Author Archive

The New Relief Ace in Anaheim

If you had told the Angels before the season started that they would be in the thick of the Wild Card race approaching Fourth of July weekend, it’s likely they would have been pleased. Our preseason projections suggested they were an 83-win team and so far they are on pace for 82 wins. They’ve outplayed their run differential and their raw statistics slightly, but they looked like a roughly average team and have played like a roughly average team.

What’s noteworthy is that they’ve managed to stay on this pace despite losing Mike Trout to injury more than a month ago. It’s not news that the Angels are as good as we thought they were, but the fact that they’ve stayed on track without the services of the game’s best player sent me searching. With all due respect to Martin Maldonado, Cameron Maybin, Andrelton Simmons, and Eric Young (?!), it’s the bullpen that has stood out so far, and that bullpen has been led by Blake Parker.

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The Other Times We Saw This Ryan Zimmerman

Ryan Zimmerman is off to a great start. We’re only 26 games into the season covering 104 PA, but anytime you’re running a .427/.462/.875 line, it’s worth celebrating. Among qualified hitters entering play on Thursday, Zimmerman led the league with a 241 wRC+. This is particularly noteworthy because, measured by outcomes, Zimmerman had a terrible season in 2016. Zimmerman posted a 67 wRC+ in 467 PA last year after many years as an above-average hitter.

During the offseason, Jeff Sullivan noted that Zimmerman’s 2016 probably didn’t portend doom. Jeff pointed out that Zimmerman was hitting the ball pretty hard in the air, but he simply wasn’t collecting extra-base hits at a rate consistent with that contact quality. Erstwhile FanGrapher Mike Petriello made a related argument, recognizing that Zimmerman was making hard contact, but that he simply wasn’t hitting the ball at a steep enough angle to turn that hard contact into productive contact.

I probably don’t have to tell you where this is going. This season, Zimmerman is hitting the ball a bit harder than last year, 93.6 mph on average vs, 92.5 mph in 2016, but his average launch angle has increased from 9.0 to 11.7 degrees in 2017.

But you don’t need fancy Statcast numbers to notice this difference. His fly-ball and ground-ball rates are plenty clear. Zimmerman has joined the ranks of so many players who are trying to hit more fly balls. And at least so far this season, it’s working quite well for him.

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Let’s Keep an Eye on Sean Manaea

After two starts and one week of baseball, Sean Manaea has the seventh-worst ERA among qualified pitchers at 7.15. That’s a pretty useless sentence for about five different reasons, but I’m going to rely on it briefly because it’s April and being a baseball writer is very difficult in April. In early April, we’re on the hunt for indicators. Other than health and velocity, it’s hard to find anything that happens in week one that will meaningfully shift your opinion, but we’re all keeping our eyes open for signs of things to come. The data points from April matter, it’s just too early to know if they’re representative of anything.

Typically, if a promising young pitcher like Manaea recorded two starts during which he allowed 10 runs over 11.1 innings, we would either brush it aside as a product of growing pains or consider it as a possible indication that something is wrong. In general, it’s not good to give up a lot of runs, even if we’re all in agreement that pitchers don’t have complete control over how many runs they allow.

But what’s so interesting about Manaea is that, in addition to what appear to be a couple of rough starts in the outcome department, he’s excelling in two of the pitching statistics that become reliable most quickly. Any reasonably astute fan can take a look at Manaea’s strikeout rate (28.6%), walk rate (8.2 %), home-run rate (0.79 HR/9), and BABIP (.259) to determine that his opponents have stacked all their success into just a couple of weird innings. But while those indicators look good enough to chalk this up to sequencing, there are actually two deeper measures that are quite interesting.

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2017 Positional Power Rankings: Right Field

This continues FanGraphs’ positional power rankings. Dave Cameron’s introduction is here. Other installments are available by clicking the links above. Projected numbers are a product of our depth-chart projections, produced by a combination of the Steamer and ZiPS forecasts and our own playing-time estimates.

