Effectively Wild Episode 1421: A Game of Inches

EWFI
Ben Lindbergh and Meg Rowley banter about beer and the mercy rule, a 12-minute game finish at Fenway, whether baseball players have high job satisfaction, compelling playoff races and especially lucky and unlucky contending teams, robot ump implications (including measuring player heights, determining the shape of the zone, and preserving receivers’ sense of self-worth), and the Angels’ unorthodox rotation and the future of pitching staffs and Shohei Ohtani.

Audio intro: The Beths, "Happy Unhappy"
Audio outro: Derek and the Dominos, "Tell the Truth"

Link to Freaks and Geeks beer scene
Link to happiness study
Link to cluster luck rankings
Link to USA Today Atlantic League article
Link to Baseball America Atlantic League article
Link to Baseball Prospectus Atlantic League article
Link to info on online dating and height
Link to study on sock height and the strike zone
Link to Ben on Kratz and catchers making noise
Link to order The MVP Machine

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One Last Top 100 Prospects Shuffle

As we approach the 2019 minor league season’s September epilogue, we’re making our last few changes to THE BOARD before cementing the rankings until offseason lists start rolling out. We focused this week on curating the top 100’s midsection, which resulted in us moving around about 10% of 50 FV and above players, which we’ve found to be typical each time we’ve made a concerted effort to refine the very top of the roughly 1250 pro players on THE BOARD on whom we have thoughts. Note that most of the action is taking place on the seam between the 50 and 55 FV tier, a sort of weigh station for rising potential stars, and players with issues exposed at the upper levels.

Let’s quickly touch on the handful of players in this area who have moved down from the 55 FV tier into the 50s. Recent Marlins RF acquisition Jesus Sanchez continues to have below average discipline and trouble lifting the ball consistently. Perhaps a change of scenery will prove meaningful for one or both of these traits, but they’re relevant issues for a corner outfield prospect.

We also slid Braves pitcher Kyle Wright and Pirates pitcher Mitch Keller down a bit due to our doubts about their fastballs missing bats as currently constituted, despite their respective velocities.

We also dropped some players who we consider higher probability, lower impact types — like New York’s Andres Gimenez, Washington’s Luis Garcia, Philly’s Adonis Medina, Baltimore’s Yusniel Diaz, and Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner — down below 50 FVs who we think have a wider range of potential outcomes, and more ceiling. Their FVs didn’t change at all, but we prefer players who have more obvious growth potential due to bigger tools, more projectable frames, and other physical traits almost always present in top big leaguers. Read the rest of this entry »


I Guess Will Smith Is Baseball’s Best Offensive Catcher Now

The Los Angeles Dodgers, at one point, had a weakness. Not a glaring one, and not one that was going to single-handedly derail their World Series hopes, but a weakness nonetheless. As of July 26, their catchers had combined for a ghastly 69 wRC+. Even considering the skid catcher offense has experienced in recent seasons, that’s a bad number, ranking 24th in baseball at the time. Because they were worth the sixth-best defensive rating in baseball, they sat firmly in the middle of the pack at 1.1 WAR. But their performance still represented a hole in a lineup that was otherwise loaded. The Dodgers could have attempted to trade for a catcher, but the market lacked an obvious J.T. Realmuto-esque candidate, with James McCann standing as seemingly the best option. Instead, the Dodgers promoted Will Smith from Triple-A. Smith, 24, had played in just nine big league games before being called up. A month later, he might be the best offensive catcher in baseball.

That sounds jarring until you look at his numbers. In 102 plate appearances, Smith is hitting .318/.392/.818 with 12 homers and a 197 wRC+. In just 28 games, he already leads all catchers in offensive runs above average (Off). That is a counting stat.

Off leaders, 2019
Player Games wRC+ Off
Will Smith 28 197 13.0
Mitch Garver 71 139 12.6
Willson Contreras 87 128 12.5
Tom Murphy 54 145 11.5
Omar Narváez 104 121 8.1
James McCann 96 117 8.1
J.T. Realmuto 120 104 8.1
Yasmani Grandal 119 118 7.7
Stephen Vogt 75 122 5.4
Gary Sanchez 88 110 5.3

In a fraction of the time any other catcher has had in the majors, Smith has surpassed the field in total offensive production. The catcher position is notoriously shallow in terms of hitting talent across the majors, but the best of the bunch is still an impressive group. Sánchez is a barrels machine, Realmuto is the best overall catcher in the game, and Yasmani Grandal and Willson Contreras are both incredibly talented players. And yet, Smith has generated more value at the plate than any of them, in nowhere near their number of plate appearances.

