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The New and Improved Corbin Burnes, Now With More Pitches per Start!

© Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

This Wednesday, Corbin Burnes had a forgettable start. In six innings, he allowed four runs and struck out five while walking none. The scoring came courtesy of two home runs, a three-run shot by Austin Riley and a solo homer by Marcell Ozuna. Burnes lasted six innings, and while the Brewers ended up winning the game 7-6 in extras, it wasn’t exactly the kind of start you expect from the defending NL Cy Young winner.

Last year, Burnes was downright electric en route to winning the award. He led the NL in ERA at 2.43, and his ERA was significantly higher than his 1.63 FIP. He struck out 35.6% of the batters he faced while walking only 5.2%. He did it in only 28 starts and 167 innings, which raised questions about the trade-off between transcendent pitching and bulk innings.

If you only looked at his first and most recent starts of 2022, you might think the same thing was happening again. You’ve already heard about the most recent one; in his first start, he went five innings against the Cubs, allowed three earned runs, and struck out only four while walking three. Sure, the runs were uncharacteristic, but five and six inning starts? We’ve seen that before.

Even with those two clunkers comprising 25% of his starts, Burnes has been great. He sports a 2.26 ERA, ninth-lowest in the majors. He’s been homer-prone – his 17.8% HR/FB rate is nearly triple last year’s rate – but that’s about the only blemish on his rate statistics. He’s striking out more than 30% of his opponents again, and his walk rate has actually declined, to a minuscule 4.1%. By various advanced ERA estimators, his underlying performance has been spectacular; he has the fourth-lowest xFIP and second-lowest SIERA in the majors. Even xERA, which looks at raw batted ball results and thus assigns him plenty of blame for his home runs, thinks he’s 20th-best in baseball.

We get it, we get it. Burnes is one of the best pitchers in baseball on a per-batter basis. He has a strong argument to being the best, period. Since the start of 2020, he has a 2.33 ERA, far ahead of second place Walker Buehler (Jacob deGrom hasn’t pitched enough innings to make the list, or he’d be ahead of Burnes). His FIP (2.05) is nearly three quarters of a run better than Kevin Gausman’s. It’s not a fluky home run rate thing, either; he has a 2.50 xFIP, the only starter in baseball below 3.00 over that span. The same is true of his SIERA (2.69). His 35.1% strikeout rate is the best among starters by 2.6 percentage points. His 6% walk rate is 11th in baseball, and he’s improving there; his 4.9% rate since the start of 2021 trails only Nathan Eovaldi.

So are we setting up for another year of tired arguments about bulk innings versus pure excellence? Not so fast, my friend. Guess who leads baseball in innings pitched this year?

2022 Innings Pitched Leaders
Pitcher Starts IP
Corbin Burnes 8 51.2
Sandy Alcantara 8 50.2
Kevin Gausman 8 50
Max Scherzer 8 49.2
Max Fried 8 49

Hilarious! Burnes has now added durability to his long list of incredible talents. He’s pitched into the seventh inning in five of his eight starts, the most starts of more than six innings in the majors, one ahead of a pile of guys (Justin Verlander, Miles Mikolas, the aforementioned Gausman, Gerrit Cole) you probably think of as workhorses.

Only Verlander, Mikolas, and Gausman have thrown more pitches from the start of the seventh inning onwards. Only Robbie Ray has thrown more pitches his third time through the order. Burnes is already 40% of the way to last year’s total of pitches thrown in the seventh or later – again, in a season where he won the Cy Young! – and he’s only made eight starts.

The tale of the tape between the two years is fascinating:

Burnes Durability, 2021 and ’22
Year Starts IP/S Pitches/S BF/S 100+P%
2021 28 6 92.6 23.5 21.4%
2022 8 6.5 98.5 24.6 37.5%

Burnes is facing an extra batter per start and throwing an extra six pitches. He’s turning that into an extra half-inning, largely because he’s allowing fewer hits, making for more efficient innings. Maybe that will continue, but likely not – I doubt hitters will post a .235 BABIP against him all year. But more importantly, he’s working deeper into games in a year where starters in general are throwing fewer innings than ever. He’s in a four-way tie for most starts of 100 pitches or more – that’s three this year after only six all of last year.

I’m not sure that Burnes is doing anything specific to try to get more juice out of his outings. He’s not suddenly attacking the zone when he gets to an 0-2 count, or even a 1-2 count; his zone rate is down from last year in both counts. He’s throwing fastballs at the same rate he did last year when he gets ahead, not that it matters that much for him; his primary fastball, a soul-stealing cutter, still misses bats like most pitchers’ secondary offerings.

Still, facing an extra batter and averaging six more pitches per start is no joke. That 98.5 pitches? It leads baseball in pitches per start. Everyone is throwing fewer pitches this year – with an abbreviated spring training, no one was up to speed to start the season, and we’re still only in May. But even if we compare it to a regular season, 98.5 pitches per start would have been good enough for fifth in baseball last year.

