Author Archive

Ian Kinsler is Turning Back the Clock

Usually, we expect players to follow a more or less expected curve of decline when they hit their 30s. Obviously everyone is different, but baseball is a young man’s game, and father time comes for us all. Research by Jeff Zimmerman in 2013 showed that hitters don’t even tend to peak nowadays: on average, they perform at a plateau upon reaching the majors, then they decline. Take the wRC+ aging curve for a few different time periods, for instance:

We often talk about a player being “in his prime,” but primes are probably younger than many (or most) people think. In this era, 26 is really the beginning of the average hitter’s offensive decline. Which brings us to Ian Kinsler, who will turn 34 in June: he’s currently posting what would be the highest wRC+ of his career, and Isolated Power marks in line with his best home run-hitting seasons of 2009/2011. That isn’t particularly huge news: plenty of veteran hitters have ~40 game stretches in which they match close to their prime production.

The real news is that Kinsler is currently going beyond that, showing a few underlying indicators that amount to him turning back the clock. He’s also altered his approach, and the combined forces are helping to drive what is currently shaping up to be his best offensive season since he posted a 123 wRC+ with 32 homers in 2011. Kinsler is probably never going to steal 30 bases again (or maybe even 20), but he’s picking up that slack in his production at the plate, especially power-wise.

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The Latest Concern About Yordano Ventura

We have a number of great ERA estimators on this site. FIP, xFIP, SIERA: choose your favorite, because they all have a place in attempting to better describe outcomes closer to a pitcher’s true talent over a given timeframe. Maybe you’re lazy, or maybe you’re different, but it can also be nice to have a dead simple one — which is where K-BB% comes in. If a pitcher is striking guys out and limiting walks, that’s a fundamentally positive thing, and it turns out K-BB% is actually the best in-season predictor of future performance out of all the ERA estimators on the site (though it’s still not a great predictor, to be honest). Unless a pitcher possesses a signature batted-ball profile, K-BB% represents a nice, handy way of feeling a little better about a guy if his ERA hasn’t been quite up to expectations. Or, you know, feeling worse about a guy whose ERA has been lower than what his peripherals seem to say it should be.

Which brings us to the current K-BB% leaderboard. A casual perusal yields these top-five worst K-BB% rates among qualified starters in the major leagues:

Worst K-BB%, Qualified Starters, 2016
Name K% BB% K-BB%
Yordano Ventura 15.4% 16.6% -1.2%
Martin Perez 14.3% 13.3% 1.0%
Jeff Locke 14.5% 12.2% 2.3%
Mat Latos 11.2% 8.9% 2.4%
Wily Peralta 12.8% 9.2% 3.6%

Negative? Negative! These guys all have pretty middling strikeout rates, and the top few have some serious control problems. Just in case you were wondering, no one ran a negative K-BB% among qualified starters last season. It makes sense, given that it’s a hard thing to do while still being allowed to pitch a lot of meaningful innings in majo- league baseball games. But Ventura is currently doing it, and his ERA is “just” 4.62! And yet this next table, of Ventura’s current FIP and xFIP ranks among qualified starters, seems relevant, given his current standing with strikeouts and walks: Read the rest of this entry »


The Red Sox Offense Has Been Better Than the 1927 Yankees

The Boston Red Sox played the first game of a series versus the Houston Astros last night, and they scored 11 runs, eight of which came against Houston starter Dallas Keuchel. The day before that, they played the Oakland A’s, and they scored 13 runs. The two days prior to that — also against the A’s — they scored 13 and 14 runs, respectively, with one of those games coming against Oakland starter Sonny Gray. In the span of four days, Boston torched last year’s Cy Young Award-winner and the third place runner-up for a combined 15 earned runs. Pitching in the major leagues tends to be a matter of razor-thin margins, and that margin is made even more razor-thin in the pitcher-unfriendly confines of Fenway Park; regardless of that fact, the Red Sox offense is currently in the equivalent of a brightly-colored baseball fever dream, going berserk on anything and everything in its path.

We’ve seen a couple articles about this offense in the past few days. The sheer number of offensive categories they currently lead in baseball is wildly impressive. We’re going to dig a little deeper today, however, and get a little historical perspective before trying to pin down the processes this offense has taken to cause such an incredible run of form.

