shutout in Game 5.

It was without question one of the most spectacular postseason performances we’ll ever witness. So how much is that worth? That’s the question today, because Bumgarner stands out as ranking surprisingly high (third) in the BBTN left-handed starting pitcher rankings, ahead of such names as David Price andJon Lester. He’s up two spots among lefty starters from a year ago, and judging by some of the names he’s ranked above, he’ll likely place much higher in the overall rankings as well (he was 40th in 2014).

To jump that far in a single year would indicate he’s coming off one of the most spectacular years in baseball. Based on only a few October weeks, maybe that’s true. But what about the far bigger sample size of multiple regular seasons, or that his regular season was a pretty good one that stood alongside pretty good ones from a lot of other pitchers? Were we so blown away by a few dozen great innings of pitching that we’ve looked past nearly a thousand innings across his career? Let’s investigate.

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The Orioles’ Winter Wasn’t So Bad

So, could you feel the evident disappointment of Baltimore Orioles fans this winter?

Coming off a 96-win year, the O’s did what seemed like a whole lot of nothing this offseason. As Andrew Miller, Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz all departed for big contracts elsewhere, the only major league players Baltimore added were journeyman lefty reliever Wesley Wright, Padres castoff Everth Cabrera and former first-round bust Travis Snider.

Now compare that haul to the types of players added by Baltimore’s AL East division rivals, names such as (the aforementioned) Miller, Hanley Ramirez,Pablo Sandoval, Cuban prospect Yoan Moncada, Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin. Worse, with O’s GM Dan Duquette spending much of the winter engaged in an awkward — and ultimately fruitless — discussion about taking a job with the Blue Jays, the perception grew that he was more focused on his own career than improving the team.

Whether that’s a fair judgment of Duquette or not, it all added up to a less than impressive winter in Baltimore. Just a month ago, ESPN’s Jayson Stark polled baseball people about the offseason we just completed, and coming in second place for “Most Unimproved American League Team” was none other than those Orioles.

So this was a disaster, right? A big step back for a team on the precipice of making noise in the playoffs, just as the rest of the AL East is dealing with enough holes that this seemed like it may have been the time to strike, right? That’s the narrative, but it’s far too simple. For the Orioles, an appreciation of what was a quietly good winter requires looking a little deeper. Read the rest of this entry »


Beware Sal Perez’s Horrifying Plate Discipline

If you were to take a peek at the current average ESPN live fantasy draft resultsfor catchers, you would see some familiar names in the top five. Buster Posey is obviously atop the list, and Jonathan Lucroy just finished fourth in the National League MVP voting. Devin Mesoraco had a breakout season, and Evan Gattis‘ huge raw power might outweigh his strikeouts, at least in the fantasy world.

Sitting fifth, ahead of Yan Gomes, Yadier Molina, Brian McCann, Russell Martin,Yasmani Grandal and everyone else, is the Kansas City RoyalsSalvador Perez. Perez, who turns 25 in May, has increased his home run count every year he’s been in the bigs and saw his national profile grow exponentially during the Royals’ World Series run. He has a career .285 average and is one of only eight catchers with double-digit home runs in each of the past three seasons.

Based on that criteria alone, Perez’s high ranking looks to make sense, and that’s almost certainly why he is getting such respect in drafts. So why does it still seem so clear that he is being overvalued, perhaps to an enormous extent considering all the warning signs around him? Read the rest of this entry »


Odds Against Masahiro Tanaka Staying Healthy

After an uncharacteristically rough outing from Masahiro Tanaka in Cleveland on July 8 — 11 baserunners, five runs allowed, two homers — New York Yankees fans received the worst news imaginable: Tanaka, who had made the All-Star team and appeared to be worth every penny of the $175 million the Yankees had laid out to import him from Japan prior to the season, had to be placed on the disabled list after an MRI revealed a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, also known as the injury that generally leads to Tommy John surgery.

Rather than undergo surgery, which would have cost him most of the 2015 season, as well, Tanaka chose the path of rest and rehab, including platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections. After missing more than two months, he made two appearances in September — one positive (5 1/3 innings of one-run ball against Toronto on Sept. 21) and one much less so (seven runs in 1 2/3 innings in Boston on Sept. 27). He reportedly has had no problems with the elbow since, successfully completing several bullpen sessions at Yankees camp while hoping that the work he has done to strengthen the arm muscles around the ligament, along with changes in his delivery, will keep him whole.

For the Yankees, part of what appears to be a tightly packed AL East, there may be no player more vital to their success than a healthy Tanaka. That’s not only because he’s one of baseball’s best pitchers when healthy; it’s because with CC Sabathia‘s knee still acting up, Ivan Nova still recovering from elbow surgery, Shane Greene and Brandon McCarthy off to Detroit and Los Angeles, respectively, and Michael Pineda having thrown only 76 innings in the past three seasons combined, this rotation is more than a little risky. It’s not a stretch to say that the Yankees are contenders with Tanaka and hopeless without him — and unfortunately for both player and team, the odds aren’t in his favor. Read the rest of this entry »