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Tuesday night, the White Sox and Guardians played to a standstill over the first eight innings of a game that would help decide the fate of the American League Central. Of course, getting late into the game with a chance to win suits both teams just fine. The White Sox have Liam Hendriks anchoring their bullpen, while the Guardians have Emmanuel Clase in the same role in theirs.
Hendriks pitched a scoreless top of the ninth. But even with the Guardians’ two best setup men, Trevor Stephan and James Karinchak, out of the game, Clase cooled his heels in the Cleveland bullpen while Enyel De Los Santos matched Hendriks out for out. What was Terry Francona up to?
He was, in fact, playing the percentages. “Never save your closer” is a modern analytical truism, but it wasn’t designed for the zombie runner rule. When every inning works the same, you should always get your best pitchers into the game post haste. The only difference between the ninth and 10th innings used to be that you might not get to play the 10th. That’s not the case anymore.
As I examined in 2020, making the 10th inning a higher-scoring affair than the ninth changes optimal pitcher usage. When all the action is in the 10th, it follows that you want your best arm pitching then. Walking the tightrope in extra innings and escaping without a run allowed is quite difficult; it’s an inherently higher-leverage spot, which means using your best reliever pays off.
The easiest way to think about it is with someone like Ryan Helsley or Edwin Díaz, a pitcher who frequently ignores runners on base thanks to strikeouts. Outs aren’t all created equal. With a runner on first and less than two outs, a groundout is the best kind of out thanks to the chance of a double play. With a runner on third and less than two outs, strikeouts and popups reign supreme. With the bases empty, everything is the same. The base/out state determines a lot about the optimal style of pitching. Read the rest of this entry »
I regret to inform you that there won’t be many more of these articles about Aaron Judge’s chase for 60, 61, and 62 home runs. It’s not because they aren’t fun to write (they are), or because they aren’t well-received (I think they are). Judge is just hitting home runs too dang fast. What game should you go to if you want to see his 60th home run? It was Tuesday. You missed it. The way he’s hitting, 61 and 62 don’t seem far behind.
Here, for example, are the game-by-game probabilities of Judge hitting his 61st homer:
If you’re a Yankees fan, the next four games in the Bronx are a double dip of fun. If you attend all four, you have a 75% chance of seeing him tie Roger Maris for the franchise (and American League) home run record. It would be against the arch-rival Red Sox, who have been eliminated from postseason contention. And of course, the first day is the best day to see number 61, because there’s no chance he will have hit it before then. Read the rest of this entry »
I think we could all use a little more positive reinforcement in our lives. Imagine typing away at your desk job (c’mon, it’s not that much of a stretch to guess that you’re reading this at work) when your boss sends you a message. “Hey there,” they say. “You just set a record! You contributed positively to 13 meetings in a row. I’d like to take the webcam you were using for those meetings and put it in the Hall of Fame.”
Wouldn’t that feel great? Sure, it’s kind of meaningless, but let’s assume your job is important enough that people actually go to this Hall of Fame. It would be awesome! Look, the suspenders that a manager wore while suggesting casual Fridays for the first time. Behold the napkins left behind from the first successful working lunch. I’d enjoy getting credit for random records once in a while. It feels good to do something no one else has ever done.
Setting a record, any record, is inherently cool. But setting a record for something that everyone who does your job is always trying to do? That’s an entirely different level. An example: J.P. Feyereisen is out for the remainder of the year, which means that he’ll set a modern record at the conclusion of the season. Read the rest of this entry »
Elvis Andrus didn’t come to Chicago as a marquee attraction. He wasn’t a trade deadline acquisition; rather, the A’s released him on August 17, and the White Sox signed him two days later. At the time, it felt notable for a completely unrelated reason: Andrus had an option with the A’s that was close to vesting, one that would pay him $15 million next year. The White Sox, meanwhile, had serious depth issues; with Tim Anderson and Leury Garcia both on the IL, they were short on middle infielders, and Andrus was the only way to add someone from outside the organization.
It was, in hindsight, a stroke of serendipity. The White Sox were desperately in need of freely available competence. If their spate of injuries had happened three weeks earlier, they would have had any number of options on the trade market. Given the timing, though, it was Andrus or nothing. If he’d merely played as well as he did in Oakland, he’d have been an excellent stopgap. Instead, he’s been the sixth-best offensive player in baseball. Read the rest of this entry »
What does it mean that a team is 55% likely to make the playoffs, or 45% likely? It sounds like it means it’ll be right on the cusp of the playoffs at year’s end — the kind of team that spends the last week of the year either sighing in relief at a narrow escape or ruing a few one-run losses that did it in.
