The Case for Running Through Second Base

Short answer: No.

Slightly longer answer: No idiot – they won the World Series.

Much longer answer: No. But he may have cost them a game. And with one more win the team would have tied the franchise record for wins. Which, in light of winning the World Series, probably doesn’t matter at all. But, as an exploration, let’s pretend this game really, really mattered.

It was just more than one year ago, on a night just like tonight. July 17 in Houston, Texas. Astros hosting the Mariners. Bottom of the ninth. Two outs. Score tied. Bases loaded. Alex Bregman at the plate. He smacks a hard-hit ground ball to the left side that gets past a diving Kyle Seager at third, but shortstop Jean Segura snags the ball in the hole and his strong throw just beats a sliding Brian McCann for the force out at second. (Seager would lead off the 10th with a long ball, and the Mariners would win in 10.)

Slick-fielding play by Segura, bang bang result. So why put the blame on McCann? Let’s go to the tape.

The throw beats McCann in by a split second. But, revolutionary suggestion alert, what if instead of slowing down to slide, McCann had simply sprinted right through second base? Without slowing down to slide, he would have beaten the ball to the bag, avoiding the force out. Sure, he’d get tagged out soon after, but the game-winning run already would have scored from third. GAME OVER – ASTROS WIN! Running through second base sounds counterintuitive to baseball logic, but, had McCann beaten the force out, Yuli Gurriel would already have scored the game winning run and McCann getting tagged out would be irrelevant. Instead of a -.16 WPA play, the outcome would be a .34 WPA play that ended with a W.

Which begs the larger question – why don’t we ever see runners run through second base? Turns out, it’s because this is a very situational opportunity. For running through second to make sense, a team would need a runner on third, a runner on first, (an optional runner on second), two outs, a ground ball, and a close force out at second base. In the 2017 regular season, a Baseball Savant search reveals that there were only 252 ground balls in that situation that ended with an out at second or third.

So, in theory, 252 potential chances for a runner to overrun the bag at second (or third), to get an extra run out of the inning. Granted, there is an increased risk of collision with a middle infielder covering the bag, or even injury from the unfamiliar act of straight-line sprinting past second before hitting the brakes. So maybe this base running maneuver is only worth it to bring home the tying or go-ahead run. Which brings us to roughly 54 chances in the season. Of those, Baseball Savant has video for 20. And of those 20, it turns out that on only three of those plays (all in July) were close enough that the runner would have potentially benefited from running through second base to allow the tying or go-ahead run to score.

Once again, let’s head to the tape:

Lucas Duda:

Austin Barnes:

These examples have two things in common: Both are early in the game (third and first inning, respectively) and both would involve the baserunner colliding with the second baseman at full speed. Neither seems worth the chance of injury to score an early run. And it’s unclear on how an umpire would call that type of collision.

That leaves us with one example from the 2017 season, where running through the bag would have won the game while reasonably avoided a collision. Let’s watch it again.

Brian McCann:

The ball beats McCann to the bag by a fraction of a second. It’s a fraction of a second he could have avoided had he just kept running.

In conclusion: at times, running through second base instead of slowing down to slide would be a smart move. These times just appear to be very rare. Out of 188,074 plate appearances in the 2017 regular season, only 1,979 (or just over 1%) had the necessary requirements for a base runner on first to be thinking of running through second base on a ground ball. Only 252 (or .13%) resulted in a ground ball force out to second or third. And only 1 (.0005%) would have materially changed the game.

So, for everyone else in the big leagues, you probably don’t have to think about running through second. But for Brian McCann, by not being alert to the situation, you cost your team from tying the franchise record in wins. (Since he did catch every inning in October while helping bring home the Astros first World Series title, I guess we can give McCann a pass on this one).


Johan Camargo Deserves your Attention

If you’re following the Atlanta Braves this season — and it would be hard not to, as they’ve lead the NL East for a large portion of the first hal — there’s a lot that may draw your eye. Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuña have provided anticipation. Nick Markakis has surprised. Freddie Freeman has been himself. A host of pitchers, like Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Mike Soroka, Shane Carle, AJ Minter, and Dan Winkler, have all emerged as more than expected in some respect. But another name should also grab your attention: 24-year-old, switch-hitting Johan Camargo.

The Atlanta system has been among the best in baseball the last couple years, boasting both depth and top end talent. The litany of players above largely verifies that. Two years ago, the last time Camargo was eligible to be on a prospect list, he was effectively ranked as the 52nd-best prospect in the team’s system by FanGraphs. He was said to be “a plus defender at third” but also that “his feel for hitting and lack of balance at the plate are both non-starters.” He was ultimately compared to Abraham Nunez.

While Nunez enjoyed a long professional career, he also retired being worse than a replacement level player. His career fWAR was -1.4. Upon arriving in the Majors last year, Camargo seemed to immediately dispel any such comparison. His defense between shortstop and third base was passable, but his bat was more than anyone ever seemed to imagine. He mustered a 102 wRC+ in 82 games, which was 14% better than Nunez ever achieved.

Camargo performed that way largely on the tails of a .368 average on balls in play. Sustainable? Probably not, but it was something, and way more than what was ever expected of him. That’s already a win for a team’s 52nd-best prospect. But this year he’s gone from something to something to write home about.

