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Dansby Swanson’s Adjustment, Into the Rabbit Hole

(Editor’s note: this post was submitted prior to the start of the season but it seems rather timely now)

I can’t shake myself from latching onto spring training hype trains. Even after all we’re taught about small sample sizes, I find myself watching games and wondering whether this could be the year for any number of players.

Watching the Braves and the Nationals last weekend, something about Dansby Swanson seemed different. I started digging and emerged on the other end of a rabbit hole that brought me from hitting guru Jason Ochart (@Jason_cOchart) to Coach Bobby Stevens Jr. (@StevieBobbinsBattersBoxChicago.comGoWindyCityBaseball.com) to gif-ing up everything and more.

I’ll admit, I forgot Dansby Swanson was sent to the minor leagues in late July. The former number one pick relinquished his major league role after mustering only a .287 OBP in just under 400 plate appearances. Two weeks later he was recalled with little more than generalities to sift through in hopes of unearthing what the Braves wanted to change mechanically if anything at all.

After Swanson’s return to the major leagues tinkering began.

Video via MLB.com – 12

It’s a relatively simple adjustment, but the ramifications and reasoning behind the alteration bubbles numerous points to the surface.

“Getting [your front foot] down too early can mess up timing and alter the kinematic sequencing of the swing.” Jason Ochart quickly summed up via Twitter what I speculated might be true.

For almost all of Swanson’s 2017, before his change in late August, his front foot was down earlier than your standard hitter (in the video on the left above).

“For most hitters, the pressure shifting onto the front foot is what initiates their swing. Force plate data shows that the forceful heel drop works as the trigger of the swing and works as a brake to send energy upward through the body… to accelerate the bat late in the swing arc, as all the best hitters do.”

Breaking down Orchart’s points make a complex explanation simple. A hitter’s front foot is used to initiate their swing. When this foot plants, it helps transfer energy from one’s lower body to upper body. Eventually, that energy affects a hitter’s bat.

“Force plate data” sounds complex, but it’s nothing more than a plate on the ground that measures exerted force. In this case, the force from a hitter’s front foot. (YouTube is always here to help as well).

Ochart went on to state research shows that shorter time between the peak of one’s front-foot force and contact with the baseball can lead to greater exit velocity. If your front foot peaks early, as a hitter’s might if they’re planting as early as Swanson was, the effects could be detrimental on the one variable most hitters are focused on.

Stats, however, have a tough time backing up a substantial performance boost solely through the hovering of Swanson’s front foot.

Upon Swanson’s return to the majors in August, there was a strong uptick productivity that lasted until the beginning of September. This correlates nicely with his front-foot alteration but doesn’t sustain through the end of the season, as one would hope a material adjustment would. A variety of other factors could counter the change: production uptick being artificial, fatigue, comfort with the new approach, etc.

But what about other components of Swanson’s swing that might have been affected by this change?

“Hitting is controlled all through the back hip in relation to controlling your weight and ‘staying back’ on pitches. The issue is in the explanation of ‘stay back’. Stay back in what position? With your foot off of the ground? With your front foot on the ground? In your stance? That is where understanding is lost in my opinion.” Stevens took a different route to a similar conclusion that buoys the case Swanson had beneficial intentions, even if stats cloud improvement.

“A hitter must ‘stay back’ in their hip with their foot off the ground or hovering. This does not mean that you lift the front foot off the ground and balance on your back leg, though. It means that we load or coil into our back hip, then as our lead leg begins to stride out towards the pitcher, we want to ‘stretch’, or use our back muscles, to hold our weight back until we decide it is time to launch the swing.”

Stevens’ broadening of terminology related to “staying back” unearths numerous other factors related to what Swanson did. Each of his points made me consider other aspects of Swanson’s kinetic chain, particularly how the most visible change – foot down early to hover – could be covering up other, more important changes to help the former college star, acting as the low-hanging fruit.

So why bring this front-foot change up now, six months late? Because Swanson’s lower body alteration was actually the second thing I noticed, behind another change that caught my eye on his long home run off Max Scherzer in spring’s first weekend of action.

Video via MLB.com – 12

First his lower body, now his upper body. While the above camera perspective when comparing is slightly askew thanks to spring training parks and their uniqueness, Swanson is starting his hands lower and bringing them up into his load. In 2017, he started his hands higher and kept them there for the duration of his pre-swing rhythm. Now, his momentum is built up into the hitting position, yet the path and aesthetic of his swing after his load are nearly identical to the naked eye. This feels like a conscious attempt at relaxation in the box, with the foresight to alter the path to his load as opposed to how exactly he is loading. What could be invisible, however, to my untrained scouting eyes are the concepts Stevens talked about above relating to a hitter’s back hip and launch into his swing.

Swanson’s adjustment is similar in direction to Zack Cozart’s alteration from 2016 to 2017, one that brought Cozart a substantial uptick in power. Some might say Billy Eppler’s new third baseman’s breakout came demonstrably because of health, but Cozart admitted last Spring he wanted to start his bat on his shoulder to relax himself at the plate and come up into the hitting position. What Swanson is doing above mimics that concept – coming up into his load – even if the point at which the process begins is different. Swanson’s relaxation also reminds me of Anthony Rendon’s gradual adjustment, as the All-Star began to push his hands further south when comparing his swing at Rice University to that of later in his career.

Most relevant to my gracious sources, Ochart and Stevens, Swanson retains his front-foot hover from late in 2017 in the gif above.

While the stats seem doubtful a tangible change in the Braves shortstop, numbers can often be blind to progression mechanically that hasn’t manifested on the spectrum of production. My confidence in an improved Swanson is driven by the theory around adjustments he seems to have made, starting with the hover of his front foot to the repositioning of his hands preload. Add him to the list of players I’ll be watching closely in one month’s time.

A version of this column can be found on BigThreeSports.com.

You should do that thing where you follow me on Twitter – @LanceBrozdow.


Nate Pearson’s Pitching Coach on Grunting, Routines, and Hard Changeups

Fluctuation of prospect value during the offseason is a mental exercise. Given the lack of activity to substantiate one’s changing opinion, hype can often be attributed to reputable names in the industry praising players, or the release of top prospect lists into the wild. Nate Pearson’s name has generated helium in the recent months, but instead of dismissing a storyline and citing our historically slow offseason for the surfacing of this hype, I wanted to understand the origin of praise surrounding our budding prospect.

Jim Czajkowski, the Vancouver Canadians pitching coach helped put into perspective how bullish the Blue Jays organization is on their first-round pick from 2017’s draft. Pearson carries a 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame onto the mound, his arm balancing out the offensive firepower Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. bring to a system loaded with top-end talent.

Having groomed the likes of Aaron SanchezMarcus Stroman, and Noah Syndergaard, Czajkowski’s reps with advanced skill sets and assessment of their potential needs no introduction.

“[Nate] is better at his age than any of those guys were…. If I were to rank those guys, Sanchez probably had the best pure arm action and a good curveball, a good sinking fastball too, but Nate has all four [pitches].”

Pearson transferred from Florida International University (FIU) to Central Florida Junior College for the 2017 season for personal development reasons, and the gamble paid off as he posted 118 strikeouts in 81 innings with only 23 walks. Even with his stellar stats, one could assume Pearson may have been passed on last June due to his size.

“It’s a chunky 240 [pounds]. And in high school he was up to 300… he’s thinned down some… It was definitely his workout regiment; it was phenomenal.”

As his time at FIU was largely in a relief role, it was inevitable that discussion arose between Czajkowski and myself regarding how to condition the 6-foot-6 righty to shoulder a progressively larger workload. The focus was more on optimization – the sequencing of Pearson’s innings and coinciding off days – than sheer control of inning quantity.

“He probably pitched once a week [in college], and then he’d have six days to recover… we got him down to one less [recovery] day in Vancouver, and then wherever he goes next year, he’s going to be on a five-man rotation, so he’ll really need to adjust his regiment and take care of his arm care.”

