Baseball

We’ve been doing education all wrong

We’ve been doing education wrong for a long time. I’m convinced. 

Lately I’ve been choosing hip hop more, mainly because it’s always been rhythm that moves me more than a lot of other stuff. Rapsody blew my mind with her Too Lyrical EP and “Cleo,” then I cycled hits like “Thieves in the Night” from Black Star and “UMI Says” from Mos Def and “Make You Feel That Way” from Blackalicious and “Where I’m From” from Digable Planets and plenty of others as I go through Spotify stations. I’ve been reintroducing myself to The Roots. And beyond them, more than any group or artist lately, I keep landing on A Tribe Called Quest. 

I’m not the first, and I’m probably later than I should be. One thing that’s been interesting as I’ve gotten older is how my ears have grown in a way that helps them hear things better, or tries to. I always knew Tribe was there, and I occasionally enjoyed them, but I never heard them. 

Now I’m going through the albums and jumping into rabbit holes a little bit and I’ve wound up on the Wikipedia page for “Can I Kick It?” 

I’m learning that the song samples Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” so that’s cool because I’ve never listened to Lou Reed on purpose, either — another guy who’s been in my head space as a name or an entity but one who I never turned the dial to because there are so many frequencies to choose from — and I’m learning that Tribe never made any money off of “Can I Kick It?” because of this. But most importantly, I’m learning that the group made a smirk-worthy video where they played with the dot of the “i” in “it.” And I’m learning that this little dot is called a tittle

A tittle. For real. T-i-t-t-l-e tittle. 

I love words, and I love language, and yet this amazing detail has been hidden from me my entire life, as a student, as an educator — we’re talking decades here. And I finally learned it from seminal hip hop that I arrived at only after a long, winding road because of other stories I’ve been told in its stead. 

For example, I think back to my sophomore year of high school, in an honors English class which I eventually dropped. (On my first day in standard English class, the teacher pointed me to a desk I could assume. I tripped on a leg of another desk on my way there, to which the new teacher said, “Ohhhh, honors kid, huh?” and I immediately knew I’d be just fine.) The honors class was legitimately impossible. Classmates regularly talked about it and how the teacher would say “yeah, you got it! You’re on it!” when we’d share our thoughts during open-ended discussion. But then we’d write those same answers to the same questions that showed up on assessments and we’d get them back with red pen splattered all over them. 

I eventually blacked out during a test in that class on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a likely tip-off to my thorough generalized anxiety disorder to which I was thoroughly aloof at that point, and would be for another five years. 

I’ve never gone back to The Scarlet Letter, or Hawthorne, and often avoid the “classics” like nobody’s business. They’re the damned worst. Why are we constantly forcing teenagers with minds like poorly fettered Pop Rock candy to read books older than any person they know? Why are we so confident that those stories are the ones worth knowing? I couldn’t figure it out then, and I haven’t been able to figure it out since, and at times I’ve even been in the unfortunate position of having to teach some of them. I do my best to contextualize them, often trying to provide the gravity of the tradition of storytelling, but that’s stuff I’ve only picked up on as a person who’s chosen to teach English and whose interests happened to have eventually found ties to such traditions. 

When we have to spend so much effort just to translate the language, just to grasp what the hell is going on, we’re missing out on all the good stuff. We’re too tired to think about syntax or symbolism. That point in history couldn’t be less real. Our eyes are ready to roll or bleed or flutter shut with sweet mercy.

I wish we’d invest in practical, authentic learning strategies that are actually genuine and not just jargon. I think if someone approached me with math through advanced baseball stats, or history or literature through the lens of hip hop, I’d have connected more dots sooner. I’d have delighted in the reality of titles existing a decade and a half sooner, at least. But maybe more than anything, I’d have been given a space to grapple with what caused me a lot of grief and pain and sleep — my anxiety. 

When your head’s filled with stuff you can’t even appreciate until years later only after extremely particular and deliberate choices that happen to slowly guide you, there isn’t a lot of space for stuff that might actually get you there faster. 

Can I Kick It? Yeah, finally. Kinda. 

Can Nathaniel Hawthorne? Absolutely not.

