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Relievers who Will Matter in the Second Half

A slump-proof, lockdown bullpen doesn’t just win games. It can effectively end them before they’re over. But relievers are weird. Even when they’re not pooping their pants, they’re probably the most volatile players in all of baseball. They seem to represent only the foremost moment in any given season, making trying to project which ones will be good largely a fool’s errand.

But there is a tool that can help, maybe: SIERA. That’s Skill-Interactive ERA. It’s an ERA estimator like FIP or xFIP, but it’s better because it accounts for more of the noise that can result from batted balls. It also has a stronger correlation to predicting a pitcher’s future ERA.

It’s important to acknowledge that it isn’t an ERA projector, but can inform us of the quality of the skills a pitcher has demonstrated most recently. And now, as the season heats up, and as potential playoff teams show more urgency, and we’re in the foremost moment the season has to offer, we can use SIERA to see which of baseball’s oddest bunch could offer big benefits in the second half. Let’s dig in.

Juan Nicasio currently has a SIERA of 2.49. His ERA is a flat 6.00 through 34 appearances. Because SIERA is best used as a starting point for evaluating a player, the disparity between his results versus how he’s actually pitched pushes us to look further. One thing that jumps out is his strand rate, which stands at a homely 53.3%. That’s 20% worse than league average for relievers. It’s probably fueled by a .396 BABIP which is a whole hundred points worse than league average, and this is all happening while he’s striking out more and walking less batters than he ever has.

The thing about Nicasio isn’t any of those wonky stats, though. It’s that it’s hard to see him not getting better while playing on a team that’s been thriving in one-run games all season. The Mariners may effectively gain a lockdown arm for their bullpen as the ledger balances for him, and they’ve already had a top ten group by fWAR. What they’re doing is unprecedented and Nicasio is another reason it could keep happening.

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Photo: Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle

Will Harris would likely elicit a shrug from anyone who peered at his 4.15 ERA. His FIP and xFIP are both sub-3.00, though, and his SIERA is an even tinier 2.40. Including him here might be considered cheating in two ways: he’s appeared in ten games over the last month with an ERA of 2.70, and he’s an Astro.

He was victimized by home runs earlier in the year and has been better at keeping the ball in the park, having allowed only one dinger over the last 30 days. It helps that he’s striking out a career high, too, with a reworked curveball that’s tighter and sharper than ever. Remarkably, he might only be the third-best Astros reliever behind Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock. Maybe it’s not cheating so much as it is just unfair that the Astros could get even better with a guy they’re already trotting out there.

And then there’s a pair of Phillies, Hector Neris and Tommy Hunter. Neris has become much maligned and was even sent to the minors to figure himself out. He’s given up a homer on nearly every third flyball allowed, which is bonkers. His fastballs have flattened out, which probably plays into his splitter playing down, too. While his 6.90 ERA is woof-worthy, his 2.95 SIERA is pretty nice and tells us his fastballs being worse shouldn’t make him this bad.

Phillies general manager Matt Klentak caught some flak on talk radio for recently saying that Tommy Hunter’s 2018 has actually been one of his best. His ERA is approaching 5.00 but his SIERA sits at 2.87, so maybe Klentak’s statement gives us a glimpse into the team’s beefed up sabermetric approach. Hunter has fallen victim to similar issues as the others above — high BABIP causing a lower strand rate.

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Photo: Chris Young/CP

The thing about Hunter (25.1) and Neris (30) is they’ve accounted for 55.1 innings out of the Philadelphia bullpen. Positive regression for them could be critical for the team, as others like Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano are slightly outperforming their peripherals so far. They’re on pace for 88 wins, and every inning is going to be important for them in the second half as the team pushes for the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Looking at a pitcher’s SIERA gives us a stronger sense of their most recent performance. It can also give us a sound starting point for where else to look to understand how the moment has treated them. Beyond that, it can also help us zoom out and examine a pitcher’s potential impact on their team while we move onward to October, no matter how weird they are or have been.

 

Data from FanGraphs.


Examining the Struggles of Ozzie Albies Through the lens of Neuroscience

Ozzie Albies has been at the heart of his team’s unexpected push for the NL East division lead all season. He was there before Ronald Acuña came up. He’s been healthy since Acuña got hurt. He blasted through April with a triple slash of .293/.341/.647. A .647 slugging percentage! Everyone was astounded. Articles were written about how rare and mystifying it was, whether it was sustainable, and how it was nearly impossible to provide a comp for him because there hasn’t been a player like him before. He appeared to be imposing his will on anyone who dared to pitch to him.

Well, gang, May happened. And June is in the midst of happening. And while his overall performance to date still provides us great insight to the player we can look forward to, Albies has had a much tougher go of things. That triple slash slunk to .264/.306/.432 in May. So far this month, it’s at .154/.200/.346.

The good has been unprecedented; the bad has turned abysmal. Each has been more extreme than his profile ever seemed to offer. When Albies was first called up last year, Baseball Prospectus said he “has a slash-and-dash offensive approach that marries well with his advanced bat control and plus-plus speed.” But since he’s been in the Bigs, he’s been more of a free-swinging, freewheelin’ monster.

