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

 

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.

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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?

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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.

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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

Yonny Chirinos Is Closing In On Being Awesome

Early season baseball is beautiful. It’s not that just that baseball is back. It’s that things get so weird so quickly. Take, for example, Mike Petriello pondering this:

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Lol, y’all. For the record, Owings is at .478 going into his game on Friday and Sanchez has worked his way to .088. So, yeah, just a few days later and things are still weird.

But some things…some things that seem weird may not be weird. Yonny Chirinos might be one of those things.

Chirinos has been on the fringe of interesting for some time. Last July, Carson Cistulli wrote about him at FanGraphs for three weeks in a row. The gist, from blurbs in those pieces, is that Chirinos tends to sit in the low 90s with his fastball but can amp it up to 96 mph. He can do it late in games, too. He also throws two offspeed pitches — a slider and a splitter — and is comfortable throwing them anytime. He’s a guy who’s gotten better as he’s faced better competition.  

And now, after injuries to Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon and Nathan Eovaldi, Chirinos is getting the chance to face the best competition in the world. And he’s rising to the occasion again. He hasn’t allowed a run through 14.1 innings and he’s striking out six hitters to every walk. But there’s more.

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Certainly, it’s early. While Chirinos is ranked here against last year’s qualifiers, he wouldn’t actually qualify yet for this year. No pitcher does, because it’s so early. Plate discipline numbers tend to stabilize quickly, though. After just his first couple games, the odds are good that hitters will continue to make contact at the same rate against Chirinos that they already have. After a couple more starts, we’ll be able to say with relative conviction if he’ll hit the zone the same way he has through his first three appearances. The same goes for the rate at which he’s coaxing swings out of the zone.

Things get a little foggier when it comes to Chirinos’s first pitch strike rate. He’s probably only a fifth of the way toward that crazy 71.7% number becoming reliable. But let’s consider how he’s done it to this point. Statcast has him at 18 called first pitch strikes, five whiffs, and eight foul balls. He’s throwing about three sinkers to every slider at the start of an at-bat, and occasionally gets funky by throwing something else. But it’s mostly a two pitch mix. And if you check the leaderboards so far, you’ll see he’s surrounded by loads of legitimate and other emerging talent.

Once he’s gotten ahead, Chirinos has done well by distributing his three primary pitches well, supporting the reports linked above from last season. His sinker runs one direction, his slider jumps the other, and his splitter acts like it’s fruit falling through the bottom of a grocery bag. In any given matchup, he can control three parts of the zone.

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Just about the only way Chirinos could be making more of an impact right now is if he were going deeper into games. He’s averaged a shade over 60 pitches per appearance so far, and 64.5 per start. I don’t know if the Rays are stretching him out, or if they’re being super cautious against him facing batters a third time, or both. The team’s history may suggest they’ll eventually be willing to let him go further into games, though. The Rays rank tenth in MLB from 2015-17 in innings thrown by starters.  More than 22% of those innings can be attributed to Chris Archer alone, but it’s still worth keeping an eye on.

Either way, it’s probably fair to hedge a bet that Chirinos could continue producing really effective five inning outings and sprinkle in a few that are more than that.

Sometimes, what seems weird is actually just a new kind of awesome.

Plate discipline data from FanGraphs. Pitch mix data from Baseball Savant. Feature image by Cortesia. 

Cesar Hernandez Swings Less, Hits More

Getting talked up as a second baseman can be hard. Jose Altuve, Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy, and Jonathan Schoop occupy a lot of that conversation. Other, older guys like Robinson Cano and Ian Kinsler are still kicking around. Whit Merrifield says hello from Nowhere, too. And then there’s Cesar Hernandez, who seems to get talked up most for how underrated he is.

He’s one of only two holdovers on the Phillies since he came up in 2013 — the other is Luis Garcia — so even after this offseason of the team shedding some of that sluggish rebuild weight and adding some bona fide muscle, they must see something in him. He’s not just an asset to turn. This is true even after signing Scott Kingery, whose primary position is the same as Hernandez’s, to a six-year extension before he’s even played a single game in the Majors.

Hernandez is remarkably consistent. He strikes out less than 20% of the time, walks more than 10%, will display occasional pop, and can handle the glove at the keystone. But even consistency needs to evolve sometimes in order to keep pace, and we may have seen the next step from Cesar Hernandez last year.

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The change, in a word: discipline. Per Pitch Info, we can see how Hernandez apparently decided to just stop chasing pitches out of the zone. In the first half he ranked 29th in MLB, directly ahead of Edwin Encarnacion, and fourth at his position. That’s already pretty good. But in the second half he shot up to eighth in MLB and tied with now-teammate Carlos Santana, and second at his position.

It’s one thing to see a relatively sharp change in a stat and be able to acknowledge how a player’s performance improved or declined. It’s another to process how directly it possibly influenced his overall production. Consider that Hernandez swung at 5.2% less pitches in the second half. Nearly 80% of that decrease was the direct result of letting pitches outside the zone go. That’s four balls for every called strike.

The difference in Hernandez’s approach fueled a drastic increase in OBP and was a big reason he became 25% better than league average at creating runs. It’s no wonder he went from being worth less than a win before the All-Star break to 2.4 after it.

Check out the gifs below. They’re both of the switch-hitting Hernandez swinging from the left side at a pitch to the same outside third of the plate:

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The first is against a Yu Darvish fastball in May and resulted in a weak groundout to Elvis Andrus. It has a nice Fox Trax spot to show you how it was out of the zone. The second is against a Robert Gsellman fastball in September, around the same outside third of the plate, and was a double. This one doesn’t have a tracker showing you it was more over the plate, but, per Statcast, it was.

If you’ve heard of pitchers working the plate side to side, Hernandez does a little bit of the same with his swing, working horizontally. He pulls out his hips behind him and lets his bat drive through the zone on a similar plane. The small difference in pitch selection between the two gifs was the difference between a dribbler and an extra base hit, and Hernandez made this a regular thing from mid-July and on.

It appears as though he didn’t make any mechanical change that allowed him to better cover the plate or access the ball when it got there. This is true whether he batted lefthanded or righthanded. His plate discipline, then, really does seem to be the result of simply choosing to swing at only what’s within the zone. Last August, I wrote about Rhys Hoskins being exciting in the context of the current Phillies, and how he offers a threat that the rest of the lineup doesn’t. If Hernandez’s plate discipline sticks in 2018 — the handful of games so far hasn’t allowed for a stable sample size yet — then he, too, will offer a skill that makes the lineup tougher and more of a threat.

It’s been a weird year for the Phillies already. Between Gabe Kapler and younger talent making a push for playing time, it could get much weirder. But an eye like Cesar Hernandez’s at the plate every day could help steady the ship.

Pitch Info Data from FanGraphs. Gifs made with Giphy. Feature image from AP/Laurence Kesterson.