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Musings on Minor League Home Runs

One of the most significant stories of the past few years of baseball has been the changing composition of the baseball. I mean story in the grand narrative sense, but I also mean it in the sense of literal stories. The slice-open-a-baseball-and-catalog-its-contents article has gotten very popular over the last few years, as have studies of drag and bounciness. Physics is having a moment in baseball analysis.

One of the frustrating parts of breaking down the new ball’s effect on offense is that there was no clean way to isolate which hitters were helped most. Many batters adapted their swings to the new ball as the ball kept changing. The ball undoubtedly led to more home runs, as an independent panel reported in 2018. Which batters, though, were the biggest beneficiaries of the new ball? The launch angle revolution might increase batters’ home run rates, but surely a lot of its popularity comes down to the fact that home runs started flying out of the park at elevated rates as the ball changed. Separating cause from effect as swings and baseballs change over years’ worth of games is difficult. Our own Jeff Sullivan took a shot at it in 2016, but didn’t find much evidence for one group over another.

Luckily, this season provides a convenient, natural experiment. To much fanfare, Triple-A switched over to using the major league ball this year. Home runs predictably skyrocketed, driven by the new ball. This creates an opportunity for all kinds of research, such as this attempt by Baseball America to test out whether the ball changes fastball velocity. I thought I’d take the occasion of this new ball to investigate something I’ve always wanted to know about the home run surge: what types of hitters does the new ball help most? Read the rest of this entry »


Josh Hader’s Fastball is Hilarious

I’ve been on something of a fastballs-down-the-middle kick recently. I hadn’t realized that it was possible to be so bad at hitting them until I looked into Wil Myers and his flailing ways. Then I started looking at a few underperforming hitters, and I was shocked by how many batters were missing middle-middle fastballs. Pitchers are throwing fastballs less often than ever before, and they’re designing new breaking balls every offseason. Meanwhile, some batters can’t handle a straight pitch in the center of the hitting zone. Baseball is weird sometimes!

Looking into these center-cut whiffs was baffling. There were a decent number of Jacob deGrom and Chris Sale fastballs on there, sure, but there were also plenty of replacement level relievers. Does the pitcher even have anything to do with it? Sure, Clayton Kershaw used to be great at throwing down the middle, but he’s thrown 96 pitches over the heart of the plate this year and gotten a paltry four swinging strikes. Aroldis Chapman excelled at it in 2016, but he’s thrown 43 of them this year and gotten only five swinging strikes. What if it’s a batter-centric phenomenon? Could it just be that batters sometimes miss because baseball is hard, regardless of pitcher?

Ha, no. Silly Ben. If you watched the 2018 playoffs, you’d already know: Josh Hader is the absolute king of throwing down the middle and coming out unscathed, and it’s not even close. Hader’s fastball is a magic trick, a sleight of hand performed on batters. In your head, he’s probably getting all his strikeouts at the very top of the strike zone or even a little above that, getting hitters to swing at pitches they can’t do anything with. That’s true, of course, but he’s also beating hitters when he messes up. Read the rest of this entry »


The Same Old Yasiel Puig

It’s strange to say for a player who has been a magnet for controversy for most of his major league career, but Yasiel Puig has had a pretty quiet 2019. It’s likely you know two things about his season so far. First, he was pressing to start the season, swinging at far more pitches than usual and getting poor results to show for it. Through June 9th, in fact, Puig had a 58 wRC+. Second, Puig fought Pirates. Not in a curse-you-Jack-Sparrow way, either — the still of his one-man brawl against the Pirates was the image of the early season.

After that, you’d be forgiven for thinking Puig and the Reds might just fade into obscurity for the rest of the year. As of that June 9th date I selected up above, Puig had been worth -.6 WAR on the year, and the Reds were eight games out of first in the NL Central. But a funny thing happened on the way to playing out the string: the Reds, and Puig, played themselves back into contention as the rest of the NL Central fell apart.