CamargoOne

All of his numbers so far jump off the chart. Last season he whiffed five times more than he walked. This year he’s walking an additional 8% and striking out less. He’s driving the ball at a clip that’s 33% higher than last year. He’s been 15% better than the average Major League hitter, and that’s with his average on balls in play dropping more than 80 points! That’s fantastic! So for the second time in as many years, Johan Camargo is forcing us to beg the question: is he for real?

CamargoTwo

Well, dang. His walk rate skyrocketing seems legitimate with how much less he’s swinging at balls out of the zone. Spitting on offerings that are inherently less hittable will influence the rest of his batted ball profile, too. He’s traded in weaker contact for harder contact. Hard contact throughout the league is up by nearly 4% from last year. That’s substantial because the amount of balls in play is in the thousands — think of it like getting a 4% raise in a single year, compared to, say, 1.5% for cost of living. Alex Chamberlain recently examined how it’s meant less overall, but this much is clear: Camargo is still knocking the crap out of the ball.

This authority has lead to improved exit velocity on line drives and fly balls. Last year, on average, Camargo hit balls in the air at 91.4 mph. This year he’s doing it at 93.8 mph. The tick and a half might not seem like much but it moves him from the 23rd percentile in all the Majors to the 76th. And considering his average launch angle on those balls in play — 25.4 degrees — it’s significant. Rob Arthur has found that “the very best hitters in MLB tend to smack lots of balls with launch angles around 25 degrees and exit velocities above 90 miles per hour,” and so far Camargo is only trending upward.

We might be able to contribute this next gear at the plate from Camargo to a more exaggerated leg kick. See below for yourself.

CamargoSideBySide

On the left is Camargo in 2017 when he first showed us he might be more than we thought. On the right is him in 2018, as he insists that he is. Leg kicks like this are timing mechanisms players use to establish rhythm at the dish. His teammate Ozzie Albies, who is also a switch hitter blasting by his projections, employs a similarly pronounced leg kick. Camargo seems to have found one that does the job for him, providing him the balance and feel at the plate he lacked as a minor leaguer.

Maybe we’d have heard more about Camargo by now if he was on a different team, or if Atlanta hadn’t surged to contention so quickly. Maybe it’s tougher to see how far he’s come given that he started so far off everyone’s radar, or that he’s supposed to be a utility man and placeholder for prospect Austin Riley. But Johan Camargo is more than any of that, and he’s showing us how.

Exit velocity, launch angles, and stills from Baseball Savant. All other data from FanGraphs.


Wheeling and Finally Dealing: Zack Wheeler is Back and Better Than Ever

Zack Wheeler has been waiting years for an article to be written with this headline. Despite Tommy John Surgery’s increasing success rate, Wheeler is evidence of the still lingering uncertainty revolving around the procedure. Once one of the bright up-and-coming flamethrowers in the game, Wheeler was demoralized by the devastating diagnosis that he had a torn ulnar collateral ligament in March 2015, mandating repair by surgery. The typical recovery timeline issued to pitchers who receive Tommy John is a 12-16 month period, all encompassing the grueling process of post-surgery rest, physical therapy strengthening, and an interval throwing program that spans many months, finally followed by a return-to-mound program.  Wheeler attempted to make his comeback to professional baseball in August 2016, slightly more than 16-months post-surgery, but he was shut down after just 17 pitches in his first rehab start. It wasn’t until April 7, 2017, more than two years after his surgery, that Wheeler returned to an MLB mound.

Wheeler’s 2017 season could be considered a success from a health perspective, as he was able to hurl 86.1 IP in his 17 starts, but it was clear the right-hander was still figuring things out from a performance perspective. The final line on the former top prospect’s season was an ugly 5.13 ERA/5.03 FIP, amounting to a dreadful 19.5 % HR/FB rate, while his 4.17 BB/9 made it evident that his control was lacking. Wheeler’s average velocity had plummeted from its pre-surgery readings, from the 96.2 MPH he had averaged with his heater before surgery, to 95.4 MPH last season. It may seem like a 0.8 MPH drop-off should lead to a negligible difference in on-field performance, but the missing extra life on all of Wheeler’s pitches resulted in a season to forget. Wheeler’s peripherals were in agreement with the high ERA he boasted, so this was surely discouraging to everyone in the Mets organization.

Wheeler’s 2018 has been a completely different narrative. While he seemed to be getting acclimated in the first few months of the season, Wheeler has turned it up to full throttle since late May, as his average fastball velocity has accelerated to 96.3 MPH in his 9 GS in that span, from the 94.5 MPH it averaged in his first 7 GS. In Wheeler’s first 7 starts this season, his fastball’s average velocity was capped out at 95.2 MPH. Wheeler’s revival as one of the hardest throwing starting pitchers in the game began when he took the bump against Miami on May 22. Turning his fastball up to average 96.1 MPH, Wheeler punched out 9 Marlins. Five days later against Milwaukee, he sustained the extra juice on his fastball, averaging 95.9 MPH. However, the season and future still looked menacing for Zack Wheeler. His 5.40 ERA insinuated he was doomed for another dreadful season. Largely the result of an unsettling .331 BABIP induced and a diminutive 66% strand rate, Wheeler carried a far more promising 4.03 FIP/3.88 xFIP. Regardless, Zack Wheeler has been a different pitcher since the calendar flipped over to June.

On June 1, Wheeler’s fastball was zipping out of his hand even faster, clocking in at an average of 96.7 MPH, quicker than any outing since his big-league debut in 2013. The heat has been status quo for the lanky righty ever since; all signs point to Wheeler’s return to his pre-injury form that once inspired a momentous Mets-fanbase-sized wave of hype.

