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The Politics of Being a Baseball Fan

Sound the alarms folks, here comes yet another take by another internet oaf centereded around the “Worst Offseason of All Time”, the 2017-2018 offseason.  Please don’t run away just yet though! This isn’t going to be an article about how front offices are colluding, or how teams are getting smarter, or how players are greedy and want too much money. What I want to try to do here is attempt to show how an individual’s politics help shape the way they perceive the game of baseball and how it affects the way they root for the team or players they love. With this in mind, I want to stress this: I am not attempting to project my personal politics on any of you, the readers. I am simply going to use my political ideology as an explanation as to why I feel the way I do about this wonderful sport, and why I think my personal views have a bit of conflict of interest in the way the game is played today.

A few weeks ago, my favorite hometown team, the Minnesota Twins, signed reliever Addison Reed to a two year, 17 million dollar deal, which came as a bit of surprise. Rumor was that Reed was seeking a 3-4 year deal for the extra security, but ended up taking a spot in the Twin Cities to be closer to his wife’s hometown. I was thrilled when I learned this. My team, the Twins, got a great deal on a quality reliever. We basically paid market value for a reliever who has a good track record, except we didn’t have to worry about him regressing near the back of a long deal. In fact, we got Reed for less than the Phillies gave Tommy Hunter, and Reed is a more proven and arguably better reliever than him! Awesome! Okay…..but hold on a minute. Let’s back this up for a second and analyze this from a different viewpoint, a political viewpoint. For me, this deal and my reaction to it has a lot of conflicting views relative to my political beliefs. I consider myself a leftist, which, for the purpose of this article, means I am very pro worker’s rights and pro re-distribution of wealth downwards. Again, my views do not reflect yours, the players, or anyone’s, nor do I think any individual needs to or should have the same views as me. Just another reminder! Thanks.

The Twins are owned by the Pohlads, a triad of large adult sons who inherited their fortune from their now deceased father, Carl. Carl Pohlad made his living through banking and investing and bought the Twins in 1984 for $36 million. His three sons now own the team together, which is valued at roughly one billion dollars. Altogether, the Pohlad sons are worth $3.8 billion. I want to make something very clear here: all politics aside, you, or anyone else on this planet, does not need 3.8 billion dollars. Hell, you don’t even need one billion dollars. The main question I have to ask myself is this: why do I get excited when I find out that my team, owned by a group of people worth nearly four billion dollars, gets a good deal on a player because they gave him .4% of their net worth ($17 million divided by $3.8 billion) instead of something like .6% of their net worth ($24 million, or eight million per year at three years divided by 3.8 billion dollars). Addison Reed and players like him are the reason I go to Target Field and watch Twins games in the first place. If the Twins don’t sign Addison Reed, their bullpen becomes actively worse, the team performs badly, and they become less entertaining to watch as a group. Watching your team win games is fun, in fact, that’s the reason we’re sports fans in the first place! The purely tribal aspect of identifying with a group, watching them perform well, and being able to bond with other people as a result is what makes sports great. The only reason teams win games is because of the players they have. They are the entertainers, the figures we bond with, and the reason we go to the stadium in the first place. Again, why am I happy that the billionaire owners saved a couple million bucks?

One of the consequences of the rise of sabermetrics is now, we as a community and fans, have the ability to microscopically analyze and value players.

Moneyball was born from the idea that low budget teams could get good players and pay them less because of their skill set, like their ability to get on base, or OBP, a stat which a lot of teams didn’t have a good grasp on how to value at the time. These organizations were applauded and their techniques were copied, and as a result, every team in the MLB now embraces sabermetrics and sucking every ounce of capital value they can out of every deal they make. As this offseason has shown, teams are now becoming weary of handing out big contracts to older free agents. Whether or not collusion is happening is an entirely different story, and beyond the scope of this article. But right now, when the Twins sign someone Addison Reed to a surprising contract, or the Astros give up much less in value that what Gerrit Cole is perceived to be worth, or the Cubs refuse to give Jake Arrieta, the 2016 Cy Young award winner, a six-year contact, we have the opportunity to log on and shower praise upon these organizations for their tactical approach to the game, and their ability to embrace analytics. Then, when players like Albert Pujols sign gigantic deals and start to decline two-thirds of the way through these massive contracts, we log on yet again to explain why the Pujols deal is a cancer on the Angels and how terrible of a decision Jerry Dipoto made by signing him.

I’ll use my hometown Twins as another example here. In 2010, Joe Mauer signed an eight-year, $184-million dollar extension. In my opinion, it was a great story. Mauer, fresh of his MVP campaign of 2009, signed an extension which, at the time was a lot of money. He decided to stay and play catcher for his hometown team, not to mention the only team he has known his whole life. Since then, Mauer has suffered a variety of injuries, most prominently a concussion, and has changed his position to first base. Fans were not happy. Mauer was put on blast for being too injury prone, local sports writers like Jim “Hot Take” Souhan wrote pieces calling Mauer “coddled“. Mauer’s production suffered, and he quickly became much less valuable than he once was. The contract looked horrible. A lot of people were asking why the Twins should be giving so much money to a player who doesn’t play and whose value continues to decline. Again, let’s take a step back from this for a second. For some ungodly reason, just in sports, it is OK to put someone on blast for being hurt a lot.  Mauer had a line of work where balls came flying at the general direction of his head at 100 mph. Injuries happen, and when you catch, traumatic brain injuries like concussions will happen, and when you suffer a traumatic brain injury, there will be consequences. Because of the concussion, Mauer suffered blurred vision and was unable to track pitches for nearly two years after it had happened. If you can’t see the ball, you can’t hit it, and you can’t do your job. If you were (or are) a construction worker, and you got hit in the head with a falling cinder block, and you were wearing all your protective gear but still suffered a serious concussion, your employer, fellow employees, friends, and family would never call you soft, or say things like “well he gets hurt, so he deserves to get paid less now”. The fact that this exception exists for athletes purely because they make more money than other workers is crazy to me. They’re still human beings, and they still need to live healthy lives. Mauer has remained a villain for some Twins fans to this day, simply for signing a contract where he was rewarded for doing well. He and Albert Pujols are claimed as examples as to why long-term, expensive deals are bad.