That production has boosted a Dodgers lineup that almost certainly could have survived without the added help, but has gotten it anyway. The team entered the 2019 season with veterans Austin Barnes and Russell Martin plugged into the catching position. Barnes, 29, had a breakout season in 2017 when he put together a 142 wRC+ in 102 games while playing excellent defense, but his offense cratered in 2018 when he produced just a 78 wRC+. Martin, meanwhile, was acquired from Toronto in the offseason before playing the last year of a 5-year, $82-million contract he signed after the 2014 season. This season, both Barnes and Martin have experienced career-worst seasons at the plate, paving the way for the organization to promote Smith, who ranked as the 80th-best prospect in baseball on Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel’s preseason Top 100 list. In less than a month, Smith has rocketed Los Angeles from 24th to 10th in catcher wRC+, and from 15th to 8th in catcher WAR.

Smith, of course, could always hit some. A first round selection (No. 32 overall) by the Dodgers out of Louisville in 2016, he did modestly well at the plate over his first two seasons of pro ball, largely boosted by good walk rates of well over 10%. He showed power for the first time in a 72-game stint with Rancho Cucamonga in the hitter-friendly California League in 2017, boosting his ISO from .103 in the previous season to .216. He continued to add power at the Double-A level in 2018, again raising his ISO to .268 while maintaining a steady walk rate over 11%, but he struggled mightily after a promotion to Triple-A, finishing 25 games with a wRC+ of 8.

He was called up for the first time on May 28, though only briefly. He played six games over the next week or so, and hit a pair of homers while slashing .286/.348/619. His first career home run was a walk-off against the Phillies.

He was sent back to the minors with an OPS of .967. It hasn’t been that low since. He came back to the majors for three games at the end of the month and homered again, this time in a pinch hit spot. It was another walk-off.

Smith went on the injured list because of an oblique on June 26, and remained in Triple-A Oklahoma City until the Dodgers brought him back in late July; if his play is any indication, it seems unlikely he’ll return to the minors anytime soon. In Smith’s first game back in the majors on July 27, he went 3-for-3 with a homer and two doubles, driving in six runs. He hasn’t slowed down since then, hitting safely in 16 of the 19 games he’s played since his last call-up, with a total of 16 extra-base hits. His .548 ISO in that span is first in the majors, while his 216 wRC+ is third and his 1.5 WAR is seventh.

You might skeptical of how sustainable his numbers are, and after just 28 games, you’d be right to be. Smith likely isn’t a true talent 197 wRC+ hitter, nor is he going to keep up a nearly 12-WAR pace over a full season. But there’s evidence to support the notion that he’s a top-tier catcher bat. With 64 batted ball events under his belt, his barrel rate is 9.8%. For reference, Peter Alonso’s barrel rate is 9.9%, and those rates tend to stabilize faster than others. He also has an xSLG of .558 — well below his absurd current figure, but still an indication that his power numbers aren’t a total mirage, even if his average home run distance of 396 feet doesn’t quite match up with the very best of the best.

It’s great news for the Dodgers that they have a sweet-swinging catcher on their roster now, but does that mean he’s a step below the others on defense? Not necessarily. In 28 games behind the plate, he’s accumulated 3.0 defensive runs saved. That doesn’t place much of a gap between him and Barnes (9.5 defensive runs saved in 70 games) or Martin (7.6 in 68 games). He hasn’t played nearly enough games for his defensive metrics to stabilize enough to be trustworthy, but the fact that the early returns seem to be so positive can only be a good sign for his presence behind the plate.

Smith is likely going to regress, be it in the next couple of weeks or sometime next year. Fortunately, there’s so much space between his offensive numbers and the rest of the catching field that it will take a bit for the pack to catch up with him. He had solid hitting pedigree as a prospect, but I don’t know that anyone could have expected this. The juiced ball can take some shine off of any great power tear we’ve seen this season, rookie or not. But it isn’t as though every other backstop isn’t getting to swing at the same ball. Smith just happens to be hitting it better than anyone else. He’s the best hitting catcher in baseball right now. Finally, the hard-luck Dodgers get a break.


Let’s Take a Look at Mike Tauchman’s Breakout

Earlier this month, Jake Mailhot looked at one of the Yankees’ big breakout stories, Gio Urshela. Today, we’ll examine another. If you told many Yankees fans before the season that the majority of Miguel Andújar and Giancarlo Stanton’s playing time would be occupied by Urshela and Mike Tauchman, a lot of them would have thrown in the towel. Of course, that’s when you’d have looked deeper into our crystal ball, and informed them that by August 23, the Yankees would have an 83-43 record with near-certain playoff odds while Urshela and Tauchman have combined for a 5.7 WAR.

