Baseball

Brad Peacock Might Finally Have An Answer For Lefthanded Hitters

Brad Peacock has been a lot of things in his career. A near-afterthought as a draft pick, a top-50 prospect, a starter with an unsightly walk rate, injured with bone spurs near his spine, a nifty reliever, a great swingman…they’re all apt descriptions of the various phases he’s experienced. This year, he’s back in the rotation for the Astros as they’re primed for another season of success. Whether in an upswing or a downturn, though, lefty hitters have always been a bugaboo for him.

He came into 2019 sporting a wOBA against lefthanded hitters that was 29% worse than the average righthanded pitcher since he came into the league. I wanted to round that to 30% for the sake of convenience, but then I checked how Peacock has performed against same-handed hitters compared to other righties in the same time frame. Get this — he’s been 29% better at limiting quality contact than his peers. Talk about wild!

But back to how he fares against lefties. He has a three-quarter arm slot and his best pitches — his fastball and slider — aren’t necessarily ideal to go to battle with against them. With that in mind it’s understandable that he could have his limitations; that his ultimate effectiveness might be limited by the same things that got him to the Majors. Just consider what he’s thrown when facing a lefthanded hitter through his career:

peacock v lefties career
There are a couple clerical-type things to note here. One is that we could merge Peacock’s two-seamer (FT) and sinker (SI) into 229 total pitches. Even if we want to split hairs and distinguish them from each other, odds are infinitesimal that Peacock was trying to throw two different pitches. It’s just a pitch classification quirk. The other is that anything thrown by a pitcher less than about 10% is something we don’t need to sweat. It probably isn’t offered enough to really buy into the data it produces. So we can eliminate the two-seamer as a whole to get a closer look at how Peacock really approached lefties from the time he debuted in MLB through last year.

That leaves us with a four-seamer, a knuckle curveball, a slider, and possibly a changeup. Based on usage, let’s draw our focus tighter to just the breaking balls. Here’s where he located them:

peacock HHEEAATT

That’s from the catcher’s perspective. He alternated location with each, sometimes trying to get chases low and in and sometimes trying to backdoor them over the plate. They’re distinct pitches and that’s usually good. But in this case, maybe not so much. Peacock’s curveball has always dropped between six and 11 inches more than his slider. Meanwhile, its side-to-side movement shrunk from a four inch difference with the slider to less than an inch in the last two-plus seasons. Locating the pitches in different spots could have given lefty hitters the chance to distinguish the break on each pitch, line it up and drive it, or spit on it and wait for a fastball. With all that deep yellow outside of the zone above, there was probably a good chance for a walk, too.

In his first start of 2019, he changed things against lefties. To the pitch mix!

peacock peeitch meeix
Ok, so let’s ditch the two-seamer/sinker amalgamation. Let’s also ditch the single cutter (FC), because it was probably just a bad slider. We can take or leave the five changeups, and since we already left them earlier, we’re going to do it again. We’re going to continue focusing on only the four-seamer, the knuckle curveball, and the slider.

The first thing that jumps out is the fastball is down below 50% usage. The next thing that sticks out is the breaking ball preference has flipped. By flipping the script, Peacock got four called strikes on sliders to lefties in his 2019 debut, plus one whiff. The lefties let the curveball go and it became a ball half the time. 

There’s one more thing about how Peacock employed his breaking balls against lefties to start the season. Here they are in heatmap form from the catcher’s perspective again:

peacock heat

Both pitches fell to the same lower, inside corner. With the side-to-side break less than an inch apart from each other, and the curveball dropping more than an additional 10 inches, Peacock used them in tandem to cause fits for lefties.

Think of this with the heatmap as an aid. The pitches most frequently fell to the black dot below the zone, but the pitches that created the gradation of maroon out to orange up and into the zone are the ones that made it so hard for the hitter to decide whether to swing.

You might be thinking, “Big whoop. The Astros played the Rangers in Peacock’s first start. They stink.” You wouldn’t be wrong. They’re projected to win about 75 games, give or take a few. But Texas offers some dangerous lefties. Nomar Mazara, Joey Gallo, Rougned Odor, Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Ronald Guzman combined to go 2-for-14 against Peacock. The lineup was stacked with established lefty big leaguers (save for Guzman) whose wOBA was between average and 50% above average against righties as recently as last year, and they were collectively helpless. 

The season’s about a week old. What’s happened so far is by no means an indicator of what will continue to happen. But Brad Peacock might have changed his approach to lefties and that could be a big deal. It might not solve his times-through-the-order problem, where he’s 75% worse than his peers the third time seeing an offense. He’s also 25% better than them when seeing hitters the first and second time, though, so an uptick in efficiency could produce some scary-good results. The Astros have pitchers in the system like Forrest Whitley and Josh James, plus others, who could eventually take Peacock’s rotation spot. For now, he’s locked in, and might have a new trick up his sleeve to help keep it that way. 

All data from Statcast unless otherwise noted. Feature photo Ron Schwane/Associated Press.

 

“Player development doesn’t stop”: Sam Fuld on how sneaky hard it is to become a better player

This winter, I had a conversation with Sam Fuld, who is currently the Major League Player Information Coordinator with the Phillies. He was on his way back from a Type-1 diabetes camp he runs in partnership with the University of South Florida, and prepping for spring training. We talked about everything baseball from how he wished he kept it simpler in his playing career to finding better ways to practice to using different pitcher types as models for defensive positioning. But one part of the conversation keeps floating to the forefront of my mind.

Every year, we’re treated to players who seem to come out of nowhere to produce like stars. Just last year, Patrick Corbin tweaked his breaking balls and became nearly unhittable. Brandon Nimmo became so productive by adding power to his on-base ability that the Mets couldn’t find any more reasons not to play him. In 2017, the Yankees saw Luis Severino become an ace as his slider evolved and Aaron Judge produce power that matched his colossal size. Jose Ramirez created runs 50% better than ever in 2016 and has maintained that production after being previously evaluated by many to be a utility man or bench bat at best.