In 2017, he offered at more than 51% of the pitches he saw. Had he qualified, that would’ve placed him in the bottom 20% of the league, in the company of Yangervis Solarte and Brandon Crawford. This season he’s been even more severe, swinging at more than 55% of all pitches faced. That puts him in the bottom 5% of qualifiers. So, really, what is going on?

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This gif shows the plate from the catcher’s view, and consists of only lefthanded plate appearances by Albies. It accounts for about 70% of his plate appearances and is where the struggles have really come in, as he’s hit only .232 from the left side as opposed to .318 from the right.

On the left side of the gif is a heatmap of Albies’s swing percentages. On the right is where pitchers have located to him. The first is through April, and the second is from May through 6/14. At the start of the season, pitchers filled the zone and challenged him. Per Baseball Savant, more than 41% of pitches he faced crossed the plate that month, and he used his exceptional bat control to punish those balls. However, since May, pitchers have thrown it in the zone far less — a shade under 33% of their total pitches to him. When you’re swinging at more than 55% of the pitches you’re seeing, but only one in three is over the plate, you’re bound to run into trouble.

There are two possible suggestions to make for Albies here. One would be mechanical, assuming something is wrong with his swing. That would probably be premature, given how good he’s been at such a young age. The other would be mental, which seems more likely. His advanced bat control appears to have convinced him that he can hit anything, so he’s going for it. But by doing so, he might be poorly manipulating the signals in his brain he uses to make contact.

Bijan Pesaran, a professor of neuroscience at New York University, explains it this way through the scope of ping pong players:

“When [they] are playing at a high level, they look at the ball up to the point where they hit it. As soon as the paddle makes contact with the ball, you can see their eyes and head turn to now look at their opponent. They think they are looking at their opponent when they are hitting the ball, but they are looking at the ball. Their eyes are tracking the ball, even though they are aware of their opponent.”

Pesaran also says that the cerebral cortex is arranged more like a mosaic than a traditional puzzle. That’s the part of the brain ballplayers would use for pitch recognition and location. If Albies is going to parts of the zone he’s unfamiliar with — parts he doesn’t approach when he’s hitting at a high level — he’s essentially attempting to rearrange the mosaic network that relays the signals from his brain to his swing. It also means he could be looking at the ball longer since he’s not used to seeing it in those places.

The result is a hitch in the 200 millisecond cycle where his brain processes a pitch and tells his body to swing, which may be causing, or at least contributing to, the struggles in which Albies finds himself swamped.

Ozzie Albies didn’t suddenly turn into a pumpkin after a flare of greatness. He’s too good for that. But he does need to adapt to a league that’s already adapted to him. His next step forward could take realizing his limits.

Pitch charts from Baseball Savant. All other data from FanGraphs. Gif made with Giphy.


Paul Goldschmidt is Hitting Homers at Home Again

What a boring headline in any other season. “One of game’s top players does good thing at plate” isn’t intriguing in nearly any context. But there’s so much to consider here. 

The D-backs started the 2018 season off gangbusters, winning nine series in a row and going 20-8 through April. They held at least a five and a half game lead on the rest of their division. And that was without Jake Lamb for most of the time, or Steven Souza, and Paul Goldschmidt off to an utterly pedestrian start. But the team was winning.

Then May happened.The injuries kept coming: Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker, AJ Pollock, Randall Delgado, and Steven Souza (again) all hit the DL. Goldschmidt went from pedestrian to abysmal; his batting average was flirting with the Mendoza line, he was piling up Ks, and he couldn’t make contact in the zone. Arizona finished the month at 28-27, a game and a half back of the Rockies.

And that’s just the team. The humidor installed at Chase Field in the offseason has been another beast all on its own. The data that’s available on its impact to this point isn’t necessarily reliable yet because the sample size is still relatively small. It sure seems to have made a pronounced — if not definitive — impression, though. Offense is down in the desert by about 20% across the board. Add that into the mix with a team that was probably playing over its head, and then sinking, and suddenly the waters are much choppier.

Some wondered if the humidor’s presence had snuck into the back of Goldschmidt’s mind and taken up residence. Every additional out he made seemed to sell the idea. He was pushing a 200 strikeout pace. There were at-bats where he simply looked lost, and it was fair to wonder whether he’d been occupied by a Pod Person.

But he started showing signs of hope: a couple multi-hit games, a couple extra base knocks. Even if those things happened on the road, every little bit helps for a player struggling as badly as Goldschmidt was. And then, on May 30, he did something he hadn’t done even once in 2018. He homered at home. He hit a long, humpback line drive down the right field line off Sal Romano that cleared the fence. Take a look.

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Do you notice Goldschmidt’s face? It’s almost like he couldn’t believe the ball finally went out. The relief was palpable.

He’s never taken more than six games to homer at Chase Field in any season. This year it took him 27. I’m not always a fan of referencing exit velo, but it’s relevant here. Just last year, pre-humidor, he hit a homer on April 23 at Chase that came off the bat at 97.3 mph and went 390 feet. His cue shot down the line for his first homer at home this season came off the bat at 102.1 mph and traveled 349 feet. 

