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Choose Your Own Lineup Adventure: On-Base vs. Slugging

Let’s get right down to the question that all baseball analysis is asking at its core: Which of these two players would you rather have on your team, all else being equal?

Two Mystery Players
Player A .319 .387 .469 .371
Player B .267 .328 .556 .372

It’s a close one, right? That’s largely because I decreed it to be so; these aren’t real players, just stat lines I made up that have the same wOBA. Who would you rather have? They’re extremely different, of course; one gets a ton of value from walks and singles, with some doubles sprinkled in for good measure. You can surmise that the other gets a ton of value from home runs — look at that slugging percentage — but does worse elsewhere.

Oh yeah, a few other caveats. These are underlying talent levels; you might look at Player A and say that the BABIP can’t continue, or Player B and say the HR/FB rate can’t be real, but for our purposes, these are the lines they’ll put up over 1,000 PA, or 10,000, or 1,000,000. This is their real skill level. Given that, in most cases, it doesn’t matter much which one you choose, because they’re about the same. That’s the point of wOBA, after all.

That’s not a very interesting answer, so I decided to go deeper. I constructed a generic American League lineup. I removed intentional walks so that we’re comparing apples to apples. The result looks like this:

Generic Batting Order
1 .261 .328 .423 .325
2 .256 .324 .423 .323
3 .255 .332 .458 .339
4 .255 .325 .453 .333
5 .248 .319 .431 .323
6 .240 .308 .408 .309
7 .233 .294 .399 .299
8 .227 .289 .371 .287
9 .228 .293 .360 .285

I threw that lineup into a lightly modified version of my lineup simulator, a short snippet of code that lets you put in a lineup (based on the probability of each outcome every time they bat) and get an estimate of how many runs they’d score per game. This one comes out to 4.53 runs per contest, which is close enough to the actual AL average for my purposes. Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Bunts of the Year, Part Two

Yesterday, I compiled the worst bunts of the season. They were bad in various ways — poor execution, great defense, a spot where failing was particularly painful — but they all cost their team dearly. Today, we’re looking at the opposite: the bunts that have added the most value.

As a refresher, this absolute gem was the best bunt of the first third of the season:

That perfect execution of an audacious plan is the platonic ideal of a bunt. If every successful bunt this season was like that, this would be a really fun series to write. A well-placed bunt is art; post five of those, and I could skate by with almost no commentary and let the GIFs do the talking.

Sadly, that’s not quite the case. There’s quite a bit of bad defense this time around — plenty of errors in the top five. That’s just how bunts work: they’re designed to force the defense to make a play, and while defenders are excellent, they’re not automatons. A sacrifice bunt that works as planned is never going to be one of the best plays a team can make — it’s designed to minimize variance, neither as bad as a strikeout nor as good as a single. The best bunts of the year by WPA, then, need to either score runs without surrendering outs or feature dubious fielding.

So yeah, some of these bunts aren’t perfectly placed gems that the defense has to eat. Some of them are just players making bad throws or bad decisions. As a palate cleanser, though, take a look at this beautiful honorable mention. Read the rest of this entry »

The Worst Bunts of the Year, Part Two

Earlier this year, I took a look at the worst (and best) bunts of the year. I couldn’t help myself. It’s simply too much fun to watch the best-laid bunting plans go down in flames, while a perfectly executed bunt is one of the most exciting plays in baseball.

Originally, I planned on waiting until the end of the season to update both lists. I forgot something, though: the end of the season is really busy and fun as it is. Playoff races, individual awards, wondering where the Mets went so wrong. There are already innumerable annual traditions to write about at season’s end. Instead, I decided to get a head start on these standout bunts, and circle back if one improbably beats them out for the worst (or best) bunt of the year.

As a reminder, here was the worst bunt of the first third of the season:

That one was really bad, both in execution and outcome. It cost the Cardinals dearly — more than a quarter of a win by WPA. It’s not easy to lose so much value in a single play on offense. With that in mind, I’ll be answering a bonus question for each bunt in this list: was it worse than José Rondón’s ill-fated attempt? Without further ado, let’s get bunting. Read the rest of this entry »

The Blue Jays Soar Into Playoff Position

Mere weeks ago, the Toronto Blue Jays were 66-61, the last of five teams in contention for two Wild Card spots. They looked the part — their +112 run differential led those five, and adding José Berríos at the deadline helped stabilize their rotation. That’s all well and good, but they were 6.5 games out of the second Wild Card, and their bullpen was undoing a lot of the rotation’s good work, especially new acquisition Brad Hand’s 8.22 ERA and 8.12 FIP.