If you look at Puig’s stats right this minute, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. He has a 101 wRC+ on the year and has been worth exactly 1 WAR in just over half of a season. That sounds like a roughly average player. But here’s the thing: we’re barely a month past June 9th. Puig, as you’ll recall, had been worth -.6 WAR up to that point. In the past month, Puig has been a house on fire. How has he done it? He’s gotten back to being Puig. Read the rest of this entry »


Adam Ottavino Keeps Them Guessing

Adam Ottavino has had a strange 2019. Last year, he reinvented his game in a single offseason. This year, he’s mostly sticking with what worked in 2018, and the results have been pretty good. Despite pitching in homer-happy Yankee Stadium, he’s posted a 1.80 ERA (39 ERA-), and his strikeout rate is a gaudy 32.2%. He easily could have been an All-Star, even if his FIP is a less-inspiring, if still good, 3.85. His walk rate, too, has spiked — to 15.8%, near a career high. It’s too early to say whether Ottavino will back up his breakout 2018 or regress closer to his FIP by season’s end.

What it’s not too early to say, however, is that watching Ottavino pitch this year is an absolute joy. His slider, which he throws more than 40% of the time, has always been his calling card, and it’s as fun as ever, taking a great liquid arc across the plate that can make you question physics. His fastball, a hard two-seamer that he uses more like a four-seam fastball, locating it high in the zone, is a delightful offset to the slider. His cutter — well, his cutter isn’t as fun to watch as the other two pitches, but it sits in between them in velocity and movement and helps disguise everything else. What’s so great about Ottavino, though, isn’t just his raw stuff. It’s the way he uses those pitches that is so fun, and this year, he’s using them to get called strikes by the bucketload.

When you picture a 2019 slider in your mind’s eye, you might picture Ottavino’s, or maybe Patrick Corbin’s. Big break, the batter desperately trying to adjust his swing to hit something that’s falling down and away from him, and the catcher blocking a bouncing ball to record a strikeout. Ottavino still has that pitch in his arsenal, of course. Take a look at him going right after noted slider-masher Lourdes Gurriel and coming out on top:

Read the rest of this entry »


A Quick Note on Situational Pitching

Earlier this year, when I delved into Zack Greinke’s 2019 season, I was impressed by how militantly Greinke follows one common-sense pitching rule: he does absolutely everything he can to avoid walks when the bases are empty, then pitches to avoid contact as soon as a runner reaches base. It’s a classic piece of pitching strategy, but the lengths to which he’s willing to change his approach to match the situation were eye-opening. Greinke’s dogmatism got me thinking: are there areas of pitching where context is so strong that it dictates specific strategies?

Luckily, there’s been a wealth of research on the intricacies of pitching to the situation. Colin Wyers, the current head of R&D for the Astros, wrote an excellent investigation of the topic that holds up well today, but many more writers have tackled this problem. Mitchel Lichtman periodically addresses pitching strategy, Matt Swartz took a good look at the question, William Spaniel considered one narrow case in an interesting way — the list goes on and on. Rather than attempt to go toe-to-toe with these excellent analyses (preview: I’d lose), I’m going to take a slightly different tack. Instead of talking situational pitching broadly, let’s look at a couple situations where behavioral change makes sense and see if pitchers can actually exert any control over it. Read the rest of this entry »


What the Heck Is up With Wil Myers?

I’m here today to tell you about a player who has been hitting the ball tremendously hard of late. That’s nothing new — it’s a common genre of FanGraphs article. You know the deal, because I’ve written plenty of them this year already. Josh Bell is great now, Pete Alonso only hits lasers, Niko Goodrum can apparently hit, etcetera. Inevitably, these stories catch players near a performance peak. That’s just the nature of the beast; when you look for noteworthy and exceptional performances to write about, there’s very likely some luck involved, even if the underlying statistics look good.

The ideal form of this type of article finds something that’s truly different about the player, something other than mere batted ball luck. Josh Bell’s simplified stance, for example, really is different. Even so, baseball is a game with a lot of inherent luck to it, and if you single someone out for doing tremendously well, there was probably some luck involved. Today, though, we’re going to subvert the genre. Today, let’s look at a player who is, per the trope, hitting the ball harder than ever and turning fly balls into home runs at the highest rate of his career. There’s a twist, though: Wil Myers is doing all that, but he’s also having his worst season in five years. That sounds like something worth writing about.