Let’s keep these expensive deals in mind. Baseball is a very different sport because of the fact that there are no salary caps, either for teams total payroll, or for players and their individual contracts. Sure, there is a luxury tax that is imposed on teams that spend over a certain amount of money, but that hardly constitutes any sort of hard cap on spending. Because of this, baseball has a unique attribute where players can get paid as much as they possibly can, yet the market still sets a value for each win a player brings in. As of right now, one win is usually worth around eight million, because, well, that’s what was decided. When teams sign players for under market value, they are applauded, and they are ridiculed when they do the opposite. But why? Why aren’t we happy when our entertainment (the players) make the most money they can? On top of this, prospects and minor league players make below poverty wages, and are often forced to take other jobs during the offseason to provide for their families. Like I’ve said before, they’re the reason we come to the ballpark. They make the game fun to watch. Now you might be thinking, “Yeah but Will, what about payroll? These teams don’t have infinite resources and they’ll have to pay the luxury tax and get penalized for spending money!” My response to this? Who the hell cares. What’s stopping the Twins from offering Yu Darvish a 5-year, $200 million dollar deal? Obviously, this is a bit outlandish, but the idea that long, expensive contracts are out of teams’ price ranges simply isn’t true. Doing some math again, a $200-million dollar deal would be 5% of the Pohlads’ net worth. Darvish would be getting paid for providing entertainment to the masses, and the Pohlads would see an increase in attendance and participation at Target Field for bringing in exciting talent.  Even for a team like Brewers or Rays, this deal is feasible based soley on the income of the owners.

Another question you might be asking is why I think the Pohlads owe me entertainment, a random person who just happens to like baseball. Why should they have to use their own money to entertain me?  Here’s the thing: they do owe me, because I helped paid for Target Field. In fact, so did the entirety of Hennepin County in the state of Minnesota. Hennepin County taxpayers paid for 65% of Target Field, which turns out to be 350 million dollars. The Minnesota Twins organization paid for $150 million. Again, I had money taken out of my pocket for a private organization to build a stadium where they then get to attempt to give the shaft to their employees by paying them as little as possible to “find value.” This same scenario comes up across the league, with an egregious example being the latest sale of the Miami Marlins by their former owner, Jeffery Loria. Marlins fans paid for 80% of Marlins Park (which was financed through Wall Street loans, which now the county is stuck with) and got absolutely nothing in return; in fact, Loria sold the team and pocketed money taken from the citizens of Miami-Dade County. When I go to the stadium that I helped pay for, I want to see an entertaining team, and I want to see my fellow workers rewarded for their talent and efforts.

The fact that owners have been able to screw over players for so long while hoarding their money is simply unacceptable. It’s time for the MLBPA to take a step back and consider the possibility of a strike. The current free agent system hurts players by not allowing them to market their talents during the peak of their careers, thus leading to teams being wary of handing out longer contracts to older players. “Small-market teams” actively treat players like currency, soaking up the years of their prime by paying them nothing, then forcefully removing them by trading to another team for promising youth, therefore starting the cycle again. The luxury tax imposed on teams discourages paying players what they’re actually worth. The way the current CBA is constructed hurts players in a way like no other league, where now, players make just a little over 40% of all revenue. It’s a month until spring training, and they 2016 Cy Young award winner does not have a team yet. That is astounding. I’m not saying it’s time to start giving out $100-million dollar a year contracts to say, I don’t know, Cliff Pennington, but it’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate why we love baseball.

We should be celebrating the success of our fellow workers, not dragging them down for being hurt or signing big contracts. Sabermetrics may be a very neat tool for analysis, but we shouldn’t use it to try to degrade the value of the people that make this sport great. We can still use sabermetrics and advanced data to help players get better by improving a batter’s swing mechanics, optimizing defensive shifts, or creating the best pitch sequencing for a pitcher to follow, while still keeping in mind that players are the reason we love baseball.

Giants, Rays Make Strange Trade

On December 20th, the Rays shipped Evan “Career Ray” Longoria to the Giants for Christian Arroyo, Denard Span, Matt Krook and Stephen Woods. On the surface, this seems like a deal that fits the needs of both teams. The Rays have initiated yet another rebuild that Longoria didn’t want to be a part of, and got some young players in return. Arroyo is a former top-100 prospect who, despite destroying lower levels in 2017, struggled in his debut with the Giants. The two arms are the classic “pitching prospects,” and, well, Denard Span is Denard Span. On the other side, the Giants filled an absolutely gaping hole at third base. They no longer have to play Pablo Sandoval, and that should be a win for any team.  However, this trade has left me scratching my head, and there’re a few reasons why. Let’s look at some statlines.