Now these guys are adamantly among the the most productive in the game. In the seasons before they broke out, they combined for 4.1 fWAR. Most of that was from Corbin, who was a perfectly fine pitcher, if not a household name. In their breakout years, they combined for 29.4 wins. As a group, they went from inspiring bathroom breaks to awe, seemingly overnight.

It can be easy to have that impression about players because we have a tendency to equate “Major Leagues” with “finished product.” It’s a reasonable enough assumption — after all, how often does one reach the pinnacle of their profession and then get drastically better? The thing about that thought, though, is it assumes that peaks are static. Realistically, “player development doesn’t stop. It’s not a minor league thing,” Fuld says.

The sentiment becomes easier to appreciate when remembering how more data seems to flow into baseball decision-making every day. But it’s important to distinguish the role that data has. Just existing doesn’t mean it’s going to jumpstart progress. Talking about it doesn’t mean it’s going to be applied correctly. Buying into it doesn’t mean you know exactly what’s going to happen, because “for every action, there is often some sort of unintended consequence,” tells Fuld. He continued:

“[I]f we’re trying to get someone to throw his dominant slider more often, maybe throwing it more will make him lose feel for one of his other pitches. Or if we tell a hitter that he should look for fastballs in the lower half of the zone because that’s where he does most of his damage, this might make him more susceptible to breaking balls down out of the zone because that’s where his sights have changed to.

Let’s stick with the pitching angle here, and look at Nick Pivetta’s 2018 to get a practical understanding of what Fuld is saying. Pivetta came into the year with some helium and ultimately produced nearly three wins, but had ups and downs as his walk and strikeout rates fluctuated.

Pivetta mix

Pivetta’s got a diverse arsenal. Each of the last two years shows us he has three legitimate offerings and at least a couple show-me pitches. The big difference is how he traded four-seamers for other pitches in 2018, mainly his curve. That’s because his curveball is really good. It has a ton of tumble due to having spin that’s better than 90% of Major Leaguers. He knows how to keep his wrist locked and wrapped around the ball when snapping it off, leading to lots of useful spin that creates drop. So throw it more! Throw it early! Throw it whenever! Great things will happen!

Or rather, great things could happen.

Pivetta breakers combined

The top image is the vertical drop on Pivetta’s breaking balls in 2018. His curveball continued to tumble hard, sometimes having as much as 10.5 inches of drop. His slider was a tighter pitch, with up to about two-and-a-half inches of drop.

The bottom image is the horizontal break on the same pitches. Each tended to move to his glove side, between seven and nine inches for his curve and between three and six for his slider.

Overall, the different movement on the pitches kept them distinct. But there’s one thing from the images above that we haven’t talked about — that maroon line, which sparked into existence in July and grew through the end of the year. It’s labeled here by Brooks Baseball as a cutter. It took on roughly the tight vertical and glove-side movement of his slider, but was off by a couple inches for each. It was also about four mph faster. It was awkward.

Pitch classification systems aren’t always in unilateral agreement over what a pitcher actually throws, but Baseball Savant didn’t even register Pivetta as throwing any cutters last year. Between that, the extremely low usage, its sudden July “introduction,” and the new reliance on his curve, it’s possible he was just throwing bad sliders. He could’ve lost the feel for it as the season waged on — an unintended consequence of leaning more heavily on his best pitch. For 2019, one of the biggest things that could help Pivetta continue to make progress could be keeping his pitches distinct so he’s more comfortable in his approach and execution.

Pivetta’s breaking balls may offer one peek into what Fuld was describing about unintended consequences. It’s impossible to know exactly what to expect from any given tweak, even when pursuing what the data says makes the most sense to do in order to be better. 

There are other difficulties in continuing player development at the Major League level. Fuld refers to one as “threading the needle” — ultimately, understanding that “Player X can handle a little more than Player Y” when it comes to absorbing and processing all the data the team has about their game. Not everyone will be Justin Verlander upon arriving in Houston, and not everyone needs to be.

Fuld also detailed something that’s perhaps more important than understanding what a given player can handle, though. It’s critical to “create awareness for players that there are resources that can help them.” In other words, be present, but don’t be effusive. Build a relationship that starts with an open door and allows players to make the choice to seek what they can handle to enhance their game, instead of sliding it toward them from across a table in a meeting, with no context or plan.

Baseball rewards those who are confident and eats up those who are not. No one reaches the Major Leagues by accident, which makes it much easier for players to be risk-averse. But those who are willing to wade into unknown waters in the pursuit of progress, and be confident enough to navigate them? They can be stars.

WAR from FanGraphs. Pitch mix and movement data from Brooks Baseball. Feature photo Eric Hartline/USA Today Sports

 

The New-look Phillies Plan On Stealing All Your Strikes

You’ve probably heard of how pitchers and catchers can steal strikes from expert control and framing. Some guys are just so good at painting the edges that they get those calls, plus the benefit of the doubt on the ones that push a little further outside. Think Zack Greinke, or Aaron Nola, or Kyle Hendricks for pitchers. On the catching side, the names are less heralded, but think Yasmani Grandal, Jeff Mathis, or Max Stassi. They all deliver or receive the ball with such veracity that it’s almost magical to witness as a viewer, and probably infuriating as a hitter.

But all’s fair in love and baseball. If pitchers and catchers can aid themselves in stealing strikes that help them get outs, logic follows that hitters can do the same to prolong at-bats, even if we don’t necessarily talk about it under the same terms. Certain guys are just better than their peers at knowing when to swing and when not to, whether the ball is in the zone or not. And maybe, just maybe, that’s part of why the Phillies went out and acquired Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper this winter: they know when they can afford to not swing, even if the ball ends up on the edges or in the zone. Added to Rhys Hoskins and Cesar Hernandez, the team now has three of last year’s top five hitters in baseball at getting pitches in those spots to be called balls, and four of the top 30.

phils strike stealers

There’s a lot to unpack here. In each of the last three seasons, only about 220 hitters have qualified to be a strike thief each season by having seen at least 1,500 pitches. While hypothetically that works out on average to about seven guys per team, it’s certainly not how the talent is actually distributed. Just seven teams accounted for half of the top 30 alone in 2018. In many respects, what one team has is what another inherently can’t.