First, let’s take a look at where this offense would rank if it finished the season with this type of production. Let’s compare the 2016 Red Sox to every team since the start of the live ball era (1920) by wRC+. wRC+ is adjusted for parks and leagues, so it allows us to easily compare offenses from different years to one another. Take a look at the top 10 teams of all time by wRC+ — with each point above 100 representing a percentage point above league average:

Ten_Best_wRC+_1920-2016

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Josh Donaldson Has Gone Full Edwin Encarnacion

Nothing about Josh Donaldson being great is surprising anymore. There was the late-career breakout in 2012, and then confirmation that the breakout was real in 2013-14. And then, of course, he won the Most Valuable Player award in 2015. We love stories about unexpected rises to prominence more than anything else, and that’s true within baseball and outside of it. Once a player reaches the elite and stays there, the story of the rise fades away, and consistent excellence has a strange way of becoming almost routine — whether it deserves it or not. (Note: it does not.) The really fun part comes, however, when great players do things to try and make themselves more great, pushing themselves past the already absurdly high plateau. From what we’ve seen so far this season, Donaldson appears to be embarking on that hallowed and honorable mission.

First, a little background to what we’re talking about. Donaldson based his breakout on better patience, all-fields power, and a few aggressive mechanical changes. Those mechanical changes were based on the leg kick and bat tipping of Jose Bautista, so it was a nice coincidence when the two were united on the Blue Jays last season. Here’s a couple GIFs that visually explain some of those changes, from a 2014 interview with Jerry Brewer:

2013 swing — smaller leg kick, controlled bat tipping:

091313_Controlled

2014 swing — bigger leg kick, aggressive bat tipping:

081214_Aggressive

The latter swing is more of the hitter we know today — the guy who consistently murderizes baseballs — and we can see the quite obvious visual similarities to Bautista’s swing. It’s also the swing that, along with his great defense, vaulted him into the top of the WAR leaderboards over the past few years. Since he joined the Jays, however, Donaldson’s batted-ball tendencies have trended more toward his other power-laden teammate, Edwin Encarnacion. There’s certainly potentially something to gain from him moving more toward Encarnacion’s approach, as it has mimicked the sort of trajectory a number of players follow during single-season power surges. Here, allow us to consider how.

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The (Mostly) Good News About David Price

A quick check of the pitching leaderboards for qualified starters reveals an unsettling fact for the Red Sox: David Price has the second-worst ERA in baseball. Cue the alarm bells! The Sox paid for an ace, and instead, they’ve gotten the exact opposite of an ace — as far as outcomes are concerned, at least. Seven starts into the season, some element of worry has to be merited, right? The answer is yes, of course, because an ERA of almost seven for a No. 1 starter after over a month of games has to be worrying. Price has been terrible, and if you’re worrying about him or would like to, that’s probably merited. The reason why we’re here is to look into whether his performance thus far is grounds to for worry in the future, as well: though Price can’t get any of his clunkers back from the past seven starts, we can certainly look into whether those clunkers might presage future clunkers.

First, let’s start with the bad news, because it’s always better to end with good news. The bad news has been right there in front of us in every single one of Price’s starts this season, flashed up on a board in the stadium or on our TV screens during every pitch: his velocity is down. Way down. Lowest it’s ever been. That’s worrisome not only because velocity loss leads to a smaller margin of error, but also because velocity loss is the most visible indicator of injury. The drop captured in the red box in the chart below — depicting Price’s velocity by month from 2011 to 2016 — ought usually to inspire some concern (chart courtesy of Brooks Baseball):

Price_Velo

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Brandon Belt’s Annual, Awesome Adjustment

We’re here every year, it feels like. May rolls around, we notice that Brandon Belt has been doing new things in the early part of the season, and then we forget about it until the next season rolls around when we start all over again. Maybe it’s because he’s been the victim of a few impact injuries that have caused him to miss time in the second half of the past two seasons. Maybe it’s because he plays in the hardest park at which to hit home runs as a left-handed hitter for 81 games a year. Either way, it seems like Belt doesn’t really get his due. By all accounts, he should: by WAR, he was a top-five first baseman in 2013, and he was top-seven in 2015. Last season, he produced more offense by wRC+ than Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Abreu, or Eric Hosmer. What’s most impressive about Belt, however, is that he has always been evolving, and once again he’s showing some pretty significant adjustments so far this season.

We can trace a long line of Belt’s many evolutions. There was his breakout toward the end of 2012 and into 2013. There were his aggressive swing%/pull% adjustments in 2014. And finally, there was his plate coverage/opposite field power increase in 2015. Belt has obviously always been looking to improve on the craft of hitting, even if the overall results haven’t followed the perfect trajectory: removing an injury-marred 2014 that saw him play only 61 games, Belt has recorded wRC+ marks of 119, 140, and 135 in 2012, 2013, and 2015, respectively. Early adjustments brought him to a very high level, but subsequent ones haven’t quite vaulted him into the elite.

