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You May Wish To Consider Nick Pivetta

I think most people know that Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta are members of the Philadelphia Phillies’ rotation. I’m guessing that a lot of you — even those not from or otherwise affectionate towards Philadelphia — could identify Vince Velasquez as a Philly starter, too. It may interest you to know, then, that none of these three men, all possessed of relative fame, led their club in strikeout percentage as a starter last year. The man who did so struck out fully 27.1% of the batters he faced, which was the 14th-best such mark in the league among starters with as many innings thrown. He also posted, at 1.01, the second-highest differential between his ERA (4.80) and FIP (3.79) in the game. His name is Nick Pivetta. Nick Pivetta is 25 years old. You may wish to consider Nick Pivetta.

When my colleague Jeff Sullivan last considered Nick Pivetta, back in April, he called him “the newest good Phillies starter,” and gave particular attention to Pivetta’s renewed confidence in his curveball. Nothing in Pivetta’s 2018 performance suggested Jeff was off the mark in this assessment, and indeed there may now be more reasons to be optimistic about the right-hander’s future than there were before the year.

Here’s one of them: a heat map of all the curveballs Pivetta threw this year (from the pitcher’s point of view):

And here’s that same chart, but for 2017:

In 2017, the curveballs Pivetta threw were basically in the same spot — down and away to righties; down and in to lefties — whether he was ahead or behind in the count. As a pitcher, it’s good not to do the same thing all the time. So it’s very encouraging that this year, Pivetta found two new places to throw his curveball: in on right-handers’ hands, even when behind in the count, and down and away to lefties.

Pivetta used to have one curveball, and now he has four. Because of the way his pitches interact — as Jeff noted, he uses his curveball mostly to set up his fastball — that means an even greater increase in the number of possible pitch sequences available to him.

And it’s not as if Pivetta spent the entire year reliant on that promising curve. Although he ended 2018 having thrown the pitch 21.7% of the time — more than six points above his 2017 mark — he wasn’t consistent in his use of the pitch throughout the season. In April, when Jeff wrote about it, Pivetta was going to the curve around 27% of the time. By the end of the year, with the Phillies solidly out of contention and (presumably) with a tiring arm, Pivetta went to the curve a little less than 19% of the time. The difference was, for the most part, made up by his increased use of a sinker, which generates an unusually high percentage of whiffs for a pitch of its kind (8.3% in 2018). That ability to adjust an otherwise successful approach as the season goes along augurs well for his future.

Which brings me to another promising thing about Pivetta’s 2018 — he didn’t really get worse as the season went along, despite setting a career high in innings pitched:

Nick Pivetta Didn’t Slow Down In 2018
1st Half 96.1 27.4% 7.3% 1.32 4.58 3.76 35.4% 34.0%
2nd Half 67.2 26.7% 7.5% 1.29 5.05 3.84 33.9% 28.8%

When it comes to pitching, the best predictor of success in the future is success in the past, and we now have evidence that Pivetta can put up a FIP- better than league average (92) over a full season. That isn’t evidence we had before the season (Pivetta was never especially highly regarded as a prospect), and it means that it’s now reasonable to expect something at least close to that level of performance in 2019.

Pivetta is never going to be a guy who blows you away with his stuff or his velocity — his spin rate is just about average, and his velocity is fast but not otherworldly in this supercharged environment — but he can be a guy fully in command of four serviceable big-league pitches, and that’s not nothing today or any day. For a fourth starter, it’s very good indeed.

What I’ll be paying attention to in 2019 is whether the large gap between Pivetta’s ERA and his FIP, which I noted at the beginning of this piece but have left unmentioned until now, persists for a third consecutive season. There are some players who just consistently under-perform their peripherals for one reason or another, and a third season with an ERA more than a full point above his FIP might be reasonable evidence that Pivetta is one of those guys. It might also just be evidence that Philadelphia’s defense is unusually terrible.

Batters hit over .300 on ground balls against Pivetta in 2018, which is unusual given that the league average usually sits in the .240s; he also allowed an unusually high slugging percentage on fly balls. Maybe some of those balls will find gloves in 2019. Maybe they won’t. Again, Philly’s defense was very bad in 2018. Either way, we’ll learn something. For now, Pivetta remains one of the better young starters in the game, and a key component of what could be — depending on how free agency plays out — a very solid Phillies team in 2019.

Miguel Andújar Is Another Good Young Yankee

Miguel Enrique Andújar was born in San Cristóbal, in the Dominican Republic, on March 2nd, 1995. That same day, 968 miles north and northwest of the newborn child, the space shuttle Endeavour launched itself into low-earth orbit, bearing five men and two women. It returned to eastern Florida 16 days later, flew 17 more missions over the next 16 years, and was finally decommissioned on the first day of June, 2011. Andújar, now 23 years old and a finalist for this year’s Rookie of the Year Award, remains in active service.

In 2018, Andújar took 606 plate appearances for the Yankees. In 239 of those appearances, he reached base by hit, walk, or hit-by-pitch. 15 of those hits came in a seven-game stretch in April during which Andújar recorded a 1.706 OPS and joined Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle as the only Yankees to record seven straight games with an extra-base hit before turning 25. Of his hits, 47 were doubles, which tied an American League rookie record set by Fred Lynn in 1975 and vaulted Andújar past DiMaggio, this time, into the Yankee record books. Andújar also hit 27 home runs in 2018, and his 128 wRC+ was third-best among AL hitters under 25, behind Francisco Lindor and Alex Bregman.

I don’t know if Andújar tipped his servers well in 2018, or brushed his teeth every night without fail, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. He did a lot of things right in 2018. And he was part of a powerful Yankees infield that included Didi Gregorius and Gleyber Torres.

