Author Archive

Heath Bell’s Return To Dominance

With J.J. Putz’s elbow hurting, the Diamondbacks have turned to Heath Bell in the closer’s role. Tuesday night against Atlanta, Heath Bell converted his fifth save in six last-inning save opportunities in impressive fashion: after the first baserunner reached on an error, Bell struck out Evan Gattis and Dan Uggla swinging before retiring Chris Johnson on a fly ball to center. Wednesday afternoon, Bell added another, as he worked another hitless and walkless inning, including a strikeout of Justin Upton.

Bell’s debut outing with Arizona looked like the beginning to another ugly season, as he allowed three runs on four hits (including two home runs) and managed just one out. Since then, Bell has been brilliant: over 18 appearances (17.2 innings), Bell hasn’t allowed a home run and has recorded 22 strikeouts against just two walks, good for a 3.06 ERA and a stunning 0.87 FIP. These two saves against Atlanta featured the drivers behind Bell’s success: impeccable fastball control, and the willing to go to it whenever he needs a strike.

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The Mets: Elite Baserunners

Last night, the Mets won 3-2 over the Pirates on three runs deserving the “manufactured” classification. Every run required a baserunner to take an extra base. John Buck scored on a sacrifice fly in the third inning after he went first-to-third on a single. Andrew Brown scored from first on a double in the seventh inning, and Marlon Byrd scored the game-winner on a relatively shallow single to center field by Mike Baxter.

Don’t be surprised. The Mets now lead MLB in runs added from baserunning at 5.6, just over the Red Sox at 5.4, and they’ve done it despite stealing just 13 bases, 24th in the league. How? They don’t make outs, and they take nearly every base possible when the ball is put in play.

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Craig Kimbrel and the Reds’ Unlikeliest Comeback

Win probability said the Reds had a 4.3 percent chance of winning when Devin Mesoraco stepped to the plate against Craig Kimbrel. There were two outs and nobody on base. Win probability obviously didn’t know Craig Kimbrel was pitching.

According to Tom Tango’s run frequency calculator, given Kimbrel’s career .154/.240/.208 line against, a run is expected to score off Kimbrel 2.3 percent of the time with two outs and the bases empty. Actual win probablity, then, is more like 1.0 percent, considering Atlanta would be expected to win half the times Kimbrel gets out of the inning with a tie.

Naturally, then, Mesoraco and Shin-Soo Choo hit back-to-back home runs, and the Reds left with likely the most improbable walk-off win of the season.

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Buchholz, Morris and a Brief History of Spitball Accusations

I offered my explanation for Clay Buchholz’s success this season yesterday, citing improved fastball command and a recently harnessed but always nasty changeup. Jack Morris, now on the radio call for the Toronto Blue Jays, has other ideas:

I found out because the guys on the video camera showed it to me right after the game,” he said. “I didn’t see it during the game. They showed it to me and said, ‘What do you think of this?’ and I said, ‘Well, he’s throwing a spitter. Cause that’s what it is.

The scandal, if one can even call it such, involves video of rosin on Buchholz’s left forearm. The accusations are tenuous at best, and as Morris himself put it, “I can’t prove anything. I can’t prove anything.” Although Morris wasn’t the only one to accuse Buchholz of throwing a spitter — former pitcher Dirk Hayhurst, also with the Blue Jays radio team, joined in — it’s hard to imagine these accusations going anywhere.

However, Morris and Hayhurst give us an opportunity to revisit the spitball, in my opinion one of the most unique pieces of baseball history, from its time as a legal pitch in baseball’s early years to Gaylord Perry’s Hall of Fame spitball and everywhere in between.

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Clay Buchholz Commands, Changes Way To Success

Although Clay Buchholz had enjoyed his share of success heading into 2013, from a no-hitter to a 17-win season, one assumes the Red Sox were hoping for more. Buchholz was Baseball America‘s fourth-best prospect entering 2008 and appeared to be a top-of-the-rotation power arm capable of ace-level dominance. Instead, Buchholz has had one very good season — a 2010 with a 2.33 ERA and a still-solid 3.61 FIP. He has otherwise pitched like a back-end rotation-filler, with a 4.26 ERA and a 4.38 FIP over 500.1 innings.