I Met Ram Dass This Past Saturday Morning

Saturday morning, I was on my way home from the grocery store. I was on this stretch of one-lane highway that might strike you as a living American idyll. The sun was out, it was early, it was quiet; it was everything you’d want to open up your mind, let a few things out, and let a few different things in.

I was listening to the Ram Dass podcast put out by the Love Serve Remember Foundation, called Be Here Now. The episode was titled “Astral Fun and Games Pt. 2: Doorways to the Divine.” In these talks Ram Dass tells all kinds of mundane sounding stories, but makes them as interesting as possible because he’s as interested as possible. He’s engaged the experiences he’s relaying as much as he could and he’s been conscious through the whole trip, or at least in reflecting on it.

But there’s often more than that, too. A little after the 30 minute mark, Ram Dass was speaking to a point when he was wrestling with how he was devoted to Maharaj-ji, his own guru. He described a disconnect between watching others devoted to him and seeing himself separate from those people in that moment, as if he should serve in another way that better addressed where he was in his search for freedom, and he said this:

“Maharaj-ji used to say, ‘I am always in communion with you.’ Or, ‘I’ll be with you [in America], did you think I’d let you do something wrong?'”

I heard it at first and thought, “Huh, interesting.” But then the statement worked on me a little bit; wrapped itself around me just tight enough that I felt it and had to truly acknowledge it. I audibly gasped for air, alone in my car, cruising at about 50 mph. I wasn’t choking. It was more like that first breath you take after coming up from under water.

I thought of my grandfather, and then my grandmother, each now gone at least four years. I thought about the essence of each of them as individuals, and then as a couple, and how I must have just inhaled a purely distilled bit of that relationship, and how I think about them in regard to so many of the things I do. I got to know them enough as an adult that I also got to know that essence. Ram Dass relaying that matter-of-fact sentiment from Maharaj-ji filled me with a beautiful feeling that comes from exchange of ideas, centered on service, that regularly provides guidance.

Immediately following that statement, Ram Dass elaborated.

“[Maharaj-ji] would say these little things, which you could take as just sort of nice sayings, unless you understood the level of the game in which it meant something entirely different.”

Often what I find difficult about speaking truth is doing it in a way that resonates. You want to keep it simple and easy to digest but you also want to avoid it being written off like a piece of mass-produced art for your kitchen or landing like a hand through the wall after you tripped. It’s a thin line across a wide chasm. But that’s the game, right? The point is to work to always be in a head space that lets you feel what’s right in front of you, ready to be embraced. To traverse that line without treating it like a monkey on your back, to genuinely smile with each step and go with what comes. And no one else can do it for you.

I wondered what it would be like to meet Ram Dass. I’ve known he hosted retreats in Maui every year. I’ve known he’s an older guy who experienced a stroke that altered the way he worked. I knew time wasn’t necessarily in my favor in making this happen.

And then I felt another thorough feeling. This time, it reverberated warmly throughout  from my center as I sat in the car. I smiled lightly and felt immense relief. It is not something I can quite remember having felt. I felt as though I had indeed met Ram Dass.

It’s a trippy statement, at least by the conventional sense of what it is to meet someone. There was no handshake. There was no picture. There was no seeing Ram Dass face-to-face at all. But the feeling was utterly true and knowing he was such a universal and far out being, I don’t doubt it at all. He came to me, and we met, and we knew each other.

This morning, I learned that Ram Dass as we know him passed away. He would not be with us anymore. Once more I felt absolutely present. I didn’t ask the usual questions. I wasn’t even terribly sad. What I felt was an overwhelming amount of love and is-ness.

I read through the #lovingramdass memories online as much as I could, intermittently exasperated by a cry. Then I did the things I needed to — sweeping, vacuuming, a trip to the dump, re-staining an end table, calling the dentist about a bill, holding a bone for the dog before he plopped into slumber. And the whole time I’ve been so thankful to have finally met my cosmic friend.

Feature photo by Robert Altman/Getty Images. I also definitely heard “cosmic friend” from Pete Holmes first, and find it a thoroughly true phrase. 