There’s not much that can compare to his wholesale improvements this year, however. I considered holding off on this article until the point at which we could get stabilization on a few more of his stats — ISO, in particular — but the changes are simply too glaring to ignore for another month or so. They’re exciting. We couldn’t wait. Let’s start with these few key offensive statistics:

Brandon Belt BB%/K%/ISO/wRC+, 2012-16
Season BB% K% ISO wRC+
2012 11.4% 22.5% .146 119
2013 9.1% 21.9% .193 140
2014 7.7% 27.2% .206 117
2015 10.1% 26.4% .197 135
2016 18.0% 14.8% .214 158
SOURCE: FanGraphs

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How to Score Runs Off Noah Syndergaard

There’s a vestigial anchor from my baseball past that I drag around — it’s called Red Sox fandom, and it’s attached to a barely seaworthy vessel whose form is an email group of mainly older Boston fans. Most of the debates that happen on the email chain are really just individual manifestations of the argument surrounding process vs. outcome. Like a lot of traditionally-minded baseball fans, most of the members of the group are outcomes people, as baseball fans have been taught to be for the past 100-plus years — focusing on ERA, batting average, etc. I tend to find myself more on the process end of the spectrum, and lately I’ve been thinking about this debate as it relates to pitching — and especially as it relates to Noah Syndergaard

You could argue that no one’s process is better than Syndergaard’s right now — and, most recently, Jeff Sullivan actually has argued that. If the goal of pitching is to limit base-runners — and thus limit runs — the right-hander is about as good as it gets. I like quick ERA estimators like strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%) partly because I’m lazy and partly because I think they’re nifty, and currently Syndergaard is second in K-BB%, which is the best quick ERA estimator we have. Strikeouts? Elite. Walks? Elite. Velocity? Arsenal? Unparalleled. The processes he’s taking to influence positive outcomes are second really only to Clayton Kershaw this season, and for the most part, he’s been rewarded for them. But there is one glaring issue he still has — laid bare in his past two starts — which we’ll get a lot of chances to see below.

All of that said, the main question we’re going to be answering today is: how does a team score runs off of Syndergaard? Every pitcher has to give up runs at some point, no matter how impressive their talent. Today, we engage in a fun exercise to examine those runs. So let’s go through a month’s worth of starts!

A primer for what we’re about to discuss: looking at Statcast data through Baseball Savant, Syndergaard has the lowest average exit velocity among pitchers with a minimum of 60 batted-ball events. Those events include both hits and outs, and it’s testament to the type of contact against him — and the frame for a lot of what we’ll be looking at today. Here’s a reminder of what exit velocity generally means for outcomes. Now let’s jump in, with the understanding that we’re going to skip over his first start of the season, as he didn’t give up any runs. Onward!

Start #2, 4/12/16, 1 ER: Derek Dietrich single. Exit velocity: 74 mph.

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Michael Conforto Is Ahead of the Book on Him

A casual stroll down the stacks of the FanGraphs hitting leaderboards for outfielders yields many interesting takeaways, but perhaps none more interesting than this: among the top 10 outfielders by wRC+, there’s a 23-year-old who played only 45 games above High-A before being called up to the majors last year. He came into this season with the expectation of being a left-handed platoon bat, and now he’s leading the majors in hard-hit rate and hitting third everyday in the sixth-best offensive lineup in baseball. A year can change a lot of things, and it has changed more for Michael Conforto than for just about anyone else in baseball.

Conforto had about as successful a short stint in the majors during 2015 as one could hope for out of a young player with little experience in the high minors — he posted a 134 wRC+ in 56 games, hit a few important home runs in the playoffs, and outperformed the established historical expectations for players in his position. Conforto was good for 2.1 WAR in those 56 games, and the Mets went from a .505 team without him — 3.0 games back in their division — to a .631 team with him, comfortable winners of the National League East. The August/September 2015 Mets weren’t just Conforto, of course, but the Mets needed an offensive jolt, and he provided it. Conforto’s introduction represented a tidy dividing line between mediocrity and wild success, and we’d be fools not to at least recognize the narrative convenience of that line.

That type of introduction to the major leagues is hard to live up to — and yet! Here we are, a month into the season, and Conforto has lived up to them. More than lived up to them, in fact. He’s probably created new expectations, and they’re even loftier, almost impossible ones. We know how easy it is to be wrong about April numbers. It’s folly to think that April assures us of what’s going to happen for the rest of the season. But, while we shouldn’t necessarily expect this current level of production out of him moving forward, he’s showing us a few real improvements so far this season that merit some attention. Conforto isn’t truly this good (no one is), but there’s a reason he’s currently this good.