Wednesday night, Buchholz’s fifth start of his age-28 season, is the latest signal of the step forward the Red Sox have been waiting for. Buchholz held the Blue Jays to just two hits and three walks over seven shutout innings as he struck out eight to lower his ERA to 1.01. And fret not, the peripherals are fantastic as well: he owns a 2.28 FIP and 3.00 xFIP.

The strikeout total he put up Wednesday night has been there all season, and it’s the main difference between the new Buchholz and the old Buchholz. Despite his blazing fastball and breaking pitches lauded as grade 70 pitches in Baseball America reports, Buchholz was posted remarkably consistent and mediocre strikeout rates from 2009-2012, always between 6.1 and 6.7 K/9. He now has 47 strikeouts in 44.2 innings in 2013.

Additionally, Buchholz kept a Blue Jays lineup loaded with power hitters without a home run, and he has allowed just one this season. His HR/FB was a horrible 13 percent last year and he had four seasons above 10 percent in his last five.

So what’s new? Via last night’s Blue Jays broadcast, Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said Buchholz’s biggest difference is improved fastball command. And indeed, the numbers (via bear this out: Buchholz has thrown his four-seam fastball for a called strike 27.5 percent of the time this year after just 22.8 percent in 2012. Conversely, the pitch has seen a similar drop in in-play rate. Considering Buchholz has allowed a .537 slugging on contact on the pitch for his career — the worst by over 100 points for any pitch he still throws — the fewer four-seam fastballs put in play the better.

By keeping the fastballs on the corners, something he did proficiently Wednesday night, he’ll turn what used to be balls in play into called strikes or foul balls. He has thrown the fastball for a strike but not in play 51.8 percent of the time this year, six points higher than last season. And, with 160 four-seam fastballs thrown already this season, this difference is already statistically significant (in a 90 percent confidence interval, to be specific).

His HR/FB won’t stay grounded at 3.7 percent, but keeping fastballs out of play will keep it from escalating too quickly. It’s especially key because he needs to be able to throw the fastball to get into favorable counts — it’s his best-controlled pitch at about 68 percent strikes the last two seasons, slightly better than the two-seamer and much better than his off-speed options.

And thanks to those fastball strikes, Buchholz has been in plenty of two-strike counts. The next question, then, is which pitch will be the out pitch. His curveball has been shockingly bad at drawing whiffs — under 10 percent since 2007, close to the major league fastball average — and that hasn’t changed this year. But his changeup, at least in 2013, has been an elite swing-and-miss pitch. Of the 74 Buchholz has tossed, hitters have waved at 20, a massive 27 percent.

As mentioned above, Buchholz’s changeup has been heralded in the past; a 70 grade is frontline material. But he was struggling mightily with the pitch last season, so much so that he scrapped it for a splitter Josh Beckett taught him after he threw the pitch for a ball nearly 50 percent of the time in April last season.

That arsenal change didn’t take as the calendar flipped to 2013. Buchholz had little trouble drawing swings and misses when he used the changeup in 2012 — 18.9 percent is still an excellent mark for a changeup — and his control issues have disappeared. Buchholz threw 13 changeups Wednesday night with nine (69 percent) going for strikes, and his 63 percent overall strike rate works fine for a pitch designed to fool hitters. The pitch has been devastating to left-handers and right-handers alike, with whiff rates over 20 percent to both sides. It’s been so good, he’s put the splitter back in the toolbox, leaving it as a side project for bullpen sessions.

Things will come back to earth. Buchholz’s changeup probably won’t finish with a higher whiff rate than Aroldis Chapman’s slider (currently at 24.4 percent). Teams will tag his fastball for a few home runs. But Buchholz has already thrown enough fastballs to suggest his control and command of the pitch have improved this year, and his changeup has been a highly regarded pitch dating back to his time in Double-A. If he can maintain even a fraction of the improvements he’s shown over his first five starts with these two pitches, the Red Sox can expect Buchholz to finally step into his frontline potential.

