Baseball

The Unique Strengths and Shortcomings of The Padres Pitching Development

Imagine, if you can, being a top-10 performer in your field. And not only are you top-10 now, or in the last year. You’ve been top-10 for a decade. High five!

Now, imagine that another member of your team is not. Imagine that they’re not even above average or just average. Imagine that they’re almost the absolute worst in your field. And not just recently…but have been for as long as you’ve been good.

What we really just contemplated was the dichotomy of the San Diego Padres pitching staff from 2009 through 2018. The team’s relief corps has been the fourth-best bunch over the last decade, accruing 38.9 fWAR. They’ve had some truly notable single-season relief performances: Luke Gregerson, Heath Bell, Mike Adams, and Craig Stammen each accounted for at least two wins in a single season during that time. Brad Hand and Kirby Yates pushed that number in separate seasons. And, in classic bullpen fashion, plenty of others chipped in positive value on a regular basis all along the way.

Reliable bullpens are almost an oxymoron, like saying you’ll have jumbo shrimp in a plastic glass. Having one over the course of a decade would intimate a sound ballclub. But since we know the Padres, we also know that they’ve only surpassed 77 wins once in the last ten years. And it’s in large part because their starting pitching has been abysmal. They’ve only accounted for 77.6 fWAR since 2009. That’s the second-worst in all of baseball.

Why? How?

If we look at how hard the average starter has thrown over the last ten years, and then consider how hard the average Padres starter threw over that same time, we get a sense of what San Diego has been sending to the mound.

padres heat

For the better part of a decade, the Padres have had starters who couldn’t even match the league average fastball. Velocity may not be everything, but it always plays. Imagine being any of the other 29 teams and seeing the Padres on the schedule. Your hitters know they’re going to see less heat. They know they’ll likely have more time to see a pitch, whether it’s a fastball or a breaking ball or something off-speed. They know their skills will remain the same while they swing at stuff a tick below for the next few days.

They haven’t deliberately been soft tossers, though. Mat Latos was a stud who was traded and then flamed out. Cory Luebke had Tommy John and saw his career fizzle slowly like the end of a match. Casey Kelly was a top prospect who never developed. Tyson Ross has suffered a medley of arm injuries. Brandon Morrow briefly started for the Padres and then became successful elsewhere, notably as a reliever. Andrew Cashner was another top prospect who didn’t develop. Dinelson Lamet went down with Tommy John. Luis Perdomo hasn’t been able to develop a third pitch, became ineffective, and then hurt his shoulder.

All of them threw with at least league average fastball velocity or better and offered considerable potential, or still do. But none of them — at least so far — have become dependable for the Padres.

San Diego’s rotation for 2019 currently projects to be Joey Lucchesi, Robbie Erlin, Eric Lauer, Brett Kennedy, and Chris Paddack. Only Paddack throws harder than league average. Matt Strahm and Dinelson Lamet will also likely be in the mix for starts, and they throw harder than league average, too. Strahm, in particular, has a bunch of upside. They all come with their questions, but they offer a glimpse into possible change in direction for the team.

By and large, though, reliability has been left to the bullpen, almost by default. And Padres relievers have kept themselves sustainable with their sliders.

Since 2009, sliders have been the most prominent breaking ball for relievers, being thrown a shade under 18% of all offerings. Padres relievers, however, have thrown them nearly 21% of the time. An additional three percent might not seem like much. After all, whether you get a 94 on a test or a 97, you still get an A. But in this context, one where Padres relievers have also thrown the fourth-most pitches since 2009, an additional three percent means they’ve thrown more than 7,000 sliders compared to the league average.

In the last two years, in particular, those sliders have had more depth and drop than the rest of the league thanks to guys like Brad Hand and Robert Stock. Having breakers that fall with style like that is the kind of thing that helps separate you from the crowd.

It’s possible that kind of distinction has been aided by pitching coach Darren Balsley, who has held his position with the Padres since 2003. (The only pitching coach with a longer tenure is Don Cooper of the White Sox, who’s held his job since 2002.) Balsley clearly communicates well: he’s survived multiple owners, four GMs, and three managers. Last October, Dustin Palmateer of The Athletic did a deep dive highlighting how Balsley has had the most impact on waiver wire acquisitions and, perhaps unsurprisingly, relievers. However, that’s also been the bulk of what the Padres have provided him.

That may soon change. The organization has collected a host of high-octane pitching prospects. MacKenzie Gore, Luis Patiño, Michel Baez, Adrian Morejon, and Chris Paddack (who should be in the Majors this coming season) are just a few guys who pump plus heat and offer additional upside. Should they all remain starters, the team’s average fastball velocity — and talent — would easily vault up the ranks.