It’s no secret that we at FanGraphs like Tauchman; our own Alex Chamberlain has had eyes on the former Rockies outfielder for awhile. Tauchman displayed unique power-contact skills in the high minors similar to those of hitters like Rhys Hoskins and Daniel Vogelbach. But Tauchman is 28 years old, too advanced in age to be considered a bona fide prospect. Prior to 2019, he struggled in his brief major league cameos. Between 2017 and 2018, he hit for a paltry .153/.265/.203 with no home runs in 69 plate appearances. With Colorado grooming younger outfielders like David Dahl and Raimel Tapia for the future, and with Charlie Blackmon solidly entrenched in a starting spot (not to mention Ian Desmond), Tauchman didn’t seem to have a future with the Rockies. Read the rest of this entry »


Bellinger, Devers, and MLB’s Most Improved Position Players

FanGraphs contains multitudes. Multiple flavors of Wins Above Replacement — one in which the pitching component is driven by FIP, the other by actual runs allowed (RA9-WAR) — for one thing. Multiple projection systems (Steamer and ZiPS) and ERA estimators (FIP, xFIP, SIERA). Multiple measures for defense, pitch selection, and plate discipline, borne of different data feeds. Multiple ways of measuring playoff odds and projected won-loss records. Multiple depth charts, now that we’ve brought Roster Resource on board. There’s a lot of cool stuff… if you know where to look.

One of the cool but relatively new and lesser-known features is our Season Stat Grid, introduced just over a year ago, and in the planning stages for longer (I know that I’m one of the people who lobbied for the tool). The grid allows the user to view 11 year worth of data in a single category, and to track and rank year-to-year totals and changes based on thresholds of plate appearances and innings. It’s hours of fun, and occasionally fuel for an article. So after highlighting the exceptional, breakout season of Rafael Devers and noting that — at the time it was written, at least — he had the majors’ largest year-over-year improvements in batting average, on-base percentage, and WAR, while ranking second in his gains in wRC+ and fourth in slugging percentage, I figured the topic was worth a league-wide look.

Towards that end, I chose 10 statistical categories where we might look for significant changes, namely the aforementioned five plus walk and strikeout rates, out-of-zone swing rate, fielding (UZR plus positional adjustment, if any) and, for a nod towards win expectancy, Clutch. To qualify, players had to reach 400 plate appearances last year and 300 thus far this year. I then took the top 30 players whose changes went in the right direction (higher in all cases except for strikeout and chase rates), awarding 30 points for first place, 29 for second, and so on. When two or more players were tied — even if it was just a virtual tie, where we can’t see what’s to the right of the displayed decimals — I split the points evenly among the tied; for example, James McCann and Yoán Moncada, who have increased their batting average by 66 points apiece, occupy the third and fourth spots and thus each get 27.5 points. I doubled the impact of WAR and wRC+ (60 points maximum), even though components of those are included elsewhere within the survey, on the belief that those two stats drive the lion’s share of our understanding as to who has improved.

Read the rest of this entry »


Finding a Beltway Baseball Comp for Renato Núñez

Every year, the Orioles and Nationals play games against one another, though the number actually varies depending on baseball’s rotational interleague schedule. These meetings are referred to as the “Beltway Series,” paying homage to the defining characteristic of the region: traffic on I-495 (the Capital Beltway) and I-695 (the Baltimore Beltway). While I am (mostly) kidding, I still sometimes wonder why there isn’t a better name for this geographical rivalry.

Set to factor in that series is Renato Núñez. The Orioles’ slugging designated hitter is having quite the year. Through games on Wednesday, he has more home runs than Bryce Harper, having hit 28 through his first 488 plate appearances. There’s not much beyond the power, though. He’s slashing .240/.309/.478 with a 103 wRC+, and due to his defensive limitations, he’s been held to just 0.7 WAR.

As we know, the Orioles are not in a position of contention this season, which is exactly why a guy like Renato Núñez can get play in the range of 150 games. All teams look for players with untapped potential. Not all teams, however, can give these players the plate appearances necessary to grow into the productivity that potential suggests. But the Orioles can, and Núñez is the beneficiary.

Núñez’s seemingly odd season had me hunting for a comp. What might a player with this skillset — good power, not a lot of contact, below-average discipline — look like in the future? What can the Orioles expect from Núñez in three, four, or five years?