Sure, that’s definitely true sometimes. Often, though, the numbers don’t work out quite so suspensefully. Sometimes, your 50% chance decays to zero or climbs to a near certainty far before any dramatic ending. For proof of this, look no further than the race for the AL Central, which went from toss-up to fait accompli over the first half of September.
On September 4, the Guardians had just finished getting their clocks cleaned by fellow AL playoff hopefuls. Over a ten-game span — seven against Seattle, three against Baltimore — they went 2–8, dropping their record to 68–64. In that same span, the Twins had gone 6–3, raising their record to an identical 68–64. Our playoff odds gave the Guardians the better chance at winning the AL Central, but it was close: 43% for Cleveland, 39% for Minnesota. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been having fun producing estimates of when Aaron Judge might hit his 60th, 61st, and 62nd home runs this season. It’s cool for multiple reasons: I love home run chases, like most baseball fans, and I also like coming up with ways to answer seemingly difficult questions via simulation. It’s one of the same reasons I like writing about baseball in the first place: I think it’s very neat that I can think about baseball both very tangibly (Randy Arozarena’s baserunning) and abstractly.
Since I have the technology, I’ve gotten a fairly obvious request a few times in the past week: do it for Pujols. His improbable quest for 700 homers has turned into an unlikely quest, and now a “wait could he?” quest. At 697 dingers, he’s within hailing distance of a momentous number to retire on. I’m going to use the same tools that helped me model when Judge might hit some big homers to do the same for Pujols.
The bare bones of this system will be the same. I started with the Cardinals’ remaining schedule and the park factors for right-handed hitters in those stadiums. Almost immediately, though, I took a detour, because the Cardinals don’t use Pujols like the Yankees use Judge. At this stage in his career, Pujols is at his best against left-handed pitching. He also needs more off days than Judge, eminently reasonable given his age. That creates a playing time puzzle, so to figure out which games Pujols will play in, I used Roster Resource to work out which days I expect opposing teams to start lefty pitchers. On those days, I project Pujols to start and get three plate appearances (against lefties) 30% of the time, four (three against lefties) 55% of the time, and five (three against lefties) 15% of the time. This is definitely not perfect, but as a rough approximation, it’ll do. Read the rest of this entry »
When Randy Arozarena burst onto the national stage, he did so as the best hitter in baseball. For one postseason, he channeled peak Joe DiMaggio, hitting a ludicrous .377/.442/.831 in the 2020 playoffs. He was no slouch in the playoffs last year either, posting a .333/.474/.600 line, albeit in just four games. If you follow baseball in October, you probably think of Arozarena as a bruising power hitter. During the regular season, though, he’s something else entirely.
That’s not to say he’s a bad hitter. In fact, he’s put together an excellent 2022 line by cutting down on strikeouts. He’s been solid at the plate for three straight years now. He boasts a 133 wRC+ since the start of the 2020 season, a top 25 mark among all hitters over that timeframe, sandwiched between some guys you probably think are comfortably better than him: Corey Seager and Will Smith.
That’s great, and fine, but that’s not what I want to talk about. Arozarena is good in a conventional way in the batter’s box. He’s wild, and perhaps kind of bad, on the basepaths. It’s an absolute blast. Observe.
In the first game of yesterday’s doubleheader against the Blue Jays, Arozarena was busy early. In the first inning, he grounded into a force out, but beat out the double play relay throw to keep the inning alive and score a run. Arozarena is obviously fast; when you watch him you can’t help thinking of a defensive back in the open field. He’s compact and explosive; when he hustles down the line, you can almost hear the footsteps coming.
In the third inning, Arozarena delivered another RBI groundout, ho hum. That’s when things got interesting. With two outs and Manuel Margot at the plate, Arozarena got the itch to run. He gets that itch a lot; he’s attempted 39 steals this year and succeeded on 29 of them. I wouldn’t call his base-stealing instincts great, but I would call them voracious. In fact, he’d already scratched that itch in this very game, stealing second in the first inning without a throw.