Player A – 96 wRC+ / 11 DRS

Player B – 108 wRC+ / 10 DRS

Which one do you think the Giants just gave Christian Arroyo up for? The answer is A, Evan Longoria, a 32-year-old who is making 13.5 million dollars a year.  Player C is Todd Frazier, a 31-year-old (almost 32-year-old) free agent who will more than likely sign a contract in the 10-12 million dollar range. Now, Longoria did have a down year at the plate in 2017 and is the better defender of the two, but looking at these numbers raises some questions. Why did the Giants give up a talented young prospect for someone they could have just signed in the free-agent market? It’s understandable that you can look at Longoria’s track record and expect him to bounce back from a down year, but there are a few other things to consider before jumping to that conclusion. First of all, Longoria is moving from Tropicana Field to AT&T Park, one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the majors. According to Baseball Reference, Tropicana was also stifling, but still, moving to AT&T is not a welcome change for any hitter. Secondly, Longoria is 32 years old, and we all know what side of 30 that’s on (it’s the bad side). Thinking Longoria can bounce back during his age-32 season is a tough sell for anyone who believes in the aging curve.

Let’s consider what the Giants could have done differently. If they would have signed Todd Frazier, they would have been getting a cheaper contract for a player with essentially the same skill-set as Longoria; a power right-handed bat with a plus glove at third base. They’re practically the same age, and now, the Giants can keep Christian Arroyo around and give him some more time to develop in the minors or give him exposure at the major-league level if Joe Panik continues to struggle. Yes, they did offload Denard Span’s contract, so technically, Longoria is cheaper than Frazier would be, but I’ll address that in just a bit. They also had the option to not sign anyone at all and hope Arroyo develops into some sort of Matt Duffy 2.0. To make it clear, I don’t think Arroyo will ever be as good as Longoria, but I have no problem believing he could be a 2-3 win player a few years down the road.

Now, in terms of the big picture, only one of these moves keeps the Giants’ hopes for the future alive. If you haven’t noticed, all the stars on the Giants are going to be on the wrong side of the aging curve soon. Signing Frazier only contributes to that problem. Arroyo could have been a piece the Giants could have built their team around in the future when all of their other superstars are decrepit skeletons. Remember what I said about Denard Span being Denard Span and his contract being offloaded? That’s another problem that the Giants have to fix now. Denard Span isn’t good, but he’s essentially league-average at playing center field. Who do the Giants stick out there now? Steven Duggar? Mac Williamson? Both of those options represent a downgrade to Span. Instead, we can expect the Giants to throw a bunch of money at a free-agent outfielder, perhaps someone like Lorenzo Cain. Cain would represent a huge upgrade over Span, but Cain is still another 31-year-old who is projected to decline in his production while making close to 20 million dollars a year, which cancels out the effect of getting rid of Span’s contract in the first place.

If they do sign Cain, the Giants will then be spending more money than they were before they traded for Longoria in the first place. If they don’t, then they’ll have to expect lackluster production out of center field, somehow even more lackluster than Span already was. Finally, you have to consider if this move actually makes the Giants better than the rest of the NL West. It doesn’t. The Dodgers are still a super team, the D-Backs are still very good, and the Rockies, despite having some question marks about their rotation, are a good team as well. Well, okay, the Giants won’t finish behind the Padres, but you still have to be better than the best team in baseball last year to win your division. This is a lot to ask for a Giants team that has only added something like 1.5 wins this offseason and was the worst team in the National League last year. Don’t get me wrong; getting Longoria, a good player who makes way, way less than his market value is a great move, but I don’t think it is in the context of where the Giants are as a team, what they gave up, and the holes they still have to fill.

As for the Rays, this is a move that was going to happen eventually. They see that the Yankees and Red Sox are going dominate the AL East for a while, so they decided that now is as good a time as any to tear it down and start again. The Rays will continue to the do the Rays thing we all know and love, stockpiling as many Matt Duffy-type players as they can while consistently pumping out awesome pitchers from their farm system, then trading those pitchers for more clones of Matt Duffy. Arroyo will more than likely take the second-base job in Tampa over at some point during 2018, and will be a fun player to watch in the Rays lineup. Span might end up taking some time from Mallex Smith in left field, but Smith is definitely the more exciting and interesting player of the two. The real Matt Duffy will end up playing third, and the Rays will finish 3rd or 4th in the AL East like they do almost every year. Again, this a trade that was going to happen, but it’s just surprising to see how it ended up going down.

Embracing the Fly Ball Revolution

Baseball players are smart people. Over the past few years, they’ve figured out that ground balls are actually bad, so they stopped hitting them. Players like Yonder Alonso and Francisco Lindor started hitting more fly balls and, in turn, hit a lot more home runs. The entire league has caught on to this trend as well. In fact, as many of you may know, the MLB set a record this year, hitting 6105 home runs, nearly 500 more than the previous most in 2000. Now, this also has a lot to do with the fact that the ball may or may not juiced (which it more than likely is), but nevertheless, players have learned to adapt. Although the league FB% and GB% aren’t at extremes, it is very evident by the increase in home runs that the league has shifted towards a fly-ball mentality. Jeff Sullivan did a great breakdown of this earlier in the year, where he showed that the league-average exit velocities and launch angles and are all-time highs for the Statcast era. Players are making better contact at higher launch angles, and that’s something that the league has caught on to.