Myers has always had power. He’s had a 30 home run season and a 28 home run season despite playing in a home park that suppresses home runs. Despite that, 2019 is seeing the highest HR/FB% of his career. (All stats are through Tuesday’s action.) His exit velocity on line drives and fly balls is in the 97th percentile of hitters with 50 air balls this year, tied with teammate Franmil Reyes. He doesn’t fare quite as well in terms of barrels per ball hit in the air, as he’s been a bit inconsistent, but he’s still in the top 20% of baseball. There are no two ways about it; Wil Myers is hitting baseballs as hard as he ever has.

So, what have the offensive rewards of Myers’ bruising new power been? He’s batting .218/.314/.399, good for a 91 wRC+. His batting average is the lowest of his career, and his OBP and slugging percentage are higher only than his disastrous 2014 Rays campaign. That batting average is especially jarring when you consider that it’s not BABIP-driven; he’s batting .316 on balls in play, higher than his career average and significantly higher than his Depth Charts projections. High BABIP and low batting average? Strikeouts have to be the culprit here, and my goodness, Myers has struck out a lot this year — 35.6%, to be exact. Read the rest of this entry »


Blake Snell and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Luck

On November 14, 2018, Blake Snell won the AL Cy Young award. It was a close vote, but no one could say Snell didn’t deserve at least to be in the discussion. He compiled a 1.89 ERA, best in the AL, and his peripherals (2.95 FIP, an outrageous 31.6% strikeout rate) weren’t far behind. He was, simply put, one of the best starters in baseball — unfair, as future Rays employee Jeff Sullivan put it. Just more than seven months later, on June 29, 2019, Blake Snell’s ERA was on the wrong side of 5. By RA9-based WAR, he was barely above replacement level in 2019. A strong start yesterday moved his ERA down to a still-inflated 4.87, but it’s worth asking: is something wrong with Blake Snell?

Now, as my RotoGraphs colleague Al Melchior recently put it: nothing is wrong with Blake Snell. Still, it seems like it might merit investigating. Guys with stuff like Snell’s aren’t supposed to even be capable of putting up near-5 ERA’s this far into the season. Al focused on Snell’s strike-throwing, and that’s always a make-or-break issue for a guy with such dynamite stuff, but Snell’s walk numbers, while high, aren’t crippling. He’s actually walking fewer batters than last year, and his K-BB% is a career high. No, Snell’s 2019 has been alarming because of his inconsistency, and that’s worth looking into.

In 2018, Snell made only four starts in which he didn’t last at least five innings. One was his first start back from injury, which hardly counts. This year has been an entirely different story. Snell’s start on June 25, when he survived only 3.1 innings against the Twins, was his sixth outing of 2019 to see him not finish the fifth inning. There’s always batted-ball luck involved in short outings, but still, Snell’s 2019 feels extreme. Did he change something in 2019 that’s leading to more abbreviated outings?

It’s worth saying again that Blake Snell is incredible. All four of his pitches are weapons. His four-seam fastball is the fastest thrown by any left-handed starter, and it generates whiffs on more than a quarter of batters’ swings against it. Its rise and fade are near-unmatched; only Justin Verlander gets more total movement on his four-seam. Snell’s curveball, which he’s throwing 27% of the time this year, is awe-inspiring. Batters whiff on 55% of their swings against it, the second-best mark for any starter who has thrown 100 curveballs this year. His changeup? It generates the fourth-most whiffs per swing, 44%. He rarely throws his slider (7.6% of the time so far this year), but you guessed it: no starter’s slider gets more whiffs per swing than Snell’s. Read the rest of this entry »


Brandon Belt, Bunting Fool

Brandon Belt isn’t having a particularly good year. For once, I don’t just mean that his counting numbers are unimpressive; he’s long been a player whose production has outstripped his reputation, as light-slugging first basemen tend to be, and playing in San Francisco’s extreme scoring environment hasn’t helped. From 2012 to 2018, he produced 3.4 WAR per 600 plate appearances, All-Star-level production, despite never really hitting for power or average.

This year, his defense has dragged him down near replacement level (note to the Giants: Belt really shouldn’t play the outfield), but his hitting isn’t up to his usual standards either (a 107 wRC+ that equals last year for his worst full-season rate). Even as Belt’s production wanes, though, he’s actually getting more fun to watch. Why? Well, you never know when he’s going to drop down a bunt, regardless of situation, and bunting for a hit is among the most fun plays in baseball.

