Author Archive

Blake Snell Isn’t Fair Anymore

Blake Snell has turned into one of the very best pitchers in baseball, and in order to understand how and why, we can start by just looking at the most recent batter he faced. A couple days ago, in the bottom of the seventh, Snell struck out Rowdy Tellez. The first pitch was a slider for a ball, at 88 miles per hour. The second pitch was another slider for a ball, at 89. The third pitch was a slider for a foul, at 87. Then came a fastball for a ball, at 96. Then a curveball for a whiff, at 82. Then a curveball for a foul, at 81. Finally, a fastball for a called strike, at 98. Tellez was gone, and Snell was replaced by Chaz Roe, having thrown exactly 100 pitches.

It’s not that Snell is only just beginning to emerge. His turnaround began in the middle of last year, and he hasn’t looked back. It’s last season that now looks more like a breakout. This season, however, Snell is a contender for the AL Cy Young award, even despite a DL stint that threatened to derail his progress. And while Snell was strong in the first half, before his bout of shoulder fatigue, he’s come back nearly unhittable. Between halves, he’s chopped more than a run off his ERA. He’s chopped a run and a half off his FIP, and he’s done basically the same with his xFIP. He’s added ten points to his strikeout rate while trimming his walks. Blake Snell is like a dominant closer who throws for six innings.

In one way, it’s not hard to see where Snell has improved. Yet his most recent changes are far more subtle. And they might well be the last changes he has to make for a long time. All that’s left for Blake Snell is to stay healthy.

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The Worst DRS We’ve Ever Seen

Officially, the Braves have sewn up the NL East, after having completed a four-game weekend sweep of the Phillies. The division was already more or less decided, but an unlikely Phillies sweep could’ve at least brought it down to the wire. Instead, the Phillies will play out the string, while the Braves get themselves set for the playoffs. On the one hand, the Phillies can’t be too disappointed — they would’ve been arriving a year or so ahead of time. On the other hand, the Braves arrived a year or so ahead of time. And this is a plot of the 2018 Phillies’ playoff odds:

As recently as August 7, the Phillies were in first place and 15 games over .500. Since then, they’ve gone an NL-worst 14-28, while the Braves have gone 27-19. Very obviously, when a team collapses, several components have to be involved. One thing I’ll highlight, though: dating back to August 8, according to Baseball Savant, Phillies pitchers have ranked seventh in baseball in expected wOBA allowed, while Braves pitchers have ranked 16th. And yet, Phillies pitchers have ranked 26th in baseball in actual wOBA allowed, while Braves pitchers have ranked third. Call it noise if you want. I’m certain that’s a part of it. The other part is defense. The Phillies’ team defense has let them down, and as the headline suggests, they’re on the verge of establishing a new record.

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Jeff Sullivan FanGraphs Chat — 9/21/18

9:07

Jeff Sullivan: Hello friends

9:07

Jeff Sullivan: Welcome to Friday baseball chat

9:07

squeeze bunt: Why is anny Margot so bad at stealing bases?

9:07

Jeff Sullivan: Why is Rougned Odor even worse?

9:08

Jeff Sullivan: Margot wasn’t particularly bad last season. Been worse this year. Stolen bases are about a lot more than raw foot speed. He might just somewhat struggle to get good reads of first moves

9:10

WP41: How much value would you guess Javy Baez being able to play multiple premium positions has provided to the Cubs this season?

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The Gradual Spread of the Opener

The thing about the “opener” strategy is even the Rays couldn’t tell you exactly how much it’s helped. It’s hardly intended to make that dramatic a difference in the box score; it’s about slightly shifting the odds in a handful of matchups. If it didn’t affect the name of the starting pitcher, a strategy like this wouldn’t have made many headlines. But, the Rays knew what they were getting into. They knew that, in a way, they were turning baseball on its head when they started Sergio Romo. The Rays have stuck with the opener for a chunk of their starts ever since, and the evidence suggests it’s not not working.

As far as I can tell, the Rays have started 49 games with an opener. It’s not always easy to tell who’s an opener and who’s just a starter with a relatively low pitch count, but I feel reasonably confident about my selections. Over those 49 games, the Rays have gone 29-20. Overall, they’ve allowed 3.95 runs per nine innings in those contests, which would rank them fifth-best in baseball. They have a combined 14.8% K-BB% in those contests, which would rank them 11th-best in baseball. And remember, that’s pretty good, because the Rays don’t use an opener for, say, Blake Snell. This is what would be the back of their rotation, and the numbers are still easily better than average. We don’t know how the Rays would look *without* the opener, but the pitchers have pretty much all bought in. At least in Tampa, the opener doesn’t look like it’s going away.

