A Baseball World Without Intentional Walks

There are at-bats. And the possible positive outcomes of those come down to three: hits, walks and batters hit by pitches. Hits can be separated in singles, doubles, triples and home runs. Hits by pitch are pretty much what they sound like. Walks, on the other hand, are bases on balls awarded by the pitcher to the batter either unintentionally due to lack of control or intentionally to supposedly prevent the hitter for inflicting more than single-valued damage by giving him the first base for free.

The intentional base by balls have always been present in baseball. They have been tracked, though, since 1955. From that point in time to 2016 (the last complete season with data available), a total of 73,272 IBB have been awarded to batters, for an average of around 1,182 per season. If we look at the full picture, though, there have been more than 11 times more BB than IBB in the same period of time. Obviously, hitters are not awarded a base for free if they have not gained a certain status in which pitchers “fear” the possibility of them being punished by a bomb to the outfield that holds high value and could turn into runs for the opposing team.

Even with that, IBB rates are at their lowest since 1955 due to strategical improvements and the study of the game, which has led to the conclusion that awarding bases to hitters for free is more than probably not the best approach. But with more than a thousand instances per season on average, we have a big enough sample size as to have some fun with the numbers and try to think of a baseball world in which IBB had been somehow vetoed by the MLB and therefore not awarded to hitters from 1955 on. What could have this meant for batters during this span? How much could have it impacted the hitting totals for some of the already-great hitters of baseball history? Let’s take a look at the data.

Counting from 1955, only five players have had careers in which they have posted an IBB/PA larger than 2% in at least 10,000 PA. Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey, Albert Pujols and David Ortiz. Those are some scary names to have at the home plate staring at you while playing the role of the pitcher. If we lower the threshold to 1% IBB/PA, we end with a group of 39 players, more than enough to get some interesting testing. The first thing that jumps out and we could expect is that only one of the 39 players fell short of the 100 HR mark (Rod Carew, with 92) and that all of them surpassed 2223 hits during their careers (for that matter, only 110 MLB players since 1955 have got to that mark, so players from our group make for 34% of them).

So, back to our group, the correlation between IBB and HR yields an R-value of 0.256, which is more or less significant. This means that power hitters have historically tended to be awarded more bases by balls than any other type of batter. If no IBB had been allowed in baseball, we would only have hits, unintentional walks and hits by pitch left as our possible plate appearance outcomes. By making a simple set of calculations we can come up with how many extra hits, home runs, etc. each of our players could have ended their careers with had they not being walked on purpose during their playing time. It is just about knowing the rates they hit singles, doubles, triples and homers per PA (subtracting IBB outcomes from the total number of PA) and then multiplying those rates for the IBB each of them were awarded in their careers. This way we can have a simple look at how much better numbers those hitters could have reached based on their pure hitting ability.

The case of Barry Bonds is truly unique. The all-time home run leader not only lead the IBB leaderboard with 688, but the difference between him and the second ranked player (Albert Pujols, 302 IBB) is a staggering 386 IBB, more than doubling him. The difference between Pujols and third-ranked Hank Aaron is of 9 IBB, just for comparison’s sake. In order to get a comprehensive list of the most improved players in this alternative world, we can sort them by the number of extra hits (no matter the type) they would have got had they not received a single intentional base on balls. The next table includes the 20 players with the most expected extra hits to gain in this scenario.

Unsurprisingly, Bonds comes out first – and by a mile. Again, Barry doubles the EEH of second-ranked Pujols and would have finished his career with over 3,000 hits, at a 3,104 mark. That would make him the eighth player in terms of hits among those analyzed, while Pete Rose (not in the table above) would have gained 45 hits to surpass the 4,300-hit mark and reach exactly 4,301.

By breaking the hits by category the outcome at the top is the expected, with Barry Bonds always topping the simulations. Clearing him from the picture, Hank Aaron would have hit the most extra singles with 49, followed by Pujols and Tony Gwynn with 48. Speaking of doubles, Pujols would have got an extra 18, and three players would have 13 more than what they reached in their careers. Triples are much less frequent and only two players, Roberto Clemente and George Brett, would have batted for three extra triples. Finally, in the home-run category, Bonds would have hit for an extra 44 homers, followed by Pujols and Aaron (13 plus) and Ken Griffey.

Had all these numbers been real and IBB cleared from the face of Earth, historical career leaderboards would have not changed a lot, at least at the highest positions, but some records would be seen as even more unbreakable than they are now. Someone would have to break the 4,300-hit barrier again to surpass Pete Rose. Bonds’ new mark of 806 HR would be unimaginable to reach by anyone nowadays (Pujols, still active, would be almost 200 HR away while entering his age-38 season next fall).

It may not had been a critical change, but baseball would have been (and be) way more fun to watch. Just looking at our starting 39 guys, we would have seen the ball being hit 1,928 more times (out of 7,423 IBB, which is a 26% more than we have), witnessed 300 more home runs being called and annotated a couple of unthinkable numbers in MLB’s history books. Now just imagine how much baseball-fun we’ve lost if I remind you that there have been 73,272 walks awarded during the past 61 seasons (yes, your calculation is correct, around 19,000 extra hits by our group’s measures).


Aaron Nola, Charlie Morton, and World Series Aspirations

Last night brought another Astros game and another win for the club. On the hill and pitching pretty darn well was Charlie Morton, whose career has been as compelling for his talent as for his injuries. He went 6.1 innings and gave up a single run, on three hits, with four walks and nine strikeouts.

If you do a quick search, you’ll see a lot of comparisons of Morton to Roy Halladay, and, depending on the year, a lot of bad jokes about how such a comparison is crazy. But it’s really just about their size and motion to the plate. Curiously, there might be a more relevant comparison to make between Morton and a current Phillie based on mechanics and arsenal: Aaron Nola.

