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Spencer Turnbull Has a Sneaky Fastball

It was never going to be a fun year to be a Detroit Tigers fan. The hundred losses could tell you that, or the fact that the team’s lone All-Star was reliever Shane Greene, who now plays for the Braves. The joy in Tigers fandom was concentrated in the minors this year; in top prospect Casey Mize’s polish, in Matt Manning’s production, in Isaac Paredes showing he was ready for Double-A.

But the major league team wasn’t without its bright spots. Greene performed well enough to net two interesting prospects in a trade, Niko Goodrum scratched out a 2-WAR season, and Matthew Boyd had a first half so nice that the Tigers asked for the world in trade (they didn’t get it). In addition to those major leaguers taking a step forward, there’s one other Tigers performance to get excited about: Spencer Turnbull has quietly been an above-average pitcher in his rookie season.

There were signs that Turnbull could hack it in the major leagues before this year, but nothing decisive. He used his sinker/slider starter kit well in Double-A in 2018, racking up a 25% strikeout rate and 3.16 FIP over 100 innings of work. That sounds excellent, but the hidden downside of performing well in Double-A is that you’re pitching in Double-A rather than the big leagues. Turnbull was 25 then, older than the average age for the league and way past when most top prospects move on.

Still, good pitching is good pitching, and the Tigers were desperate for whatever they could get. After a single dominant outing in Triple-A, where he struck out 7 of the 13 batters he faced, Turnbull was summoned back to the major leagues, where he had had a brief previous cameo as a September call-up. Read the rest of this entry »

Is There a Good Time to Face the Dodgers in October?

In the midst of what will go down as a disappointing season for the Phillies, an interesting detail about the front office’s thinking appeared. This morsel snuck into a Ken Rosenthal article: “…once the Phillies began to slump, their front office’s thinking was, ‘We don’t want to go all-out for the chance to play in the wild-card game and then face the Dodgers in the Division Series.’”

There are separate discussions to be had about whether that’s a defeatist attitude, or even whether the Phillies could have done more at the deadline. That’s for someone else to decide, though. What this statement got me, among others, wondering was: wait, would you actually rather play the Dodgers in a seven-game series than a five-game one? No one would argue that the Phillies are as good as the Dodgers — they’d clearly be underdogs no matter what. But does the extra chance of avoiding the juggernaut make up for the fact that you’re more likely to win in a shorter series?

To investigate this problem, I worked out a simplistic playoff win probability model. For each team, I took their projected rest-of-season runs scored. Then I projected a playoff rotation and how many innings each pitcher would pitch per game. Using those starters’ projected runs allowed per inning and adding in the projected runs allowed per inning by the bullpen (an admittedly inexact science that involves stripping out starters’ projections from the team’s total runs allowed projections), I was able to produce a runs allowed forecast for each starter on each team. Let’s take a look at the Phillies, for example:

Runs Scored and Allowed by Starter
Pitcher IP/Start Team Runs Allowed Team Runs Scored
Aaron Nola 6.33 4.58 4.98
Vince Velasquez 5.33 5.11 4.98
Drew Smyly 5.67 5.24 4.98
Zach Eflin 6 5.4 4.98

Read the rest of this entry »

You’re Probably Underrating Yordan Alvarez

Quick: Who are the best five hitters in baseball this year? Take a quick gander at the leaderboards, if you’d like, before answering. There’s the WAR leaderboard:

Top 10 Batters by WAR
Player wRC+ WAR
Mike Trout 179 8.6
Christian Yelich 173 7.7
Cody Bellinger 163 7.1
Alex Bregman 163 7.1
Ketel Marte 150 6.9
Anthony Rendon 160 6.8
Marcus Semien 132 6.4
Mookie Betts 134 6.2
Xander Bogaerts 140 6.2
George Springer 158 6.0

That’s not what you want, though, because defense gets involved there. How about a wRC+ leaderboard instead? That should keep the Xander Bogaerts’s and Marcus Semien’s of the world from intruding on our hitting party:

Top 10 Batters by wRC+
Player wRC+ WAR
Mike Trout 179 8.6
Christian Yelich 173 7.7
Alex Bregman 163 7.1
Cody Bellinger 163 7.1
Anthony Rendon 160 6.8
George Springer 158 6
Nelson Cruz 157 3.5
Ketel Marte 150 6.9
Juan Soto 148 4.9
Pete Alonso 147 4.6

Trout, Yelich, Bregman, Bellinger, and Rendon. That’s a pretty solid five. It’s also missing an obvious name: Yordan Alvarez, quite possibly the best hitter in baseball this year.

