Ben Clemens FanGraphs Chat – 9/25/23

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Tarik Skubal Is Pitching Like an Ace

Tarik Skubal
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest news to come out of Thursday’s series opener between the A’s and Tigers in Oakland was the A’s gifting retiring future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera a bottle of wine valued at under $100 — a gift roundly criticized on social media for being both cheap and not particularly appropriate, given Cabrera’s history with alcohol abuse. It was the kind of story that is ripe for punchlines: a franchise whose much broader-scale cheapness is costing their loyal fans a beloved local team presents a thoughtless gift to fulfill an already awkward tradition before a meaningless game. But at least outside of Detroit, the ceremonial blunder may have overshadowed another outstanding performance from a pitcher who has quietly been one of the hottest in baseball since returning from injury in July: Tarik Skubal.

On Thursday in Oakland, Skubal faced 22 hitters and recorded 21 outs, using just 87 pitches. He struck out 10 of those 22, walked just one and allowed only a pair of singles, both of which were erased by double-play balls. No A’s hitter reached scoring position until the Tigers’ bullpen had taken over after Skubal’s seven scoreless frames. The two hits he gave up looked like this:

And this:

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Justin Steele (and Tommy Hottovy) on Justin Steele

Justin Steele
Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Steele has an uncommon pitch profile and an uncomplicated approach to his craft. He also has an outside chance of capturing this year’s NL Cy Young award. With two starts remaining (one if the Cubs clinch a Wild Card berth prior to Sunday’s regular-season finale), the 28-year-old southpaw is 16–5 with a 3.00 ERA and a 2.99 FIP over 168 innings. He’s not only been Chicago’s best pitcher, but he’s also been one of the best in the Senior Circuit.

Steele’s emergence as a frontline starter was portended by last year’s performance. While his won-lost record was an anything-but-eye-catching 4–7, his 3.18 ERA and his 3.20 FIP weren’t notably higher than this year’s marks. Moreover, his strikeout and ground-ball rates were actually better, as were his xFIP and HR/9. His BABIP was nearly identical. The only meaningful difference, on paper, was his walk rate, which at 3.78 was essentially double this season’s 1.88.

Prior to his last outing — a game in which he was BABIP’d to death by six consecutive fourth-inning singles — I approached Steele in Wrigley Field’s home clubhouse to get his thoughts on what has been an outstanding season. The following day, I asked Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy about the pitch characteristics that make Steele a Cy Young contender.


David Laurila: Won-lost record and walk rate aside, a lot of your numbers aren’t all that different from last year’s. Are you more or less the same pitcher?

Justin Steele: “I would say that I’m better. The pitches are the same, I’m the same pitcher as far as that goes, but I’ve been more consistent this year. I’m not walking as many guys. I’m being competitive throughout the count, I’ve cut down on non-competitive pitches big time. So yeah, a lot more consistent.”

Laurila: Were you happy with last year?

Steele: “I think so. I was definitely happy with how I finished up [a 0.99 ERA over his last seven starts]. I felt like the entire season I was improving. That’s something that’s really important to me, always improving from start to start.”

Laurila: What’s behind this year’s improved consistency?

Steele: “I think it’s just more reps, getting more and more comfortable out there each time I take the ball. It’s like anything in life: you do it more and you get more comfortable doing it. You also get better at it.” Read the rest of this entry »

The 2024 Free Agent Tracker Is Here!

Our 2024 Free Agent Tracker is now live! There are currently close to 200 players on the list; more will be added following the postseason as decisions are made on 2024 options and teams begin to clear space on their 40-man rosters. The tracker will be regularly updated throughout the offseason as qualifying offers are made and accepted or rejected, and as free agents find their new homes.