Morton and Nola are two right-handed pitchers who use a three-quarters arm slot. They also both rely on two-seamers and curveballs, which make for a fun pitch mix. The two-seamer zips away from the throwing arm while the curve snaps late glove-side, potentially allowing for full plate control.

mortonnola

And now, we can see just how similarly these pitches move for Morton and Nola. When I watch these guys and the way their offerings break, I think of them keenly casting a fishing line or maneuvering a whip. It’s snappy but fluid, and reaches the target deliberately.

That’s what makes the combo so useful. Even if a hitter knows one or the other is coming, the movement on each can keep them unpredictable.

This informs how they try to mess with hitters, too: the curve from Morton moves in on lefties and gets them to hack and whiff, while the two-seamer from Nola to the same hitters is designed to get them to take a strike. To righties, Morton’s two-seamer backs them up while Nola’s curve can coax more swings. Take a look at these gifs:

Image result for charlie morton gif            Image result for aaron nola gif

In general, Morton also gets more movement on his pitches and comes with more velocity. But he also has about four inches and 40 pounds on Nola, which could certainly influence the 6 milliseconds when spin is put on the baseball and force with which it gets to the plate.

Saying Nola is more valuable than Morton is a no-brainer, though. He’s nearly 10 years younger and one of his best skills — control — can be one of Morton’s weaker ones. He’s already accounted for a full win more than Morton this season despite throwing only 12 more innings. The comparison isn’t so much about the players at their peak as it is how their perhaps unsuspected similarities gives a glimpse into the way each can contribute to a team with legitimate World Series aspirations.

Morton is a sound complementary piece on an Astros team that’s on pace for 100 wins. Nola could be a main reason a Phillies team charges at the World Series in a few years. The ride watching each will be fun.

Morton gif from GramUnion. Nola gif from Phuture Phillies.


Kevin Pillar Doesn’t Swing and Miss Enough

Although strikeouts are at an all-time high, Kevin Pillar has continued to make consistent contact. Pillar’s swinging-strike rate is 8.0%, the 115th highest mark out of 158 qualified major-league hitters. What makes Pillar interesting, however, is that he is near the top of the O-Swing% list (the percent of pitches outside the zone that a batter swings at), where he ranks 15th in the majors with a mark of 38.1%. A low swinging-strike rate and high O-Swing% is an odd combination to have; it means that Pillar is making more contact than most, despite swinging at more would-be balls than most. It also means that he’s putting in play a lot of bad pitches to hit. Although some hitters are notoriously good at hitting pitches out of the zone (Vladimir Guerrero and Pablo Sandoval come to mind), Kevin Pillar is not, and it’s leading to a lot of weak contact for him.

Pillar’s 27.9 Hard% ranks 141st in the majors. His 21.9 Soft% ranks as the 20th highest. Here are Pillar’s average exit velocity, wOBA, and expected wOBA on balls in play, split into pitches in the zone and out of the zone (courtesy of Baseball Savant):

In Zone Out of Zone
Exit Velocity 87.6 78.3
wOBA 0.351 0.223
xwOBA 0.367 0.221

 

Clearly, Pillar’s weak contact is mostly coming on pitches out of the zone. I used Brooks Baseball’s zone charts to figure out exactly what pitches Pillar is chasing and hitting weakly. The main culprits appear to be fastballs in off the plate and fastballs above the zone.  He swings at these pitches 46.6% of the time and whiffs with only 11.5% of his swings. Here you can see how often he swings at fastballs in each location; here you can see how often he whiffs at them.

According to Baseball Savant, he has an average exit velocity of 73.1 mph, a .224 wOBA, and a .223 xwOBA on fastballs that are in, up, or both. For comparison, on all fastballs, he has an average exit velocity of 85.4 mph, a .302 wOBA, and a .332 xwOBA. Pillar is not only chasing fastballs out of the zone, but he’s putting them in play with regularity. This would not be a problem if he was squaring these balls up, but he’s actually one of the worst hitters in the majors when he puts these pitches in play. Out of the 135 right-handed hitters who have put at least 25 fastballs up and/or in in play, Kevin Pillar ranks 126th in xwOBA. Meanwhile, only 15 other hitters have put more of these pitches in play.

Pillar’s biggest issue is his pitch selection. He not only swings at a lot of pitches out of the zone, but he swings at pitches that he is especially bad at hitting. However, his ability to make contact on these pitches also seems to be hurting him. Most hitters that chase pitches out of the zone as often as Pillar swing and miss much more often than Pillar does. So when they swing at a pitch out of the zone, it often only costs them a strike. Because Pillar tends to put these pitches in play with weak contact, it generally costs him an out. In fact, this is one of the reasons why we’re seeing so many hitters swing out of their shoes. Of course, part of the reason is a new emphasis on power and the belief that a strikeout is no worse than any other kind of out. But another reason is that with fewer than two strikes, swinging and missing is preferable to putting the ball in play weakly and making an out. Hitters certainly don’t come up to bat trying to swing and miss, but with fewer than two strikes, they would much rather swing and miss than make an out.

Now, I am not suggesting that Kevin Pillar should swing harder. Swinging harder would also lead to more swings and misses on pitches in the zone, which he currently hits very well. The best thing Pillar could do is lower his chase rate, as this would improve the quality of contact he makes while also putting him in more hitter-friendly counts. Of course, this is much easier said than done. While I am not going to try to predict the hitter that Pillar would be if he swung and missed more often — and I definitely won’t try to argue that he should try to miss when he swings — we can at least learn from Pillar that although contact is a good skill to have, it is not very useful without good pitch selection.


Reds Pitchers Are Setting Records in Fastball Futility

Entering the 2017 season, projections were not particularly friendly to the Cincinnati Reds. FiveThirtyEight projected a 70-win season for the team, and FanGraphs was even more pessimistic, predicting just 68 wins and the league’s second-worst run differential. They also projected the Reds to allow 5.02 runs per game — trailing only the Coors Field-dwelling Colorado Rockies — so it’s fair to conclude that expectations for the Reds’ pitching staff were low coming into the season.