If Burnes follows last year’s pattern, the number will go up from here; he was only averaging 86.3 pitches per start at this point last year. Some of that was because he missed two starts after testing positive for COVID-19 and needed time to ramp up, but even if we look at his first half overall, he averaged only 91 pitches per start before kicking it up to 95 in the second half.

In other words, it looks like Burnes might be taking the next step in his ace-dom: extending his absolute dominance across longer outings. I’m hesitant to say that the Brewers will push him any further – so far this year, his cutter is down roughly half a tick from pitch 90 of an outing onwards, which suggests he might be tiring in general by then – but who knows, maybe he’ll just get stronger as the year goes on the same way he did last year.

In fact, the only thing that stops Burnes from topping every leaderboard imaginable so far this year is the home runs he’s surrendered. Could that pesky high home run rate derail Burnes’s third straight ludicrous year? I don’t think so, at least not entirely.

As I recently covered, pitchers don’t have a ton of control over the rate at which they surrender barrels. Burnes did phenomenally well there last year – he had the lowest barrel rate in all of baseball. This year, he’s in the 26th percentile. Neither of those represents his true skill; that’s just not how pitcher barrel rates work.

On the other hand, one way you can give up louder contact is by allowing more balls in the air, and Burnes has done that this year, with the lowest GB/FB ratio of his career. He still gets more grounders than average — not throwing a four-seam fastball helps with that — but nonetheless, opponents are elevating more consistently against him so far in 2022. That’s mostly to the good – it’s easier to run a low BABIP in this year of low home run rates if you force your opponents to put the ball in the air – but so far Brewers opponents have managed to get those balls out of the park.

Aside from the fact that he really has surrendered those homers, though, there’s nothing in the underlying data that makes me worry Burnes will be homer-prone going forward. In 2019, when he had a gruesome HR/FB rate of 38.6%, he kept leaving flat fastballs right down the middle, but that’s not the case this year. He’s clipping the corners just as frequently as he did last year and avoiding the heart of the plate just as adroitly. His curveball has changed shape slightly – it’s harder and has less dip – but given that he hasn’t given up any home runs on curveballs, that’s probably not what’s ailing him.

More likely, it’s just the vagaries of the fact that the season has barely been going for a month. I don’t think Burnes is going to have a historically great home run suppression season again, but I assume he’s pretty close to average in that department. And if that’s the case, then basically everything I said before will hold: Burnes will be one of the best few starters in baseball per inning pitched, perhaps the best. And now, that’s coming with more innings. Sounds like a pretty good combination to me.

Jalen Beeks and the Case of the Fun Fact

© Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last Saturday, Jalen Beeks had a thoroughly unimportant day at the ballpark. With the Rays trailing Toronto 5-1, he came in to pitch the top of the ninth inning. The stakes? Helping the team hit the showers 10 or 15 minutes earlier, I’d say – he wasn’t going to catapult Tampa to a win with a good performance, what with a four-run deficit and only three outs remaining, but everyone on the team would surely appreciate an efficient outing.

He did it! He got three straight groundball outs. After that, while he presumably changed into his street clothes in the clubhouse, the Rays failed to score in the bottom half of the inning, and the game ended. Thank you for coming to this episode of “FanGraphs Narrates Low-leverage Relief Outings.”

But wait! After this humdrum appearance, an anonymous tipster lit the FanGraphs signal (it’s like the Bat Signal, only with the FanGraphs logo instead). There was more to this half inning than first met the eye. I was on the case. Read the rest of this entry »

The (Lack of A) Conspiracy Against Pitcher Wins

© Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, a reader in my chat asked me a question I had no idea how to answer: Are teams increasingly pulling pitchers from games after 4 2/3 innings, even with the lead, in an attempt to cut down on wins and arbitration payouts? Here’s the question in its entirety:

My snap judgment was “probably not.” After thinking about it for a while longer, my answer is still no – but now I have some neat graphs and charts that will hopefully make the point clear. Without further ado, let’s dive into the shape of league-wide starting pitching trends since 1974, the first year in our database of game logs.

In 1974, the concept of a five-inning start existed, but it was almost an insult. More than a quarter of starts went nine or more innings. That’s hard to do, particularly when that’s an impossible feat for a visiting team that trails after the top of the ninth inning. If that’s roughly a quarter of games (it’s not every game the visiting team loses, but road teams lose more than half of the games they play), that means that roughly a third of eligible starts went at least a full nine. That’s downright wild. Here’s a graph of that wildness:

There were a few short starts, even back in the 1970s – 21% of starts went fewer than five innings. More importantly, a pattern we’ll see repeated again and again is immediately evident. Managers like leaving their pitchers in for a whole number of innings. It’s a natural endpoint to the day, mid-inning pitching changes can be tricky, it’s a way of boosting your starter’s confidence – there are plenty of reasons for this to be the case, and I’m not sure which is most true, but that’s just a fact of baseball. Managers like to pull their starters between innings rather than partway through. Read the rest of this entry »

Player Evaluation on the Moon

© James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

A quick word of warning: this one is pretty abstract. If you like baseball math, it’s definitely got that. If you like analysis of the 2022 major league season, it absolutely does not have that. I think it’s pretty fun, but if that’s not your cup of tea, this one might not be for you. Anyway: on to the nonsense!