They might have to look to free agency if their prospects don’t all become starters, though; and given the bust rate of prospects, that’s more likely than not. But regardless of  what regime has been running the franchise in the last ten years, they’ve demonstrated a reluctance to dip into free agency in any significant way. Per Spotrac, the team’s payroll has ranged from 17% to 53%(!) below league average since 2011 (as far back as the site’s data goes). Spending in free agency isn’t guaranteed to be a success by any means, but refusing to do it at all keeps it from ever being a possibility.

The rapid pace at which baseball changes makes it difficult to evaluate a 10-year stretch of performance for any player or team. When it comes to that change, sometimes it’s positive to zig when everyone else zags. The Padres haven’t done that in a way that’s prompted success, having ultimately fallen short at developing pitchers who put them in a position to win and instead having to settle for pitchers who more often just keep it close.

If San Diego can finally develop any of their abundant prospect arms, they could become a dangerous team in a hurry. Until then, we’ll be waiting.

RP Slider usage data calculated from Statcast. Payroll info from Spotrac. All other data from MFanGraphs. Feature photo from Getty Images.

Luke Voit And When To Believe In A Hot Streak

Baseball is speckled with flashes in the pan. Plenty of players have teased our attention with exceptional play for a month or half-season or even a whole season, only to fade into the background as an afterthought. Chris Shelton, Dom Brown, Josh Rutledge…I’m sure you have your own names that come to mind. These are the kinds of faces our brains drudge up when we think about sample sizes; why we’re reticent to buy into what our eyes see on the field through the summer and why we crave data to support it.

So if you’re reluctant to buy into Luke Voit’s September rampage for the Yankees last season, I understand. But know that you’ve got a reason to keep an open mind. In fact, the biggest reason to believe in Voit may ironically be the biggest reason you doubt him as New York’s starting first baseman for 2019 — how he drove the ball.

He hit at a torrid pace from September 1 through the end of the regular season. He accumulated a .402 isolated slugging percentage over that span by having more extra base hits (15) than singles (14). For point of reference, FanGraphs considers a .250 ISO to be excellent. Mike Trout led the Majors in ISO last year with a .316 number.

To be sure, I’m not arguing that Luke Voit drives the ball 85% better than Mike Trout does based on a single month of ABs. But here are the total amount of hitters who achieved an ISO of even .350 for a month through 2016, 2017, and 2018, respectively; followed by how many total monthly qualifiers there were for each year :

  • 33/1,046
  • 40/1,068
  • 42/1,054

That’s it. No more than 42 players in any season ISOd .350 or better for a month from 2016-2018. The guys who did it never accounted for even four percent of those eligible hitters. Keep in mind that the ball was also juiced for a large portion of that time, too, and that we were seeing record amounts of offense. No matter how you want to slice it, performing at this rate is significant, even if only for a month.

That .350 number isn’t just arbitrarily set 50 points lower than what Voit did last September. It’s what his final ISO was for 2018 after accounting for pre-September ABs with the Yankees and scarce early season appearances with the Cardinals before being traded. It lets us account for just a bit more humility in Voit’s overall production while still making the point that he was truly in rarified air at the end of last season.

So he was a phenom for a month. So what?

Let’s consider how players who accomplished what he did between 2016 and 2018 fared through the duration of the season of their crazy ISO performance.

isodudes

The feat continues to be impressive. A large majority of the players weren’t only on fire for a month, but were at least reasonably productive through the whole season. Sure, for some, a large part of their value came in a single month. But for others, they didn’t have the chance to add to their total production because they were injured or called up late. (Check out the lists here, here, and here if you’d like to see the individual players.) Besides, when you’re counting wins at the end of the season, it doesn’t really matter when a guy got one for you as long as he got one for you.

The thing about that data, in particular, is that the 2018 season is already over. Spectacular as Voit’s September  was, there aren’t any more games to track or project for him. If we consider how players who ISOd .350 or better for a month in 2016 and 2017 fared the following season, we can see more of the picture, and what we might be able to reasonably expect from Voit in 2019.

As it turns out, only a combined 13.6% of those players — nine from 2016 and one from 2017 — recorded less than two fWAR the following year. That falls in line almost lock-step with what guys did in the chart above. Though we can see year-to-year volatility in all of these numbers, we also see a considerable lack of risk in the players that produced them. At worst, a single month of off-the-charts production from a player over that time has left a team with an 80% chance of having a solid contributor to continue plugging into their lineup. Being able to rely on a player that way is extremely valuable.

It’s fair to wonder what allowed Voit to drive the ball at such an elite rate last September. In total, 379 hitters had at least 50 combined fly balls and line drives last season. Voit ranked 23rd in average exit velocity in such events at 96.5 mph. That’s better than 94% of his peers.

voit stuffs

His heatmaps tell us that pitchers usually attacked him up with fastballs, which he saw roughly 55% of the time, while throwing breaking balls low and away. But he handled it all. The fastballs are what he really took advantage of, taking them yard 14 times. On breakers, he still managed to get on base by hitting singles. His 10.2% walk rate was also above average. Pitchers may try to adjust how they throw to him in 2019 but he’s already shown he’s capable of checking a lot of boxes that make it hard to get him out.