And, really, why wouldn’t expectations have been low? Last season, the Reds’ pitching staff really struggled; as Dan Szymborski noted in his pre-season ZiPS preview, Reds starting pitchers produced the lowest WAR among all major-league rotations, and their relief corps owned the second-worst bullpen WAR since 2000. After trading Dan Straily to the Marlins over the offseason, the outlook for this year wasn’t much better — of all Reds starting pitchers, ZiPS expected only Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan (both currently on the 60-day disabled list) to accumulate a WAR over 1.0. The remaining three members of their Opening Day rotation – Homer Bailey, Scott Feldman, and Robert Stephenson — were all projected a WAR of somewhere between -0.3 and 0.6.

The winter projections hadn’t set a very high bar for the Reds to clear, but so far, they haven’t been able to do so. As it happens, Cincinnati’s 2017 starting rotation has been even worse than advertised. Consider these facts, all current as of August 12:

  • Reds starting pitchers have a collective ERA of 5.98. If this number was to stand, it’d be the worst since the 2005 Royals.
  • The team’s starters have also combined for a FIP of 5.75, which would be the highest since the 2000 Angels.
  • Cincinnati starters have accumulated a WAR of 0.1. If this number holds steady for the last six weeks of the season, it would be the lowest WAR figure – by far – of any starting rotation ever. The 2007 Nationals’ starters, currently the worst in that field, still managed to put up nearly one win above replacement.

That’s not all, though — on the x-axis of the following chart, we see each team since 2002 ordered by fastball runs per pitch (wFB). The dark blue dots in the back represent each team’s total wFB, and the lighter blue dots show each team’s standardized wFB (known as wFB/C). Note that for the purposes of showing both sets of values on the same scale, I standardized both teams’ wFB and their wFB/C using R’s scale() function. For the purposes of the following chart, then, wFB/C can be interpreted as the standardized standardized runs per pitch.

As illustrated below, the correlation between wFB/C and wFB begins to moderately weaken about halfway through the ranked order, but in general, the relationship between the two is strong:

fastballs_scaled (442x351)

There is, however, a notable outlier. Draw your attention to the lower-right corner of the graph, and you’ll see the 2017 Cincinnati Reds’ wFB/C, highlighted (appropriately enough) in red. The point’s position along the x-axis illustrates just how unsuccessful the Reds’ fastballs have been this year. Out of the 480 individual team seasons since 2002, the Reds’ starters currently rank 470th in wFB. Even worse, there are still six weeks left in the season, so Cincinnati is likely to eventually overtake the 2002 Rangers’ -118.4 wFB for worst in recorded history.

Further, the Reds’ wFB/C, as shown on the y-axis, is historically low; no other team — including the ten teams with lower wFB figures — comes anywhere close to the 2017 Reds’ vertical position in the graph. For additional context, the White Sox currently own the second-lowest wFB/C in the league at -0.80; Reds starters’ wFB/C is -1.72. There’s also an enormous discrepancy between Cincinnati’s 2017 wFB/C (the red point) and wFB (the corresponding dark blue point). As illustrated above, no team’s rotation in the last 15 years has ever had a season with such a large difference. Interestingly, deviations like this are far more present in sliders and slightly more so in changeups, but standardized wFB and wFB/C are generally very close to each other.

For the 2017 Reds, this means that although they’ve thrown far fewer fastballs than teams whose statistics comprise a full 162-game season, their average fastball’s run expectancy has been detrimental enough to already give them the tenth-worst wFB since 2002. I should note that pitches’ linear weights are descriptive rather than predictive, as explained on FanGraphs’ Linear Weights page, An awful pitch value doesn’t necessarily mean that the pitch itself is equally bad, so Cincinnati starters’ historically terrible collective wFB/C isn’t evidence that each of them throws a similarly terrible fastball. And to be fair, the Reds’ rotation hasn’t been helped out much by Tucker Barnhart and Devin Mesoraco‘s -2.9 and -3.0 FRAA figures, which are ranked 67th and 68th, respectively, out of 90. But it’d be hard to argue that the Reds rotation’s historically low wFB figure isn’t meaningful.

I didn’t notice anything particularly unusual about the usage, velocities, or movements of the Reds’ fastballs themselves, which fits with the “descriptive, not predictive” note above. The team’s starters have thrown the 20th-highest percentage of fastballs in the league, and their fastballs’ average velocity ranks similarly. Instead, I interpret their horrific wFB/C as more of a general indication of the state of the Reds’ rotation, which (as their ERA and FIP also suggest) leaves much to be desired.


Rafael Devers: Boston’s Rising Star

The Red Sox‘s third-base problem was not solved by a veteran rental. No, it was solved by a sweet-hitting 20-year-old Dominican named Rafael Devers.

But before I explain Devers’ spectacular rise, I must set the stage for his entrance.

~~July 24th~~

It’s July 24th and the Red Sox have ground to a halt. Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline is just eight days away and nearly the entire baseball community expects the Sox to trade for Todd Frazier.

Frazier, the third baseman for the White Sox, is in the midst of the worst season of his career. He’s hitting just .210 and his contract expires at the end of the year.

The Red Sox haven’t been able to gain traction since the All-Star break, going just 5-6. The Yankees, their ever-present rivals, are creeping up on them in the standings and have swooped in on a trade for Todd Frazier, even though many executives and analysts were sure the slugger would join the Red Sox.

Third base has been a huge issue for Boston, who has used eight (!) different players there. Collectively, Red Sox third basemen are slashing .227/.280/.320, marks that rank 27th, 29th, and 30th in the league, respectively. They have not only been terrible hitters, but they also lead the league in errors.

Dave Dombrowski decides to rectify the Red Sox’ third base issue by promoting top prospect Rafael Devers to the big leagues.

~~A Rafael Devers Profile~~

Rafael Devers was born on October 24th, 1996 in Sanchez, an aging port city in the Dominican Republic. He first started playing baseball at the age of five, inspired by his father, who played amateur ball. Devers grew up with baseball all around him and quickly showed immense talent.