Let’s start with who he was in 2015. Describing Conforto as a dead-pull hitter in 2015 wouldn’t be accurate, but he was close: he ranked 35th from bottom in terms of batted balls to the opposite field (out of 361 qualifying hitters, min. 190 PAs). Interestingly, he had a hole in his swing, and it was on the inside part of the plate — not really where you’d expect to find it for such a pull-happy hitter. Take a look at his isolated power per pitch location from 2015:

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 12.59.53 AM

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The Unfathomable Reality of a (Temporarily) Awful Joey Votto

It’s always a little dicey writing negative articles. Pointing out deficiencies simply isn’t as fun as pointing out strengths, and there’s something that just feels, well, a little wrong about basing work on something a player is trying so hard to do well. That doesn’t feel like it pertains to this article about Joey Votto, however, mostly because he’s always been extremely good at baseball, and will almost certainly be extremely good at baseball in the near future. Votto has a great contract, an incredible career under his belt, and the prospect of many more wildly successful seasons. The dude is smart and awesome, and we’re simply not too worried about him. However — and the however is important — for really the first time in his career, Votto has been terrible at the plate for almost a full month. That’s at once unbelievable and utterly fascinating, and it’s the reason why we’re here.

So let’s start with a chart. Here’s a readout of Votto’s monthly wRC+ figures since he was called up to the majors in September of 2007. We could have gone with a rolling average, but the monthly delineation gives us a few clear reference points. Mouse over the chart for more information:

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The White Sox Have Gotten the Start They Needed

The White Sox beat the Blue Jays last night by a score of 10-1 (box). Comprehensive victory. Chris Sale won his fifth game, going a ho-hum 8 innings versus a lefty-destroying lineup in a hitter’s park. Southside hitters compiled 15 hits. They won on Monday in the first game of the series and five of the six games before that, too, and today they go for the sweep at the Rogers Centre — at which park the Blue Jays haven’t been swept since 2013. No one is saying that two games and the prospect of an early (and difficult) road sweep make a season, but the White Sox are one of two teams in baseball with 15 wins, and that merits some investigation. It would merit investigation no matter what team it was, but it especially merits investigation given where the White Sox were projected to finish this season.

At the beginning of the season, our projected American League Central standings looked like this:

2016 Preseason AL Central Projections
Team EXPW EXPL W% DIV WC POFF DOFF ALDS ALCS WS
Indians 87.5 74.5 .540 56.9% 12.6% 69.5% 63.7% 33.8% 17.9% 8.7%
Tigers 80.8 81.2 .499 15.0% 12.4% 27.4% 21.1% 9.5% 4.4% 1.9%
White Sox 80.5 81.5 .497 14.3% 11.8% 26.1% 20.1% 8.9% 3.8% 1.6%
Twins 77.8 84.2 .481 7.1% 7.5% 14.6% 10.7% 4.5% 1.9% 0.7%
Royals 77.5 84.5 .478 6.6% 6.5% 13.1% 9.6% 4.1% 1.8% 0.6%
SOURCE: FanGraphs

There’s a lot of parity in the AL this season — not necessarily top-tier parity, but a solid, middle-of-the-road type where each of the division races could go down to the wire. The AL Central fits that mold, with the preseason projections telling us the Indians were clear favorites — though if the 2014-2015 Royals were any indication, we could expect the race to possibly be tighter. The Central was potentially seen as one of the more volatile divisions, with the possibility we could have a four-way race for the division. There was even the idea before the season started that even the Twins — with a little luck and a few breakouts — could be in the mix, but that seems less possible (to put it nicely) given their woeful start. Where do the playoff odds stack up for the Central now? Let’s take a look:

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That Day Tanner Roark Was Out of His Mind

About eight years ago, Tanner Roark was pitching in the independent Frontier League after his college team released him. He had an ERA greater than 20.00 in three games. Then the Rangers drafted him, traded him to the Nationals, and he switched to throwing only two-seamers as his main fastball. A few years later, he put up a three-win, 198-inning season, and now — after largely unsuccessful work out of the bullpen in 2015 — he’s a few days removed from a 15-strikeout game. The career arc was pretty tumultuous and incredible before Saturday’s game, and now it’s the sort of thing about which someone writes a book a decade afterwards.