When you picture the ideal player to shift against, Brandon Belt is almost a perfect match. He’s left-handed, pulls a ton of his groundballs, and isn’t fast enough that a second baseman in shallow right field might not have time to throw him out on a grounder. When shifting exploded in frequency from 2014 to 2016, Belt was the kind of player who gave teams a reason to do it. In 2015, 54% of the balls he put in play were against a shift, up from 14% in 2013. By 2016, that number climbed to 78%, and it’s bounced around 80% ever since.

At first, Belt had no clear counter. By the end of 2016, he’d bunted only five times in his major league career, going 2-4 with a sacrifice. Teams shifted on him with impunity, and Belt lashed grounders into the shift. His groundball rate decreased, but that’s not a way to punish shifting; it’s merely a way to ignore it. He tried bunting more in 2017, but it was only middlingly effective — he finished 3-6 on the year, and two of those singles were bang-bang plays; he easily could have been 1-6. “Bunt against the shift” is a great idea in theory, but Brandon Belt wasn’t doing it well enough in practice.

Bunting skill isn’t fixed, though, and Belt proved it. His bunts in 2018 were crisper, better-executed, and better-aimed. Take a look at this surgical strike against the Padres:

Freddy Galvis’s kick-stop drives the point home: there’s no reason to bother fielding that ball. For the season, Belt went 4-6 on bunts, and none of the singles even drew a throw. That .667 on-base percentage will do, even if he did embarrass himself in a Bay Area tilt:

Hey, they can’t all be perfect. That’s no different than a grounder into the shift, even if it probably feels worse.

Remember all the way back in the previous paragraph where I said they can’t all be perfect? Well, I lied. Brandon Belt is perfect on bunts this year, and he’s getting increasingly audacious. He’ll bunt in situations where a runner is valuable, sure. Leading off an inning against a decent reliever in a close game? That’s a great time to get a runner on first, and the shift is just asking for it. He doesn’t even hesitate:

That’s too obvious, though. Brandon Belt isn’t about bunting only in situations where a runner on first is most important. He’s in it for the love of the bunt. 1-1 count with two outs and a one-run lead? Sure, Belt will bunt on you:

Are runners on first valuable with two outs? Not at all! Still, Belt’s feeling it. Put away your run expectancy tables and feel the magic. Sometimes you just have to bunt.

How about against an Orioles righty in Camden Yards, a situation where Belt is probably as likely to hit a home run in a single plate appearance as he’ll ever be? Oh yeah, absolutely:

Keep your home runs; Belt will take his not-even-guaranteed base and be happy with it. The Giants hit three long balls in this game. Brandon Crawford, he of the .141 career ISO and 8.7% home run per fly ball rate, hit two home runs. Lefties batting against Oriole righties are in the best possible situation to succeed. Gabriel Ynoa has a 6.45 FIP and 6.75 ERA this year, for crying out loud! Belt doesn’t care, though. He’s bunting.

If you think those last two bunts are questionable, his latest one takes the cake. With the bases empty, a bunt single and a walk are exactly the same. Honestly, a bunt single and a walk are the same almost all the time, but especially with the bases empty. 3-0 count, pitch that might well be called a ball? Bunts away!

Bunts on 3-0 are rare, because they’re ridiculous. 3-0 counts often end in walks, without the hassle of having to connect on a bunt and reach base safely. When Matt Carpenter did it last year, I looked into it and found that he was only the third player to get a fair bunt down with a 3-0 count and the bases empty in the last 10 years. Well, that statistic is now outdated, because Brandon Belt is the fourth.

Think about what bunting on 3-0 entails. A 3-0 count is the best place a hitter could ever find himself. After 3-0 counts this year, major league hitters as a whole walk 60.6% of the time. They get on base 72.8% of the time. On the rare occasion where they don’t walk, they often hit home runs — 5% of non-walk at-bats that hit 3-0 end in a dinger. Literally every offensive stat is improved; batters have posted a .233 ISO (against .180 ISO overall), a .322 BABIP (.296 overall), and a .309 batting average. Brandon Belt doesn’t care. He just wants to bunt.