Preparation for the next level is front of mind for Czajkowski and the Blue Jays. Focusing on routine and laying the groundwork to ease Pearson’s adaptation to higher levels lead to necessary and subtle tweaking.

“When we talked to him about his routine, we actually thought he might be overdoing it right after the game with his arm care. We wanted him to tone it down a little bit.”

This restructuring of Pearson’s off-day regiment and arm care was not suggested to his detriment. It became a vital step to eventually ease him into Lansing or Dunedin’s standard, five-man rotation, dealing with less off days in the process.

While any arm possesses the inherent risk of injury, Czajkowski admitted that himself and management are more optimistic with Pearson’s arm health knowing the primary generator of velocity comes from his lower half.

Adding audible intimidation to Pearson’s presence on the mound is a less statistical reason hitters struggled mightily against his offerings.

“There is not a lot of herky-jerky in [Pearson’s] motion, there are times where he pitches and he’ll grunt. And when he does that, he throws 100 [mph]. There are times early in counts where he grunts because he’s trying to make a statement, and he’ll overthrow a couple pitches… he was almost trying to strike guys out early in counts; trying to not let them touch the ball, that’s when he would lose a little bit of command and come out of his delivery a little bit.”

Pearson’s delivery is unique. His 6-foot-6 frame barrels downhill towards a hitter, as the harmony of his kinetic chain capitalizes on the energy stored in his lower half. A strong front leg allows him to stabilize after the energy released from his torso’s aggressive tilt forward finishes his motion. Exceptional is an understatement when describing the extension he achieves; the eye is tricked for seconds as one forgets the amount of mass supporting the big righty.

(Gif from YouTube, video credit to Niall O’Donohoe)

“If you watch him play long toss you know where he gets his power; his power is from his legs.” Czajkowski was quick to confirm what is visually consistent.

Pearson’s work ethic and natural ability, continually touted by Czajkowski in our talk, remain one reason why concerns over inconsistency fell to a simmer from the boil that eclipsed his potential pre-draft. An unusual detriment associated with this level of velocity is how advanced it can be for the pitcher’s level.

“At the lower levels they can’t catch up to his 100[-mph fastball]… The higher Nate goes, to Double-A and Triple-A, his changeup will be able to play because those guys will be able to catch up to his 100.”

Velocity differential between a pitcher’s fastball and changeup remains one of the key factors to predicting the value of the feel-dominant pitch and whether it behaves like a sinker, generating ground balls, or a true changeup, generating whiffs. While Czajkowski rated each of Pearson’s four pitches – fastball, slider, changeup, and curveball – above average, he was quick to disclose his high expectations for a pitch that was hit around for Pearson in his 19 innings with Vancouver.

Pearson’s arm speed is another reason why I’m bullish on his changeup. His body’s aggressive motion towards the plate can deceive hitters from an aesthetic standpoint. Add that to the fade he’ll be able to generate as he evelates his feel for a pitch and his mastery will quickly exceed the talents of his seniors.

But Pearson’s calling card is a two-plane slider; an unfair pitch when backed up with his command. He seamlessly changes the eye level against hitters, leaving most Class A Short Season hitters to guess if they stand a chance of hitting either pitch. The offering below is at this hitter’s belt, which gives a better idea of the pitch’s depth, rather than the late, “fall off the table” break noticeable when he buries the pitch at a hitter’s knees.

(GIF via YouTube, video credit to Blue Jays Prospects)

Is there a point where overuse of such an advanced pitch could hurt a young arm?

“If we think he is overusing his slider, just for strikeouts, we’ll talk about the percentage he throws his pitches. [Nate] gets a breakdown… and I think he did a very nice job this year in utilizing everything.”

Czajkowski reiterated the themes of our talk, bringing up a final thought that adds to his appreciation for the righty.

“He has four major league quality pitches, he has size, but the one thing he doesn’t have yet is stamina. He hasn’t built up the innings to be a starter at the major league level. Roberto Osuna pitched a couple years in the minor leagues as a starter and then became a reliever. So Nate Pearson as a closer at the major league level, I can see that too. Because of his regiment; the way that he throws, and the way that he bounces back tells me that he can handle a relief role, too.”

If the Blue Jays window of contention opens quicker than some anticipate, Pearson’s services may be needed at the major league level sooner than later. With Czajkowski’s suggestion that Pearson could reach Double-A New Hampshire by season’s end if the stars align, opportunity for Pearson to make an impact in 2019 isn’t off the table. His adaptation to higher levels and a five-man rotation are what I consider the largest factors dictating his future role.

Czajkowski’s final words to me on the record epitomize what we’re all thinking about Pearson.

“The sky is the limit for him.”

Special thanks to Jim Czajkowski for allowing me to steal some of his vacation time to chat Canadians baseball and Pearson. I wish the Blue Jays organization, and each pitcher he grooms, the best in the coming season.

I can be found on Twitter – @LanceBrozdow

A version of this post can be found on BigThreeSports.com


Twitter Can Help us Solve for Cristian Pache’s Upside

The grades on Cristian Pache’s Fangraphs page, reported on during 2017 are impressive: 70-grade speed, 70-grade arm, 60-grade future glove.

With 50 considered the average for a given tool, Pache is one of the few with discernible, impact tools that isn’t on two of the industry’s biggest top 100 prospect lists – Baseball America and MLB.com.

The reason for the omission is reasonable. As JJ Cooper (@JJCoop36) mentions in the comment section of Baseball America’s list, the projection, or assumption of future production in lieu of tangible results, regarding Pache’s bat prevent buzz from swelling. With zero home runs across 750 plate appearances in the minors, despite the majority of those chances coming in one of the worst parks for power in the minor leagues, State Mutual Stadium, it’s hard to disagree with Cooper’s point.

Projecting Pache (great sitcom title), is a task any player evaluator must deal with to really understand his bat’s viability to reach the major leagues; his defense and speed are already apparent. While I’m not a professional scout or player evaluator, tinkering with some video will hopefully present the case for Pache’s bat as it stands and whether you believe in the emergence of another plus tool.

July 2015

(Video from YouTube, Fangraphs)

Starting with Pache’s roots, this combination of videos in the gif above is from the year he was signed, 2015. What stood out to me was how Pache dealt with his lower body and front foot from swing to swing; the two swings in the gif above provide the most noticeable difference. Inconsistent isn’t poor terminology, per say, but I’d rather consider it raw. As these swings both look like they’re coming from live pitching, I immediately thought of a column written for the Collegiate Baseball Scouting Network. Nick Holmes, the author of this particular post, has deep roots in player development in Latin and South America and mentions how a lot of talents, like Pache, don’t receive ample exposure to in-game situations like amateurs in the United States do. This can cause muddying of skill perception from batting practice and drills to the actual games themselves.

While this variation in stride – toe tap on the left; modest leg kick on the right – was initially a knock in my eyes, my perspective evolved to consider it a feature that repetition could iron out. Pache’s ability to simply make contact gives me pause when critiquing an aspect of his game that might not be a detriment at all.

Keep in mind this video is from 2015.

Pache earned around 250 plate appearances in affiliated ball during 2016, and as we’re about to dive into, some of that smoothing I briefly entertained may have emerged.

Summer 2017, Ronald Acuna

(Acuna video via YouTube, RKyosh007; Pache video via YouTube, The Minor League Prospect Video Page)

A baseline in swing evaluation often makes capturing the intended point clearer. While I shy away from one-to-one player comparisons, aesthetic comps can be valuable for descriptive purposes. These two points are key disclosures to justify my pairing up of the game’s top prospect, Ronald Acuna, with my topic of interest, Cristian Pache. I acknowledge up front this is an aesthetic comparison to help us understand Pache’s swing.