Despite their evident talent, our playoff odds game them only a 4.7% chance of reaching the playoffs at their nadir on August 27. A one-in-20 shot isn’t impossible — less than 5% of plate appearances end in a home run, and yet we see tons of those every day — but things didn’t look good for Toronto. But here we are, three weeks later, and the Jays are in the first Wild Card spot (in a tie for it, but still). How did those rampaging Jays do it? Let’s take a look. Here’s a graph of what we’ll be talking about:

First things first: if you want to overcome a big deficit quickly, stop losing. The Jays have gone 14-2 in their past 16 games, scoring a comical 7.5 runs per game while allowing just over four themselves. That’s good for a Pythagorean record of .774 (using the Pythagenpat formulation of it), or in regular English, “Stop using a record estimator when a team is scoring twice as many runs as they allow, of course they’re doing well.” Read the rest of this entry »

Ben Clemens FanGraphs Chat – 9/13/21

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The Enpumpkining of Carlos Santana

In 2020, Carlos Santana had a down year. That happens to players all the time, and it’s particularly excusable in the pandemic season. Sixty games can make anyone look bad, and that’s before you get into the vast changes in routine. So while a .350 slugging percentage is obviously concerning, particularly from a first baseman, it’s nothing that you couldn’t hand-wave away by whispering his walk rate or xwOBA to yourself in a soothing voice.

In 2021, Carlos Santana is having a down year. If once is a coincidence, twice is a trend, and this certainly looks bad. The Royals’ problems don’t start at first base, but he certainly hasn’t been the answer there, and I’m skeptical that things will get better. Yes: Carlos Santana has turned into a pumpkin. Read the rest of this entry »

Atlanta Flexes Its Financial Muscles With Extensions

When the Braves signed Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies to phenomenally team-friendly contracts before the 2019 season, two distinct possibilities loomed. First, the team could bank the money they saved and put out a good team at a discounted price. Second, they could reinvest those savings and attempt to put together a great team. Which they chose would say a lot about how the team planned on operating long-term.

The question is no longer open. The Braves have overcome a season-ending injury to Acuña to surge to the top of the NL East, and while the Phillies and Mets continue to nip at their heals, they’re well on their way to a fourth straight division title. They’ve done so thanks to some new young contributors — Austin Riley and Ian Anderson have come into their own this year. They’ve made some savvy signings and trades — Charlie Morton has been their best pitcher this year, and Jorge Soler has been excellent since joining the team.

Now, the Braves are making moves to prolong their stay atop the division. In late August, they signed Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year extension. They followed that up by signing Morton to a one-year deal (both contracts have team options tacked on). Let’s take a look at both of those deals, as well as how they affect the team’s outlook for next year and beyond.

Signing d’Arnaud to an extension — two years and $16 million with a team option for a third year — was hardly an obvious move for the team. He missed the majority of the season after tearing a ligament in his thumb in May. He’s hit well since his return, but even so, his seasonal line works out to an 84 wRC+. Combine that with solid receiving, and the total package works out to a roughly average catcher.

What made the Braves so eager to lock d’Arnaud up? His replacements fell well short of that average catcher bar. On the year, Atlanta’s catcher position has produced -1.4 WAR, the worst mark in the majors. It’s not an individual problem; a huge array of catchers have combined to weigh the position down:

Atlanta’s Catching Futility
Player PA wRC+ Def WAR
Travis d’Arnaud 148 84 4.2 0.5
Jonathan Lucroy 9 130 -0.1 0.1
Jeff Mathis 9 -100 0.3 -0.2
Alex Jackson 28 -20 0.2 -0.3
William Contreras 166 72 -3.0 -0.4
Kevan Smith 101 17 2.6 -0.5
Stephen Vogt 85 2 1.9 -0.5

Relative to that mess, d’Arnaud is a huge improvement. That’s not to say that Contreras won’t figure it out, or that Vogt isn’t a capable backup. But for a team with an embarrassment of riches at most positions, giving away so much value at catcher doesn’t make sense. It gets worse: the list of free agent catchers this offseason is nasty, brutish, and short. Yan Gomes and Martín Maldonado are the headliners, and it gets worse from there. Miss signing your target, and you might be in for a long offseason. Read the rest of this entry »

Kenta Maeda’s Elbow Adds Injury to the Twins’ Insulting 2021

The Twins came into 2021 with postseason aspirations, ones that were quickly dashed by an atrocious start to the season. By the trade deadline, they were dealing for the future; Nelson Cruz, Hansel Robles, and J.A. Happ were all rentals, but José Berríos, who was dealt to the Blue Jays, looked like a key part of the team for both this year and next. Trading him was a calculated gamble that they could sacrifice some certainty next year for future value. Now, 2022 is in even more jeopardy: Kenta Maeda, the team’s best pitcher, will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss a good chunk of next year.

