Archive for May, 2018

The Diamondbacks Were Just Impossibly Bad

Even though the Diamondbacks lost on Wednesday, they did still win the series against the Reds. Now, granted, many teams have won series against the Reds, but for Arizona, this was a much-needed step forward. You might remember that the Diamondbacks opened the season on a tear; they didn’t lose their first series until the middle of this month. Through play on May 1, no team in either league had a better record. Critically, nine games in the standings separated the Diamondbacks from the Dodgers. That particular gap is now down to two games, as Arizona fell on hard times. Since play on May 2, no team in either league has a worse record. After winning 21 of 29, the club has dropped 19 of 26. It’s not a lethal collapse, but all the early gains have been erased.

Here’s the Diamondbacks’ season, in visual form:

Since getting to 21-8, the Diamondbacks’ playoff odds have dropped by 50 percentage points. That’s easily the biggest drop over the span of time — the Blue Jays are down 36 points, and the Mets are down 27. There remains plenty of time to turn this around. The injury bug has been especially hungry. But it’s worth reflecting on exactly what’s happened. In certain ways, Arizona’s May has been historic.

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Ben Wagner on Replacing a Legend in the Blue Jays Radio Booth

Replacing a broadcasting legend isn’t easy. In Ben Wagner’s case, he’s following in the proverbial footsteps of Jerry Howarth, who retired this spring after 36 years as the radio voice of the Toronto Blue Jays. Originally alongside the equally-celebrated Tom Cheek, Howarth was immensely popular not just in the province of Ontario, but throughout Canada.

By all accounts, Wagner is more than holding his own. Primarily paired with Mike Wilner in the Jays’ radio booth, the 37-year-old Indiana native is making a smooth transition from the minors to the majors. After beginning his broadcast career with the Low-A Lakewood Blue Claws, in 2004, Wagner spent the past 11 seasons calling games for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons.

Wagner talked about the challenges and rewards of his new job, and the incorporation of analytics into a broadcast, when the Blue Jays visited Fenway Park over the weekend.


Wagner on replacing Howarth: “First and foremost, it starts with Jerry. Jerry was incredibly supportive of me, even before this process started when he announced that he was going to retire. He’s somebody I’ve looked up to as a mentor — and now as a pseudo-colleague, you might say. I’ve valued his constructive criticism over the years. That’s the foundation of our relationship, and because of that, he felt comfortable knowing I had a shot to win the job. It makes it a much easier transition for me, knowing that he’s in my corner. What Jerry has said publicly is very humbling.

“Is there pressure in replacing him in the booth? Heck yeah, there’s pressure. For somebody like me, not having a major-league track record, it’s a massive job. Not only am I with a franchise that puts a lot of care into their broadcasts, the reach isn’t just to a specific fan base, it’s to an entire country. And with modern technology, I’m broadcasting around the world. So there’s no doubt a lot of pressure comes with it, but we hit the ground running and we continue to grow.”

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Eric Longenhagen Prospects Chat: May, Fin

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How Matt Davidson Became the Most Improved Hitter in Baseball

CLEVELAND — Major-league pitchers threw Matt Davidson 1,855 pitches last season. Of those, 1,014 were thrown outside the confines of the strike zone, according to pitching-tracking data. Davidson swung at 343 of those out-of-zone pitches.

When he went home to his native Southern California this past winter, Davidson didn’t try to forget about baseball or an unimpressive 2017 campaign that included a .220/.260/.452 slash line and 83 wRC+. Rather, he relived his entire season.

Like every major-league player, Davidson has access to an incredible trove of video. On his iPad he could watch every pitch from his 2017 season and he did. Over the course of several days last October, he watched every pitch from his 2017 season — the video edited to erase the dead time between tosses. He was particularly interested in those 1,014 pitches thrown out of the zone against him and how he reacted.

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Jay Jaffe FanGraphs Chat – 5/31/18

Jay Jaffe: Good day and welcome to another edition of my Thursday chat. If I’m a little distracted today it’s because my parents are visiting from Salt Lake City and are prone to (figuratively) tugging at my sleeve for a bit of guidance. With that in mind, let’s get to it!

Duck Duck Goose: Why did I fly into the scoreboard last night?  Bad launch angle or was my exit velo too low?