Acuna came to my mind when looking at Pache’s tape. (Whether that comparison arose because of bias from watching far too much Acuna tape, I cannot confirm or deny). Their pre-pitch setup and core motion towards the ball are eerily similar, despite a slew of differences from the variation in pre-load hand placement to Pache’s slightly open stance. On top of that, Acuna initiates his swing much earlier than Pache, building a substantial amount of momentum that results in a bigger stride and force moving towards the ball. I also love how throughout Acuna’s building of momentum his hands are on the verge of proceeding into his swing. The trigger Acuna has once he chooses to explode his hips is mesmerizing. This difference is noticeable when watching Pache’s hands drift back and up into their hitting position as he goes into his load. I don’t expect Pache to evolve into an exact replica of Acuna, but the difference allows for visualization of where Pache can adjust to focus on the biggest issue facing Pache’s bat: the plane on which he makes contact.

Launch angle, once a mysterious and complex point, has become basic-knowledge for most fans. As we see players tinker for the better with their bat path at the major league level, it’s only natural for similar trends to occur in the minor leagues. In this case, something I’d be very interested to see Pache entertain.

Working backward, watch where Acuna’s hands finish in his swing. The tip of Acuna’s bat finishes much higher in relation to his upper body than Pache’s, which stays somewhat level with his shoulders. Now start to focus on earlier and earlier parts of Acuna’s swing that lead to where his bat finishes. Applying the same exercise to Pache shows you why scouts are able to confidently project out Acuna’s power and why some may be hesitant to give Pache 15-home run power.

Acuna and Pache are almost polar opposites when it comes to their bat path through the zone. Yet even with this differences, we’re not looking at polar opposites in terms of the how and where each player is hitting the ball. Acuna has a much better ability to go the other way – something I’d love to see Pache do more of – but the most important thing is that Pache’s ability to get the ball off the ground might be improving. His ground-ball rate, once around 65 percent in 2016, is now closer to 50 percent. Comparing the gif of Pache from 2015 to his swing next to Acuna shows a subtle difference in the path of his bat, which could be a reason for this tendency to get balls off the ground.

Pache is trending in the right direction, towards Acuna. I don’t think he’ll ever possess the all-fields power Acuna holds, but he doesn’t need it to raise his offensive ability to average, allowing his other skills to flourish at the major league level.

…Twitter?

(Via Cristian Pache’s Twitter, @CristianPache25)

This brings us to Pache’s Twitter, where we can get the most recent look possible at the glove-first prospect’s swing. While these aren’t game-speed swings, I want to point out that Pache seems to be raising his leg slightly more, hovering on his back foot like he never did in 2015, or even in his swing next to Acuna. It’s not necessarily an improvement in Pache loading on his back hip like you’ll see with hitters like Josh Donaldson, but it’s an improvement over Pache’s early tendency in 2015 to generate power from aggressively shifting all his weight into his front foot to generate any resemblance of power.

This could induce even more building of momentum towards the ball, or it could be more of his batting practice-style swing that doesn’t translate into his game tendencies. The result, in a perfect world, could be the most valuable thing of all: more line drives. Or it could be nothing at all. Only Pache’s game-speed hacks in 2018 will provide an answer.

I can be found gif’ing up hitter adjustments on Twitter – @LanceBrozdow.

A version of this post can also be found on BigThreeSports.com.


The Issue with Yelich’s Move to Miller Park

Cost-controlled, 4-WAR players have the ability to revamp a farms system. The Brewers confirmed that notion by paying a hefty price to nab a piece that pushes the National League Central into a clear three-team race.

Reacting to trades can be redundant, especially after nearly a week for shock and awe to simmer down. Instead of reaction, I choose to consider how Yelich’s environment might affect his swing.

I’ve seen a lot of buzz, on the fantasy side of the industry and elsewhere, about how much this change from Miami to Milwaukee helps Yelich’s value. If we crudely compare the 2017 Marlins and Brewers, there isn’t much of a difference on the offensive side of the baseball. The Marlins actually outscored, outwalked, and outhit the Brewers, with the nine-win difference between the two teams attributed largely to the difference in pitching.

Yelich also hit between Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna for the majority of 2017, the early movers out of the Marlins’ new regime. The lefty will now hit between some mixture of Lorenzo Cain, Eric Thames, and Ryan Braun – a clear downgrade.

The key element of any argument for Yelich’s performance and resulting value increasing is rooted in the change of scenery – literally.

What we do know is that Miller Park in Milwaukee is a substantially for home runs off the bat of left-handed hitters.

What we don’t know is by exactly by how much.

Varying methods exist for calculating park factors. Guessing Yelich’s new level of production becomes slightly difficult to peg the further into this rabbit hole one digs. I used Stat Corner‘s methodology along with Baseball Prospectus to find a balance between what seemed to be aggressive and conservative ratings between Miller and Marlins Park. Where the two disagree is on how much, regarding home runs, Miller Park inflates the longball; it’s clear they both see Marlins Park as below average in everything (even home run sculptures).

(1) 100 is average, 105 means said park inflates said stat 5%. The inverse is true for 95. (2) BP is Baseball Prospectus. SC is Stat Corner.

To stop your eyes from glazing over as show off my skills in google sheets, focus on the two boxes highlighted yellow. Here exists the greatest discrepancy between park factors from 2016 to 2017.

2016 was a robust year for left-handed home runs in Milwaukee, but such inflation fell off in 2017; Baseball Prospectus believes more than Stat Corner. This is likely due to a difference in methodology – a topic for another day.

As any good arbitrator would, I want to split the difference, and naively predict the park factor for Miller to fall somewhere in the middle of 112 and 132. If we assume Marlins Park stays consistent on its park factor for 2018, we’d expect a 30 percent increase in home run totals (92 HR factor for MIA to 120 for MIL) for a left-handed hitter going from Marlins Park to Miller Park.

As a player sees half their games at home, in a vacuum, a 30-home-run bat with even home-road splits would see roughly 4.5 more home runs in his home games. A 20-home-run hitter would see an uptick of three home runs. Factor in everything else a park could help or hurt with and I’m confident saying, yes, this change will impact Yelich’s statistics. Thankfully, the difference between Marlins Park and Miller Park isn’t immaterial, meaning my crude math and assumptions can largely be forgiven in favor of a general consensus.

***

Giving Yelich 21 home runs for 2018, roughly three more from his 2017 total seems reasonable. The question is if you think Yelich’s 2017 is the more representative body of work than his 2016, where he hit 24 home runs with a home run to fly ball rate above 24 percent.

Favoring Yelich’s impressive 2016 and providing an aggressive home run prediction could tie to a few factors.

  • Miller Park inflates Yelich’s home run total more than we think (and more than my crude numbers say)
  • Yelich is entering a prime window for power according to aging curves
  • Yelich changes his swing

The last of my trio above is the most interesting, given how beautiful and fluid his swing currently is.

This is where statistics and scouting clash.

I asked two of my most trusted baseball information resources (Kevin Black- @Kevin_Black_ and Richard Birfer – @RichardBirfs) what they’d do with Yelich given the knowledge that Milwaukee is a substantially better park for left-handed power. They both differed their response, mentioning how little should change for Yelich given the success with his current approach.

I probably agree, but speculating on something that might be far from Yelich and his hitting coach’s mind is more entertaining than agreeing with my reputable contacts.

Yelich’s batted-ball profile isn’t something often tied to praise. He sits near the bottom of the league in pull percentage (33%) and average launch angle (only 5.6 degrees in 2017). You might convulse at the thought of batted balls below a 7-degree launch angle, but there is misconception around that as well. Andrew Perpetua mentions how balls hit between 0-10 degrees are often hard to achieve because of how perfectly lined up the barrel of one’s bat has to be with the ball to result in this angle. As a result, balls in this window are very productive, resulting in a batting average of .472 and slugging percentage of .522 in just under 50,000 batted balls.