That would also mean that what one team has the most of, their competitors are left with an equal and opposite dearth. The Phillies having four of the top strike-stealing hitters of last year would be a tie for the most since the 2016 Jays that featured Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Michael Saunders, and Jose Bautista. The numbers for Harper and Hoskins are skewed because of playing time spent in the minors or lost to injury, but their most recent skills show legitimate ability to steal strikes. The other big names Philadelphia has acquired this winter aren’t too shabby at stealing strikes, either. JT Realmuto ranked in the 63rd percentile last season and Jean Segura ranked in the 54th.

The collective ability of the presumptive 1-6 hitters in the team’s revamped lineup will feature two guys who can hits 30+ home runs, and four more who could break 20. This is sure to be frustrating for opposing pitchers. But imagine what will run through their heads if they give up a bomb, come back with a competitive pitch that paints the black or is even over the plate, and don’t get a called strike. It could be like getting punched in the gut and then flicked on the nose.

For the sake of the exercise, let’s keep comparing the prospective 2019 Phillies to those 2016 Jays. Toronto finished 89-73. They made it into the playoffs as a wild card team, won the wild card game, and made a run all the way to the ALCS. Their pitching staff finished with 18.6 fWAR which was good for eighth-best in baseball, and their hitters combined for 22.8 fWAR which was good for sixth-best.

The Phillies’ pitching staff currently projects to be worth 16.1 fWAR and their hitters project to be worth 25.5 fWAR. The difference? An uncanny one-tenth of a win, before accounting for the way projections are naturally conservative. A step forward from any young Phillies pitcher, of which there are many, and it’s easy to see without squinting too hard that this team could make a run not just to the playoffs, but through them.

If you’re concerned about the idea that just because the hitters Philly has now are still good at stealing strikes because they were good last year, that’s fair. When it comes to stats, it’s always critical to establish what’s predictive against what’s descriptive. The Phillies lineup could accurately be described as a strike-pilfering bunch. But when we look at hitters who steal strikes across the league, there are plenty of examples that suggest it’s a true skill, just like it is with pitchers and catchers.

strike stealers 3

Each of the 19 hitters in the chart above has finished in the top 25% of strike stealers every season from 2016-2018. Only Kyle Seager has a middling wOBA in the same time, as he came in at almost the exact league average of .318.  Everyone else is clearly above average, and 16 of the 19 are at least 27% better than the majority of their peers at getting on base. The ability of the best hitters to steal strikes doesn’t seem to be a byproduct of a keen eye, but an integral part of it.

For some more visual — if anecdotal — evidence, let’s take a look at some heatmaps to show where these potential strikes are getting called as balls in favor of certain hitters.

Animated GIF-downsized_large

It seems that in any given at-bat with an elite strike-stealing hitter, a pitcher could lose as much as a third of the zone. You’d nearly have to groove one to Mike Trout to make sure it’s a strike, and that’s quite possibly the worst idea anyone’s ever had. Some of these are just plain silly.

There isn’t much research out there that backs the notion of lineup protection, but this kind of in-game support between teammates driven by their individual skills could help see the Phillies take a huge step forward this year. Andrew McCutchen and Cesar Hernandez have already demonstrated that they can maintain their ability to swipe strikes. Rhys Hoskins has shown a tremendous knack for it in his first full season and comes with the reputation of someone who knows how to work a count. Bryce Harper may be the biggest wild card in the bunch when it comes to this quiet aspect of the game, but he’s eminently capable. We know the division is going to be a dogfight, and the Phillies are planning on using every tactic possible.

 

WAR and wOBA from FanGraphs. Stolen strike data and heatmaps from Statcast. Feature photo Matt Rourke/AP

 

The NL East Is Doing Something Brazen: Actively Trying To Get Better Than Their Competition

By now, you’ve likely heard of what’s going on in the NL East. At the very least, you’ve probably heard that Bryce Harper has chosen to play for the Phillies. Harper is the latest, boldest addition yet by an NL East team this offseason. With the likes of Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel still on the market, he might not be the last. In the words of Hall of Fame WWE broadcaster Jim Ross, the division is shaping up to be a real slobberknocker.

The NL East is one of only two divisions in all of baseball that is currently projected to have four teams winning at least 80 games. Everyone but the Marlins will be playing competitive baseball.

Three of the four remaining teams have acquired an upgrade at catcher via the fungible backstop market. The Mets and Phillies have each added a hitter who just last year created runs at a rate that was at least 30% better than the league average in Robinson Cano and Harper. The Braves have added one in Josh Donaldson, who, once healthy, was 17% better than average. The Nationals will have a full season from Juan Soto, who stunningly projects to be anywhere from 41-54% better than average. The Mets and Phillies have also added big time relievers in Edwin Diaz and David Robertson, and the Nationals and Braves have both been connected to Craig Kimbrel.

It’s one thing to look at the NL East in a vacuum and see it setting up as a battle royale. But in the scope of baseball, it’s something else altogether.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies-Workouts

One of these things is not like the other. Okay — two of these things are not like the others, but the AL Central is still expected to be a cakewalk for Cleveland and those win totals are mostly buoyed by the White Sox and Royals not imploding again like last year. So that leaves the NL East as the only division where, based largely on the winter’s moves to date, the win total is expected to jump double digits from last year. We’ve already run through the big additions each team has made or could be looking to make. But how do these moves really set the teams up for 2019?

Let’s start with the biggest shakers: The Phillies. They’ve completely remade their depth. They rated as a bottom-five team by production from rightfielders, registering just .3 fWAR. Adding Harper adds another four and a half wins, according to pretty much every projection system. The team rated just as poorly at shortstop, where Jean Segura projects to be at least two wins better than the team was as a whole last year. Andrew McCutchen manning left field allows Rhys Hoskins to go back to first base, adding about another win and a half. JT Realmuto gives them perhaps the best catcher in baseball whose numbers could burst from playing half his games literally anywhere other than Marlins Park, which suppressed his performance by nearly 50% compared to on the road.