In 2013, Devers signed with the Red Sox at just 17 years old. He was ranked as the number three international prospect in his class, and he signed with the Red Sox, his childhood favorite team, for $1.5 million. Devers entered the Red Sox organization as their 20th ranked prospect in a deep farm system.

Upon joining the Red Sox, Devers was placed in the Dominican Summer League (DSL), a place where new international signings go to work on their skills. Devers took the DSL by storm, batting .337/.445/.538 with three home runs in 28 games. He impressed everyone, by his ability to hit for both average and power, and also by his great batting eye — Devers walked more times than he struck out.

After tearing up the Dominican League, Devers was sent to the States, where he played in the Gulf Coast League. The Gulf Coast League, or GCL, is where first-year minor-league players are sent after being drafted or signed by their teams. Most of the players in the GCL have been drafted out of college or have just finished high school, meaning that at age 17, Devers was one of the youngest players in the league. Devers carved up the GCL, batting .312 with 11 doubles and four homers in 42 games.

After Devers’ wildly successful first year, he was rated as the Red Sox’ sixth-best prospect, and baseball’s 99th-best, all at just 18 years old. This was an incredible accomplishment, as Devers was the youngest player on Baseball America’s top-100 list that year.

In 2015, Devers was promoted to the Red Sox’ Low-A affiliate, the Greenville Drive, where he experienced full-season ball for the first time. There, he was matched up against much older opponents, being one of just seven position players under the age of 19 in the South Atlantic League. Devers played well in Greenville too, batting .288 with 38 doubles and 11 home runs in 115 games. During the 2015 season, Devers was selected to the Futures Game, an event during All-Star weekend that showcases baseball’s best young talent. After a season in Low-A, Devers was ranked as Boston’s second-best prospect, and baseball’s 18th-best. Devers jumped 81 spots on Baseball America’s top-100 in just one year, a remarkable achievement.

In 2016, Devers was promoted to the Red Sox’ High-A affiliate, the Salem Red Sox, at the age of 19. However, Devers hit a bump in the road in Salem. Among players much older than him, it appeared that Devers had finally met his match. In the first half of the season, he scuffled to a .233/.300/.305 line with just four home runs in 63 games.

However, Devers bounced back brilliantly after the All-Star break. He slashed an incredible .326/.367/.539, with seven home runs and 11 steals in 64 games. After this second-half breakout, Devers has not looked back in his meteoric rise to the majors.

In 2016, Devers’ defense finally started to catch up with his offense. Early on in his career, scouts considered moving him to first base, because of his heavy build. But Devers has worked hard on his defense, and has stayed at the hot corner. In High-A, Devers led all Carolina league third basemen in fielding percentage (.960), putouts (104), and assists (258).

After his outstanding second half in High-A, Devers earned a non-roster invitation to 2017 spring training with the Red Sox. This was a big step up for the 20-year-old Devers, but he wasn’t ready for it, batting 3 for 22 against big-league competition. Nevertheless, he earned a promotion to Double-A Portland, where he played for most of this year.

Devers was the Portland Red Sox’ standout player this year, socking 18 homers in addition to achieving an excellent .296/.366/.571 slash line. In 77 games, Devers jumped to number six in Baseball America’s most recent prospect rankings. He was also selected to participate in the MLB Futures Game for the second time.

Devers was promoted to Triple-A on July 14th, and continued to hit for both average and power while in Pawtucket. Devers became the third-youngest player ever to be promoted by the Red Sox to Triple-A, yet another reminder that he was playing extremely well for his age. The Dominican lefty hit an astounding .400 for the Pawtucket Red Sox, and he earned a promotion to the big leagues after just nine games in Triple-A.

When Devers debuted on July 25th, he was the youngest player in the major leagues, but you’d never know it. His first major-league hit was a home run (!), and during his 16 career major-league games, Devers has surprised everyone.

Scouting report

Devers has a very promising future, thanks to his ability to hit for both average and power. He has incredible raw power, and can spray the ball to all fields. His opposite-field power is unsurpassed among players his age. For example, when Devers hit two homers against the Indians on August 14th; one was a laser into the Green Monster seats in left field, and the other was a high drive into the Red Sox bullpen in right field.

Devers also has great bat speed, and he is able to hit pitches very far, and to any part of the field. On August 13th, Devers hit a 102.8 mph pitch into the Yankees bullpen, the fastest pitch ever hit for a home run in the pitch-tracking era.

Devers is not as polished as other recent Red Sox prospects like Andrew Benintendi, but he has a higher ceiling. I project that in his prime years he will hit around .285 with 30 home runs, 40 doubles, and five to ten stolen bases.

He has improved his defensive skills, but don’t expect him to be a Gold Glove-winning third baseman. I believe he will stay at the hot corner, as he is becoming more reliable and is improving his range. Overall, Devers projects to be an All-Star with a dependable glove and a reliable, middle-of-the-order bat.

Conclusion

As of August 15th, Devers is hitting .339 with six home runs, incredible statistics that show his ability is way beyond his years. I don’t mean to read too closely into Devers’ 62 career at-bats, but he has a very promising future.

Pairing Devers with other young Red Sox stars like Mookie BettsJackie Bradley jr. and Xander Bogaerts should help Boston stay at the top of the AL East for years. Devers gives Boston an entirely homegrown lineup, the dream of every major-league team.

 

Special thanks to Baseball Reference, Baseball America, and milb.com for the statistics I used in this post.

I would also like to thank NESN.com, the New Haven Register, and SB Nation’s Minor League Ball blog.

Prospect rankings are from Baseball America

Fenway Park Photo Credit: User: (WT-shared) Jtesla16 at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Gallo’s Season Is Unique and Unrepeatable

At this point, we all know Joey Gallo. We know what he can and what he can’t do on a baseball field. We know his tendencies. We know his unidimensional approach to hitting. In short, we know Gallo is one of a kind and the true definition of an outlier, if anything. Drafted by the Texas Rangers in 2012, he’s been part of the Major League roster during various stints of the past three seasons, having played in just 157 games (as of August 13) since he made his debut, yet it feels like he’s been around forever probably given his uniqueness.