The plot directly below exhibits the velocity of Zack Wheeler’s fastball by month this season, and confirms that as Wheeler received his sudden boost in velocity, his ERA and FIP have both plummeted. While Wheeler’s 2018 season started on a shaky note, he has righted the ship in recent starts, to the point that he should now be an attractive asset to teams at the trade deadline.

While Wheeler has seen the largest velocity gains on his fastball since the season began, his split-finger, slider, and curveball have all marginally gained steam too. While latter changes are less noticeable to the naked eye, due to the physical nature of these offerings being slower, they are still meaningful. However, just saying that a pitcher gained velocity in isolation is meaningless. MLB hitters would prefer a pitcher throw harder if it signifies they are sacrificing some control, movement, or both.

 

In addition to being the beneficiary of a sudden velocity boost, Wheeler appears to have successfully reformed his approach to attacking hitters. The transition began in May, when Wheeler revived his previously abandoned sinker and started to decrease his fastball usage drastically. In April, Wheeler threw 203 fastballs, and hitters clocked this offering for a .439 xwOBA, with just a 20.6 % whiff rate (Per Baseball Savant). Wheeler’s fastball was the most prevalent pitch in his arsenal, at 56.5 %, which was a welcomed sight to batters. It was more of the same for Wheeler, as he threw 57.1 % fastballs in May. Throwing harder than ever before, Wheeler has dropped off his fastball usage in subsequent months, at a 41.3 % clip in June, and an even less frequent 37.3% rate through 2 July starts. Wheeler’s 3.44 ERA since June 1 shouldn’t blow anyone away, but it’s a vast improvement from his performance in the first 9 starts he made. His 3.39 FIP in this span indicates that the performance is legitimate.

As far as pitching goes, one of the skills that exhibits the greatest correlation from year-to-year is the ability to generate swings and misses. Wheeler has induced a Swinging Strike rate 0f 11.8% over 8 GS since June 1, higher than the 10.3% he averaged over the first 9 stars. As Al Melchior deliberated in his recent piece titled “Can We Count on Strikeouts From Mike Foltynewicz?,” there is a strong correlation between swinging strike rates and strikeout rates, with the former accounting for 69 % of the variance of the latter.   Despite this heavily-correlated relationship, Wheeler’s punch out numbers are yet to follow, as evidenced by his decline from the 23.6 % rate in the first 9 starts to 22.7 % since June 1. The correlation equation from the graph below suggests that Wheeler’s swinging strike rates since June 1 should entail a strikeout rate about 1.78 percentage points higher. With the increase in velocity accompanied, it shouldn’t be a shock that the fastball has been one of the main root causes of this increase in swinging strike rate. While averaging just 24.1 % between April and May, Wheeler’s fastball whiff rate has skyrocketed to 26.6 % in June, then again to 28.4 % in July.

As we near crunch time in the trade acquisition season, Zack Wheeler is an underrated asset who is hitting his stride at the perfect time. The month of June produced a mere .296 xwOBA for Wheeler, the lowest it’s been in any month since his return. With the disastrous 2017 season and a Tommy John surgery in his past, Wheeler is a cheaper alternative to other likely deadline trade candidates, such as Michael Fulmer, J.A. Happ, and Cole Hamels, and comes with 1 1/2 years of control. With the sudden return of his heat, Zack Wheeler is pitching as well as ever, and should provide great value to any team that acquires his services at the trade deadline.

(All Data from FanGraphs and BaseballSavant)


Acquiring Manny Machado Is Imperative for the Phillies

We’re two weeks out from the trade deadline. It may be quiet for most of baseball, given the state of the Haves and Have-nots shaping a less traditional mid-season urgency than in the past. Most of the AL playoff picture appears to be nearly set, at least to many observers. Meanwhile, the NL is up for grabs. As of July 14, the Phillies hold the biggest divisional lead at just 1.5 games over Atlanta, while the Dodgers have only a half game lead over the DBacks and the Cubs are in a dead heat with the Brewers. Manny Machado is the trade deadline’s biggest fish and he’s been connected to nearly all of those teams.

Given the state of competition in the NL, Machado could dramatically impact the league’s playoff race. He’s projected to be worth at least two more wins. That’s a bigger gap than any current divisional lead. It could be easy to argue that he’s a critical addition for any club, but it may not be more important for anyone than the Phillies.

Of course, there’s the short term considerations for the Phillies to acquire Machado. The team is competing earlier than anticipated. Their top tier farm system could handle the cost of acquiring a star on an expiring contract and still be excellent. It doesn’t hurt when the star in this case has intense connections to the current Phillies front office, from its director of scouting to its general manager to its president. But then there’s this:

ss war

That’s every first and second place team in the NL right now. The Phillies have had some terrible shortstop production in 2018. That could be because their expected starter, JP Crawford, has only managed to appear in 34 games this year, of which only 25 have come at short. The team’s primary replacement has been Scott Kingery, who’s appeared at short in 68 games. He was bally-hooed in Spring Training as he pushed for a roster spot and was signed to a long-term extension to accommodate him making the team, but he’s been miserable in his Major League debut. He’s mustered a 66 wRC+. In other words, he’s been 34% worse than average.