That’s a lot of star power to add in one offseason, and with the way the pieces fit and their relative youth — only McCutchen is older than 28 — it’s easy to glean the upside. All told, the Phillies’ three- and four-hole hitters last year, Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera, probably slot in at the seven- and eight-holes now.  That is wild.

New GM Brodie Van Wagenen seems to have had a distinct plan for the Mets since coming aboard: Do everything possible to help the team avoid being ravaged by injuries again. His pursuit of solid contributors and star power alike has seemed odd at times because the additions don’t make as clean an impact as, say, Bryce Harper over a struggling Nick Williams.

Instead, they’ve got three guys now whose primary position is second base in Jeff McNeil, Jed Lowrie, and Robinson Cano. The team had the sixth-best performance from the position in the Majors last year. And now Cano appears to be pushing McNeil to a super utility role and Lowrie primarily to third base, where the Mets ranked second-to-last in overall production last year. Wilson Ramos will be a considerable upgrade behind the plate, and Edwin Diaz will be an anchor in the bullpen. Pete Alonso will magically improve his defense after a few games in the minors and arrive in Flushing to solidify first base. Combined, these moves will net about an additional win to a win and a half from four positions while also allowing the team to absorb injuries far better than they have the last two years.

The Nationals may be easy to perceive as hard-up here, given that they’re the ones who lost Harper, and now have to worry about him in their own division for the rest of eternity. But they’re really not. Wunderkind Juan Soto will be up all season and presumably be doing Juan Soto Things the entire time, adding a win’s worth of production compared to last year. Potential Other Wunderkind Victor Robles is also expected to be with the team for the majority of the season, adding another couple of wins. Brian Dozier should up their second base production to the middle of the pack from the bottom of it. Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki should turn what’s been a black hole of positional production into well above average. And, oh yeah, they’re going to be catching newly-signed unicorn ace Patrick Corbin.

Washington took the money they could’ve given to Harper and spread it on modest or better acquisitions all over the diamond. Like the Mets, they have better depth than last year. Their boldest move may be counting on Adam Eaton staying healthy. But overall, they’ve still worked to take a step forward after a disappointing 2018.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s offseason has been the most curious in the entire division. After winning it last year after the early but pronounced arrival of a slew of star-caliber youngsters headlined by Ronald Acuña, they’ve mostly sat on their hands. The big get has been Josh Donaldson, who signed way back on November 26. Donaldson will push Johan Camargo into a utility role. Once healthy last year, Donaldson proved he could still rake, but that took so long that he only played in 52 games. The team remains on the periphery for Craig Kimbrel but appears insistent on a short-term commitment, which would follow suit with Donaldson’s one-year, $23 million deal. Either side blinking could have a huge impact on the end of the team’s games this year.

What, exactly, they’re saving the money for is unclear. In today’s game and market, less term makes sense for the likes of a 33-year-old position player looking to build up his value again or even a 31-year-old lockdown reliever looking to validate his own past value. But if they were looking to spend on a younger, more dynamic star, you certainly wouldn’t know based on their disinterest in Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. The team’s actions seem to say they’re content to rely on the continued play of young, cost-controlled players at their peak instead of going for the gullet like their division mates appear to have been doing.

A flurry of star power and excitement has come down on the NL East this offseason. It’s the only division in all of baseball where nearly everyone is trying to get better at the same time, and the fight for the playoffs is going to be worth tuning into all year. Any break for one team will be inherently against the others, and every out will matter that much more. The weirdness of baseball means we can’t bank on much outside of Mike Trout. The NL East is making a case for convincing us of otherwise in 2019.

All individual player data from FanGraphs. Projected wins from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. Feature photo Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

 

Could Having Acquired Tommy Pham Signal A New Norm In The Rays’ Player Acquisition?

The Tampa Bay Rays are a true curiosity. When they debuted in 1998, they were baptized by fire in the AL East, finishing with a 63-99 record and dead last in the division. The only team worse than them in all of baseball was the Marlins, who were in the back half of their first infamous World Series tear-down. The baptism seemed to continue for the next decade, as Tampa Bay continued to finish last, save for 2004, where they finished in fourth with grace.

Then something happened in 2008. They turned good! And they’ve stayed that way more often than not. They’ve won 90+ games in six of the last 11 years, and they’ve made the playoffs four times. The team has been one of specific opportunity, whether it’s the front office making moves for players who produce more and sooner than expected or others who are perhaps more marginal but who produce en masse.

How you and I may consider opportunity is almost certainly different than how the Rays do. Their average year-end, 40-man roster payroll since existing is about 26th in baseball. They’ve only been higher than 20th twice: Way back in 2000-01, when they finished the year with payrolls that ranked 19th and 11th, and they still finished in fifth place in the AL East, anyway. That’s why it was so shocking to see them acquire Tommy Pham and $500k in international bonus money for Justin Williams, Genesis Cabrera, and Roel Rodriguez last July 31. It was the first time ever in the franchise’s history that they made a trade of such note and gave up more players than they got back — the first time they consolidated multiple, lesser talents for one greater talent.

To truly appreciate that, we should acknowledge the moves the team has made when actually competitive in previous seasons. Let’s consider when they first broke out in 2008, won 97 games, finished in first place in the division for the first time, and went to the World Series. That winter, they turned Brendan Harris, Delmon Young, and Jason Pridie into Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eddie Morlan. On April 22, they traded Josh Butler for Gabe Gross. Between the two trades, the Rays had a net gain of more than seven fWAR that year. While that’s enormous for a single season, they didn’t make another significant move that attempted to pad onto that total.

Two years later, in 2010, Tampa finished first in the AL East again, this time with 96 wins. The team’s big move that year was again in the winter before the season actually started, when they eventually turned Jesse Chavez into Rafael Soriano. That netted them another 2.3 fWAR that year. Then they stood pat through the end of the season.

In 2011, Garza was set to make a shade under six million dollars after his second year through arbitration. Tampa dealt him in January, before his hearing, with Fernando Perez and Zac Rosscup to the Cubs for Sam Fuld, Chris Archer, Robinson Chirinos, Brandon Guyer, and Hak-Ju Lee. It cost them more than two wins that season, but they cleared money after finishing 20th in payroll the year before, still made the playoffs, and came out way ahead because of Chris Archer becoming a top-of-the-rotation arm.