Gallo’s finally found a place in the Rangers’ lineup during this season. Playing most of games at third base thanks to an Adrian Beltre injury that kept him out of action for the first weeks of the season, then moving to first base and currently splitting time between the latter and the left outfield position, Joey is an irreplaceable piece of Texas’s roster at this point. He’s the second-most valuable player of the team by means of bWAR at 2.8, only trailing Elvis Andrus (3.4), while having stepped to the plate 108 fewer times, and all of this at just 23 years of age.

Anything of what has been introduced already may sound interesting and paint a good picture of a prospect, which – still – Gallo is. But it is looking at his numbers for the season when we truly find a gem of a player, or at least a unique one given his performance and how he’s achieving it. To the point, actually, that we can consider Joey Gallo’s 2017 season an unrepeatable one in the past, present and (maybe) the future of baseball. We have always had great players putting huge margins in different statistics between them and the field, but we have yet to see anyone accrue the overall stat line Gallo is putting together as a whole.

In order to try and find comparables to Joey’s season, I used batting data from 2002 to 2017, extracted from FanGraphs’ leaderboards. The timespan was selected due to batted-ball data being available at the site from the 2002 season on, giving us a finer grain of detail at the players and their batting profiles during the selected seasons. Just to kick things off, we can introduce Gallo as a not-so-good hitter by looking at his PA/H ratio, which ranks as the 11th worst (5.5 PAs per hit) among the 2413 player seasons contained in the subset. Basically, Gallo suffers to get a hit every time he goes to the plate, and not by little (the average PA/H sits at 4.1). What starts to make things interesting is that of the 11 worst PA/H hitters, Joey Gallo is the only one with more HR than 1B/2B/3B, with home runs making up 47.4% of his hits (the next guy of those 11 is 2012 Adam Dunn with a 37.2% percentage).

We already know Gallo struggles to get hits. We know that most of his hits – almost half of them – end up being home runs. But, has Joey Gallo been just unlucky when making contact with the ball? It doesn’t look like it. There have only been five players with a K% of 35%+ in the past 15 seasons. Joey Gallo leads the pack at 37.8%, followed by 2013 Chris Carter and 2017 Trevor Story (both at 36.2%), 2017 Miguel Sano (35.6%) and 2010 Mark Reynolds (35.4%). Sadly for Gallo, his BB/K ratio doesn’t look like anything great at 0.34, so he comes out pretty much as a hit-or-miss guy.

His BABIP sits at .238 right now (26th-lowest among 2413 player seasons) and combined with his power and the percentage of his hits that go over the fences, that’s pretty low production when his hit balls don’t go the distance. The good thing for Gallo, again, is that he barely hits grounders, nor even liners. His GB/FB ratio is 0.43, trailing only a couple of Frank Thomas (who was like a monster truck turned into a mountain turned into a human being) seasons when he put up values of 0.42 (2006) and 0.40 (2002) GB/FB. That may lead you to think that we have seen other players like Gallo during the history of the sport, and indeed we have if looking at isolated statistics. But what if we add the percentages of line drives, ground balls and fly balls into the equation, plus a couple more metrics?

Gallo’s hitting profile just hasn’t existed prior to this season and will probably never be replicated. It is weird. It is unique. It is just in its own universe. Not only does Joey posess the lowest LD% of the past 15 years; he also has some of the lowest marks in GB% and IFFB% at the same time, while posting the highest FB% and – by far – HR/FB ratio of that timespan. No one has ever reached a 30%+ HR/FB ratio while maintaining a FB% of batted balls over 44% except Gallo. That’s something insane, at the minimum. Just in case there was any doubt left about what hitting profile Gallo represents best, I think he is a clear go-big-or-go-home advocate.

So Joey Gallo is a strikeout machine, that’s taken for granted. But he makes up for it with an otherworldly approach to hitting and some power not seen to this point in time, even after more than a hundred seasons of baseball have been played. As of August 13, Gallo ranks 26th in Baseball-Reference.com’s oWAR/PA among players with at least 350 PA, and while he’s nothing out of this world in terms of defensive production, his offensive performances have been vital for the Rangers. Added to his ridiculous age, he’s one of the most promising and offensive-minded players in baseball, and one that truly stands out from the field of players that can be seen each day at the majors’ ballparks.

It all comes down to a simple two-option question with Gallo. You either hate him or love him. But most of all and on top of that, what we should do is appreciate it, because we have not seen and will probably never see something quite like what he’s doing any time soon.


Is It Too Soon to Start the Willson-Mania?

A little more than 36 years ago, a pitcher by the name of Fernando Valenzuela, from Mexico, completed his first game with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Up to that point he had pitched 17.2 innings in 10 games, all of them during the 1980 season, giving up 10 hits, no earned runs nor homers, and accruing 16 strikeouts. But it was in 1981 when Valuenzuela would see his first start against Houston in a game that ended being a five-hit shutout for the Mexican, starting what became to be known as “Fernandomania.

Fast-forward to 2016 and turn your eyes to Chicago. The Cubs had a season for the ages and won the World Series after one of the largest droughts you could imagine. At the catcher position, three players: Miguel Montero, David Ross and Willson Contreras. Montero and Ross ate virtually all of the games from the start of the seasons up to mid-June, the moment Contreras made his first major-league appearance for the Cubs after being acquired by the club in 2009 as an amateur free agent. Since he started his first game on June 20 against the St. Louis Cardinals, he became the go-to catcher for Chicago and established himself as the next big thing at the plate, given the expected retirement of Ross and the unexpected words of wisdom by Montero earlier this season that would end with him out of the clubhouse.