At this point, I think we can say that Brandon Belt is drunk with bunt power. In a twist, though, that isn’t really new. When Cody Bellinger bunted on 3-0 in 2017, Jeff Sullivan investigated and found a 3-0 bunt attempt from Belt that went foul in May 2017. Brandon Belt wasn’t even a good bunter in 2017! That bunt rolled foul, and it might be good that it did; the Dodgers weren’t particularly over-shifted. He just felt like bunting.

Hittable righties, favorable counts, spots where a runner on first isn’t all that valuable? That’s all irrelevant. Brandon Belt sees an opening, and he attacks. It’s not going to stop teams from shifting against him — he’s grounded into a shift 41 times this year, which means the shift is saving more in grounders than it gives back in bunt singles. Still, if you’re playing against Belt, maybe keep your third baseman close to home until the count gets to two strikes. Honestly, maybe leave him there with two strikes, too. Belt hasn’t attempted a bunt with two strikes yet in his career, but at the rate he’s turning bizarre situations into bunt singles, it’s only a matter of time.


Zack Greinke, Junk Merchant

Zack Greinke shouldn’t still be this good. His fastball velocity has ticked down yet again; per Pitch Info, his four-seamer is averaging under 90 mph for the first time in his career. This isn’t a new phenomenon — his velocity has been in slow decline since his masterful 2015 season, when he posted a 1.66 ERA and finished second in Cy Young voting. These days, Greinke makes the news for shunning no-hitters and hitting like a position player more than he does for his pitching. Quietly, though, he’s having another superlative season, defying the slow ravages of time to amass a vintage stat line. His ERA and FIP are both lower than his career averages, which must be gratifying for someone who cares about his FIP more than perhaps any other active pitcher.

The way Greinke has adapted to aging is particularly interesting when compared to his former teammate, Clayton Kershaw, whose adaptations Ben Lindbergh recently chronicled. Kershaw was a singular marvel at his peak, and he remains so today. He’s always been predictable, and it hasn’t seemed to matter. When he was all-caps KERSHAW, he basically never threw a curveball when he was behind in the count. Hitters knew it, and it didn’t matter. Now, he’s throwing more pitches in the zone than ever on 0-0 before throwing fewer than ever in the zone after that. He’s still predictable, only in different ways.

Greinke, by contrast, was never as dogmatic as Kershaw. He’s thrown 62.5% fastballs when down in the count for his career, compared to Kershaw’s 72.8%. His first-pitch zone percentage this year, 52.3%, is actually below his career average, whereas Kershaw’s 61.3% rate is the highest of his career. Greinke has also always erred on the side of more pitches rather than fewer, throwing most of his pitches in any count and any location. Despite this difference in mindset, though, Greinke and Kershaw’s 2019s share two major themes: fewer fastballs, and using the count (and base/out state) to their advantage. Read the rest of this entry »


Brandon Woodruff Rebuilt Himself as a Starter

Brandon Woodruff did everything he could for the Brewers in 2017 and 2018. When the rotation needed reinforcements at the end of 2017, he started eight games. When the team needed relief arms in 2018, he filled whatever innings they needed — 10 of his 15 relief appearances went more than an inning, and he contributed four spot starts when the Brewers needed an occasional extra starter. This year, the team needs a starter again, and Woodruff has outdone himself. In 16 starts, he’s gone from solid bullpen arm to the best starter on a playoff team. If the team needs a pitcher to start an elimination game, Woodruff is probably the man for the job.

If I had been asked to make a prediction about Woodruff before the season, I think I would have landed somewhere near our Depth Charts projections — 23 starts, a 4.30 ERA and FIP, and peripherals that looked worse than his 2018 relief turn, when he struck out 26.7% of batters he faced and walked 8%. Pitchers who switch from relieving to starting tend to have worse rate stats across the board, and nothing about Woodruff screamed exception. Instead, he’s improved in essentially every category. He’s striking out 29.6% of the batters he faces, and walking only 6.5%. His FIP is 0.23 lower than it was last year. Heck, he’s gained fastball velocity, something you’re not supposed to do when throwing more pitches per game.

Luckily for the purposes of our analysis, however, he’s also made some changes in approach that we can pore over. If all there was to Woodruff’s improvement was a tick on his fastball, there wouldn’t be much to say. But that’s not how Brandon Woodruff’s season has gone. He has overhauled his arsenal and approach in ways that look well thought-out and sustainable to me. Read the rest of this entry »