Attack Of The Sliders, Part 2: Hitters Who Are Hanging, And Then Some

When I last left you, I spoke about how sliders are taking the game by storm. We’re witnessing the biggest year-over-year jump in the pitch being thrown in more than a decade and the reasons are pretty cut and dry. They get more swings and misses than any other common breaker, and, considering the rate at which the ball is flying out of the park, pitchers are incentivized to optimize for strikeouts more than ever.

As if it were baseball’s form of natural selection, some hitters are handling it better than others. Jonathan Schoop, Leonys Martín, Corey Seager, Ozzie Albies, and Byron Buxton had all seen at least a five percent jump in sliders faced. And they’ve struggled against the pitch to the point where their performances may give us pause moving forward. Enough time has passed that we can reset our parameters for considering who’s doing well.

Coming into the weekend, 87 hitters had faced at least 150 sliders. Of that group, 16 had seen at least five percent more than they did in 2018. Here are the eight who have handled them best:

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Whether or not any of these hitters have been historically good against the slide piece isn’t necessarily interesting. The difficulty the pitch poses combined with the uptick in the amount they’ve each seen it would lend itself to additional struggles. And in many ways, the way they’ve performed against it this year tells the story of their production. For point of reference moving forward, consider how the population of 87 who have seen at least 150 sliders so far this year had performed, on average:

  • SL Whiff%: 16.6
  • Take%: 53.3
  • wOBA: .287
  • EV: 83.1

These data points jive pretty well with what we saw in Attack of the Sliders, Part 1. They let us sift the group of eight above into two groups — ones named Yandy Diaz, and ones not. Let’s start with the others first.  

the good guyz

Most of these guys hit the slider hard. All of them are below average at letting it go by, and, accordingly, whiff on it more than average. But by and large they all make their contact count against the pitch as much as they can, and their performance against sliders is contributing in no small part to their total value this year.

For Soler and Santana in particular, their performance against sliders so far in 2019 might be a key to what’s keeping them in the lineup. They rate out as a couple of the worst defenders amongst these eight players so the weight of their relevance sits on their bats. What’s most interesting is that they’re reaching success in different ways despite similar results. They have nearly identical plate discipline, but Santana makes nearly 18% more contact on pitches out of the zone than Soler. That would lead us to believe that contact he makes generates his lower exit velocity if he isn’t barreling the ball, but still putting it to places that can’t be defended. When it’s left in the zone, no one connects more than Soler out of this bunch. His top 25% exit velo against sliders supports his ability to swing freely but really lock in on the stuff over the plate.

Javy Baez continues to make an extreme contact profile work, and he’s so good that it isn’t just about taking advantage of mistakes. He’s one of the worst hitters in the league at taking a pitch — he swings at more than 90% of qualified hitters — and yet, he’s in the 85th percentile in wOBA and nearly 80th percentile EV amongst hitters seeing the biggest increase in sliders. With his plus defense, this peak under the hood illuminates why he’s been the most valuable of the bunch so far.

The two Yankees on the list also tell an interesting tale. After all their injuries, New York is doing the unthinkable and pacing the AL East. Voit’s performance last year made it highly likely that he wasn’t a flash in the pan, and he’s officially taken the Yankees first base job and run away with it. Being able to hang with sliders and other breakers while crushing everything else appears to simply be his M.O.

Frazier, meanwhile, requires a bit of an asterisk. He only had 41 scattered plate appearances last year, but the big increase in sliders over more playing time in this campaign suggests a tremendous amount of immediate respect from opposing pitchers. With how hard he hits sliders, we might be able to expect a better overall performance against them moving forward, because as basic as it sounds hitting the ball hard is still a huge indicator of productive play. It could also make the Yankees somehow more difficult to face. He almost embodies the way they’re winning this year — an unheralded guy or one whose sheen had worn off for various reasons, coming out and balling.

Reyes — affectionately known as The Franimal — is the healthy counterpart to San Diego’s highly likable Big Boi outfielders who can absolutely crush the ball. He has some of the worst plate discipline against sliders but encouraging results when he does connect. At just 23, he’s showing a ton for the Padres to get excited about. Sure, the team is 10 games back in their division, but they’re also two games over .500 and on the precipice of arriving as competitors. If Reyes continues to grow in his ability to track breaking balls at the plate, he could help propel them forward. Even if he merely stays the same, he’s going to continue to have a positive impact.

