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Pitching Is Winning Baseball’s Latest Tug of War

If you want to paint with an extremely broad brush, you can think of the last twenty years of analytical advances in baseball as waves, alternately benefiting hitters and pitchers. First came the Moneyball years, when sabermetric advances brought offense into the game. It wasn’t just that teams started playing more beefy guys who could hit for power and take a walk. They also encouraged their existing players to be more patient — that’s how you got the iconic four-hour Yankees-Red Sox games of the mid-2000s, in which both teams seemed to make a personal challenge out of who could take more pitches. This coincided with the beginning of the end of the sacrifice bunt, yet another boost to offense.

If it first seemed like every analytical advance increased offense, however, the tables quickly turned. First the Rays realized that newly offense-minded front offices were undervaluing defense. Then they turned to infield shifts. Before long, the Pirates were using data to optimize pitch selection and every team was hunting high and low for pitch framing. If the early 2000s were all about using math to find better ways to hit, 2008 to 2014 was about using data to strangle offense from every angle.

Things have started moving more quickly since then. Batters reacted by trying to lift the ball more, helped out by a livelier baseball. Pitchers tried throwing higher in the zone to counter that, and at the same time teams started working with pitchers to tailor arsenals to their innate spin rates and pitch shapes. It’s not stopping here — batters are going to work to counter pitchers’ new arsenals, and defenses are going to work to find new and better shifts.

For all this back and forth though, I think that the long game favors pitching. The reason is that, to my mind, batting is a game of picking on weaknesses. Teams don’t get their offense against the aces and the tough part of the bullpen, or in lefty-lefty matchups. They pick on tiring pitchers, righties pitching to lefties, or relievers pitching their third game in three days. It’s always been this way — offense spikes in expansion years when the pitching pool gets diluted, and the times-through-the-order penalty has always existed.

If that’s where offense has always been generated, however, then batters are in trouble. Pitching staffs across baseball are shoring up weak points like never before, and there’s not much offenses can do about it aside from just hit better. It’s still April, but it’s almost a guarantee that two pitching trends are going to reach all-time extremes this year. You’ve probably heard of the first one: starters will face batting orders for a third or fourth time less than ever before. The second one is more subtle, but it’s affecting offense just the same. So far in 2019, batters have faced opposite-handed pitching only 51% of the time, a record low.

Let’s handle the times through the order trend first. The effect isn’t novel — I learned about it from The Book, but the general concept has existed much longer than that. Ted Williams talked about it in The Science of Hitting, and it’s not some deep secret. The more looks a batter gets at a pitcher, the better he sees the pitches. It’s not clear whether pitcher fatigue adds to the penalty, but either way it’s not a small effect. In 2018, starting pitchers allowed a .304 wOBA the first time through the order and a .336 wOBA the third time through. That 32-point wOBA swing is about the same as the difference between the 2018 Yankees offense and the 2018 Royals offense. It’s a big deal, in other words. Read the rest of this entry »

The Tigers Found a Diamond in the Rough

Being a fan of a rebuilding team is a tricky line to walk. You want the players to do well, obviously — you’re watching them every day, after all, and it’s only human to root for what you’re watching. At the same time, if they do too well, they’re probably getting traded — how much mental energy should you invest in a player who won’t be on your team in two months? Did that reliever you like find another gear? Cool, enjoy the two lower-level prospects the team will get back for him in a month. Rooting for a past-their-prime star? Well, if they have a good stretch, the team might ship the one face you remember from the good old days out for some salary relief.

There’s one great joy in watching a team that’s in the middle of a rebuild. Whether by accident or design, teams don’t end up trying to retool if they have a ton of solid major league players, which means there’s a playing time void that gets filled by whoever’s available. Minor league free agents and past-their-prime vets? Step right up. Lifetime minor leaguers looking for their first real chance? Someone needs to play third base, so grab a glove. When one of those lottery tickets hits, that feeling makes up for a lot of the bad parts of rebuilding. Here’s a player who has always wanted a chance, and your team gave it to him. If he’s young, he might even be around when the team’s good again, and you, the fan, were there at the beginning. All of this is a roundabout way of saying: Niko Goodrum might be awesome, and the Tigers gave him a chance.

