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.

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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.

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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.

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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