And then just three days and three more games after that, Goldschmidt homered again on June 2. This time, it was a towering shot down the left field line that went 431 feet and left the bat at 109.9 mph. I’ve told you both of his dingers at home this year were down the line, making them extreme. Peeking at his career home run spray chart at Chase give us a sense of just how severe they really were.

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The black boxes indicate Goldschmidt’s two homers at home so far entering last week. You’ll note that the one down the left field line doesn’t actually surround a red dot indicating a home run — that’s because Baseball Savant hasn’t yet updated Goldschmidt’s most recent shot. For reference, the dot immediately above the empty box traveled 438 feet. 

You may also note that both shots this year easily push the bounds of literally every other home run Goldschmidt has ever hit at Chase Field in his entire career. Maybe, just maybe, the humidor had taken residence in the back of Goldschmidt’s mind. Just look at that green circle in left-center, the one he hit at barely 97 mph. Imagine being able to flick that pitch nearly 400 feet on a regular basis, then clobber one this season at 102 and have it barely clear the shortest fence in the yard, and only after enduring 26 dinger-less games. 

Goldschmidt can go to any part of the field on any pitch. You probably wouldn’t expect him to get spooked by what essentially amounts to air conditioned baseballs. But if the humidor did punch a hole in his game, he may have found a way to patch it by opting to work the foul lines to get the fairest results.

Game data from FanGraphs. Home run exit velocity and spray chart from Baseball Savant. Gif made with Giphy. 


Jacob deGrom is Leveling Up

So far this year, more than 170 starters have thrown at least 10 innings. Of those starters, Jacob deGrom has been the fifth best in all of Major League Baseball. In the prior three seasons he was 12th overall, then 28th, then 12th again. He’s already been worth more than two wins…in less than a third of a season. Last year, he was worth 4.4. John Edwards noted just how berserker his start has been:

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Nine wins, y’all. DeGrom is on pace to be worth nine wins. The last pitcher to be that good was Randy Johnson in 2004. Being that deGrom is “only” the 5th best pitcher so far this season, that means four others — Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Luis Severino — have been even better, and that they’re on pace to break that nine WAR barrier, too. Given that less than a third of the season has passed, maybe none of them will, or maybe we’re in for a heck of a season from the mound despite a ball that favors hitters.

DeGrom might be of particular interest, though, because he’s showing us a completely different look this year than in the past. Just see for yourself.

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Those heat maps are all from the catcher’s perspective. DeGrom is combining his crazy high talent level with a whole new level of conviction. The result? Video game-like command that’s yielded a career-high 12.1 strikeouts per nine and a typical 2.45 walks per nine.

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DeGrom is just baffling hitters. His four-seam fastball is generating whiffs at more than twice the average rate of the whole league. It’s always been above average but it’s off the charts this year. What’s interesting is it’s got less run right now, per Brooks, meaning it’s straighter. That isn’t fascinating on its own, but his changeup is straighter, too. Basically, the two pitches look more like each other for deGrom in 2018 than they ever have, but they’re working different parts of the zone. That means they’re creating a wrinkle for hitters that they’ll continue to have a difficult time ironing out moving forward.

All of his offerings have created pretty much league average swing-and-miss or better. There are two outliers: the slider and the sinker. Like the fastball and changeup, the slider appears tighter in its movement to the plate, with less drop but slightly more side-to-side break. I can’t discern if it’s playing up because of that, or because of his other stuff, or if he’s due for some regression on whiffs there. It’s something to keep an eye on, though.

Meanwhile, the curve is plowing away at the low, glove side corner. And the sinker isn’t a pitch anyone uses for whiffs very often, but deGrom’s has been about 80% worse than average this season. Instead of throwing it more arm side, though, he’s using the other side of the plate so it zings back to the edge of the zone to steal called strikes.

Let’s take a breath and recap. DeGrom’s generating a crazy amount of whiffs with his fastball up in the zone. He can mess with hitters’ eye level with his changeup low in the zone. The sinker can steal strikes on the edge. And then the curve and slider are breaking toward that same spot with pinpoint authority. Is this even fair?

Hitters will certainly say no, but that’s kind of the point. Bless their hearts, though; they’re trying. DeGrom’s improved command has coaxed them into 8% less hard contact against him so far this year compared to last year. That’s nice by itself, certainly. But it’s fueled almost the entirety of deGrom’s 8.6% increase in soft contact generated. He now leads the league by that measure at 29.9%. Hitters are hitting less against him, and when they do manage to put the bat on the ball, they’re making life easy for defenders.

The last pitcher to show this kind of jump — from really good to amazing — was Corey Kluber from 2013 to 2014. In 2013 he was worth 2.8 wins in 147.1 innings. A year later he was worth 7.4 wins in 235.2 innings. He generated more soft contact, too, but only half as much as deGrom has added this season, and it didn’t come directly from his hard contact allowed. He struck out about two more batters per nine than the year before. His stuff was in the zone but he didn’t quite command it like deGrom has.