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Let’s Review Some Reader Predictions

Nearly eight months ago, I asked you to predict the future. Here are the words I used to introduce that piece:

In 2017, the fastball rate fell again. It’s been falling for some time now, but in 2017 it fell again, from 56.7% in 2016 to 55.6% last year. There’s some reason to think that the drop in the fastball rate is linked to the increase in baseball’s increasing swinging-strike rate, which in turn is linked to the rise in strikeouts and hit batsmen, and on and on and on. Baseball is a complex system of action and reaction, and small changes can grow large quickly.

So this year, I want to know: what do you think will happen to some of baseball’s key stats, league-wide, in 2018? Maybe you think home-run rates will go up and strikeouts will fall. Maybe you think if home-run rates go up then strikeout rates have to fall. Maybe you think it’s the other way around. I don’t know. But I want to hear from you, and most of all I want to hear why you think certain changes are linked, and others aren’t.

Below are a series of tables featuring 10 years’ worth of data for a few key metrics. I’ve also included percentage changes year over year. Below each table is a poll which asks you to indicate whether you think a given statistic will increase or decrease — and, if so, by how much. Answer each poll, if you wish, and then also indicate in the comments why you voted the way you did on one statistic and not others. In a year or so, I’ll come back to this and we’ll talk about it as a group. Maybe it’ll be interesting. Maybe it won’t! We’ll see.

A lot has happened since I wrote those words: I’ve gotten married, my wife and I moved from Boston to Seattle, and I became a telecommuter (in my day job; this one has always been virtual-only). Oh, and the 2018 season came and went. The future I asked you to predict is now a part of the history books. Let’s see how good you were at reading ahead.

Note: a reader of the March post suggested he/she was unsure if answers should be submitted in percent or percentage point. It’s possible, as a result, that a few ballots could distort the overall results. Because I presented all the original deltas in the form of a percent, however, that is how I have once again presented them here. Fortunately, none of this matters at all!

Fastball Rate

Fastball Rate, 2008-17
Year FB% FB% Delta
2008 60.7% n/a
2009 59.7% -1.65%
2010 58.7% -1.68%
2011 57.8% -1.53%
2012 57.6% -0.35%
2013 57.8% 0.35%
2014 57.7% -0.17%
2015 57.7% 0.00%
2016 56.7% -1.73%
2017 55.6% -1.94%

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Boston Won Without X as a Factor

Xander Bogaerts triple-slashed .288/.360/.522 in 580 regular-season plate appearances in 2018, which translated to a 133 wRC+ and 4.9 WAR. Both figures represented career highs. Like his teammate Mookie Betts, Bogaerts thrived offensively while largely maintaining a disciplined approach at the plate. This year, the 25-year-old swung at 61% of pitches he saw in the strike zone and just 43% of pitches overall. Both figures sit below league norms (just 16 of 140 qualified hitters swung at pitches in the zone less often this year) and are broadly consistent with Bogaerts’scareer figures. Bogaerts can, clearly, be a successful major-league hitter without taking a cut at every tempting fastball and slider he sees in the zone. He’s done it in each of past four years.

He did not, however, do so during this World Series. The only ball he struck really well in all five games was a second-inning double against Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game Two; his only other hits were a soft line-drive single in the ninth inning of Game Four that appeared to be almost the accidental result of a swing on which Bogaerts rolled over badly, and a single in the seventh in the clincher. Everything else he produced during this World Series was, for the most part, a weak ground ball or, in one horrible sequence of the 18-inning marathon that was Game Three, a ground out to second, a ground out to the pitcher, a ground out to the catcher, a strikeout swinging, and a ground ball into a double play. Bogaerts seemed simply unable to get his timing right for any consistent length of time in this World Series. Nor, until the final game, did Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez.

Although all three Boston stars struggled to a greater or lesser extent during this Fall Classic — a matter examined by Jeff Sullivan earlier today — I’d like to focus on Bogaerts for much of this piece because his struggles seem, at least to me, the most pronounced — and most out of line with his performance during the regular season in 2018 (and, one presumes, his forthcoming performance in 2019). The first ground out in that horrible five-PA sequence I mentioned above, against Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning of Game Three, is instructive for its demonstration of Bogaerts’ Series-long inability to time up usually hittable pitches. (Please note: I’m not saying I could do this. I would cry if someone threw something past me at even 85.) The first pitch of the sequence was a sinker at 95 that Bogaerts took as a strike on the lower inside corner of the plate. Here it is:

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Those Left Behind With a Piece of the Journey

Here is one list of names: Matt Albers, Chase Anderson, Jett Bandy, Jacob Barnes, Ji-Man ChoiOliver Drake, Eric Sogard, Brent Suter, Eric Thames, and Jonathan Villar.

Here’s another: Scott Alexander, J.T. Chargois, Tony Cingrani, Kyle Farmer, Josh Fields, Logan Forsythe, Wilmer Font, Corey Seager, Ross Stripling, and Chase Utley.

These are the 20 men — ten Dodgers and ten Brewers — who appeared on their clubs’ 2018 Opening Day rosters but will not — for one reason or another — appear in any of the seven games of this year’s National League Championship Series. One of the two teams they played for this year will advance to the World Series tonight, and will do so without these men. And yet, for some portion of the season at least, there they were, willing their teams along. And so, let us celebrate a few moments in which these guys were glorious, before the inevitable offseason cries of “That guy was a Dodger?” and “Oh! I’d forgotten about him!” set in.

Villar Takes Harvey Deep (+.238 WPA)

Unless you’re a Milwaukee fan, you might not even remember that Jonathan Villar was a Brewer this year. I’d understand. He spent the second half of the season toughing it out for the Orioles, who are best forgotten, and in my mind he is still most closely associated with the Astros. But the fact is that, yes, Villar was indeed a Milwaukee Brewer until July 31st, and on April 14th he was tasked with playing second base for the Crew against the New York Mets at Citi Field.