If you haven’t heard of Niko Goodrum before, I can’t blame you. He got a cup of coffee with the Twins in 2017 before signing with the Tigers after the Twins released him, and he delivered a solid if uninspiring 2018 (103 wRC+ in 492 PA, 1.1 WAR) while playing across the diamond. He’s been excellent to start this year, putting up a 132 wRC+ with nearly as many walks as strikeouts while batting cleanup and playing both centerfield and first base. Now you, the sophisticated FanGraphs reader, are no dummy. You know that a 132 wRC+ a few weeks into the season isn’t all that outrageous. It’s above average, sure, but no one’s going to lose their mind over it. What makes me so sure Niko Goodrum is amazing all of the sudden?

Well, first of all, I’m not sure! When Niko Goodrum started popping up on the various screens I use to look for exciting hitters, I mostly assumed I needed better tests. When I saw he was running a 41.7% line drive rate, I chalked it up to small-sample variance and moved on. If I got excited about every career minor leaguer who walked into a few line drives, I’d be calling for a new breakout every day. Look a little closer, though, and something surprising emerges: Goodrum is excelling in ways that don’t look fluky. It’s early, but I think the Tigers have found something.

Let’s start with the basics: Niko Goodrum has shown he can hit the ball hard. He hit 20 balls 105 mph or harder last year, topping out above 110 mph. That’s good territory to be in, especially in only 492 PA — notable names with similar numbers of 105+ mph hits per PA were Matt Carpenter, Jose Ramirez, Kris Bryant, and Miguel Cabrera. That’s important to what we’re talking about here, because if Goodrum didn’t have power to tap into, that would severely limit his upside.

For Goodrum to find a new level, something had to change from last year — a 103 wRC+ is totally acceptable for a utility infielder, but that’s not the season you write a story about. Here’s an interesting fact that might not be immediately obvious, though: all that power is to the pull side. Out of the 20 hardest-hit balls from Goodrum’s 2018, 14 were in the air. Of those fourteen, zero were to the opposite field. He wasn’t using the center of the field, either — I generously counted three as being hit to center, but for the most part his power came at a dead pull.

Just to make sure I wasn’t running into an arbitrary-endpoints issue (what if the balls just below 105 mph all went oppo?), I looked at the 27 air balls Goodrum hit with an exit velocity between 100 and 105 mph. Of those 27, only four were hit opposite field, and all of them were hit while he was batting righty. Given that he’s accumulated all of 6 plate appearances hitting righty this year, I think we’re fine focusing on how he’s done while batting left-handed.

Goodrum has what you’d call pull-only power. He can hit the ball plenty hard, but he needs to pull it to do so. Well, here’s what his batted ball distribution looked like in 2018 as a lefty:

2018 Batted Ball Direction
Direction Goodrum MLB Average
Pull 41.5 40.3
Center 33.3 34.5
Opposite 25.1 25.1

Now, wait a second. Here’s a guy who should be trying to maximize his pull side, and he’s essentially John Q Averagemajorleaguer when it comes to his spray chart. That seems suboptimal, and that’s being generous. It’s not as though it’s being driven by the groundballs in the distribution, either. Take a look at his batted ball distribution on line drives and fly balls:

2018 LD+FB Batted Ball Direction
Direction Goodrum MLB Average
Pull 34.3 30.9
Center 33.6 35.9
Opposite 32.1 33.2

Dangit. League average again! For a guy who’s only getting power to the pull side, this isn’t where you want to be.

Let me digress for a quick second — let’s talk about the structure of an analytical baseball article. We’ve covered the promise — Niko Goodrum has changed and he’s good now! We’ve covered the problem — he didn’t pull the ball enough before. Now we’re headed to the reveal — pitchers can’t stand this one stupid trick, and Niko Goodrum used it to hit .300 with power and make $57k a month working from home. That’s how these articles work, and this one is no exception.

