Archive for Diamondbacks

Zack Greinke’s Climb Towards Cooperstown

Zack Greinke’s final start of the 2018 season was a tour de force, one that knocked his former team, the Dodgers, out of first place in the NL West heading into the season’s final weekend. The going-on-35-year-old righty survived a rocky beginning and pitched well, drove in the go-ahead run, tormented longtime nemesis Yasiel Puig as baserunner and a pitcher, and even made a nifty fielding play, albeit one that ultimately didn’t count. It was a fitting capper to a very good season in which Greinke made his fifth All-Star team and delivered solid — but not exceptional — value given his massive contract. He couldn’t singlehandedly pitch the Diamondbacks into the playoffs, and he isn’t likely to receive any Cy Young votes, but by staying healthy and pitching at a high level, he gave his chances at Cooperstown a considerable boost.

It’s that last topic that brings me to this post, because multiple readers have asked for it in some context. I’ve touched upon the cases of several of Greinke’s peers this season, such as Felix Hernandez (here), CC Sabathia (here) and Justin Verlander (here). As we’re about to spend the next five weeks absorbed in postseason baseball, it seems like a good time to check in.

But first, let’s appreciate the resiliency and athleticism Greinke displayed on Wednesday night. Peppered for seven hits from among the first 12 batters he faced, he managed to limit the damage to two runs thanks in part to a double play off the bat of Joc Pederson that ended the second inning and a diving stab by shortstop Nick Ahmed that snared Puig’s bases-loaded, 99.9 mph line drive to end the third. That out was part of a stretch in which Greinke retired 10 of the final 12 batters he faced, with a Chase Utley walk and a Cody Bellinger infield single the only blemishes. Ballinger’s single followed a grounder up the first base line that Greinke — a four-time Gold Glove winner who has seven Defensive Runs Saved to his credit this year — gloved and then flipped to first baseman Paul Goldschmidt in time for what would have been an out had the ball not been ruled foul:

On the other side of the ball, in the bottom of the second inning, as starter Ross Stripling coughed up the Dodgers’ early 2-0 lead, Greinke stroked an RBI single up the middle to plate Nick Ahmed with Arizona’s third run. He took second on a Ketel Marte single, and then tagged and went to third on an Eduardo Escobar liner to Puig:

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How the D-backs’ Season Fell Apart

On Sunday, the Rockies shut out the Diamondbacks 2-0, thus completing a three-game sweep in Arizona that put the home team out of its misery as far as the 2018 season is concerned. The Diamondbacks spent 125 days with at least a share of first place in the NL West this year, more than any other team, and when they weren’t in first they were at least in Wild Card contention. And then the calendar flipped to September, and they made like Wile E. Coyote:

From August 31 to September 23, the Diamondbacks lost 17 out of 22 games — that’s a half-game worse than the Orioles, who have already lost 111 games overall — producing a playoff odds graph that, as I suggested last week, looks more like the sharp spires of Utah’s Bryce Canyon than the signature expanses of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. (As a Utah native who has never hiked the latter, I may be biased here.)

Anyway, ouch. The collapse has to rate as one of the more gruesome in recent history, though it isn’t as though the team frittered away a seemingly insurmountable lead or was a powerhouse to begin with. The Diamondbacks’ largest lead in the NL West was six games, and that was as of May 1, when they had just beaten the Dodgers for the second straight night to open a four-game series and climbed to an NL-best 21-8. They have the NL’s fifth-worst record since then, despite outscoring the opposition:

NL Teams Through May 1 and Since
Tm W-L W% Run Dif pythW% W-L W% Run Dif pythW%
Dodgers 12-17 .414 8 .528 75-52 .591 165 .637
Cubs 16-11 .593 34 .631 75-53 .586 82 .567
Brewers 18-13 .581 7 .527 71-54 .568 62 .551
Rockies 16-15 .516 -23 .419 69-55 .556 24 .519
Braves 17-11 .607 39 .631 71-57 .555 62 .551
Cardinals 16-12 .571 26 .602 71-57 .555 61 .548
Nationals 14-16 .467 12 .542 64-62 .508 67 .555
Phillies 16-13 .552 12 .544 62-64 .492 -28 .477
Pirates 17-13 .567 12 .539 61-63 .492 -21 .482
Reds 7-23 .233 -44 .364 59-68 .465 -71 .445
D-backs 21-8 .724 43 .667 58-69 .457 4 .503
Giants 15-15 .500 -19 .426 57-69 .452 -51 .454
Mets 17-10 .630 13 .548 56-73 .434 -41 .466
Padres 11-20 .355 -35 .387 51-74 .408 -121 .397
Marlins 11-18 .379 -46 .331 51-75 .405 -164 .367
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Through games of September 23.

That May 1 win was just one of eight the Diamondbacks notched that month en route to an 8-19 record. They rebounded to go 19-9 in June, but spent the next two months meandering around .500, going 13-13 in July and 14-12 in August. Even so, they were in either first or second place in the NL West for all but one day of that two-month span of mediocrity.

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Defense, Contact Quality, and the NL Cy Young

This year’s National League Cy Young race invites multiple interesting questions about how best to evaluate pitching performance. Jacob deGrom, for example, is the league’s leader in ERA by a healthy amount; however, he’s also recorded only as many wins as reliever Jeremy Jeffress. Max Scherzer is having another great season, but his .255 BABIP compels one to consider whether his 2.31 ERA is the product of luck or defense (although the Nationals have recorded below-average defensive numbers both by UZR and DRS). Aaron Nola, meanwhile, has recorded a similarly low BABIP even as Philadelphia has produced NL-worst figures both by UZR and DRS. Finally, while the race has been viewed as a three-person contest for some time, it’s also possible Patrick Corbin has inserted himself into the conversation with a fantastic second half.

