Attack Of The Sliders, Part 1: Struggling Hitters

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

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

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

attack of the sliders

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

bad sliders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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

 

Johan Camargo Deserves Your Attention

If you’re following the Atlanta Braves this season — and it would be hard not to, as they’ve lead the NL East for a large portion of the first half — there’s a lot that may draw your eye. Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuña have provided anticipation. Nick Markakis has surprised. Freddie Freeman has been himself. A host of pitchers, like Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Mike Soroka, Shane Carle, AJ Minter, and Dan Winkler, have all emerged as more than expected in some respect. But another name should also grab your attention: 24-year-old, switch-hitting Johan Camargo.

The Atlanta system has been among the best in baseball the last couple years, boasting both depth and top end talent. The litany of players above largely verifies that. Two years ago, the last time Camargo was eligible to be on a prospect list, he was effectively ranked as the 52nd-best prospect in the team’s system by FanGraphs. He was said to be “a plus defender at third” but also that “his feel for hitting and lack of balance at the plate are both non-starters.” He was ultimately compared to Abraham Nunez.

While Nunez enjoyed a long professional career, he also retired being worse than a replacement level player. His career fWAR was -1.4. Upon arriving in the Majors last year, Camargo seemed to immediately dispel any such comparison. His defense between shortstop and third base was passable, but his bat was more than anyone ever seemed to imagine. He mustered a 102 wRC+ in 82 games, which was 14% better than Nunez ever achieved.

Camargo performed that way largely on the tails of a .368 average on balls in play. Sustainable? Probably not, but it was something, and way more than what was ever expected of him. That’s already a win for a team’s 52nd-best prospect. But this year he’s gone from something to something to write home about.

CamargoOne

All of his numbers so far jump off the chart. Last season he whiffed five times more than he walked. This year he’s walking an additional 8% and striking out less. He’s driving the ball at a clip that’s 33% higher than last year. He’s been 15% better than the average Major League hitter, and that’s with his average on balls in play dropping more than 80 points! That’s fantastic! So for the second time in as many years, Johan Camargo is forcing us to beg the question: is he for real?

CamargoTwo

Well, dang. His walk rate skyrocketing seems legitimate with how much less he’s swinging at balls out of the zone. Spitting on offerings that are inherently less hittable will influence the rest of his batted ball profile, too. He’s traded in weaker contact for harder contact. Hard contact throughout the league is up by nearly 4% from last year. That’s substantial because the amount of balls in play is in the thousands — think of it like getting a 4% raise in a single year, compared to, say, 1.5% for cost of living. Alex Chamberlain recently examined how it’s meant less overall, but this much is clear: Camargo is still knocking the crap out of the ball.

This authority has lead to improved exit velocity on line drives and fly balls. Last year, on average, Camargo hit balls in the air at 91.4 mph. This year he’s doing it at 93.8 mph. The tick and a half might not seem like much but it moves him from the 23rd percentile in all the Majors to the 66th. And considering his average launch angle on those balls in play — 25.4 degrees — it’s significant. Rob Arthur has found that “the very best hitters in MLB tend to smack lots of balls with launch angles around 25 degrees and exit velocities above 90 miles per hour,” and so far Camargo is only trending upward.

We might be able to contribute this next gear at the plate from Camargo to a more exaggerated leg kick. See below for yourself.

CamargoSideBySide

On the left is Camargo in 2017 when he first showed us he might be more than we thought. On the right is him in 2018, as he insists that he is. Leg kicks like this are timing mechanisms players use to establish rhythm at the dish. His teammate Ozzie Albies, who is also a switch hitter blasting by his projections, employs a similarly pronounced leg kick. Camargo seems to have found one that does the job for him, providing him the balance and feel at the plate he lacked as a minor leaguer.

Maybe we’d have heard more about Camargo by now if he was on a different team, or if Atlanta hadn’t surged to contention so quickly. Maybe it’s tougher to see how far he’s come given that he started so far off everyone’s radar, or that he’s supposed to be a utility man and placeholder for prospect Austin Riley. But Johan Camargo is more than any of that, and he’s showing us how.

Exit velocity, launch angles, and stills from Baseball Savant. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature image from Chad Rhym/AJC

Examining The Struggles of Ozzie Albies Through The Lens of Neuroscience

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

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

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

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

Neuroscience GIF-downsized_large

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pitch charts from Baseball Savant. All other data from FanGraphs. Gif made with Giphy. Feature image from Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images.