Players like the before-mentioned Alonso have changed their swings completely to full take advantage of the fly-ball revolution. Their swings prey on pitchers who throw low in the zone, and because of this, pitchers have adapted in turn. Teams like the Red Sox and the Rays have led the charge in throwing high fastballs, while pitchers like Trevor Bauer and Lance McCullers Jr. have started throwing a lot more breaking balls. The intention of this post isn’t to figure out what pitchers can change in order to succeed, but what pitchers already have the skillset to embrace the current fly-ball environment. For this search, I wanted to focus on a few different things: pitchers who already throw high fastballs, pitchers who give up a lot of fly balls and soft contact, and pitchers who induce the weakest contact according to Statcast.

The league-average fly-ball rate is 35.5% and the league-average hard-hit rate is 31.8%, so I looked for pitchers with a greater fly-ball rate and a lower hard-hit rate than the league average. As for the Statcast data, I looked for pitchers who induced the most pop-ups and fly balls who also induced the poorest contact on those balls put in play. Statcast also helped me find who threw the most fastballs up in the zone. I’ll list a few of the pitchers who have already embraced the fly ball and then go a little more in-depth on some guys who can look to break out in 2018 if they continue in their ways.

One name that immediately stuck out to me is Chris Sale, who has a case to win the American League Cy Young this year. Sale lives in the top of the zone and induces a ton of soft contact, but he also has the other dimension of striking literally everyone out and not giving up many home runs. Sale’s skillset makes him one of the best pitchers during the fly-ball revolution. Below him, there are a few more established names, like Ervin Santana, Marco Estrada, and Jeff Samardzija, a group of solid pitchers who strike out a decent number of batters, but not a ton, and also have some home-run problems. That being said, all of them had an fWAR of 2.9 or higher, proving them to be successful against opponents by learning to love the fly ball. The next few names that’ll get listed off are up and coming players who haven’t had much exposure and are still adjusting to the league. I’ll be giving a short profile for each.

Ariel Miranda

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Ariel Miranda is, in fact, a pretty bad pitcher. I’m not trying to say he’s good, but I’m saying there are some faint glimmers of potential here. Miranda is a 28-year-old lefty who found himself pitching in what was the Mariners’ desolate wasteland of a starting rotation in 2017. Due to a multitude of injuries, Miranda started 29 games for Seattle and was, in all reality, bad. This was mainly due to the fact that he allowed an egregious 2.08 HR/9, but thankfully, we know that home-run rate fluctuates from year to year. His over-inflated HR/9 is definitely caused in part by a 52.5% fly-ball rate and a fastball with a lot of rise, but Miranda never had a HR/9 over 1.0 in the minors, so there’s a chance he can rebound and use his ability to generate soft contact in the future. In 2017, he had a below-average hard-hit rate, and according to Statcast, 5.9% of his pitches resulted in weak, fly-ball contact.

Eduardo Rodriguez

After an impressive 2016, Eduardo Rodriguez continued to succeed in 2017 despite injury. In fact, he may be the most promising of this bunch. Although he has a lower fly-ball rate than Miranda and his opponents make better contact, his HR/9 is much better at 1.25. Rodriguez also strikes everyone out, showcasing 9.83 K/9 with great stuff, including a plus change. Rodriguez has already shown he can succeed in the league and it looks like he’ll continue to do so.

Reynaldo Lopez

Lopez was one of the key pieces in the Adam Eaton trade of last offseason. Lopez only pitched in 8 games last year for the White Sox, and although the stats weren’t super impressive, there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic. He throws very hard and throws 31.4% of his fastballs up in the zone, while also being in the upper echelon of creating weak contact. 6.78% of his pitches resulted in weak fly-ball contact, and Lopez also posted a great 27.8% hard-hit rate. If he can keep his control under wraps, while keeping the ball in the yard like he did last year, he could break out in 2018. The only thing that could be an issue are his strikeouts, but his numbers in the minors suggest those will catch up.

Ben Lively

I’ll be honest: I didn’t even know Ben Lively was a baseball player until a day ago. Lively surprised in 2017, coming basically out of nowhere and posting a pretty average year, but I don’t think a whole lot of people even saw that coming. He didn’t strike anyone out, but he also didn’t walk a whole lot of people, and did a decent job of keeping the ball in the yard. Lively also throws the ball up in the zone and gives up 44.2% fly balls. He’s probably the most vanilla out of all of these pitchers, but the fact that he gives up below-average hard contact (30.2%) means that he could continue to surprise in this environment.

Brock Stewart

As if the Dodgers didn’t have enough exciting young players, Brock Stewart is yet another electric arm with good velocity who came up as a starter, but also could profile as a reliever. Stewart was very good at limiting hard contact; only 22.5% of his hits resulted in hart contact. That being said, he didn’t throw up in the zone very often and gave up the lowest amount of fly balls at 40%, but his HR/9 was below average at 1.05. Now, it’s debatable whether or not Stewart is a true fly-ball pitcher, but his fly balls when he gets them are very weak, so I’ll give him a pass.