But let’s not get lost in the context of this story, and focus on our guy, Willson Contreras. The Venezuelan had a great stint in 2016, posting a more than respectable .282/.357/.488 slash line with a slightly high BABIP of .339. He walked and struck out above average, but was able to get up to 12 home runs to make up for it, while reaching a 126 wRC+. Definitely not a bad start of a career. The thing is, Contreras is having an even better second season with the Cubs in 2017, and the Willson-mania is starting to get – or should be getting – traction, with the catcher being named the National Player of the Week in early August.

Projection models expected Contreras to keep his pace during this campaign in most of the statistics, and none forecast a huge jump in his numbers from last year to this one. It could even be said that a little, even by a hair, regression was actually expected after what he did in 2016. The problem these projections are facing today is the same as always: Willson is killing them and outpacing the expected numbers they proposed when calculated over spring. Just for starters, and looking at FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projection system, it fixed Contreras at an expected 117 games, played with 490 plate appearances. As of August 10, he has already played 101 games and appeared 374 times at the plate. Yes, he’s been given the reins of Chicago’s catcher slot and his knees and holding out.

To paint a clearer picture of how Willson’s season is going in relation with what was expected from him, here is a simple fancy table.

Projection systems were right in that regression will make a living out of Contreras this season, not that it wasn’t to be expected, though. His AVG and OBP, along with his BABIP, have decreased to more average-ish values, true. But there are numbers that call for a great progression in the catcher’s game. He’s almost already doubled his home-run production from 2016, and will have a chance to even double his DC projection from now to the end of the season. He’s been able to accumulate 0.9 more points in WAR, and his wRC+ has lowered but is still on point, much higher than projections put it at at the start of the campaign, when they saw Willson as an slightly better than average hitter at best.

Moving onto other metrics not included in the table above and to put his improvement in context, what he’s doing this season — he’s doing it with a WPA/LI of 1.35 instead of the 0.6 he had in 2016 (this is, he’s producing more on toughest situations while giving his team more chances of winning games). Moreover, his Clutch value is 0.72 (1.6 points over his past season’s minus-0.88), midway between what we could consider an above average-to-great clutch player.

His batted-ball statistics are also worth looking at. In order to do it, I combined the data from 2016 and this season as of August 10. Here are the top ten players in terms of HR/FB over this period of time.

Contreras is a ground-ball hitter. There is nothing to discuss about that, and that is something he may want to change in order to improve his production on the long run. Of the ten players included in the table above, he has the third-highest GB/FB value at 1.79, the highest GB% at 53.4% and the second-lowest LD% at 16.8%. What is helping him, though, is his high HR/FB ratio, which is making is deep and high batted balls go over the fence over one quarter of the times he hits them. It is also interesting to see how his BABIP is still at a good .325 while having such a high ground-ball percentage and putting up hits to the infield 11.4% of the time.

All in all, Contreras is the third-best Cub by wRC+ this season, only behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, while having considerably fewer plate appearances than those two. Chicago seems to have found a potential gem in their system after eight years of waiting, and the catcher position sure seems covered at Windy City. If only Contreras could hone the little things that may be holding his production back a hair, we would definitely experience the Willson-mania on full swing.


Jimmy Nelson as James Paxton

It would appear that James Paxton is finally getting credit for the body of work he’s produced over the past two years. Jeff Sullivan wrote about this very topic last week, pointing to several metrics that support his claim that James Paxton is one of the best pitchers in baseball. I won’t rewrite his points here; instead, I will show you the many similarities between James Paxton and a relatively unknown pitcher outside Brewers nation, Jimmy Nelson. I don’t mean to imply Nelson is equally as good as Paxton, but I hope by the end of this article there will be a greater acknowledgement of what this pitcher has done this year.

Armed with a fastball that averages 96 mph, a darting 90 mph cutter, and a tight 81 mph knuckle curve, James Paxton is able to generate plenty of swings and misses and weak contact. His 28.8 K%, 7.0 BB%, 46.5 GB%, 5.6 HR/FB% in 2017 has led to a sparkling 2.70 ERA and 2.31 FIP. His 4.2 WAR would rank fifth-best in the MLB among pitchers if he had enough innings to qualify. While Jimmy Nelson doesn’t quite have the stuff of Paxton, his repertoire might sound familiar: a 94.5 mph fastball/sinker, a 89 mph cutter, and a 81 mph knuckle curve. His 27.3 K%, 5.9 BB%, 50.9 GB%, and 13.1 HR/FB% in 2017 has produced a 3.24 ERA and 3.04 FIP. His 4 WAR ranks sixth among qualifying pitchers.

The main differences in their 2017 performance in these metrics appears to be their HR/FB%. Jeff Sullivan addressed James Paxton’s ability to manage contact in his article, and there is evidence that he should be able to maintain a below-average HR/FB%. Over 399.1 innings, Paxton has a career HR/FB% of 8.1. In addition, he currently leads the majors in 2017 in xwOBA on balls in play based on launch angle and exit velocity. While it would be foolish to expect him to keep a 5.6 HR/FB%, a 8.1% might be his norm, circa Clayton Kershaw pre-2017. Despite having a well below-average xwOBA on balls in play, his career ERA is 19 points higher than his career FIP (with an even larger difference this year). I’m not sure if we can hand-wave this difference away, but we’ll accept his FIP as the more accurate measure for this analysis.

Jimmy Nelson, on the other hand, has a history of relatively loud contact. His 13.1 HR/FB% this year isn’t much different than his career 12.4%. Despite this high career rate, his xwOBA on balls in play this year is .343, good for 25th in baseball among 113 starters who have faced at least 250 batters. In addition, his average exit velocity is 85.2 mph, good for 13th-lowest among the same group. It might be that his contact management woes are coming to an end.

Perhaps 2017 will be seen as an out-of-nowhere career year for Jimmy Nelson. Perhaps 2017 will become his norm, and he’ll take his rightful place among the 10-15 best starters in baseball. Either way, he deserves more attention than he’s been given. It’d be a shame if he continues to be denied an All-Star despite producing like one (no pitcher with an equal or higher WAR missed the Midsummer Classic).