Avi Garcia offers another fascinating look at Tampa Bay’s ability to acquire and develop players who seems to have enormous holes in their game. He’s on pace for the best season of his career, much like fellow teammates Tommy Pham and Yandy Diaz, who were similarly cast off from their former clubs. He’s been up and down against the slider throughout his career in the Majors but has clicked in 2019. His plate discipline is still suspect, but the last time he was this good he was worth more than four wins for a cellar dwelling White Sox team. Another performance like that on a team pushing for the playoffs is going to be one to watch.

And that brings us to Yandy.

yandy

Diaz has seen more sliders than most hitters, spit on them more than anyone who’s seen as big an increase, whiffs less, and hits it harder than nearly everyone. Sure, his ability to drive the ball hasn’t resulted in the best wOBA against sliders, but the Rays have already gotten him to hit as many homers this year as he has in the last two years combined. That’s far from a baby step. His defense is middling but his long-expected ability to hit is finally bearing fruit. He’s a prime example of how the Rays keep creating formidable matchups for their opponents in the most creative (cheapest?) ways possible.

The slider is probably here to stay. So far, these hitters are staying with it, and I will, too. Stay tuned for more updates on how the pitch is impacting the game at the highest level!

Slider data from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature photo from Chris O’Meara/AP

Attack Of The Sliders, Part 1: Struggling Hitters

The most recent advent of baseball has brought with it a fervor for sliders across the league. Others have written about it — Matthew Trueblood wrote last September that pitchers were choosing sliders over sinkers, while just recently Eno Sarris noted that it’s more severe now when examining the struggles of Bryce Harper. It’s true. We’re on track to witness the largest year-over-year jump in sliders since 2010-11. They’re now accounting for 18% of all pitches and the league is on pace for about 8,000 more sliders thrown than last season. If we were talking about White Castle sliders, you’d pretty much be dead.

It makes sense that pitchers are chucking more sliders. It’s the pitch generates the most whiffs of any offering thrown with regularity. It makes sense that the pitch is usurping the sinker, because the sinker generates the least amount of whiffs. Every team has a guy who can throw gas at this point, and now half the league is leaning into it the slider as a primary breaking pitch as hitters and pitchers alike optimize for the best possible outcome. And it’s affecting some more than others.

Through this past weekend, 149 hitters had already seen at least 100 sliders. Of those, 100 had seen more than the average amount compared to their peers, but some guys are really getting beraged. Here are the 10 players who are seeing the biggest jump in sliders faced, of the group who’s seen the most sliders so far this year:

attack of the sliders

Certainly, this is a talented group. But it’s also equally as weird. I’m not sure you’d put them together for any particular reason outside of maybe age, and even that only regards about half of them. Even here, the closest thing they all have in common is a bad whiff rate at sliders. Their overall performance against the pitch, though, lets us split them into two groups of five. Today, we’ll take the bad news.

bad sliders

Before delving into the case of each player above, let’s keep in mind the average rates for each stat above for this entire group of hitters:

  • SL Whiff%: 16.8
  • Take%: 52.3
  • wOBA: .285
  • EV: 83.2

These points give us some context for just how much trouble the slider is giving each of these five guys.

Schoop signed a one year, $8.5 million prove-it contract with Minnesota over the winter. So far, the returns are good and he’s definitely rebounding from a woof-worthy stint in Baltimore. He’s showing the most power of his career, as his .234 isolated slugging tells us, and isn’t necessarily lucking into his success. It’s hard to say if sliders are keeping him contained or portend tougher times ahead, but he’s in the bottom 20% in everything but wOBA against them. It’s not a stretch to think the low exit velo and hack-happy approach leaves him exposed.

Leonys Martín is tied with Jordan Luplow as Cleveland’s best outfielder, though Luplow has played in 16 less games. Collectively, the group has actually been worth -.1 wins so far this season, though, so it’s not a terribly meaningful title, anyway. Martín isn’t offending anyone, but his inability to lay off sliders may make for predictable ABs as summer wages on. Despite this, his ability to make just enough quality contact to be definitively average will probably keep him in the lineup, as Cleveland’s front office appears aloof to the dearth of talent they’re leaving to patrol the outfield.