Sure, some of the balls he lifts to right field will have a better chance to carry out, but it’s even less convincing to suggest drastic change if Yelich sprays low line drives across the field successfully.

Yelich is an extremely productive, unique hitter, but his profile doesn’t “fit” with the kind of production that benefits substantially from life in Miller.

A wiseman once said, don’t break what isn’t broken. But as I remember the band Meat Loaf saying, “If it ain’t broke, break it.” In layman’s terms, if a more productive alternative exists… why not?

When I started mulling over what to do with Yelich in order to embrace Miller Park, a swing comparison came to mind: Alex Gordon. The Royal put up career spray and batted ball data that hangs right around league average, with a slight tendency for fly balls.

You’ll notice their swings are pretty similar. Yelich starts his hands further back and goes into a higher leg kick, but both these balls looks like they’re hit to left-center, with the inside-out approach Yelich uses to push his opposite field hit percentage near 30, five percent above league average.

Compared to Yelich, Gordon is willing to open up on pitches. Veering from Yelich’s inside-the-ball approach, Gordon generated a lot of his home run power to “true” right field. Yelich’s home run spray chart shows us that “true” right field pull power is something the former Marlin has turned to only sparingly from 2016 to 2017. Gordon’s spray chart across his most productive three years shows power that skews itself heavily to right field; a noticeable difference from Yelich even as these two hitters are a fair comparison mechanically.

The issue? I believe Yelich has more power than Gordon. Going to a slightly pull-happy approach for Yelich and mimicking Gordon deviates too much from his current approach. Balance, if we are to entertain breaking Yelich’s current poise, is key.

So how about Joey Votto? He’s a player with a somewhat-similar swing (as we’ll see in a second) and his career batted ball distribution is nearly even to all fields, with a fly ball rate lower than Gordon’s, but higher than Yelich’s. Here is that same clip of Yelich next to a younger Votto (2015).

The biggest difference I notice – aside from hand placement – is how centered Votto’s weight stays from his stride to front-foot plant. Yelich is comparable, but you’ll notice how much more Yelich uses his lower half to generate momentum towards the ball. This isn’t a fault of Yelich. It’s actually just me praising Joey Votto.

While I’d love for Yelich to one day possess the power Votto does and sit back so well, it’s tough to expect that kind of change. What I’d love to see Yelich do in Milwaukee is take the lift aspect of Votto’s game and embrace it, even with the knowledge of how productive the 0-10 degree launch angle window can be. I don’t want to see Yelich open up as much as Gordon and I can’t expect him to evolve into Votto’s power profile. So the balance would be to keep the same all-fields approach, but make a conscious effort to tweak and embrace a slight uptick in fly balls. Votto is able to do so with a fantastic line drive rate. Instead of taking the Yonder Alonso approach and shooting for the moon, a marginal tweak to “unlevel” Yelich’s swing, similar to the rotational path Votto possesses, could be extremely beneficial.

If no change occurs in Yelich’s batted ball profile come 2018, while I still love his move to Milwaukee for various other reasons (he is happy and has the incentive to win), I wouldn’t expect a noticeable inflation of statistics simply because of Miller Park.

And at then end of the day, we all need to be more like Votto.

A version of this post can be found on BigThreeSports.com.


The Other Interesting Byron Buxton Trend

For those willing to reinvest, Byron Buxton dangled a carrot of hope on life’s treadmill at the end of the 2016 season. Many lunged for the carrot, others did not.

Those who resisted the temptation found a renewed confidence in their visceral opinions, for about 70 games. Those who bought in, questioned why they continued to buy in, for about 70 games.

Elite speed was always present. Elite defense was always present. But often times relevance to baseball’s general population is contingent upon offensive output, and that’s what drove the division around Buxton at the end of 2016. Buxton rode a .370 BABIP to a productive 165 wRC+ in the Twins’ final 29 games of the season. To start 2017, Buxton put together a 70-game stretch that quickly made us forgot about his final productive month of 2016. (Qualifying because of a small sample will be a recurring theme in this column.)

While I often enjoy looking for mechanical tweaks that fall in line with production changes, the final month of 2016 didn’t bring with it substantial alteration for the righty. The results still manifested for a variety of fleeting reasons, but there wasn’t that “ah ha!” moment — from my digging — that caused some Buxton-doubters to change their affiliations. As we can reluctantly concede in this fickle sport, Buxton was just better in that month.

This point doesn’t hold when you break down, in video, how Buxton progressed as 2017 aged. He adjusted throughout the season and improved production-wise according to various metrics.

Here is a Tweet I sent out a few days ago.

Mentioned within those 280 characters is my interest in Buxton’s elimination of his leg kick, and positive results not coming immediately afterwards. The approach took further tweaking, most notable when you compare Buxton’s upper-body mannerisms in the earliest forms of his tweaked stride (5/27) and in the last frame of the gif above (9/26). But with the final stages of Buxton’s tweaking came another product that I find particularly interesting.

When we look at two of Buxton’s swings from the above gif side-by-side, where I’m going with this point becomes more apparent.

The result of these two at-bats from Buxton are small representations of the trend that will fulfill the title of this column: Buxton and the opposite field. The gif directly above is filled with selection bias and a plethora of other qualifiers, I know. Yet fundamental difference in Buxton’s approach gives an encouraging look at what could come in Buxton’s future. With Buxton’s swing on the left, keep an eye on his hips and lower body as his upper body lunges at this breaking ball on the outside part of the plate. His lower body flies toward the third-base dugout because his initial intention was to take this ball to his pull side.

While this swing actually results in a hit, the contact quality isn’t encouraging. Fooled by the breaking ball, Buxton’s athletic ability allows him to adjust, and put bat on ball, but there is very little opportunity for him to take that pitch — or one that is more hittable — and drive it the other way given the position of his lower body. As with most hitters, Buxton isn’t particularly productive versus breaking balls, slugging only .324 versus a pitch he saw around 20% of the time in 2017.

With Buxton’s closed-off stance, he’s quieted nearly everything from his hands to lower body. His toe tap and nearly invisible stride allow him, even if he is fooled, to stay inside of a pitch on the outer half of the plate. This can hopefully help Buxton’s ability to hit balls on the outer half of plate, a spot most pitchers are going to target regardless of prospect status or lack thereof. Buxton’s lack of production against pitches in this location of the plate, which isn’t uncommon, contributes to the 30 percent strikeout rate Buxton holds against right-handed pitchers.

This minor opposite-field trend is shown in FanGraphs’ rolling average of Buxton’s opposite-field percentage below. From just after the 80th game of Buxton’s 2017 through the end of the season, his tendency to go the other way started to tick upward.

This opposite-field tendency isn’t earth shaking because once again, we’re looking at a relatively small sample of data. But it’s fascinating to look at how far Buxton has come in such a short amount of time. Even though this spray change doesn’t correlate with endless positives — Buxton’s strikeout rate went up compared to his former, pull-happy self — the intentions are correct. The results have yet to manifest in a large sample that I so desire to see.

A productive Buxton can emerge if this approach continues. If he ever evolves into the above-average power tool some speculated he could become is another story. If you were to ask me whether power comes, I would remain doubtful, with Buxton’s current skill set, that it occurs in the next two or three years.

Are these changes a step along the path to power? They very well could be. But is this the end of the road? Unless your ceiling for Buxton is the 20 home runs I think he can edge towards in 2018, the answer is clearly no.

I see no doubt Buxton’s refined stance is better for his long-term value. Stubbornness to change is something I’m convinced Buxton has no conception of, given the multiple variations we’ve seen from the center fielder in his last 140 games.

We’re left with a 24-year-old who has been considered associated with the term “bust.” All the while possessing two plus-plus abilities other prospects would dream to have one of. Whether his other tools venture into merely average or plus territory remains to be seen.

This, among other subplots, is something I’m thoroughly interested to see the progress of in four months.