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The Quiet Boost to the Dodgers’ Bullpen

Tuesday night, the Dodgers played a crucial game against the Rockies, and it was all tied at two in the top of the tenth. After Scott Alexander retired Charlie Blackmon to lead off, he was replaced by Dylan Floro, who was tasked with facing DJ LeMahieu and Nolan Arenado. After four pitches, Floro struck LeMahieu out. It happened on the following sinker:

After four more pitches, Floro struck Arenado out. The sequence included the following four-seamer:

And then it concluded with the following slider:

Floro’s time with the Dodgers hasn’t all been terrific. A month ago, Floro was on the mound when the Dodgers lost to the Mariners on a walk-off balk. That’s the kind of incident that can stick with you for a while. But, overall, Floro has been a stabilizing member of the bullpen since arriving in a midseason trade. The Dodgers have needed the help, and Floro has provided it, even though the trade with the Reds drew barely any attention. When Floro arrived, he was a ground-balling middle reliever. With a little bit of assistance, he’s become something more.

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Death of a 14-Year Streak

Monday evening, the Pirates beat the Royals, 7-6. The Royals were up by two in the bottom of the eighth, but the Pirates rallied to tie, and then they walked it off an inning later. With Kevin Kramer leading off second base, Jacob Stallings sent a low line drive into left field, and Kramer beat Alex Gordon’s throw home. The Pirates rushed out of the dugout to celebrate the victory:

Now, this season, the Pirates are going nowhere. The Royals are even worse. The win did, I suppose, push the Pirates back over .500, but it’s worth remembering that every game is a competition. Every game features major-league baseball players trying to win, and so every actual win legitimately feels like an achievement. Especially for teams full of players just trying to make a good impression to extend their careers. Recently, the dreadful Royals walked off against the dreadful White Sox, after a throwing error on a would-be sac bunt. The Royals celebrated in regular fashion:

So part of this is just that a walk-off is fun. You never know when you’re going to be part of another. Seize happiness; it’s fleeting. Celebrate your achievements. Few people in the world ever get to participate in a win in the major leagues. What an incredible thing it is to experience.

There’s something else about the Pirates’ victory, though. None of the players would’ve known it at the time, but you can see their celebration as symbolic if you want. The win was the Pirates’ 75th of the season. But it was also the National League’s 151st win in interleague play. Every year, every team plays 20 interleague games. That means there are 300 interleague games in all. And for the first time since 2003, the American League isn’t going to win the majority of them. It won’t win exactly half of them. Interleague play, in 2018, belongs to the senior circuit.

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Ronald Acuna Is One of the Best Players in Baseball

The Braves have won plenty of games, and Ronald Acuna has hit plenty of homers. A common analytical writer trick is to open with an anecdote, to suck readers in before hitting them with statistics. I am a common analytical writer, but for this intro I want to focus on a Ronald Acuna single, leading off a game the Braves lost. And honestly, I don’t even care so much about the single itself. The Braves lost to the Cardinals on Monday. Acuna led off the bottom of the first with a ground-ball single off Miles Mikolas. The ball was hit well enough, but to understand what Acuna has already become, it’s most important to look at the process.

Acuna took a first-pitch strike. Happens sometimes. Especially leading off games. Mikolas throws an awful lot of strikes. Acuna was behind 0-and-1, but then he took a close fastball for a ball.

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Orlando Arcia Bunted for a Double

During their Friday night game in Milwaukee, the Pirates wouldn’t have expected Orlando Arcia to be such a nuisance. Out of every batter this season with at least 250 plate appearances, Arcia ranks third from the bottom in wRC+. Taking a deeper look at expected wOBA, based on Statcast-tracked batted balls, Arcia ranks dead last. Furthermore, and more importantly, Arcia wasn’t even in the starting lineup. The Brewers had Jonathan Schoop at shortstop. Arcia only entered during a top-of-the-fifth double-switch.

But by the time the evening was over, Arcia had finished 3-for-3 at the plate. The first time he came up, facing Chris Archer, he tried his damnedest to injure Archer and knock him out of the game.

And then, the second time he came up, facing Steven Brault, he drove in a couple of runners. It’s not uncommon for two runs to score on a double. It is uncommon for said double to come on a bunt.