We’re here to discuss every club’s right-field situation. We begin with a graph:

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Let’s Build a Searchable Baseball-Text Archive

Baseball provides its audience with great data. We’re blessed with a large number of observations and very high-quality record keeping. Even before MLB announced a radar and video tracking system designed to capture seven terabytes of data per game, we had box scores going back a century and 40 years of play-by-play logs. Thanks to organizations like Retrosheet, SABR, and Baseball-Reference, baseball’s data is also very accessible.

Unsurprisingly, baseball fans are excited about the full implementation of Statcast because the system brings with it the promise of new and exciting data. Exit velocity! Time to the plate! Route tracking! While I share some of that excitement, Statcast has my attention because of something else it promises to offer: completeness.

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The Top Prospect Who Technically Isn’t

Byron Buxton was drafted second overall in 2012. Between that point and the loss of his rookie eligibility last season, he was eligible for four rounds of preseason prospect lists. Almost universally, he appeared at or near the top of those lists. Consider, for example, his place among the rankings published annually by Baseball Prospectus during that time frame:

Barring injury, the 2017 season is going to be the 23-year-old Buxton’s first full one in the majors. Under traditional circumstances, there would be a round-the-clock coverage of this budding superstar’s march to the top of every relevant leaderboard. Yet we find ourselves in non-traditional circumstances for a couple of important reasons.

To refresh your memory: in the summer of 2013 — Buxton’s first full season as a professional — we were only a year-plus into the Mike Trout experience and we were decidedly not taking it in stride. J.J. Cooper, writing for Baseball America, stoked the fire of comparisons between Trout and Buxton. As baseball fans are wont to do, the crowd took Cooper’s consideration of the subject to another level, and the layman’s impression of Buxton went from “really good outfield prospect” to “might be another Trout.” Buxton built his own hype in 2013, racking up a .944 OPS across multiple levels. In his first full year out of high school, Buxton’s numbers were great and people were giving reports to prospect writers suggesting he was truly elite.

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The Diamondbacks Built a Super Rotation, Sort Of

Our extremely early 2017 standings projections have the Diamondbacks located a clear step behind the Giants and a couple of notches behind the Dodgers in the NL West, but with a 77-win projection, they’re firmly planted within striking distance. Even if the projections were on the money regarding the club’s true talent, a few wins of random overperformance and a couple of deadline deals could easily vault them into the Wild Card race. The Diamondbacks’ roster is respectable. No one expects them to produce a 95-win season, but you could imagine exciting games in September.

One thing about the club that’s particularly interesting going into the season is their starting rotation. The projections put them somewhere in the middle of the pack for 2017, and while you can definitely argue about precise rankings, you probably couldn’t find anyone willing to put them higher than eighth or lower than about 20th. Even if you don’t put much stock into the exact calculations, that generally passes the sniff test.

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Baseball’s Active One-Start Relievers

By way of Baseball-Reference’s invaluable Play Index, one learns that there are 39 active pitchers who have started precisely one game in the majors. Most of them have very little big-league experience. Most of them, in addition to their lone start, have recorded a few innings out of the pen during over the course of their one or two years in the bigs. Of the 39 total, 17 have made fewer than 10 appearances in the show.

There’s second group of pitchers whose major-league resumes are slightly more impressive. The members of this group have made the one start but have also worked as a full-time reliever for a season or two. This group of 15 pitchers has recorded more than 30, but fewer than 100, major-league innings.

Finally, there’s a more interesting group of seven pitchers who’ve made a lone big-league start and yet thrown more than 100 innings in their careers. This is their story.

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Gonzalez Germen (144.0 career innings)

Rockies’ reliever Gonzalez Germen has recorded 144 innings over the course of 129 games from 2013 to 2016. The righty spent two uninspiring seasons with the Mets before a brief stint with the Cubs in early 2015. During the 2015 season, he joined the Rockies, allowing fewer runs since the move. No one would argue he’s been particularly good in Colorado, but in roughly the same number of innings and batters before Colorado and since joining the Rockies, he’s cut his ERA- from 128 to 97 (even as his FIP has gone in the opposite direction).