Sorting through the candidates is difficult. Ultimately, one’s choice for Cy Young will depend on how one weighs what a pitcher can and cannot control — and how best to quantify those effects. To start, here are some general metrics that should be familiar to FanGraphs readers.

National League Cy Young Contenders
Metric Max Scherzer Jacob deGrom Aaron Nola Patrick Corbin
IP 202.2 188 188.2 179.2
K% 34.4% 31.3% 26.6% 31.3%
BB% 5.8% 5.7% 6.8% 5.9%
HR/9 0.93 0.43 0.62 0.65
BABIP .255 .290 .251 .293
ERA 2.31 1.68 2.29 3.01
FIP 2.66 2.08 2.86 2.38
WAR 6.7 7.3 5.4 6.0
Blue=Leader
Orange=2nd Place

Based on these numbers, Jacob deGrom is the pretty clear favorite for Cy honors, with Max Scherzer an equally clear runner-up. What’s less clear, however, is that the results of a vote would produce a similar outcome, as both pitcher wins and other versions of WAR are likely to influence writers — and arrive at different conclusions than the figures here. Below, I’ve included some different versions of WAR, each of which paint the field in a different light.

National League Cy Young Race and WAR
Metric Max Scherzer Jacob deGrom Aaron Nola Patrick Corbin
WAR 6.7 7.3 5.4 6.0
RA9/WAR 7.6 7.9 7.3 5.7
BRef 8.7 8.1 9.4 4.4
BPro 7.2 6.6 6.1 5.5
Blue=Leader
Orange=2nd Place

Here we see a version of reality that suggests greater parity in the race. Averaging the numbers above, we’d still put deGrom first, Scherzer second, and Nola third, but Scherzer actually places ahead of deGrom in two of the four metrics, while Nola and Scherzer are more closely situated. Examining how each of WAR metrics arrives at its destination can help inform how to use them. Last week, Eno Sarris took a look at some of these same issues in a discussion of how large a role luck ought to play in Cy Young voting. There is also the question of what defines “luck” in the context of pitching, what sort of control a pitcher exerts over certain outcomes, and what role a a pitcher’s park ought to play in our evaluations of him.

The metrics above all feature different inputs which, naturally, lead to different results. In the version of WAR used at FanGraphs, those inputs are innings, strikeouts, infield flies, walks, and home runs — along with factors for league and park. DeGrom leads by this particular measure because his strikeout, walk, and homer numbers are all great. Scherzer has good walk and strikeout numbers but a closer-to-average home-run rate. Nola features slightly inferior (although still excellent) strikeout and walk numbers — plus a good home-run rate — but he falls behind Corbin, who has good numbers in all three.

The next metric, RA9, is another version of WAR carried at FanGraphs — one which, in this case, simply considers the number of runs a pitcher allows while also factoring for league and park. That’s how Nola, with the very good ERA, jumps up near Scherzer, though still short of deGrom. RA9 includes runs that were scored or not scored due to defense and sequencing, but does not try to make any adjustments for those factors.

Baseball-Reference begins with something like FanGraphs’ RA9 calculation but makes further adjustments for opponent and team defense, which is a significant factor in this year’s race. Nola tops the Baseball-Reference WAR leaderboard because of how well he’s prevented runs despite Philadelphia’s poor defense. Generally the effects of these defensive adjustments are muted, but because Nola appears to be headed for one of the 10 best bWAR seasons of the last 50 years, this case invites some scrutiny. Patrick Corbin suffers from the opposite scenario: Arizona has recorded strong defensive numbers, meaning he receives a “penalty” of sorts for his contribution to run-prevention.

Here are the overall team defense numbers by DRS, which Baseball-Reference uses, and UZR, which is included in WAR for position players but not pitchers here at FanGraphs.

NL Cy Young Race and Team Defense
Metric Max Scherzer Jacob deGrom Aaron Nola Patrick Corbin
UZR -13.2 -27.1 -38.2 14.8
DRS -50 -79 -113 105

There is obviously a much larger spread with the DRS figures, as defensive adjustments alone mean a difference of 24 runs between Nola and Corbin, which is about four times as much as the difference by UZR.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, their Deserved Run Average (DRA) metric accounts for as many aspects of a pitcher’s game as possible and attempts to factor for everything including park, opponent, catcher, umpire, and pitch effectiveness to determine how many runs a pitcher should have allowed with all those variables rendered neutral. By their methods, Scherzer leads over deGrom, with Nola and Corbin a ways behind.

There’s certainly an argument to be made for considering the strength of a defense behind a pitcher, and reason dictates that a defense can help or hurt a pitcher’s run-prevention numbers. Defense alone, however, isn’t going to fully explain the difference between a pitcher’s FIP and ERA. Luck is involved, as well. We can use Statcast information to determine just how much defense and luck might be involved, though it won’t do a good job separating those two factors. For starters, here are the xwOBA and wOBA figures for each of the pitchers above.

NL Cy Young Race, Defense, and Luck
Name wOBA xWOBA Difference
Max Scherzer .245 .256 -.011
Jacob deGrom .240 .257 -.017
Aaron Nola .247 .266 -.019
Patrick Corbin .256 .289 -.033
League .312 .322 -.010

In terms of what a pitcher has deserved to concede based on quality of contact, strikeouts, and walks, Scherzer has gotten just about what we might expect, while deGrom and Nola aren’t far off expectations. Corbin is the outlier here, and there is a case to be made that Arizona’s defense is partially responsible for his good fortune. What’s interesting, though, is that Corbin’s ERA is actually much higher than his FIP. This could mean that Corbin has been rather fortunate this year on home runs or that the contact he’s conceded on balls in play has been of higher quality than the sort conceded by other pitchers.