The most curious thing about Voit might be how the Cardinals let him get away. He’ll play 2019 in his age-28 season. He’s already been in pro ball for six years, but had only accumulated 137 plate appearances before getting traded. That’s less than the 148 he had with the Yankees, and it took him nearly twice as many games with the Cardinals to get them. Beyond those details, though, is that St. Louis is known through baseball for developing exactly this kind of player: one who pops up out of seemingly nowhere and contributes two or three wins that helps the team constantly compete.

And yet they sent Voit to the Yankees for 28-year-old Chasen Shreve, a reliever who’s appeared in the Majors every year since 2014 and has managed -.5 fWAR; 27-year-old reliever Giovanny Gallegos, who barely has 30 innings pitched in the show; plus a million dollars in international bonus money that New York used to sign Osiel Rodriguez, a top Cuban pitching prospect.

The deal is already a clear win for the Yankees. The odds are that Luke Voit will tack on a couple more for them in 2019. Don’t write him off as a flash in the pan.

Heat maps, spray chart, and exit velocity data from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature image Julio Cortez/AP

 

Matt Strahm’s Next Step Hinges On His Slider

Nearly 800 pitchers registered an out in MLB last season. If you happened to pick out one who threw 60+ innings in relief, and had more than a strikeout an inning, you’d probably say that pitcher had a pretty good year. His team would have been happy to have him provide those innings.

That was Matt Strahm last year for the Padres. After acquiring him from the Royals in July of 2017, he provided San Diego with a lefty arm out of the bullpen who could bring a mid 90s fastball, an elite slider, a surprising changeup, and a show-me curveball.

Strahm came from relative obscurity. He was only a Royal after the team won the World Series and was clearly not the same caliber. He also clearly had control problems, and tore the patellar tendon in his left knee just weeks before the Padres traded for him.

But San Diego let him get healthy, and he was a quality get for them. Now they’re looking to leverage his talents even more by making him a starter as the team eyes contention.

Except that could be hard with the current version of Strahm. The Padres executed a deliberate and cautious plan for him in 2018. He pitched only seven times in the same series all year. He also only pitched on back-to-back days twice, each time after having rested for at least the previous four days. And when you’re a pitcher deployed that way, you hardly ever get the chance to see the same lineup twice, let alone three times, as a starter could. And so you can simply approach each at-bat differently.

Strahm’s pitch mix tells us as much.

StrahmPitchMix

There’s a lot to consider here. First and foremost is that Strahm has a starter’s repertoire, both by volume and distribution. Having more up his sleeve ultimately makes him less predictable to hitters at any given moment. That’s a good thing. But there are some caveats.

One is that of his four offerings, there’s only enough of a sample size of his fastball and changeup to consider his whiff rates stable. Given how crucial strikeouts are to success for today’s pitchers, we can’t just write that off. As much as we can project with publicly available information what Strahm might do as a starter based on what he did in relief, we’re probably committing equally to a hypothetical outcome at best.

If we look at how he approached right- and left-handed hitters separately, those sample sizes get even smaller. We also see almost  two different pitchers. This is normal. Even Max Scherzer has a different approach to different-handed hitters.

The biggest difference in Strahm’s varied approaches and pitch effectiveness in 2018 lay in his breaking balls. To lefties, he primarily used his slider slider down and in. Overall, it generated nearly nine percent more whiffs than league average. The thing is nasty.

But to righties, Strahm favored his curveball to the same part of the zone. Overall, it generated four times fewer whiffs than league average.

That may be due to how he used it: the pitch led his third-most frequent pitch pairing to righties, and he often followed  it up with a fastball high and away. That could’ve helped his fastball play up — imagine trying to hit a dart at 95 mph after a dipper at 78 — but it is a bit backwards. Curveballs aren’t often a setup pitch.

GIFStrahmBreakers
Matt Strahm’s breaking balls

This gif shows where Strahm threw each of his breaking balls to right- and left-handed hitters in 2018. In parenthesis is the amount of times he threw that pitch in that context. He distributed the different pitches relatively equally to similar parts of the zone.

It also gives us an idea how that same slider that was so dominant against lefties wasn’t nearly as useful against righties, who took it for a ball nearly 50% of the time they saw it. Maybe it was something in how he was trying to locate it, or maybe it became harder to locate when going back and forth between that and his curveball.

Regardless, right-handed hitters were definitely seeing his best pitch differently than left-handers. It’s understandable why he’d willing to lean on primarily the curveball to righties, then, if it allowed him to at least establish a cadence against them. But when it’s a pitch that isn’t in a spot where guys are willing to swing, and isn’t good enough to coax swings in spite of that, why not seek to maximize the elite slider you already have?