The change, though, isn’t what you’d expect. You might be expecting me to say “swing change.” Travis Sawchik made a cottage industry out of that exact type of article. Jose Bautista made a career out of it, and a great one at that. There’s just one problem: Goodrum didn’t change his swing. Take a look at his setup in 2018 and 2019 (2018 is on top):

Honestly, there’s nothing there. I gave all the footage I could find Zapruder-level scrutiny, and I couldn’t find anything convincing. He hasn’t changed anything at the point of contact either:

So, okay, no swing change. Despite that exactly-the-same swing, though, something has changed. You remember his league-average batted ball tendencies from last year, don’t you? Take a look at his 2019:

Goodrum’s 2019 Batted Ball Direction
Direction All Batted Balls LD+FB
Pull 55.6 50
Center 30.6 40
Opposite 13.9 10

Now, is this a small sample? Absolutely. It’s an extreme move, though, big enough to look purposeful. It’s also a mix that looks like Jose Bautista’s breakout 2010, when he pulled 50% of his batted balls and 45% of his air balls. Additionally, even if Goodrum hasn’t changed his swing, he’s made one key adjustment that’s helped him hit the ball with more authority. Take a look at where he swung in 2018:

Now, that looks pretty normal, but maybe normal isn’t what we want. If anything, Goodrum swung more at pitches away than pitches in, and it’s an adage as old as baseball that pitches away get hit to the opposite field. Take a look at where Goodrum hit the ball when he swung at an inside pitch in 2018:

This is the power that was promised — all right field and center field when the ball gets in the air. This is the idealized Niko Goodrum who put a charge into the ball in 2018. Take a look at his spray chart on swings on the outer third of the plate:

That’s an archetypical all-fields spray chart, and right there you can see the problem. There’s nothing wrong with taking an outside pitch the other way, but it’s not where Goodrum finds power. Astute readers might notice something else — there are a lot more balls in play on outside pitches than inside pitches. That screams for a change, and Goodrum has indeed taken more of his swings to the inside part of the plate this year:

Let’s be more specific than a heatmap, just for completeness’ sake. When Goodrum got a pitch on the outer third of the plate in 2018, he swung 71% of the time. In 2019, he’s down to 48%. That 23% reduction in swing rate seems like it has to be purposeful. Just for comparison, his swings at middle and inside pitches have declined by much less, from 75% to 65%. We’re still in small sample territory when slicing up the strike zone this way, but it doesn’t look like a mistake. That, in a nutshell, is all Goodrum needed to do to tap into his pull power. Lay off the outside pitch, and your batted ball distribution changes just like that.

Goodrum put twice as many balls into play on outside pitches as inside pitches in 2018. This year, he’s put more into play on inside pitches. It’s a sea change, and one that, to me at least, screams intentionality. Changing where you swing isn’t as extreme as changing how you swing, but it isn’t something you do idly. It’s also a change that carries some nice ancillary benefits.

You might have noticed that Goodrum’s swing rate declined both on the outside of the plate and in the strike zone as a whole. I’m speculating here, but it’s easy for me to believe that Goodrum is telling himself to more actively look for a pitch he can pull, which makes him a lot less likely to swing overall. Most pitches, after all, don’t look like a pitch you can pull. A mindset of looking for a particular pitch makes it easier to take anything outside your hot zone, and that shows in his out-of-zone swing rates.

Last season, Goodrum chased pitches outside the strike zone slightly more than average, 33.5%. This season, he’s chasing a sterling 25.2% of the time. That change puts Goodrum in hitter’s counts more often — he’s seeing a higher percentage of 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, and 3-1 counts this year. It’s not rocket science — Goodrum is getting ahead in the count more often, and when he does swing, he’s swinging in an area where he hits the ball harder. That’s how you build a breakout.

Every argument I’ve presented for Goodrum comes with a caveat. It’s a small sample; he’s only putting up a 132 wRC+ right now; he’s a longtime minor leaguer who the Twins just outright cut as recently as 2017. That’s all true! I’m not here to deny any of those facts. There’s another way to look at the narrative, though. A big, toolsy (he has a faster sprint speed than Mike Trout this year) former second rounder found a way to tap into his natural power. It was always there, lurking just below the surface; he just needed to change his swing thoughts to unlock it.