But if one steal is good, two is better. Arozarena doesn’t so much steal on the pitcher as on the general disbelief that he can be stopped. A man on first and two outs? It’s a classic base-stealing opportunity, a situation where you only need to be successful 70% of the time to break even. Say no more – it was go time for Arozarena. Even a hidden ball trick attempt couldn’t stop him:
On 1-0, Arozarena took off and stole second easily:
Or did he? Home plate umpire Ramon De Jesus didn’t think so:
Margot inadvertently made contact with Danny Jansen on his backswing, as you can clearly see from a reverse angle:
Easy call, if you’re a veritable encyclopedia of baseball rules like De Jesus. If a batter inadvertently makes contact with a catcher on his backswing, the stolen base attempt simply doesn’t count; the runner has to go back to first, but the result of the pitch counts. You don’t see that one every day, but it seems like a pretty fair rule.
Not that there was any suspense about whether Arozarena was running, but now it was doubly obvious. Mitch White threw over to first before his next pitch, and Arozarena giggled a bit at Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who actually threw the ball back to White this time:
After bluffing a steal on 1-1 (he stopped after a bad jump), Arozarena was yet again on the move, and yet again easily safe:
But, uh, you’re not gonna believe it:
Yep, another clear case of inadvertent interference on Margot’s backswing. I don’t know if I’ve seen two of those calls all year, let alone two in the same at-bat. What could Arozarena do but sulk back to first?
Honestly, I’d GIF the entire at-bat if I could. The Jays and Rays should keep cameras on Arozarena and Guerrero at first base; every time the broadcast panned there, they were bantering back and forth, presumably about how ridiculous the situation was. Arozarena is a ton of fun to watch, particularly on the basepaths, and he was in fine form yesterday. But that wasn’t even the best part of this particular time on base.
When Margot put a ball in play, it stopped being a stolen base opportunity, and instead became an opportunity to get a head of steam and make something happen on the basepaths. Arozarena loves to do nothing else more – and that’s much to his detriment. He’s made 12 outs on the basepaths this year, the third-highest mark in the majors (Jose Altuve has 15, Yandy Díaz 14). Despite his blinding speed, he’s among the worst in the game by UBR, our measure of how many runs a player has added or lost based on their non-stealing baserunning. That’s basically tied with Alejandro Kirk, who isn’t exactly known for being fleet footed. The Rays are on course for a historical tally of outs made on the basepaths, thanks in no small part to Arozarena and Díaz.
And those outs add up. Making an out on the bases every once in a while is unavoidable, but Arozarena racks them up in bunches. He’s a gambler with unshakeable faith in his speed, but major league outfielders are pretty dang good. Still, you don’t steal home in a playoff game if you’re not pushing the envelope. Rays fans surely fret about the extra outs, but there’s no denying the adrenaline rush he produces every time he tries.
Margot gave him another chance to shine, shooting a hard-hit ball off of Matt Chapman and into left field. Since Arozarena was running on the pitch, there was no doubt he’d reach third base. But he went one further:
Wait, uh, what? I’ve seen a lot of baseball in my day, but I can’t think of any runners scoring from first on a single since Enos Slaughter’s famous mad dash (and that was ruled a double). This wasn’t even a particularly deep hit; Teoscar Hernández was in shallow left field when he fielded the ball.
My favorite part of this play is that Arozarena wasn’t even running hard the whole time:
That’s not to say he was loafing; he played it by the book until he reached third. There’s no reason to sharply round second on a grounder there, so he was pulling in safely. When the ball kicked into the outfield, he took third base, again without needing to kick it into high gear.
That’s a by-the-numbers play by a fast baserunner. Then, Arozarena channeled vroom vroom guy. Look at where he was when Hernández fielded the ball:
I don’t even know what to think about this. This isn’t just that Arozarena knows he’s fast. He could be peak Cool Papa Bell and not cover that much ground before a throw made it home. He wasn’t even running at full speed there; he was throttling down to stop at third.
That deceleration didn’t last long. When Hernández didn’t immediately throw to a relay man but instead started jogging in, Arozarena mashed the turbo button. He went from a slow jog to a sprint, catching Hernández off guard.
It still shouldn’t have mattered. Hernández was in shallow left field, with the ball in his hands, when Arozarena touched third base. This isn’t about testing a fielder’s arm; I don’t think there’s any outfielder in the major leagues who couldn’t make that throw if they knew they were going home with the ball, particularly now that Khris Davis plays for the Wild Health Genomes of the Atlantic League.