You can filter by status (signed/unsigned), previous team, and signing team, and export the data for your own analysis. You can also sort by a player’s handedness, age, and 2023 WAR. Shortly after the postseason ends, projected 2024 WAR will be available, as well as the results of our annual contract crowdsourcing project, which include median contract total, years, and average annual value. Read the rest of this entry »

Mookie Betts’ Versatility Has Enriched His MVP Case

Mookie Betts
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With apologies to Matt Olson, Freddie Freeman, and Corbin Carroll, the race for the NL MVP Award has essentially boiled down to two players: Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mookie Betts. It’s an incredibly close one, with the pair producing such similar batting lines that they’re tied for the NL lead with a 169 wRC+. Betts has the edge in both the FanGraphs and Baseball Reference versions of WAR, Acuña has the edge in several counting stats, and each player has added some unique additional flavors into the mix.

For Acuña, those largely center around his prolific baserunning. Aided by the new rules — particularly the limits on pickoff throws — and unhindered by a drop in sprint speed in the wake of his 2021 ACL tear, he’s stolen 68 bases, the highest total in the majors since 2010. With his 40th homer coming against the Nationals on Friday, he has just the fifth 40–40 season ever, and now the most steals of any player in that club, surpassing Alex Rodriguez’s 46 from 1998 (to go with 42 homers). With one week remaining, he needs two steals to become the first player ever to combine 40 homers and 70 steals in the same campaign, in what’s arguably the greatest power-speed combo season anybody has seen.

There’s certainly value to such an accomplishment, though we’re entering the realm of intangibility. We’re already crediting the value of his homers and steals within the context of the rest of his offensive stat line, but things like wOBA, wRC+, and WAR don’t tell us how much to care about a player reaching round-numbered milestones like these, even if they’re without precedent. Even less clear-cut is the attempt to examine the extent to which Acuña’s baserunning has helped his teammates, mainly by giving them more fastballs to hit. Colleague Esteban Rivera established that yes, players do see more fastballs when he’s on first, but their performances against those fastballs wasn’t uniformly better. “Acuña is most likely helping his teammates see more heaters,” he concluded. “What they do with those pitches, though, is completely up to them.”

Betts isn’t without his own cool counting stat achievements. His two-run double off Ross Stripling on Saturday night gave him 105 RBIs out of the leadoff spot, a record (Acuña is third at 101). Meanwhile, he’s hit 12 leadoff homers, one shy of the single-season record set by Alfonso Soriano in 2003, and his career-high 39 homers are two shy of the post-World War II record for the most by a player listed at 5-foot-9 or shorter, currently held by Roy Campanella. But bigger (if more difficult to measure) impact he’s made is with his sudden burst of Zobristian versatility: In the wake of Gavin Lux tearing his right ACL in late February, Betts has started 69 games in the infield — 56 at second base and another 12 at shortstop — in his most infield play in nearly a decade. Read the rest of this entry »

FanGraphs Power Rankings: September 18–24

We’ve made it to the final week of the season, and both Wild Card races are still up in the air. Unfortunately, MLB’s expanded postseason field has led to the elimination of tiebreaker games in favor of tiebreaker mathematics. So while we’re barreling towards a dramatic finish in both those playoff races, the regular season will be over for good on Sunday. The next edition of these power rankings will evaluate the playoff field next week.

A reminder for how these rankings are calculated: first, we take the three most important components of a team — their offense (wRC+), their pitching (a 50/50 blend of FIP- and RA9-, weighted by starter and reliever IP share), and their defense (RAA) — and combine them to create an overall team quality metric. I also add in a factor for “luck,” adjusting a team’s win percentage based on expected win-loss record. The result is a power ranking, which is then presented in tiers below.

Tier 1 – The Best of the Best
Team Record “Luck” wRC+ SP- RP- RAA Team Quality Playoff Odds
Braves 100-56 2 124 94 91 -9 153 100.0%
Rays 95-62 -2 117 90 95 6 163 100.0%

All the Braves needed to do over these last few weeks of the season was get to the postseason healthy and ready to make a deep run in October, but that plan has begun to unravel a bit. Last week, they placed both Max Fried and Charlie Morton on the IL, though the former should be ready for the NLDS since his injury is just a minor blister issue. Still, losing one of their best starters in Morton isn’t ideal as they head into the playoffs. In more encouraging news, Ronald Acuña Jr. became the fifth player to join the 40–40 club on Friday and is now the only member of the 40–50 and 40–60 clubs; he could even hit the 40–70 mark this week.