Maybe, in a year, we’ll see that Goodrum was just a flash in the pan. Maybe pitchers will adjust. Maybe it’s all just noise and nothing has changed. I don’t think so, though. I look at him and I see a chance that we’re looking at the next Jose Bautista, only one who can play centerfield and second base with equal aplomb. The Tigers aren’t great this year, and they probably won’t be great next year. They might, just might, have found a guy who will be on the next good Tigers team, though. As a Tigers fan, that’s something to look forward to.

Pete Alonso Crushes the Ball

Pete Alonso, it should first be said, really isn’t a great defender. The Mets were quick to let everyone know this throughout 2018, when they didn’t call him up early in the year, when he won Defensive Player of the Month for the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate in July, and when they didn’t make him a September call-up in a completely lost season for the big league club. Seventeen games into his major league career, however, I can say one thing with certainty: I don’t care that he’s supposedly bad at defense. Alonso’s plate appearances are turning into appointment viewing, because he flat-out crushes the ball. I’m not talking garden-variety “boy, that large man can hit,” either. Alonso might not have the best strike-zone recognition, or the best general plate discipline, but when he makes contact, he’s doing damage like almost no one else in baseball.

If you want to understand how truly incredible Alonso’s start has been, you need to look past the WAR leaderboards. Heck, you need to look past the wRC+ leaderboards — like I said, his plate discipline is a work in progress. Alonso has a near-200 wRC+ with a 31% strikeout rate — the three players at the top of the wRC+ leaderboard check in at 11.5%, 8.6%, and 15.0%, respectively. No, the magic really starts when Alonso puts the ball in play, and I do mean magic. Take a look at the top 10 players in baseball in terms of barrels (a Statcast designation that basically means a ball that is tremendously likely to be an extra-base hit) per batted ball:

Barrels/Batted Ball (min. 25 BB)
Player Barrels/Batted Ball
Pete Alonso 31.6%
Gary Sanchez 31.3%
Joey Gallo 29.6%
Mike Trout 29.0%
Christian Walker 25.0%
J.D. Davis 23.3%
Franmil Reyes 23.1%
Anthony Rendon 22.9%
Willson Contreras 21.4%
Jay Bruce 21.1%

Think of it this way: about a third of the time that Alonso puts the ball in play, he’s hitting an absolute rocket. Just being on this list, let alone at the top of it, tells us something. This isn’t a list of guys who have lucked into some game power. It’s not a list you can get on just by taking some walks, like a wRC+ leaderboard — Alex Bregman might have had a nice 2018 at the plate, but it’s hard to fake hitting the ball this hard and this optimally (Bregman ended 76th in barrels per batted ball last year). This isn’t just home run power, either, though it’s certainly that — Alonso has six homers already, including a 118.3-mph, 454-foot missile off of Jonny Venters that had SunTrust Park looking like a water hazard at the Masters:

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Fastballs Are Faster (and Rarer) Than Ever

The bottom of the eighth inning of last Wednesday’s Brewers-Angels game was, at first glance, fairly uneventful. Down 4-2, the Brewers called on converted starter Junior Guerra to keep the game in reach. He delivered — two strikeouts sandwiched a groundout, and the team went to the ninth down only two. Guerra is the fourth or fifth option out of the Brewers bullpen; he’s also a perfect embodiment of modern pitching. He threw 16 pitches in the inning, and less than half were heaters — six fastballs, four breaking balls, and six splitters. When he did throw fastballs, though, he put some mustard on them — two hit 96 on the gun, and he’s averaging about 95 mph so far this year.

These two trends — fewer and faster fastballs — are spreading like wildfire across the game. Sometimes it happens in jumps, like the Twins hiring a progressive pitching coach this offseason. Sometimes it happens organically, like Junior Guerra leaning on his splitter and slider a little more out of the bullpen. It’s a game-wide trend, though, and it seems likely to continue. This year, starters and relievers are both throwing their lowest share of fastballs since we’ve had pitch-level data. When they do throw fastballs, though, both groups are throwing them harder than ever before.