Beyond just being an upgrade at shortstop, Machado could help the Phillies become a more efficient offense overall. To date, they’ve left 654 runners on base, which is 11th-worst in the Majors. But they’ve also share the league’s 10th-highest OBP at .320. So they’re one of the best teams at getting guys on base, and one of the worst at driving them in. Machado has a wRC+ of 131 with men on base, and that may be a bit muted because Baltimore has been so bad. He’s garnered 11 intentional walks in those situations this year, which is already two more than he’s ever had in a full season.

Trading for Machado does more than just improve the Phillies and their chances this year, too. It keeps him away from every other team that would stand to get better by acquiring him. Maybe you read that and thought, “duh.” But if you notice in the chart above, the Brewers may especially feel the urgency to make a big move. They’re the only contender which has been worse at shortstop than the Phillies. They’re also trying to stave off the Cubs, who everyone seems to be waiting to click again and run off with the division, just like last year.

Long-term, Machado serves additional purpose for Philadelphia if they can sign him to an extension, which they may stand a good chance to do. Atlanta’s top tier farm system has put them in position to churn out role players and superstars with staying power. Even if the Nationals lose Bryce Harper this winter, they still have Juan Soto and the rest of the cast that’s good enough to compete. The Phillies system has produced talented Major League pieces the last couple years and is still ranked highly, but it lacks players who are projected to be stars on the level of the other teams in the NL East.

Acquiring Machado now is a move the Phillies can make with confidence because of how it impacts the present and scales for later. The iron is hot. They should strike.

LOB data from Baseball Reference. All other data from FanGraphs.


The Mystery Continues: Has the 2018 Ball Been De-Juiced?

A few years ago, I created a distance model to evaluate unexpected distance. The purpose was primarily to evaluate spin on hit balls but there seems to be a lot more interest in juiced balls and home runs so here we are again.

When I recently updated everything, the results were shocking. If the ball was “juiced” in the second half of 2015 and remained so until last season, then in 2018, it has been extra de-juiced. (Actually, the recent study concluded it wasn’t “juiced” but rather, the added distance was the result of an unexplained reduction in drag).

I present the distance model and method at the end of this post since I believe the recent data and results are far more interesting.  Given the reduction in unexplained distance at all but one stadium, the magnitude of the change is mind boggling. For the past few years, results for the full year have been within a foot of the model. So far this year, all but one stadium is showing a negative unexpected distance and all but one are also showing a negative change over the same period last year. Even more, the change of -5.1 ft. for 2018 over 2017 is greater than the unexplained distance gain of 3.1 ft. from 2015 to 2017. All numbers are based on YTD June 20th for comparative purposes. The full year averages are also shown below which indicate an expected weather related distance pickup in the second half.

First, let’s take a look at average exit velocity (EV) , launch angle (LA), and distance based on a June comparison of “well-hit” balls (defined as EV>=90 and LA>=15 <=45).

2017 2018
EV 98.8 98.9
LA 26.5 26.8
Distance 353.0 348.9

Given that the comparison is based on YTD June data for both periods, it is highly unlikely that weather is the major cause.

Unexplained Distance vs. Model (in ft.). All Years are June 20 YTD.

Stadium 2015 2016 2017 2018 2017 vs 2015 Chng 2018
ARI 2.4 5.9 5.8 -2.3 3.3 -8.1
ATL -4.4 -2.0 -0.6 -2.8 3.8 -2.2
BAL -4.5 -3.7 -6.4 -3.2 -1.9 3.2
BOS -10.7 -4.6 -3.2 -11.1 7.5 -7.9
CHC -4.7 -9.3 -3.1 -7.6 1.5 -4.5
CIN -7.3 0.1 0.5 -4.7 7.7 -5.2
CLE -9.1 -4.2 -2.4 -5.4 6.7 -2.9
CWS -5.7 -1.1 0.3 -8.1 6.0 -8.4
DET -4.8 -7.4 -6.6 -7.8 -1.8 -1.2
HOU 5.4 1.2 3.2 -2.8 -2.2 -6.0
KC -3.0 0.5 2.5 -2.3 5.5 -4.8
LAA 0.3 0.8 2.4 -4.2 2.0 -6.6
LAD -2.3 -3.5 -2.7 -8.7 -0.4 -6.0
MIA 0.3 2.0 1.1 -3.8 0.8 -4.9
MIL 6.5 2.2 2.7 -4.7 -3.8 -7.4
MIN -3.6 -1.4 1.7 -4.7 5.4 -6.4
NYM -3.9 -5.7 -4.0 -6.4 0.0 -2.4
NYY -6.4 -2.4 -3.3 -7.8 3.1 -4.5
OAK -3.9 -4.8 -1.2 -10.0 2.7 -8.8
PHI -7.7 -6.3 -3.9 -6.3 3.8 -2.3
PIT 2.3 -1.6 2.9 -6.3 0.6 -9.2
SD -15.1 -2.0 2.7 -7.7 17.9 -10.4
SEA -11.5 -3.3 -5.0 -10.1 6.5 -5.1
SF -13.4 -7.8 -9.2 -10.7 4.2 -1.4
STL -1.5 -1.3 -1.0 -6.3 0.6 -5.3
TB -3.6 1.3 1.0 -2.4 4.6 -3.4
TEX -3.6 4.4 2.9 0.5 6.5 -2.4
TOR 1.7 -5.6 2.2 -4.2 0.5 -6.4
WSH 1.2 -4.0 0.9 -6.4 -0.3 -7.3
Total June YTD -3.8 -2.2 -0.7 -5.8 3.1 -5.1
Full Year -0.6 -0.4 0.3

Note: Coors Field Excluded

As you will see in the model at the end, distance is significantly impacted by the horizontal hit direction. Here is a summary of unexplained distance for the same June analysis periods:

Unexpected Distance

 

This is really quite remarkable. Based on the breadth of what is happening, it seems the most logical conclusion is that something is up – again! with the ball.