Since no posts can be complete with mere words, here’s a link to video of Jimmy Nelson’s most recent start.


Giving Players the Bonds Treatment

There is no higher compliment that can be given to a ballplayer than to be given “The Bonds Treatment” — being intentionally walked with the bases empty, or even better, with the bases loaded. It’s called “The Bonds Treatment” because Barry Bonds recorded an astounding 41 IBBs with the bases empty, and is one of only two players to ever record a bases-loaded intentional walk. In other words, 28% of IBBs ever issued with the bases empty were given to Bonds — and 50% of IBBs with the bases loaded. Bonds was great, no denying that — but is there anyone out there today who is worthy of such treatment?

We can find out using a Run Expectancy matrix. An RE matrix is based on historical data, and it can tell you how many runs, on average, a team could expect to score in a given situation. A sample RE matrix, from Tom Tango’s site tangotiger.net, is shown below.

RE Matrix

The chart works as follows — given a base situation (runners on the corners, bases empty, etc.) move down to the corresponding row, then move to the corresponding column and year to find out how many runs a team could expect to score from that situation. In 2015, with a runner on 3rd and 1 out, teams could expect to score .950 runs on average (or, RE is .950). If the batter at the plate struck out, the new RE would be .353.

We can take this a step further. Sean Dolinar created a fantastic tool that allows us to (roughly) examine RE in terms of a batter’s skill. Having Mike Trout at the plate vastly improves your odds of scoring more than having Alcides Escobar, and the tool takes this into account. We can use this tool to look at who deserves the Bonds treatment in 2017 (or, to see if anyone deserves the Bonds treatment): defined as being walked with the bases empty, or the bases loaded.

First, we can look at a given player and their RE scores for having the bases empty or full. In this instance, we will use Michael Conforto, who batted leadoff for the Mets against the Texas Rangers on August 9. Conforto’s wOBA entering the game was .404, and the run environment for the league is 4.65 runs per game, so Conforto’s relevant run expectancy matrix looks like this:

Michael Conforto RE Matrix

Batting behind him was Jose Reyes, who, entering the game, had a wOBA of .283. Let’s assume that Conforto receives the Bonds Treatment, and is IBB’d in a given PA with bases empty or loaded. What would the run expectancy look like with Reyes up? In other words, what is Reyes’ run expectancy with a runner on first, or with the bases loaded after a run has been IBB’d in?

To do this, we can look at Reyes’ RE with a runner on first and with the bases loaded. Reyes’ RE with a man at 1B is indicative of what the RE would be like if Conforto had been given an intentional free pass. For a bases-loaded walk, we look at Reyes’ RE with the bases loaded, and then add a run onto it (to account for Conforto walking in a run).

Jose Reyes RE Matrix

Then, we can compare the corresponding cells of the matrices to see if the Texas Rangers would benefit any from walking Conforto. If RE with Conforto up and the bases empty is higher than RE with a runner on first and Reyes up, or RE with the bases loaded and Conforto up is higher than RE with Reyes up and a run already scored, then we can conclude that it makes sense to give Conforto that free pass.

In this instance, we can see that if the Rangers were to face Conforto with the bases empty and two out, it would make more sense for them to IBB Conforto and pitch to Reyes than it would for them to pitch to Conforto, because RE with Conforto up (.172) is higher than RE with Reyes up and Conforto on (.145). As a result, Conforto is a candidate for the Bonds treatment in this lineup configuration, if the right situation arises.

Who else could be subjected to the Bonds treatment? It would take me a few months of work to run through every single individual lineup for every team to figure out who should have been pitched to and who should have gotten a free pass, so to simplify things, I looked at hitters with 400+ PA, looked at when they most frequently batted, who batted behind them most frequently, and whether or not they should have received the Bonds treatment based on who was on deck. While no lineup remains constant throughout the season, looking at these figures gave me a good idea of who regularly batted behind whom.

Three candidates emerged to be IBB’d with the bases empty every time, regardless of outs— Yasiel Puig, Jordy Mercer, and Orlando Arcia. These players usually bat in the eighth slot on NL teams, and right behind them is the pitchers’ slot — considering how historically weak pitchers are with the bat, it makes sense that RE tells us to walk them with the bases empty every single time.

The same could be said of almost anyone batting ahead of a pitcher — according to our model, given an average-hitting pitcher, any hitter with a wOBA over .243 should be IBB’d with the pitcher on deck (only one qualified hitter — Alcides Escobar — has a lower wOBA than .243). The three names above stuck out in the analysis because they were the only players with 400+ PA that had spent most of their PAs batting eighth.

So, an odd takeaway of this exercise is that in the NL, unless a pinch-hitter is looming on deck, the eighth hitter should almost always be intentionally walked with the bases empty, because it lowers the run expectancy. Weird!

The model also identified two hitters who deserved similar treatment to Michael Conforto in the above example (IBB with 2 out and no one on) — Buster Posey and Chase Headley.

Posey has batted with almost alarming regularity ahead of Brandon Crawford, who is running an abysmal .273 wOBA on the season. Headley is a little more curious — Headley is usually a weak hitter, but earlier in the season, Headley batted ahead of Austin Romine frequently, who was even worse than Crawford.

Headley technically isn’t that much of a candidate for the Bonds Treatment since Romine hasn’t batted behind him since June 30, but Crawford has backed up Posey as recently as August 3 — if he’s batted behind Posey again, the situation could very well arise where it becomes beneficial for teams to simply IBB Posey with two out and bases empty.

But ultimately, no one, aside from NL hitters in the eighth slot, emerges as a candidate to be IBB’d every time with the bases empty. And no one, regardless of the situation, deserves a bases-loaded intentional walk. Which raises the question — was it appropriate to give the man himself, Barry Bonds, the Bonds Treatment?

Bonds received an incredible 19 bases-empty IBBs in 2004 (more than doubling the record he set in 2002), so we’ll use 2004 Bonds and his .537 wOBA as the center of our analysis.