We can remove the most skill-based aspects from above by taking out strikeouts and walks and looking at xwOBA on just batted balls.

NL Cy Young and xwOBA on Contact
Name wOBA on Contact xwOBA on Contact Difference
Max Scherzer .340 .357 -.017
Jacob deGrom .317 .345 -.028
Aaron Nola .296 .325 -.029
Patrick Corbin .343 .397 -.054
League .364 .379 -.015
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Here we see almost no effect on Scherzer’s outcomes, with a slight benefit for deGrom and Nola, and then a big help for Corbin. You’ll note that the league-wide numbers are off by 15 points from each other, likely due to a potentially dead baseball, as the estimates on launch angle and exit velocity are based on previous seasons, when the ball was perhaps a bit more lively. As we are looking at numbers between pitchers in this season alone, the comparisons still provide value. What happens when we remove home runs and look solely at batted balls? See below.

NL Cy Young and xwOBA on Balls in Play
Name wOBA on BIP xwOBA on BIP Difference
Max Scherzer .256 .310 -.054
Jacob deGrom .287 .325 -.038
Aaron Nola .251 .296 -.045
Patrick Corbin .292 .361 -.069
League .293 .334 -.041
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

In theory, these numbers factor in both defense and luck on batted balls this season. As we can see, it appears that, whatever poor defense has victimized Nola has likely been evened out by good fortune. The same is true for deGrom. Scherzer, meanwhile, appears to have received a slight benefit, with Corbin being the recipient of some good defense in Arizona. This probably doesn’t leave the reader with any definite conclusions. We have a better idea about the quality of contact and how defense might have affected run totals — which is to say not much — but the extent to which a pitcher exerts control over that contact is also a matter of debate.

If you believe that a pitcher controls very little of opponent contact — or, alternatively, are unsure of the level of control — the version of WAR hosted here at FanGraphs is your main resource. If you believe that a pitcher is wholly responsible for the quality of contact he concedes and also that defensive quality doesn’t move the needle much in one direction or another, RA9/WAR makes some sense for you. If you believe further adjustment needs to be made for defense, bWAR can provide some help. If you want a more granular look at individual pitches, DRA provides guidance. If you just want something based entirely on xwOBA, a crude attempt is made below.

While the question of value is somewhat objective, there is some subjectivity involved, but if making a decision on the Cy Young, it’s important to have as much information as possible to determine why one pitcher might be better than the other. It isn’t enough to simply prefer one stat over another and blindly rely on it because you generally agree with the methodology. Look at how the results are reached to make the best possible decision.

*****

As promised in the final paragraph above, here’s a rough approximation of WAR based on xwOBA:

NL WAR Based on xwOBA
Name IP xwoba xWAR
Max Scherzer 202.2 .256 7.1
Jacob deGrom 188.0 .257 6.5
Aaron Nola 188.2 .266 6.0
Patrick Corbin 179.2 .289 4.4
Zack Wheeler 167.1 .293 3.9
Clayton Kershaw 137.1 .277 3.9
German Marquez 164.1 .294 3.8
Noah Syndergaard 128.1 .277 3.8
Mike Foltynewicz 157.0 .291 3.8
Ross Stripling 110.1 .262 3.7
Jack Flaherty 132.1 .280 3.7
Jameson Taillon 164.0 .299 3.5
Miles Mikolas 173.2 .304 3.4
Tyler Anderson 153.2 .302 3.2
Alex Wood 144.1 .299 3.1
Walker Buehler 110.2 .279 3.1
Kyle Freeland 176.1 .312 3.0
Nick Pivetta 145.0 .304 2.9
Jon Gray 157.1 .309 2.9
Anibal Sanchez 113.2 .288 2.8
Kyle Hendricks 169.2 .313 2.8
Vince Velasquez 134.0 .302 2.8
Sean Newcomb 149.1 .314 2.4
Wei-Yin Chen 118.1 .305 2.3
Zack Greinke 181.1 .324 2.3
Kenta Maeda 117.0 .306 2.3
Zach Eflin 114.0 .306 2.2
Steven Matz 133.2 .314 2.2
Joe Musgrove 103.1 .301 2.2
Jake Arrieta 154.2 .322 2.1
Jhoulys Chacin 168.0 .327 2.0
Carlos Martinez 108.2 .310 2.0
Jose Urena 151.0 .325 1.9
Tanner Roark 170.1 .329 1.9
Trevor Williams 148.2 .330 1.6
John Gant 96.0 .314 1.6
Derek Holland 152.2 .331 1.6
Stephen Strasburg 107.0 .320 1.5
Robbie Ray 97.1 .317 1.5
Madison Bumgarner 105.2 .326 1.3
Julio Teheran 159.1 .338 1.3
Junior Guerra 135.0 .334 1.2
Gio Gonzalez 151.1 .337 1.2
Joey Lucchesi 110.1 .330 1.2
Luis Castillo 148.1 .338 1.2
Brent Suter 101.1 .329 1.1
Jose Quintana 147.2 .339 1.1
Rich Hill 108.2 .332 1.1
Tyson Ross 143.2 .339 1.1
Luke Weaver 133.1 .338 1.0
Andrew Suarez 139.1 .341 1.0
Zack Godley 159.2 .343 0.9
Mike Montgomery 107.2 .336 0.9
Matt Harvey 138.2 .343 0.8
Chase Anderson 150.1 .346 0.8
Ty Blach 110.0 .345 0.6
Trevor Richards 102.2 .345 0.5
Ivan Nova 146.2 .351 0.5
Eric Lauer 95.2 .346 0.4
Chad Bettis 112.0 .349 0.4
Tyler Mahle 109.0 .348 0.4
Sal Romano 134.2 .354 0.2
Jon Lester 158.0 .360 0.0
Clayton Richard 158.2 .362 -0.2
Dan Straily 122.1 .369 -0.4
Chris Stratton 126.1 .374 -0.7
Tyler Chatwood 103.2 .378 -0.9
Homer Bailey 106.1 .382 -1.0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Min. 400 batters faced. Numbers through Saturday.