There isn’t much precedent for what Jacob deGrom is doing this season. Time will tell if he maintains his new dominance, but for now he’s pacing nearly the entire league. He’s leveling up. 

League average whiff rates and WAR from FanGraphs. Heat maps and deGrom whiffs per pitch type from Baseball Savant. Gif made with Giphy.


Let’s Enjoy This Michael Brantley While we Can

It’s been a tough couple years for Michael Brantley. In 2016, he played in just 11 games. In 2017, he played in more than eight times as many…and still topped out at just 90 games. He registered a mere 418 plate appearances in that span because of injuries and was only worth 1.5 wins.

These injuries were the kind that start small, like inflammation or a sprain so often do, and cost a player a few games. Then news comes out about them being more serious than expected or about how the player has experienced a setback. And when those types of injuries start to pile up and happen in back-to-back years, it’s easy to wonder when, exactly, that player will be themselves again. Or if they ever will.

So far in 2018, though, Michael Brantley is showing us he’s back to being his vintage self.

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Alone, the numbers this season are impressive. But compared to 2014, they’re downright eerie. It’s as if he’s looking into a mirror and seeing the 2014 version of himself looking back. He was worth 6.5 wins that year. The biggest difference is that he’s traded in steals for more power — he had 23 stolen bags in ’14 and is on pace for about 5 this year — but that matches the direction of today’s game, anyway.

Everything else paints a special picture. The league’s average strikeout rate has hovered around 16.5% for the last five years. Its average isolated slugging is around .150, and the average weighted on-base average is about .325. Brantley has been 50% better than average at not whiffing, at least 20% better at driving the ball, and 60% better at creating offense. Those kinds of results put him in rarefied air.

If we look at the single season leaderboards, we can see just how rare. Here’s a list of qualified players since 2014, which was when Brantley was last healthy for a full season, who have struck out in less than 10% of their at-bats and had an ISO of .170 or better:

  • Michael Brantley, 2014
  • Victor Martinez, 2014
  • Michael Brantley, 2015
  • David Murphy, 2016

There were 537 qualifiers over that time period. It happened four times. Brantley did it twice. No one managed to do it in 2013 or 2017. While we’ll have to wait to see if they can keep it up, the only three players to do it so far in 2018 are Brantley, teammate Jose Ramirez, and Nick Markakis(?!).

In many ways, ISO and strikeout rate in tandem can inform us a great deal about who’s being productive and how. Brantley’s skill at deciding when to swing is truly unique.

But what really makes his start to the 2018 season special is that he’s 31. With evidence building over the last several years that players peak earlier than we ever thought, it was fair to wonder if the time he lost to injury meant we were all robbed of some of his best years. Aging curves consider as large a pool of players as possible, though, so getting to witness players who force exceptions is always a blast. His 15 game rolling wOBA and K% averages tell us we’re having a pretty good time.

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The bigger the gap between the red and blue lines, the better. We can see what he was like at his peak in 2014 and his valleys over the last couple years. As the space between the two lines grows in 2018, so does the one where we get to appreciate what he’s doing. We don’t know when the next injury will come or when Father Time will show up. We should enjoy this Michael Brantley while we can.

Data from FanGraphs.


Swing Speed: Exit Velocity’s More Impressive Cousin

This post was co-written by John Edwards. If you’re not already familiar with his work, you can (and should!) follow him here

Launch angle and exit velocity became a big deal when MLB released them through Statcast at the start of the 2016 season. They instantly told an old story in a new way. It wasn’t surprising to see Nelson Cruz, Giancarlo Stanton, or Miguel Cabrera at the top of the leaderboards. We knew they knocked the snot out of the ball. But now we knew that they knocked the snot out of the ball in excess of 110 mph or better, and at 34 degrees or better.

Two years later and the terms are nearly ubiquitous, even speckled through broadcasts. But they’re often provided without context as colorful notes in single instances. Do we really care how fast the ball went out in the moments we’re watching, or at what angle, as long as it went out? It doesn’t tell us how the dinger or double or snagged liner happened, just that it did; and we just saw it with our own eyes.

So, what about that how? What’s contributing to a player generating that record exit velo or optimal launch angle?

Swing speed.

Swing speed could help inform us of how well a player is tuned into their timing at the plate and where they’re making contact, both of which tell more of our old story in an exciting new way than launch angle or exit velo alone. But the problem with swing speed is we don’t have that data. It’s simply unavailable: while Baseball Savant used to feature bat speed it no longer does.

Fortunately, enough data exists that we have approximations to work with. David Marshall reverse-engineered the formula Baseball Savant used in calculating swing speed – and now we can play around with those numbers!

Let’s look at who the best hitters were by bat speed last season, with a minimum of 100 batted ball events.

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Since the formula for predicted bat speed is essentially average exit velocity (AEV) accounting for pitch speed, and AEV is the majority factor in the equation, the leaders in bat speed are also among the leaders in AEV. But there are still some differences, and they’re some very important differences! The speed at which a pitch comes in affects how fast it goes out, so players facing pitchers who throw harder might register lower average exit velocities than a player with comparable bat speed facing pitchers who throw slower.