Model Construction

Average distances for well-hit fly balls (≥90 MPH, LA≥15°<45) at each exit velocity and launch angle combination between 90-115 MPH and 15°-45°, respectively were used to create a model of expected distance. The model was then expanded by including EV and LA combinations in tenths.The dataset was 2015-2016 (excluding all balls hit at Coors Field). The distance difference for each hit was then examined based on the horizontal angle of the hit. The pattern of the distance differences indicates there is a significant directional bias likely caused by spin as illustrated below. For the total unexplained distances referenced in the above chart, all hits were adjusted for directional impact. The illustration below is based on right-handed hitters only (A left handed model is used to evaluate left standing hits).

 

Distance Difference vs. Model

 

Source of all data is Baseball Savant


The Athletics Traded for Blake Treinen and Built a Dominate Reliever

Last July when the Oakland Athletics traded for Blake Treinen, Jesus Luzardo, and Sheldon Neuse, providing the Washington Nationals the services of relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson, the Athletics trade was more notably about the prospects of Luzardo’s pitching and Neuse at third base. The Athletics are in the middle of a definitive rebuild; outside of the Athletics organization, the Treinen piece of the trade was simply for his services as a simple bullpen body to hit average (hopefully) and pander on through the remnant of the season as Doolittle and Madson’s replacement.

Contextually, when the trade occurred last July, Treinen was 28 and hitting his ceiling in the Nationals development methodology. He lost hit job in April of 2017 then slowly settled into an awful 5.73 ERA with 48 allowed hits in the first half. There is no magical analytic which explains why he was bad, no pedantically bad situational deterioration – Treinen was simply bad.

Specifically, Treinen was bland on his first pitch (which is a telling sign of a pitcher struggling), lofting sweet, contact worthy pitches to the upper zone. Overall, batters swung and made contact throughout his first-pitch zones. Hence, the same area that created his bizarre downward trend was the first area where Treinen began his 2018 correction. He has cut high zone pitches on the first-pitch count, aptly cutting contact to the high zone. Batters are attacking his first pitch less, taking (or trying to take) a more principled approach to seeing him out.

The batting delay has created Treinen’s most formidable analytical point: the second highest and lowest qualified-reliever swinging strike rate and ERA at 18.8 percent and .93, respectively.

Any improvement this stark demands a resurgence across all pitching categories. First, Treinen has begun to shift his fastball placement. In 2017, on a micro fastball scale, Treinen offered either the fastball outside (44 percent balls) or distinctly inside (76.1 percent contact), failing to hit the lateral sides of the inside zone. That crisp distinctness allowed batters to perceive where his fastball was going to land, allowing a 156 wRC+. In 2018, he has avoided letting the fastball fall distinctly outside of the zone (30 percent balls, 72.7 percent contact), thus offering more variety within more controlled movement. His fastball has kept batters to a negative 20 wRC+.

When batters have been contacting his fastball, they have a 47.1 percent fly-ball rate. Perceptually, this is an alarming rate, less that placement becomes intrinsically important. In a string of reactions, Treinen is enforcing a greater chase rate (38.7 percent, increase from 30.8 percent) while decreasing his chase contact rate from 52.2 to 38.6 percent. This has cut the ability of batters to find barrel contact (2.1 percent), thus cutting his opposite field hit-rate to 19.8 percent. In short, Treinen is deriving contact that is easy to field.

Hypothetically, this might be a philosophical adjunct to the Athletics analytic mantra. The team is shifting on 30.4 percent of left-handed batters, an increase from 17.1 percent last season with the Washington Nationals. Neither team shift at a dramatic rate, but there is a slight difference between the Nationals fielding chart and the Athletics fielding chart behind Treinen. The slight difference may not be the main reason, but the Athletics awareness of how to help Treinen with more movement is, at minimum, an interesting note.

However, for all the jovial notation Treinen’s fastball is receiving, his main-pitch, the sinker, deserves even more praise. He has kept batters to a .200 average, already hitting 17 strikeouts on the sinker for a 56 wRC+. Much like the fastball, the sinker is moving less, but in a crisper fashion (9.7 rating down from 11.9). On a meta point, Treinen is simply more confident and educated in his pitching approach – on a simple eye-test, he is perceptually prepared where to throw. Scrupulous timing and more variety in placement of his sinker has lowered contact to 71.1 percent (was an egregious 86.2 percent last season). The one data-point which fundamentally incorporates how good his sinker has been is the increase in outside swing percentage (43 percent) while decreasing outside-contact (52.1 percent).

In short, pitches that were not meant to be hit, were being hit in 2018, and Treinen has prevented that from occurring. Fundamentally, this is on the breadth of a slight mechanical edit observable with a release point grouping to the right. In the example provided, between 2017 and 2018, Treinen is releasing his pitches with more elevation, signifying a change to his release philosophy.

The Athletics somehow have tapped into Treinen to bring out the best of him; the only question they have to answer is whether he is trade-bait or a long-term staple to the bullpen.