Pitch Info actually has Corey Seager as a positive performer against sliders for every season before this one. Maybe he’s not used to using his body as a baseball player again after a long injury and rehab process from last season, or maybe this is just a blip on the radar. But the drop in performance against sliders is worrisome because of the volume he’s seeing. He’s always had a take percentage against the pitch that’s similar to this year’s, but he’s also always been able to drive it much better. This feels like the kind of thing that could make or break a big moment or two in the Dodgers’ season.

Ozzie Albies…hmm. Albies is becoming more and more curious in the early stage of his career. He came up with a reputation of being able to control the barrel of his bat and take a walk, then hit the big leagues and swung at everything, showed impressive and unexpected power, then started to whiff. A lot. Simply having the major league experience he does at this point still bodes well for his long-term outlook. Atlanta is in a curious position, though. They chose to lean heavily this winter on a core that appeared to arrive early instead of using that performance as a reason to buy complementary pieces sooner. Albies is a big part of that choice, but right now everyone is left to take his solid all-around game and hope the upside shown by his ability to discern the strike zone catches up to his ability to drive the ball when he finally does square it up.

Buxton is another Twin who’s enjoying a fine rebound after a dismal 2018. Out of the guys who have seen the most sliders this year, he’s tied with Brandon Lowe for the highest fWAR. If he maintained his current rate of offense — he has a 115 wRC+ — and paired it with his elite defense, he’d be a huge piece for the Twins as they continue to muscle through the league. But we know he’s prone to big slumps and any additional increase in sliders could spell some trouble. Slight regression from a few guys in Minnesota could mean a lot more in a wacky AL Central, and, perhaps more than usual, the games will start to break more and more for or against them based on just a few centimeters.

Whiffs are increasingly inseparable from baseball. The guys featured above all embody that, and emphasize how important it is to make your contact count. So far, they’ve been vulnerable, despite being quality contributors. Whether it changes or not could have a pronounced impact on their final lines for 2019.

Stay tuned for part two of this story, when I’ll explore five guys excelling against the slider despite seeing a bunch more of them!

Slider data from Statcast. Pitch values and WAR from FanGraphs. Feature photo John McCoy/Getty Images

The Reds Pitching Staff Is On A New Level: Atop Baseball

The nature of change often makes it seem as though it’s happened overnight. We aren’t particularly good at seeing the tiny, consistent changes that build up over time when it comes to seeing it in others. We aren’t particularly patient enough to enforce those same tiny, consistent tweaks when we attempt to change ourselves. And beyond that, it’s more fun to subscribe to the idea that someone went to bed one night one way, and then woke up the next day completely different. It’s conveniently inspiring and hopeful.

Nonetheless, real change happens with quiet commitment. The Cincinnati Reds pitching staff so far in 2019 is proving to be a great example. Last year, they were the fifth-worst in all of baseball. So far this year, they’re tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the best in all of baseball.

Reds data

The data only go as far back as when games started at the end of March. But to appreciate when the Reds really started to implement change to their pitching approach, we have to go back to last October when they hired away Derek Johnson from the division rival Brewers. Johnson came to Cincinnati with a reputation as one of the best pitching coaches in the league. He spent the last three years in Milwaukee; before that, he was the minor league pitching coordinator for the Cubs for three years, and before that, he was the pitching coach at Vanderbilt University from 2002-12. Those are all in their own ways forward-thinking organizations of which Johnson was integral part.

He’s not the only improvement the team made. In January, the Reds hired Caleb Cotham as an assistant pitching coach. Cotham was coached by Johnson and was teammates with Sonny Gray at Vanderbilt. He has Major League pitching experience, has trained at Driveline, and most recently worked for the Bledsoe Agency while focusing on player development.  To get a sense of his approach, consider this picture he tweeted in January 2018:

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Those baseballs are marked up to aid the use of a Rapsodo, to help show a pitch’s spin axis and provide cues for pitchers as to how to manipulate the ball as it leaves their hand. The Reds joined the revolution this offseason and began using Rapsodo in spring training, and made sure they had staff that not only wanted to implement it, but knew how to get the most out of the cameras that can provide thousands of slow motion frames per second.