Let’s start with a table to reinforce this day of strangeness. Below is a list of all of the 15-plus strikeout games in the past five years. There are 21 of them, from Jered Weaver’s (!) 15-K game in April of 2011 all the way up to Roark’s gem this past Saturday. Average fastball velocity displayed is for that particular 15-plus strikeout game:

15+ Strikeout Games, Incl. Avg. Fastball Velocity, 2011-2015
Player Ks Date Avg. Fastball Velocity
Carlos Carrasco 15 9/25/15 95.4
Chris Sale 15 8/16/15 95.1
Chris Archer 15 6/2/15 95.1
Vincent Velasquez 16 4/14/16 94.7
Max Scherzer 15 5/20/12 94.6
Max Scherzer 17 10/3/15 94.5
Max Scherzer 16 6/14/15 94.3
Clayton Kershaw 15 9/2/15 93.6
Yu Darvish 15 8/12/13 93.2
Chris Sale 15 5/28/12 93.2
Clayton Kershaw 15 6/18/14 93.1
Francisco Liriano 15 7/13/12 93.1
Corey Kluber 18 5/13/15 93.0
Anibal Sanchez 17 4/26/13 92.9
Michael Pineda 16 5/10/15 92.3
James Shields 15 10/2/12 92.1
Jon Lester 15 5/3/14 91.9
Cliff Lee 16 5/6/11 91.9
Felix Hernandez 15 6/8/14 91.8
Tanner Roark 15 4/23/16 91.7
Jered Weaver 15 4/10/11 91.1
SOURCE: Baseball Reference/PITCHf/x

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Nolan Arenado Looks Like He’s Up to Something

We’ve gotten to see many sides of Nolan Arenado over the past two years. The maker of ridiculous defensive plays. The hitter of a multitude of home runs. The effusive trotter of the base paths. With regard to his plate discipline, however, Arenado hasn’t changed much since he got to the majors. To call him a “free swinger” doesn’t really do him justice: between 2014 and -15, Arenado ranked 10th in overall swing percentage (53.5%) and eighth in swing percentage at pitches outside of the strike zone (38.7%). As a result, he hasn’t walked much since he was called up in 2014 — at just over half the league average the past two years — which, hey, is something you might do too if you had the talent and skill to hit 40-plus home runs in the major leagues. In 2015, he saw the 17th-fewest pitches per plate appearance out of qualified hitters. Arenado hasn’t really waited around, is the point. He’s been aggressive in and out of the zone, and the trade-off has been fewer free passes. The reward was ten first-pitch home runs last season.

Swinging as much as Arenado has in the past two years tends to require other skills to offset/complement that tendency, like above-average contact rates, great power, or speed on the base paths. An illustration: of the ten leaders in overall swing percentage from 2015, five had below-average contact rates:

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Kenta Maeda’s Slider and the Chase for Valenzuela’s Record

We’re left to wonder how players who have established careers in international leagues will fare when they first reach the major leagues: some never find the same level of production they had overseas, others endure a tough adjustment period, and a precious few immediately take to their new surroundings. From what we’ve seen of Kenta Maeda so far, he appears as if he could be a member of that final group: with only one earned run conceded in 19.0 innings over his first three starts of 2016, Maeda has been every bit of the solid #2/#3 starter the Dodgers envisioned slotting behind Clayton Kershaw. Maeda is also quietly echoing the success of another rookie Dodger starter who came before him, one whose consecutive string of successes to start the season led to the receipt both of the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards in the same season — and caused a sea change in Dodgers’ fandom while doing it.

There are a few interesting trends that have been driving Maeda’s success in this young season. While he’s posting a slightly depressed BABIP (.250) compared to league average, his batted-ball profile so far suggests that might not be a fluke: his line-drive rate is in the top 25 of starters with at least 10 innings pitched, and he’s posted above-average ground-ball and infield-fly rates. The 100% strand rate won’t stick, and the 5.9% HR/FB rate likely won’t either, but there’s at least some encouraging signal in this noise. We already had an idea that Maeda’s walk rate was going to be better than average, and he hasn’t disappointed in that respect, issuing free passes to just 5.5% of batters faced.

It’s Maeda’s unique approach that warrants the most attention, however. Last December, our own Eno Sarris tried to find a comp for Maeda, and he included this snippet in his breakdown:

Maeda’s best secondary is a slider, and his next-best is probably also his slider (he varies the velocity and shape). Against righties this year [2015], Maeda was almost 95% fastball/slider according to some observers.