But bat speed isn’t consistent from plate appearance to plate appearance. Sometimes you check your swing, other times you let loose. But there’s an important trade-off: many of the hitters with superb bat speed strike out frequently, and hitters with low bat speed (Mallex Smith, 50.0 MPH or Billy Hamilton, 51.0 MPH) make a lot of contact without striking out. Low bat speeds allow for more contact and fewer whiffs, but high bat speeds allow for better contact at the expense of greater whiffs. As a result, bat speed is loosely correlated to contact% (R^2 of 0.09), and better correlated to contact% than exit velocity (R^2 of 0.08).

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MLB hitters are aware of this loose correlation. Since 2015, they’ve swung .4 MPH slower than average with two strikes, collectively opting for more contact and foul balls so they can stay alive longer in at-bats. But the guys who are the best at managing this are among the best in the game at generating offense, and they don’t all necessarily slow down their swings at the same rate. However, each had a wOBA with two strikes roughly 15% better than overall league average in 2017.

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The leaders here show us multiple paths to success with two strikes in regard to players slowing down or speeding up their bats. Beyond that, we get a few bands of players worth noting. Anthony Rendon and Francisco Lindor were really in a class of their own last year when it came to generating offense. They’re the only two players who were about 80% better than the average player overall, and lost less than 60 percentage points of wOBA with two strikes. Rendon only swung .2 MPH slower in those instances while Lindor swung .9 MPH slower.

That’s not to say they were the best, though. Joey Votto (2.1 MPH slower), Austin Barnes (1.0), Mike Trout (.4), Bryce Harper (.4 faster), and Rhys Hoskins (.5 faster) generated the most offense with two strikes. Collectively, they were so much better than most of their peers that they were able to absorb a bigger drop in effectiveness with two strikes in the count and still pose a considerable threat.

Whether swinging slower or faster than average with two strikes, the way these players optimized their swing speed with two strikes informs us of their approach more than their launch angles or exit velos alone. But what about the guys at the other end of the spectrum?

Giancarlo Stanton and JD Martinez had the largest differences in offense created with two strikes of anyone in the league. You can see all the data here. Per John’s own Statcast database, they each had dips in wOBA of more than 160 points when their backs were up against the wall, implying that the way they sold out for power when they were down to their final strike really didn’t work in their favor. They both swung slower than the .4 MPH average drop in those instances, and a peak at their heat maps suggests they were way more willing to hack at offerings out of the zone, too.

A lot of their peers actually acted in a similar manner, too. It turns out that 40 of the 50 players who saw the biggest drop in wOBA with two strikes slowed down their bat in those counts. They’re even more diverse of a group of players than the ones who saw the least drop. There might not be another offensive context where you’ll see Carlos Correa ranked with Lonnie Chisenhall, or Jose Altuve with Michael A. Taylor, or Josh Donaldson with Patrick Kivlehan.

Examining players in this light provides a unique perspective to some of the game’s most critical moments. Despite the variance in the quality between these players, the 2017 approximations suggest that they didn’t exhibit much of a two strike approach at all. Slowing down your bat but expanding your strike zone to chase pitches that are inherently less hittable seems like a recipe for Ks. 

If swing speed can tell us who’s optimizing their approach at the plate — or who isn’t — can it also help us predict a outbreak? We compiled hitters with at least 100 batted ball events in 2016 and 2017 (using batted ball events since our predicted bat speed equation uses exit velocity), and saw which hitters saw the most improvement from 2016 to 2017. Unsurprisingly, swinging harder resulted in much better production at the plate.

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Conversely, most hitters who declined in bat speed declined in production (except for Delino DeShields, curiously enough).

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But having a slow bat speed isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor should all players strive to increase their bat speed. We discussed previously how bat speed and contact% are inversely related — not swinging out of your shoes every at-bats means that you have better time to react to pitches and make contact.

For hitters like DeShields, Suzuki, and Gordon, they want as much contact as possible – their maximum bat-speed isn’t comparable to guys like Gallo and Judge, so there isn’t really a way to sell out for power here. Judge and Gallo can get away with striking out so much because the few balls that they put in play frequently go yard, but if someone like Gordon adopted that approach, the increase in power wouldn’t compensate for the increased strikeout rate.

Instead, Deshields, Suzuki, and Gordon produce by making as much contact as possible and relying on their speed to beat out hits on their weak contact. By relying on their speed and balls-in-play for production, it’s beneficial for these hitters to not swing out of their shoes.

Using bat speed to predict breakouts is similar to looking at exit velocity changes to predict breakouts, but has its trade-offs: it’s better in that it accounts for differences in pitch velocities faced, but it’s worse in that our bat speed predictions are only approximations.

They’re still something, though, and they give us more of a predictive look at what goes into making a great hitter than hearing about their launch angle or exit velo in isolated instances.