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The Arrival of the Tampa Bay Rays

Since the start of the season’s second half, the Rays have posted the third-best record in baseball. For fans of the team, it’s been fun, I imagine, but it also hasn’t mattered that much, since the A’s have run the single-best record in baseball. The Rays have gone 31-18 and lost ground in the wild-card standings, such that they’re only mathematically alive. They succeeded in catching up to the Mariners, but that won’t be enough to put them into the playoffs. It’s going to be another year without a World Series. It’s going to be another year without a postseason game.

You could say that the Rays are victims of circumstance. They’re 80-65 and almost irrelevant. That record, though, would ordinarily put them in a better spot. At this time last year, the Rays would be in possession of the first wild-card slot. The same would be true of 2016, and the same would be true of 2015. In 2014 and 2013, such a record would have given the Rays possession of the second wild-card slot. Most of the time, this would be a playoff contender. The Rays can’t help that the A’s are so good.

On its own, that’s somewhat encouraging. And yet there is so much more. From all appearances, the Rays are only just opening their competitive window. The talent-accumulation phase has guided them into an enviable position.

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The Newest Exciting Oakland Athletic

It’s almost laughable how quickly the A’s have pulled away in the AL wild-card race, but back on the morning of August 3, everyone woke up to what was then just a half-game advantage over the Mariners. At that point, the chances of the A’s making the playoffs came down to more or less a coin flip. When the standings are tight, problem spots are magnified, and the A’s decided to make a change in center field. On the evening of that particular Friday, Ramon Laureano made his major-league debut. In the bottom of the 13th, he walked it off with a game-winning single.

What’s happened since then has a lot to do with a lot of players. Several different A’s have performed very well. Several different Mariners have not. These days, the A’s aren’t worried about making the playoffs; they’re trying to get a home game, or even a direct trip to the ALDS. But every contender wants to be as good as it can be, and on the year, in center field, the A’s have combined to be worth 1.5 WAR. Laureano by himself has been worth 1.7, over just a handful of weeks.

Last November, Laureano was traded to the A’s from the Astros, who elected not to protect him on their 40-man roster. Laureano has since become crucial to Oakland’s present and future.

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Baseball’s Most Anonymous Great Player

A couple months ago, Kiley McDaniel posted his list of the players with the most trade value in baseball. It’s not quite the same as a list of the best players in baseball, since the former also considers contract status and salary, but, if anything, the former is more important than the latter. The Indians came out looking good — Jose Ramirez placed first, and Francisco Lindor placed second. But today I’m more interested in looking further down. Jose Altuve placed 36th. Blake Snell placed 35th. Rhys Hoskins placed 34th, and Mitch Haniger placed 33rd. Eugenio Suarez placed 32nd. He was one slot behind Gary Sanchez, and two slots behind Shohei Ohtani. Sanchez and Ohtani have only seen their stocks drop.

Within the baseball industry, it’s widely understood how good and valuable Suarez has become. That’s one of the jobs of front-office people — develop a proper understanding of player value, around the whole league. If Suarez were made available in a trade, teams would fall all over themselves to get in front of the line. But what baseball understands isn’t the same as what the average observer understands, and it’s incredibly easy to overlook what Suarez has done. He’s not a flashy player, he was never a hyped prospect, and he’s played for a non-competitive team. As such, my sense is that Suarez is greatly underappreciated. But, before the year, the Reds signed him to a long-term contract extension, in response to a breakout 2017. Suarez has since followed a breakout season with a breakout season.

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There’s Definitely Something Strange About Citi Field

The other day, I was reading something written by Tom Verducci over at Sports Illustrated. Verducci was ultimately making an argument about Jacob deGrom and his Cy Young candidacy, but on the way there, he talked about what’s apparently been dubbed the Mystery of Flushing. The mystery concerns why the Mets can’t hit at home. More specifically, it’s about why the Mets’ team BABIP consistently suffers at home. Citi Field has been modified multiple times, but it was modified most dramatically before the 2012 regular season. Since 2012, the Mets rank last in the majors in runs scored at home. They rank seventh in runs scored on the road. And, since 2012, the Mets rank last in the majors in BABIP at home. They rank third in BABIP on the road. There’s an existing BABIP gap of 30 points. This is spanning the better part of a decade. That’s big, and that’s weird. It’s worthy of some kind of investigation.

Verducci’s article, to be clear, was missing something. He analyzed the Mets’ hitters, but he didn’t analyze the Mets’ pitchers. Since 2012, they’ve allowed the eighth-fewest runs at home. They’re in 17th in runs allowed on the road. And, since 2012, they’re 12th in BABIP allowed at home. They’re 28th in BABIP allowed on the road. Run scoring in general is harder at Citi Field. Turning batted balls into hits in general is harder at Citi Field. Mets hitters are hurt, and Mets pitchers get to benefit. But a question remains: why? Why is Citi Field so strange?