This was outright picking on the frailties of the human brain. Major league players are great athletes, masters of their craft, but thousands upon thousands of hours spent playing baseball builds pattern recognition, pattern recognition that Arozarena weaponized on this play (which I’ll just note wasn’t scored an error). When Hernández fielded that ball, he knew the play was over. One look at the runners – Arozarena decelerating into third, Margot cooling his heels at first – told him all he needed to know. This play was over; no need to come up throwing and risk an error.
You can see it in the way he fields the ball. No one in the stadium was expecting that play to require a full-effort throw, Hernández included:
I love it. I love everything about it. I wish every baserunner behaved more like this. I don’t mean getting thrown out on the basepaths, though to be honest I’m in for the occasional light-hearted TOOTBLAN. I’m talking about the combination of speed, belief, and guile that led to Arozarena creating a run out of thin air. That wasn’t a run-scoring opportunity. Usain Bolt wouldn’t have scored there. Plenty of runners wouldn’t have scored from second there.
In fact, I love this play so much that I’m going to break down Arozarena’s mad dash into three parts. First, the attempted steal and realization that the ball is in play:
That’s pretty standard. I think he had the base stolen pretty easily, and when he saw a grounder to third base, he correctly throttled down at second. When the ball kicked away from Chapman, the next read was automatic, something that every fast player in the majors does instinctively:
Again, easy. After an initial acceleration, he realized there wouldn’t be a competitive play at third base and did what every runner does in his situation: ease off. With the advantage of starting in motion, any baserunner in the majors would likely reach third there. But what happened next was pure genius, and it’s more fun in an isolation view of Arozarena. Even as he was decelerating into third, he made up his mind that he was going to pick on Hernández:
He had eyes on Hernández fielding the ball. When he turned his head away, he had made up his mind: he was going to hope Hernández made a bad throw from a tough position, coasting towards second and throwing halfway across his body. I’m honestly not even sure it was much of a gamble; Arozarena had time to peek back and see the throw, and was still close enough to third that he could have made it back safely if the throw was on line.
That’s something you don’t see every day, because if you saw it every day it wouldn’t work. You can’t subvert expectations for fun and profit if you’re always doing it; those expectations would change. This was a sublime moment, but it was just a moment: Arozarena also makes plenty of overly-aggressive attempts at extra bases that end in disaster.
On this day, though, he was perfect, and his speed and derring-do accounted for two RBIs and a run in a 4-2 Tampa Bay victory. But all that running takes a toll. After two successful stolen bases that got called back, two pickoff throws, a bluffed steal, a foul ball on a steal attempt, and that trip around the bases, Arozarena was gassed:
Who could blame him? That’s a lot of running, and a lot of thinking on his feet while doing it.
Baserunning doesn’t always work out this well for Randy Arozarena. It almost never works out this well, in fact. Even counting this play, he’s been an atrocious baserunner this year. But I don’t really care because that was a blast. I audibly gasped when I saw this play developing in real time. He couldn’t score from there, could he? How could he even think about trying to score from there? Then, of course, he went and did it. More audible gasps in baseball. More audacious baserunning decisions. More Randy Arozarena, please.
Before this year, it looked like Christian Walker might be washed up before he ever had a chance to shine, a player on the decline while breaking through. After a breakout 2019 that saw him finally step out of the shadow of the men he’d backed up (he was second in line behind Chris Davis, took a whirlwind tour through Cincinnati and Atlanta in a wild spring training of DFAs, and then landed behind Paul Goldschmidt), Walker’s career outlook appeared bright. But all that apprenticeship time hurt, and so did the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Walker put together another promising year – .271/.333/.459 with a markedly improved strikeout rate – but time simply wasn’t on his side. 2021 was his age-30 season, and also his worst big league campaign yet. He posted a below-average hitting line, lost power while striking out more often, and generally regressed across the board.
Some version of that story happens frequently in baseball. The whims of fate are cruel: baseball isn’t exclusively a young man’s game, but you have to be a very good player to hold a starting role into your 30s. Find yourself in the wrong system, or miss some time with injury, and you can be 30 before you know it, with only three years of service time and a tenuous major league spot. Corner infielders with average bats abound; they make a good living playing baseball, but they mostly bop around from team to team as waiver wire fodder and up-and-down platoon pieces. Read the rest of this entry »