Harvey, brilliant in his home whites, set down Lorenzo Cain, Eric Thames, and Ryan Braun in order in the first, but then ran into trouble almost immediately in the second, yielding a double to Travis Shaw, before walking Domingo Santana ahead of an Eric Sogard strikeout. That brought Villar — then the owner of a .298 batting average (and a .298 OBP, but let’s pay that no mind) — to the plate. Harvey’s first pitch, a slider, missed badly down and in, and Villar wisely didn’t offer at it. On Harvey’s second pitch, however, Villar flicked his bat out and, almost apologetically, took Harvey deep down the left-field line. Here it is:

I think we can all agree that that was a nice moment for Jonathan Villar.

Chase Utley up past his bedtime in the desert (+.350 WPA)

It feels a little odd to include a guy like Utley on a list like this, which is meant to celebrate the little guy, but he meets all the criteria so I suppose we’ll let him in on a technicality. On April 2nd, which was the Dodgers’ first road game of the season, they played 15 innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks. They were a good 15 innings, too — the Dodgers went up 3-0 in the top of the first, only to see the Diamondbacks tie it with runs in the first, third, and fourth; then the Dodgers added on in each of the sixth, seventh, and eighth to make it 6-3, only to have Arizona tie it in again the ninth and send it to extras. The game proceeded at 6-6 for five innings of taut bonus baseball, until — in the top of the 15th, and presumably somewhat less fresh than he’d been five hours before, when the game began — Chase Utley came to the plate with Cody Bellinger on second, and proceeded to do this:

The Dodgers went on to lose 8-7. But that was nice, Chase.

Scott Alexander shuts it down (+.372 WPA)

Scott Alexander had kind of an anonymous season, as far as seasons by 6’2″ lefties go. His ERA was 3.68. His FIP was 3.57. Both numbers were fine. Scott Alexander was fine. Scott Alexander is not on the Dodgers’ NLCS roster. But on July 13th, he was asked by his manager to go out in the ninth inning of a one-run game against the Los Angeles Angels of Angel Stadium in Anaheim and close things out. Being presumably in search of something to get the ol’ heart moving, he proceeded to allow a double to Shohei Ohtani, which was understandable, and then a single to José Briceño, which was not. That single brought the Dodgers’ win expectancy down from 91 percent at the start of the inning, to 63 percent, when David Fletcher stepped up to the plate with one out. Which made it rather relieving for reliever Alexander that David Fletcher promptly did this:

Ji-Man Choi has a good night (+.463 WPA)

Sometimes you get a lot of WPA because you come to the plate with the game on the line in late innings and do something ordinary, like hit a single or draw a walk. And sometimes you get a lot of WPA because you come to the plate in some random anonymous middle inning and do something very good, like drive in four runs with one swing of the bat. That latter thing is what Ji-Man Choi did against Luis Garcia in the sixth inning of an otherwise unexciting game between the Phillies and the Brewers. This was Choi’s final swing as a Milwaukee Brewer–he was traded to Tampa Bay the next day:

Bonus Jake Arrieta Is Mad content in the above.

Kyle Farmer Drives in Barnes (+.678 WPA)

Kyle Farmer was, before the 2018 season began, featured in articles on this site that referred to him as, variously, one of “seven scrubs” and a “fringe prospect.” Neither of those characterizations are necessarily untrue, but they also failed to anticipate this one wonderful moment from June 19th, when Farmer came to the plate with runners on first and second in a game his team trailed by a run. It was the first game of a doubleheader the Cubs and Dodgers played that day, and Cubs pitcher Justin Wilson was a little bit rattled. After battling to a 2-2 count, and with an almost-casual delivery, Wilson left a 90 mph cutter just a little bit too far over the plate, and within seconds the Dodgers were ahead, as it turned out for good:

Eric Thames Sinks Wade Davis (+.822 WPA)

Here it is: The single most impactful moment by a Dodger or Brewer not featured in tonight’s game, and it’s a classic. The Brewers entered the bottom of the ninth inning of their August 3rd game against the Colorado Rockies down 3-2. They trailed the Cubs in the NL Central standings by one game. The Cubs had won that afternoon behind a José Quintana dandy, and a loss would have put the Brewers two games back headed into the long month of August. Which all made this ninth inning rather important for Milwaukee. Wade Davis managed to retire Mike Moustakas swinging, then walked Jesús Aguilar and Travis Shaw in order before retiring Jonathan Schoop on a pop fly. That brought Thames to the plate — still struggling, as he had been all season, and about to enter a spiral that would pull his average from .244 that day to .219 on September 30th. He did, however, have one more good swing in him:

Villar, Utley, Alexander, Choi, Farmer, and Thames. I’d wager they’ll be watching the game tonight. They helped these teams get to where they are right now. They’ll own a little bit of whatever celebration comes next.

Where It Went Wrong for Clayton Kershaw Last Time

Five years from now, when we think about Game One of the NLCS between the Dodgers and Brewers, I’m guessing we’ll probably think about the ninth inning: taut, suspenseful, and fundamentally baseball-y in the best way. If the Brewers go on to win the World Series, completing the job the 2008-11 versions of the club never could and exorcising some of the demons still haunting the area formerly occupied by County Stadium (which is actually just the parking lot right outside Miller Park), that ninth inning will be remembered as a key step along the way. I hope it is. The ninth inning was The One Where the Brewers Hung On. But I hope that fond memory is not eclipsed, at least today, by our shared memory of the third inning: The One Where Clayton Kershaw Couldn’t Hit His Target.

For the sake of narrative appeal, it would have been ideal for Kershaw to have entered the inning all youth and innocence, grown in stature by vanquishing a series of increasingly insalubrious foes, and then fallen to an antagonist at the dramatic climax of the tale.

That is not what happened, however. What happened instead is that Kershaw just began the inning by allowing a home run to Brandon Woodruff. Here is a picture of where Yasmani Grandal wanted the pitch that Woodruff ended up hitting out:

And here is a picture of where the ball ended up right before Woodruff blasted it into Toyota Territory™:

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Lou Trivino Wants You to Know He Isn’t Tired

Lou Trivino, who is 26 years old and six feet, five inches tall, stands up straight when he’s talking to you. He holds his arms — massive, tanned — at his sides, occasionally resting his hands on his hips or clasping his hands behind his back in the manner of an enormous choir boy. Nuke Laloosh with five-day stubble.