Without looking at a single piece of data, you could have convinced me that those two trends were likely true, but I wanted to look into the numbers to know for certain. First things first — we’ll need a consistent sample across years. Taking this year’s stats and comparing them to previous full-year averages won’t work, because pitchers consistently throw at lower velocities in March and April than they do in the year as a whole. In 2018, for example, March and April four-seamers were .2 mph slower than the year as a whole. Thus, we’re going to use data only through April 10th for every season to properly account for this systematic bias. Let’s take a look at that data, shall we? A quick methodological note: I’m excluding cut fastballs, as classification systems have real trouble differentiating them from sliders:

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Nick Anderson Is Improbably Excellent

“In the future,” Andy Warhol said, “everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” Warhol wasn’t really a baseball fan (Pete Rose baseball-card prints aside), but it seems likely that major league baseball consulted with him, or at least took some inspiration. How else can you explain the phenomenon of the pop-up relief pitching ace? Nick Anderson has the lowest FIP (and xFIP) and the highest strikeout rate in baseball this year, and if you aren’t related to him, I bet you had to go look up what team he pitches for.

Anderson’s route to the spotlight (such as it is) has been incredibly circuitous. Early legal troubles, including an assault he contends was him coming to the defense of a friend, led to his starting in the independent leagues instead of affiliated ball. Anderson spent a year remodeling homes and playing amateur ball. When he returned, he pitched excellently for the Cedar Rapids Kernels and the Frontier Greys in 2015 (sub-1 ERAs and 9-plus K/9s in both stops). The hometown Twins scooped him up, and you have to think other teams weren’t far behind given the numbers, but still — he was out of baseball, fully out, just five years ago.

How crazy is it that we never saw Nick Anderson coming? Well, if you go by his minor league stats, it’s pretty crazy. In three-plus years of pitching (admittedly often at levels he was old for), he compiled a 2.25 ERA (2.35 FIP, 2.37 xFIP) with sterling peripherals — a 32.5% strikeout rate and a measly 6.2% walk rate. Still though, he enjoyed very little prospect shine — he was a reliever at best, and one without much pedigree. Aside from brief mentions as “Others of Note,” he pretty much flew under the radar.

When the Twins had a 40-man roster crunch after the 2018 season, they sent Anderson to the Marlins. I can forgive you if you don’t remember the transaction — Nick Anderson for Brian Schales was hardly the biggest transaction of November. Heck, it wasn’t even the Twins move with the most fanfare — that would be grabbing C.J. Cron off of waivers, a move that likely had something to do with trading Anderson. With little fanfare, Anderson made the Marlins bullpen out of Spring Training (eight innings pitched, 10 strikeouts, no walks), and just like that, baseball’s best current reliever (by the numbers) had arrived in the majors. Read the rest of this entry »

Jacob deGrom is Picking Up Where He Left Off

Jacob deGrom’s 2018 will go down in history as one of the best pitching seasons of all time. There’s almost no way it couldn’t — pitchers don’t put up sub-two ERAs very often, and they record sub-2 FIPs even less frequently. By those stats alone, deGrom had the seventh-best ERA and eighth-best FIP since integration. Adjust for the run-scoring environment, and he falls all the way to ninth. Simply put, deGrom was sublime in 2018.

After a season of such historic magnitude, we’d be crazy to not expect regression. Everything broke so well for deGrom in 2018 that he could pitch every bit as well in 2019 and end up with meaningfully worse results. Indeed, ZiPS and Steamer both projected deGrom’s ERA to increase by essentially a run this season. Despite that, both projected him to put up the second-best ERA and FIP among starters, behind only Chris Sale. When you’re as far ahead of the pack as deGrom, you can significantly regress and still be one of the best.