Travis Hafner Reborn In Yankee Stadium

Travis Hafner is hitting like it’s 2005. The 35-year-old has raced to a .318/.438/.667 line, replete with six home runs, three doubles and a triple in April. He has helped breathe life into a lineup missing its usual stars. With Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Alex Rodriguez all shelved, the Yankees have still managed 4.6 runs per game, good for ninth in the league.

The Yankees’ lineup has been 14 runs above average this year by wRAA. Hafner is at plus-9 himself, powering the Yankees lineup like he powered those mid-2000s Cleveland teams.

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Changing Approaches: Youkilis, Young, and Seager

It’s still April and the samples are still small, but we’re over 10 percent of the way into the 2013 season and a few statistics are beginning to stabilize. Approach-related statistics in particular are starting to reach the point where the regression can be a little less aggressive. Swing rate begins to tell a bit of a story after just 50 plate appearances, for instance.

It’s a pretty intuitive result — the batter’s choice to swing is less dependent on pitcher quality and independent of fielder quality. By now, qualified players are in the 75-100 plate appearance range, and so we can get an idea of who is making a big change to their approach this year.

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Houston’s Center Field, Finally Beaten In 2013

Monday night, Jesus Montero went where no man has gone before — at least in 2013 — with this mammoth home run to center field at Minute Maid Park. With the blast, Montero became the first player to homer to dead-center field at Minute Maid this season. Observe, all home runs at Minute Maid Park, with 2013 home runs in blue (Montero’s marked by a “+”):

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Jackie Bradley Jr.’s Triple-A Study Assignment

Jackie Bradley Jr.’s fantastic spring did not turn into April results. The highly regarded Red Sox prospect was sent down to Triple-A Pawtucket following Thursday’s game after he managed just three hits and six walks in 38 plate appearances. It’s clear what Bradley needs to work on with his everyday at-bats at Pawtucket: hitting advanced changeups and curveballs.

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Doing the Homework on Greinke and Quentin

The biggest baseball event of Thursday night came outside of game action. In the top of the sixth inning of the Dodgers-Padres game in San Diego, Zack Greinke hit Carlos Quentin with a fastball on the wrist on a 3-2 count. After one step towards the mound, Quentin bull-rushed Greinke. As Quentin charged, Greinke threw his shoulder into Quentin’s body, and the result was a broken collarbone for the Dodgers’ starter. There is no timetable for Greinke to return to the mound; he will be examined by doctor Neal El Attrache on Friday.

Although we occasionally see this kind of aggressiveness from players without any prior provocation, it usually indicates some sort of history, either between player and team. A look into the pair’s past suggests there was already tension brewing, and said tension came entirely from Quentin’s end.

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Don’t Sleep on Prince Fielder’s Speed

At two different points in yesterday’s Tigers-Blue Jays game in Detroit, it appeared the game could hinge on, of all things, Prince Fielder’s speed. The Tigers scored a run in the bottom of the first after Fielder beat out what looked like a sure double play ball. Later, with a two-run lead in the sixth, Fielder legged out an infield single to give the Tigers two on with two outs and a chance to blow the game open.

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Welcome to the Rotation, Garrett Richards

The Angels will be leaning on Garrett Richards to fill the starting rotation opening left by the broken elbow Jered Weaver sustained Monday. Projections are bleak for the 24-year-old — updated ZiPS forecasts a 5.46 ERA and 5.00 FIP; Steamer sees a brighter future but still one near replacement level (4.38 ERA, 4.33 FIP).

There is room for excitement here, however. Richards, the 42nd-overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft, has stuff to make scouts drool. His fastball has averaged 94.7 MPH out of the bullpen in 4.1 innings this year and was a blazing 95.6 MPH out of the rotation in eight starts in June and July of 2012. His slider was rated as the best breaking pitch in the Texas League in 2011 and has induced a whiff on 34.7 percent of swings in the majors, a significantly better mark than Weaver (28.2 percent) and noted slider artists Madison Bumgarner (24.1 percent) and Matt Cain (24.9 percent).