In 2012, the team won 90 games again but still finished in third place in the division and missed the postseason, despite winning more than two teams who actually got into October. They didn’t make any moves of significance all year, including the winter before games started.

Then they got back to their wheeling and dealing in 2013. They made two trades in the December before the season. The first was Derek Dietrich for Yunel Escobar. The second was Wade Davis, James Shields, and Elliott Johnson for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard. They came out almost dead even in wins from those deals while saving money. Then on August 23, as they sat tied for first with the Red Sox, they traded Matthew Spann for David DeJesus for another boost. They finished second and made the playoffs again.

The team finished either fourth or fifth for the next three years, and then third in 2017 after being in the thick of the race for the division right before the non-waiver deadline. They didn’t make any particularly noteworthy trades, though, and certainly none that consolidated talent to push them closer to true contention. And that takes us back to the Pham acquisition this past season.

It’s hard to know if the deal was really a harbinger of things to come. For one, Pham is a late bloomer whose peripherals seemingly made it tough to buy into his breakout. After putting up six wins in 2017, he was slumping in 2018 before going on a tear after the trade. For another, he just went through his first round of arbitration, and was awarded $4.1 million. It’s hard to imagine him being a Ray in two years. His projected excess value would dwarf that of the prospects for whom he was traded, and the Rays will have benefited from a large chunk of it.

And further yet, based on team control, it was just as much an opportunistic move as any the Rays have ever made, despite the deal’s optics. Pham was frustrated with the Cardinals, the team was a bit of a mess in the wake of Mike Matheny being fired, and the organization has a reputation similar to Tampa’s for developing lesser talents into players who contribute to winning clubs, even though they may be slightly losing their touch. The situation was ripe for picking. 

They may have consolidated some of their talent in 2018, but the Rays still play in Tampa, still can’t draw anyone to their park, and still don’t see through the end of contracts or control years with the majority of their players, whether they’re productive or not. Just look at the list of their all-time leaders in WAR, both for position players and for pitchers. Desmond Jennings is a nice player, but he’s the best career Ray expressly because everyone who’s been better has been traded away to help keep cheaper, younger talent flowing into the system.

The Rays may have shown us a new look this past summer, but it was more a different shade of the same color than a true makeover. And that’s okay, because they know how to make it work — payroll and division opponents be damned.

Standings from MLB.com. WAR data from FanGraphs. Salary data from MLBTR, Spotrac, and Cot’s Contracts. Feature photo from Monica Herndon/Tampa Bay Times

A Peak Into The Astros’ Secret Sauce for Pitching

The Franklin Institute is a science and research museum located in Philadelphia, PA. Among its many draws are a giant heart you can walk through, the SportsZone where you can sprint the 40-yard dash and compare your time to professional athletes, and a Changing Earth exhibit made entirely of sustainable materials that focuses on the ways the planet has transformed over time. Through all of that, plus rotating feature exhibits, it’s easy to lose sight of a tried and true experiment: The Ruler Drop Test.

If you never performed the experiment in middle school, the Ruler Drop Test is exactly as it sounds. Take a ruler — or, in the case of the Franklin Institute, a yardstick — and hold it vertically between your index finger and thumb on your dominant hand, about one-fourth from the bottom. Then release it, and see where you can catch it. The shorter the distance between where you let go and where you catch it, the faster your reactions are. Science!

It’s a simple experiment, but illustrative. And, with how it’s centered on vertical drop and expectations, it could help us understand how the Houston Astros have used advanced technology and data to tweak pitchers’ repertories to reach new levels of success.

The league average pitching staff has put up a shade over 14 fWAR per season since 2016. Meanwhile, the Astros have averaged five wins more than that over the same time span, capping it off last year with a bat-guano crazy 30.6 fWAR. The organization clearly knows something about pitching that the rest of the league hasn’t figured out yet. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are second and fifth in pitching fWAR for the team since then, despite only combining for two seasons (and a month) as Astros. Here’s a big part of why:

Animated GIF-downsized_large (2)

Both Verlander and Cole came to Houston and changed. On the left in this gif is each pitcher’s breaking ball release point in the season before they got to Houston. On the right is those pitch release points after becoming an Astro. The change is two-fold: the release point on each has tightened up, and curveballs have become more distinguished and over the top.

One possible explanation could be how the team uses Edgertronic cameras to fight a pitcher’s intuitive notion of knowing exactly how the ball is leaving their hands. The high-speed cameras can capture thousands of frames per second. A pitcher using one means they can see exactly when the ball leaves their hands, where they last put pressure on it and with which finger(s), and how their wrist either pronates (meaning the palm moves inward, like with a curveball) or supinates (meaning the palm ends up facing outward, like with a changeup). It’s the kind of tech that teams are racing to incorporate just so they don’t get left behind at this point, that the Astros have been using longer than anyone. 

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There may not be another way of getting so granular with technique that makes it equally easy to understand in a matter of seconds. It’s almost a paradox. It’s not that Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole weren’t good, but their abilities clearly weren’t optimized, and this is something we can only truly appreciate after seeing them take a step up we couldn’t even tell was there.

By cleaning up their release points and deliberately going over the top with their curveballs, each pitch became more devastating because it started falling off the table more. Their wrists may have started staying locked instead of leaking out toward third base. Verlander’s slider has gained more than two inches of drop, while his curve has gained more than an additional inch. Cole’s slider has actually lost about half an inch of drop, but his curveball has tumbled two-and-a-half inches more.

Those numbers sound well and good, but the results are plain eerie.

Eerie whiffs

The league-average whiff rate for sliders is 17%. For curveballs, it’s 13%. Houston acquired two really good power pitchers, made the same tweak to each, raised their whiff rates on one pitch from average to above, and their whiff rates on another from below average to average. These are the kinds of incremental improvements a team would be happy to take one at a time, from one average player at a time. They basically made both tweaks at once in back-to-back seasons with two guys who have elite talent. It seems there are times when we run out of superlatives to describe the Astros, but this is plain eye-popping.