Josh Tomlin Is Having the Worst Pitching Season in Major League History

Earlier this year, when my Clevelanders were facing the North Siders of Chicago, Josh Tomlin was facing off against noted walker Tyler Chatwood. I wondered aloud whether Tomlin would allow more homers, or Chatwood would allow more walks. Of course, this was mostly a joke. Walks are more common than homers, and so Chatwood, the worst (best?) walker in baseball, would walk more than Tomlin would allow home runs. Naturally, I made a comical bet with a Cubs fan friend of mine, and in the end, I scraped by: Chatwood would allow five walks, while Tomlin allowed a mere four dingers. How could it even have been that close?

Now I’m not here to trash Tomlin, or Josh as his family may call him. In fact, I feel for him. We humans have times of joy and times of suffering. And hey, Josh Tomlin is a very good pitcher, all things considered. He throws harder and more accurately than literally anyone I know personally. Even for an MLB pitcher, Tomlin has always been accurate. The problem is his opponents’ bats have been even more accurate.

There has been a trend going around in which people determine whether or not certain facts are “fun.” Some say a fact is fun if it limits the amount of qualifiers. Others believe it’s a fun fact if the reader cannot help but say wow in response. I think a notable omission is the consideration whom the fact is fun for. The following is fun for batters facing Josh Tomlin:

There have been 25,185 pitcher seasons since 1901 (min. 40IP).  Tomlin’s 2018 FIP is currently 8.26, which puts him in…25,185th place. Do you prefer league-adjusted stats? Tomlin’s FIP- is 199, 99% worse than average, and also the worst of all time. Maybe you think it’s unfair to use FIP, or even FIP- historically. After all, as you know, home runs are being hit at an all-time pace over the last 3+ years, so it’s not fair to look at Tomlin’s home run allowance on a historical level.

Let’s just look at this year. If you sort the FanGraphs leaderboards by HR/9, and set the minimum innings pitched to 40IP, you’ll find Tomlin right there at the top with 3.88. Without context, we can already surmise that this is an astronomical number. The average MLB pitcher is walking 3.28 batters per 9 innings–Tomlin is allowing .6 more homers per nine than the average pitcher walks per nine! But I think my favorite way of looking at this is the Jeff Sullivan special. Sitting in second in HR/9 is Wilmer Font with 2.45. The difference between Tomlin and Font is the same as the difference between Font and 128th worst Jon Lester. Josh Tomlin has been unthinkably bad at limiting home runs–he’s fourth in home runs allowed, and every single pitcher in the top ten has thrown double the amount of innings.

Even when he was a successful pitcher, Josh Tomlin had a home run problem. But he was able to make up for that by limiting walks with Kershawian skill, and miss just enough bats to scrape by some successful seasons. In 2018, his velocity has held steady, as have his contact and swing percentages. He’s walking a few more, and striking out a few less, but for whatever reason, when batters make contact this year, they aren’t missing. His barrel rate is 13%, and his Statcast xStats are even higher than his actual stats. Pitch values show that his secondary offerings have taken a major turn for the worse, but I don’t see why that’s the case. Maybe there are things we have yet to understand about baseball. More likely, maybe there are things I have yet to understand about baseball.

Tomlin is having the most terrible season of all of the terrible seasons. Maybe there’s some regression there, but even with positive movement, it’s certainly a mean to which one doesn’t hope to regress. The last piece of this regards his employers, the Baseball Club of Cleveland. The Indians are looking to make a run at the postseason this year, a run which many have considered to be all but a guarantee, considering the shambles of the AL Central. Perhaps Tomlin gets opportunities because it’s a foregone conclusion that Cleveland makes the playoffs safely, and the front office would rather not have a more instrumental piece of the Indians bullpen pitch in low-leverage situations, lest they become injured. But, one would think there is value in finding new arms, so that when the calendar reads October, Cleveland has more options out of the bullpen.

Even if this is not the case, it seems to this author that marching Tomlin out there makes manager Terry Francona look clueless, the front office careless, and Tomlin helpless. But most of all, the fans of the ball club deserve better.


Fine-tuning the Swing Based Upon Statcast Data

In this article I have researched the relationship between Batted ball direction and production. I found out that air balls are more effective if they are pulled than hit to center but especially hit the other way. That can be already seen on liners a little bit but especially on fly balls which are very dependent on batted ball direction.

However the downside is that pulling actually suppresses LA, especially low in the zone because you will roll over and topspin more balls when you try to pull them. I broke this down in this table LA by hit direction and zone

This shows that you can only pull certain pitches consistently unless you have a special talent. Generally the more down and away the harder to pull it off the ground and the more up and in the easier.

In this article  https://www.fangraphs.com/community/why-launch-angle-can-only-be-optimized-not-maximized/ I showed that most top hitters average around 12-18 degrees. That is interesting because the most productive LAs are around 25 degrees if struck perfectly. However this is only true if you strike the ball perfectly and also while batted balls are distributed more like a bell curve (looks different because it is a cumulative curve) around the median as Tom Tango shows here batted ball distribution the production really isn’t as production increases on a slower slope towards 30 degrees than it drops off after it. That means you want to shift more batted balls into that good 10-30 window even if this means losing some of the great 25-30 balls.

And also ideal production in relation to LA is not the same depending on batted ball direction.
production based on direction . You can see that pulled balls have the highest wOBA at 20-35 degrees, balls to center are best at 10-25 and oppo best at 5-20. Unfortunately the batted ball trend is exactly vice versa, as the LA on pulled balls is only around 5 degrees for the league vs 20 for oppo. That means you don’t need to spend much effort on lifting oppo balls as well as high pitches https://www.fangraphs.com/community/effect-of-pitch-selection-on-launch-angle-and-exit-velocity/

The goal of a hitter should be finding pitch locations that he can pull in the air which is also highlighted in the above linked article. Also the hitter should avoid rolling over into grounders by not pulling balls that he can’t pull (by either taking them or hitting them to other fields) and lastly he should try to avoid too high LAs on balls hit the other way.

