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In Appreciation of Blake Snell

Maybe you’ve heard — Blake Snell pitched a nifty five-plus innings two nights ago. The decision to pull him or leave him in has been hashed, rehashed, diced, A-Rod’ed, and generally poked and prodded like a murder victim in an episode of CSI. If you want my opinion on it, I would have kept Snell in, though I don’t think that was in any way the determining factor in the game.

That’s not why I’m writing today, though. Any honest analysis of that decision is going to come down to a minuscule edge. Use one good pitcher, or use another good pitcher? It doesn’t matter much — the players on the field determine the game, not the manager, even if you think the decision was clearly one way or the other. Instead, let’s appreciate not what Blake Snell could have done if he stayed in, but what he did do when he was in the game.

Snell threw 73 pitches on Tuesday night. He generated a whopping 16 swinging strikes, a 21.9% swinging strike rate. That was his second-highest mark of the year, behind a September 29 start against the Blue Jays. That might not sound impressive, but the Dodgers are, well, the Dodgers. No other starter this year topped a 20% swinging strike rate against them; they simply aren’t the kind of team that swings and misses. Read the rest of this entry »

Ji-Man Choi, Pitch Taker

There’s a left-handed first baseman putting on an absolute clinic at the plate in the World Series. Throw him a ball? He’s not interested. He’ll take and take until you challenge him in the strike zone. Even then, he might take — it’s three strikes to a strikeout, after all, and you might walk him all the same. He’s hitting well enough to keep people honest, but really, the walks are the main event. No, it’s not Max Muncy (or fine, it’s not just Max Muncy). It’s Ji-Man Choi.

Let’s start with the basics. Here are the playoff batters who swing least often at pitches outside the strike zone, minimum 40 opportunities to chase:

Lowest Swing%, Out of Zone Pitches
Player Pitches Swing Rate
Ji-Man Choi 100 11.0%
Austin Barnes 43 11.6%
Robbie Grossman 46 13.0%
Max Muncy 204 13.2%
Marcus Semien 66 13.6%
Austin Nola 49 14.3%
Giancarlo Stanton 73 15.1%
Trent Grisham 54 16.7%
Yandy Díaz 104 17.3%
DJ LeMahieu 67 17.9%

Read the rest of this entry »

Hindsight Is 20/20: Game 4 Managerial Decisions

Saturday night, the Rays and Dodgers played one of the wildest World Series games ever. Leads changed hands, runners slipped, pitchers crumbled, and the Rays walked it off in spectacular fashion. At the time, I criticized several managerial decisions, and I wasn’t alone. With the benefit of a few days of thinking, however, I wanted to look back at a few key decisions each manager made and decide whether they were blunders or merely tough decisions that looked worse in hindsight.

For the Dodgers, the key managerial decision was the relief pitcher hierarchy. After a spectacular pitching performance from Walker Buehler the previous night, Dave Roberts had the entire bullpen available. His first decision came with two outs in the fifth inning, when Julio Urías began his third trip through the Rays’ lineup. Urías had been up and down on the night; he had nine strikeouts, but he’d also allowed some loud contact and two home runs. The Rays stacked their lineup to challenge him; the first four hitters were all right-handed.

Roberts went to Blake Treinen, and I think that’s a reasonable choice. The Rays had a bench full of lefties, which means any stretch of righties in their lineup can turn into lefties at the drop of a scorecard. Despite that fact, however, Randy Arozarena probably wasn’t leaving the game, and guaranteeing a Treinen/Arozarena matchup, plus forcing Tampa Bay to use some left-handed pinch hitters, is as close to a positive platoon matchup as the Dodgers were going to get.

That leads us to a pivotal pitching change in the sixth: two runners on, one out, and Brandon Lowe stepping to the plate. Behind Lowe, the Rays had Willy Adames and Hunter Renfroe due up. In theory, that’s two righties and a lefty. In practice, Lowe is the only Tampa Bay hitter who the team couldn’t substitute. That left Dave Roberts with three decisions, in my mind — all of which he would have had to make several batters earlier to allow the pitchers time to warm up. Read the rest of this entry »

The Rays Pull Off a Wild Game 4 Victory

The 2004 movie Primer is widely considered the most complicated movie plot of all time. Two engineers travel back in time again — and again — and maybe before?? — and again in an attempt to mold events to their own benefit. It’s a truly ridiculous, convoluted mess — and it pales in comparison to what the Dodgers and Rays did last night in Game 4 of the World Series.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Ryan Yarbrough took the mound for the Rays, on three days’ rest after a relief appearance in the first game of the series, and he wasn’t sharp. He surrendered solo home runs to Justin Turner and Corey Seager, and scattered three other hits and a walk while striking out only one batter. He was out of the game in the top of the fourth.

Julio Urías, his counterpart, flirted with brilliance. He struck out nine Rays out of the 18 he faced, bullying the opposing lineup to the tune of 20 swinging strikes. Tampa Bay whiffed 17 times on his fastball alone, and his curveball accounted for another 10 called strikes. Naturally, the Rays tagged him for two home runs — a Randy Arozarena first-pitch ambush and a full-count moonshot from Hunter Renfroe. The Dodgers had added a run in the top of the fifth, so Urías left with a 3-2 lead.