When Trivino’s not talking to you, he is pitching for the Oakland A’s. The A’s bullpen, as Jeff Sullivan and then I and then Jeff Sullivan again have noted at various points throughout the year, has been very good all season, and a big part of that success has been Trivino’s performance as a rookie. In (brief) summary: Trivino threw 74 innings for Oakland this year, during which he struck out 82 batters and walked 31. His ERA was 2.92, which is 30% better than the league average. He recorded an 89 FIP-. He was quite good.

Still, his numbers would have been better had I recited them for your benefit a few weeks ago. On September 18th, against the Angels, Trivino recorded two outs and gave up three runs. In his next appearance, on the 21st against Minnesota, he gave up four runs and failed to record an out. When I caught up with him recently in Seattle, I asked him if he was tired.

“No, that’s not it,” he said, quickly, with a look at me that suggested that he thought I might have manager Bob Melvin hiding under my jacket. “I know a lot of people think that I’ve been overworked, but that’s not it at all. My arm feels good, my body feels good. It’s just hitters adjusting to me now and I’ve got to adjust back. That’s exactly it. I feel like I know exactly what I need to do, it’s just been a lack of execution. I just need to get back to executing pitches and I’ll be alright.”

There’s some merit to that argument: Trivino was successful enough in his first few months of the season that he’s now getting chances against batters who’ve faced him before. But there’s also the objective truth that he has pitched more innings this in 2018 than he did in either of his past two campaigns, both of which were in the minors.

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Justin Grimm Is Rebuilding Himself

“When I signed here,” said Justin Grimm, leaning forward over the back of one of the teal folding chairs that dot the home clubhouse at Safeco Field, eyes intent and slightly wide, “I just came in with the attitude like, you know what, I don’t know shit. I’m going to learn everything I can about myself and what works for me, and I’m going to start over from square one.”

It’s been a year of beginnings for Grimm, who was released by the Cubs — his club for the past five seasons — on March 15th, signed with the Royals three days later, put up a 13.50 ERA in 16 disastrous appearances for Kansas City, and was released for the second time in less than four months on July 7th. To cap it all off, Grimm and his wife Gina — an All-American gymnast at UGA, where the two met — welcomed a baby boy, their first, on May 25th.

“When I was released [by the Royals], I was on the disabled list,” Grimm said, “and the Mariners came in and were like, ‘Hey, come rehab in Seattle, we want to sign you.’ I saw it as an opportunity to go out and get better. I knew I was better than the numbers I was putting up. I knew they could help me get back to where I was.”

The early returns are promising. In five appearances for the Mariners, Grimm has allowed just a single run in 4.2 innings. His velocity is up, his walks are down, and his confidence is starting to recover. The difference, as is typical in these situations, has been a combination of a fresh mental approach to the game and some very specific mechanical and pitch-mix adjustments, made courtesy of the Mariners’ coaching staff.

Brian DeLunas, Seattle’s bullpen coach, had noticed that Grimm’s fastball had a tendency to “spray” left and right up in the zone, which meant that, on nights when his other key pitch — the curveball — wasn’t playing either, hitters were able to sit fastball, accepting walks when the heater wasn’t touching the zone and crushing it when it was. Grimm needed a third pitch.

“So,” said “DeLunas, “we went out and looked at video, and did some work on the numbers, and had him throw some different stuff and figure out what was going to work for him, and found out that he actually threw a really good slider. It was something that he felt with his hand speed and his effort this year, he could get it into the zone consistently. That kind of opened up a little bit more for him, where he uses the slider to get into good counts and puts guys away with the curveball.”

Thus, after nearly eliminating the pitch from his repertoire in 2016 — the data indicate he threw just two all year — Grimm’s slider was back. Just over one in every five pitches Grimm has thrown for the Mariners has been a slider, and batters are missing nearly half the ones at which they swing. If you’re looking for a single reason Grimm’s been able to generate so many more swings and misses during his time with Seattle than he was in Kansas City, look to the slider.

But also look to how he’s throwing it. The reason Grimm dropped the pitch in the first place, three years ago, was that he felt his max-effort delivery didn’t allow him enough control over the pitch. This season, sage at 30 years old, he’s found a delivery that works the same for his entire repertoire and gives him more options when he falls behind in counts.

DeLunas’s laid-back, highly physical coaching style — even talking to me, restricted by the low ceiling and close walls of Safeco’s dugout tunnels, he backed me up and demonstrated each element of Grimm’s new delivery himself, exacting step by exacting step — was, apparently, just what Grimm needed to cut through the clutter of his up-and-down season and previous biases — and to make a change.

“Growing up,” says Grimm, “you always hear ‘Don’t get so rotational, don’t be rotational.’ And all that means is just you’re firing your front side too soon. If you don’t do that, though, it’s okay to get rotational. That’s a big change I’ve made. It’s something that you see Charlie Morton do — and Bauer, how he opens up his front side, and gets that really big chest. For years, that approach sounded so negative to me, because I took it the wrong way. But it’s all about the timing.”

Consider, for example, this slider that Grimm threw for the Cubs in August 2015:

And compare it to this slider Grimm threw this past Tuesday for the Mariners:

The difference is, to my eye, stark. Grimm’s body, whipping out of control in the first video, is subdued but no less powerful in the second. “Really,” says Grimm, “it’s just about keeping that front side closed, and getting the timing of when it fires right. I feel like now I have a good feel of that, and there’s a couple cue points that I can go to.” The tools were always there, in other words, it’s just that now they’re used in a different way and to a different effect. That’s growing older. That’s getting better.