That’s what the team has done on the coaching side of things, but the games and execution are still left to the players. Big changes were made there, too — Sal Romano, Matt Harvey, and Homer Bailey are no longer on the 25-man roster. They recorded the second-, fifth-, and sixth-most innings for the Reds last year and just 2.4 fWAR combined. Others who contributed somewhat regular innings, like Matt Wisler, Austin Brice, Dylan Floro, Jackson Stephens, and Brandon Finnegan, are also either no longer with the organization or are in the minors.

The Reds have fortified their rotation with Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark, and moved Robert Stephenson to the bullpen full time. So far, they’re the best pitchers the Reds have who aren’t named Luis Castillo, in large part thanks to a serious commitment to sliders. Gray isn’t trying to throw his for strikes as he was with the Yankees, and he looks like his old productive self. Roark is throwing the slider an additional 12% from last year. Stephenson has gone mad and is throwing it 20% more than in 2018. The early returns have clearly been favorable, but was solving the problem really just about the Reds getting new coaches and shuffling the deck?

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All of these heat maps are from the catcher’s perspective. As a staff, Reds pitchers are demonstrating better command almost across the board. Fastballs are more clearly up and to the first base side. Sliders are extremely crisp, painting the low, first base-side corner and seemingly refuse to leak more into the zone. Curveballs aren’t being left in the heart of the plate. Changeups are being pounded with more authority to the low corner on the third base side. Two-seamers are working more to the lower third of the zone.

The team is also employing them far less, having accounted for anywhere between 5-10% less of the staff’s total offerings, depending on which pitch classification system you use. Over the course of the season, that’s roughly a thousand less sinkers, at least.

The two-seamer is the pitch that gets the least amount of whiffs. Trading them for literally any other pitch is a net win in that regard, which might help explain how the Reds have managed to maintain the amount of walks they give up while adding 20% more strikeouts over last year. We’re at a point where pitchers and hitters are each optimizing for the best possible outcome: strikeouts and homers. Going for more whiffs as hitters are already primed to swing and miss because they’re going for extra base hits is a no-brainer, but the Reds appear to have had more room to improve in this area than most teams, and have done it as much as possible since last year.

The improved command has lead to improved efficiency, too. Reds pitchers have thrown the eighth-fewest pitches in the Majors. From 2016-18, they never ranked better than 16th by that measure. Throwing fewer pitches doesn’t necessarily correlate to automatic success — for example, the Yankees threw more pitches than nearly everyone last year but their staff was also better than every team except the Astros — but in this instance, it’s clear that the Reds’ efficiency is representative of a big part of their ascent so far.

It started with one coaching hire, and then another. And then they added new tech that complements old knowledge and relationships. Since then it’s been about executing each pitch with more authority to places that are harder to hit it. The Reds are five games under .500 in what could be baseball’s toughest division, and yet they’re in the midst of a turnaround on the mound that’s unprecedented. Tune in to be a witness. 

Heat maps from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images.

Quick Hits: Jacob deGrom and Sam Gaviglio Have Changed Their Pitch Mix

I’ve got more ideas for pieces than I might have ever had, but I’m also in the midst of moving. I can’t flesh out all of them at this moment, but below are some worthwhile tidbits for you to enjoy.

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Sam Gaviglio is working out of the bullpen for the Blue Jays this year and it’s going really well. He’s one of only 20 relievers to register at least 10 innings pitched so far — 305 have recorded outs, per FanGraphs — and there’s good reason. He has a 26% K-rate and a 21.4 K-BB rate. The only other times he’s done that were 2011, in four innings at Low-A; 2013, in nine innings in rookie ball; and 2018, in 29 innings at AAA.

His last stint in the minors would suggest some change, but he came up and produced a sub-par whiff rate for Toronto in nearly four times as many innings. As a guy who can barely break 90 mph, it might be fair to consider if this is just a flukey April performance. But he’s made a real change to his pitch mix this year. 

gaviglio

Gaviglio’s primary pitch has become his slider, which is creating whiffs at a 26% clip. That’s nine percent better than league average. Last year it was just above average, at 19%. He’s tightened up the shape of it, but the results are a while off from us being able to fully buy in on his performance so far. It seems legitimate, though. The benefit really seems to be from trading a pitch that doesn’t get any whiffs for almost anyone — the sinker — for the one that generates the most.