The Endless Possibilities of Franchy Cordero

At the end of April, Mike Petriello wrote on the most interesting rookie you need to know more about, Padres outfielder Franchy Cordero. The way Cordero hits the ball, paired with how he runs and can defend, make him more than intriguing. However, Petriello detailed that the margin of error within Cordero’s game could turn him into just about anything — be it Keon Broxton or Aaron Judge.

The two potential comps couldn’t possibly represent further opposite ends of the spectrum. Broxton was demoted to the minors last season and Judge was a Rookie of the Year winner and MVP candidate. So where will Cordero end up shading himself within that vast spectrum? Consider those three players in their first extended stint in the Majors.

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Can you tell who’s who?

Players A and C are Judge and Broxton in 2016. The two had largely similar plate discipline. The biggest differences came in Broxton’s reluctance to chase out of the zone, which fueled a lower strikeout total and a high amount of walks. But in between them, as player B, is Cordero. He swung more, chased nearly as much as Judge, made the least contact in the zone by a big margin, and whiffed way more than any of the three. While these are just descriptive numbers — things we can look at after the fact — it’s easy to see how Cordero approaches the batter’s box similar as these two other guys whose difference in success could fill the Grand Canyon.

The real interesting part comes in looking at their plate discipline after their first extended stint in the Majors. It gives us a sense of how each player bought into their skill set, possibly based on the success they did or didn’t have in their debuts.

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Notice anything? Broxton went one way in the season after his debut, while Judge and Cordero have gone the other, more productive way. Broxton simply did the things you don’t want a player to do. He reached out of the zone more, made less contact doing it, and created fewer free passes for himself. Judge reached out of the zone less, made more contact, and shrunk his K-BB rate to Rick Moranis levels. It’s funny how one decision can impact so many results.

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So far, Cordero’s second extended stint in the Majors has mimicked Judge’s. He’s trending in all the same ways and generating monster power while he’s at it. Petriello noted how he’s part of the roughly one percent of hitters in the entire league to have hit a ball 115+ mph in 2018. That single data point alone is enough to project a pretty positive profile. What he’s really doing to generate that kind of exit velocity, though, is optimizing his mechanics with his contact point. It’s even more impressive when you combine it with how he hits homers. Since Statcast went live in 2015, the greatest average home run distance from any single player is Carlos Gonzalez, at 421 feet. Giancarlo Stanton is second at 420 feet. Cordero has averaged 438 feet per bomb after six home runs so far in 2018.

The Padres seem to believe that Cordero isn’t a finished product just yet, but that he’s good enough to learn on the job. The biggest truth to that is probably most easily visible in his free swinging ways. When he came up last year, he struck out in more than 44% of his plate appearances while drawing a walk in only six percent. But this year, his improved discipline at the dish has resulted in a jump in walks of four percent and an 11% decrease in whiffs. He’s not quite stepping up to Aaron Judge levels, but he’s demonstrating that he’s learned two things. One is that he can let tempting pitches out of the zone go because the contact he does make is strong enough to wait for. The other is that just because a pitch is in the zone doesn’t mean he has to swing. In this sense, it’s like a pitcher sequencing his stuff. By letting pitches go that don’t necessarily play into his strengths, Cordero is giving himself more opportunities to meet the ones that do.

If you’ve been wondering about sample sizes for all the examples above, that’s fair. Most of them are relatively small, potentially opening them to scrutiny because they don’t provide us the stability we crave when evaluating players. But that doesn’t mean they’re useless. In this context, they act in two ways: as indicators of aggression in each of Judge, Broxton, and Cordero; and what they’ve each learned once they had a chance to stay up in the Majors.

Franchy Cordero has proven to be more than intriguing, and he’s found himself in a unique situation that many clubs wouldn’t likely provide a young player. But the Padres are in a unique spot, too, and Cordero, unheralded as he may be so far, may be critical in helping to elevate them in the standings as time moves on.

Plate discipline data from FanGraphs. Heat maps from Baseball Savant; gif made with Giphy. 


Yonny Chirinos Is Closing in on Being Awesome

Early season baseball is beautiful. It’s not that just that baseball is back. It’s that things get so weird so quickly. Take, for example, Mike Petriello pondering this:

petriello tweet

Lol, y’all. For the record, Owings is at .478 going into his game on Friday and Sanchez has worked his way to .088. So, yeah, just a few days later and things are still weird.

But some things…some things that seem weird may not be weird. Yonny Chirinos might be one of those things.

Chirinos has been on the fringe of interesting for some time. Last July, Carson Cistulli wrote about him at FanGraphs for three weeks in a row. The gist, from blurbs in those pieces, is that Chirinos tends to sit in the low 90s with his fastball but can amp it up to 96 mph. He can do it late in games, too. He also throws two offspeed pitches — a slider and a splitter — and is comfortable throwing them anytime. He’s a guy who’s gotten better as he’s faced better competition.  

And now, after injuries to Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon and Nathan Eovaldi, Chirinos is getting the chance to face the best competition in the world. And he’s rising to the occasion again. He hasn’t allowed a run through 14.1 innings and he’s striking out six hitters to every walk. But there’s more.