“When I was younger,” continued Grimm, “the message was always ‘Your stuff’s really good, so just go let it play.’ And instead of understanding what that actually meant, I would just hear it as it as, ‘Oh, your stuff’s good, you’re going to be fine.’ And so you get your pat on the butt and you go on your way. But I got so tired of hearing that. Like, okay, if I’m going to be fine, why am I blowing up every eighth outing? Back in Chicago, and Kansas City, I was losing a lot of sleep over the fact that it was happening, versus going to work to figure out why it happened.”

I think we underrate, as a baseball-writing community — or, at least, I do personally — the degree to which big leaguers are adjusting their game all the time to changing bodies, changing circumstances, and changing opposition. We know that baseball is all about adjustments, of course, but still tend to get an image in our heads of who a guy is, then have a hard time re-calibrating our expectations of his capacity in the face of something new. And most big leaguers’ anodyne interview answers, in which they blandly confess to nothing much at all, reinforce an image that hides much more change than it reveals.

But change still happens, all the time, sometimes subtly and sometimes rather more dramatically, game by game and pitch by pitch. Grimm’s change, this second half of the season in Seattle, has been notable. He has taken from himself the best parts of what he was and added the best of what he can be now. He has become, seven years into his big-league career, a different kind of pitcher. He has become, at the same time, a father. He has grown up in the game and grown with it.

“This year,” he said, “has obviously had a lot of change. I had a newborn, and adjusting to that has been a lot, plus I had some setbacks this year with injuries and other stuff. But, you know, life goes on. I’m just happy to be healthy now and think that over this past couple months,  I’ve found more of myself and who I am. That’s all you’re really looking for.”

The Cubs’ Rotation Got Fixed

On July 20th, my colleague Craig Edwards wrote a piece for this site entitled “The Cubs Are on Pace for Their Worst Rotation Ever” in which he argued — in accordance with all observable objective reality at the time — that the Cubs were on pace for their worst rotation ever. It wasn’t an especially difficult case to make. At the time Craig published, the Cubs’ rotation — which still featured rather too much of Tyler Chatwood — had produced just 3.0 WAR as a group, which is the kind of figure that, as a measure of collective performance through nearly three months of a major-league season, is apt to make one physically recoil regardless of how you feel about pitcher WAR’s usefulness as a measure of overall performance. It was bad.

Since then, however, the Cubs’ rotation has been rather good, and that fact is the point of this article. Consider the following table, which presents the Cubs’ rotational performance up to and including the 20th of July, and also after that date (MLB ranks in parentheses):

Cubs’ Rotation Performance Pre- and Post-Craig Edwards Post
Pre-Craig 510.2 (25) 19.6% (21) 10.8% (30) 4.02 (12) 4.75 (25) 4.58 (24)
Post-Craig 295.2 (10) 21.8% (15) 8.0% (22) 3.65 (10) 3.67 (9) 3.92 (12)

You will agree, I hope, that the Cubs’ rotation has been better since Craig said they were bad, and will therefore turn your attention with me to why. Here is one reason: it has much less Tyler Chatwood in it. Here is another: it has much more Cole Hamels. These might sound like blithe (and, in Chatwood’s case, rather mean) things to say, and to some extent they are. But they are also true.

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Ryan Pressly and the Houston Spin Machine

There is a moment during Ryan Pressly’s delivery at which it appears — from certain camera angles and for the briefest of flickering moments — as if he might fall down. He begins his motion by raising himself quickly and powerfully onto his back leg, back slightly hunched and ball only just beginning to separate from glove. As his front leg begins to drop, Pressly moves his center of gravity — and full weight — onto that strong back leg, pitching arm pointing very nearly towards first base and glove out in front on his left hand like a talisman, as if to ward off the batter.

This is the point, in freeze frame, at which it appears ever-so-slightly possible that he might lose his balance and tumble, ass-backwards, off the mound. But then, a split second before the point of no return, the hips fire from their hyper-rotated position, the arm whips toward the batter at 45 degrees, and in the matter of an instant it is Pressly’s chosen victim, rather than the pitcher himself, who begins to look rather foolish.

That strikeout of Jonathan Lucroy, which came in the seventh inning of the Astros’ August 17th encounter with the surging A’s, was Pressly’s 10th for Houston since arriving via trade on July 27th. He has since added eleven more Ks against just one walk, which brings his totals in 16.2 innings pitched in the orange and navy to 23 strikeouts and just one walk. No other reliever has anything approaching that K/BB ratio over that period since Pressly arrived in Houston. Heck, Pressly himself has never really had such a dominant stretch of success. In the 47.2 innings he threw for the Twins before being traded, he struck out 69 and walked 19 — perfectly nice numbers, but nothing close to what he’s done in Texas.

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The Mets Freed Brandon Nimmo

No matter what else is happening in your life — no matter how dire your circumstances seem, or how far away salvation might appear — you can at least take consolation in the fact that you are, almost certainly, not a New York Met. And yet despite yet another season nearly entirely unsullied by success or inspiration of any kind, 25 blessed souls still labor on in Flushing, and one of those souls is housed in a body named Brandon Tate Nimmo.

According to a profile of the young man published in the New York Times shortly after Nimmo was selected 13th overall in the 2011 first-year player draft, young Brandon grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, dreaming of one day becoming a bull-rider. Instead, he became a Met. In the years that followed, Brandon Nimmo turned out to be quite good at playing baseball, as was possible but not overwhelmingly probable back in 2011, and by early this spring writers at this site were calling for him to be given quite a bit more playing time this year, in 2018, than the 215 plate appearances he was allowed in 2017.

To their credit, the Mets have mostly given Nimmo a starting outfield spot this season. To Nimmo’s credit, he’s made the most of it. On the year, for example, Nimmo is slugging .503, with an ISO of .238 and 15 home runs in 413 plate appearances. All four figures are career highs, besting both the marks Nimmo set last year and, in perfect order, also the standards he set in the year before, when he made his debut in Queens as a 23-year-old. This power is especially surprising for Nimmo because, with the exception of a stint at Triple-A that forced his original call-up back in 2016, his power numbers were never anywhere close to this good at any stop in the past. My former colleague Travis Sawchick covered this subject back in June.