Why isn’t Alvarez on the list? It comes down to the tyranny of the qualified hitter. Setting a plate appearance minimum is a reasonable idea: without it, the best wRC+ this year would belong to Oliver Drake, who singled in his only plate appearance. No one wants that, except perhaps Oliver Drake.

That doesn’t mean that it’s always right to ignore everyone who falls short of the qualification minimum, though. Alvarez has 320 plate appearances this year, a far cry from Drake territory. Because he wasn’t called up until June, he won’t qualify for the batting title this year, but that shouldn’t distract you from the fact that he’s one of the best hitters in the major leagues, full stop. Read the rest of this entry »

The Diamondbacks Have Transformed

The 2017 Arizona Diamondbacks were an unexpected delight, an eventual playoff team that was projected to be near the bottom of the NL West before the season. They had star power to burn; with Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock anchoring the lineup and Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray at the front of the rotation, the team had a top four to rival any team in baseball. After that, though, the drop off was severe. Maybe you could squint and see greatness in Jake Lamb, maybe you believed in the Shelby Miller bounce back, but the depth simply wasn’t there.

Those Diamondbacks made the postseason and won the Wild Card game, fueled by a deadline trade for J.D. Martinez, but their stars-and-scrubs construction was worrisome. Pollock missed time with injury, David Peralta didn’t take a step forward, and the cupboard generally looked bare. While the team’s pitching staff looked more promising thanks to breakouts from Patrick Corbin and Zack Godley, it wasn’t built to last. Corbin was only a year from free agency, Greinke was getting older, and Godley was more league average than a star in waiting.

By the end of 2018, that iteration of the Diamondbacks was no more. Pollock and Corbin left in free agency, Goldschmidt was a Cardinal, and the team made no secret that it was shopping Greinke. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s all their stars other than Ray, and he had underperformed massively in 2018. We baseball fans are pattern matchers, and this pattern is an easy one to spot: it was time for a tank and rebuild.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the bottom of the standings. The Diamondbacks, projected for the fourth-worst record in the NL before the season, are clinging to the fringes of the playoff hunt, with a 5.3% chance of reaching the Wild Card game. They’re 75-71, on the verge of putting together their third straight winning season. Most impressively, they’re doing it with an entirely new cast of characters. Read the rest of this entry »

Lorenzo Cain, Victim of Circumstance

The Milwaukee Brewers didn’t win the World Series in 2018, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a successful year. After several frustrating seasons of rebuilding, a division title (in a one game playoff against the hated Cubs, no less!) and a trip to the NLCS felt like huge strides in the right direction. It seemed as though the team had arrived a year early in a manner reminiscent of the 2015 Cubs, with better-than-expected seasons from young players and star turns from big offseason additions. In 2019, their young pitching staff would have another year of experience, and by adding Yasmani Grandal, the front office kept the talent pipeline primed.

144 games later, things haven’t gone as planned. The Brewers are out of playoff position, though they have lately gained ground, with only a 25% chance of reaching the postseason. Christian Yelich’s season-ending fracture adds injury to insult — a second straight MVP season would be a fun September storyline, and without Yelich’s bat, the team’s chances seem even more remote. Before his injury, however, Yelich was absolutely carrying the Brewers, improving on his MVP 2018 nearly across the board. Grandal has been magnificent as well, walking and slugging his way to a 123 wRC+ in addition to his usual excellent framing.

If those two have done so well, why aren’t the Brewers having a better season? Injuries have taken their toll. The pitching staff hasn’t developed as hoped, but that’s hardly shocking given how volatile pitching can be. More surprisingly, Lorenzo Cain has gone from down-ballot MVP contender to merely another guy, and on a team without much outfield depth, the decline has been particularly tough to deal with. While he’s been slowed by a knee injury since early August, his season was hardly better before then — his wRC+ has actually increased since sustaining that injury. What’s wrong with Cain?