 

A version of this post can be found on my site, BigThreeSports.com.

Thanks to Richard Birfer (@RichardBirfs) for help gathering and organizing my thoughts.


Starter or Reliever: The Josh Hader Story

I’ve always wondered if certain players are aware of the comparisons floated with their names.

For one, it could be valuable to observe and learn from a player with similar mechanics. Struggle can be an unexpected teacher, and if their look-alike possesses a career with peaks and valleys, those turning points make invaluable late-night research material for a baseball nut. On the other hand, comparing can create unrealistic expectations.

Because I have not had the pleasure of speaking to Brewers pitcher Josh Hader, knowing whether he sees value in comparisons eludes me. What I do know is the most frequent comparison attached to Hader immediately creates those lofty expectations: Chris Sale.

Not as lanky, or elite, Hader’s sidearm-lefty slot causes Sale-like deception.

David Laurila of FanGraphs spoke with Hader about mechanics, and a few points resonated with me.

Hader is cognizant of the value biomechanical analysis can have, disclosing his run-in with motion-capture cotton balls affixing themselves to his body as he pops a glove with 95-mph heat. His max-effort delivery may cause worry for some, but reading about Hader’s confidence in his concoction of a motion is settling, even if it’s coming from the horse’s mouth. If you subscribe to the theory that past injury predicts future injury, Hader eclipsing 100 innings every year since 2013 should ease your concerns. (Thanks to Laurila for getting Hader’s thoughts in the column linked above.)

Hader also confirmed his awareness of the deception he creates when talking with Laurila. The less time a hitter has to pick up the ball out of his hand, the better. Left-handed hitters, in particular, have been decimated by Hader’s fastball-slider combo.

Lefties combined for a .158 slugging percentage against Hader last season. That was second in baseball, behind Pittsburgh Pirates closer Felipe Rivero (minimum 70+ total batters faced). Firmly inside the 99th percentile; when you drill down to how effective Hader’s slider was, I fear for any lefty who had to deal with this release point and horizontal bite (see gif above). Hader threw his slider 77 times last year to left-handed hitters and the resulting slugging percentage was .071. When they swung at this slider, 44% of the time they missed. Both metrics sit comfortably above average in relation to average slugging percentages and whiff rates for hitters, adding statistical backing to Hader’s dominance.

Unique about Hader is not only this slider, his hair, and his effectiveness, but his role heading into the offseason.

Since his move to Milwaukee from the Houston Astros in 2015’s Carlos Gomez swap, Hader was a starting pitcher for every one of his minor-league appearances. Craig Counsell & Co. entertained the reliever role for Hader only upon his promotion to the major leagues on June 10. Culprits for the switch could be situational — the Brewers were contending, and needed bullpen arms — but you could also convince me they were performance-based. A 13.6% walk rate over 52 Triple-A innings doesn’t inspire confidence.

This isn’t breaking news to Brewers fans.

Control issues have always been a problem for Hader, but as a reliever, the Wayne’s World look-alike had a good enough fastball to utilize it 75 percent of the time to lefties, upwards of 85 percent to righties, and net himself a shiny 36 percent strikeout rate (47 2/3 innings). In the process, Hader cut his walk rate to 11.7 percent in the majors, from north of 13 percent at Triple-A.

Unfortunately for Hader, even that improvement shouldn’t inspire confidence. We haven’t had a qualified pitcher at the major-league level, with a walk rate greater than 11.6%, since Francisco Liriano in 2014. I wouldn’t fault Hader for making a deal with the devil and taking Liriano’s 1,500-inning career, but my intentions are to consider a pitch vital to determining Hader’s 2018 role.

***

Considering everything” headlines an MLB.com column from Brewers beat writer Adam McCalvy just over a week ago.

The vocalist of that quote was Craig Counsell, and the topic was our very own Josh Hader.

Indifference exists because Hader pitched so well in his 35 relief appearances and because of the smattering of question marks. The biggest of which is emerging ace Jimmy Nelson’s shoulder health. One depth chart has Hader as Corey Knebel’s set-up man. With an individual named “B. Suter” in the Brewers 2018 rotation. (Not “Bruce” Suter, just to confirm. Sorry, Brent.)

One question mark Hader can control is the development of his changeup. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but a developed third pitch — so often the changeup — is how many minor-league arms get a chance to work for five-plus innings in the upper levels.

One of my favorite finds from 2017 has been the scout Chris Kusiolek (@CaliKusiolek on Twitter). In regards to changeups, Kusiolek mentioned on the Fantrax Baseball Show how much of a feel pitch it truly is. He detailed how he looks not at the present state of a pitcher’s changeup when determining the viability of the pitch’s future, but the athleticism of the pitcher, his arm action, fastball, and other aesthetics, to make that call. I’m nowhere near as seasoned of a scout as Kusiolek, but Hader hits a few of those points.

Even Hader will admit changeups are a feel pitch, and found in that same McCalvy column, the Brewers beat writer tweeted out the grip Hader was working on back in March of 2017.

“Messed up” can often prime one to think inconsistent, but that may apply to the resulting action Hader achieved on the pitch, rather than the results.

FanGraphs has Hader’s changeup just below 86 mph. This average velocity was the more common action on the pitch I observed watching tape of Hader. Other times, however, I’ve seen Hader’s change kick up to 88 mph. From my crude observation, the harder changeup only came spontaneously and later in counts. You’re about to see an 88-mph changeup on a two-strike pitch to Adam Duvall.

Harry Pavlidis has conducted extensive research on why some changeups are effective, noting those who generate elevated levels of ground balls and swinging strikes with the pitch are ideal (Stephen Strasburg is the poster-child).

Hader’s changeup hits one of those two criteria. Among starters and relievers with 50 or more changeups thrown, when Hader’s is put in play, it generates grounders at a 75-percent clip, sixth-highest in all of baseball (320 total starters and relievers). I understand it’s a pipe dream to ask Hader to replicate the arm action or grip that leads to the harder offering — if it is spontaneous — but if the structure of his general changeup leads to an elevated level of ground balls, this harder changeup might push him further into worm-killer territory.

Given Hader’s changeup has a sub-par whiff-per-swing rate in the bottom quarter of the league, playing to his strengths and embracing the harder version could make an interesting case for change.

You could argue Hader needs to continue mixing the two, but if the hittable, 86-mph changeup is thrown more as an early-count offering to righties, exploiting Hader’s attempt to pitch backwards could become an game plan. Or, in a perfect world, Hader can refine the swinging-strike rate on the slightly softer offering and turn into a two-changeup lefty. (A boy can dream, right?)

***

Considering Hader for a rotation spot is not a spontaneous decision, especially with Hader’s talent and polished, 23-year-old arm.

Both of his raw pitch count season-highs throwing his changeup came in consecutive appearances during late September. His usage with the pitch crept towards 19 percent, and both outings lasted north of two innings.

Hader can survive as a starting pitcher if his changeup becomes a legitimate weapon to right-handed hitters, especially if opposing managers understand Hader’s dominance against lefties and stack against his natural platoon split.

While Hader’s changeup is often knocked for being inconsistent, I counter that sentiment by saying he has a substantially better feel for the pitch than most, especially given the tendency of hitters to pound it into the ground, regardless of the velocity.

My gut tells me Hader will be utilized as a multi-inning reliever, and dominate both sides of the plate in 2018. My heart tells me to give Hader starts to further refine his feel for a pitch he’ll have to use effectively the second and third time through major-league lineups in order to survive.

In Craig Counsell and Derek Johnson I trust.

A version of this post can be found on my website, BigThreeSports.com

Statistics all from BrooksBaseball, BaseballSavant, Baseball Prospectus, and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.


On Starling Marte and Steroids

Each baseball fan has a set of specific events throughout time they remember fondly. Some exist in said group because of their emotional impact on your fandom. Others remain on the peripheral of importance because of a random characteristic that still stands out.