It may also serve as grounds for how the team could tweak Wade Miley, who added a cutter last season that helped him tally 1.5 fWAR in just half a season’s-worth of starts with the Brewers. Below are his release points for the pitch, compared to his primary breaking ball, which was a curve.

Miley MIL

There are differences when you compare Miley with Verlander and Cole, and they’re obvious. He throws about seven mph slower than either of them. He doesn’t have two breaking balls like they do. These are no small things. But a cutter can be a bit in between a fastball and a slider, and bringing his curveball release over the top may help both pitches play up.

Even if last year’s numbers were flukey — his cutter, while useful, generated whiffs well below average — a rate of improvement from Miley comparable to Verlander’s and Cole’s could see him become a league-average pitcher who helps steady a staff that’s going to have a lot of turnover in 2019. The aces are still there, but Lance McCullers will miss the year with Tommy John, Dallas Kuechel’s on the open market, and Charlie Morton already left for Tampa Bay.

Let’s bring it all back to the Ruler Drop Test. When you perform it, you know the weight of the item you’re dropping. You’re almost completely still, save for a couple fingers releasing and pinching. It’s moving extremely slow. The environment is almost completely controlled.

Now, as a hitter, speed up the moving object to 80+ mph. Throw in a variable, downward path and less predictable, more severe vertical movement. And you’re not just catching the object with two fingers. You have to use your whole body in a smooth kinetic sequence to “catch” it with your bat. The Astros have taken what we know about the game environment and found a way to exaggerate its difficulties for the opposition by way of the breaking ball’s drop.

Maybe it’s not the full recipe to Houston’s secret sauce for pitching. But this basic test combined with the specific improvements from Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole helps us get a grip on what the team does so much better than the rest of baseball.

Pitch movement data from Brooks Baseball. League-average whiff rates from Alex Chamberlain. Pitcher-specific whiff rates and release points from Baseball Savant. Feature photo Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle

When Conventional Wisdom Holds A Player Back: A Thought Experiment

We’ve made it this far. Sometimes, that’s misleading. It’s easy to give ourselves credit, but it’s also a fact that can lock us into a certain mindset: “We’ve been having success with this approach, so let’s keep using this approach.” These are the kinds of thoughts that breed conventional wisdom, ones that seem to make so much sense that we don’t need to think twice about them, so we don’t. Intentional or not, baseball is the same way sometimes.

Say the speedy guy is up to bat. He slaps it to the opposite field and generates some offense with his legs. He’s using what he has to take what he can get. That’s been the conventional wisdom on the diamond, and maybe elsewhere, forever. Let’s consider a mystery player who’s taken that to heart.

Hwit 1 redux

The Mystery Player has hit the ball to the opposite field a lot more than his peers, with a little more loft, pretty much the same average exit velocity, a much lower peak, and a bunch more speed. The speed here is key. It’s why you’d figure he’s going to the opposite field so much. But the real question is this: How’s it really working for him?

Hwit1

There are a couple things worth noting here. The expected wOBA for balls hit the opposite way is probably lower than the overall league average of .316 because they’re often the kind that end up as lazy flies to outfielders more than doubles into alleys or better, unless the hitter is, say, Joey Votto (.445 oppo wOBA) or JD Martinez (.536 oppo wOBA).

The actual wOBA is probably so much higher than the league average of .318 because the guys hitting these balls are often burners like Mallex Smith and Lorenzo Cain, whose sprint times are in the 92nd and 83rd percentile; or at least guys who can run faster than average, like Matt Duffy and Corey Dickerson. All of those hitters went the other way at least 32% of the time last season.

The mystery player is in the 91st percentile in sprint speed, though, just a half step behind Mallex Smith. Considering all of the above, and that he gets on base at a clip nearly 40% lower than average on balls he hits to the opposite field, despite being faster than almost everyone, we have to ask — why is he doing it?

The answer is easy. The mystery player is Whit Merrifield. He was a top-20 player in all of baseball last year, and has provided the Royals with 9.5 fWAR in less than three full seasons. Clearly Merrifield’s approach is working for him…but it raises questions. He debuted at 27. He’s already 30. How much longer can he last going the opposite way at this rate? How much sooner might he have reached the Majors if he had shirked conventional wisdom? How much better could he get? How many players have never even gotten the chance he has because they were taught to do something that ultimately held them back?

We don’t have a time machine, so we can’t answer all these questions. What we’re really asking about, anyway, is player development. A player with these flaws — even if he’s already productive — seemingly has two potential options to get better. And before we move on, I want to be clear: this conversation isn’t designed around “fixing” Whit Merrifield. He’s already really good, despite any flaws he may have. But his tendency to go the opposite way is a great peek into the approach of a hitter following conventional wisdom.

One option for a player who goes to the opposite field at a high rate to have more success, speedy or not, is to get more on plane with those pitches. Being “on plane” is not a static thing. If a hitter takes the same cut at a ball low and in as they do high and away, the results will be wildly different. It’s an action that’s about where the pitcher is sending the ball, not what the player wants to do with the bat. The less on plane a hitter is, the more energy that gets lost when the bat hits the ball.

If the ball is naturally moving toward the ground, the hitter should naturally attack by swinging up. Jason Ochart, Director of Hitting for Driveline and Minor League Hitting Coordinator for the Phillies, describes the ideal attack angle for a pro under these terms:

  • If their peak exit velocity is under 105 mph, their attack angle should be between 5 and 15 degrees.
  • If their peak exit velocity is above 105 mph, it should be between 10 and 20 degrees.

Let’s go back to considering Whit Merrifeld. His peak exit velocity to the opposite field last year was 101.8 mph. Overall, it was 106.4 mph, which happened against Aaron Loup in April. In 2017, it was 102 mph to opposite field and 110.5 mph overall. The year he debuted, he was 103.6 mph going oppo and 107.1 mph overall in half of a season.