To answer this question, I downloaded every individual player season with at least 300 plate appearances over the last five years, including 2019. I filtered my search using three conditions: a walk rate between 7-8%, an isolated power above .200, and a batting average between .230 and .250. In my mind, these three results-based constraints accomplish two goals: they limit my search to just a handful individual player seasons and allow me to find players who have similar intrinsic characteristics to Núñez’s. Read the rest of this entry »


Patrick Corbin Slows the Tempo

In my mind, Patrick Corbin is an archetype. He’s the idealized sinker/slider guy, pairing the two pitches so masterfully that batters can’t figure out which one is coming until it’s too late. His breakout in 2018 was foreshadowed by a solid 2017, when he upped the percentage of sliders he threw from 26.5% to 38%, and he hasn’t looked back since. After signing with the Nationals as a free agent, he’s delivered another solid season, sinking and sliding his opponents into oblivion, with a few four-seamers thrown in to keep batters honest.

That’s not all he does, though. That’s the business side of Patrick Corbin’s pitching, but sometimes he likes to goof around. Take a look at this ludicrous curveball he threw Manny Machado in June:

That is absolutely nothing like every other pitch Corbin throws. Machado’s not even mad; he’s impressed:

Yes, Patrick Corbin has a slow curve, and it’s a joy to watch. Read the rest of this entry »


Pitch Framing Park Factors

Back in March, we introduced catcher framing numbers on FanGraphs. Not long after, Tom Tango noted in a blog post that pitch framing numbers should be park-adjusted since pitchers and catchers in some parks are getting more strike calls (relative to Trackman’s recorded locations) than others.

We can see this in the graph above, which is based on called pitches within a 3.5 x 3.5 inch area in and around the strike zone. There are, on average, 64 pitches per game that meet this criteria so this graph essentially shows how many extra “framing” strikes pitches and catchers were assigned in each park per game. Put another way, this tells us how many more strike calls they received than we’d expect based on the recorded locations of the pitches. We’d certainly expect some spread in the results for home team pitchers and catchers, since some teams have better framers than others, but we shouldn’t see such a large spread for road pitchers and catchers, whom we’d expect to have essentially average framing talent. We also see that there’s a strong positive correlation between extra strikes for the home team and extra strikes for road team, suggesting that the park itself plays a role. There are two big outliers here — Sun Trust Park and Coors Field, both in 2017. Something must be amiss at those parks and we should control for it when calculating our framing numbers.

Adjusting Pitch Framing Numbers for Park Effects

Just as when constructing other park factors, we need to be careful to account for the quality of the players playing in each park. We’ll need to account not only for the pitchers and catchers who played in each park but also for the batters, some of whom have fewer strikes called against them. What we need is essentially a WOWY (with or without you) calculation where we find each park’s tendency to yield strikes, controlling for the pitcher, catcher, and batting team. In practice, it’s easiest to do this with the help of a mixed effects model. We can take the mixed-effects model we used to estimate pitcher and catcher framing and simply add random effects for the ballpark and batting team.

After adjusting for the park and batter effects that we find, we can take another look at the graph that led us here and compare home and road framing at each park, but this time with park-adjusted numbers.

This looks much better! With park effects removed, we still have a significant spread in home-team framing but a relatively small spread in road-team framing.

New Pitch Framing Numbers

For most catchers, our park adjustments make little difference. The graph below plots the new framing runs for catcher-seasons against the old framing runs with 2017 performances shown in red.

The tables below show the team-seasons, catcher-seasons, and catcher careers most affected by the park adjustments.

Top 5 Team-Seasons in Framing Runs Gained
Team Season Old FRM New FRM Park Bias
Rockies 2017 -26.2 -9.6 -16.6
Rangers 2017 -25.8 -12.2 -13.6
Blue Jays 2010 -0.5 10.9 -11.4
Mariners 2017 -8.2 3.0 -11.2
Tigers 2017 -24.1 -13.1 -11.0

Bottom 5 Team-Seasons in Framing Runs Gained
Team Season Old FRM New FRM Park Bias
Braves 2017 29.3 9.4 19.9
Orioles 2017 13.2 -0.4 13.6
Braves 2009 47.0 38.2 8.8
Brewers 2010 44.4 35.9 8.5
Pirates 2008 -51.7 -59.9 8.2