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The Unlikely Ascent of Oakland’s Bullpen

There are a lot of things going right in Oakland these days. For one thing, there are early indications that a red-hot rental and home-ownership market might finally be cooling off, even if only slightly (and very tentatively), thereby bringing four walls and a roof somewhat closer to reach for hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans in the Bay Area. For another, the unemployment rate continues to drop (although wage growth is persistently and irritatingly slow to rise). And for a third, the Oakland Athletics have been the best team in baseball (west of Jersey Street) for over a month.

For a team to go 22-8 over any stretch, as the A’s have just done since July 10th, when they were last 10 games back of the Astros, requires a lot of things to go right. It requires Tony Sipp to hang a slider to Matt Olson. It requires a sweep of Texas on the road. It requires, in short, a little bit of that fairy dust that seems to have been scattered around the HoHo Coliseum since the days when Scott Hatteberg and Jonah Hill wandered those green fields — and the A’s have had that and all these things. But it also requires a lights-out bullpen, which the A’s have manifestly also had in recent days, and it’s this feature of the club’s recent experience on which I’d like to focus for a moment, because it wasn’t clear at the beginning of the season that this level of bullpen success was something the A’s would achieve or even necessarily aspire to.

The 2017 edition of the Oakland bullpen mostly sucked. By FIP (4.44), it was the ninth-worst in the game, by ERA (4.57) the sixth-worst, and by WPA, which is as close a measure as you can get to answering the question “was this bullpen good when it counted?” it was rock-bottom — the very worst in the game. If all you knew about the 2018 edition of the A’s pen is that it would no longer include Ryan Madson (who recorded a 2.06 ERA last year), you might project that it would take a step backwards this year, even after accounting for the winter additions of xwOBA darlings Ryan Buchter, Chris Hatcher, and Yusmeiro Petit in a busy offseason for Billy Beane.

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David Bote Rises

Thirty-four days. That’s enough time, for some among us, to bike from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back — twice. It’s enough time to build a 57-story skyscraper, then build two-thirds of it again. It’s nearly enough time to write a first draft of The Sun Also Rises, apparently. (I’m cheating a little bit here: Hemingway started the book on July 21 and finished it in early September, but still… what the heck?) And it’s time enough to create the universe four times over, if you’re the Supreme Being whose exploits are documented in the Book of Genesis. Oh — and if you’re David Bote, a 25-year-old infielder for the Chicago Cubs — it’s enough time to author a breakout season.

You may recognize Bote from what he did Sunday night to the Washington Nationals, live and on national television:

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Brian Anderson, Baseball Man

On September 8, 2017, the Tigers put Nick Castellanos in the outfield for the first time since his cup of coffee back in 2013. He homered that night, and has hit for a 131 wRC+ in the 555 plate appearances he’s taken since. Today, I’d like to talk about another third-baseman-turned-outfielder, also improved since his move from dirt to grass, and whose present condition of employment with the Miami Marlins, a notably bad baseball team, likely explains why we aren’t talking about him more: Brian Wade Anderson, 25. He has been, to date, 2018’s most valuable rookie.

That that last sentence is true at all, even temporarily, even for a moment, should register as a bit of a surprise. As he came up through the Miami ranks after being drafted out of the University of Arkansas in 2014, the reports on Anderson were solid but unspectacular. The 2015 Baseball Prospectus Annual, published before the eponymous season, noted that “Brian Anderson is an average-ish defender at second base, but looks unlikely to hit any better than the synonymous former Diamondbacks starting pitcher.” Ouch. That same year, our own Kiley McDaniel was a little bit more sanguine on the young man’s future (“a plus runner with a plus arm … and present average raw power that projects for a tick more”) but still ranked him 7th in a notably weak system overall.

The consensus at the time was that Anderson had a good arm, a solid glove, good instincts on the bases, and enough bat to take him just so far but not further, and for the first two years or so of Anderson’s career, that sounded about right. But then Anderson did what unspectacular position-player prospects who make it to the big leagues anyway always do, which is start hitting and not stop.

He won the Marlins’ Minor League Player of the Year award in 2016, then put up a 160 wRC+ in Triple-A in 2017 to earn himself the opportunity to play a little bit of third base for a Marlins team playing out the string in the September before the selloff. That same selloff then put him in the position, at the beginning of this year, to lock down the Fish’s starting third base position out of spring training, which he did, and start at the hot corner in each of the Marlins’ first 24 games, bumping his career wRC+ to 101 in the process.

And there he was, playing in the major leagues, just like that. But a funny thing happened early this year: Although Anderson’s base running was largely as advertised (his BSR, over at Baseball Prospectus, has been in the top four or five league-wide all year, although our own BsR has him as a below average runner), and his offense was more than good enough to keep him in the starting lineup (driven, in large part, by an advanced ability to lay off of breaking pitches outside of the zone), his defense at third base was lacking whatever panache might have been expected of it coming up through the system. And so, on April 27th, the Marlins started Anderson in right field. It was an understandable shift given Anderson’s performance at the hot corner to that point, and allowed his biggest defensive strength — his powerful arm — to play up, while moderating the negative effects of his limited range. It also didn’t hurt that Martin Prado came off the disabled list around the same time.

As it was for Castellanos before him, the shift down the defensive spectrum seemed to be all the change Anderson needed to blossom into a better version of himself. He’s flourished offensively since the move to right field — a 118 wRC+ in 382 plate appearances, with an unusual-for-him .437 slugging — and his aggregate combination of playing time, offensive prowess, and defensive competence has led to an unexpectedly valuable rookie season for the 25-year-old. Once again: Brian Anderson, who as recently as three years ago was ranked 7th in a weak Miami Marlins system, and as recently as two years ago was hitting not especially well in Double-A, is now leading all major league rookies in WAR. That is, on the whole, quite a remarkable accomplishment.