For the Twins, this is obviously brutal news. This season was already a write-off, but they had mostly done a good job of building for next year even as they disappointed in the present. Cruz aside, the team will retain most of its offensive core next year, and while Andrelton Simmons will hit free agency, with Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez still in the fold, they’ll have a huge array of options for how to replace him. Heck, reunite with Cruz on another one-year deal, and they could field a solid team without any further infield starters needed (Josh Donaldson to third base, Arraez to second, and Polanco to short). Austin Martin, the centerpiece of the team’s return for Berríos, might be ready to bolster that infield depth as soon as next year, as well.

The lineup, however, isn’t the Twins’ biggest problem. It’s underperformed this year, no doubt, but their pitching has been disastrous. They’ve allowed 5.3 runs per game, the third-worst mark in the majors. It’s no sequencing fluke, either: by BaseRuns, they also have the third-worst pitching staff in the big leagues. You won’t win a lot of games if you allow so many runs, regardless of how many bombs you’re hitting on the other side of the ball.
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Corbin’s Hammer

Corbin Burnes is laying waste to the National League, putting up numbers that can best be described as comical. A 34.6% strikeout rate? That’s closer territory. A 4.8% walk rate? That’s lower than Kyle Hendricks’ career mark. His 2.27 ERA might undersell how good he’s been; both his xERA (a Statcast ERA estimator) and FIP are in the ones (1.96 and 1.58, respectively).

You know about the cutter he leads with, which he described to David Laurila earlier this year. You know about the slider and sinker, the two pitches that complement his cutter. That trio took the league by storm last year, and he’s doubled down on cutters this year; he now throws the pitch roughly half the time.

Like an annoying hipster, though, I’ve moved on to the next cool Burnes thing that no one is talking about yet. The cutter? It’s fine, I guess (it’s the best cutter in baseball, but I’m doing a bit here, so bear with me). I’m here to talk to you about the curveball, a pitch that he threw less than 10% of the time before making it a staple this season.

If Burnes has one standout skill, it’s his ability to impart spin. Even when he was bad, he threw the highest-spinning four-seamer in the game, and his slider has always jumped out of his hand. It’s hardly a surprise that his curveball is cut from the same cloth. Spin data is fraught this year, what with the foreign substance crackdown and all, but since June 21, he’s thrown his curveball with a whopping 2,840 rpm, the 16th-best mark in the game (21st-best if you consider spin-to-velocity ratio instead).

What does that mean in English? It means that he has the raw stuff to generate eye-popping movement. He also throws the pitch in the low 80s, which means batters don’t have a ton of time to react. Put those two things together, and you can make MVP candidate Buster Posey look like a toddler learning how to walk:

The pitch is an absolute delight, and it’s also phenomenally effective. Batters have come up empty on half of their swings against it, the third-highest mark in the league (and 45% since June 21, so don’t go sticky-stuff-asterisking up this great pitch). As an added bonus, he’s seventh in baseball when it comes to batters not swinging at pitches in the zone. He throws it for a strike 49.3% of the time, which ranks seventh in the majors, and batters take it, doing his work for him. Can’t hit it when they swing at it, often take it when they should swing at it: what’s an opposing hitter to do but complain?
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Will Smith’s Unconventional Success

If you’ve been paying close attention to my writing recently, you’ll notice a hidden theme running through my last month or so of work: frequent and bad jokes. But there’s a second theme, too: batters do really well when they swing at pitches over the heart of the plate. Splitting the plate up into the center and the corners does a lot to explain where hitters do best; when you swing at something there, it’s hardly a surprise that the results, on average, are excellent.

Will Smith is a great hitter. He gets my vote as the best catcher in the game, and while I wouldn’t fault you for picking Buster Posey, Smith leads all catchers in WAR and is doing it at a young age. He’s a perfectly acceptable defensive catcher, but he’s valuable because of his hitting, with a .267/.377/.510 line that’s good for a 140 wRC+. Those numbers are great for any hitter, but particularly for one playing the hardest defensive position.

With that in mind, you’d assume Smith is great against pitches in the middle of the plate. That’s how hitters succeed! Well, you’d be wrong. Take a look at his Swing/Take runs, a neat Statcast tool that shows the run value a player has accrued on pitches in each zone:

That’s not how this is supposed to work. What the heck is going on?
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