LA added another run in the sixth inning,, and the game felt like it might start getting away from Tampa Bay in a hurry. The Dodgers bullpen isn’t airtight, but the Rays’ own bullpen hadn’t been able to slow down opposing hitters all series, and they were running out of good options to fill innings. What was the offense going to do, score six runs in four innings or something? Read the rest of this entry »

Nick Anderson’s Strange Spin

On Wednesday night, Nick Anderson hung a curveball. Will Smith greeted it rudely:

Two batters later, Anderson faced Edwin Ríos with a chance to get out of the inning. As Eric Longenhagen noted on our Twitch stream at the time, Anderson hung another one:

Luckily for the Rays, Ríos didn’t quite time that one up. Anderson followed it up with another curve, which bounced, and he escaped the inning. Things could have gone much worse, however, and Eric and I mused that Anderson might want to take a look at what was causing his pitches to float in like that.

It seems pretty obvious that Anderson’s breaking ball, a biting snapdragon that seems to pack two inches of horizontal break into the last 10 feet of its homeward path, is at its best when it drops most. There’s only one problem with that theory: the data. Take a look at Anderson’s curve in 2019, broken up into quartiles based on vertical break:

Higher is Better?
V Mov (in) Whiff/Swing SwStr%
-5.0 50.0% 20.9%
-2.9 40.4% 19.1%
-1.2 61.5% 29.1%
1.0 64.2% 30.9%

Read the rest of this entry »

Kevin Cash Changed Bullpen Plans

The Rays made it to the World Series for a lot of reasons, but one of them is indisputably their bullpen, which has given Kevin Cash the flexibility to pull starters whenever he wants and follow them with an unending stream of hard-to-hit relievers. Cash, in turn, has used it masterfully; he’s pushed the right button at seemingly every turn. Last night, I think that might have changed.

In the top of the fifth inning, Tyler Glasnow couldn’t find the zone. He walked the first two batters he faced, allowed two runs (on a fielder’s choice that didn’t get anyone and a single), and generally looked gassed. Cash went to his reserves and brought in Ryan Yarbrough.

That sounds like a reasonable usage choice, but it’s simply not how Yarbrough is deployed most of the time. Here are the particulars of his previous playoff appearances this year:

Ryan Yarbrough, 2020 Playoffs
Game Inning In Outs In Pitches Batters Faced
ALDS G4 2 2 65 21
ALCS G3 1 0 82 21
WS G1 5 1 19 4

Okay, there have only been two of them, but he’s been used as either a starter or a bulk guy in both. He throws a near-starter number of pitches and faces a small sliver of the lineup a third time through. That’s similar to his usage this regular season:

Ryan Yarbrough, 2020 Reg Season
Date Inning In Outs In Pitches Batters Faced
7/25 1 0 69 21
7/30 1 0 87 25
8/5 1 0 82 26
8/10 1 0 77 20
8/15 1 0 51 13
8/21 1 0 97 27
8/28 1 0 79 23
9/8 1 0 70 17
9/15 2 1 86 22
9/20 1 0 100 28
9/26 1 2 35 12

Mostly starts, with a few relief appearances thrown in. It’s not unreasonable that the Rays might want to turn him into more of a reliever in the World Series, the only round of the playoffs with off days, but 19 pitches? Four batters faced? The last time he faced four or fewer batters in the regular season was July 13, 2018. He had two short appearances to only one extended stint in last year’s ALDS, but that was part of a gambit to use a true bullpen game (Diego Castillo drew a start) with Yarbrough handling two innings, then use him as a LOOGY in two other games.

Yarbrough is essentially a starter. We had him penciled in for Game 4 of the World Series, something which would be tricky now; that would be on three days’ rest, and while he only threw 19 pitches, it’s still a disruption to his routine. The Rays still could use him there, but I think that game is now more likely to be a bullpen game with perhaps two innings out of Yarbrough. Glasnow, Snell, and Morton would then each draw two starts to fill out the full complement of seven games. Read the rest of this entry »

Proven Postseason Performers, and Other Nonexistent Tongue-Twisters

I probably don’t need to write this article. If you’re reading it, you’ve navigated to FanGraphs, which already implies a certain willingness to “trust the stats” and “look at the evidence,” those kinds of things. It’s playoff time, though, which means that on TV broadcasts across the land, a motley crew of players are being described as Proven Postseason Performers. George Springer, Jose Altuve, Joc Pederson; it seems to simply be common knowledge that they have some secret baseball skill they only activate come playoff time.

One thing that you could do, should you be so inclined, is to simply take people at their word. The world could use a little more magic in it, after all, and there being players who somehow see the ball better when it counts most is a really fun concept.