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The Man Who Hasn’t Been Hit in Almost Six Years

Part of growing up is realizing that some no-hitters aren’t necessarily great pitching performances. Try telling an eight-year-old that the six-walk no-hitter she’s watching is less impressive than a one-hit, no-walk shutout and she’ll look at you like you’re from another planet. If you explain that same thing to an adult, she probably won’t turn off the TV, but will probably concede you have a point. No-hitters have a magic that transcends the actual logic of the achievement. That’s perfectly fine, of course, as one’s enjoyment of an event doesn’t need to correlate precisely with it’s degree of difficulty.

But it’s worth considering why the no-hitter is magical. Most of it is probably the name and the history, but I’ll propose another reason: it’s a razor’s edge accomplishment. In other words, as soon as the pitcher allows a hit, the entire thing is over. When Barry Bonds was chasing Hank Aaron, if he failed to hit a home run, there would always be another chance. If a batter falls below .400, he can always bring his average back up. When you’re dealing with an accomplishment based on a zero, everything is exciting because it could be gone at any moment.

This is why I was so interested in Chase Utley’s no-double play season. Every single plate appearance mattered. Well, in preparing last week’s post on Derek Dietrich’s elite ability to get hit with the baseball, I noticed another zero-based accomplishment that’s pretty extraordinary: Coco Crisp hasn’t been hit by a pitch in more than five years.

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The Other Hit-by-Pitch Savant of 2016

In 2016, Brandon Guyer cemented his role as the king of the hit by pitch. In fact, erstwhile FanGraphs author August Fagerstrom used precisely that title when reviewing Guyer’s exceptional ability to put his person between the baseball and the catcher’s glove. Guyer was hit in nearly nine percent of his plate appearances in 2016 and more than six percent of his plate appearances during his time in the majors. I will save you the trouble of looking it up — both of those rank first in baseball.

Yet in his desire to tell the story of Guyer’s superior ability, August failed to mention (maliciously ignored?!) another player who would be considered a king in his own right if not for the presence of Guyer atop this delightful leaderboard. In other words, if Brandon Guyer didn’t exist we would still have someone about whom an article is worth writing. This is that article.

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Why Does the Home Crowd Boo Intentional Walks?

Over the last 10 seasons, home-team batters were intentionally walked 5,813 times. We saw 478 of those in 2016. If you watch enough baseball, you’ve seen several of these on television or in person. In many cases, these walks are met with enthusiastic booing by the home crowd, which is always something I’ve found particularly curious given that being offered a free base is almost always a good thing.

Of course, intentional walks aren’t as valuable as doubles or home runs — and, on average, they occur at times when they’re significantly less valuable than singles. In most cases, however, an intentional walk is better than the expected value of a normal plate appearance. This is why we’ve seen a movement away from intentional walks over the last several years; it’s rarely advantageous for the pitcher.

intentional-walks-per-game

Given that the evidence seems quite clear that most intentional walks benefit the hitting team, why do fans frequently give the pitcher such a hard time? I see three possible lines of reasoning.

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The Year Cesar Hernandez Hit Three Ground-Ball Triples

There’s a genre of baseball discussion known as the “fun fact.” You might also call it “trivia.” A player is the first to accomplish a particular feat in 40 years; another is the only one to reach a notable career mark in a particular season. The genre doesn’t demand rigorous analysis; it’s merely a collection of interesting tidbits which may or may not be relevant in more thorough discussions. Some fun facts are amazing and others are forced to the point of farce.

There’s another genre of baseball discussion we’ll call “can he keep doing this thing?” analysis. This is very familiar to the loyal FanGraphs reader. We do this kind of thing all the time. We notice a player trying something new and try to determine if it’s meaningful. This article will subject Cesar Hernandez’s 2016 season to both sorts of discussion.