It will be interesting to see where these starters go in 2018, and whether or not these assumptions actually mean anything. It could be that they’re just bad, and that hitters will just crush everything that they throw. But, I like to think that if hitters have dramatically changed their swing planes to focus on low balls and are struggling to catch up to high pitches (and when they do, the ball is hit very softly), then maybe this group will have a chance. Baseball is a game of adaptation, and fortunately for these guys, their skillsets fit that adaptation, so it will be interesting to see what 2018 holds.

Zach Davies Commands Contact

The Milwaukee Brewers have been a very entertaining team in 2017. Their early dominance of the NL Central over the struggling Cubs predictably came to an end after the Cubs decided to stop being bad and to start winning baseball games again. Now, thanks to some struggles, along with the surge of the Rockies and Diamondbacks, the Brewers are on the outside looking in during the playoff race. However, that doesn’t mean that the Brewers don’t have an interesting group of solid young pitching and an intriguing offensive core. Among all of these players, Zach Davies may be one of the most interesting. Davies was never a highly-touted prospect; he always lingered near the bottom of organizational top-10 lists during his time with the Baltimore Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers. In 2016, Baseball Prospectus had him ranked 8th in the Brewers system with a 45 FV, projecting him as a back-end starter with above-average command.

This year, Davies has sported a 4.38 xFIP and a 15.9 K%, which certainly profiles like a 4th starter’s stat line. However, Davies ranks in a tie for 27th (min. 100 IP) for WAR with 3.0 on the season up until September 16th, which definitely isn’t something to expect from a back-end starter. When you look at Davies’ numbers, you have to wonder how he has manged to succeed with such a low K rate and an inflated xFIP.  Even going back to last year, Davies had a higher K rate at 19.8%, along with a 3.94 xFIP in 163.1 innings, and posted a 2.7 WAR. These stat lines look fairly similar, except for the the fact that he reduced his K rate in 2017. What else changed that has allowed him to succeed with this decreased strikeout rate? One thing Davies has changed in 2017 is his HR rate, which decreased from 1.10 in 2016 to 0.87 in 2017. So, in essence, Davies traded strikeouts for home runs. How did he manage to do that?

Let’s revisit that scouting report from 2016, with an emphasis on the 55 FV for Davies’ command. In that same report, it’s said that he had battled control problems during his time in the Brewers system. Now, there has always been a little bit of confusion as to what exactly the difference is between command and control, but Baseball Prospectus did a great job of dissecting this issue. Basically, control is the ability to throw the ball in the strike zone, while command is the ability to throw the ball in precise locations in or out of the strike zone. Below is a very handy diagram from the aforementioned article.

In this same article, two new stats are introduced that help attempt to quantify command and control: CSAA (called strikes above average) and CSProb (called strike probability). While these stats were originally created to show how well a catcher frames pitches, they can also tell you a lot about a pitcher. CSAA attempts to quantify how many strikes a pitcher creates for his team solely on taken pitches, and quantifies command. For example, having a CSAA of 3.0% means that there is 3 percent better chance that pitcher’s pitches will be called a strike than your average pitcher. CSProb quantifies how likely a certain pitch is to be called a strike, and highlights control. If you have a 50% CSProb, then there is a 50% chance a pitch you throw will be called a strike. As it turns out, the 2016 scouting report on Davies was correct; he ranks at the top of the leaderboard in CSAA and is near the bottom in CSProb. In 2017, Davies ranks 6th among qualified pitchers in CSAA at 2.83%, and he has a CSProb of 43.8%.

Davies has always been good at working the corners with a low 90’s to high 80’s fastball that has a lot of heavy run/sink to it. Usually, pitchers like this have to ensure that they can nibble at the corners of the plate so that their “slow” fastballs don’t get completely crushed by the power hitters of the league (which are apparently Elvis Andrus and Didi Gregorius now). Davies does just that, as shown in his zone heat map from Brooks Baseball below. He stays low in the zone to the majority of batters and does a good job of working both sides of the plate.

A pitcher who lives on the corners like this usually tends to draw poor contact, and that’s exactly what Davies does, in whatever way you want to to quantify it. He is one of the better pitchers in a multitude of categories, as he ranks near the top in Baseball Savant’s barrels per plate appearance stat at 2.9, has one of the lowest average exit velocities at 85.0 mph, and only 28.3% of contact against him is classified as hard hit by FanGraphs. It seems like Davies has the ability to use his pitches to work the corners and manipulate contact in his favor, which explains how he started allowing fewer home runs in 2017.

You can see this in his numbers, like stated before, where he has worked to his strengths and traded strikeouts for weak contact. This is also supported by his ability to command the ball, and his 2.83% CSAA. Put both of these qualities together, and you get a pitcher who not only limits good contact but also excels in getting called strikes more often than the average pitcher. These qualities can also help show why Davies has an inflated xFIP. Davies’ contact rate has gone up 2.5% from 2016 to 2017, and since xFIP relies a lot on batted-ball events, it can help explain why his is fairly high despite his 3.0 WAR. Davies has shown that he has the ability to adapt to major-league hitting by identifying that he can be successful in limiting good contact while at the same time allowing more of it and striking fewer batters out. If he can keep it up, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t be a mainstay in the Brewers rotation for a long time.