Sadly, I think they’re just a concept. To wit: take a look at the best hitters from the combined 2017-2018 postseason (among batters who have played in at least one postseason game since, for reasons that will become clear), minimum 25 plate appearances:

Top Playoff Batters, ’17-’18
Player wOBA PA
David Freese .482 26
George Springer .449 121
Aaron Judge .412 79
Mitch Moreland .406 34
Orlando Arcia .398 34
Charlie Culberson .388 31
Jose Altuve .387 117
Chris Taylor .378 119
Justin Turner .373 144
Carlos Correa .360 112
Joc Pederson .354 68
Travis Shaw .354 34
Alex Bregman .351 116
Brian Dozier .351 27
Yuli Gurriel .346 109

There are a lot of Astros and Dodgers here, which makes sense given the composition of those particular playoffs. Extend the list a bit more, and you’d get Christian Yelich, Max Muncy, and Francisco Lindor, three very good hitters. The list of good hitters in the playoffs looks suspiciously like a list of good hitters plus Orlando Arcia. Read the rest of this entry »

The Dodgers Are World Series Bound

It’s impossible for a single play in the fourth inning to decide the outcome of a baseball game. There are simply too many at-bats left, too much time for something else to happen that invalidates whatever occurred so early in the action. Consider a bases loaded, two out situation, down two runs in the top of the fourth, for a random example: hit a grand slam, and our WPA Inquirer will tell you that the away team wins 70.3% of the time. Strike out, and it’s 21.1%. In neither case is the game over.

Don’t tell Atlanta that, though. In the top of the fourth inning, the Braves were ready to hit the turbo button. With a one-run lead already in their pocket, they had an enviable situation: runners on second and third with no one out. A single could make it a three-run game; heck, a grounder to the right side and then a sac fly would suffice. Nick Markakis, the batter, almost never strikes out; he’s the exact kind of player the Braves wanted at the plate in this moment.

Markakis put the ball in play. Dansby Swanson broke on contact, and well, yeah, he probably wishes he could take that decision back:

Read the rest of this entry »

Is Brandon Lowe Broken?

Articles about whether a player is suddenly terrible aren’t exactly standard FanGraphs fare. That’s hardly surprising — players almost never suddenly become terrible. Far more often, they get unlucky a bunch of times in a row, or they were already terrible and everyone suddenly noticed, or they were secretly hurt the whole time.

It pains me, given that, to ask this question that you probably already know the answer to: is Brandon Lowe suddenly terrible? Probably not! I’m telling you the answer now so that you won’t be in suspense, even though let’s be honest here, you wouldn’t be in suspense anyway. Still, he’s been bad this postseason, phenomenally awful. We at least owe it to ourselves to consider whether something happened.

During the regular season, Lowe was awesome. He was an MVP candidate, particularly if, like Craig Edwards, you enjoy rhyming his name with “Mister Plow.” He kept the same ferocity he’d displayed on contact in 2019 and cut down on his strikeouts, which had been the only real thing holding him back before. The result? A 150 wRC+ and 14 homers in only 227 plate appearances, the best hitting line on the Rays and one of the best in baseball overall.

The postseason has been, well, whatever the opposite of that is. Through 12 games, his wRC+ is -10. That’s not a stat you want to be negative. Plus is right there in the name! His home run on Thursday was his first extra-base hit of the playoffs, but even that was a mixed success; it was his only hit of the night, and he struck out twice, which raised his strikeout rate for the postseason to 32.7%.

How often has Lowe had a stretch like this? Exactly never:

Lowe has gone through rough patches, but nothing so extended as this. The short dip on the left comes from before he had 12 games to average, so that doesn’t count. It’s not just the strikeouts, though those clearly aren’t helping. Heck, Lowe struck out at a higher rate for last year as a whole, and still put up a 125 wRC+. Let’s dig deeper. Read the rest of this entry »

Zack Greinke and the Astros Survive Game 4

The Astros had their backs against the wall, down 0-3 to a surging Tampa Bay team. For one night, though, they had an ace in the hole: their ace, Zack Greinke, made his first and likely only appearance of the series after two straight days of being pushed back in the rotation.

When Houston acquired Greinke last year, he was a severely overqualified third starter, the delicious dessert after a Cole/Verlander entree. With Gerrit Cole in New York and Justin Verlander felled by a pesky elbow, however, Greinke stands alone among the pitching staff, surrounded by Lance McCullers Jr. and a passel of rookies.

Greinke brought his usual bag of tricks: fastballs in the eighties, changeups with fastball velocity and hummingbird movement, and a slow curve that all other slow curves merely imitate. The Rays struggled to adjust to the funk; Manuel Margot watched four straight fastballs go by to lead off the first, the last three of which were strikes. Randy Arozarena got ahead 3-1 before taking a 72 mph curve for a strike and swinging over a diving changeup, giving Greinke two strikeouts in his first three batters faced.

In the bottom of the inning, Tampa Bay brought reverse Greinke: Tyler Glasnow throws 100 mph, snaps off lollipop curves whose velocity rivals Greinke’s fastball, and tries to do with power what Greinke does with guile. His height adds to the effect; a 100 mph fastball coming from a 6-foot-8 pitcher with an upright delivery gives the distinct impression of a payload dropped from orbit. Read the rest of this entry »