It isn’t just projection systems that peg deGrom to come back to earth — the broad sweep of history suggests it as well. No matter how you slice it, pitchers who record a season like deGrom’s decline the next year. Want to focus on ERA? There have been 26 times since 1947 when a pitcher qualified for the ERA title and had an ERA below two. Excluding 2018 deGrom and 1966 Sandy Koufax (he retired after 1966 and so didn’t have a next season), these pitchers averaged a 1.77 ERA. The next year, they recorded a 2.78 ERA. Read the rest of this entry »

Corbin Burnes Spins to Win

The first week of baseball is a wondrous time to be a baseball fan. It’s also a weird time to be a baseball writer. On one hand, baseball is happening, and that’s a relief after the long dark night of the offseason. On the other hand, not that much baseball has happened, and most of the seemingly noteworthy stories are small-sample noise. Give me an early-season take (Tim Beckham is great! Sandy Alcantara is a top-10 pitcher!), and I’ll likely dismiss it as a fluke. One performance this week, however, made me sit up and take notice. Corbin Burnes struck out 12 batters on Sunday, and the way he did it should have Brewers fans, and baseball fans in general, salivating.

At first glance, Burnes’ start against the Cardinals is a textbook case of not reading too much into a single start. He struck out 12 batters and walked only one, which is obviously incredible. On the other hand, he gave up three home runs and only lasted five innings, producing a what’s-going-on split of a 6.53 FIP and 0.00 xFIP. If I were a betting man, though, I’d wager that the strikeouts are more predictive than the home runs. Why? Corbin Burnes’ fastball was absolutely ludicrous, and in a way that you can’t fake.

Most of the things that happen in a baseball game are contextual. Did a pitcher strike a lot of hitters out? Well, consider who was batting. If it’s a bunch of high schoolers or the 2019 Giants outfield, that’s an extenuating circumstance. Did he give up a lot of home runs? A ton of factors go into that. One thing that isn’t contextual is a pitch’s spin rate. The batter doesn’t influence it. Pitch selection doesn’t influence it. It doesn’t take long to stabilize. It’s basically as clean as it gets in baseball statistics — you throw the ball, and you get your results.

When Burnes threw the ball on Sunday, the results were off the charts. Burnes fired 61 four-seam fastballs on Sunday. His velocity was down a tick or so from last year, when he worked out of the bullpen — nothing unusual about that. His spin, on the other hand, was wholly new. Burnes averaged 2912 rpm, and it’s hard to explain how crazy that is. It was nearly 150 rpm higher than last year’s league leader in average spin rate, Luke Bard. The fastball that Burnes spun most slowly, at 2660 rpm, would have been good for the second-highest fastball spin rate in baseball last year.

Burnes has always been a high-spin pitcher (11th in baseball among pitchers who threw at least 100 fastballs in 2018), but this is an entirely different level. Spin rates vary from start to start, but not like this. In fact, Burnes made thirty appearances last year, and the gap between the highest spin rate he recorded and the lowest was 270 rpm. Sunday’s start was 200 rpm faster than last year’s highest rate. Graphically, that looks pretty absurd, like so:

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Miles Mikolas Defies Comparison

Here’s something that won’t surprise you. The number one starter in all of baseball last year, when it came to getting batters to chase pitches outside the strike zone, was Patrick Corbin. Of course it was Patrick Corbin! Dude threw 95% sliders last year, and that’s only a little bit of an exaggeration (it was a little over 41%, if you’re intent on checking my math). The second guy on the list, a minuscule 0.1% of out-of-zone swing rate behind Corbin, was Jacob deGrom. I mean … yeah. DeGrom had a 1.7 ERA last year and struck out 32% of the batters he faced. People swung at a lot of pitches outside the strike zone.

At number three, though, the list takes an unexpected turn. The third-highest chase rate in baseball last year belonged to Miles Mikolas, and it’s hard to think of a pitcher who resembles Corbin and deGrom less than Mikolas does. While the aforementioned duo both had top-10 strikeout rates among qualified starters, Mikolas was in the bottom ten. Corbin and deGrom were exemplars of the new three-true-outcome direction baseball has taken (mostly one true outcome, in their case), while Mikolas had essentially the lowest three true outcome rate in all of baseball. What does it mean to generate a ton of swings outside the strike zone but few strikeouts?