One look at that oldest of statistics, batting average, will tell you something’s not right. From 2014 to 2018, Cain hit .300 or better four times and had an overall .301 average to pair with a .361 OBP. His .253 and .321 marks in 2019 are near career lows. The last time he was hitting like this, he wasn’t Lorenzo Cain, star outfielder. He was simply Lorenzo Cain, Royals prospect with a good glove. The gap between this Cain (0.9 WAR) and star-turn Cain (5.7 WAR in 2018) is so wide that it’s hardly believable.

Batting average isn’t the most valuable statistic, but the three components that make it up are all trending in the wrong direction for Cain. First, there’s strikeout rate. Strikeouts count against average without giving you a chance for a hit, so limiting strikeouts is a key component to hitting for a high average. It’s a part of the game that Cain has often excelled at — he hasn’t struck out more than the league average since 2014, and he actually got better at it as the league has gotten worse, posting a career-low 15.2% rate last year. This part of Cain’s game is worse, but that’s hardly surprising given the high bar he set last year, and his 16.9% strikeout rate is still tremendous.

If it’s not the strikeouts, is it the home runs? Home runs are hits that don’t give fielders any play on the ball, an automatic outcome not subject to the vagaries of defense and luck. If Cain lost a lot of home run power, we’d see it in batting average, and it would also sap his overall value tremendously. Read the rest of this entry »

I Got It! I Got It! I…: When Infield Flies Go Bad

While a strikeout is always nice, a pop up is typically also a great outcome for a pitcher. In fact, FanGraphs treats infield fly balls and strikeouts as equivalent when it comes to calculating FIP-based WAR. If you want to read more about it, our Glossary has a good overview, and this Dave Cameron article is particularly useful. As Dave puts it, “infield flies are, for all practical purposes, the same as a strikeout.”

That logic makes perfect sense, and that’s why infield fly balls are baked into WAR calculations with the same value as strikeouts today. By my calculations (necessarily a bit inexact as Baseball Savant categorizes balls in play somewhat differently), a measly 36 of the 3,866 infield fly balls this year have turned into base hits, mostly on flukes like this:

Justice was served on this play, and you could even debate the word “infield” since it landed on the outfield grass, but you get the general idea: short of a weird shift, very few infield fly balls turn into hits.

But just because few of them become hits doesn’t mean no one’s getting on base. Cameron again: “Sure, maybe you or I wouldn’t turn every IFFB into an out, but for players selected at the major league level, there is no real differentiation in their ability to catch a pop fly.”

Sure, major league infielders, even the very worst of them, have preternatural hand-eye coordination and have spent thousands of hours of their lives catching baseballs. By their very nature, infield pop ups give fielders a long time to react. That ball is in the air for three, four, even five seconds. It’s one of the easiest plays you’ll ever get as a defender.

That’s all true, and yet infielders have dropped 38 pop ups this year. That simple play, baseball’s version of a wide open layup, isn’t always converted into an out. To be fair, six of them hardly count as being infield fly balls — this Starlin Castro drop should probably have been played by an outfielder, for example:

That still leaves 32 plays in which the pitcher got one of the best possible outcomes and got a baserunner for his troubles. Obviously, the fielders are to blame somewhat in these situations. But how much are they to blame? Let’s take a look at a few different kinds of infield fly balls that didn’t go as the defense planned. Read the rest of this entry »

Reports of Kyle Seager’s Decline Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

If you follow baseball from the East Coast, it’s easy to forget about Kyle Seager. Though never quite as famous as his performance would merit, he’s been a star for the better part of the last decade — he and Félix Hernández were the solitary workhorses trying to drag the Mariners out of a playoff drought and back to glory. Seager arrived in the majors at the tail end of Félix’s peak, but they were both always there, annually among the game’s best and never in the playoffs.

That feels like eons ago now. The Mariners have been redefined since then; by Jerry Dipoto’s manic trading, by the delight of watching Daniel Vogelbach hit, by painful injuries and eagles landing. Meanwhile, time has dragged the old generation down. With Félix’s rapid decline as a guidepost, it’s easy to lump Seager in with him as a deprecated model of Mariner.

The numbers tell the story. From 2012 to 2016, Seager posted a wRC+ between 108 and 134 every season and averaged 4.5 WAR per year. He seemed to only be getting better — 2016 was his best season yet, a 5.2 WAR, 134 wRC+ masterpiece when he struck out only 16% of the time and walked at a 10.2% clip. A down 2017 (106 wRC+) was understandable, with a low BABIP and slightly worsening plate discipline dragging down his overall line, but a downward trajectory for a 29-year-old was enough to make observers a little worried.