In 2016, Maeda has lived up to that billing. He’s thrown his slider almost 30% of the time overall, and against righties, the mark is 41.2%. He can alternate between a 79 mph offering with increased vertical movement, like this:

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The Braves, Twins, and Preparing an Early-Season Grave

Inevitably, after just a week and change’s worth of games, we find players on teams that have gotten off to slow starts saying things about how it’s just April, and win-loss records don’t matter too much. Outward optimism is sort of a prerequisite if you’re a professional athlete — whether you truly feel it or not — but there’s no doubt the majority of players who make these comments most likely believe them. It is early, and there’s plenty of time left in the season. But, as Jeff pointed out this week, the games matter! Playoff odds have changed. For the Braves, they never really had a shot to begin with, so starting 0-8 doesn’t change too much. But for the Minnesota Twins, their longshot campaign to make the playoffs this season has taken a faceplant.

Let’s talk about the Twins first, as they’re the big story here, and the American League Central is likely to be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball this season. Though our projections liked (and still like) Cleveland’s team this season, the Royals have declared war on those projections, and the Tigers and White Sox have built interesting teams with upside. That is true to some extent for the Twins as well: they’re building for the future, sure, but they also have some intriguing breakout candidates who could theoretically propel them into contention in a division that doesn’t have a clear-cut top dog. Those are the makings of a potentially great four- or five-way division battle throughout the season! Or else, that was the idea until now, eight games into the season, when the Twins find themselves 0-8. Here’s what that has done to their potential playoff odds (click on the image for a larger version):

AL_Central

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It’s Time to Talk About Eugenio Suarez

I would be remiss if I wrote an article about a young player showing ridiculous power in the first week of the season and failed to mention Trevor Story. Consider him mentioned! Hand him the MVP and Rookie of the Year already, stop pitching to him, all that. He’s been great. But here’s someone who’s also been great: a 24-year-old shortstop-turned-third baseman for the rebuilding Cincinnati Reds by the name of Eugenio Suarez. He’s quietly hit four home runs in the first six games of the season. That’s a pretty good return, even if we already knew Suarez had the ability to hit for some power based on last year’s 13 homers in 97 games. However, there are some other things that Suarez has done in the early going — and in some cases, not done — that warrant attention from us.

First, a little background. Let’s look at some examples. Suarez first came up for the Tigers in 2014, playing 85 games at shortstop while showing an average walk rate and bad strikeout rate. He hit for a .097 isolated-power mark, which was below his average minor-league ISO but not exactly outside the realm of belief for a guy just making the jump. After watching a lot of examples, this is about a fair approximation of his 2014 swing, from a game against the Royals in late September of 2014:

A bit of an open stance (he seemed to vacillate between a more open stance and an almost square stance during 2014), a short stride and toe tap, and a nice clean single to left field.

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The Universal Meaninglessness of the Padres’ Opening Series

Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what to say. Trying to encapsulate the true feelings of a fan base can leave us searching for words, grasping at the disparate ends of an often tattered, communal cloth. Those words might not be too hard to find for the Padres fan base right now, however. After being swept by the Dodgers this week while scoring zero runs in their opening series, it probably consists of a long string of expletives. Maybe a few sudden sobs. The meat of this article might not make you feel better about the past three games, Padres fans. But something brought me back to this series — not just its historic futility on the part of one of the teams, but the nature of that futility.

First, the history. The 2016 Padres are the first team in baseball history to score zero runs in their first three games of the season. That’s been well publicized. There’s more, though. There always is, but in this case, the more is really just more of less. Take a look at where the 2016 Padres stand among the worst-starting teams in baseball history in terms of a few chosen statistics, found through Baseball Reference’s Play Index (all ranks are through the first three games of respective seasons):

2016 Padres Ranks Through First 3 Games, All-Time (1913-)
Total Rank
AVG .120 5th-lowest
OBP .138 2nd-lowest
SLG .130 2nd-lowest
Strikeouts 28 18th-most
PAs 94 5th-fewest
SOURCE: Baseball Reference

The wrong kind of historic across the board, these are the sort of numbers we see when the team that was projected to score the fewest runs in the majors goes up against a Dodgers rotation featuring Clayton Kershaw, Scott Kazmir, and Kenta Maeda. And, looking at these numbers, a lot of readers are probably going to think the Padres deserved this sort of start from the way their team is constructed and the way they played. But what actually goes into a historically bad start like this? Was it truly the Padres’ futility, or did the baseball gods have a part to play in this series? The answer almost certainly lies somewhere in between, but the finding out is the fun part. So here we go!