Chirinos 1

Certainly, it’s early. While Chirinos is ranked here against last year’s qualifiers, he wouldn’t actually qualify yet for this year. No pitcher does, because it’s so early. Plate discipline numbers tend to stabilize quickly, though. After just his first couple games, the odds are good that hitters will continue to make contact at the same rate against Chirinos that they already have. After a couple more starts, we’ll be able to say with relative conviction if he’ll hit the zone the same way he has through his first three appearances. The same goes for the rate at which he’s coaxing swings out of the zone.

Things get a little foggier when it comes to Chirinos’s first pitch strike rate. He’s probably only a fifth of the way toward that crazy 71.7% number becoming reliable. But let’s consider how he’s done it to this point. Statcast has him at 18 called first pitch strikes, five whiffs, and eight foul balls. He’s throwing about three sinkers to every slider at the start of an at-bat, and occasionally gets funky by throwing something else. But it’s mostly a two pitch mix. And if you check the leaderboards so far, you’ll see he’s surrounded by loads of legitimate and other emerging talent.

Once he’s gotten ahead, Chirinos has done well by distributing his three primary pitches well, supporting the reports linked above from last season. His sinker runs one direction, his slider jumps the other, and his splitter acts like it’s fruit falling through the bottom of a grocery bag. In any given matchup, he can control three parts of the zone.

Chirinos 2

Just about the only way Chirinos could be making more of an impact right now is if he were going deeper into games. He’s averaged a shade over 60 pitches per appearance so far, and 64.5 per start. I don’t know if the Rays are stretching him out, or if they’re being super cautious against him facing batters a third time, or both. The team’s history may suggest they’ll eventually be willing to let him go further into games, though. The Rays rank tenth in MLB from 2015-17 in innings thrown by starters.  More than 22% of those innings can be attributed to Chris Archer alone, but it’s still worth keeping an eye on.

Either way, it’s probably fair to hedge a bet that Chirinos could continue producing really effective five inning outings and sprinkle in a few that are more than that.

Sometimes, what seems weird is actually just a new kind of awesome.

Plate discipline data from FanGraphs. Pitch mix data from Baseball Savant.


Cesar Hernandez Swings Less, Hits More

Getting talked up as a second baseman can be hard. Jose Altuve, Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy, and Jonathan Schoop occupy a lot of that conversation. Other, older guys like Robinson Cano and Ian Kinsler are still kicking around. Whit Merrifield says hello from Nowhere, too. And then there’s Cesar Hernandez, who seems to get talked up most for how underrated he is.

He’s one of only two holdovers on the Phillies since he came up in 2013 — the other is Luis Garcia — so even after this offseason of the team shedding some of that sluggish rebuild weight and adding some bona fide muscle, they must see something in him. He’s not just an asset to turn. This is true even after signing Scott Kingery, whose primary position is the same as Hernandez’s, to a six-year extension before he’s even played a single game in the Majors.

Hernandez is remarkably consistent. He strikes out less than 20% of the time, walks more than 10%, will display occasional pop, and can handle the glove at the keystone. But even consistency needs to evolve sometimes in order to keep pace, and we may have seen the next step from Cesar Hernandez last year.

hernandez plate discipline

The change, in a word: discipline. Per Pitch Info, we can see how Hernandez apparently decided to just stop chasing pitches out of the zone. In the first half, he ranked 29th in MLB, directly ahead of Edwin Encarnacion, and fourth at his position. That’s already pretty good. But in the second half, he shot up to eighth in MLB and tied with now-teammate Carlos Santana, and second at his position.

It’s one thing to see a relatively sharp change in a stat and be able to acknowledge how a player’s performance improved or declined. It’s another to process how directly it possibly influenced his overall production. Consider that Hernandez swung at 5.2% less pitches in the second half. Nearly 80% of that decrease was the direct result of letting pitches outside the zone go. That’s four balls for every called strike.

The difference in Hernandez’s approach fueled a drastic increase in OBP and was a big reason he became 25% better than league average at creating runs. It’s no wonder he went from being worth less than a win before the All-Star break to 2.4 after it.

Check out the gifs below. They’re both of the switch-hitting Hernandez swinging from the left side at a pitch to the same outside third of the plate:

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The first is against a Yu Darvish fastball in May and resulted in a weak groundout to Elvis Andrus. It has a nice Fox Trax spot to show you how it was out of the zone. The second is against a Robert Gsellman fastball in September, around the same outside third of the plate, and was a double. This one doesn’t have a tracker showing you it was more over the plate, but, per Statcast, it was.

If you’ve heard of pitchers working the plate side to side, Hernandez does a little bit of the same with his swing, working horizontally. He pulls out his hips behind him and lets his bat drive through the zone on a similar plane. The small difference in pitch selection between the two gifs was the difference between a dribbler and an extra-base hit, and Hernandez made this a regular thing from mid-July and on.