Making sense of how Miles Mikolas operates is difficult. He’s kind of a unicorn — you probably think you can name pitchers like him, but none of them fit. Is he Kyle Hendricks, the pinpoint control artist with a preposterous changeup? Mikolas doesn’t even throw a changeup. He also sits around 94.5mph with his fastball, top 20 among qualified starters in 2018. Hendricks has the slowest fastball in that group. Is he a rich man’s Mike Leake, perplexingly effective despite never striking anyone out? That’s not it either — Leake never generates swings and misses, and never is barely an exaggeration here. He’s had a bottom-10 swinging strike rate every year he’s been a qualifying pitcher. Mikolas, meanwhile, is around league average. Leake also, somehow, throws significantly fewer strikes than Mikolas — Mikolas put the ball in the strike zone a league-leading 48% of the time last year. Read the rest of this entry »

A Taxonomy of Striking Out Against a Position Player Pitching

As you’ve no doubt heard, we’re living in a golden age for position players pitching. Don’t believe me? Read the copious articles written about it in the past few years. At this point, you know the broad strokes of the genre. You know that position players are pitching a lot more often these days. You know that it’s funny because they’re not that good at pitching, but also funny because they’re not as bad as you’d think.

It’s gotten so common, so normal, that less than a week into the 2019 season, we’ve already had a game where position players pitched on both sides. That game had a little bit of everything: John Ryan Murphy was terrible, allowing seven runs in two innings. Russell Martin was perplexingly effective, setting the side down in order in his one inning of work to close out the Dodgers 18-5 win over the Diamondbacks. He was the first full-time position player to close out the ninth inning of a game since 1963.

There was one thing missing from that game, though — neither “pitcher” recorded a strikeout, and strikeouts have been, in my opinion, criminally under-reported in all the coverage of position-player pitchers. Those embarrassing-but-not-that-embarrassing pitching lines? They were compiled against real, honest-to-god major league hitters (and also occasionally pitchers pretending to be major league batters). We all know that position players pitch well enough to occasionally get strikeouts, and that’s a pretty great fact. Take a minute, though, to consider this: the pseudo-pitcher’s small triumph is also the batter’s great failure. He just struck out, the most miserable feeling in baseball, and he did it against a guy who’s out there goofing around.

In 2018, position-player pitchers struck out 22 batters. On the one hand, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but on the other hand — that’s a lot! Still, though, not all of these strikeouts were created equal. There’s a lot of distance between Gerrit Cole striking out against a utility infielder and Eugenio Suarez going down on strikes against a backup catcher. I wanted to chronicle this, because in a year there might be too many strikeouts for it to be interesting or too few to devote an article to. I sat down and watched all 22 strikeouts and separated them into tiers of embarrassment. These guys might be multi-millionaires. They might be unfathomably strong and coordinated baseball machines, but sometimes they mess up the easiest tasks. They’re just like us. Who couldn’t relate to that?
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What’s an Opt-Out Worth?

After Manny Machado and Bryce Harper signed their gargantuan free agent deals, dominos began to fall left and right across baseball — if you’re of sound body and mind, you probably recently signed a multi-year extension with a major league franchise. When a star signs a new contract of any type, articles analyzing the contract’s value are never far behind, and this recent extension spree has been no exception. I wanted to get in on the action, but the analysis has already been done for the most part. Search for a player who recently signed a contract, and you’ll find FanGraphs analysis of it, likely with some dollars-per-WAR analysis. Chris Sale? Jay Jaffe’s got you. Kiley McDaniel covered Eloy Jimenez’s extension. Justin Verlander? Jaffe again. You get the idea. Craig Edwards even wrote about Harper vs. Machado in an exhaustive level of depth, down to figuring out state taxes.

What’s an author to do? Well, there’s one angle that hasn’t been covered for a while, believe it or not. More accurately, it’s been covered by a combination of shrugs and mathematical hand waves: the value of the opt-out in Machado’s (and Nolan Arenado’s) contract. The reason these haven’t been sufficiently covered is simple — they’re difficult to value. If we want to figure out how many wins a player projects for, a methodology exists for that exercise. Sprinkle in a little of the aging curve and the dollar value of the contract, and there’s one level of analysis. If you want to put everything in present-day dollars, it’s just more arithmetic, but the basic shape remains similar. Introducing opt-outs, however, is a step in a wholly different direction.
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