Now, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. The guy Anderson one spot in front of — Juan Soto — is six years younger than him, a far better hitter already at 19, and still likely to have a markedly better career than Anderson ever will. He’ll probably win the NL Rookie of the Year award this year, too. Anderson’s WAR lead is in part a function of the Marlins being a very bad baseball team this year, and therefore able to give a largely untested rookie a ton of playing time and room to grow. Anderson has 491 plate appearances this season while Soto has 278. The gap between the two men is a mere 0.2 WAR, and we can’t pretend WAR is fine-tuned to the point that such differences are especially meaningful. They aren’t, and as 2018 continues, Anderson will likely be eclipsed.

But I’m a sucker for guys who nobody expected to be all that good being good anyway, sometimes despite themselves, and I’m a sucker for these strange baseball stories bursting out of nowhere and forcing themselves into the conversation because of their improbability. It’s entirely possible that this moment, right now, where he’s leading the major leagues in WAR for rookies, will be the high point of Brian Wade Anderson’s career. I hope it isn’t. I wish him many happy days ahead. But if it is, it’s worth pausing for a moment and celebrating the path he’s taken to get here. Brian Anderson, baseball man, has arrived.

Blake Snell Leaves Them Wanting More

The first pitch Blake Snell ever threw as an American League All-Star ended up in the left-field bleachers. I assume he had other plans.

That this might, for some, represent an enduring image of Snell’s All-Star experience is a bit of a shame, because most of the pitches he threw last Tuesday night were actually pretty good. In his first inning of work, he got Javy Báez to reach out on a letter-high fastball and bounce the ball back to the mound; he walked Paul Goldschmidt on a borderline 3-2 fastball; he struck out Nolan Arenado with a gorgeous curveball on the fourth pitch of the sequence; and he retired Freddie Freeman via ground out. In his second inning, he struck out Matt Kemp and Bryce Harper consecutively before losing Nick Markakis, of all people, on a 3-1 fastball that missed badly. He was pulled after that in favor of Joe Jiménez. All in all, though, not bad for a 25-year-old.

In fact, of the 39 pitches Snell threw on Tuesday, just one — the one Willson Contreras deposited into the left-field seats — was hit in the air at all. The rest were either taken or, in the cases of Báez and Freeman, hit into the ground. I want to fixate on this for a moment because I think it’s at least somewhat relevant to Snell’s breakout 2018, in which he’s finally managed to pitch ahead of his peripherals (and up to his potential) to the tune of a nifty 2.27 ERA in 119 big-league innings. After long being part of the future for Tampa Bay, Snell is now firmly part of the club’s present and has established himself — albeit tenuously, for the moment — a place among the top-25 or -30 starters in the game. But how?

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Jesse Chavez Is Here to Pitch, Not Walk People

All things considered, the Chicago Cubs were in a pretty good place headed into the All-Star break. Their NL-leading offense had carried the team to a 13-4 record in the 17 games before the break, scoring 6.82 runs per game in that span and effecting a net five-game swing in the standings. The starting pitching, though — whose shortcomings were examined earlier today by Craig Edwards — had recorded an unimpressive 4.67 FIP coming into the break (ranked 14th in the National League) while benefiting from strong defense and perhaps, yes, a measure of good luck to record a 3.88 ERA that ranked seventh league-wide. Critical to the Cubs’ success, then, was the bullpen, which posted an 3.09 ERA (2nd) and 3.74 FIP (5th) on the back of strong performances from Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr., Brandon Morrow, Pedro Strop, and Justin Wilson.

The twin problems for Cubs relievers were that they were, in the main, pitching a little bit more often than you’d like (their 3.7 innings pitched per game ranked fifth in the National League coming into the break, due to some early exits from Cubs starters) and that they were walking too many people while they were at it (their 11.3% free-pass rate as a relief corps was the worst in the game). These were problems even before the Cubs announced on Thursday that Morrow, their closer, would be placed on the disabled list with a “right biceps inflammation,” which does not sound pleasant even at the best of times and was particularly inconvenient for Chicago at this time. With that announcement, the Cubs’ public quest for relief depth acquired a more urgent flavor, and they sent A-ball starter Tyler Thomas, who’s having a nice season, to the Rangers for Jesse Chavez.

The good thing about Jesse Chavez, insofar as the Cubs are concerned with him, is that he’s used to throwing more than one inning at a time (averaging, this season, about 1.5 innings in his 30 appearances and on five occasions going at least three) and that his 5.1% walk rate is among the very best in the game. The Cubs had two problems with their relievers, and Jesse Chavez helps to address both. Joe Maddon has not particularly enjoyed having to cast about, each game, for a reliever to bridge the gap from the fifth inning to the seventh, and in Chavez he probably has someone who can take a little bit of the pressure off of folks like Wilson, Anthony Bass, Brian Duensing, and Randy Rosario early in games.

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Mike Trout Was Going Through a Thing

On Saturday afternoon in Anaheim, Mike Trout went 3-for-4 with two singles and a home run. For a player who, at age 26, has basically secured a place in the Hall of Fame, that kind of performance is pretty commonplace. Mike Trout is the best player in the world; nothing in this piece will attempt to convince you otherwise.

What was notable about that Saturday game, however, is that it represented Trout’s first multi-hit effort since since June 18th. If you’re the kind of person who takes life as it comes, for good or for bad, this sort of thing might not even register. But for the rest of you, who worry about the little moments in between the big ones, there is this: for the last two weeks or so, before he got three hits on Saturday, Mike Trout had been in a bit of a slump. For about two weeks or so, Mike Trout was a below-average major-league hitter.

Consider the following, which is a chart of Trout’s rolling wRC+ in 14-game chunks, dating back to the beginning of the 2012 season, which was his first full campaign, and concluding on July 6th, the day before his home run:

There are roughly 1,000 games here, so it’s pretty condensed. The most important part of it, however, is the low point on the right-most edge of the graph. That’s the slump Trout was enduring until Saturday, a 14-game stretch (June 22nd to July 6th) during which he recorded just a 70 wRC+. With the exception of that horrible second half he had back in 2014 and the very beginning of his 2012 season, it was the worst offensive period of his very excellent career to date.

