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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
Period IP K% BB% ERA FIP xFIP
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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The Evolution of Scooter Gennett, Power Hitter

One of my favorite baseball games of the decade was played in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 6th, 2017, between the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals. That’s the day that Ryan Joseph Gennett hit the 39th, 40th, 41st, and 42nd home runs of his then-five-year-old career, and in so doing became just the 17th player in baseball history to hit four home runs in a single game. Nothing else of any real import happened that night; my delight in its existence is driven entirely by the improbability of Gennett’s accomplishment.

As our own Jay Jaffe noted for Sports Illustrated that week, Gennett was at the time — with the possible exception of Mark Whiten — the most unlikely four-homer player in the long history of the game, and his remarkable power surge appeared then to be one of those strange, miraculous occurrences that baseball occasionally throws at us as further evidence of its unpredictability, like Bartolo Colón throwing 38 consecutive strikes against the Angels, or going deep that one time against the Padres. Nothing, I thought, could be stranger than Scooter Gennett hitting four home runs in one game.

I was wrong. It turns out that hitting for power is kind of Scooter Gennett’s thing these days. In fact, since June 7th, 2017 — the day after his four-homer game — just 27 of the 67 players with as many plate appearances as Gennett’s 635 have a higher isolated slugging percentage than his .220. Since June 7th, 2017, Gennett has a higher ISO than Kris Bryant. Throw in his four-homer day — it did, after all, really happen — and only 16 players top his .239 mark. Gennett’s four-homer game was surprising a year ago. It would be far less surprising now. Scooter Gennett currently has the 10th-highest slugging percentage in baseball (to be fair, his ISO, which strips out the effect of his extremely high BABIP, is significantly lower). One way or another, he should probably be an All-Star. But why? What’s changed?

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Mike Foltynewicz Is Separating Toward His Strengths

Last Friday night, Mike Foltynewicz threw a complete game for the Braves during which he struck out 11 Nationals — including Bryce Harper twice — and walked just one, while allowing two hits and zero runs. That’s the kind of performance that tends to make people like me, who don’t otherwise spend all that much time paying attention to what Mike Foltynewicz does with his days, sit up and take notice. But for Braves fans, Foltynewicz’s dominance probably didn’t come as quite that much of a surprise. Foltynewicz has been getting better for some time now:

It took his ERA a little while to catch up to his FIP thanks to some poor results at the end of the 2017 season, but he’s all caught up now and then some. Right now, Foltynewicz owns the eighth-best park-adjusted FIP in the National League and an even better ERA. After generating just 1.8 WAR across 28 starts last season, he’s up to 1.6 fWAR through just 12 starts this year. What’s changed?

One can’t say for sure, of course. If forced to guess, however, I’d say it has something to do with the difference between two numbers. The first is 54.9. That’s the percentage of the time Foltynewicz threw either his fastball or his slider in 2017. The second is 68.9, which is the equivalent figure for 2018. A year ago, Foltynewicz was a fastball-sinker-slider pitcher, in that order, with a changeup and a cut fastball that he threw only occasionally. These days, it’s probably fairer to say that Foltynewicz is a fastball-slider-sinker pitcher, in that order, with the same two backups for emergency use.

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The Throwbacks Among Us

I imagine you already know that big-league hitters in 2018 strike out an awful lot more than big-league hitters in 2008 did. You could probably guess, too, that they hit for a somewhat lower average and a little less power. Even though some of that power differential will even out as the weather heats up this summer — we’re not exactly comparing apples to apples, here — I think it’s a relatively uncontroversial opinion to say that the game has changed in the past decade:

MLB Hitters, 2008 and 2018
Year BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG
2008 8.7% 17.5% 0.152 0.300 0.264 0.333 0.416
2018 8.8% 22.5% 0.160 0.293 0.245 0.317 0.405
2018 stats through games played 5/27/18.

Furthermore, those changes in the way the game is played have forced us to adjust our understanding of what good, bad, and decent performances look like. We have had to reconcile ourselves to the notion that, although just 20 qualified hitters struck out more than 22.5% of the time in 2008, 50 are above that mark right now, and another 40 or so finished above it last year in a full season’s worth of data. Striking out nearly a quarter of the time doesn’t make a hitter an outlier anymore, and we’ve had to adjust our internal expectations for player performance accordingly.

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The Rarest Sight in Baseball

On May 12th, in the first inning of the Cubs’ game against the White Sox, Jon Lester did something a little bit unusual: he swung at a 3-1 pitch. Now, if Jon Lester were not a pitcher, that wouldn’t be all that unusual. Since 2011, non-pitchers (another word you might use for these people is “hitters”) have swung at 3-1 pitches about 56% of the time — 55.9% of the time, to be precise. But Jon Lester is a pitcher, and he still swung at a 3-1 pitch. And the thing is, over the same time period — that is, from 2011 (when our data starts) to present — pitchers faced with 3-1 counts have swung at the next pitch just 38.3% of the time. Of those swings, just one in five was at a pitch outside the zone, like the fastball on the outside edge at which Lester swung and missed. It’s just not something you see that often.