Jay Jaffe: I’m going to go with bad eyesight on that one. Yeesh.

CJ Cron: Am I making the All-Star game? And how much better would the Angels have been with me around and Albert Pujols gone?

Jay Jaffe: I’ve never been much of a Cron-head, but yes, you’re off to a pretty good start (.269/.332/.486, 125 wRC+, 1.0 WAR for those who can’t be bothered to look it up), and yes, that’s 1.2 WAR ahad of Pujols at a fraction of the cost. I’m not sure that’s really All-Star caliber, though, and might suggest that catcher Wilson Ramos (.313/.356/.479) is putting together a more impressive season at a less crowded position, ASG-wise

Greg: Do you agree with Buster that less stolen bases and less hit and runs makes the game less interesting?

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Luke Heimlich and Relitigating the Past

The 2018 Draft is unusual. Not in terms of talent, mind you. No, the 2018 Draft is unusual because we have a genuinely unprecedented situation: a potential high-round draft pick with perhaps the most serious baggage a person can possibly have. From THE BOARD, courtesy of Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel:

**Luke Heimlich

Heimlich is a Level 1 sex offender in Oregon… Heimlich was projected to go in round two last year, when he was a junior. Shortly before the draft, The Oregonian reported court documents that showed Heimlich plead guilty to sexually assaulting his niece. Court records showed the victim reported multiple incidents of molestation between 2009 and 2011, when Heimlich was 14-15 years old and the victim was 4-6. He plead guilty to one count which included a handwritten admission and the other count was dismissed as part of a plea bargain.

After this information surface[d], Heimlich spent the rest of the spring of 2017 away from Oregon State and went undrafted. He returned for his senior season and has pitched well while, amid intermediate media attention, he and his family (except for the immediate family of the victim) denied he committed the crime and say Heimlich plead guilty so the legal proceedings would end more quickly. This situation is abnormal, there’s no precedent for it and it’s unclear why/how a team would go about clearing Heimlich for employment, though ownership would certainly have to be involved.

Let’s take a look at what this means.

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Anthony Rizzo’s Dramatic Turnaround

It’s been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding his overly aggressive slide into home plate against the Pirates on Monday — a slide ruled legal by the umpires and replay officials at the time but later deemed interference by Major League Baseball, and dissected here by Craig Edwards — but Anthony Rizzo has turned the corner. Following a frigid March and April, he’s put together one of the majors’ hottest performances in May. In fact, he’s made one of the most drastic month-to-month turnarounds of any hitter thus far this year. His performance is worth a closer look.

Before we go there, though… to these eyes, Rizzo was in the wrong on the aforementioned slide into catcher Elias Diaz, just as he was last year, when he slid into Austin Hedges. I don’t have anything substantial to add to Edwards’ detailed breakdown of both plays, except to say that the three-time All-Star is going to wear the black hat for a spell as one of baseball’s villains. Perhaps he’s unpopular at the moment, but one play shouldn’t prevent us from noticing the other 99.9% of his season.

Though he homered off the Marlins’ Jose Urena in his second plate appearance on Opening Day, Rizzo went just 3-for-28 with a walk in the season’s first six games. After a bout of lower back tightness forced him to the bench for three straight games, the 28-year-old first baseman was placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career. He took an 0-fer in his return on April 17 against the Cardinals, and while he collected three hits in his second game back, the slump persisted. He finished April hitting a ghastly .149/.259/.189 for an NL-low 32 wRC+ in 85 plate appearances. The homer off Urena was his only extra-base hit for the March/April period (which I’ll hereafter refer to just as “April”), and he walked just four times (4.7%) while striking out 15 times (17.5%) — that from a player who walked more than he struck out last year (13.2% to 13.0%).

Inserted into the leadoff spot by manager Joe Maddon in an attempt to jump-start a flagging offense that had scored just 13 runs in its previous six games, Rizzo flipped the calendar to May in dramatic fashion, homering on the first pitch he saw from the Rockies’ Jon Gray on May 1. He homered again versus the Rockies the next day, and added another, against the Cardinals, on May 5. After an 0-for-5 on May 6, he entered Wednesday having reached base safely in 18 of his last 19 games, with four more homers and an active 11-game hitting streak.