A couple weeks spent hitting 30% worse than league average isn’t a news item for most players. Trout’s teammate Justin Upton has recorded just a 64 wRC+ over the last two weeks, for example, and that’s unlikely to inspire a post here at FanGraphs. Billy Hamilton owns a lifetime batting mark of 71 wRC+. For Mike Trout, however, this type of stretch is nearly unprecedented — and especially notable as it came hot on the heels of some of the best baseball in his glittering career.

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Albert Almora and the Declining Value of Batting Leaders

Albert Almora Jr., Theo Epstein’s first draft pick as Grand Poobah of the Cubs organization, is having himself a nice little season this year at the age of 24. His on-base percentage of .370 is 32 points up on last year’s career high. His .462 slugging percentage is also a career high, though buttressed not so much by increased home-run power as by an increase in the rate at which he hits doubles (one in every 14 plate appearances this year compared to 1-in-18 last year). His 1.8 WAR, of course, is already at a career high, and he plays stellar defense in center field. Oh, and if the season ended today, his .329 average would put him neck-and-neck with Scooter Gennett for the NL’s batting title.

“Batting title”: that’s the funny term we give the hitter who finishes the season with at least 502 plate appearances and the highest batting average in the league. It sounds really good! A reasonable person might conclude, in fact, that someone who wins the batting title is necessarily one of the best batters in the league. But, of course, they’re not — at least not all of the time. Last year, for example, one of the very best hitters in the National League was Giancarlo Stanton, and he “hit” — see how the language works against our understanding? — just .281. Aaron Judge was among the very best in the Junior Circuit, and he hit .284. And this year, the Year of our Lord Mike Trout 8 and of the Common Era 2018, Albert Almora Jr. is currently ranked 52nd in wRC+ among qualified hitters, and he’s in strong contention for the batting title. He just might win it.

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Eddie Rosario Has Surpassed His Peers

A little more than four years ago, on the cusp of the 2014 big-league baseball season, you could have been forgiven for not paying all that much attention to Eddie Rosario. His performance as a 21-year-old between High-A and Double-A in 2013 had been good but not exceptional (a .275/.324/.415 line over 746 plate appearances), and he’d just been popped for use of a banned substance, which would keep him off the field for the first 50 games of 2014. He was a back-end top-100 prospect — No. 60 on BP’s list, 76 on ours, and 119 on Minor League Ball’s — but sufficiently outclassed by the four Twins ranked above him on all three lists (Byron Buxton at No. 1 on our list, Miguel Sano at No. 10, Alex Meyer at No. 23, and Kohl Stewart at No. 32) that he missed out on much of the national attention then showered on his colleagues.

Four years later, it’s a different story in Minnesota. Stewart is in Double-A, Meyer is in Anaheim, and Rosario’s 9.0 career WAR outclasses every single one of the Twins’ prospects from that loaded class, including Sano and Buxton — even if you throw the rest of our 2014 Twins top-10 list into the hopper for comparison’s sake:

2014 Twins Top 10 Prospects
Player 2014 Rank 2018 Age Career WAR
Byron Buxton 1 23 4.6
Miguel Sano 2 24 5.3
Alex Meyer 3 26 1.0
Kohl Stewart 4 23 N/A
Eddie Rosario 5 25 9.0
Jose Berrios 6 23 4.9
Max Kepler 7 24 3.4
Jorge Polanco 8 22 1.7
Danny Santana 9 25 1.5
Josmil Pinto 10 26 0.8

Now, let’s be clear about what I’m not saying here: I’m not saying that Rosario will end his career with more WAR than Buxton, Sano, or even Berrios, who’s had a pretty nice start in the majors, as well. At 25, Rosario is older than all three of those men, and more than a third of his career WAR has come in the last three months. We’re nowhere near being able to render a final verdict on the Twins prospects of recent vintage. So I’m not saying Rosario has “won” anything or that his peers have flopped.

What I am saying, though, is that it’s perhaps at least a little surprising that Rosario — and not any of the other men on this list — has been the most productive member of that loaded Twins farm system to date and, further, that perhaps his performance to date merits a little bit of examination as a result. So let’s examine, shall we?

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The Mariners’ Bullpen Stayed Good

A little more than two months ago, I noted that the Mariners’ bullpen had been — through that point in the season — among the most improved in the game, relative to preseason expectations. Before the 2018 season began, we projected Seattle relievers to strike out 9.1 batters per nine innings and walk 3.5.

A couple weeks into the season, they weren’t doing that. They were performing much better than that, actually. At the time I wrote that first article, Mariners relievers had struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings and walked just 1.5, both of which were tremendously good numbers and perhaps merited further investigation at the time. But it was still early, so I kept the article general and cautioned that we shouldn’t necessarily expect the men in teal to keep up their early-season performance too much longer.

Well, we’re now more than a third of the way through the major-league schedule, and the Seattle bullpen has stayed improved. In fact, the Seattle bullpen has been among the top three or four in the game, no matter which way you slice it, but this piece is about improvement against expectations. Here’s an updated version of a chart I included in my original article, which plots each teams’ actual relief K/9 and BB/9 (adjusted so that positive figures are good in both cases), through games played on Friday, against our preseason expectations of the same:

Observant readers will note that there is another happy story to tell here about the Astros’ pen — featuring Héctor Rondón and Chris Devenski — and a sad one about the Orioles, featuring almost every Oriole. But, again, this article is about the Mariners, whose improvement relative to projections in both K/9 and BB/9 has been outstanding — and key to the club’s outrageous performance in one-run games, which was detailed here by my colleague Jay Jaffe. Maybe it’s finally time to dive a little bit deeper into what they’ve been doing and why it’s been successful.

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