Those peripheral events, for me, are often those I’ve seen on live television. I don’t think of these events often, nor do I keep a record of them, or have some strict guideline for what sticks in my head, but when a story in the present day sparks my memory, a picture often emerges. My teenage years watching baseball were done one of two ways: sitting on the ground in front of my laptop with MLB.tv fading in-and-out, or scouring local stations for a good matchup. These two primary settings allowed for many one-off memories to accumulate.

When I began to think about Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfielder Starling Marte — due to this offseason’s stagnation — I thought back to the first pitch he saw in his major-league career. Just over five years ago, 23-year-old Starling Marte took the first pitch Dallas Keuchel threw on July 26 out of Minute Maid Park. The rarity of that event — a prospect’s debut, leading off a game, first-pitch home run — forces me to remember that bomb whenever Marte steps into a batter’s box. Because I happened to see it live, that memory has stuck.

For the wider population of fans, what now supersedes that milestone is Marte’s run-in with performance-enhancing drugs.  Suspended for 80 games during the 2017 season, this mistake by Marte will couple itself with any other success he has.

Predicting how Marte would fare upon his return during this layoff in 2017 raised some interesting, PED-related questions. Would his power drop? Would his speed deteriorate? What about his overall durability?

Nestled within all those asks is what exactly the effect of PEDs on an athlete’s body is after stopping use. Much more intriguing is this question: does any use at all matter as much as stopping that use? In other words, do the effects of PED use in the first place help prolong success?

I mention this because Marte joins Dee Gordon as the more prominent speed-first users of prohibited substances in the recent years. The drugs Gordon and Marte took were different from my understanding — nandrolone versus a stacked dose with clostebol — but maybe some intrigue exists in the stats before and after use?

The overall comparison doesn’t show us much. Even in what I highlighted with darkened gridlines — slugging percentage and wRC+ — has more noise within it than signal. Two main questions exist, among many others, that don’t have answers.

  • What portion of the “before” PED use window contains tainted statistics?
  • What portion of the drop is due specifically to the lack of steroids in the body?

But perhaps our intentions with those questions are incorrect. Think back to the question I asked before showing this dataset: do the effects of PED use in the first place help prolong success?

What if the muscle memory and learning that takes place while a player is under the influence of the drug extends beyond the window where a player can run a positive test?

With some high-level Googling, I found one instance where this idea might be a reasonable rabbit hole to dig into (BBC News). Certainty around this topic, however, is impossible, given all the variables. Some selection bias brings us the average fan to Nelson Cruz and Bartolo Colon as examples of this idea. But assuming two players with demonstrable skills outside of steroid use represent a wider population is not an appropriate assumption. We’re left in limbo regarding how much one positive test early on can affect one’s long-term production.

***

Let’s leave the uncertainty around long-term effects of Marte’s steroid use alone for now and focus on what has happened in Marte’s career.

The attribute his value has been tied to for most of his career, like Dee Gordon, is speed. But for Marte, age-induced deterioration of that attribute may be underway as he heads into his 29-year-old season with the Pirates.

It wasn’t too long ago we were concerned about the viability of McCutchen’s long-term impact, yet speed has a much greater weight on the impact of Marte as a player than McCutchen. I remain perplexed as to how Marte intends to turn around this decline in sprint speed as he starts to fall away from elite towards the 27.0 feet-per-second average the standard MLB player possesses.

Marte can still produce with his bat, but after seeing this decrease in peak sprint speed, I wonder if he becomes less reliant on his wheels to buoy his BABIP and the resulting average he’ll post. The Pirates’ outfielder might need to adjust.

To counteract this potential speed regression, Marte might want to adjust back to his approach from 2015, where he popped 19 home runs.

What we do know from that year presides in his tendency to pull the ball above his career average, which resulted in the majority of his home runs landing somewhere near the corner in a park’s left-field seats. He was also more aggressive than he had ever been in his career in 2015, but since, Marte has reverted to a contact-based approach, raising his zone-contact rate by two percent and overall contact rate by three percent.

With all this said, the form and substance of Marte’s swing has been largely the same since the early days of his career. Each of the four videos embedded within the GIF below are base hits to left field for Marte. Instead of focusing on the moments just before contact — where most hitters look identical — focus on his pre-pitch rhythm and timing.

Marte has a unique pulse when it comes to the timing mechanism in his hands, as his bat moves towards the first-base line twice prior to his load. The speed at which he executes this varies slightly based on the pitch, but his front foot’s inward turn and hip rotation remain unaltered from this selection of swing in our four-year sample.

My worry is that pushing Marte towards the 2015 version of himself, with pull-happy tendencies and a little bit more aggression, may not lead to the power result we want. With his speed possibly deteriorating, the balls he rolls over on with his sights set on the bleachers will turn into hits less often. We might want Marte to trade some of his contact for power, but my inclination is that such a trade, at present, is not one-for-one and would result in a net-negative effect.

This contact approach of Marte’s may be the new normal, and I remain worried about what the ceiling of productivity can be if he doesn’t find a second wind in the speed department. Marte can still be an asset to the Pirates, and isn’t a financial burden, but it might be too late to expect 2015’s power-speed combo that had the chance to nudge Marte towards the elite bracket of outfielders in baseball.

Bill Brink of Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports that Marte is making up his lost at-bats in the Dominican Winter League for Leones del Escogido. The results, so far, in a small sample have not been great:

.197/.244/.316 in 76 at-bats, with a 21:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Marte’s evolution as a hitter will become clearer as our post-PED sample size increases. The Pirates’ outfield, once considered the best in baseball with McCutchen, Marte, and Polanco, now finds itself in a pickle, especially if Cutch is traded, Marte’s speed continues to trend south, and Polanco can’t stay healthy.


Let’s Find the Giants 88 Wins

We find ourselves in the midst of an exceptionally intriguing offseason. Rarely is there an opportunity to acquire a prior year’s MVP and remain in position to nab the number-two asset on the market: Shohei Ohtani. Given Ohtani’s decision to forego a contract that syncs up with his open-market value when he turns 25, he’ll hold a Black Friday-esque price-tag when posted. Virtually any team in baseball can make a play to acquire the former star from the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, regardless of wallet size. That makes this particular campaign for a generational talent so intriguing.

Whether your team meets Ohtani’s duo of wants — independent of a passing grade on his questionnaire — is another story.

The San Francisco Giants are in a precarious position heading into 2018. Coming off a 64-win season, the lowest win total for their franchise since 1994, and the lowest of Bruce Bochy’s tenure by seven games, a rebound seems imminent. The current state of their roster, however, casts doubt on how relevant a rebound can make their team.

So, I sent out a tweet entertaining the possibility that one team lands the two biggest names of the offseason.

A little bit of mental math brought my over/under to 87.5 wins. Imprecise? Sure, but only three times since 2014 has one team improved on their prior year win total by more than 24 games: the Minnesota Twins (2016 to 2017, +26 wins), Arizona Diamondbacks (2016 to 2017, +24 wins), and Chicago Cubs (2014 to 2015, +25 wins). Whether a signal or mere noise, each of those improvements came without lavish acquisitions during winter (I used my subjective definition of “lavish”). Each was propelled to relevance by internal talent (Buxton/Sano, Ray/Godley, Arrieta/Bryant, etc.), superb management, and other favorable nods from the Baseball Gods. Each of the 29 responses to my poll came with three elements of consideration: Ohtani, Stanton, and everything else.

Ohtani

The pitching side of Ohtani’s value is interesting. ZiPS and Dan Szymborski were the first to throw their hat in the ring, giving Ohtani a 3.55 ERA over 139 innings of work, with 161 strikeouts, and a walk rate of 3.9 BB/9. It’s lukewarm, considering the hype around Ohtani and knowledge of his sub-1.1 WHIP over in the NPB. Do I agree with it? Not from a control standpoint, but we can work with it and my disagreement isn’t dismissal of a labor-intensive statistical model’s projection.