Daily Prospect Notes Finale: Arizona Fall League Roster Edition

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Note from Eric: Hey you, this is the last one of these for the year, as the minor-league regular season comes to a close. Thanks for reading. I’ll be taking some time off next week, charging the batteries for the offseason duties that lie ahead for Kiley and me.

D.J. Peters, CF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Level: Double-A   Age: 22   Org Rank: 7   FV: 45+
Line: 4-for-7, 2 HR, 2B (double header)

Notes
A comparison of DJ Peters’ 2017 season in the Cal League and his 2018 season at Double-A gives us a good idea of what happens to on-paper production when a hitter is facing better pitching and defenses in a more stable offensive environment.

D.J. Peters’ Production
Year AVG OBP SLG K% BB% BABIP wRC+
2017 .276 .372 .514 32.2% 10.9% .385 137
2018 .228 .314 .451 34.0% 8.1% .305 107

Reports of Peters’ physical abilities haven’t changed, nor is his batted-ball profile different in such a way that one would expect a downtick in production. The 2018 line is, I think, a more accurate distillation of Peters’ abilities. He belongs in a talent bucket with swing-and-miss outfielders like Franchy Cordero, Randal Grichuk, Michael A. Taylor, Bradley Zimmer, etc. These are slugging center fielders whose contact skills aren’t particularly great. Players like this are historically volatile from one season to the next but dominant if/when things click. They’re often ~1.5 WAR players who have some years in the three-win range. Sometimes they also turn into George Springer.

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Strength of Schedule and the Pennant Races

No team plays a completely balanced scheduled over the course of a season. Some divisions, naturally, are better than others. Because intradivisional games account for roughly 40% of the league schedule, there is necessarily some irregularity in the strength of competition from club to club. Interleague play, which represents another 10% of games, also contributes to this imbalance. Given the sheer numbers of games in a major-league campaign, the effect of scheduling ultimately isn’t a major difference-maker. Talent and luck have much more influence over a club’s win-loss record. In any given month, however, scheduling imbalances can become much more pronounced.

Consider this: at the beginning of the season, just one team featured a projected gain or loss as large as three wins due to scheduling. The Texas Rangers were expected to lose three more games than their talent would otherwise dictate. Right now, however, there are eight teams with bigger prorated schedule swings than the one the Rangers saw at the beginning of the season — and those swings could have a big impact on the remaining pennant races.

To provide some backdrop, the chart below ranks the league’s schedules, toughest to easiest, compared to an even .500 schedule.

The Diamondbacks have a pretty rough go of it. Outside of five games against the Padres, the other “worst” team they play is the San Francisco Giants. They have one series each against the division-leading Astros, Braves, and Cubs along with a pair of series against both the Dodgers and Rockies. If Arizona were chasing these teams for the division or Wild Card, their schedule would present them with a good opportunity for making up ground. Given their current status, however, it just means a lot of tough games down the stretch.

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Sunday Notes: Older and Wiser, Clay Buchholz is Excelling in Arizona

Clay Buchholz has been rejuvenated in Arizona. Signed off the scrap heap in early May — the Royals had released him — the 34-year-old righty is 6-2 with a 2.47 ERA in 12 starts since joining the Diamondbacks. He twirled a complete-game gem on Thursday, holding the Padres to a lone run.

Health had been holding him back. Buchholz has battled numerous injury bugs over his career, particularly in recent seasons. Cast aside by the Red Sox after a tumultuous 2016 — a 4.78 ERA and a six-week banishment to the bullpen — he made just two appearances for the Phillies last year before landing on the disabled list and staying there for the duration. Frustration was clearly at the fore.

Truth be told, he’d rarely been his old self since a sparkling 2013 that saw him go 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA — and even that season was interrupted by injury. Given his travails, one couldn’t have blamed him had he thrown up his hands and walked away from the game.

That wasn’t in his DNA.

“No, this is what I do,” Buchholz told me earlier this summer. “I wasn’t ready to give it up. And while this offseason I told myself I wasn’t going to go through the whole minor league deal again, I swallowed my pride and did that for a little bit. It was for the best, because it helped me get to where I’m at now. It feels good to be able to go out there and throw without anything going on, mentally or physically.”

Buchholz made five starts in the minors before being called up, and he did so with a glass-is-half-full attitude. Read the rest of this entry »


Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 21

Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.

In the twenty-first installment of this series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Patrick Corbin, Zach Eflin, and Sonny Gray — on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.

———

Patrick Corbin (D-backs) on His Slider

“My slider. When I was really young, I asked my father how to throw a breaking ball, and he showed me this grip. It’s something I’ve stuck with throughout the minor leagues and the big leagues. It’s been my best pitch, and it’s kind of neat that my father showed me the grip.