It appears as though he didn’t make any mechanical change that allowed him to better cover the plate or access the ball when it got there. This is true whether he batted lefthanded or righthanded. His plate discipline, then, really does seem to be the result of simply choosing to swing at only what’s within the zone. Last August, I wrote about Rhys Hoskins being exciting in the context of the current Phillies, and how he offers a threat that the rest of the lineup doesn’t. If Hernandez’s plate discipline sticks in 2018 — the handful of games so far hasn’t allowed for a stable sample size yet — then he, too, will offer a skill that makes the lineup tougher and more of a threat.

It’s been a weird year for the Phillies already. Between Gabe Kapler and younger talent making a push for playing time, it could get much weirder. But an eye like Cesar Hernandez’s at the plate every day could help steady the ship.

Pitch Info Data from FanGraphs. Gifs made with Giphy. 


Jonathan Lucroy Might Not Be Done

Let’s start off with a guessing game. Below are two players. Try to tell who they are.

mysteryplayers

So, who are they?

Maybe the title of this post helped you figure it out. They’re both Jonathan Lucroy. Player A is Lucroy in 2016, when he was worth more than four wins. Player B is him in 2017 when he was barely worth one win. But these two lines represent the same player in name only. In 2016 Lucroy was the most valuable catcher in the game. And then last year, he was the fourth-worst.

Moving down the chart above, one could reasonably tell Lucroy’s story. Maybe the difference on balls in play is what drove him from about 40% above league average at the plate to about 10% below league average. But that wasn’t just bad luck; his contact numbers probably justify the drop. Driving the ball with less authority means hitting more playable dinkers. That creates lower BABIP and wOBA. It’s also not going to help if you hit an additional 16% grounders from one year to the next, which Lucroy did, because, those playable dinkers are the worst playable dinkers a hitter could generate.

In some sense, catchers aren’t supposed to be as good as Lucroy has been in the past. Expecting him to stay that good forever would be silly. But so would expecting him to fall off the edge of a flat earth into the same relative nothingness as Martin Maldonado. Jeff Sullivan broke down Lucroy when he was traded to the Rockies last season and found that in addition to his offensive stats cratering, so had his previously excellent framing numbers. He went from being one of the game’s very best at stealing strikes to being one of its very worst. So maybe Father Time had simply claimed eminent domain instead of moving next door. 

The numbers bear out Lucroy’s fall as much as numbers can. But the same thing that makes them so endearing — their blindness — sometimes means they still aren’t telling the whole story. Below are two gifs. On top is Lucroy as a Brewer in 2016, driving a JC Ramirez fastball up the middle. Below is Lucroy as a Rockie in 2017, pulling off of a Ross Stripling slider.

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Above, the Angels defense was presumably playing at double play depths, making a play up the middle more accessible, if still difficult. Thought it was a grounder from Lucroy, it was a screamer, coming off the bat at 100.7 mph (he averaged 87.6 in 2016). Below, Lucroy forced Corey Seager to make a bit of a play, but Seager was able to because the ball only came off Lucroy’s bat at 88.4 mph (he only averaged 85.1 last season). Both pitches were in the middle third of the plate. The swings are similar enough. But check out the stills below as the ball arrives at the plate.e.

Lucroy 2

In this picture, from when he was still a Brewer, Lucroy is very much in control. He’s square, and his body is getting ready to move together. All the MSPaint lines are moving in the same direction, showing that his kinetic chain is tuned up. That basically means his big muscles were ready to transfer power to his little muscles. The next frame shows it stayed that way. The swing is coming from his center of mass. Sure, he grounded out, but he was together. Groundouts happen.

Lucroy 1

But look at this still, from when Lucroy was a Rockie last year, and good grief. His body is moving in so many directions it looks like it’s in a traffic jam. His hands are going down and away, his hips are pulling in the other direction, and his legs are digging directly ahead. The kinetic chain is nowhere to be found, and Lucroy’s one body is effectively acting in three independent manners. Doing that on a regular basis would go a long way toward explaining his sudden inability to drive the ball, and how he lost 2.5 mph of exit velocity on average per batted ball. 

Lucroy’s legs being hurt, but not enough to sideline him to ensure they’re healed, could explain an inability to rely on his core to support his kinetic chain. However, per Statcast, his sprint times were nearly identical between 2016 and 2017. In fact, he was actually .2 seconds faster last year than the year before. But that’s only his legs. Maybe he had an issue with his core — a set of big muscles —  that kept his swing from staying in sync and glove from reacting as well when framing.

Baseball Savant only has so much video to examine. Lucroy’s broken kinetic chain in 2017 appears to be pretty consistent, though. And sure, these were different pitches, from different pitchers, with presumably different camera angles. I can’t tell you the ball was at the exact same distance from Lucroy in each instance. But a nagging injury influencing a mechanical flaw isn’t entirely implausible, even if speculative.

If Lucroy can smooth out his mechanics and is even half of what he used to be, that’s still twice as much as he was last year. Or maybe he did just fall off a cliff. But at one year and 6.5 million, it’s easy to understand why the A’s would want to find out. 

Mystery player data from FanGraphs. Gifs made with Giphy; videos from Statcast.