But priority is clearly first to avoid the grounder, especially to the pull side as this ist he worst batted ball type, then secondly to try to pull the air ball (but this comes clearly second to avoiding the grounder) and lastly there is avoiding high LAs on oppo balls.

For this I suggested this chart in my prior article optimized batted ball direction by zone. It suggests to pull inside pitches and also high middle pitches which are easy to lift. It also suggests that low middle pitches are hit up the middle to get them off the ground and unsurprisingly low and away pitches hit the other way. This is pretty much conventional wisdom except turning on the high middle pitch. Where my optimized approach differs from „hitting where it is pitched“ is that it suggests hitting higher (and middle high) outside balls more up the middle or maybe very slightly to oppo than really to the outer third of the field. This is to push the LA down a little from the 25 degrees that high outside pitches hit to oppo yield.

To summarize this so far we have:

*Hit the ball where it is pitched except for the high middle pitch that should be hooked to pull field and the high outside pitch which should be hit more middle to oppo gap rather than straight oppo.

*Try to shrink the zone a little on the low outside (bad launch angle and absolutely not pull-able) and very up and in pitches (suppresses EV and could cause pop ups and whiffs).

*Ff you are a pull/FB hitter try to polarize your swinging a little toward the zones in which you can elevate to pull field.

Of course there is more to it. Some guys like Bautista made a living out of pulling balls in the air and other guys like Trout or JD Martinez are able to pull the ball but actually have slightly below average pull rates and have mentioned that their default approach is fastball center to oppo gap and then react in on inside pitches and some off-speed stuff. This has advantages too since the little deeper FB contact means you have a little more room out front if you are fooled on the breaking stuff. This approach sacrifices a little bit of power but maybe prevents more rolled over grounders, helps BABIP a little and of course Trout and JDM are strong enough to hit it out to the middle oft he field.

In contrast to that hitters like Brian Dozier need to pull the ball to do damage in the air. Dozier with his extreme pull/FB approach thus gets more out of his raw power than Trout and JDM but he does pay a BABIP price because he does polarize his z-swing Dozier heat map but still will pull some non pull-able pitches leading to pulled grounders despite his overall low GB rate.


The Red Sox Evolve their Swings In-Game and the Results Are Incredible

The Boston Red Sox almost romantic approach to the plate has been one of the major themes on their journey to be the first team with 60 wins. Last night’s expose of producing home runs and precise batting behind Chris Sale’s robotic approach to pitching gave the Red Sox a 10-5 victory over Kansas City Royals for their 60th victory; another notch in a long-chain of accomplishments. More impressively, however, is the Red Sox micro approach to each game. They have not only revolutionized the average statistics played out through the tenure of a season but have revolutionized how they approach the plate inning-by-inning. The romantic plate approach is more than good batting – it is the beginning to a methodical introspection into opposing pitchers for an evolution in innings five and six.

In an interview with 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny, Dave, and Moore, Seattle Mariners pitcher Marco Gonzales casually remarked of his struggles against the Red Sox on June 24 that they were “taking swings we haven’t seen before.” Gonzales lasted only six innings against the Red Sox, allowing seven hits and five runs on six strikeouts. The fifth inning was the instant the game changed in the Red Sox favor as they scored three.

Naturally, this observation may have been a microcosm dependent on Gonzales’ pitching, not so much the Red Sox. Yet, the observation was enticing enough to warrant investigation. The results were incredible, explaining why the Red Sox meta of plate patience is about more than being disciplined – they pedantically study batters through the first few innings, leading to innings five and six which are destructive.

Before delving into the data, two notations must be established. First, the Red Sox are, on average, destructive regardless of the inning. Their jump in innings five and six are not why they are good, but why the are atop the MLB this year. Second, analytic rise in statistics in innings five and six is a trend across the league; it might be easy to pass on the Red Sox rise as the best batters popping off on ‘third-time through the rotation’ deterioration. Again, however, the Red Sox are using the seemingly inevitable deterioration of pitchers throughout the game and exacerbating on that analytic.

Within innings one through three, the Red Sox hold a .270 batting average with a 20.5 percent strikeout rate, an 8.4 percent walk rate, a .467 SLG, and a 117 wRC+ – all rates which make the Red Sox a top MLB team intrinsically. Stopping here, the Red Sox would be a good team alone. However, as mentioned, the Red Sox jump to great in inning five and six. They post a .292 batting average, only 15.7 percent strikeouts, 7.9 percent walks, a .538 SLG (.240 ISO!), and a wRC+ of 139.

On a micro-level, the functional output has benefited Mitch Moreland and Mookie Betts the most; Moreland has a .808 SLG and Betts has a 234 wRC+. Even Rafeal Devers has a sharp increase in effectiveness in these innings, raising his egregious .198 average from innings one through three to a .304 average in innings five and six.

Mechanically, the Red Sox, as a team, change the type of pitches they attack. Produced from Baseball Savant, here is a graphic of the pitch movement attacked in innings one through three; here is the comparative graphic for innings five and six. The graphic shows most of the pitches they take at the beginning of the game have little horizontal movement and trend with more vertical movement – hence, pitches which are easier to see. As the game goes on, they dramatically increase their SLG by attacking pitches with sharp horizontal movement, even hitting low.