That’s because, if you’re a pitcher, swinging at a 3-1 pitch is usually not a very good idea. If you swing at such a pitch, you might get a hit (pitchers did hit 27 home runs last year, after all!), but you might also put the ball in play and record an out. If you don’t swing on 3-1, you definitely won’t record an out. You might still get a strike called against you, which would put you that much closer to recording an out, but you might also walk or get hit by the pitch — and a walk or hit by pitch, for a lot of pitchers at the plate, is a very good outcome. Last year, pitchers took 5,277 plate appearances. They recorded outs in 4,522 of those plate appearances (85.7%). I think it’s fair to say pitchers are looking for any means to reach base available to them. Swinging at 3-1 pitches is not a good way to do that. And so, two-thirds of the time, pitchers don’t.

Everything I’ve just said applies doubly to 3-0 counts. Even regular hitters don’t swing at those pitches all that often — just 8.2% of the time since 2011, in fact. With two strikes still available, it just doesn’t make any sense not to give the pitcher a chance to walk you, and so upwards of nine times out of 10, hitters will let the pitcher prove he can find the zone on a 3-0 count. And when it’s a pitcher at the plate, the odds of a swing on 3-0 are even smaller. Vanishingly small, in fact. Thanks to a database query performed by my colleague Sean Dolinar, I’m able to report to you now that a pitcher swing on a 3-0 count has happened only seven times since 2011, or about once a season. Seven times, out of 578 opportunities. About 1 in every 100 times. Almost never. And — here’s the fun thing about this story, I think — six of those seven swings were taken by just two men, and all seven came in the span of just three seasons. Let’s investigate the history of this strange baseball phenomenon together, shall we? Come with me on a journey back to May 20th, 2014.

Whoops! I jumped ahead in the story a little bit. That there on your screen, right above this text, is Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants swinging at a 3-0 pitch in the fifth inning of a game against the Colorado Rockies. Now, Bumgarner can hit a little bit — at least as well as the worst big-league hitters can hit, that is. His career wRC+ is identical, for example, to Drew Butera’s. And he was behind in this game 1-0 in the fifth, with two runners on base and an out in the inning to spare. Perhaps he felt that his cause would be best served by a Very Large Home Run against Franklin Morales, who at this point in the game was pitching a gem (those of you who are familiar with the life and work of Franklin Morales may not be shocked to discover it did not end that way, though it wasn’t a terrible start, on the whole).

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José Ramírez Is a Star

Ramírez has exhibited a kind of power never anticipated by talent evaluators.
(Photo: Erik Drost)

More or less, the public perception of a ballplayer’s value correlates pretty strongly with the reality of that player’s value. Mike Trout, for example, is almost universally regarded as the best player in the game. The numbers bear that out. José Altuve and Kris Bryant have both won MVP awards in recent years. Their records suggest that such accolades are warranted.

That said, an examination of the FanGraphs leaderboard for WAR since 2016 — which you can examine for yourself by means of this convenient link — reveals a case where perception and reality seem to diverge. Here are the top players from same:

WAR leaders, 2016-18
Rank Player WAR
1 Mike Trout 19.5
2 Mookie Betts 16.8
3 Kris Bryant 16.2
4 José Altuve 15.4
T5 Francisco Lindor 14.2
T5 José Ramírez 14.2
Through games played May 13th, 2018.

You may be a more observant baseball fan than I am — or you may be from Cleveland (some people are!) — but I’m not sure that one out of every 10 reasonably aware fans would be able to say, without checking, that José Ramírez has recorded the fifth-most WAR of any hitter in the game over the last two-plus seasons. I’m not sure they would say he’s been more valuable than Josh Donaldson, Corey Seager, and Joey Votto over that span. But he has been.

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What Shane Carle Does With His Days

You do something with your days, I think. You must. You get up in the morning, stretch out your arms and legs, blink a few times, maybe check your phone for a few minutes. (Try not to, though! Screen addiction is a real problem!) Then get up and do something with your day until, not that many hours later, you fall asleep in your nice warm bed and do it all over again.

Imagine this, though: imagine if, one day, you woke up and found that you were doing that thing — the thing you do with your days — better than you’ve ever done it before. Better, in fact, than most people have ever done it. That would be great, right? That’s a little bit of what’s been happening to Shane Carle recently, day over day, a little bit at a time.

You may not know who Shane Carle is, so let’s run over the resume. First of all, he’s a player with the Atlanta Braves — a reliever, in fact. He’s 26 years old. He’s 6-foot-4 and weighs 210 pounds. He’s a rookie. He throws a fastball, a changeup, a slider, and a curveball — in roughly that order of frequency. And this is where Carle is already a bit different: not many major-league relievers throw four pitches well with any regularity. If they do, they’re often encouraged to become major-league starters. But Carle is a major-league reliever. And we’re getting distracted. Let’s continue with the resume.

Carle was selected out of Cal State-Long Beach in the 10th round of the 2013 draft, by the Pirates. He wasn’t bad for the Pirates, but he wasn’t especially good, either, and he didn’t strike out very many people, even at High-A. The Pirates are pretty good at developing pitching, and after the 2014 season, they decided they didn’t want to develop Shane Carle anymore. He was traded to the Rockies, and despite exhibiting little more promise than the year before — at least on paper — he’d been promoted to Triple-A Albuquerque by the end of 2015.