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Jeff Sullivan FanGraphs Chat — 9/12/18

9:10

Jeff Sullivan: Hello friends

9:10

Jeff Sullivan: Welcome to Wednesday baseball chat

9:10

Jeff Sullivan: This is just a one-week swap with Kiley because he was going to be unavailable today

9:10

Jeff Sullivan: Also many apologies for the especially absurd delay — podcast ran overtime

9:11

James: Where will be AL wild card game be played?

9:11

Jeff Sullivan: I think it would be a lot of fun to have the game played in Oakland, but I don’t see the A’s actually catching the Yankees (or the Astros for that matter)

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The Oakland Bullpen Has Been a Borderline Miracle

Over the weekend, the A’s swept the Rangers. On its own, that’s hardly remarkable. The A’s are a good team, and they’re playing for something. The Rangers are a worse team, and they’re playing to stop playing. Given the extra distance the A’s put between themselves and the Mariners, this might’ve been the weekend the AL playoff picture was basically decided. Where it gets interesting is when you see how the A’s won the three games. Besides scoring 23 runs, I mean.

On Friday, the A’s resorted to using an opener, in the person of Liam Hendriks. He threw a scoreless inning. On Saturday, Edwin Jackson started, and he allowed four runs in three innings. On Sunday, Trevor Cahill started, and he allowed three runs in 2.2 innings. The A’s starters combined for 6.2 frames, with a 9.45 ERA. Many have been skeptical of the A’s for a while, and they’ve pointed to the starters as the reason. The starters, you see, are not great.

But all the innings not thrown by starters were thrown by relievers. Over the weekend, no team’s bullpen threw more innings than Oakland’s 20.1. It allowed a wOBA of .250, with a 2.66 ERA. The A’s swept the series, even though the starters weren’t helpful at all. Part of the reason is because they hit. And part of the reason is because of the relief. Relieving has really been the main story here. Even I can’t believe the statistics.

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Shohei Ohtani Has Been a Major Success

When Shohei Ohtani made his return to the mound over the weekend, millions upon millions of fingers were crossed. And then, abruptly, his velocity dropped. The Angels suggested it didn’t have anything to do with the elbow injury that had kept Ohtani off of the mound for so long, and it was even somewhat believable, but now we know the truth of this dark timeline — the official recommendation is that Ohtani needs Tommy John surgery. It was reported before the season that Ohtani’s UCL had some damage. It was hurt again in June, and now it’s been hurt again in September. The rest-and-rehab approach didn’t take. It usually doesn’t, but it was worth a shot.

For whatever it’s worth, Ohtani still hasn’t decided whether he’ll have the operation. This is all new to him, and it’s a hell of a thing to accept. Presumably, he’ll acquiesce at some point, and then we’ll know we won’t see Ohtani pitch in the majors in 2019. This was one of the reasons why the Angels allowed Ohtani to pitch the other day at all — if he made it, it would provide some peace of mind, and if he didn’t make it, then an operation would allow Ohtani to be ready to pitch in a year and a half. Had the Angels waited, and had Ohtani gotten re-injured next spring, then he’d be out for much of 2020 as well. Now all parties have more information. Actionable information. Horrible, unfortunate, terribly upsetting actionable information.

But if there’s a silver lining to any of this, let me suggest that we take a step back and consider what Ohtani has already accomplished. Yes, it sucks what happens to pitchers sometimes. Yes, Tommy John surgery is a risk, and, yes, Ohtani’s two-way career might never be the same. Yet Ohtani has already proven himself. He’s already proven that someone like Shohei Ohtani can work. As far as Major League Baseball was concerned, Ohtani was something of an experiment, and he has been wildly successful. It’s impossible to deny the conclusion.

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The Best Reliever Season You Haven’t Heard About

Edwin Diaz was recently named the American League Reliever of the Month. This is, evidently, an award that exists, and Diaz this year has already won it four times. The baseball season has had just five months. Diaz has been absolutely overwhelming, and no player is more responsible for having kept the Mariners competitive. Diaz’s Oakland equivalent would be Blake Treinen, who’s had a similarly impossible year. In the National League, there has, of course, been Josh Hader. You know who many of the best relievers are right now. You might’ve read a few articles about them over the course of the regular season. It’s along season, and almost everything gets written about eventually.