Tier 2 – On the Cusp of Greatness
Team Record “Luck” wRC+ SP- RP- RAA Team Quality Playoff Odds
Dodgers 96-59 0 116 101 87 4 148 100.0%
Blue Jays 87-69 1 107 91 86 10 158 98.2%
Rangers 87-68 -6 116 93 107 16 153 97.0%
Mariners 84-71 -4 108 93 91 17 162 44.5%

The Dodgers put the first nail in the Giants’ coffin, winning three of four against them last weekend. They’ve got a first-round bye locked up but probably won’t be able to chase down the Braves for the best record in baseball during this final week of the season. They’ll spend that time figuring out their playoff rotation and making sure everyone gets to the postseason healthy. To that end, it was encouraging to see Clayton Kershaw spin five shutout innings on Saturday, his second shutout performance in a row, coming off his shoulder injury.

After an up-and-down start to the month, the Rangers have now won five straight, including three against the Mariners last weekend. Injuries have thinned out their pitching staff, but they’ve finally gotten healthy on offense, activating both Adolis García and Josh Jung off the IL last week. Even with the lineup fully stocked, their bullpen may still be their downfall; Texas’ relievers have allowed 65 runs to score in September, tied for second most this month behind the Braves.

With the Rangers taking control of the AL West and the Blue Jays gaining ground in the AL Wild Card race, it seems like the battle over the final Wild Card spot will come down to the Mariners and Astros, both of whom were swept in three games last weekend. Neither team has been playing all that well this month, with nearly identical records (8–13 for Houston and 8–14 for Seattle), and now they’ll face each other three times in Seattle to start this week.

Tier 3 – Solid Contenders
Team Record “Luck” wRC+ SP- RP- RAA Team Quality Playoff Odds
Orioles 97-59 7 107 97 86 -10 124 100.0%
Phillies 87-69 1 106 91 90 -3 132 100.0%
Brewers 88-68 2 92 92 88 35 123 100.0%
Cubs 82-74 -6 105 96 92 16 139 55.8%
Astros 85-71 -4 112 103 95 7 129 60.3%
Twins 83-73 -6 107 87 95 -8 132 100.0%
Diamondbacks 82-73 6 98 101 102 29 106 85.3%

The Orioles suffered through three bullpen meltdowns last week, though they managed a series win in Houston and a split of a four-game series in Cleveland. They’re still in command of the AL East and should enter the playoffs as the top seed. Still, their bullpen hasn’t been as strong since losing Félix Bautista, their All-Star closer; since he went on the IL, Baltimore’s relievers have allowed 50 runs, 16th in the majors. More worrying is their collective strikeout rate, which has fallen to just 17.2% during that stretch. If the O’s want to make a deep run into October, they need their relief corps firing on all cylinders.

The Phillies survived their final gauntlet before the end of the season last week, winning two of three against the Braves and then sweeping the Mets in four games. That all but assures their entry into the postseason as the top Wild Card in the NL. Nick Castellanos blasted five home runs last week, and Bryce Harper chipped in three of his own. They’ve been overshadowed by some of the other powerhouses in the NL and spent a lot of the first half of the season floundering with Harper and Trea Turner scuffling, but they’ve come on strong during the second half of the season.

With a particularly tough schedule during the final week of the season, the Cubs desperately needed some wins against the Rockies last weekend to remain in the NL Wild Card race. They wound up sweeping them in three games and now head into their final six games against the Braves and Brewers tied with the Diamondbacks and a game ahead of the Marlins. Meanwhile, Miami has much easier opponents left on the schedule, though the Marlins will play all six remaining games on the road in New York and Pittsburgh.