Taking the three essential components of FIP (walks, strikeouts, and homers), and our knowledge that pitcher fWAR is derived from FIP, we can backtrack from Ohtani’s ZiPS projection and in an anti-statistician kind of way. By comparing Ohtani’s per-nine peripherals to last year’s performers, we can infer his fWAR might be around 3.0 as a pitcher in 2018 (139 IP, 10.4 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9). This ZiPS and fWAR magic says he’ll be slightly worse than 2017 Brad Peacock (that was a weird sentence to write).

Ohtani’s potential 3.0 fWAR is backed up when you look at his 2016 in the NPB. The righty posted 137 1/3 innings of work, with a 9.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, and a HR/9 just north of 1.0. This gives Ohtani something slightly better than Jose Berrios’ 2.8 fWAR 2017 campaign (an equally weird sentence to write).

Value for Ohtani with his bat on the Giants, a team obviously absent of a DH, is where confusion starts.

I want to keep this as simple as possible. It’s unlikely that he goes to the NL if contributing significantly on the mound and in the box are his main goals. The inherent risk for the lottery-winning club would be too high and uncertainty around whether Ohtani would prefer such a role plays an equally large factor. Travis Sawchik breaks Ohtani’s NL hitting value down better than I ever could, so I’ll only give you the product of his analysis.

Ohtani could have about 1.6 fWAR as a hitter. This is composed of 1.1 fWAR in his standard pitcher plate appearances, plus another .5 fWAR from regular pinch-hitting chances (emphasis on the word “regular”).

In total, we have a 4.6 fWAR player in Shohei Ohtani in the National League. Our 3.0 fWAR on the mound and an aggressive — but feasible — 1.6 fWAR in the box.

To find 88 wins for the Giants that my poll responders believe in, we need to start somewhere. It’s too easy to begin at a projection already circulating for the Giants’ 2018 win total, so I’ll make this hard for myself to execute, and likely, for you to rationalize. Let’s start with those 64 hard-fought wins Bochy’s squad scratched and clawed their way to. We’ll work backwards from there.

64 wins, plus roughly five we’re going attribute to Ohtani brings us to 69.

Stanton

Now onto Stanton.

Eno Sarris, a familiar name to many, looked through the surplus value on a trade that would send Stanton to the Bay Area. The names included in that analysis revolve around the following:

To SF: Stanton, Dee Gordon

To MIA: Joe Panik, Tyler Beede, Chris Shaw

We don’t have confirmation this would be the package, but I remain adamant Miami wants contract relief more than anything. Centering an offer around the eight FanGraphs wins above replacement (fWAR) Panik has accumulated in his career feels like a proper balancing of sides, given how much money the Giants would take on in a scenario like this. Whether Stanton opts out or stays through the length of his contract muddies just how much money the Giants, or any team, will tie up through 2027. Although it seems like a risk teams are willing to take, how that opt-out risk factors into offerings is another confounding input.

However, Stanton’s value to teams from a performance standpoint is less cloudy than his monetary value. He’s good. Very good. Completing two 6-fWAR seasons before turning 28 is desirable trait for any player. One of the first projections kicking around — FanGraphs’ Steamer — holds Stanton somewhat steady with his torrid 2017.  5.3 fWAR, buoyed by another 45+ homer season, and a wRC+ that holds up to his career standard. I have little objection to this, even if worry consumes you that a healthy season for Stanton was an anomaly.

Ohtani brought us to 69 wins and now Stanton will take us north of the only number above 15 anybody is ever excited to see. We’re at 74 for the Giants by taking WAR and interpreting them as literal wins, something I probably shouldn’t do given the debate the industry just had, but I’ll test my luck.

Everything else

This subheading encompasses a lot of assumptions. In my tweet asking my loyal followers to quickly gauge whether the Giants could get above the 87.5 wins, this considered everything from a (hopefully) full season of good Madison Bumgarner and paying a priest to rid the bad juju from the Giants’ clubhouse, to a minor investment in separate baseballs juiced specifically for AT&T Park.

We could venture another 1,000 words on the improvements of San Fran, but there are far more qualified Giants fans on this website and others (shoutout to Grant Brisbee at McCovey Chronicles) that have surely detailed this difference with more care and a deeper knowledge of the Giants’ issues and internal fixes.

Cutting to the chase, let’s make a simple push to the 88-win mark. FanGraphs’ depth-chart projections currently has the Giants as a 78-win team. That’s 14 wins better than 2017. It is also exactly what we need to go from 74 wins to 88.

Sometimes, things work out better than anybody could have ever planned.

We found our 88 wins.

The only thing I’m left wondering is whether my tweet and over/under projection at 87.5 inspired hopes of 90-plus-win seasons in voters’ minds. If Bochy & Co. can accomplish that feat without even one of Ohtani or Stanton, I commit to paying the shipping fee for Bochy’s Manager of the Year Award.

A version of this post can be found on my site, BigThreeSports.com, by following this link

 


Luis Castillo’s Dominance Fades to Black

Some say the sample size of Luis Castillo’s season is 15 starts; I say it’s only eight.

July 25th was the first game in which BrooksBaseball.net registered a sinker from the 24-year-old. While some other sites show blips of the pitch peering out from behind the curtain – misread changeups? – you’ll read elsewhere that he learned the pitch right as the August sun crept up on the city of Cincinnati. After adopting the sinker, his following eight starts showed a clearer picture of the pitcher he’ll be in 2018.

The issue that resonated most with analysts during his debut at the end of June was his fastball’s tendency to stay straight. An old adage you’ll hear in baseball circles revolves around a straight fastball’s velocity mattering less, because if it’s a straight 98-99 mph pitch, theoretically, a major-league hitter will have a better chance of squaring it up.

Castillo never got that memo.

Unless the Yankees’ ace Luis Severino concentrates some adrenaline to kick up his average fastball velocity by season’s end, Castillo will claim the “velo crown” for starting pitchers – 97.8mph is his number (min. 200 pitches). While velocity doesn’t tell the whole story – I’m looking at you, 2016 Nathan Eovaldi, and your 97.8mph average four-seamer – for Castillo it’s a catchy interlude; a hook that gets your undivided attention. Even with the pitch and its “straight” tendencies, aggregating all 15 of his starts, the pitch maintained a whiff-per-swing rate inside the 85th percentile among all starters – 22.6% (min. 200 pitches).

It may seem dubious that the hardest fastball among starters in all of baseball could get better during any stretch of time, but Castillo wove into his repertoire a sinker that allowed his four-seamer to change its attack.

Above we’re looking at Castillo’s four-seam fastball location pre-sinker adoption (before July 24th) and post-sinker adoption (July 25th forward). The former being a tight concentration towards the outside part of the plate, while the latter is the much larger area of dark red, up in the zone.

This philosophy makes sense; take a straight fastball, stop throwing it for strikes down in the zone, and put it at the letters, making it nearly impossible for hitters to muster success. It worked. Castillo wasn’t able to execute this move sooner because he didn’t have another fastball to establish the zone with early in starts.

Before Castillo’s sinker, hitters were teeing off on Castillo’s fastball to the tune of a .658 slugging percentage. All the while, his slider and changeup – which we’ll touch upon shortly – were nearly unhittable with slugging percentages that couldn’t edge past the fabled “Mendoza Line.” After Castillo learned his sinker, that cringe-worthy slugging percentage on his four-seamer fell to a manageable .368. His sinker, meanwhile, was his early-count pitch, and he located it unbelievably well. Castillo’s worm-killer was second among starters with a 77% grounder-per-ball-in-play rate, trailing only Jordan Zimmermann, who can’t sniff the whiff rates of our Dominican-born phenom (almost as good as Carrasco’s sinker). As Eno Sarris mentions in a FanGraphs column, Castillo is creating a duo of skills that most pitchers envy: choppers and whiffs.