Gaviglio’s got a spot in the bullpen that seems to suit his newly adapted skill set. He has a pitch that can get hitters to miss and one that they can drive into the ground, and he’s prioritizing them in that order. And remember, most guys throw harder when moved to a relief role because they can spend more energy on each pitch without having to worry about turning over the lineup multiple times. Maybe we even see a velo bump out of him at some point that helps his stuff play up even more. He’s not getting a lot of buzz right now, but he’s pretty intriguing.

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Everyone is entitled to a bad day, even when you’ve had a record-tying amount of consecutive good days. But now Jacob deGrom has had two uncharacteristic starts in a row and we haven’t seen that kind of performance from him since May of 2017. He’s gone just nine innings in his last two starts and has given up nine runs, five homers, and  five walks, to go with 12 Ks. His velocity is fine. The ball is juiced again. But there’s still some weird stuff happening under the hood.

One is that his pitch mix has changed. He’s siphoned away from the pitches he uses least — his curveball and two-seamer — and replaced them almost all with four-seamer, which he’s now throwing more than 50% of the time. He’s never done that in his entire career.

His nasty slider has also straightened out. As a dominant pitch, it’s never had a ton of drop or bite, but now it’s lost about a half inch on both horizontal and vertical break. The results have not been pretty. Batters are slapping it to the tune of a .474 wOBA. The league average hovers slightly above .260 and last year, batters only squeaked out a .206 wOBA against deGrom’s. These numbers are far from stable — his only has six hits against it — but pitch shape actually stabilizes really fast. It’s odd.

DeGrom is also throwing the slider 1.3 mph faster, and he isn’t spotting it well. It’s going more clearly out of the zone instead of painting the edge. His fastball has also been all over, and it’s hard not to wonder if there’s a tiny mechanical issue going on.

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Below are two stills from right before deGrom brings his arm up as he delivers the ball to the plate. They’re both from Citi Field. On the left is from 2018, and on the right is from this year. In each, he’s throwing a slider.

deGrom4

Maybe I’ve stared at this too long, but it seems like he was more open to the plate last year, and that he’s more compact this year. We can see this in his throwing hand being closer to his body and his hips being slightly more closed this year. At 6’4″, he’s got big levers, and maybe he isn’t optimizing them right now. These are tiny details, but we all know that tiny details can scale big in this game.

You can look at the clips here and here and play it slowly for yourself if you’d like. It’ll be worth keeping an eye on deGrom moving forward for reasons we probably didn’t expect.

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That’s all for now. Keep your eyes peeled for a similar post on hitters as we settle into our new place. Until then, may you consume as much baseball as possible.

All data from Statcast unless specified. Feature photo: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke/NewsDay

The One Stable Stat We Have Is Telling Us About Potential Breakouts Already Happening

Welcome to the start of the 2019 season. We’ve got some interesting stuff going on already! The Yankees are missing an entire starting roster due to injuries. Christian Yelich is so hot at the plate that he might actually spontaneously combust. Tim Beckham is your fourth-best player in the entire league. Things have been wild! By and large, they also don’t — and can’t — mean much because the sample size is so small. Almost.

Thanks to work by Rob Arthur, we know a single batted ball in the air can be predictive. Basically, the idea is that a single exit velocity reading can purely measure how strong a hitter is without having to attempt to account for noise like bad fielding or a kindly gust of wind like other stats might. That strength correlates pretty well with OPS, giving us a reasonable measure of what we might be able to expect from certain hitters moving forward, almost regardless when they rip one like this.