He gets pitched away twice as much as the league does on average, and over 30% more than righties. Those are pitches primed for a hitter to take the opposite way, just being levied against him like there’s no tomorrow.  With the results Merrifield has yielded in the Majors, of course pitchers would want to force him into going oppo. Likewise, it’s perhaps just as clear that working to attack the ball between five and 15 degrees on pitches outside could see him reach another level.

Remember, though, Merrifield’s already 30, and he’s already having lots of success at the highest level. For as much as the Big Leagues can be about an “adapt or die” mindset, they can also be about trusting the idea of “dance with who brought you.” Maybe he doesn’t want — or need — to rework such a large portion of his game. But not every player with skills comparable to Merrifield’s necessarily have the same degree of success. They have to find a way to adapt around their weakness.

If they don’t want to reshape their swing, they could also train in game-like settings to swing less at the pitches they do the least with. In a sense, this is something Whit Merrifield has already done. He’s cut his chase rate each year he’s been in the league. The problem, if we can call it that, is that he still makes contact on balls out of the zone about eight percent more than average. It’s another instance of his skill set undercutting his performance, and one he could elect to fill. Similar to reworking their swing, the non-Merrifields of the world would have to make a choice — retrain their body or their eyes to give themselves a bigger shot at the ultimate goal of playing in the Majors.

That choice represents a necessity for those players who don’t hit as well overall or aren’t capable of fielding multiple positions to know how their batted balls are truly servicing or hurting them. The conventional wisdom that’s been driving their game for years may not be what they really need.

If you’ve gotten this far, wherever you are, it’s fair to give yourself some credit. You’ve earned it. But, unless you’re like Whit Merrifield, holding onto it might be holding you back.

Zone data and fWAR from FanGraphs. All other data from Statcast. Feature photo from Stack.

Fast, For A Catcher: Analyzing a Quickly Moving Backstop Market

Have you ever had a baseball game on in the background in the dead of summer as you quietly go about your day, and then catch an absolute gem from a broadcaster that stops and makes you laugh? “He got down the line in a hurry…he’s pretty fast, for a catcher.”

It’s possibly the game’s greatest backhanded compliment; an ode of sorts to the frequently lumbering yeoman who not only endure the dog days of August but who do so, willingly, wearing additional gear and sitting in an awkward squat for hours. A single sentence about their baserunning abilities — or lack thereof — conveys perhaps a modestly complete understanding of what baseball is, when you stop to think about it. And it’s a delight.

This offseason has seen a different kind of speed from catchers: the one at which they’re changing teams. Maybe it’s coincidence that some of the more offensive-minded ones have reached the market together, and they’re some of the names moving between teams. While backstops make it difficult to capture their entire value in a single stat because of all they do, we can and do quantify offense. That makes it easier, if you’re a front office, to jump on a guy you know can beat the .232/.304/.372 average triple-slash line catchers produced in 2018 and see it as a win.

But the offense-oriented catchers aren’t the only ones moving between teams, and it becomes harder to separate them from each other when considering defense, or the total package. Much harder than separating, say, Mike Trout and Charlie Blackmon. And that’s what makes the catcher carousel this offseason a unique ride.

In each instance of a catcher acquisition this offseason, the buying team seems to know what they’re getting. The selling team, in the instance of a trade, hasn’t seemed to care about what they’re giving up. Overall, the position seems to be quantified well enough by teams privately to get a deal they can easily appreciate, with the luxury of not having to prioritize such knowledge.

It’s possible that catcher compensation hasn’t quite matched the way front offices quantify the position’s value yet, even given the suppression of the current market, because the public sphere hasn’t quite broken open catcher analysis the way that we have with other positions. Public sabermetric work has fed front offices — the list is as impressive as it is long, hitting teams all over the league and including World Series rings.

The range of catchers on the move this winter, and the rate at which they’re changing uniforms, means that at least a few of them are bound to impact the standings somehow this summer. Just take a look for yourself:

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That’s nine catchers who carry some sort of relative, positive significance through the Majors. Seven have joined their new teams as free agents, with the sole exclusion being Yan Gomes, for whom the Nationals traded. The only position player groups that have signed more free agent deals this winter are shortstops (eight) and outfielders (11). Only two of those shortstops play their position exclusively, and the outfield group combines all three possible positions.

Simply put, catchers have been in demand, despite the general free agent market malaise affecting most of their colleagues. And part of that may be because of the value teams know they provide compared to what the public does, providing a lower cost.

Given that, let’s consider catchers in one of four ways.

The Total Package

Of the nine catchers who have changed teams this winter, only two of them stand out as clearly above average by both offensive and defensive standards: Yasmani Grandal and Yan Gomes.

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The two numbers in the chart above represent the crux of production for catchers when they’re at the plate (wRC+) and when they’re behind it (FRAA_ADJ, or Adjusted Framing Runs Above Average).

Grandal’s offensive output last year was topped only by JT Realmuto of the Marlins, and Wilson Ramos of the Rays and Phillies. No one framed better than Grandal. And yet, his contract guarantees him only $18.25 million on a one-year deal. While that accounts for nearly a quarter of all catcher money guaranteed this offseason on the open market, it’s also less than 30% of what MLBTR projected him to earn on the open market. Depending on your preferred metrics, Grandal was worth at least 1.3 wins more than what all Milwaukee catchers produced last year. Adding him to a World Series roster for a year is a boon.

Gomes, meanwhile, was still 17% better with the stick than the average MLB catcher in 2018, and saved nearly nine runs more than average behind the plate. Adding him could boost offensive production from the position for Washington by nearly 30% while also providing a top pitch framer. That should help maintain the breaking balls of newly acquired ace Patrick Corbin, as well as the rest of the team’s dynamic staff. The benefits may be bountiful.

What would the market pay for a position player who’s at least 17% better than league average at creating runs, and has plus defense? We don’t really know. Many of those players — Mookie Betts, Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons — haven’t yet reached free agency, or guaranteed themselves what was a decent payday for security’s sake before they got through the attrition of arbitration. The closest examples we might have are Jean Segura, who signed a five-year, $70 million deal with Seattle before reaching the open market and was seen as team-friendly; and Lorenzo Cain, who signed a five-year deal worth $80 million in free agency last winter as he was going into his age-32 season.