So far, though, there has been a disconnect between Richards’s stuff and results. Due to struggles with control and home runs — a disastrous combination — Richards owns a 4.74 ERA and 4.94 FIP through his first 89.1 innings (12 starts, 29 relief appearances). In his 12 starts, Richards has struck out just 5.2 batters per nine innings and has a 4.66 ERA and a 5.41 FIP.

Richards has handled right-handed hitters — they’ve hit .225/.297/.402 against Richards in 195 plate appearances. Lefties, however, have a .318/.412/.514 mark against him. Little in Richards’s statistical profile against lefties induces confidence — a 6.5 K/9 is mediocre; a 5.7 BB/9 is dreadful as is a .196 ISO. He has served up a 26.4 percent line drive rate and a 15.2 HR/FB rate — hallmarks of hard contact.

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Chris Davis Is Hitting Everything

The Orioles scored 20 runs in their 2-1 series victory over the Rays this week. Chris Davis drove in 11 himself and scored four more. His .971 wOBA — 7-for-11, three home runs, three doubles, a walk and a hit by pitch in 13 plate appearances — through the season’s first three games gives him the league lead (Tyler Flowers’s .816 checks in at second place).

Davis now has 10 home runs through his last 10 regular season games — he hit seven home runs in games 156 through 161 last season before an oh-fer in the finale. Davis has kept his fire burning strong by mashing more than just mistake pitches. The Rays attacked the one point in the strike zone he doesn’t mash — the lower-outside corner. And that’s the most impressive part of Davis’s series — even when Rays pitchers hit their spots, Davis was able to not just make contact, but blast those pitches for doubles and home runs.

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Yu Darvish Picks Up Where He Left Off

Marwin Gonzalez earned his hit to break up Yu Darvish’s perfect game last night. Darvish left a 90 MPH four-seam fastball out over the plate, and Gonzalez hit it hard back up the middle, just under Darvish’s glove. It was a mistake pitch. It was the only one from the 26-year-old Darvish last night in Houston.

For 26 batters, Darvish carved through the Astros lineup in his best start since his much-anticipated MLB debut last season. The 6-foot-5 righty struck out 14 of those 26 before Gonzalez finally managed to reach base safely. Darvish created lofty expectations with a tremendous run in his last eight starts of 2012 — 57.1 innings with a 2.35 ERA and 67-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio — and the adjustments he made late last year were present in his masterpiece last night.

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Andrew McCutchen’s Controlled Aggression

Patience has been a big part of Andrew McCutchen’s game since his arrival in Pittsburgh in 2009. The two-time All-Star walked in at least 10 percent of his plate appearances in all four of his MLB seasons.

For McCutchen, consistency has come with patience. His first three seasons saw wOBAs of .363, .359 and .360 respectively. The jump from All-Star to MVP candidate came in 2012, as McCutchen hit .327/.400/.553 and set career highs in all three slash-line stats as well as ISO (.226), home runs (31) and RBI. And it also came with an added bit of aggression at the plate — controlled agression, but aggression nonetheless.

McCutchen set another career high in 2012: he swung at 45.2 percent of pitches, an increase from 40.9 percent in 2011 and 40.8 percent career. But it was controlled aggression: his zone swing rate went up six percent against just a two percent rise in out-of-zone rate, and according to Baseball Prospectus, most of the extra swings were on pitches over the middle third of the plate (see career and 2012 swing rates). More swings in this zone can only be a good thing; more swings means more contact, and McCutchen has a .640 slugging percentage on contact over the middle third of the plate.

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Positional Power Rankings: Relief Pitchers (#16-30)

For an explanation of this series, please read the introductory post. The data is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been going position by position around the sport. We finish up the series with bullpens today, but it’s worth noting that these projections follow a slightly different structure than the rest.

For one, projecting specific innings totals for relievers is a taller task than projecting playing time for position players or even innings totals for starters. There are numerous outside factors impacting bullpen usage, including things that we can’t really predict like the distribution of runs scored and allowed by each team. One team might play in a bunch of blowouts and rarely need their closer, while another could end up in a continuous stream of one run games and ask their best few arms to carry a lion’s share of the workload. Beyond that, the health of a team’s rotation is going to be a factor, as some relievers are also reserve starters who might be pressed into duty mid-season. And the depth charts are continually evolving, as injuries and acquisitions move guys into differing roles that come with different usage patterns.

