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The Athletics Traded for Blake Treinen and Built a Dominate Reliever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jon Gray Has a Pitch Strategy Problem

On the eve of July, the month of definitive do or die competition, the Colorado Rockies optioned their opening day starter, Jon Gray, to Triple A Baseball, putting a temporary halt to a season which should have been superlative. Gray was positioned to be the Rockies Ace pitcher, the de facto strike out machine. He did so, posting an MLB fifth best 11.64 K/9 with a WAR of 2.5, breaking most of his projections.

Yet, Gray’s demise and optioning is a reminder that a pitcher’s job, in the end, is to play the averages and get out of situational disaster to end innings with the formidable zero still on the board. Gray was pitiful at cleaning up the base path with a 63.1 percent left-on-base percentage. His 5.77 ERA was slowly flowing up since the beginning of the season. His MLB best 14.33 K/9 for June was met with only 27 innings of pitching, 62.2 percent left-on-base, and an ERA of six. Troubled outings and difficulty finishing starts were trending, not the outlier.

There is an odd note, however, on Gray’s optioning to Triple A. German Marquez, who finished eight innings of one-run pitching in a 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers last night, has even more developmental problems. Marquez had an even more troublesome June analytically, with an equal 62.2 percent left-on-base, an era of 6.75, a FIP of 5.26, and nine home runs allowed. Hypothetically, there are two reasons the Rockies have decided to option their ‘best’ pitcher instead of the more developmental Marquez. First, the Rockies may be admitting they are going to be sellers at the deadline, and this is the beginning to positioning certain pitchers for sale. However, this would be a very un-Rockies tact to take for a team who has been stubbornly boisterous about ‘competing’. Second, Gray may be more fixable than Marquez, with a quick stint in AAA allowing him to resolve fundamental mechanics away from the stench of scrutiny. (This hypothetical is what the remnant of the article will focus on). Or, it may be a mix of both hypotheticals, with time telling which carries more weight in organizational decisions.

Optioning Gray becomes a matter of establishing finishing touches, helping him to make his strikeouts effective. In a matter of plate discipline, batters are attacking zone pitches 5.8 percent more than last season, back to a career average of 65.8 percent. Yet, he is throwing less to the zone (43.8 percent) while batters are making drastically less contact (80 percent in 2017, 70.2 percent in 2018). All those numbers lead up to a compelling 13.2 swinging-strike percentage and the conclusion Gray ought to be even better than last season when he finished with a 3.67 ERA and a 3.18 FIP.

The pitch arsenal has seen some slight edits, with a cut to fastballs and a rise in slider percentage of five both ways. Velocity has remained mechanically the same, thus, batters should not be exploiting his pitches at this rate. The problem, however, becomes that batters are exploiting this edit by forcing perceptual chaos on Gray, in which he doubles down on throwing distinct pitches with little movement variation.

Gray’s slider placement, on a meta level, has not changed, nor has the contact basis. However, what has dramatically shifted between 2017 and 2018 is how batters are making contact. In 2017, there were three zones which batters had near .100 averages against Gray; in 2018, that rating has gone up to seven, with an egregious .250 to double down on the pain. Strategically, Gray attacks the shadow of the zone with his slider when ahead and moves up to inside the zone when behind. It is not so much a matter of controlling placement but controlling the count and situation.

A false sense of security in the slider has created situational derisiveness on Gray’s fastball. Gray has developed a distinction with his slider as his ‘shadow’ pitch (3.3 PITCHf/x movement rating, down from 5.4) while his fastball is his ‘heart’ pitch (8.7 PITCHf/x movement, down from 11.3). Thus, when in trouble, Gray’s intents become clear, and his fastballs have been straying more inside. The brevity in fastball movement has lead to batters grouping his fastball and hitting at a .172 average from the middle to right, lower portion of the zone.

In short, Gray’s problems result not from mechanical duplicity, but from strategic duplicity – a loss of confidence. Since Gray’s goal is to hit strikeouts, when bases are empty, he has a 13.84 K/9 rating; when runners are on, his K/9 falls to 8.61 while BB/9 raise to 4.19. With runners in scoring position, his FIP takes a jump to 4.94.

Situationally, the flop begins when situational leverage ebbs from low to medium with 96.6 and 61.8 percent left-on-base, respectively. Unfortunately for Gray, his troubles begin regardless of time through the order. He has allowed 21,19, and 21 runs through the first, second, and third time through the order, respectively. The underlying tact of how batters destroy Gray can be seen in slugging at a .390, .485, and .527 percentage through the order.