In application, it might be said the Red Sox study through the first few innings, waiting to see how pitchers will attack under the guise of movement. Their contact is more studied through this span, evidenced by J.D. Martinez’s expected SLG of .936, Bett’s of .843, and Andrew Benintendi’s of .757. Even Devers sees an increase from an xSLG of .389 to .545.

The Red Sox plate discipline is purposed, thoughtful, and intended for the length of a game and season. They literally improve the quality of swings and contact throughout the game; the maxim of why analytical discipline is important to success.


What’s Wrong with Gary Sanchez?

To the shock of many around baseball, “The Kraken” has been tamed so far in 2018. Before hitting the shelf with a groin injury in late June, Gary Sanchez had been in the midst of an extended scuffle at the plate. While often at the forefront of critique for his lackluster defensive showing down the stretch in 2017, Sanchez’s offensive struggles have dumbfounded many in the baseball industry. After a historically dominant multiple-month power surge in his 2016 rookie season, Sanchez backed it up with an outstanding 2017 season, to the tune of a .278/.345/.531 line, and he clobbered 33 HR, despite only playing in 122 games due to injury. Sanchez also carried an elite .253 ISO and 130 wRC+ last season, which makes his struggles in this campaign all the more shocking. 2018 has been a disaster of a season so far for Sánchez; he’s slashing .190/.291/.433, accompanied by a decline in his HR/FB% from his stellar career average of 26.1% to 18.4%. Boasting a disappointing 97 wRC+ and .313 WOBA before the injury, Gary Sanchez has largely spent his season searching for answers.

When addressing a player’s stat-line it’s imperative to look at the big picture: Sánchez’s K% is slightly higher in 2018 (23.8%) than 2017 (22.9%), as one might expect from a large decrease in batting average, but this 3.93 % increase in K% doesn’t explain anything as astronomical as an 88-point Batting Average drop-off. Sanchez’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) is unsustainably low, currently sitting at .194, despite has career average of .278. While BABIP is dependent on many variables, such as Exit Velocity, Launch Angle Composition, Hang Time, Type of Hit, Defensive Shifts, etc, much of the short-run variance of the metric can be attributed to chance. While Sanchez’s outputs for many of main variables have veered off par from the past in 2018, none of these changes should account for anything close to a 30.2% lower BABIP than what his career average is. Further evidencing the misfortune that has slandered Sanchez’s numbers is that the backstop is carrying an xwOBA of .368, still well above the MLB average of .317 in this category. Some of the Gary Sanchez extended slump can definitely be attributed to horrific luck. His Average Exit Velocity has undergone an insignificant 0.55% decrease— nothing to be too concerned with. However, I was alarmed by seeing that his Average Launch Angle is up from 13.2 degrees in ‘17 to 15.3 degrees this season, given his previously historic HR/FB rates, so I delved its composition.

The problem isn’t so much that Gary has seen his average Launch Angle rise, it’s that his launch angle has been all over the place in 2018: it deviates in all different directions from what it’s been the past two seasons. His ideal xwOBA seems to be somewhere in the range between 20 degrees and 35 degrees, but Gary has been hitting at launch angles that have produced poor xwOBAs (both lower and higher than his ideal launch angle range). Gary’s 2017 Launch Angle %/xwOBA reveals that he was hovering around this range with a large percentage of his swings (the 8 most frequent ranges of 5 Degrees for Sanchez’s swings also happened to be his 8 best xwOBAs and they connect to form the territory of the launch angles from 0 degrees through 40 degrees. Gary’s been below Launch Angles of 0 Degrees and above 40 degrees much more frequently this year, with his 45 degree mark (Sanchez hasn’t homered in his career on any swing with a Launch Angle in this range) being his most frequent range (8.1%), up from the 3.2% last season and 5.7% the previous year. The portion of Gary’s struggles in his control shouldn’t be attributed to his higher average Launch Angle, they should be directed to his increase in frequency of connecting outside his optimal range, which is the real difference between his stellar offensive track record and current output.

I was curious how Sanchez’s HR/FB% could be so much lower this season than from the rest of his career, so this Launch Angle dilemma immediately caught my attention. Accompanied by his altered Launch Angle composition has been an increase in FB% (from 36.6% in ‘17 to 45.0% this season) and a decrease in LD% (from 21.1% in ‘17 to 14.2%). Gary’s IFFB% is also way up from 10.8% last season to 21.1% so far in this campaign. Whether it was a conscious decision or not, there isn’t explanation for why this has happened to one of the games premier HR hitters, but it’s resulted in a significant drop off in Sanchez’s HR/FB%, and limited his production across the board.

Another factor in Sanchez’s extended ’18 slump may be his aggressiveness at the plate. While his BB% has jumped from 7.6% to 11.7% since last season, he hasn’t brought the same aggressive mindset into his at-bats, in general. Sanchez has been more tentative with ambushing pitches in 2018, as his 1st Pitch Swing Rate is down from 29.2% to 24.9%, and his overall swing rate (both O-Zone Swing% and Zone Swing% have been lower than last season) is down from 47.9% to 43.8%. For a player of his abilities, Gary Sanchez has some ugly offensive numbers to begin 2018, due to a combination of poor luck, an ill-fated change in his Launch Angle composition, and increased selectivity at the plate.