Depressed market or not, this is perhaps where those teams who went fishing in the deep end of the catching talent pool lucked out. While Grandal reportedly turned down a four-year offer worth between $50 and $55 million from the Mets, we can’t guarantee that. And either way, the average annual value of such a deal would’ve been worth less than even Segura’s pact. Gomes may not have been a free agent acquisition, but he was effectively pared by Cleveland for two lottery tickets in 25-year-old, lower pedigree starter Jefry Ramirez and 23-year-old Daniel Johnson, who projects as a platoon player. He’ll make only $7 million in 2019 as part of a six-year deal he signed in 2014, in a contract designed like Simmons’s — to give a good, young, player an amount of money that provided them with security that was hardly certain before.

Beyond Grandal and Gomes, teams have had to decide whether they’d value offense or defense more from their catchers. That moves us onto the next look the catching market has gotten.

The Offense-first Catchers

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The three players above account for $34.5 million, or nearly 46%, of catcher guarantees so far this offseason. Ramos is so good with the bat that if he were even a few runs better behind the plate, he’d be in that esteemed grouping with Grandal and Gomes. But he isn’t, and he signed a deal with the Mets that carries an AAV of $9.5 million over two years. His offense last year was better than what Mets catchers produced by more than 50%. His receiving skills behind the plate probably won’t offend anyone moving forward. The team is likely perfectly content, if not ecstatic, to pay less than half of what they reportedly offered to Grandal and get more than half the production.

Suzuki will represent the other half of a platoon with Yan Gomes in Washington, where the team clearly wanted to upgrade their average offense after putting up a 64 wRC+ from the position last year. Their catchers are now a serious threat in their lineup, relatively speaking.

Houston’s signing of Robinson Chirinos comes with the curiosity of how his power will perform with the short porch in left field at home in Minute Maid Park. They’re not losing any veteran leadership compared to the erstwhile Brian McCann — Chirinos is 34 — and they’re gaining a roughly 20% increase in runs created from the position.

The best free agent comp for any of this trio may be JD Martinez last winter. His offense is unquestionable, as he sports a wRC+ of 154 since 2014. His defense may be equally bad. After waiting around like sixth-graders at a school dance, he and the Red Sox agreed to a five-year, $110 million deal last winter with three player opt-outs, stipulations that generally benefit the player and not the team. Though a superior hitter relative to his own positional peers compared to these three catchers and theirs, Martinez’s overall value doesn’t appear to be miles ahead of them. That said, he’s still taking home a far larger guarantee.

The Defense-first Catchers

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Jeff Mathis is a fascinating baseball player. He ranks 577th in wRC+ among the 585 qualified catchers in all of baseball history. He’s historically lousy at the plate. But he’s really, really good behind it; good enough to have kept him in the Majors for more than a decade. Google “Jeff Mathis framing” and you’ll be enamored by the words that have been poured out expounding his talents for calling a game. He’ll earn $6.25 million over two years.

The Rangers are rebuilding. They’ll be taking a chance on a lot of guys, both young and previously established. Three-fifths of their current projected rotation — Edinson Volquez, Drew Smyly, and Shelby Miller — are coming off Tommy John surgery. They don’t need the offense. Mathis is a certain relief for the bevy of arms who will work through the Texas roster in the two years he’s contracted. A good comp for him among other position players may be Miguel Rojas, a glove-first shortstop who will earn $3.15 million in 2019. Even then, though, that’s through arbitration, and not on the free market.

Martin, like Gomes, was acquired via trade. He’s in the final year of a five-year, $82 million, backloaded contract he signed as a free agent. He’ll earn $20 million in 2019 (though the Dodgers will pay only $3.6 million) and play this coming season at age-36. Martin hasn’t played more than 91 games in the last two years and is clearly in the twilight of his career, and will be more of another steady piece to cycle in for the Dodgers than a singular solution. There was a time when he was one of the best all-around catchers in the game, much like Grandal and Gomes currently are, which helped him land his current contract.

That deal could be considered as both a warning for teams thinking about signing a catcher to a long-term contract who’s already 30, and as what the market is currently willing to pay for a player with such skills on a one-year deal. But given the dearth of other examples, and Martin having already accrued nearly 12 WARP over the life of the contract, it’s fairly easy to justify the money he’s received. His peers aren’t getting that kind of deal at this point though, suggesting a possible over-correction in valuation on the position as the game cares less about defense.

The Leftovers

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These two are like Martin in that they’re far from what they once were. McCann has gone back to Atlanta, where the team likely hopes he’ll provide stability for a young core in a similar way to how he did for Houston when they won the World Series in 2017. It also doesn’t hurt that they’ve got a prospect like William Contreras, who currently grades out as a regular, working through the minors. A one-year stop-gap in McCann makes plenty of sense.

Lucroy’s descent has been more drastic than McCann’s. The Angels will pay him nearly as much as the Dodgers will pay Russell Martin, and for roughly three-fourths of the productivity. The team has made a habit of short-term bets like this in the last few years. Just this offseason, they’ve added Matt Harvey, Justin Bour, and Cody Allen on similar contracts. They won’t lose much if Lucroy doesn’t pay off.

The clubs handing out contracts to these players are getting exactly what they want: a palatable package with name value and veteran presence, for nearly the absolute minimum commitment. It’s interesting, though, that Lucroy will make more on his one-year deal than Mathis will per year in Texas, while seemingly not offering a high level skill anymore.

The Reality of the Catcher Market

Baseball is in an odd place. We’ve got multiple years left in a CBA that’s already wringing the earnings of players at what are largely unprecedented levels. Nearly no one is getting signed, as evidenced by the 100+ remaining free agents of massively varying talent.

And here are catchers, moving at a rate that suggests clubs have a very specific intent for and mindset about them, while still not paying them like they’re a priority. They almost appear fungible. But when all is said and done in 2019, the win column may well say otherwise.

Framing data and WARP from Baseball Prospectus. Contract data from Spotrac. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature photo USATSI.