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Another Year in Catchers Playing Other Positions

It’s not uncommon for ballplayers and managers and other people associated with baseball to evoke the “unwritten rules” of the game. For some, these unwritten rules seem absurd, a sort of arcane code that frequently contradicts reason. In essence, though, these “unwritten rules” amount to what a social scientist might refer to as “norms.” And, discussed in these terms, they make a little more sense. Using the term “norms” instead of “unwritten rules” removes some of the connotations of the latter term, and let’s us think about the game without choosing sides.

One norm that’s rarely scrutinized is the existence of distinct positions. The pitcher and catcher are highly regulated by the official rules, of course; otherwise, though, the league doesn’t have a lot to say about what the positions should be and how the men filling them should operate. For that reason, some positions are fluid. Corner outfielders are largely interchangeable. Middle infielders have generally the same jobs. Most of what makes the positions different are the existing norms about how they should be played and what you need to do to succeed there.

But as I noted a moment ago, there are exceptions. Catchers have a very different job from everyone else and that job is typically understood to be more important and more demanding than the other positions. It’s harder to be a catcher than it is to be an outfielder, but the positions also require dramatically different sets of skills to the point at which you can’t really compare the two in a meaningful way.

That doesn’t mean we can’t try. On occasion, catchers are asked to play positions other than catcher despite the required skills being quite different. How do those catchers do when they move from behind the plate? Does it tell us anything meaningful? Last winter, I performed an exercise to determine the performance of catchers at other positions. This represents an update of that piece, for the 2016 season.

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The 2017 Free Agents Who Could Have Been

You have a choice. Either I give you $100 right now, or you can let me flip a coin. If the coin lands on heads, I’ll give you $250. But if it lands on tails, I’ll give you $20. I’m using a fair coin, so the expected value of flipping the coin is $135 based on the 50/50 odds it lands on heads or tails. If you like risk or are a risk-neutral person, it’s an easy decision to take your chances with the coin because the odds are strongly in your favor. If you’re a risk-averse person, however, you’re more likely to take the sure thing because $135 isn’t a whole lot more than $100, and $100 is a whole lot more than $20.

Let’s add another wrinkle. It’s the same choice, but if you choose the coin flip, you have to wait a month. The dollar amounts are the same, but now there’s a time component. To get the value of the coin flip, you need to apply a discount factor to the $135. For some people, that discount factor is pretty close to one, but it might be much lower if you’re strapped for cash and the $100 would dramatically improve your life in the present.

Major-league players face a much higher stakes version of this decision when their club comes to them with a contract extension. Do they take a sure thing now, or do they wait and gamble on themselves? While we’re focusing a lot on the 2016-2017 free-agent class this month, there are 13 players who could have been free agents for the first time this year but instead chose to cash out early by signing extensions. Did they make the right decision?

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2016 World Series Game 4 Live Blog

7:53
Neil Weinberg: Hey everyone!

7:53
Neil Weinberg: Nick Stellini and I are going to be your hosts this evening. Nick is going to be joining the site as a regular writer in a week or two, but this is his soft launch.

7:54
Korey Cluber: FOX had Carlos Santana listed as a 1B/OF in the pregame.

7:54
Nick Stellini: If I blow up on the launchpad it’s all Neil’s fault.

7:54
Neil Weinberg: I saw this. Loved it. I am all about players playing weird positions.

7:55
Neil Weinberg:

Who would you like to win tonight?

Cleveland (49.1% | 57 votes)
Cubs (50.8% | 59 votes)

Total Votes: 116

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The Evolving Curveball of Kyle Hendricks

As you’ve likely heard, the first World Series game at Wrigley Field in seven decades will be played this evening. The starting assignment belongs to Kyle Hendricks, the soft-tossing right-hander lovingly known as “The Professor.” At this point, Hendricks has done enough to convince the attentive fan that he’s an above-average major-league pitcher. While many of us were on board with Hendricks in 2014 and 2015, there might have still been cause to doubt a pitcher whose fastball sits at 88 mph. After a 2016 season during which he both maintained his strong fielding-independent numbers and allowed very few runs, there isn’t much room left for doubt.