“I can’t remember exactly when it was, but probably around 10 years old, maybe the first couple of times I played catch with my father. He always used to say he loved throwing it at the left-handed batter’s hip and having him freeze, only to have the ball break over the plate. That’s something I’ve always remembered and taken with me.

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Why the Diamondbacks Are in First Place

If you’re like me, you’ve been assuming the Dodgers would end up in first in the NL West for a while. Indeed, our playoff odds are still big fans, because it’s hard to overlook the track records of the various players around the Dodgers’ roster. If I had to make a prediction right now, I’d still settle on the Dodgers to be there at the end. Maybe that makes me smart. Maybe that makes me stubborn. Could be a little of both. I don’t like to be put on the spot.

But for however much talent the Dodgers possess, on August 16 we’re looking at the first-place Diamondbacks. The club’s been playing .500 baseball for a month and a half, yet still, they’re looming above the Dodgers and Rockies. When it comes to explaining why the Diamondbacks are where they are, credit has to go to good hitters like Paul Goldschmidt, David Peralta, and apparently Daniel Descalso. Credit also has to go to good pitchers like Patrick Corbin and Zack Greinke. And then there’s the helpful matter of so-called “cluster luck” — the Dodgers have a better run differential than the Diamondbacks do. No team reaches first place because of one reason alone.

Here, however, I’d like to shine some light on the Diamondbacks’ greatest strength. To this point I’d say it’s gone underappreciated, but I’ll show you the evidence in seven plots. The Diamondbacks have had an incredible defense.

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Meet the New Chase Field

Prior to the season, they installed a humidor in Arizona, much like they did several years ago in Colorado. The underlying ideas were similar: rein in the offense, which was increasingly out of control. Chase Field was never as hitter-friendly as Coors, and nothing will be as hitter-friendly as old Coors until there’s a big-league team in Mexico City, but there’s value in trying to make the game more neutral. The perception was that play in Chase was too lopsided. Those in control wanted to balance things out.

I wrote about the possible consequences of the humidor in February. Even better than that, Alan Nathan wrote about the possible consequences of the humidor the previous April. The potential existed for a dramatic effect. While part of the stated goal was to just make the baseballs more grippy — thereby benefiting the pitchers — the humidor would also decrease each baseball’s coefficient of restitution. Put another way, in theory, the ball wouldn’t come off the bat quite so fast. Now that we’re three-quarters of the way into the season, it’s possible to take a look at how things have actually gone. If you’re in a rush, let me give you the conclusion right here: Chase has turned into what was expected. It does seem to have become more neutral, indeed. Not in so much of a rush? Below, I’ll present the basic evidence.

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Patrick Corbin Got Better, Then Worse, Then Better

Five years ago, 23-year-old Patrick Corbin put together a very promising season. In more than 200 innings, Corbin’s 3.41 ERA and 3.43 FIP both represented solidly above-average marks, while the 3.5 WAR he recorded pointed to what was a coming-out party for a player who never featured heavily on top-prospect lists. Unfortunately, the party didn’t last: Corbin underwent Tommy John surgery before the 2014 season, and despite a good showing after his return in 2015, he took a step back in 2016 before producing a decent campaign last year. This season, somewhat surprisingly, Corbin has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball despite having lost some velocity on his fastball in May.

After just two of the left-hander’s starts this season, Jeff Sullivan noticed that Corbin was using a slider more often — that he was, in fact, using two different sliders — to the exclusion of the fastball. As the season has gone on, the slower slider has been classified often as a curve. Despite the slower speed, however, it still features the same movement as the slider. To consider the similarities of the pitch, consider the graph below, which shows the difference between slider movement and curve movement for all qualified pitchers who throw each pitch at least 5% of the time.

Most pitchers’ curves feature more drop than their sliders. The two pitches typically feature different horizontal movement, as well. On average, the difference is about four inches vertically and three inches horizontally. For Corbin, though, the horizontal difference between the pitches is less than an inch, and the vertical difference is almost nothing. Corbin generally uses the curve on the first pitch of an at-bat, with more than half of his curves coming on the first pitch and nearly three-quarters of his curves coming with no strikes, per Brooks Baseball. It’s a pitch he uses in the strike zone when the batter is probably expecting a fastball. The curve helps Corbin either stay ahead or get back even in the count, and still gets a decent 13% whiff rate because of the timing.

In an era that has seen pitchers move towards the four-seam fastball and away from the sinker, Corbin has actually gone the opposite direction. Over the past two seasons, the lefty has cut his four-seam usage in half and shifted most of those pitches to his best pitch, the slider. He’s also shifted away usage from his change, which has meant doubling the combined usage of the slider and curve to nearly 50%, while his two fastballs have essentially been relegated to secondary offerings.

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Brad Ziegler Returns to Arizona

The Arizona Diamondbacks bolstered their bullpen depth today, hours before the 4pm deadline, bringing back submariner Brad Ziegler from the Miami Marlins in return for right-handed reliever Tommy Eveld.

It sometimes feels like Brad Ziegler shouldn’t have a career. He throws 85 mph and doesn’t strike anybody out (at least relative to other pitchers), yet he has a 2.72 ERA over a decade-plus as a major leaguer. Ziegler’s firmly on the back end of his career — he’ll turn 39 during the playoffs — but it’s not like he has a fastball to lose. I’m convinced he could keep doing this until he’s 50 or so. I don’t usually go nuts over short-term season splits, but three runs allowed in his last 29 games is a darn good run, so you can make a good case that he’s found that special sorcery groove he thrives on.