Tier 4 – The Longshots
Team Record “Luck” wRC+ SP- RP- RAA Team Quality Playoff Odds
Padres 77-79 -10 108 91 97 18 161 0.0%
Giants 77-79 2 94 98 96 11 106 0.0%
Marlins 81-75 8 94 96 103 -19 72 52.2%

That final NL Wild Card spot will almost certainly come down to the Cubs or the Marlins, but the Reds, Giants, and Padres have yet to be eliminated. Chicago’s good fortune last weekend put a damper on the potential miracle run the Padres appeared to be making over the last few weeks. San Diego and San Francisco enter this week tied in the standings, and a lot of things need to go their way if either team is going to sneak into the playoffs. It’s likely too little, too late for the Padres, but they’ve finally been playing up to the level of talent on their roster over the last few weeks. Unfortunately, their record in extra innings games dropped to 0–12 on Saturday, which snapped their eight-game win streak.

Tier 5 – Spoiler Alert
Team Record “Luck” wRC+ SP- RP- RAA Team Quality Playoff Odds
Yankees 78-77 3 95 103 87 2 99 0.0%
Guardians 74-83 -2 92 96 94 14 102 0.0%
Red Sox 76-80 -2 102 104 99 -41 70 0.0%
Mets 71-85 -5 101 101 109 -7 79 0.0%
Reds 80-77 6 95 108 96 -26 59 6.7%
Cardinals 68-88 0 104 112 104 -3 80 0.0%
Pirates 74-82 5 91 107 100 2 62 0.0%

The Yankees have some real soul searching to do this offseason, but at least they might have figured out a piece of their starting rotation. Michael King has been utterly dominant since moving out of the bullpen, allowing no more than two runs in any of his seven starts this year. With injuries curtailing the production of many of their other starters this year, King’s emergence has been a huge positive sign to end a disappointing season.

That the Reds even have a shot at sneaking into the playoffs this late in the season has to be seen as a huge success after tearing everything down last year. And while Elly De La Cruz has really struggled with prolonged exposure to big league pitching, Cincinnati has plenty of other youngsters who are making an impact and who should form the core of a potent roster for years to come. The Reds have games against the Guardians and Cardinals this week and need a lot of help elsewhere in the standings to make things interesting for the Cubs and Marlins.

Tier 6 – Hope Deferred
Team Record wRC+ SP- RP- RAA Team Quality Playoff Odds
Angels 70-86 1 102 105 113 -15 68 0.0%
Tigers 73-83 6 86 99 100 -3 58 0.0%
Nationals 69-88 4 92 114 113 5 49 0.0%
Royals 54-102 -7 86 113 112 17 48 0.0%
Rockies 56-99 -2 77 118 105 -3 27 0.0%
White Sox 60-96 0 84 109 112 -17 19 0.0%
Athletics 48-108 1 89 131 120 -17 15 0.0%

The Royals are ending the season on an incredibly high note; they’ve won 10 of their last 11 games, including five of six from the Astros, and thanks to late-season breakouts from Cole Ragans and Nelson Velázquez, they can head into next year with some hope for the future. Bobby Witt Jr. proved he was the core piece they could build around this year; all of a sudden, there’s some forward momentum for an organization that’s been stuck in reverse for too long.