The Correlation Between BABIP Rate and Three True Outcomes

First things first, I would like to credit my friend Elling Hofland for coming up with the main idea of this piece. He’s the one who provided me with his thoughts and theories that allowed me to expand on this topic in the first place. Give him a follow on Twitter for sports and stats-related banter; his handle is @ellinghofland.

BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, is an incredibly useful stat. It does a fantastic job at using both luck and quality of contact to give a better grasp as to how a player actually performs during batted-ball events. These batted-ball events only take up a certain percentage of a player’s plate appearances. BABIP rate focuses on how many plate appearances a player has relative to the number of batted-ball events they have. To calculate BABIP rate, you take at bats minus strikeouts and home runs, plus sacrifice flies, and divide that by plate appearances. For example, if a player has 600 PA during a single season along with a 300 batted-ball events, they have a BABIP rate of .500.

Now, if you look at the three variables taken out of that equation, you’re left with walks, strikeouts, and home runs, otherwise known as the “three true outcomes.” These are called true outcomes due to the fact that none of them (for the most part) involve defense on the field. A shortstop can’t screw up a strikeout, walk, or a home run. You can take these three true outcomes and turn them into a rate as well. If you add up a player’s strikeouts, walks, and home runs and then divide them by plate appearances, you get TTO rate.

Let’s look at Mike Trout. In 2017, Trout’s BABIP currently sits at .369. However, he has a BABIP rate of .550 along with a TTO rate of .435, meaning that 55% of his at bats end with a ball in play, while 43.5% of his plate appearances result in a strikeout, walk, or home run. Both BABIP rate and TTO rate are useful stats, as they essentially show how well and how often a player makes contact. While BABIP itself is useful, it can be hard to tell how luck is involved in a batted-ball event when it isn’t hit over a fence for a homer. BABIP rate attempts to bridge the gap between BABIP and the three true outcomes.

Miguel Sano is a well-known slugger. In his three seasons in the majors, he’s smashed the ball when he’s hit it, boasting exit velocities of 94.0 in 2015, 92.3 in 2016, and 93.1 in 2017. Despite these consistent EVs, his BABIP has fluctuated from 2015 to 2017, with marks of .396, .329, and .385, respectively. If we look at his BABIP rate from 2015-2017, they look like this: .429, .478, and .473. Despite the difference in his BABIP from 2016 to 2017, his BABIP rate has stayed nearly the same, meaning that he’s still making the same amount of contact with the ball despite fewer balls falling for hit in 2016. Looking solely at BABIP, it could be argued that 2016 was his “regression” to where he should be after sporting an incredibly high BABIP in 2015. In 2017, one could say his high BABIP is a cause for concern, as he may just be getting lucky. However, his BABIP rate shows that isn’t the case.

Let’s look at another player, Brandon Phillips. Phillips’ BABIP has been incredibly consistent during his past three years, sitting at .315 in 2015, .312 in 2016, and .305 in 2017. Additionally, his BABIP rates have been .820, .816 and .802. Phillips puts the ball in play nearly 80% of the time on a regular basis.

So, as you can imagine, there is a real link between BABIP rate and TTO rate. The more contact a player makes, less they tend to walk or strikeout. Thus, a high BABIP rate equals a low TTO rate. This is exactly what we see if we attempt to correlate these two stats. Below is a snapshot of a graph that shows TTO rate vs. BABIP rate.

TTO vs BABIP rate

Players names aren’t included because, A) it clutters the graph, and B) they aren’t necessary at this point. Accompanying this graph is a trend line with an R squared value, otherwise known as a correlation coefficient. Essentially, an R squared value measures how well your model fits your data, or in this case, how closely correlated  TTO and BABIP rate are to each other. It turns out that the R-squared value is .991, which means that the relationship between BABIP rate and TTO rate fit very well together: in fact, you’ll find that TTO rate and BABIP rate are almost the exact opposites of each other. The players with the top 10 lowest BABIP rates in the MLB all have TTO rates of .437 or higher, meaning that their at bats result in an outcome of a walk, home run or strikeout 43.7% of the time. Inversely, players with the lowest BABIP rates all have TTO rates of .225 or lower.

We can also derive more information from these numbers using this correlation. Players who have a low BABIP rate have a very high OPS. Remember, these players also have high TTO rates. The top 10 players, Judge, Sano, K. Davis, Souza Jr., Reynolds, Morrison, J. Upton, C. Santana, Lamb, and Stanton all have an OPS of .841 or higher. The players with the highest BABIP rates (or lowest TTO rates) have an OPS of .798 or lower.

BABIP rate can tell us a lot of about a player. Just by glancing at a player’s BABIP rate, you can have an instant idea of how often the player walks, strikes out, or hits dingers. Not only that, but it you can tell you a lot about their offensive production. High TTO rates usually mean high hard-hit rates along with high exit velocities. BABIP rate also helps understand BABIP itself better and teaches that you can’t judge a player by BABIP all the time. In most cases, players with an over-inflated BABIP (relative to past performances), just tend to mash the absolute heck out of the ball, as told by their low BABIP rates and high TTO rates. On the opposite end, players with a steady BABIP will have very high BABIP rates and tend to be contact hitters that put the ball in play and don’t hit for power. BABIP rate, along with its correlation to TTO rate, has the potential to be a powerful, tell all offensive stat.