There could be a blueprint for how Strahm could do it. Patrick Corbin became a top-five pitcher in MLB last year by manipulating his slider in such a way that allowed him to work both sides of the plate to any hitter. He takes a slower slider and drops it arm-side to steal strikes and get chases, and then frisbies a harder slider more to his glove side to evoke hapless whiffs. He finished 2018 with a slider whiff rate north of 30% and a heatmap that looks like this:

CorbinSLiders.png
Patrick Corbin’s crazy slider(s)

Corbin also transitioned from throwing his slider just under 40% of the time to throwing it nearly 50% of the time, and he did it almost exclusively by dropping his worst pitch, his changeup. You can read all about his unique breakout across the internet.

The thing about Corbin manipulating his slider to create two pitches from it is that classification systems have differentiated his slow slider as a curveball. And Matt Strahm already throws a curveball with a similar velocity gap to his slider as between the two for Corbin. And Corbin’s worst pitch was his changeup, and Strahm’s changeup flashed above average last year in his first full season.

So it’s not that Corbin is an exact blueprint for Strahm. Rather, he’s a recent, left-handed example of how use your best stuff to control the zone.

Controlling both sides of the plate with a pitch is hard. It may be especially challenging for Strahm to do with his slider, since it’s a pitch that breaks differently to different sides of the plate

But if Matt Strahm is going to be a quality starting pitcher, it could hinge on the evolution of his slider. San Diego has the time to afford him to figure it out. It’s just a matter of if they’ll take it.

Pitch mix data and heat maps from Baseball Savant. League average whiff rates from research by Alex Chamberlain. Pitch pairing data from Baseball Prospectus. Feature image from Jeff Haynes/AP. 

 

Scott Boras Definitely Has A New Plan

Scott Boras is looking for the Applyers this offseason. It might sound like the next superhero movie that will bomb, but it’s really the next step in how baseball is evolving.

In an October 26 radio interview with The Michael Kay Show, which is available to listen to in full here, the typically cagey Boras gave a candid response when asked if the rise of analytics has changed what constitutes a great player.

He went on to do as Boras often publicly does with resolve, providing an in-depth response that almost becomes easy to tune out because of how thorough it is. But after the fact, as we have the time to process his response in smaller bites that are easier to chew, we can glean a lot about how his strategy for his clients this offseason and beyond started to change for the current climate of free agent spending, which reached a nadir last winter when front offices spent record lows to acquire talent.

“I think that analytics are new to a lot of people…[but] they’re certainly not new to me,” Boras said. “But I came from the era of the feel for the player, the feel for the situation. And, you know, we can go back and look at — I tease Alex Cora [who] was a client of mine. I’ve known him since he was 12 years old. And I joke with him that we now have the synergy of ‘Cora-lytics.’ He understands the feel of players, he understands the situation for players, but he also understands analytics” (emphasis mine).

Cora is a man who, when hired, candidly asked “what’s the point?” if baseball operations, team analytics, and medical staff aren’t all on the same page. It’s no surprise that Boras echoed then what many have all year: Cora was critical to the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2018 because of the way he created a bridge between data and players. And if the last couple of years are any indication, having a person who can be that bridge is paramount to winning.

Sure, Boras and his agency have worked with advanced statistics for some time, and long before broadcasters were passive aggressive about exit velocity. But now teams are working with that data, too, and in seemingly incomprehensible depths. The go-getters, like Cora, don’t need someone to spoon feed it to them; they’re the ones seeking it out. That means Boras isn’t providing a sea of information so different from what teams already know as he has at times in the past. This isn’t exactly a new reality, but gives us a sense of the analytics arms race that consumes modern baseball.

It’s reached another standstill now, though, almost like a glitch in a video game where you try to move a character only to see them walk in place against an invisible wall. Teams know more than ever what they’re paying for, and that means that Boras clients could be left on the market well into the new year for a very different reason than usual.

Four Boras clients were still on the market in February last year: Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta, JD Martinez, and Greg Holland. They combined for just 8.1 fWAR last season after signing. Take away JD Martinez’s career year on a historic team and the other three combined for only  2.2 wins above replacement; or, more simply, about what one solid Major Leaguer does on his own per season. Waiting still might be an integral Boras tactic, but it might be more geared toward hammering out a true understanding between client and team as opposed to waiting for a GM or owner to flinch on a dollar amount.

As the game pivots harder and harder toward specialized players and moments, Boras iterated to Kay and company a steadfast belief: consistent, high end talent is still the best bet to win. He went on to say that “when you go back and look at the Houston Astros, who won last year, they played seven or eight players everyday in the playoffs. And the reason is, the psychology of the player is when he comes to the ballpark, he knows he’s going to play and he knows what he’s going to do.”

It’s true. The Astros played seven players in all 18 of their postseason games in 2017: Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman, Josh Reddick, and Marwin Gonzalez. They all registered at least 61 at-bats. Brian McCann played in 17 games and registered 57 at-bats. In the regular season, six of those eight played in at least 82% of the team’s games. The only exceptions were McCann, who played in 97, and Correa, who was hurt and played in 109.