And when he got there, something happened that’s had very important consequences for Shane Carle’s present: he started to strike people out. In Triple-A in 2015, Carle struck out 4.5 batters for every nine innings he threw. In that same league in 2016, he struck out 7.1 batters for every nine innings he threw. And this year, for the Atlanta Braves, against real major-league hitters, Carle has struck out 17 batters in fewer than 20 innings, and he’s got the fifth-most relief WAR of any pitcher in baseball. Here is some visual interest:

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The MLBPA Is Doing Work in the Field

The Major League Baseball Players Association has its offices on the 24th floor of a gleaming glass skyscraper at 12 E. 49th Street, in the heart of midtown Manhattan, just around the corner from the Commissioner’s offices on bustling Park Avenue. Spend some time lingering outside the Association’s steel-columned steps, and you’re likely as not to see just the folks you expect to see heading in and out of the building: old labor hands raised on tales tall and short of Marvin Miller’s legendary two decades as union boss, hard-bitten union attorneys trained in every detail of employee-side labor law brought on board during the Don Fehr era, and maybe even a few folks who joined the Association during Michael Weiner’s tragically short tenure at the top of the org chart.

What you won’t see, though, is much sign of Tony Clark’s signature hires as executive director of the Association. That’s because they’re at the ballpark.

The Association has always heavily involved players in its governance, of course — it is, after all, their union — but generally speaking only through the old player-representative/executive-subcommittee structure established in the 1960s, and not in the form of retired players actually on staff. Marvin Miller came from steel organizing, and the resumes of staff at the Association have, until recently, been populated heavily by previous work in the world of organized labor — folks coming out of the National Labor Relations Board or from other unions — and not necessarily work in baseball itself. Only in the waning days of Weiner’s leadership (with Clark as his deputy) did the Association really begin to seek out and hire former players to help advance and shape its work.

That process has accelerated significantly under Clark’s directorship. He is himself a former player, of course. If you glance around pretty much any spring-training camp these days — and a fair number of regular-season clubhouses besides — you may well see a broad-chested baseball man there off to the side, perhaps graying at the temples a little, taking some 23-year-old kid under his wing and teaching him the ways of the union. Bobby Bonilla. José Cruz. Steve Rogers. Javier Vázquez for international work. Phil Bradley, Jeffrey Hammonds, and Mike Myers, too. These are the men Clark has tasked with serving as the Association’s primary faces on the field, and its principal communicators with and to a membership that seems increasingly to have reason to be restive.

“They act kind of like a field organizer would in a typical union,” said a Players Association spokesman who declined to be named for this story. “Their job is to stay close in contact with all the guys on the 25-man roster [of the teams to which they’re assigned], and keep a constant communication going with them.” That’s an especially critical task for this union at this moment, because unlike most labor unions, this one doesn’t have a single factory floor or break room upon which to fall back as a natural meeting ground or organizing space. It just has its members, scattered far and wide at ballparks around the country. That presents obvious logistical difficulties.

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You Should Know What Matt Chapman’s Been Doing

You know about Matt Chapman. Right? Of course you know about him. You’re a smart, literate baseball fan. You’re even pretty sure that Matt Chapman is on the A’s these days, and that he’s good with the glove. He is good with the glove. And, in fact, he’s only ever been on the A’s, because he’s only 24 years old and was born the year before they started the O.J. murder trial. But you knew that. Didn’t you?

Anyway, if you know those things about Matt Chapman, you know, probably, about the same amount of things about Matt Chapman as the average baseball fan knew before oh, about two weeks ago. And that’s because in the last two weeks, Matt Chapman has hit as many major-league home runs as anybody not named Charlie Blackmon, Bryce Harper, or Mike Trout, and gotten on base more than 40% of the time to boot. We’re just about 10% of the way through the 2018 big-league schedule, and Matt Chapman is leading the major leagues in WAR.

This won’t last, probably. So this isn’t a piece about how, because we’re already X plate appearances into the season, A’s fans should believe that Chapman is going to sustain the .650 slugging percentage he’s put up so far and become the second coming of Sal Bando but with more power, or whatever. This is a piece about how Chapman has already had an extremely good 16 days at work, and about what he’s been doing differently during those 16 days. If you’d like to make this piece about the future, go for it. That’s on you, though. This is a piece about what Matt Chapman’s doing now.

First, the past. That’s a video of Matt Chapman hitting his 14th and final home run of 2017, against the Gallopin’ Guadalajaran, Miguel González, who tried to locate a second fastball right where he’d put the first one and instead ended up locating it somewhere over the wall in dead center field. I’m showing this to you now to demonstrate that Matt Chapman’s power didn’t come out of nowhere, exactly. Big-league hitters with power are meant to hit fastballs like that one out to dead center field, and Chapman did. He hit 30 home runs last year, between the big leagues and two different minor-league stops. He’s always had very good power. The thing was, he wasn’t as good at putting the power into action in a game setting as he could have been.

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