Complete Power Rankings
Rank Team Record “Luck” wRC+ SP- RP- RAA Team Quality Playoff Odds Δ
1 Braves 100-56 2 124 94 91 -9 153 100.0% 0
2 Rays 95-62 -2 117 90 95 6 163 100.0% 0
3 Dodgers 96-59 0 116 101 87 4 148 100.0% 0
4 Blue Jays 87-69 1 107 91 86 10 158 98.2% 1
5 Rangers 87-68 -6 116 93 107 16 153 97.0% -1
6 Mariners 84-71 -4 108 93 91 17 162 44.5% 0
7 Orioles 97-59 7 107 97 86 -10 124 100.0% 1
8 Phillies 87-69 1 106 91 90 -3 132 100.0% 4
9 Brewers 88-68 2 92 92 88 35 123 100.0% 0
10 Cubs 82-74 -6 105 96 92 16 139 55.8% 0
11 Astros 85-71 -4 112 103 95 7 129 60.3% -4
12 Twins 83-73 -6 107 87 95 -8 132 100.0% -1
13 Diamondbacks 82-73 6 98 101 102 29 106 85.3% 0
14 Padres 77-79 -10 108 91 97 18 161 0.0% 3
15 Giants 77-79 2 94 98 96 11 106 0.0% -1
16 Marlins 81-75 8 94 96 103 -19 72 52.2% 0
17 Yankees 78-77 3 95 103 87 2 99 0.0% -2
18 Guardians 74-83 -2 92 96 94 14 102 0.0% 0
19 Red Sox 76-80 -2 102 104 99 -41 70 0.0% 2
20 Mets 71-85 -5 101 101 109 -7 79 0.0% -1
21 Reds 80-77 6 95 108 96 -26 59 6.7% -1
22 Cardinals 68-88 0 104 112 104 -3 80 0.0% 0
23 Pirates 74-82 5 91 107 100 2 62 0.0% 0
24 Angels 70-86 1 102 105 113 -15 68 0.0% 0
25 Tigers 73-83 6 86 99 100 -3 58 0.0% 0
26 Nationals 69-88 4 92 114 113 5 49 0.0% 0
27 Royals 54-102 -7 86 113 112 17 48 0.0% 0
28 Rockies 56-99 -2 77 118 105 -3 27 0.0% 0
29 White Sox 60-96 0 84 109 112 -17 19 0.0% 0
30 Athletics 48-108 1 89 131 120 -17 15 0.0% 0

Sunday Notes: AFL-Bound, Hao-Yu Lee Eyes Return to Comerica Park

Hao-Yu Lee will be one of eight Detroit Tigers prospects participating in the forthcoming Arizona Fall League, and while he doesn’t possess the highest profile of the bunch, he does have the most-traveled backstory. Acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies at the trade deadline in exchange for Michael Lorenzen, the 20-year-old infielder hails from Taiwan and began dreaming of playing professionally in the United States at age 16 after a strong performance in a U-18 tournament, in Korea. Two years earlier he’d excelled in a tournament that took place 15-plus miles southwest of Comerica Park.

The Phillies signed Hao-Yu in June 2021—the Cincinnati Reds and Tampa Bay Rays were among the other MLB teams that had expressed interest — once he’d finished high school. No. 8 on our Phillies Top Prospects list with a 40+ FV coming into this season, he slashed .273/.362/.399 before going on the shelf with a quad strain in mid-August. He ended up playing in just eight games for the High-A West Michigan Whitecaps before missing the duration of the campaign.

The first big-league game Hao-Yu attended was in 2017 when he was competing in the Junior League World Series, which is held annually in Taylor, Michigan. He doesn’t remember if the Tigers won that day, but he does recall his first impression of Comerica Park. “I told my teammates that I was going to play here someday,” the confident youngster said of the experience.

He also remembers the tournament, and for good reason. Not only did Taoyuan, Taiwan capture the international bracket, they went on to beat Kennett Square, Pennsylvania in the finals. Moreover, Hao-Yu “raked that tournament; five games, five homers!” Read the rest of this entry »

Effectively Wild Episode 2063: Yusei Are Getting Very Sleepy

Ben Lindbergh and Meg Rowley banter about Yusei Kikuchi’s (and other players’) sleep habits and the possibility of a three-way AL West tie with no tiebreaker game, then (28:28) answer listener emails about surprising team assignments in Baseball-Reference headshots, a player who replicates the talent of the player who started in the same lineup spot the previous game, making mound visits to the opposing pitcher, a GM who can predict UCL tears and call up a replacement for the pitcher who’s going to get hurt, whether prospect-promotion incentives could delay the call-ups of the top two prospects in baseball, and retirement-tour qualifications, plus Stat Blasts (1:16:53) about on-base streaks to start a career, all-sweep season series, the best leaguewide power-speed seasons, pitchers who make switch-hitters sacrifice the platoon advantage, and José Abreu and the biggest year-to-year offensive changes.