Among relievers between 2008 and -18 (the range of his major-league career), Ziegler ranks second in baseball in terms of earned runs saved over what FIP suggests.

Reliever Runs Saved Over FIP, 2008-2018
Name IP ERA FIP ER over FIP
Jared Hughes 424.3 2.67 3.94 -59.9
Brad Ziegler 695.7 2.72 3.49 -59.5
Tyler Clippard 697.7 3.02 3.75 -56.6
Darren O’Day 555.0 2.56 3.47 -56.1
Santiago Casilla 583.7 3.07 3.84 -49.9
Tony Watson 500.0 2.63 3.52 -49.4
Joaquin Benoit 522.3 2.84 3.53 -40.0
J.P. Howell 453.7 2.94 3.73 -39.8
Javier Lopez 360.7 2.72 3.68 -38.5
Joe Beimel 267.0 3.27 4.47 -35.6
Joe Smith 608.7 2.99 3.50 -34.5
Tony Sipp 470.7 3.71 4.36 -34.0
Craig Breslow 533.0 3.51 4.08 -33.8
Francisco Rodriguez 592.7 3.17 3.65 -31.6
Bryan Morris 236.0 3.13 4.32 -31.2
Pat Neshek 348.0 2.69 3.49 -30.9
Dan Jennings 331.3 2.93 3.77 -30.9
Chris Perez 379.3 3.51 4.23 -30.3
Scott Downs 359.3 2.63 3.38 -29.9
Matt Albers 555.0 3.71 4.18 -29.0
Zach Britton 268.7 1.71 2.66 -28.4
Mariano Rivera 330.7 1.80 2.57 -28.3
George Kontos 355.3 3.12 3.83 -28.0
Brian Sanches 193.7 3.25 4.51 -27.1
Jeremy Affeldt 440.0 3.11 3.66 -26.9

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Let’s Make Some Trades

Harper to the Yankees? It’s not not possible.
(Photo: Lorie Shaull)

There are only 24-ish hours remaining until baseball’s trade deadline and, truth is, I’m a bit impatient. Until free agency opens up in about a hundred days or thereabouts, this is truly our last great opportunity to let our imaginations run wild. Sure, we can conjure up some fun trades in August, but our whimsical mind-meanderings just aren’t as exciting when all of the players we trade have to go through imaginary revocable waivers.

Against my worse judgment, to which I typically cater, I endeavored to make my last-minute deadline trades to retain at least a whiff of plausibility. So, no blockbuster Mike Trout deal, no winning Noah Syndergaard in a game of canasta, and no Rockies realizing that they have significant other needs other than the bullpen.

Bryce Harper to the Yankees

Washington’s playoff hopes have sunk to the extent that, even if you’re as optimistic as the FanGraphs depth charts are and believe the Phillies and Braves are truly sub-.500 teams as presently constructed, the Nats still only are a one-in-three shot to win the division. If you’re sunnier on Philadelphia or Atlanta, those Nats probabilities lose decimal places surprisingly quickly.

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The D-backs Get Eduardo Escobar to Play Role of Jake Lamb

Infielder Eduardo Escobar entered the 2017 campaign having recorded 27 homers, a .128 isolated-power figure, and 84 wRC+ over the course of 1,620 plate appearances. In the roughly 900 plate appearances since the beginning of 2017, however, he’s been a different sort of hitter, accumulating 36 homers while posting a .215 ISO and 109 wRC+ during that interval.

The difference is stark. Indeed, one could say without much need for hyperbole that, after having conducted himself like a slap-hitting middle infielder for much of his career, Escobar somewhat suddenly become a legitimate power threat. By way of reference, consider some of the players whom Escobar has outslugged: Nicholas Castellanos (.214 ISO), Joey Votto (.213), George Springer (.213), Anthony Rizzo (.209), Corey Dickerson (.204). Those are all players whose presence in the major leagues is founded, at some level, on their ability to create runs on contact. All of them have recorded wins at an above-average rate since the start of 2017. None of them has hit for more power than Escobar, though.

Of course, having hit more home runs than expected is different than continuing to hit more home runs than expected. The former is a matter of record, the latter a question of true talent. The Arizona Diamondbacks, it seems, are at least somewhat optimistic about the latter: earlier today, they acquired Escobar from Minnesota in exchange for three prospects: right-hander Jhoan Duran, outfielder Ernie De La Trinidad, and other outfielder Gabriel Maciel.

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Daily Prospect Notes: 7/26/18

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Gabriel Maciel, CF, Arizona Diamondbacks (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 19   Org Rank: 18   FV: 40
Line: 2-for-4, 2B

Notes
The 19-year-old Brazilian has hit in every July game in which he’s played and is riding an 18-game streak, including multi-hit games in eight of his past 10. Maciel was hitting .249/.336/.305 on July 1 and is now at .291/.367/.338. He’s a plus-plus running center fielder with very limited physicality, but he understands what his offensive approach has to be to reach base and he has played well-executed small-ball throughout his pro career. There’s risk that this style of hitting won’t play against better defenses and that Maciel winds up as a bench outfielder.