But there’s a reliever breakout that’s been happening under the radar. Over time, the 2018 Texas Rangers have faded from relevance. Yet, over time, those same Rangers have watched Jose Leclerc develop into something sensational. Leclerc maybe hasn’t been the best reliever in baseball. He’s definitely been one of them, however, and what makes it all the more remarkable is where Leclerc was just a season ago. Wild hard-throwers come, and wild hard-throwers go. Usually, they never manage to harness their stuff. Leclerc’s an exception who flipped a switch, and now the batters just don’t know what to do.

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Trevor Story Is Making an All-Time Improvement

There was a time at which FanGraphs got swept up in Trevor Story mania. FanGraphs, of course, wasn’t alone in how it responded to Story’s big-league debut, because back in April of 2016, Story came out of the gate like a bolt of lightning. In his first-ever major-league game, he hit two home runs. To follow that up, he hit another. To follow that up, he hit *another.* And then he went deep twice in game number four. Story hit ten home runs that month, and he finished it with a slugging percentage of .696. It was impossible not to sit up and notice.

But there are debuts, and then there’s the rest. Many players have come up and done well at first. Fewer have sustained their success. The key to sticking around is to adjust to the opponents’ adjustments, and from May 2016 through the end of 2017, Story managed a combined 93 wRC+. Playable, certainly, yet hardly fantastic. Story was in danger of being forgotten, and, worse than that, he was in danger of being supplanted. Maybe not right away, but Story had to prove he should be considered a part of the Rockies’ longer-term core.

Here we are today, and by any measure, Story’s been one of baseball’s best shortstops. The Rockies are in first place in the NL West, and while their run differential is far worse than that of the Dodgers, Story has obviously done his part. He’s helped to push the Rockies into their present position, and all it’s required is an improvement for the record books.

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Jeff Sullivan FanGraphs Chat — 8/31/18

9:07

Jeff Sullivan: Hello friends

9:07

Jeff Sullivan: Welcome to Friday baseball chat

9:07

Jeff Sullivan: And welcome to what is almost a long holiday weekend!

9:07

Jeff Sullivan: Thank you for already mentally checking out from work so that you can participate in this exchange

9:08

Ozzie Ozzie Albies Free: What do you think? Was it a foul ball or a foul bunt?

9:08

Jeff Sullivan: I lean pretty strongly toward foul ball. I do not believe that Lorenzen had intent to bunt that pitch

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The Particular Skill of Kyle Freeland

As I write this, there are 115 different pitchers this year who have thrown at least 100 innings. Among them, Kyle Freeland ranks tied for seventh in ERA-, at 62. The pitcher with whom he’s even: one Clayton Kershaw. The next pitcher down the list: one Justin Verlander. Now, we’re a site that loves its peripherals, and, indeed, if you sort by, say, FIP-, Freeland doesn’t look quite so good. But he still looks strong. According to a peripheral-based version of WAR, Freeland has been a plus. According to a runs-based version of WAR, Freeland is a viable candidate for the NL Cy Young.

I don’t hesitate to say that Freeland has been overlooked. He doesn’t get the attention of rotation-mate Jon Gray, because Gray throws that sexy power stuff, and he gets those sexy strikeouts. Freeland doesn’t do as much of the basic stuff that analysts look for, so he’s flown for this long under the radar. But if you’ll allow me some freedom here, I’d like to invoke a couple all-timer names. The images might be able to speak for themselves.

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What Christian Yelich Has Changed

You couldn’t blame Eric Hosmer or Christian Yelich if they got sick of hearing about Statcast. Anyone who’s ever played with the basic tools has been able to discover two things: (1) historically, Hosmer and Yelich have hit the ball hard, and (2) historically, Hosmer and Yelich have hit the ball on the ground. It became easy to wonder what might happen if Hosmer and Yelich set their sights on the skies. It just so happened that, last offseason, both of those players changed teams. Might they have also been willing to change their swings? It’s not that it wasn’t interesting. It just started to grow a little tired.

Hosmer hasn’t changed. That much I can tell you. Through five months of baseball, he’s got a below-average batting line and a below-replacement WAR. He has the highest ground-ball rate he’s ever posted. But then, Yelich is currently sitting on a career-high wRC+. He’s sitting on a career-high slugging percentage. He’s also technically sitting on a career-low ground-ball rate.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. Yelich’s average launch angle hasn’t budged from last season to this one. He remains a ground-ball and line-drive hitter. In part, he’s just benefiting from playing in Milwaukee instead of playing in Miami. And in part, he’s benefiting from another change. It’s not one that has to do with his swing. Rather, it’s one that has to do with his approach.

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