Hendricks has further cemented that impression on the biggest stage, allowing just three runs in 16.1 innings this postseason to go along with his consistently strong fielding-independent resume. Even if you give plenty of credit to the Cubs’ superb defense for Hendricks’ top-line numbers, it’s hard to ignore his performance this season and over the last few weeks.

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Let’s Make the Bullpen Catcher the Emergency Catcher

This postseason has featured plenty of interesting baseball with all sorts of compelling performances. Without diminishing Javy Baez’s tags or Clayton Kershaw’s brilliance, it’s probably fair to say that the two main storylines have concerned bullpen usage and the impact of replay. Perhaps we’ve reached a bullpen tipping point, but it seems almost certain that this postseason will lead the league to revise exactly how replay is applied to split-second base detachments.

While most people have latched onto these stories, I’ve had my eye on something different. The Cubs and Dodgers both carried three catchers for at least one series and have both used three catchers in a single game during these playoffs. Admittedly, this is a less important and obvious development than bullpen changes and replay controversies, but it sets up a discussion I’ve been wanting to have about a potential rule change.

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Terry Francona Knew When to Ignore the Leverage Index

The Orioles lost Tuesday night without using Zach Britton, one of the game’s best relief pitchers. It was a do-or-die game that went to extra innings, but Buck Showalter held his closer for a save situation because the closer is the closer. While there’s some argument for maintaining bullpen roles and hierarchies over the course of a 162-game season, sticking to that kind of mentality in a single-elimination game defies comprehension. If there were ever a time to use your closer early, it’s when a single run could end your season. Showalter didn’t and he’s watching the ALDS from home rather than a dugout.

On Thursday, Terry Francona took a different approach. In Game One against Boston, Francona went to Andrew Miller, his own relief ace, with two outs in the fifth inning. His club led 4-3 with Brock Holt, Boston’s No. 2 hitter, coming to the plate. Francona made the decision that Trevor Bauer was done and it was time to go to the pen. Francona called on Miller for six outs, followed by Bryan Shaw for two and Cody Allen for five.

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Christian Bethancourt as the Ultimate Utility Player

While fans of 20 teams were coping with the end of the season over the weekend, Dennis Lin delivered some incredibly exciting news. Padres manager Andy Green and host of other Padres officials were in Peoria to watch Christian Bethancourt throw a bullpen session. An injured player throwing an October bullpen session wouldn’t normally draw the manager, pitching coach, bullpen coach, minor-league pitching coordinator, and player-development coordinator, but this was no ordinary rehab session.

“We’re flirting with the idea of this guy being a very intriguing ’25th man’ who can catch, can play the outfield and can pitch,” Green said. “I know no team has actually really tried to deploy a guy in that capacity — probably ever when you consider those three dynamics.

“We’ll run as far down that road as his arm allows us to. I don’t know that we’re firmly committed to that or married to that, but it’s worth exploring.”

That’s right: the Padres are exploring the idea of making Bethancourt a catcher, outfielder, and pitcher hybrid.

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Pinpointing the Moment Jake Lamb’s Season Changed

Even if you didn’t predict great things for the Diamondbacks this year, it’s hard not to be disappointed by their 2016 season. You can set aside their various front-office nonsense and still come to that conclusion. Zack Greinke hasn’t been great, A.J. Pollock missed significant time, and Shelby Miller’s year has gone about as poorly as you could imagine. The club is set to lose nearly 100 games and finish last in the NL West.

You’d think that Jake Lamb offensive exploits would be among the club’s few points of pride this season. In 2015, Lamb recorded a 91 wRC+; he’s raised that figure to 115 this year. But it’s more likely that the club is worried about their young third baseman going into the season’s final games. After a scorching hot start, Lamb hasn’t just cooled off in the second half, he’s cratered.

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