So far this season, 15 hitters have hit two line drives or fly balls at 109 mph or more. Data points can often seem awkwardly arbitrary, but this one isn’t. As Arthur explains, it’s the point at which players gain a bump of six points of OPS per each additional mph they hit a ball. We’re looking at line drives and fly balls because they’re the hardest to defend. About half of those 15 guys are ones who are more established as stars or at least serious threats in the league: Bryce Harper, Nomar Mazara, Gary Sanchez, Joey Gallo, Nelson Cruz, Jose Abreu, Mike Trout, Hanley Ramirez. The other half are not. Here they are, with the rate at which they knocked a ball in the air at 109+ mph last year:

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The highest fWAR production of any of these players in 2018 was Harrison Bader’s 3.5, which probably has to do more with his excellent defense at a premium position than his 106 wRC+. Nobody else broke two wins above replacement, though Voit almost did in just 47 games because he played like a madman in September. Mancini and Buxton actually managed negative fWAR of -.2 and -.4, and Buxton managed that in just 27 games. Voit and Alonso offer some later and very late development sheen, but outside of that it’s a rather motley crew.

Here’s how they’re airing it out so far this season, barely more than a week into the season.

Mashin 2

The Mets chose the middle ground between holding Alonso in the minors last year and further manipulating his service time by breaking camp with him in the Major Leagues. Bully for them. He’s been exactly as advertised, with a K-rate over 30% but seven RBI and an isolated slugging about a hundred points better than league average. The average of projection systems ZiPS, Steamer, and THE BAT see him having a .748 OPS the rest of the way, but the way he’s hitting early suggests he might not have much trouble exceeding that.

Voit has one more big knock despite seeing 80% fewer pitches so far, and it really seems like the Cardinals are having a hard time knowing the offensive talent they have between their nonchalant send-offs of him and Tommy Pham. He’s been similar to Alonso, but with less Ks and more than two times the amount of walks in the early going. The Big Three project him for a .795 OPS from here on out, with heavy regression in his slugging since his torrid September last season. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see him beat that, though.

Buxton has been the Dr. Jekyll to his Mr. Hyde so far, but also left the Twins game on April 3 with a back contusion, so he’s really staying on brand here in the early going. Mancini is a quarter of the way to his 2018 total for smoked line drives or fly balls, despite seeing only a tiny fraction of the pitches. His three percent walk rate is also about half of what he usually produces. That’s not a reliable rate yet but it’s worth considering that Mancini has just run into a hot streak to start the year.

Franco, Bader, and Tellez off the most intrigue, especially measured against what ZiPS, Steamer, and THE BAT project for them moving forward. Franco is projected for a .781 OPS the rest of the way, providing about another 25 homers, 63 runs, and 84 RBI. He’s walking a hilarious 26% more than he’s whiffing right now thanks to a league-leading six intentional walks. Part of that is because he’s batting eighth and is an easy route to the pitcher, but part of it is because he’s shown himself to be a legitimate threat to make pitchers look really, really bad so far. The plate discipline can’t stick at the current rate but if it’s an indicator of a true adjustment — and it might be, as he’s swinging a little less at junk low and away so far — it might be tagteaming with this new drive to smoke the ball to help Franco shoot past that projected .781 OPS.

Tellez is expected to produce a .750 OPS moving forward and is maybe the biggest wild card of these three. He had some hype as a prospect with lots of pop but had a terrible year in his personal life last year as his mother passed and he fell off a lot of radars. He squeezed into 23 games in the Majors at the end of the season and showed that pop, and now he’s doing more of the same but with way better plate discipline. He’s a Blue Jay down to the tee: grips and rips and gets results through bombs. He’s projected to break 20 dingers and a shade under 70 runs and RBI each, but, like Franco, if the plate discipline sticks a little with this ability to drive the ball, he could push past those with relative ease.

Bader looks like he’ll push another 20 home runs but only another 60 runs and RBI each or so. His projected OPS is a shoddy .701. That was folding in the Bader we knew before he matched the two pitches he smashed at 109 mph or better last year in just four percent of the pitches so far this season. He’s also batting in the lower third of the order and might be hard to keep tamped down there if he keeps swinging like he has early on. If there’s a Vegas line on his OPS, take the over.

The plate discipline referenced above may not be fully stable for another month or so at least. The counting stats may be largely subject to game situations. But when we’re breaking down what produces them by just how hard a guy is mashing the baseball through peeking at exit velocity, they’re all showing upside we can buy into now. Get ready for the headlines.

Exit velocity and pitches seen data from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature photo Rick Scuteri/AP