Dylan Cease, RHP, Chicago White Sox (Profile)
Level: Double-A   Age: 22   Org Rank: 9   FV: 45+
Line: 7 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 12 K

Notes
This was the best start of Cease’s career. He has posted a 10% walk rate since being acquired by the White Sox, while big-league average is about 8%. Cease is a pretty strong candidate for late-blooming fastball command. He missed a year of development due to a surgery and will receive every opportunity to work with different coaches and orgs throughout his career as long as he throws as hard as he does. It might click at any time. But for now it’s realistic to assume that when Cease debuts in the next year or so he’ll probably be pitching with 40 control. Is there precedence for success among starting pitchers with a plus fastball, plus curveball, and a fringey collection of other stuff? Charlie Morton and German Marquez are two very encouraging examples, Sal Romano less so. Sean Newcomb looked like he’d have to be that guy but his changeup came along. It will take a pretty specific approach to pitching, but Cease should be fine with what he’s already working with.

Touki Toussaint, RHP, Atlanta Braves (Profile)
Level: Triple-A   Age: 22   Org Rank: 7   FV: 50
Line: 8 IP, 2 H, 4 BB, 0 R, 8 K

Notes
You could apply much of what I just said regarding Cease to Touki, but we’re higher on Touki than Cease, ranking-wise, because his curveball is better, he hasn’t had a surgery, and he is a level ahead of Cease at the same age.

Hans Crouse, RHP, Texas Rangers (Profile)
Level: Short-Season   Age: 19   Org Rank: 8   FV: 45
Line: 7 IP, 6 H, 0 BB, 0 R, 12 K

Notes
Crouse’s delivery looks weird and causes his fastball to play down a bit because he doesn’t get down the mound. While he had below-average fastball control when I saw him in the spring, he has just four walks combined in his past five starts for Spokane. Yet another plus fastball/breaking ball prospect with stuff nasty enough to overcome other issues.


Scouting the Rays’ Return for Matt Andriese

The Rays traded RHP Matt Andriese to the Diamondbacks this afternoon for minor leaguers Michael Perez and Brian Shaffer.

Tampa Bay has targeted basically two kinds of player in trades over the past few years — specifically, big-league-ready types who either (a) could function as a starting pitcher or (b) feature contact skills and the capacity to play an up-the-middle defensive position. Perez, a catcher, fits the latter category and has made strides this year defensively, moving from a 50 to a 55 behind the plate, driven by his improvement metrically in the framing department. There isn’t much in the way of publicly available minor-league framing numbers, and there’s some variance even with the big leagues ones, but multiple front-office sources described Perez’s figures this year as “elite.” He’s a definite hit-over-power type offensively and is seen as a future backup with just mistake power, but sometimes these types can turn into low-end regulars for a few years. He will likely be a 40+ FV in the coming update to THE BOARD, adding to Tampa Bay’s embarrassment of minor-league depth that was already supplemented earlier today.

Perez was the headliner here. Shaffer, meanwhile, is more of a generic depth arm. He was a sixth-rounder in 2017 out of Maryland and would occasionally show fringey stuff (87-91 mph) and sometimes more than that (90-93 mph with above-average life). His 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame is durable and he throws strikes, so any kind of improvement in the stuff department would make him a solid bet to turn into a back-end starter. He’s been mostly 89-92, touching 94 mph, this year with a slider that’s fringey to average and a changeup that’s a little better but mostly average. In today’s game, this is somewhere in the range of a sixth starter, swing man, innings-eating middle reliever or up/down fill arm, as indicated by the fact that Shaffer is still pitching in Low-A at nearly 22 years old. Shaffer will likely be a 35 or 35+ FV.


Descalso and Avila Hurl Their Way into Weird History

Even in these days of bloated, 13-man pitching staffs, it’s not uncommon for a position player to take the mound. With the season roughly halfway done, there have been 29 outings by position players* thus far — not including two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, who’s in a class by himself — which means we’re almost certain to see what, at the very least, is an expansion-era record (more on which momentarily). Despite that increasing commonality, Wednesday night brought a rarity that’s worth appreciating — a few of them, in fact — in the Rockies’ 19-2 trouncing of the Diamondbacks (box).

Yes, it was a game at Coors Field, where wackiness reigns thanks to the high altitude, and unfortunately, the circumstances were triggered by an injury. Diamondbacks starter Shelby Miller, making just his fourth major-league start since returning from Tommy John surgery, was lit up for five first-inning runs via two walks and four hits, the most important coming in the form of an Ian Desmond homer.

Though he completed the inning, Miller needed 37 pitches — a bit extreme given his recent injury, but take it up with manager Torey Lovullo — and began feeling elbow tightness by the end of his abbreviated stint. Reliever Jorge De La Rosa, who knows all about the horrors of Coors Field as he spent nine freakin’ years (2008-16) calling it home, came on in relief and allowed four runs in the second inning and three in the third via homers by Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez. He got the hook with two outs and the Diamondbacks trailing 12-1. While T.J. Mcfarland got the final out of the third, Lovullo pulled him due to stiffness in his neck, and then Yoshihisa Hirano allowed four straight hits and three runs after retiring Desmond to start the fourth.

At that point, Lovullo effectively said, “To hell with this,” and called upon second baseman Daniel Descalso — who had already pitched four times in his nine-year major-league career, including May 4 of this year against the Astros — to take the hill, with Chris Owings coming off the bench to play second base. It didn’t go well at first, Nolan Arenado greeting Descalso with an RBI single and then Gonzalez following with a three-run homer, bringing the score to 18-1. Fortunately, Descalso settled down and wore it like a champ, lasting 2.2 innings and 36 pitches and retiring eight of the next 11 batters he faced, with the only run in that span arriving via a solo homer by pitcher German Marquez.

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Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 16

Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.

In the sixteenth installment of this series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Clay Buchholz, Matt Moore, and Tyler Skaggs — on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.