Maybe, then, Boras will shift his approach for clients toward teams by being rather simple about it. Bryce Harper’s talent alone means he can play in at least 80% of a team’s games if healthy. For those less generational Boras clients, such a number may still be a hallmark based on recent winning teams. Compared to just a decade ago, the number of players who registered 600 plate appearances or more in a season is down by almost 20%.

But the really interesting part of this snippet of insight from Boras is on the benefit of the mental aspect of players knowing what they’ll be doing each day. You reap what you sow. You don’t just plant a seed, walk away, and come back to a thriving garden some weeks or months later. The care that goes into growing the healthiest, most vibrant, most useful plants takes daily interest, effort, and mindfulness.

That suggests even more change when it comes to how Boras might seek to anchor his talks with teams about his clients for this offseason and beyond. The modern landscape of baseball is dictating that he’ll need to look for a balance of the most willing and smartest teams interested in his clients. Odds are slimmer than ever we’ll see another situation like we did with Alex Rodriguez in 2001. The Rangers signed him as the team came off a 71-win season. A-Rod provided 27 fWAR over the next three years, yet Texas never won more than 73 games. If teams understand more than ever what they’re buying, they’re going to want to know exactly how it fits with the entire landscape of their franchise, and that may ring truer with every additional dollar negotiated.

That would also include how a team will be able to communicate to a player through the life of the contract to ensure the player’s skill is being applied most effectively, so everyone benefits as much and as long as possible. It could come down to which organizations have a manager and coaching staff in place that know both the feel of the player and understand analytics — teams who similarly ask “what does it matter?” if there isn’t 100% buy-in from every department about the how, what, and when of communicating.

Teams who fit that description right now and who have less financial constraints than the competition while they sit on the cusp of contention could be the Phillies, who have completely revamped their analytical approach in the last couple years; Atlanta, which has young, high-end talent that’s cost-controlled; or even the Padres, who have been quietly accruing bunches of high-upside prospects and with whom Boras already negotiated on Eric Hosmer’s contract.

In a couple years it could be the Giants, who just made Farhan Zaidi president of their baseball operations, who knows all about building a team without money from his time with the A’s and with it from his time with the Dodgers; or the Blue Jays, who have elite young talent like Atlanta does and are backed by a major corporation. After that it could be the Orioles, who just hired the man who headed all of the Astros’ scouting through the team’s massively successful rebuild, Mike Elias, as their GM.

Finding teams that adequately balance data-based and holistic approaches might be key for Boras as he finds his clients new homes in the coming years. But he still might have one card up his sleeve that helps him show teams his players are worth more because they’re the exception to the data, and not a contributor to its mean.

When speaking with Kay, Boras explicitly mentioned bat speed. You’ve heard of and seen guys who, as they age, simply can’t catch up to the fastball the way they used to. And as pitchers throw harder and harder each year, the hitters who can keep up are going to become equally distinguished. Swing speed data isn’t publicly available, but odds are teams and even Boras Corp has it. And what we do know about it is still extremely informative.

It’s maybe the most critical skill a hitter can develop and seek to maintain through their career. Pretty much every team in the league can bring in a guy who throws at least 95 mph in any given game now. If you can’t keep up, you’ll be passed by. For Harper, we can bet that having just turned 26 will be a focal point in negotiations. But his unprecedented youth compared to other notable free agents in the past could also mean he’s got a chance to maintain his bat speed through the majority of his next contract, if not its entirety, depending on its structure. It’s another instance of a single, seemingly basic point that Boras could make use of despite how we’re uncovering more and more nuance throughout baseball every day.  

It’s not that analytics have changed what constitutes a great player. It’s that analytics have fundamentally changed how we understand what players do. More than ever, that means we need to understand who players are and how they do the truly crazy things we witness every day. This revelation through the game is forcing Scott Boras to adjust; to consider how rapidly the game is bonding players and the data they produce. And after a single down year, you can bet he knows his next move. 

Feature photo from Bob Levey/Getty Images

Debut Review: Josh James Is The Next Ascendant Astro

Consider this: there is a prospect who starts the season in Double-A. He shoves, and is promoted to Triple-A. He shoves there, too. Naturally. He totals 171 strikeouts across both levels in just 114.1 innings with easy mid-to-high 90s heat and a sharp, horizontal slider. He’s bound to catch some eyes around the game, right?

Except if your Big League club happens to be the Astros, who have spent the majority of the season in first place, and largely because of an historic rotation. In that case, you might not be catching many eyes at all, because the team that could use you most hasn’t had to even really think about it. And so it went for Josh James through August of this season.

But as tends to happen, the grind of the schedule eventually knicked up a couple Astros starters. Between that and rosters expanding, James has gotten his shot. And he’s cashing in.

He debuted on September 1 against Mike Trout and the Angels. He delivered nine strikeouts over just five innings and 91 pitches. His velocity peaked at 101.1 mph. It wasn’t all roses, as he also gave up three free passes and three earned runs. If you were to only scout the statline, you might walk away neither underwhelmed or overwhelmed, but merely…whelmed.