Top 5 Player-Seasons in Framing Runs Gained
Player Season Old FRM New FRM Park Bias
Jonathan Lucroy 2017 -22.1 -10.1 -12
James McCann 2017 -16.2 -8.1 -8.1
A.J. Pierzynski 2010 -5.8 2.2 -8.0
Mike Zunino 2017 2.4 10.2 -7.8
John Buck 2010 -19.1 -11.7 -7.4

Bottom 5 Player-Seasons in Framing Runs Gained
Player Season Old FRM New FRM Park Bias
Tyler Flowers 2017 31.9 20.5 11.4
Austin Hedges 2017 21.8 12.8 9.0
Kurt Suzuki 2017 -2.9 -10.9 8.0
Welington Castillo 2017 1.6 -6.3 7.9
Yadier Molina 2017 8.7 1.8 6.9

Top 5 Player-Careers in Framing Runs Gained
Player Old FRM New FRM Park Bias
A.J. Pierzynski -41.9 -21 -20.9
A.J. Ellis -77.0 -59.9 -17.1
Joe Mauer 13.7 27.5 -13.8
Jonathan Lucroy 126.9 139.6 -12.7
Wilin Rosario -39.5 -29.3 -10.2

Bottom 5 Player-Careers in Framing Runs Gained
Player Old FRM New FRM Park Bias
Brian McCann 181.9 162.0 19.9
Welington Castillo -52.0 -66.0 14.0
Miguel Montero 127.0 113.6 13.4
Wilson Ramos 21.2 8.3 12.9
Ryan Doumit -156.7 -165.7 9.0

Did the Cardinals Get Robbed of a Chance at a Win?

On Wednesday night, the Cardinals trailed the Brewers 5-3 entering the eighth inning. As the home team, St. Louis went back out on defense to start the frame. Lefty Tyler Webb retired the Brewers on eight pitches. Before the Cardinals could take their turn at the plate in the bottom of the eighth, however, it started raining. Confusion and more rain ensued.

Now, the Brewers had come up to bat in the top of the eighth, so the Cardinals were supposed to get a chance to at least finish the inning, right? That’s what the press box in St. Louis was originally told, but that statement was clarified.

As for the rule, MLB’s website states:

If a regulation game is terminated early due to weather, the results are considered final if the home team is leading. If the home team is trailing, the results are considered final if the game is not in the midst of an inning when the visiting team has taken the lead.

The rule is fairly clear that since the Brewers began the eighth inning with the lead, once the game is terminated, the Brewers get the win. A suspension to pick up the game at a later date wasn’t an option for this game. As Derrick Goold indicated above, general practice is to let the home team get as many cracks at scoring as the visiting team. If the game were to continue, the teams would have had to wait until at least 11:30 or 12, when the rain got lighter and died down. The Cardinals remained at home for their next game while the Brewers made the trip back to Milwaukee with an offday before their game on Friday. While I can’t say whether or not the result was fair, or look up all the instances in which games were delayed and then continued and to which this rule might have been applied, we can go back and look at all the instances when a game was terminated. Read the rest of this entry »


The Twins’ Latest Hitting Machine

Once upon a time, it was not uncommon to see a batter’s walk rate sitting higher than his strikeout rate. In the early 90s, more than a quarter of qualified batters had a walk rate higher than their strikeout rate. That number has slowly dwindled as strikeout rates have skyrocketed. This season, just two qualified batters have taken a stroll to first more often than a stroll back to the dugout: Alex Bregman and Carlos Santana. If we lower the plate appearance threshold, another batter joins this interesting group of players: Luis Arraez.

Arráez doesn’t hit for power like Bregman and Santana, he simply makes a ton of contact. His 91.9% contact rate leads the majors, just ahead of contact maestro David Fletcher. There’s nothing inherently more valuable about running a walk rate higher than your strikeout rate — there are plenty of players who thrive with a walk-to-strikeout ratio much lower than one — but Arráez’s batting style is a rare sight in today’s era of three true outcomes. His ability to draw a walk does make him stand out against some of the other batters with an aggressive, high-contact approach like Fletcher or Willians Astudillo. The combination of elite bat control with a discerning eye has helped him post the fifth-highest OBP among all batters with at least 200 plate appearances.

Arráez was signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old international free agent back in 2013. His ability to consistently put wood on the ball helped him rise quickly through the Twins organization. He peaked as the No. 12 prospect in their system this past offseason, but his lack of power limited his potential ceiling. Still, that didn’t hold him back from posting a minor league slash line of .331/.385/.414. His hit tool is equal parts natural ability and dedication to his craft. Back in June, he spoke with Mariana Guzman of Twins Daily about his pre-game routine: Read the rest of this entry »