Audio intro: Daniel Leckie, “Effectively Wild Theme
Audio outro: Ted O., “Effectively Wild Theme

Link to first McGrath thread
Link to second McGrath thread
Link to Apstein article
Link to info on Ohtani’s sleep
Link to more on Ohtani’s sleep
Link to even more on Ohtani’s sleep
Link to Nootbaar on Ohtani’s sleep
Link to article on Trout’s sleep
Link to article on Verlander’s sleep
Link to article on Cruz’s naps
Link to article on Smith’s naps
Link to article on Casas’s naps
Link to Russell on sleep hygiene
Link to article on nap rooms
Link to article on Phillies’ sleep
Link to article on Federer’s sleep
Link to article on LeBron’s sleep
Link to Sheehan on tiebreakers
Link to Anderson’s B-Ref page
Link to Valverde’s B-Ref page
Link to tweet about Valverde
Link to Andino headshots
Link to study on icing the kicker
Link to article on Cabrera’s tour
Link to more on Cabrera’s tour
Link to article about A’s Miggy gift
Link to article on Yadi/Pujols
Link to Rolling Stone on Jeter
Link to more on Jeter and tours
Link to listener emails database
Link to Topps Now
Link to Ryan Nelson on Twitter
Link to on-base-streaks sheet
Link to Langs tweet
Link to season-sweeps sheet
Link to power-speed sheet
Link to power-speed wiki
Link to article on Edman
Link to wrong-side sheet
Link to detailed wrong-side sheet
Link to Tango on pitch-type splits
Link to year-to-year wRC+ sheet
Link to Burger helmet video
Link to ESPN’s A’s article

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Spencer Strider and Justin Steele Are Mirror Image Twins

Justin Steele
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of mirror image twins since the Giants signed Taylor Rogers last December, pairing him up with his brother Tyler and illuminating me to their unusual genetic connection. As monozygotic (i.e., identical) twins, they come from the same fertilized ovum and, thus, the same DNA. Taylor, however, is left-handed, and Tyler is right-handed, a manifestation of their mirror image relationship.

Mirror image twinship makes for a perfect metaphor, and as a writer, nothing excites me more. It’s like a real-world example of a contronym, a word that can have two opposite meanings in different contexts; the word “dusting” always looks the same, but sometimes it means to remove dust, and other times it means to sprinkle it on. It’s the same thing with the Rogers twins. They look exactly the same until they take the mound. Read the rest of this entry »

Michael King Has Assumed His Right Place as a Starting Pitcher

Michael King
Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Where is the line that tells you whether a pitcher is a starter or reliever? It’s subjective, but there are a few benchmarks that baseball folks have used over time to determine a pitcher’s role. Do they have more than two pitches? Do they have extreme splits? Does their velocity hold as their pitch count increases? Depending on the answer to any of these questions (and more), you’ll have a decent idea of a pitcher’s fate as a starter or reliever.

Sometimes, though, pitchers get moved to the bullpen simply because the other five options at any given time seem more viable, and not necessarily because they didn’t possess the skills to dish out six quality innings. The latter firmly describes Michael King.

King was a starter throughout his entire minor league career and even started a few games during his debut season in 2020 before settling into a long relief role in 2021 thanks to a crowded Yankees rotation. But the version of King we saw in the minors and those two seasons is not what he is now. For that, we have to reference his 2022 season, when he fully embraced his ability to supinate and started throwing his sweeper as his only breaking ball, upping the usage to 30%; the year prior, he only threw it 10% of the time. Before suffering a season-ending elbow fracture, he posted a 2.29 ERA and 2.23 FIP in 51 innings, delivering several multi-inning outings out of the bullpen.

On top of his sinker and sweeper, King displayed his ability to mix in his four-seamer and changeup at the right times, both of which have been crucial to his success as a starter; more on that later. That gave him a four-pitch mix where each pitch was at least average and more than one that was plus. That’s the exact kind of arsenal you’d expect a rotation arm to have, but coming off elbow surgery and bullpen success and facing another full starting five, the expectation wasn’t that he’d get the chance to pitch in that role. Read the rest of this entry »