That wouldn’t tell the whole story, though. For one thing, he threw 52 of his 91 pitches in the first two innings alone. Getting through the final three frames with just 39 pitches shows, at the very least, that James settled in. If we look at where he was spotting his Ks, it could tell us more.

James Ks

The red dots are fastballs. The yellow ones are sliders. Six of his nine punch out pitches hit the edges of the strike zone. One coaxed a chase out of the zone. James managed five swinging strikeouts and four called strikeouts. In his first game he threw 101, painted edges, got batters to whiff, and fooled them into taking pitches they should’ve cut at.

If we look at the low points in that start — the three walks and three runs — there are a couple dots to connect. All three runs came on a pitch laced middle-in to the left-handed Kole Calhoun, who rocketed it over the fence and into space for a monster dinger. One of the three walks came in Calhoun’s next plate appearance in a full count. It appeared as though James didn’t even want to throw anything only Vlad Guerrero could hit at that point. That’s not exactly brilliant or anything, and probably shows that James has steps to take in order to get better. But stacking it all up as it happened makes it a pretty darn good debut.

After his electric first outing, James was moved to the bullpen because of Houston’s remarkable depth. He’s appeared in two games since then. In the first, he went two and two-thirds innings in Fenway against the Red Sox, gave up only one hit, walked none, and struck out four. Then in his next outing, against the Tigers in Detroit, he went another three innings. He struck out four, walked one, and hung a slider that Nicholas Castellanos took yard. What we’re seeing here is a lot of talent and a relative amount of volatility that might need something to give it a boost.

Enter James’s changeup. In his first appearance it didn’t have much shape. Maybe he was gripping it too tight, or releasing it from a funky spot, but it was a pitch that daggered to its location and wasn’t particularly useful. In each of his two relief appearances, he’s gotten a strikeout with it, and, per Pitch Info on FanGraphs, it’s had at least another half inch of drop and three inches of fade. One of those strikeouts was against fellow righty Mookie Betts in a 2-2 count, showing confidence in the offering.

Now, yes, we’ve gotten particularly granular. We’ve analyzed each of the three pitch types James throws, against specific hitters, over only 10.2 innings and three appearances. We’ve considered results that aren’t necessarily sticky, and certainly aren’t over such a small sample size. But we’re also seeing data that we couldn’t publicly see on James from the minor leagues. These three appearances have proven useful in whether to buy into his breakout or not. We can see that he’s got a fastball he can pound the zone with, a breaker he can throw against righties, and an off-speed offering he can throw to lefties. He’s shown a willingness to throw all three in different counts and contexts, as well an ability to locate them.

If he stays what he is, Josh James is already another incredibly useful asset for the Astros. He can go multiple innings out of the bullpen getting whiffs just like Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh have for the team in the last two years. If he continues to develop some nuance in his repertoire, he’s the kind of starter built for modern baseball. Either way, he provides depth for Houston and can help them sustain their success moving forward. He still might not be drawing the amount of eyes his talent should, but he probably will soon. Keep yours peeled.

Strikeout chart, velocity, and pitch data from Baseball Savant. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature image from Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle

Minor League Notebook: Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio

Below is a quick write-up on observations about Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio from 8/19, when their New Hampshire Fisher Cats faced the Trenton Thunder. Each had five at-bats. Bichette played second base, while Biggio played first. In addition, there’s a transcript of my game notes after the write-up.

Neither player had an electrifying night. Their performances didn’t resemble what makes their scouting reports glow. Rather, what they demonstrated were skills that could keep them in the Majors when they’re not filling the box score or even slumping.

Bichette and Biggio each demonstrated three things that stuck out: an ability to take a pitch, an ability to attack early, and an ability to spot breakers. They did these things in separate at-bats and appeared to have a plan for each plate appearance. They also seemed to balance what they wanted to do with what they were getting from opposing pitchers.

My general sense was that they were the most advanced players on the field for either team. Aside from their recognition and planning at the plate, they each did something small that would reinforce the sense I got that they can do the little things that will keep them in the Majors if they’re not hitting the lights out. Bichette made a nice sliding play on defense, going toward second base on a shift and making the throw to first to get the out. Biggio busted out of the box on a dropped third strike in his first AB. He was thrown out, but he got there faster than it seemed anyone anticipated.

The two of them simply had a different presence than everyone else that night. Between the two of them and Vlad Jr., it’s easy to see the tiers of talent that are needed to make a winning club on the precipice of breaking into MLB. 

See my videos of Bichette and Biggio here. 

Transcripted game notes:

Bichette’s 1st AB:

Didn’t wait; drove a single up the middle on the 1st pitch.

2nd AB:

Didn’t get anything to drive, but battled like hell. Eventually worked the count full and, after a bunch of foul balls, whiffed on a high fastball.