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Effectively Wild Episode 1224: Two Hands Are Worse Than One

Ben Lindbergh and Jeff Sullivan banter about Jeff’s moderately close encounter with a volcano, various events that took place in baseball while he was away, Rob Manfred’s recent comments about changes to the game, MLB attendance issues, Ben’s Angels brunch, the early-season success of some supposedly tanking teams, stats about Dellin Betances, Patrick Corbin, and Kole Calhoun, and more. Then they answer listener emails about Gleyber Torres‘ power and the Yankees’ pursuit of the all-time team home-run record, errors and official scoring, the decline of Felix Hernandez, a two-handed pitcher, how the game would be different if MLB changed the ball every year, Josh Tomlin’s strange distinction, Hanley Ramirez and vesting options, and how to get into advanced stats, plus Stat Blasts about leaguewide launch angle, the teams with the most players ever to play each position in a single season, and the worst-hitting 2018 team positions.

Audio intro: Dawes, "From a Window Seat"
Audio outro: King Crimson, "Two Hands"

Link to photo of Ben’s Angels brunch
Link to Ken Rosenthal’s Rob Manfred Q&A
Link to story about David Hesslink and the Mariners’ trade
Link to EW interview with David Hesslink

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The Continuing Evolution of Justin Verlander

One of those baseball facts that might stick with me forever is that, after getting traded from the Mariners to the Astros, Randy Johnson put up a 1.something ERA. Specifically, including the playoffs, Johnson appeared in 13 games with Houston, and his ERA was 1.42. To be that dominant, in that era, under those circumstances, after having struggled before the deal — well, I don’t know what else there is to explain. I haven’t forgotten about it for 20 years. I’m sure I’ll remember for at least 20 years more.

We’re living in the middle of a similar fact. One that’s gone on longer, one that must be considered even more impressive. After getting traded from the Tigers to the Astros, Justin Verlander has put up a 1.something ERA. Specifically, including the playoffs, Verlander has appeared in 23 games with Houston, and his ERA is 1.36. In Verlander’s most recent start, against the Yankees, he allowed one run. That’s right on his season average — he’s allowed 12 runs over 12 starts. After allowing seven runs in the season’s first month, he allowed five in the second. Hitting Verlander of late has been more or less impossible.

Verlander was traded last summer, and was immediately good. We’ve already gone through a bunch of stories examining his turnaround, highlighting, especially, the improvement of his slider. That was a common conversation last fall — the one about how Verlander got better by making use of Houston’s slow-motion cameras. Yet Verlander only continues to grow. He remains, you could say, a work in progress, and he’s made a further adjustment in 2018 to get the most out of the pitches he has.

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The Astros’ Quiet Catching Advantage

CLEVELAND — In the seventh inning on Friday at Progressive Field, Astros starting catcher Brian McCann did not come out for his scheduled at-bat. Instead, fellow catcher Max Stassi appeared out of the third-base dugout as a pinch-hitter. Astros manager A.J. Hinch had elected to pinch-hit for his starting catcher with another catcher to face Indians left-hander Tyler Olson, owner of considerable splits. We don’t often see a manager pinch-hit for his starting catcher, but the decision worked: Stassi singled.

The Astros have not exactly made it a regular practice, but it was the eighth time they have pinch-hit with a catcher for a catcher this season in order to gain the platoon advantage. But the Astros are one of the teams that has regularly tried to do this with the left-handed McCann and right-handed Stassi and Evan Gattis. (With McCann going on the DL on Tuesday, the Astros’ aggressive catcher platooning will be placed on hold, probably.)

In an age where managers try to leverage handedness as often as possible, catchers have the lowest platoon advantage (41.4%) among all non-pitchers, according to research assistance from Sean Dolinar. Shortstop is next (42.8%) and is the only position that doesn’t enjoy a platoon advantage the majority of the time. What they share is status as specialized, glove-first positions:

Platoon Advantage by Position
Position PA Platoon Adv %
P 1572 40.1%
C 5883 41.4%
1B 6359 61.7%
2B 6328 60.8%
3B 6275 53.5%
SS 6173 42.8%
LF 6318 59.8%
CF 6244 51.9%
RF 6304 54.7%
DH 3137 50.7%
PH 1568 67.5%

If a club is looking for a position from which to extract more value by facing more opposite-handed pitchers, catcher is the untapped positional market.

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