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Robinson Cano, Back to Punishing Mistakes

Did you, like many others, come into this season wondering what to expect out of Robinson Cano? Did you believe that reports of his demise might be greatly exaggerated? Well, if three games are any indication, wonder no longer. He’s hit four home runs in 14 plate appearances! I don’t really need to dive too deep into his wRC+ (it’s 340), or many other stats at this point in the season, because they’ll simply reinforce for you that he’s been pretty impossibly good in 27 innings of baseball. The “I don’t need to hit the ball in the field of play” second baseman has a BABIP of .000. The point of this piece, then, is to tell you how and why Cano has been good, and the specific parts of his plate approach that are assuaging some of the fears people had about him last season.

Cano’s 2015 featured, at root, two halves. Every season of every player’s career features two halves, but Cano’s were relevant in that his production was starkly divided between the two of them. There was pre-July 1st Cano, he of the .105 ISO and 71 wRC+. And then there was post-July 1st Cano, he of the .209 ISO and 157 wRC+. Second-half Cano was literally 100% better than first-half Cano when compared to league average.

If you’re reading this, you probably know that everyone was trying to figure out what was wrong in that first half. Here’s Jeff mainly talking about him hitting too many ground balls. Here’s Dan going in-depth on how his hitting mechanics were a little messed-up. Here’s an interview in which Cano says a stomach parasite sapped his strength. There was obviously a lot going on, and his first-half performance was probably all of those negative forces coming together in the form of terrible baseballing.

The second half of 2015 was a complete turnaround, however. He started to hit more line drives and fly balls. He went to the opposite field at something closer to his career rates. His home run/fly ball rate and BABIP regressed toward (and surpassed) his career norms. His first half probably wasn’t as bad as it looked, but his second half was a pretty effective inversion of that. Players in their early 30s who play poorly for extended periods while on massive contracts tend to be placed under a microscope, however, so questions about Cano’s partial 2015 failures followed him into 2016.

He’s answered those questions pretty effectively in the early going. And, while we shouldn’t take anything away from what Cano’s done so far, we also need to ask some questions of how the Rangers approached him in their just-concluded opening series. Sure, we should remind ourselves that it’s just three games, but the very obvious way Texas pitched to him could act as a bit of a warning for those teams about to face him. So how did the Rangers approach him? The answer was, unequivocally, “witin the zone.” Take a look at Cano’s in-zone rate and rate of first-pitch strikes from 2013 to 2015 as compared to the series against the Rangers:

Robinson Cano Zone/F-Strike%, 2013-2016
Zone% F-Strike%
2013-2015 45.5% 58.9%
2016 71.8% 71.4%
SOURCE: FanGraphs

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A Brief History of Opening Day/Early-Season Error Rates

Meaningful baseball! The world is right again. Full stadiums, actual numbers in the win-loss columns, Curt Schilling in the booth, all of it. Except, as we saw yesterday in our three games during “Soft Opening Day,” the first few games of the season can feel a bit like an extension of spring training — at least performance-wise. Sure, there was Chris Archer and Marcus Stroman dueling in Tampa (even though Archer might not have had the trademark control of his slider at times), and the Royals doing many Royals things, but there were also things like this, in the first game of the day:

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Building a Record-Breaking Strikeout Rotation

A few weeks ago, I ventured into the topic of whether the 2016 Cleveland Indians’ starting rotation had a chance at breaking the league-adjusted team strikeout rate record held by the 1990 Mets. Those Mets (comprising a front four of Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Frank Viola, and Sid Fernandez) struck out 47% more batters than a 1990 league-average rotation. That was ridiculously good in 1990, and today, it’d be even more incredible were a team able to do it, given the increase in strikeouts league-wide and the expectation that there probably is a ceiling to the strikeout trend. (Because there has to be, right?)

The reason we focused on Cleveland was simple: they almost reached the level of those Mets for a few months in the beginning of the 2015 season. In April and May, they were striking out around 27% of the batters they faced, a mark which nearly approximated the sort of video-game numbers required to match the league-adjusted total of the 1990 Mets. Though they finished first in baseball by striking out 24.2% of batters (which was also the highest strikeout rate for a starting rotation in baseball history), they finished only 41st-best in terms of yearly league-adjusted K rate. Ho-hum. The conclusion of that previous article was, unsurprisingly, that Cleveland would have to outperform their expectations by a sizeable amount to have a chance at the 1990 Mets.

But one of you astute, noble readers was not entirely satisfied with that rational answer. Instead, phoenix2042 challenged us by putting forth a question: what would a starting rotation that could beat that record look like in the modern game? Which 2016 personnel would a team require in order to best a strikeout rate that’s 47% better than the league average? Well, phoenix2042 — and the rest of you wondering readers — this piece aims to answer that question. We will build rotations worthy of a video game, and they will best the 1990 Mets.