What to Make of Blake Snell’s Arsenal

I’ll give y’all a warning: This is a very random article. It’s not like Blake Snell isn’t an interesting player; he’s a young arm who is going to be a pivotal piece of the Tampa Bay Rays rotation for a while. Even though he struggles to keep the ball in the zone, he has electric stuff and does a good job of keeping the hits he gives up in the ballpark. He was a highly-touted prospect and certainly delivered on that last year, striking out 24.4% of batters while delivering a 3.39 FIP in 89 innings.

However, there were some reasons to be concerned. Snell was very mediocre, according to Baseball Prospectus’ DRA (Deserved Run Average), which is widely considered to be one of the best measures of a pitcher’s ability. In 2016, he had a DRA of 4.58 with a DRA- of 108, with 100 being considered the average performance by a pitcher. He also struggled to keep batters off base, issuing 5.2 walks per nine and sporting a 1.62 WHIP. These are some legitimate reasons for concern, but I want to try to look at the positives, and that starts by looking at the pitches he throws. The reason scouts have been optimistic about Snell this whole time is because of his stuff. He was known for having a fastball with good velocity and movement, along with a plus slider and change-up that essentially made up for his control issues.

Looking at his 2016 numbers, Snell had a pretty bad fastball, giving up 1.02 runs per 100 pitches thrown, and it got smacked around to the tune of an .893 OPS. He only threw it in the zone 51.4% of the time, and when it was thrown in the zone, it got hit over 86% of the time, which can explain the OPS. That being said, there were positives here that shouldn’t be overlooked. Snell has ridiculous vertical movement on his fastball; 10.7 inches of rise according to the Baseball Prospectus leaderboard. In fact, he ranked fourth overall in fastballs thrown with a spin rate over 2500 RPM. The higher the spin rate, the more the ball tends to “rise” in the eyes of a hitter. Overall, 32.4% of his fastballs registered over 2500 RPM, and if you watch him pitch, you can see that his fastball, when located up in the zone, has a ridiculous amount of life, and makes even the most professional hitters look silly. Also, his fastball ranked in the 70th percentile (minimum 100 fastballs thrown) for whiffs with 19.7%. Snell’s change-up was actually his best pitch in terms of runs saved, saving 2.4 runs per 100 thrown, with good arm-side fade and a 9-mph velocity gap from his fastball. Now, this is where this article takes a strange turn, and leads into why I’m writing it in the first place.

Snell’s slider had the best whiff rate in the MLB last year. Batters missed it a whopping 56.2% of the time, six points better than the NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer‘s slider. Wow! That’s amazing! Let’s check how many runs it saved!

Well, actually, it cost Snell 2.04 runs per 100 thrown…which registered it as one of the worst sliders in baseball. That doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Looking deeper, I found his slider got absolutely clobbered when it got hit; it had a 100% HR/FB ratio and got smashed with an .898 OPS when batters hit it. But hitters also missed it 56% percent of the time. Yet it got hit, a lot. We could continue that back and forth forever.

Well, it turns out this isn’t the only breaking ball Snell has. He has a slow, looping curve that clocks in at the low to mid 70s with a ton of vertical drop created by 12-6 movement. He threw both his slider and curve at nearly identical rates, 12% for the slider and 12.8% for the curve. If you look at scouting reports from Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, you don’t see any mentions of his curve, just some blurbs about his slider and change-up being quality offspeed offerings. But, his curve was pretty damn good last year, ranking in the top five in runs saved per 100 thrown, with 2.2. It had sharp downward movement and comes out of the same arm slot as his slider, but is much slower, so it keeps batters off balance. It also held batters to a remarkable .162 OPS. It was truly one of the better curves in the game. Looking at this data, I’m left with a question: What do we make of this?

Before I attempt to answer that, I want to show a graph of Snell’s release points in 2016 — it will come up in the next paragraph.










Snell’s fastball has a ton of life, and is an absolutely nasty pitch when left up in the zone. If he’s throwing a “rising” fastball that comes out of the same arm slot as everything else (except the change), to me, it makes sense for him to throw his curve. His fastball becomes much harder to catch up to due to its movement if batters sit curve, and the velocity gap along with the drop he gets on his curve will get batters out if they sit fastball. The combination of the change of eye level, consistent arm slot, and the velocity difference will keep hitters off the entire game.

Not only is Snell improving both his fastball and curve this way, but he’s taking off the reliance on the slider by not having to throw a “bad pitch.” That being said, the slider still gets a ton of whiffs, but I would rather throw a pitch that batters can’t hit/do hit poorly in his curve than essentially taking a 50-50 shot of getting clobbered when throwing a slider. There’s no reason to stop throwing his change-up; it was his best pitch in 2016. It fills the velocity gap between the fastball and the curve and features movement away from righties, which is something he would otherwise lack. This brings me to my last point, and one more snippet of stats for you.

Snell’s slider vs. RHB: .650 SLG

Snell’s slider vs. LHB: .357 SLG

He threw his slider 9.7% of the time to righties. I’m not saying he should stop throwing it completely; there are obviously some redeeming qualities to it if he can get over 50% whiffs on on it. But if Snell can cut down on that slider usage and throw it more or less “exclusively” to lefties, he can eliminate the problem that he was having with it getting blasted. Since both breaking balls leave his hand at the same place, the deception will still be there, especially since batters will have to guess if it’s the harder, faster slider or the slower curve. If he can keep the walks down as well, we’re looking at a brand-new ace in the Rays rotation for 2017, assuming that throwing the better pitch can actually lead to success.