Those whiffs come from his slider and changeup, two pitches that stood out before the sinker, becoming much easier to “arrive at” in terms of sequencing with a two-percent cut in walks and improved ability to get ahead of hitters. His changeup – like with most righties – is a put-away pitch to left-handers; 33% usage rate overall that kicked up to 43% when Castillo had two strikes on a lefty. The sinker we’ve discussed at length also seems to correlate with an uptick in slider usage to left-handed hitters. It ticks up 8% when Castillo has two strikes on a hitter. My speculation is this has a bit to do with gaining confidence in the pitch through understanding eye-level adjustments that hitters have to make after realizing Castillo is now living up in the zone with his four-seamer (see the GIF above). Of course, this is merely speculation; it could easily be Castillo becoming more comfortable with the break of the pitch, eliminating fears that he doesn’t follow-through and leave it up in the zone – essentially a meatball.

Sitting just below Castillo’s changeup in terms of velocity is his preferred put-away pitch to right-handers, a compact slider that doesn’t jump out in terms of swinging strike rate, velocity, or even movement, but possesses an uncanny ability to avoid becoming line drives. A peculiar metric to stand out in, yes, but after understanding line drives go for hits three times more often than ground balls, limiting line drives becomes the best thing you can do if you’re offering a pitch devoid of Kershaw-territory whiff rates.

A 27% strikeout rate in just under 90 innings, with a ground-ball rate near 59%, is a combination very few pitchers possess; Castillo is one of them. With his sinker in play, those numbers became 25% and 61% respectively; just as dominant, yet more stable with the improved control I’d speculate the sinker brought about. I’ve heard a lot of Luis Severino and Michael Fulmer comparisons to Castillo because of the fastball-slider-changeup offerings, but one of the best young pitchers in baseball is becoming a unique beast with his sinker.

Castillo’s potential is the good kind of unbelievable, in contrast to another kind of unbelievable from this Cincinnati.com article titled, “Bryan Price: Luis Castillo is in the 2018 Rotation” which implies we needed to know one of the best young pitchers in all of baseball will be allowed to dominate as a starter come March 29th of 2018. March? Yes, March. Baseball and snow is quite possibly my second favorite pairing. Behind, of course, the whiffs and grounders Castillo generates.

A version of this post can be found on my site, BigThreeSports.com.

I’m on Twitter @LanceBrozdow


One of the Best Ground-Ball Pitches in Baseball Isn’t a Sinker

If it weren’t for Adam Engel, Carlos Carrasco would have shut out the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday night. It’s hard to believe something stood out to me more than the preceding sentence’s qualifier, but baseball possesses the quality of unpredictability, and I will never complain.

Carrasco is an artist, mixing five pitches with such care that I often find myself gravitating towards his starts despite my lack of association with the Indians’ fan base. On Wednesday, what I noticed more than Engel ruining a shutout was Carrasco veering away from a pitch vital to his repertoire — his changeup. Due to the graces of BrooksBaseball.net, I can confirm the lack of changeup usage was unusual for Carrasco; five instances of the pitch were his second-fewest in any start this season. Wednesday was the longest outing of Carrasco’s season and matched his season-high “game score” of 89 (50 is average) from a battle back on April 22nd against — you guessed it — the White Sox.

Carrasco’s beauty stems from his ability to execute flawlessly with a game plan contrary to what you would expect. His season averages reflect the bigger picture, yet on a given night he can meander in unprecedented directions. My wonder surrounding the lack of his usual third pitch brought me to another contrarian aspect of Carrasco’s game: this changeup possessed the best ground-ball per ball-in-play ratio of any pitch in baseball (min. 200 pitches). 82% of the time when contact is made between the lines, the batted-ball result of this changeup is a ground ball. With 6% of batted balls falling into the “fly-ball” category, Carrasco’s pitch is one of the hardest in baseball to hit in the air.

Does this make it the best changeup in baseball? That depends on what qualities you believe make a changeup great. Per FanGraphs, Clayton Kershaw — shocker — holds the highest pitch value for a changeup at 6.9 runs per 100 pitches (0.0 is an average offering), with Carrasco just behind him. If you subscribe to limiting line drives as the better indicator of changeup success, the honor would go to Stephen Strasburg, who coincidentally gets the most whiffs per swing on his changeup at 51%. I’m not arguing that Carrasco has the best changeup in baseball; I’m highlighting how absurdly hard it is to do anything but hit Carrasco’s changeup on the ground. That in itself deserves as much attention as one that generates excessive swings, or is throw by the left hand of a legend — I tip my hat to you, Mr. Kershaw.

If you read my most recent recent column on the Orioles’ Dylan Bundy — whom I already consider to be “great” (yeah, pretty bold) — you can tell I’ve become intrigued by the Baseball Prospectus rabbit hole that is pitch-tunneling. In as simple terms as you can get, the “tunnel point” is where the hitter has to decide whether or not to swing, with movement more than 2.6 inches between the tunnel point and home plate considered above-average. The concept is fresh, with only bits of hard evidence for suggesting how to correctly apply the statistic, but one of its beliefs makes intuitive sense. In a vacuum, if your pitch moves more than average beyond the tunnel point, it becomes harder to hit. My thinking with Carrasco’s changeup is simple: it must have a lot of downward, “late” break to force hitters into topping the ball at such a high rate.

Ah, if only baseball was that easy.

Carrasco’s pitch sequence of fastball-changeup is his fourth-most commonly used pitch pair; it doesn’t stand out in terms of post-tunnel break among his other pitch pairings, nor when you compare that break back to the league average for a typical fastball-changeup sequence. What it does stand out on is something called “flight-time differential.” Carrasco’s .0223 is the third-lowest in baseball among pitchers who have thrown a fastball-changeup sequence more than 50 times. This stat is another way to show velocity differences between pitches. The short flight-time differential holds up when we observe Carrasco’s 5.7 mph difference between his average fastball and changeup velocities (fourth-smallest, qualified pitchers).

Good news: this all jives with Harry Pavlidis’ research. Harder changeups with smaller velocity differentials between that pitcher’s fastball means more ground balls, while a larger velocity gap between the two pitches means more whiffs. While ground-ball inducers tend to throw their change earlier in counts, whiff inducers favor the pitch as a put-away offering. While that sentence isn’t all-encompassing, Carrasco’s deviation from conformity continues.

As with most right-handed pitchers, Carrasco tends to throw his changeup to left-handed bats substantially more than right-handed bats, favoring the benefits of arm-side movement a changeup generally possesses due to the pronation of a pitcher’s hand. But unlike conventional thought that suggests the pitch’s ground-ball rate is such that early-count looks are likely, Carrasco throws the pitch more as he gets deeper into counts.

Just as Carrasco plays second fiddle to Corey Kluber in the Indians rotation, his changeup plays second fiddle to his slider, both allowing for rampant underappreciation. The pitch is so good this year that Carrasco has muddied the stigma that high-velocity, or low-velocity differential, changeups should remain early-count offerings. Once again, Carrasco is veering from the path of predictability.

Even after four seasons where progressive improvement hasn’t ceased, due to injuries we still haven’t seen a 200-inning campaign from the righty. 2018 will be his age-31 season, and as father time comes knocking, it’s unfortunate that we may be observing the tail end of Carrasco’s peak performance. With the Indians firmly intertwined with the phrase “playoff bound,” Carrasco will get his first reps on an October mound. If history provides any indication of the future, we know Carrasco will both stand out from him predecessors and succeed.

In regards to an obscure September outing and the lack of changeup usage, digging deeper might unearth logical reasoning, but with Carrasco, I think mystery adds to the legend of an under-the-radar arm.

 

I can be found on Twitter – @LanceBrozdow – tweeting about the greatest of all games.

A version of this post can be found on my website, BigThreeSports.