First, as before, let’s look at what rotation-wide strikeout rates would be required to break the record in this coming season. I’ve taken the average yearly increase in rotation strikeout rate for each league: over the past 30 years, strikeout rates for starting rotations have increased by about 0.2% per year, on average, and at a slightly higher rate in the past 10 years. Averaging this trend, I calculated the so-called “holy grail” strikeout rate of just over the 1990 Mets (i.e. >47% above league average):

Team Strikeout Rates Needed to Beat 1990 Mets (Est.)
2016 Projected League Average (Est.) “Holy Grail” Team Strikeout Rate (Est.) K%+
American League 19.5% 28.8% 148
National League 20.3% 30.0% 148
SOURCE: FanGraphs

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2016 Positional Power Rankings: Relief Pitchers (#16-30)


We continue the 2016 Positional Power Rankings — finish them, in fact — by looking at the sometimes difficult-to-project bullpens of each of the 30 major-league franchises. Here, in this article, we will examine the bottom half of baseball’s relief-pitching corps, with Craig Edwards handling the better half of the bullpen marriage. If this is your first go around, here’s an introduction to help you out. Now here’s a graphic detailing where each of the bullpens stand:

RP_PPR

Some really good teams on that graph. Some not-so-good teams on that graph. We turn our attention to the not-so-good ones, who, even though they may have vastly improved (hey, Rockies!), still find themselves performing the metaphorical mop-up duties of the 2016 bullpen power rankings.

Onto the relievers!

#16 Rockies


Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Jake McGee 65.0 10.3 2.8 0.9 .310 76.8 % 3.15 3.14 1.5
Jason Motte 65.0 7.3 2.6 1.3 .307 72.5 % 4.33 4.33 0.2
Chad Qualls 55.0 7.5 2.1 0.9 .314 71.5 % 3.78 3.56 0.7
Justin Miller 55.0 8.7 3.2 1.0 .309 72.9 % 3.87 3.85 0.4
Boone Logan 45.0 9.9 3.6 1.0 .319 72.9 % 3.91 3.73 0.3
Miguel Castro 40.0 8.3 3.9 1.0 .315 71.3 % 4.38 4.19 0.1
Chris Rusin   35.0 5.4 2.6 1.2 .316 69.0 % 4.81 4.62 0.0
Jason Gurka 30.0 7.3 3.1 1.0 .312 71.2 % 4.27 4.19 0.0
Christian Bergman 25.0 5.3 2.1 1.5 .312 68.4 % 5.10 4.95 -0.1
Scott Oberg 20.0 7.5 4.0 1.1 .309 71.2 % 4.46 4.51 0.0
Adam Ottavino   15.0 9.5 3.1 0.9 .312 74.3 % 3.51 3.51 0.0
Jeff Hoffman 10.0 6.9 3.3 1.2 .312 71.2 % 4.57 4.57 0.0
Carlos Estevez 10.0 8.2 3.1 1.1 .314 71.8 % 4.13 4.01 0.0
The Others 55.0 8.2 4.0 1.2 .322 69.5 % 4.73 4.50 0.0
Total 525.0 8.1 3.0 1.1 .313 71.9 % 4.13 4.03 3.0

What a difference a year makes! Last March, we had this bullpen projected for 0.5 WAR and 28th place. This year, they’ve made it up to 3.0 and 16th. Team sports represent one of the few arenas in which an entity could make so drastic a transformation in one calendar year, and the process, dear readers, was quite simple: fire most everyone and hire new people! It seems primed to work, at least on paper, and before anything has actually happened. That is confidence.

As with anything that happens in relation to pitching half of a season’s games at Coors Field, however, the outcomes of this bullpen could be quite volatile. With a completely revamped back end of Jake McGee, Jason Motte, and Chad Qualls, the Rockies would appear to have three very solid end-of-game options. But that papers over the fact that only one of these pitchers (Qualls) is a solid ground-ball pitcher, and even he has always had his share of home-run issues (career 13.1% HR/FB rate). Even if the batted-ball outcomes might appear slightly scary on the surface in relation to homer-happy Coors Field, the Rockies should at least have a solid bullpen this coming season, and a vastly improved one from 2015.

None of this mentions the hopeful return of Adam Ottavino, one of the darlings of the first month of the 2015 season. Should he return to full health sometime around the All-Star break (he’s just started a throwing program on his way back from Tommy John surgery), he could provide a serious shot in the arm that could elevate the overall production of this bullpen.

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