Finding the Real Eric Thames

On Tuesday (11/29), the Brewers signed former failed prospect Eric Thames to a three-year, $16-million contract. In doing so, they also DFA’d the co-leader for home runs in the National League, Chris Carter. Now, there has been some speculation that the Brewers made this move to save money, but regardless of what you think the motives behind the move may be, it certainly is an interesting one that deserves a closer look.

Thames came up with the Blue Jays after being drafted in the 7th round of the 2008 draft. He showed good power in the minors, belting 27 homers at AA to the tune of a .238 ISO in 2010. He continued this surge into 2011 and did a decent job with the Jays at the major-league level, but struggled to hit lefties. Then, in 2012, it fell apart. His ISO dropped nearly 30 points from the year before, and his strikeout rate increased to an even 30% from 22%. After bouncing around in the minors in 2013, he then went overseas to the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) and signed with the NC Dinos, where he almost immediately ascended to god status, hitting 124 home runs in 388 games with a .371 ISO in three years. Not only that, but he won a Gold Glove in Korea and stole 40 bases in 2015.

Now, of course, it’s never that easy. You don’t get a 40/40 guy with decent defense in the MLB for $5 million a year. The KBO is notorious for being a hitter’s paradise, as the skill level isn’t nearly that of the MLB. Think of the KBO as essentially being AA, where any major-league-caliber player will thrive, just like Thames did. But does that mean Thames has actually improved? If you look at some former KBO stars like Jung-Ho Kang and Hyun-Soo Kim, you can see that both have had success in the majors, even though they haven’t come close to matching their numbers in Korea. Thames’ Davenport translations (per Eno Sarris) suggest he’ll be a beast, slashing .333/.389/.628. Looking at those numbers, you could easily argue that Thames would be a bargain for the Brewers, essentially matching Carter’s output while even adding more value on the base paths and in the field.

That being said, Thames is a rare case. We have his stats from when he flopped in the big leagues, and we also have his stats from when he tore up the KBO. Barring some sort of complete technical and mental overhaul, one could also easily argue that Thames’ weaknesses the first time around will be his downfall the second time around. Let’s take a look at some stats from the KBO and compare them to his time in the MLB.

As stated before, one of the issues Thames had was that when he made contact, the balls didn’t go anywhere worthwhile (like the stands). He slugged .431 with a .182 ISO from 2011-2012, which does not look good if you’re a major-league first baseman. In the KBO, he put that issue to rest, where he slugged .718 with a .371 ISO, which is essentially unheard of in the MLB. Let’s check that problem with power off the list. However, there still stands the issue of his strikeouts and walks. He struck out 26% of the time during his time in the bigs while walking only 6% of the time, which is a recipe for disaster. In Korea, he struck out 18% of the time and walked a whopping 14% of the time. Other KBO imports have shown that both strikeout and walk rates regress when moving from Korea to the majors. So, Thames solved that second problem, although based on available data, we can assume he’ll regress in both categories. Thames improved in both areas that he needed to, but was this only because he was facing lesser pitching in a hitter’s paradise, or did he make technical changes to his swing in addition to improving his plate discipline?

Below are two screen shots: the top is Thames getting ready to take Ryan Dempster yard in 2013, the bottom is Thames hitting one of his 47 home runs in 2015.



















Look at the hands. In the top picture, Thames keeps his hands roughly around his ears right before his swing, while in Korea, he appears to load his swing lower, near his shoulders. This allows Thames to stay in the zone with his bat longer and have a bit of an upswing, which leads to higher exit velocity and an improved launch angle. Both of these qualities translate into more power and more strikeouts. Ted Williams first pioneered this idea, saying that a slight upswing leads to extended contact on the ball, while a level swing leads to a smaller impact zone.










This is a change many players have made, such as Josh Donaldson, Jake Lamb, and Ryon Healy. Eno Sarris wrote an excellent article on the changes Ryon Healy made to his swing. It looks like this is something Thames is trying to emulate and will hopefully carry over to the MLB.

It looks like Thames has made the adjustments that he has needed to become a successful player. Trying to project what player he’ll be is a bit difficult. Personally, I look at the Davenport projections and I’m a little hesitant to say Thames will hit .333 and slug .628, seeing as how his strikeout rate will almost certainly regress to levels close to his former major-league self. I don’t see his walk rate regressing down to that level, mainly because plate discipline is a skill that accrues over time, and pitchers will have to be more careful with Thames and his new approach at the plate.

Let’s look at his slash line from his time in the MLB — in 633 at-bats, Thames hit .250/.296/.431 with 21 homers and a walk rate of 6% and a strikeout rate of 26%. Assuming regression from Korea, let’s keep the strikeouts at 25%, up from 18% in Korea, and let’s up the walk rate to account for added patience and power to 10%. With the technical changes in his swing, we can also assume his batted balls will go further and get hit harder, so let’s bump the slugging up to .500, which translates into something like 30-35 HR. This puts his ISO right at .250, a step up from what we saw earlier in his career. We’re now looking at a slash line of roughly .250/.350/.500 with an above-average glove at first and 10 steals (the Brewers love to let their players run). That’s good. In fact, that’s better than Chris Carter, and the Brewers are getting this at half the price of what Chris Carter would cost. I think there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Eric Thames in 2017.