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Clay Buchholz (D-backs) on His Split-Change

“I don’t throw it a lot, but there’s the split-change I’ll use against lefties. The first time I threw it was in 2012. We were in Tampa. I was in the bullpen warming up for a game and I couldn’t throw a changeup for a strike, so I went into the dugout and asked Josh Beckett how he held his little split-change. He showed me, I gripped it, and it felt good, so I brought it out to the mound.

“I think I threw six or seven innings, and struck out something like six or seven guys on that one pitch. There was nothing in my head. There were no expectations, it was just grip it, throw it, and see if it works. I was going through a grip episode with my changeup, and I figured that was better than bouncing changeups and throwing them over hitters’ heads. I literally took it from the dugout into the game. Read the rest of this entry »


Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 15

Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.

In the 15th installment of this series, we’ll hear from three pitchers —Justin Anderson, Archie Bradley, and Brent Suter — on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.

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Justin Anderson (Angels) on His Spiked Slider

“Some people might think it’s a curveball, but it’s a slider. It kind of has the same plane as my fastball. That’s the idea. You want one pitch going one way, and one going the other. My thought process is to throw it as hard as I can and try to get break on it with my wrist flipping.

“It’s not a traditional slider grip by any means. It’s a grip I was always curious about. There’s a guy we’d always watch in the minor leagues — I played against him coming up — and we were like, ‘This guy has one of the best sliders ever.’ His name is Dean Deetz. I stole it from him. I finally saw his grip on a picture, on Twitter, last October or maybe in November. I was like, ‘OK, so this is how the guy throws it. I’m going to give it a go.’ That’s what I did. I ran with it.

Anderson’s spiked slider grip.

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Sunday Notes: Ian Kinsler Has Deserved More Gold Gloves

Ian Kinsler was awarded his only Gold Glove in 2016. He’s been deserving of several more. Presenting at SABR’s national convention last weekend, Chris Dial shared that Kinsler has topped SABR’s Defensive Index at second base in five separate seasons, and on three other occasions he ranked as the runner up. Another metric is equally bullish on his glove work. Since breaking into the big leagues in 2006, Kinsler has 115 Defensive Runs Saved, the most of anyone at his position.

I asked the 36-year-old Angel if he was aware of how well he stacks up by the numbers.

“I secretly knew that,” smiled Kinsler, who then proceeded to balance appreciation with a touch of old-school skepticism for defensive metrics.

“It’s always nice to be valued in one way or another,” acknowledged Kinsler, who spent eight seasons in Texas, and four more in Detroit, before coming to Anaheim. “I don’t know if analytics are always correct. They don’t take into account everything this game offers, and I don’t know if they ever will, but to be thought of in that regard is flattering.”

Kinsler credits hard work, as well as the tutelage of coaches and teammates, for his having developed into a plus defender. Read the rest of this entry »


Let’s Use Reason to Deduce When Archie Bradley Pooped Himself

I don’t know how exactly I came to occupy this particular beat, but it sure seems to be at least a little mine. One piece dedicated to wondering not if but why Adam Lind maybe visibly farted might be dismissed as a fluke, but this entry is likely sufficient to constitute a pattern. So here I am, the person who scrutinizes baseball players’ various public excretions. Today? Pooping!

On the June 26 episode of the Yahoo Sports MLB Podcast, Archie Bradley recounted a funny – if gross – story to Tim Brown. Per Mike Oz’s transcript:

“I was warming up to go in a game. I knew I had the next hitter. I knew he was on deck. The at-bat was kinda taking a little bit. As a bullpen guy in these big situations, I call ’em nervous pees, where like I don’t have to pee a lot, but I know I have to pee before I go in the game. I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” Bradley said to Yahoo Sports.

So it’s a 2-2 count, and I’m like, ‘Man, I have to pee. I have to go pee.’ So I run in our bathroom real quick, I’m ready to go. I’m trying to pee and I actually [expletive] my pants. Like right before I’m about to go in the game, I pooped my pants. I’m like ‘Oh my gosh.’ I know I’m a pitch away from going in the game, so I’m scrambling to clean myself up. I get it cleaned up the best I can, button my pants up, and our bullpen coach Mike Fetters says, ‘Hey, you’re in the game.’ So I’m jogging into the game to pitch with poop in my pants essentially.

It was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been on the mound. And I actually had a good inning. I had a clean inning, and I walked in the dugout and I was like, ‘Guys, I just [expletive] myself.’ They didn’t believe me, then the bullpen came in and they’re like ‘Oh my God, you had to see this.’”

Bradley’s story contains a great many details — too many, it could be argued. But after listening to the podcast and reading the abundant coverage that followed (baseball writers: we love pooping!), I was struck by what was missing. For all his detail, Bradley never specifically told us when this incident occurred. Sure, he gave us clues. A bunch of clues, even. But he left the “when” of it as a little mystery, and I love mysteries. And yes, I’ll acknowledge I could have just tried to ask him. I’m a professional baseball writer. I could have contacted the Diamondbacks and said, “Hey, get Archie on the phone, will you?” But I didn’t. Despite his candor, it somehow felt overly familiar to ask a stranger when it was exactly that he suffered this (now) public indignity. So I began an investigation of my own; I set out to solve an icky mystery.

First, let’s review what we know. We know this occurred during a home game. We know the hitter up to bat immediately before Bradley entered the game was in a 2-2 count when the nervous pees struck, which suggests another pitcher or pitchers appeared in the inning prior to his outing. The podcast confirms he was wearing white pants. We know that, despite his plight, he threw a “clean inning.” We know all that — and also that he had some amount of poop in his pants. We assume he is a reliable narrator. What choice do we have?

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