“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

 

Acquiring Manny Machado Is Imperative For The Phillies

We’re two weeks out from the trade deadline. It may be quiet for most of baseball, given the state of the Haves and Have-nots shaping a less traditional mid-season urgency than in the past. Most of the AL playoff picture appears to be nearly set, at least to many observers. Meanwhile, the NL is up for grabs. As of July 14, the Phillies hold the biggest divisional lead at just 1.5 games over Atlanta, while the Dodgers have only a half game lead over the DBacks and the Cubs are in a dead heat with the Brewers. Manny Machado is the trade deadline’s biggest fish and he’s been connected to nearly all of those teams.

Given the state of competition in the NL, Machado could dramatically impact the league’s playoff race. He’s projected to be worth at least two more wins. That’s a bigger gap than any current divisional lead. It could be easy to argue that he’s a critical addition for any club, but it may not be more important for anyone than the Phillies.

Of course, there’s the short term considerations for the Phillies to acquire Machado. The team is competing earlier than anticipated. Their top tier farm system could handle the cost of acquiring a star on an expiring contract and still be excellent. It doesn’t hurt when the star in this case has intense connections to the current Phillies front office, from its director of scouting to its general manager to its president. But then there’s this:

ss war

That’s every first and second place team in the NL right now. The Phillies have had some terrible shortstop production in 2018. That could be because their expected starter, JP Crawford, has only managed to appear in 34 games this year, of which only 25 have come at short. The team’s primary replacement has been Scott Kingery, who’s appeared at short in 68 games. He was bally-hooed in Spring Training as he pushed for a roster spot and was signed to a long-term extension to accommodate him making the team, but he’s been miserable in his Major League debut. He’s mustered a 66 wRC+. In other words, he’s been 34% worse than average.

Beyond just being an upgrade at shortstop, Machado could help the Phillies become a more efficient offense overall. To date, they’ve left 654 runners on base, which is 11th-worst in the Majors. But they’ve also share the league’s 10th-highest OBP at .320. So they’re one of the best teams at getting guys on base, and one of the worst at driving them in. Machado has a wRC+ of 131 with men on base, and that may be a bit muted because Baltimore has been so bad. He’s garnered 11 intentional walks in those situations this year, which is already two more than he’s ever had in a full season.

Trading for Machado does more than just improve the Phillies and their chances this year, too. It keeps him away from every other team that would stand to get better by acquiring him. Maybe you read that and thought, “duh.” But if you notice in the chart above, the Brewers may especially feel the urgency to make a big move. They’re the only contender which has been worse at shortstop than the Phillies. They’re also trying to stave off the Cubs, who everyone seems to be waiting to click again and run off with the division, just like last year.

Long-term, Machado serves additional purpose for Philadelphia if they can sign him to an extension, which they may stand a good chance to do. Atlanta’s top tier farm system has put them in position to churn out role players and superstars with staying power. Even if the Nationals lose Bryce Harper this winter, they still have Juan Soto and the rest of the cast that’s good enough to compete. The Phillies system has produced talented Major League pieces the last couple years and is still ranked highly, but it lacks players who are projected to be stars on the level of the other teams in the NL East.

Acquiring Machado now is a move the Phillies can make with confidence because of how it impacts the present and scales for later. The iron is hot. They should strike.

LOB data from Baseball Reference. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature image from Charles Krupa/AP

 

 

Relievers Who Will Matter in the Second Half

A slump-proof, lockdown bullpen doesn’t just win games. It can effectively end them before they’re over. But relievers are weird. Even when they’re not pooping their pants, they’re probably the most volatile players in all of baseball. They seem to represent only the foremost moment in any given season, making trying to project which ones will be good largely a fool’s errand.

But there is a tool that can help, maybe: SIERA. That’s Skill-Interactive ERA. It’s an ERA estimator like FIP or xFIP, but it’s better because it accounts for more of the noise that can result from batted balls. It also has a stronger correlation to predicting a pitcher’s future ERA.

It’s important to acknowledge that it isn’t an ERA projector, but can inform us of the quality of the skills a pitcher has demonstrated most recently. And now, as the season heats up, and as potential playoff teams show more urgency, and we’re in the foremost moment the season has to offer, we can use SIERA to see which of baseball’s oddest bunch could offer big benefits in the second half. Let’s dig in.

Juan Nicasio currently has a SIERA of 2.49. His ERA is a flat 6.00 through 34 appearances. Because SIERA is best used as a starting point for evaluating a player, the disparity between his results versus how he’s actually pitched pushes us to look further. One thing that jumps out is his strand rate, which stands at a homely 53.3%. That’s 20% worse than league average for relievers. It’s probably fueled by a .396 BABIP which is a whole hundred points worse than league average, and this is all happening while he’s striking out more and walking less batters than he ever has.

The thing about Nicasio isn’t any of those wonky stats, though. It’s that it’s hard to see him not getting better while playing on a team that’s been thriving in one-run games all season. The Mariners may effectively gain a lockdown arm for their bullpen as the ledger balances for him, and they’ve already had a top ten group by fWAR. What they’re doing is unprecedented and Nicasio is another reason it could keep happening.

Harris
Photo: Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle

Will Harris would likely elicit a shrug from anyone who peered at his 4.15 ERA. His FIP and xFIP are both sub-3.00, though, and his SIERA is an even tinier 2.40. Including him here might be considered cheating in two ways: he’s appeared in ten games over the last month with an ERA of 2.70, and he’s an Astro.

He was victimized by home runs earlier in the year and has been better at keeping the ball in the park, having allowed only one dinger over the last 30 days. It helps that he’s striking out a career high, too, with a reworked curveball that’s tighter and sharper than ever. Remarkably, he might only be the third-best Astros reliever behind Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock. Maybe it’s not cheating so much as it is just unfair that the Astros could get even better with a guy they’re already trotting out there.

And then there’s a pair of Phillies, Hector Neris and Tommy Hunter. Neris has become much maligned and was even sent to the minors to figure himself out. He’s given up a homer on nearly every third flyball allowed, which is bonkers. His fastballs have flattened out, which probably plays into his splitter playing down, too. While his 6.90 ERA is woof-worthy, his 2.95 SIERA is pretty nice and tells us his fastballs being worse shouldn’t make him this bad.

Phillies general manager Matt Klentak caught some flak on talk radio for recently saying that Tommy Hunter’s 2018 has actually been one of his best. His ERA is approaching 5.00 but his SIERA sits at 2.87, so maybe Klentak’s statement gives us a glimpse into the team’s beefed up sabermetric approach. Hunter has fallen victim to similar issues as the others above — high BABIP causing a lower strand rate.

Neris
Photo: Chris Young/CP

The thing about Hunter (25.1) and Neris (30) is they’ve accounted for 55.1 innings out of the Philadelphia bullpen. Positive regression for them could be critical for the team, as others like Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano are slightly outperforming their peripherals so far. They’re on pace for 88 wins, and every inning is going to be important for them in the second half as the team pushes for the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Looking at a pitcher’s SIERA gives us a stronger sense of their most recent performance. It can also give us a sound starting point for where else to look to understand how the moment has treated them. Beyond that, it can also help us zoom out and examine a pitcher’s potential impact on their team while we move onward to October, no matter how weird they are or have been.

Data from FanGraphs. Feature image from Elaine Thompson/AP.