3rd AB:

Battled again, a little less, but showed a repeated ability to get the barrel to the ball. Lined out to right.

4th AB:

Faced all breaking pitches. Walked.

5th AB:

Only saw two pitches; singled through a hole on the left side. May not have gotten through and MLB defender.

Biggio’s 1st AB:

Attacked the first pitch, much like Bichette. Took next three pitches. Count was 2-2; whiffs, play to 1st on the dropped third strike. *Very* quick to 1st.

2nd AB:

Struck out after taking what he thought was ball four

3rd AB:

Waited back for his pitch, grounded to 2nd

4th AB:

Scorched one to deep center. Caught the CF off-guard; he slipped. Doubled and took third after the fielder fell; drove in Bichette.

5th AB:

Four pitch walk.

Feature photo from USA Today Sports

Patrick Corbin’s Monster 2018 Is Also Historic

If you’ve been following baseball at all the last few years, you know that velocity has become extremely important. It seems like everyone throws gas. Per Statcast, a whopping 427 Major League pitchers have thrown at least one pitch at 95 mph or harder this season. Nearly 40% of those pitchers have done it 100 times or more. Five years ago, the number of pitchers who threw 95 or harder was only 394. That means that basically every team in the league has added a guy who can dial it up to 95 or better over the course of only a few years.

Accordingly, the average fastball speed has gone up a mile and a half over the last decade. And accordingly, hitters have had to adjust. Every tick of velocity, or even a fraction of a tick, matters. As Zach Schonbrun details in The Performance Cortex, that’s because there’s a gap between when a hitter decides to swing and when they initiate that motion, a leisurely latent period. Everyone’s brain is like this and we don’t know why the gap exists. But it does, and it’s a mere 50 milliseconds long, give or take a few, and it’s critical.

Gerrit Cole has thrown the most fastballs in the Majors this season at 95 mph or more, totaling 1,368. Consider this pitch visualization from Statcast of fastballs he threw to Matt Chapman on August 27 that qualify under that umbrella:

ColeHeat

The light yellow dots are when Chapman could have ID’d Cole’s heaters. The pink ones are when Chapman would’ve had to commit to swinging. His decision whether to swing would’ve had to come in between and a fairly sized portion of that time — those mere fractions of a second — would have required a window for that 50 millisecond delay between deciding and initiating his hack.

Chapman didn’t put any Cole fastballs into play that day.

This is what hitters face on a regular basis now. They can’t currently train to reduce that leisurely, 50 millisecond flash, and every tick up on fastballs forces them to decide to swing quicker and quicker. It’s also what makes what Patrick Corbin has done this season so much more impressive.

Plenty has been written about Corbin’s monster 2018. First it was Jeff Sullivan on how he was using his slider more than ever, and in different ways, effectively making two pitches out of one. It made up for his bad changeup. Then it was about how his velocity had gone down and how that could be the harbinger of injury for him and trouble for the Diamondbacks. The injury never came, his velocity went back up a little, and then Craig Edwards detailed his overall development from the time he broke into MLB. Most recently, Ben Harris dug into how Corbin’s sliders have given him a tremendous weapon against righties, who have gone from crushing him to cursing him.

Corbin has been the sixth-most valuable pitcher this season by fWAR. He’s struck out at least seven batters in each of his last seven starts, and 31% of all batters faced this year, which is the eighth-most in all of baseball. And in a day and age where velocity has become king, where every team wants it, his new repertoire is letting him achieve success in an unprecedented way. See the following chart, containing the pitcher in the top 10 in K% with the slowest average fastball going back through the last decade.

wild velo

Corbin has the largest gap between his own average fastball and the league’s in a given season over this time period, at 2.9 mph. The next closest, Madison Bumgarner in 2016, was only a 1.8 mph gap. After that, it shrinks to Jered Weaver’s 1.4 mph all the way back in 2010. And after that, the gap just keeps shrinking. None of the pitchers above were exclusively known for their fastball when they were leading strikeout getters, but it’s plenty fair to consider it an indicator of their success. It also underscores just how important Corbin’s sliders have been for him and the Diamondbacks.

Without the evolution of his breaking balls, Corbin’s fastball would leave him as a two pitch guy somewhere in the range of Julio Teheran (.4 fWAR) and Alex Wood (2.2 fWAR). Instead, he’s on pace to be worth at least nearly three times as much to his team.

Right now every little bit counts. Arizona currently leads the NL West at 73-60, but only by a half game over Colorado and one game over LA. They have 44.3% odds to make the playoffs and every whiff Corbin provides is going to have an impact.

Each whiff Corbin provides could also impact his next contract. He’s set to become a free agent at season’s end. Everyone remembers how last year’s market was an absolute mess for the players and, in another capacity, the fans, too. Corbin is only working with what he’s got but he appears to be zigging when everyone else is zagging.

Whether he can replicate this kind of performance moving into his 30s, or what he becomes if his velocity truly dips further, are questions as good as any. You can’t fake whiffs at the rate Corbin has gotten them, though. Surely, the answers will dictate millions of dollars, and could keep having an impact on playoff races for years to come.