In 2004, Bonds batted almost exclusively fouth, and the two men who shared the bulk of playing time batting fifth behind him (Edgardo Alfonzo and Pedro Feliz) had almost identical wOBAs that season (.333 and .334, respectively) — so we’ll assume that the average hitter behind Bonds in 2004 posted a wOBA of .333. This yields RE matrices that look like this:

Barry Bonds RE Matrix compared to 5th Hitter, 2004

Bonds proves himself worthy not only of a bases-empty IBB with two out, but he just barely misses with a bases-loaded IBB. While no one ended up giving Bonds a bases-loaded IBB in 2004, they did give him one in 1998.

For perspective, Bonds was running a .434 wOBA in 1998, and Brent Mayne (who was on deck) was running a .324 wOBA — so this actually wasn’t a move that moved RE or win probability in the right direction.

Win probability, Diamondbacks @ Giants, 5/28/1998
The final spike in WPA is Bond’s IBB — it gave the Giants a better chance of winning. Ultimately, it was a bad idea that didn’t backfire in the Diamondback’s faces.

And of course, I would be remiss in not mentioning the other player to have ever received a bases-loaded IBB — Josh Hamilton.

With apologies to Hamilton, he wasn’t the right guy to get the Bonds treatment here, either — Hamilton ran a .384 wOBA in 2008, and Marlon Byrd, who was on deck, had a .369 wOBA, which means that an IBB in this instance was a really awful move. An awful move that, like Bonds’ IBB, was rewarded by Byrd striking out in the next AB.

Have there been other players deserving of bases-loaded IBBs? It’s possible, but the most likely candidates — Ted Williams and Babe Ruth — usually had good enough protection in the lineup. Of course, there are few hitters that could have protected Bonds from himself — hence why it’s almost a good idea to IBB him with the bases loaded.


Nick Markakis’ Forgotten 2008 Season

While browsing Baseball Reference’s database, I encountered a strange thing. I was looking at the WAR leaders for each season. WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement, which is a statistic that measures how many wins a team gained by having a certain player instead of a replacement player, who would have a WAR of 0. The leaders were all recognizable names — MVPs, World Series Champions, Cy Young award winners, etc.

Surely the leader in WAR in 2008 finished near the top in the MVP voting. And of course he was an All-Star. And sure, maybe he even won a Silver Slugger or a Gold Glove.

Nope.

Nick Markakis led the American League in WAR with 7.4 and did not receive an MVP vote, make the All-Star team, win a Silver Slugger or take home a Gold Glove.

Markakis is now a veteran outfielder for the Atlanta Braves. But back in 2008, he was a stud for the Baltimore Orioles, and he led his team in hits, walks, batting average, and on-base percentage. Markakis had a reputable slash line of .306/.406/.491, scored 106 runs, drove in 87, clobbered 20 homers and stole 10 bases. These stats are excellent, and Markakis finished near the top of many leaderboards once the season ended.

He finished in the top ten in the AL in batting average, OPS (on-base + slugging), hits, extra-base hits, and Offensive WAR. The right fielder also closed the year in the top five in the AL in on-base percentage, runs, doubles, and walks. Markakis was also a great asset in the field, leading AL right fielders in games played and putouts while leading all AL outfielders in outfield assists.

According to Baseball Reference, there have only been 32 seasons when a player either matched or exceeded Markakis’ WAR, Offensive WAR, Defensive WAR, batting average and on-base percentage.

Markakis’ excellent stats were matched by only 32 players ever, but he was snubbed from every award.

Markakis was not selected as one of the six outfielders to compete in the All-Star Game despite his achievements.

Instead, Ichiro Suzuki, Josh Hamilton, Manny Ramirez, J.D. Drew, Carlos Quentin, and Grady Sizemore were selected. None of them recorded more than 6.0 WAR, while Drew did not even record 3.0 WAR. Markakis was thoroughly robbed of an All-Star appearance.

Looking back on it, it’s an injustice that Nick Markakis had such a standout year and did not even receive a single vote for MVP. His 7.4 WAR outnumbered every other candidate, including winner Dustin Pedroia, who recorded 6.9 WAR.

Markakis had arguably a better year than anyone in the American League in 2008, and yet was not recognized at all.

Markakis was also a standout defensively, and recorded 1.7 Defensive WAR. Yet he was not appreciated for this achievement either, as Torii Hunter (-0.1 dWAR), Ichiro Suzuki (0.8 dWAR), and Grady Sizemore (0.1 dWAR) took home the outfield Gold Gloves in 2008.

Another intriguing aspect of Markakis’ season, besides being slighted from every award, was that this explosion came out of the blue. Markakis’ 7.4 WAR in 2008 soars above his career average of 2.6 and towers above his next-best season, when he recorded 4.2 WAR in 2007.

Markakis’ defensive exploits in 2008 were also very surprising. He has never been a great defender, and he has only two years in his 12-year career in which he has a positive dWAR, 2008 (1.7) and 2016 (0.3). Markakis has a career dWAR of -6.5, which shows that his excellent 2008 season was an anomaly.

Markakis also logged a career high in Offensive WAR in 2008, as he achieved career highs in runs, doubles, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, and OPS.

I’ll never know why Markakis could not even come close to matching his exploits from 2008. Markakis was just 24 in his breakout season, but his stats decreased as he headed toward his prime. I can’t find an explanation for his decline, as injuries weren’t a factor — Markakis has played at least 155 games in every season from 2007-2016, with the lone exception of 2012. Markakis was a bit lucky in 2008, as his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .350, higher than his actual batting average of .306. However, his career year cannot be explained away by luck.

The lack of recognition of Markakis’ magnificent season is puzzling. He did play in one of baseball’s smallest media markets (Baltimore) for a team that stayed in the basement of the AL East, but at a certain point, efforts like his need to be noted.

Markakis never again reached the heights of his 2008 season, and I’ll always wonder two things: why he wasn’t recognized for his achievements, and why he was never able to match his production again.

Special thanks to Baseball Reference for all of these helpful statistics