What can Gray fix in Triple A baseball? In two words, strategical variety. Despite being able to land more strikeouts, Gray has become less effective by staying stuck in a rut, unable (or unwilling) to hide his slider and fastball with movement. Situational aptitude and learning how to pattern his pitches will be essential to turning Gray into an effective strikeout machine.

The Atlanta Braves Have no Fear of Swinging

The austere face of Freddie Freeman; the resounding crack of Dansby Swanson’s bat; Ozzie Albies brimming smile – these are the surprising Atlanta Braves whose description is no longer surprising, but partial to a definitive fun run through the National League East. The Braves are baseball joy with a mix of relaxed confidence, even brimming optimism. A brimming optimism that has little been partial to any of the Braves players in the past.

A sort of confidence is sweeping the organization as every player is contributing, allowing each player to be distinctly themselves. No longer does Swanson have to turn himself into an all-star, slugger defined hitter, but a second-year player still learning. Nick Markakis can take time to become more confident in a refinement of his mechanics.

The simple undertone is two-fold; the Braves batting lineup is simultaneously playing at a career high, which has allowed the Braves batting lineup to refine their optimal batting throughout the first half of the season. The dominoes fell right, and the Braves learned how to optimize, cutting their progression time in half through analytical chemistry. Second, the one point that defined their functional progression: they have no fear of swinging, second highest in the MLB at 48.6 percent combined with the third highest contact percentage at 79.6 percent.

The odd perception is that swinging this high would lead to inappropriate risk. And for most developing teams, it has. The Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, and Baltimore Orioles round out the top five in swinging percentage, each with a resulting high swinging-strike rate. The Braves, however, have a 9.9 percent swinging-strike rate, eighth best in the MLB. The magic is not accidental due to a combination of veterans who are more patient and, young, power hitters whose slugging means swinging more is appropriate. Nick Markakis has a 4.8 percent swinging-strike rate and Kurt Suzuki is at a mere 7.5. This does not excuse Swanson or Freeman posting 11.7 and 11 percent swinging-strike percentage, respectively, but it allows them to take those extra risks to optimize slugging opportunity.

Suzuki has been an enigma for the Braves, but one of the most important supporting pieces to their run creation. After going his entire career with only one season at a wRC+ over 100 (Minnesota Twins, 2014, 106), Suzuki is now on pace to break his 129 wRC+ and tie his 2.7 WAR from last season. There might not be a coincidence that these two seasons have also seen him break the 50-percent swing margin (52.8 and 53.6 percent) while maintaining a high contact rate, specifically in the zone (93.5 percent this season).

Suzuki’s resolution has come on the backward notion to stop attempts to hit the ball opposite (below 20 percent of hits) instead opting to pull the simply pull hits for apt run creation. His placement map dictates he is better at hitting sharp, pulling balls, and his hits to opposite field were traditionally drab and futile with long hang-time. Hence, an allowance to be better at playing Suzuki baseball and not a league meta-style.

While Suzuki has added value by changing his batting style, there is Nick Markakis who is playing the exact same baseball, just with better contact and providing better leverage. He is hitting well above his career average in ISO at .160 while striking out remarkably lower at only 10.2 percent of pitches. His batted ball profile remains the same, making Markakis a player benefitting from the simple adage of relaxed baseball and improving at tearing pitchers apart in high-leverage situations.

Ozzie Albies, in his second season for the Braves, has already blown away a good first season, posting a 2.4 WAR with a 118 wRC+ (1.9, 112 in 2017). Much like Markakis, Albies has been a run creating machine with high-leverage situation hitting. He doubles down on chaos creation by forcing pitchers to throw uncomfortably away from the zone, less he turns a pitch for a deep slug shot. Albies has refined his slap-shot hitting by achieving his best slugging percentage in the bottom of the zone; thus as pitchers throw breaking-balls and off-speed pitches to derive poor contact, and those pitches drift, Albies is not only able to make contact, but make derisive contact.

The macro change has come with a micro improvement on finding the changeup. He has starkly increased his contact percentage, now above 85 percent in all but two zones. Last season he was above 80 percent in only four of nine zones. Albies is sending more of that contact higher into the air, a bit of a downside to the slugging revolution, but at the same time, is expanding his placement map. He has placed more balls sharply under three seconds of hang time, specifically under 1.5 seconds, implicating an ability to send even soft contact for hits. The career-trajectory implication is Albies is developing an ability to be a rounded hitter, known for more than homeruns.

That then is how the Braves have become a team still fighting into the July trade deadline; a buyer and not a depressed seller. The sudden power from the veterans meant the younger players had time to relax and optimize their best ability, creating a waterfall effect. The Braves have the best high-leverage analytics in the MLB because they find ways to creatively get on base, and those veterans now have players to send home.