2018 was worse — his walks plummeted, his strikeouts ballooned to 21.9%, and he posted a lower ISO than he had in dead-ball 2014 on his way to an 83 wRC+. He started 2019 on the injured list after hand surgery, a worrisome injury for any hitter. It was slow going upon his return, and as the Mariners wilted after their strong start, it felt as though Seager’s career was doing the same. Read the rest of this entry »

Alex Bregman Still Has Another Gear

I’m not breaking any news in saying that Alex Bregman is having a great year. He’s batting an otherworldly .295/.416/.570, good for a 162 wRC+, while walking more than he strikes out and playing his usual excellent defense at third base. He’s fifth in baseball in WAR, and only Mike Trout’s constant unrelenting excellence prevents Bregman from being the presumptive AL MVP.

I could talk about all of that, but that would be boring. Do you really want to hear that Alex Bregman is good? If that’s what you’re here for — he’s good! He’s great! Boring. If that’s what you’re after, go browse his player page — it won’t disappoint. I want to tackle something slightly different today.

This year, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call Bregman a power hitter. His .278 ISO is 14th-best in baseball, sandwiched between Kyle Schwarber and Freddie Freeman, and his 33 home runs are both a career-best and a top-20 mark in baseball. Heck, he was in the Home Run Derby, and nothing says power hitter like baseball’s annual celebration of dingers. He hit 31 home runs last year, too — this isn’t a purely 2019 concern. Here’s my hot take: Bregman still isn’t a power hitter — and if he unlocks that, there’s a new level of stardom available to him. Read the rest of this entry »

Taylor Rogers, Tremendously Underrated

The Twins are undeniably one of the most exciting stories of the year. They’ve hit, and I’m approximating here, eighteen million home runs on their charge to the top of the AL Central, holding off the Indians with burst after burst of offense. Their starters are deep and talented — Martín Pérez, whose resurgence has been a fun story, is their fifth-best starter by WAR, with 1.8. José Berríos keys the unit, but Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, and Michael Pineda are all having excellent seasons.

While all the sluggers and starters have top billing on the team this year, their bullpen has been quietly excellent. They’ve been the second-best group in baseball by WAR this year, the best by FIP-, and have walked batters less frequently than any other relief corps. If win probability added is more your speed, they’re eighth in the league. A year after being below average across the board, their sterling last 30 days (3.24 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 1.6 WAR) has helped the Twins remain atop the AL Central after a brief swoon.

But calling it a group effort is misleading. They’re a group, to be sure — seven relievers with at least 20 innings pitched have posted park-adjusted FIPs and ERAs better than league average. They’re more Derek and the Dominos or the White Stripes than a true group, though. Taylor Rogers is the rock of the group, a bona fide stopper putting up his second straight dominant year of relief. He’s still best known for having a twin brother in the majors, but maybe it’s time he’s known more for his pitching than his family. Read the rest of this entry »

The Worst Swinging Strikes of the Year

Here at FanGraphs, we strive to provide you with entertaining baseball content. In the past, that often meant articles written by Jeff Sullivan. Now that he works for the Rays, that’s not an option — but still, some of our articles resemble his work. For the most part, that’s not on purpose, just a side effect of all of us reading so many of his pieces over the years. Today isn’t that. Today I’m going to riff on a classic.

Twice a year, Jeff wrote about the worst called ball and strike of the half season. Sometimes it was a comedy. Sometimes it was a straightforward discussion of how a pitch down the middle was called a ball. Either way, it was a wild ride, and it’s wholly Jeff’s.

That’s okay, though, because called strikes and called balls aren’t the only things that can be bad. Okay, fine, the worst called ball was pretty bad:

But that’s not why we’re here! Today, I want to look at the worst swinging strikes of the season.

The worst swinging strike is harder to pin down than the worst called strike. For example, this swinging strike is on a pitch that’s incredibly far out of the strike zone:

That’s not a good swing. It’s not particularly close to being a good swing. About the best thing you can say about it is that maybe the ball will get away from the catcher, but with a runner on first, that’s scant comfort. If the ball could travel through the ground with no resistance, Statcast projects that it would have crossed home plate nearly two feet below ground level. Read the rest of this entry »