K% and velocity data from FanGraphs. Feature image from Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports

David Price Has Leveled Out And Leveled Up

David Price has started 24 games this year. Per FanGraphs, he’s been worth 2.2 wins above replacement in those games. But in his last five starts alone, he’s been worth exactly half of that total. He’s been so good recently that Boston media asked him after his most recent start, in which he went seven innings, struck out eight, and only allowed two runs against Tampa Bay, what he had changed. The exchange was direct.

Specifically, Price was asked what he’s done to catch fire. He responded saying that he “made adjustments,” and, when the initial question was followed up with “what kind of adjustments?” he responded saying he wouldn’t say, and that he isn’t going to do the media’s job for them since they don’t do his, and that they can “go back and watch film.”

So I did.

Price Side by Side.II

On the left is Price on June 9. On the right is Price on July 12, the start of his best stretch of 2018. There’s a lot going on here. Five things, actually, and they’re all happening in just a couple split seconds that may be difficult to catch in real time.

First things first: he’s moved in more on the rubber toward first base. Even a couple of inches changes the path of the ball to the plate, meaning hitters have automatically been getting an altered look. Then look at his glove, and how high he was lifting it and his right arm earlier this year. It was nearly coming up over his eyes.

That brings us to the third tweak Price has made. His head isn’t poking out quite the same. Now that his glove hand is lower, his view to home is cleaner the entire time through his motion and his upper body can be more relaxed. Just look at the line from the outside of his glove hand to the bend in his throwing elbow. Before he made his adjustments he was rocking up and down much more, almost like an old metronome needle. Only the time he was keeping wasn’t so sharp, which we can get a sense of if we look at number five, his back leg.

Get out of your seat and slowly mimic Price’s motion on the left from earlier this season. Do you feel all the tilt your back leg and knee are left to control from what your torso is doing? It’s a lot. By Price leveling out how he transfers energy through his upper body, he’s letting his lower body stabilize and support himself more easily. His hips can coil and spring outward, moving directly to the plate with less to account for. 

Below is a gif of heat maps for each of his individual pitches.

David Price Heat Maps GIF-downsized_large

On the left is where Price was placing each pitch before the changes. On the right is where he’s been putting it since. The view is from the catcher’s perspective. Each horizontal dash at the bottom accounts for two feet of distance, and each vertical one accounts for one foot. I left them in so you can get an idea of how much Price’s adjustments to his motion have impacted his control and command.

This is not the kind of tweak we should take for granted, though we often do. For one thing, we ‘re forced to consider just how difficult the Red Sox will be to handle in the playoffs with this version of Price if they got to 50 games over .500 largely without this version of him. And for another, this process could be beneficial to an endless amount of players if delivered in a forward manner.

What Price has effectively done is turn down the noise level within the motor pathways firing off in his brain. It’s not a matter of seeing a perceived mechanical flaw, pointing it out, and suddenly being better, though. This more exaggerated rocking from Price started sneaking into his motion somewhere around 2015. That’s the same time he had his best season to date and finished second in the Cy Young voting. Deliberate or not, it seems to have crawled into his game and been reinforced, creating a wrinkle for him that’s become inhibitive. Fixing it isn’t necessarily so simple.

That’s because the kinds of practice and repetition inherent to baseball are also inherent to automatizing the information a player processes every time they pick up a ball or bat. When we automatize, it’s like learning how to ride a bike without wobbling or falling. It’s what lets us focus on other, more important things, like looking where we’re riding so we don’t drive into a wall or a baby stroller. For David Price, it means being able to execute pitches better. (If you’d like to learn more about our natural pull draw to automatizing procedures, consider reading Zach Schonbrun’s The Performance Cortex, which will promptly blow your mind.)

But automatizing also leaves us open to creating bad habits, where our brains can go on autopilot too long through a process. We become so used to knowing how to ride a bike that our minds wander. We pull out our phone or ride hands-free without thinking. For ballplayers, they might start swinging wildly or superficially capping their power or, in Price’s case, dulling his repertoire. Automatizing is a constantly fluid and tricky process.

Players need to understand why a change makes a difference and how to discern the need for it. They need to know how wading into the waters against what they’ve been doing for a long time in an effort to be their best is actually going to help. 

David Price isn’t throwing harder. He hasn’t drastically adjusted his pitch mix more than he has in the past, changed a grip to create more movement on old pitches, or introduced a new pitch.

He explored, understood, and implemented a change to something he’d been doing for years. He adapted a pattern that swayed from exact and automatic to habitual and obstructive. Now the Red Sox have another piece firing on all cylinders as we move toward October, leaving all the other teams in MLB to shudder at the possibilities.

Photo stills from Baseball Savant video. WAR numbers from FanGraphs. Gif made with Giphy. Feature image from Jason Miller/Getty Images