So, for the relievers, we’ve simply assigned IP totals to each slot on a depth chart. Closers and primary setup men get 65 innings each, with the 3rd/4th relievers getting 55 innings each, and then the rest have their innings allocated in descending order according to their placement on the depth chart. And, in order to make each team’s total number of innings pitched (both starters and relievers) equal out to 1,458, we’ve added in a set for each team that makes up the missing innings in the projections. The performance projection is the same for each team, and is set to be around -0.1 WAR per 100 innings, on the assumption that the 10th or 11th reliever a team uses throughout the season is probably a little bit below replacement level. The statline in the table is just there as a placeholder – those numbers aren’t actually affecting the calculation beyond just setting innings equal and being included in the WAR sum.

Also, since we don’t have separate ZIPS/Steamer projections for guys as starters and relievers, guys who were projected as starters but are going to pitch in relief will likely be under-forecast. Aroldis Chapman, for instance, is getting his starter projections prorated to reliever innings totals, and he’ll almost certainly pitch better in relief than he was projected to do as a starter. There aren’t a lot of those types, but for guys like that, adjust their numbers upwards accordingly.

Oh, and we’ve mentioned this on the other lists, but it is worth emphasizing here – the gap between many teams is so slim that you shouldn’t read too much into a team’s placement in the ordinal rank. The gap between #12 and #22 is +0.7 WAR. That’s no difference at all, really. There are good bullpens, okay bullpens, and a couple of bad bullpens, but don’t get too caught up in whether one team is a few spots ahead of another team. With margins this small, the specific placement on the list is mostly irrelevant.

On to the list.

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Positional Power Rankings: Second Base

What’s all this, then? For an explanation of this series, please read the introductory post. As noted in that introduction, the data is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position.

Due to an unfortunate data error, the numbers in this story did not include park factors upon publication. We have updated the data to include the park factors, and the data you see below is now correct. We apologize for the mistake.

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The Tigers and Successful Setup to Closer Conversions

Barring a late-spring signing of Jose Valverde, the Tigers will be turning to a pitcher new to the closer’s role (or, in the case of Octavio Dotel, many years removed from his last closing opportunity). Things have been rough in the bullpen in spring training, particularly for the assumed front-runner Bruce Rondon, who has allowed five hits (including a home run) and five walks in just four appearances to date.

The competition appears now to be a bit more wide open. Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel join Rondon as options for the ninth inning in Detroit. Who fits best? To help answer that question, I took a look at what characterized the most successful pitchers to move from a setup role (or other bullpen role) into a closer role the next season.

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Running The Numbers on the WBC’s Extra Inning Plan

The World Baseball Classic — which starts tonight! — tweeted out a fun fact about their extra innings procedure. Your mileage may vary:

This fact’s fun factor can be debated; in a game as based in tradition as baseball, I think many would prefer as little messing with the rules as possible. But with MLB (and foreign professional leagues, most likely) worried about the health of their players, it’s in the WBC’s best interest to avoid 20-inning marathon games, as much as we may want to see them. Does their policy at least succeed in that respect?

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Kyle Lohse and Other Pillow Contract Players

Players choose the services of Scott Boras for a simple reason. The simplest reason, even: he gets money.

But not even Boras can truly command the invisible hand of the market. See Kyle Lohse. Despite many seeing him as one of the best pitchers available in this year’s free agent class, Lohse remains unsigned into march — a far cry from the four-year, $40 million deal or higher many saw him attaining.

Of course, for all of Boras’s success, Lohse isn’t his first high-profile client whose market has dropped out from under him. The safe play given the age of most of these players (over 30) and MLB’s guaranteed contract system would be to take a multi-year contract at a depressed average annual value. Quite often, however, Boras has eschewed the long term deal for the “pillow contract,” a one-year contract so-called because it lets the player land softly from their bottomed-out market and get up and try again next season.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

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