I’m the kind of maniac who likes to play baseball video games when I’m not writing about baseball. Right now, that’s Out Of The Park 23, specifically the Perfect Team mode. It’s a baseball simulation where you collect cards representing current and historical players, build teams, and then play simulated games against other players’ teams.

The headline mode of the game lets you collect whoever you want and battle against your opponents’ best shot – peak Mickey Mantle against peak Tex Hughson, say. That’s fun in its own way (for what it’s worth, Mantle strikes out more than you’d like when facing top-tier competition), but I’m more interested in another mode the game offers: tournaments where you match a limited pool of your players against a limited pool of opponents.
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Ben Clemens FanGraphs Chat – 5/16/22

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The First Pitch, for a Change

© Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t you just love the first pitch of a ballgame? I do! It’s a weird little world of its own, separate from the rest of a game in how both sides agree to approach it. Sam Miller wrote about it. I wrote about it. It’s remarkable: the pitch is almost always a fastball. This year, 97% of the first pitches of a game – by the home or road starter – have been fastballs. 95% have been fastballs dating back to 2008, the first year of the pitch tracking era.

Not only is it usually a fastball, it’s usually a medium-effort fastball. 71% of first pitch fastballs in the last two years have been slower than a pitcher’s average velocity for that game. 88% have been either slower than average or within half a tick of average.

Only a select few pitchers come out firing. That list includes Matt Brash, the king of maximum effort, who throws every pitch like it’s his last, which might explain why his five game-opening fastballs have been, on average, 1.1 mph faster than his overall fastball velocity. It’s not just him, though: Logan Webb has a little extra (0.9 mph, to be exact) on his first pitch. Logan Allen throws a ton of four-seamers, and throws 0.8 mph harder on his game-opening pitches. Zach Eflin has a bonus three-quarters of a tick. Pretty much every opener comes out throwing hard. Read the rest of this entry »

Elevated Jazz

© Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Jazz Chisholm Jr.’s first full season in the major leagues was somehow both a success and a disappointment. League average offensive production from someone who only hit Double-A in 2019, with solid defense to boot? That’ll get you 2 WAR in just over 500 plate appearances, an impressive showing. He cranked 18 homers as well – all in all, a statistically solid debut.

On the other hand, he did it in a way that looked nothing like his minor league numbers. Chisholm’s intrigue had always stemmed from his sneaky power. Despite his diminutive frame – he’s listed at 5-foot-11, but I’d take the under – he put up impressive raw exit velocities and excellent home run numbers. He hit 25 homers in just 501 plate appearances in 2018, then followed it up with another 21 in 458 plate appearances in ’19. Those are serious numbers, and it’s no accident that Eric Longenhagen graded Chisholm’s raw power as a 60 on the 20-80 scale.

Despite his 18 bombs, though, he didn’t really display the thump he’s capable of. It’s not that he didn’t have the raw power we thought he did – he posted an 84th percentile maximum exit velocity – but quite frankly, he just hit too many grounders. You can look at his minor league GB/FB ratios, compare it to last year, and see the change:

Jazz Chisholm Jr., Batted Balls by Year
Year Level GB/FB GB% FB%
2016 R 1.72 49.7% 28.9%
2017 A 0.86 35.3% 41.2%
2018 A-A+ 0.82 35.0% 42.5%
2019 AA 0.25 15.0% 59.5%
2020 MLB 0.72 37.1% 51.4%
2021 MLB/AAA 1.59 48.8% 30.7%

Aside from a brief and grounder-heavy rookie ball debut, Chisholm has avoided putting the ball on the ground. You can’t hit a home run on a grounder, no matter how hard you try. That’s how he ended up with average isolated power in 2021 despite his prodigious pop. He just couldn’t elevate, plain and simple.

This season, that’s in the past. He’s come out firing on all cylinders, hitting .295/.337/.611 with six homers in his first 105 plate appearances. He’s probably not going to keep hitting .295, but he probably will keep up his power output, because he’s back to doing what he used to do best: getting the ball in the air with great regularity. His groundball-to-fly ball ratio is back down to 0.76, his 30.6% groundball rate is the 12th-lowest in the majors, and he’s elevating and celebrating as well as he ever did in the minors.

Call it rocketed-ball science: if you have Chisholm’s power, putting the ball in the air is the best thing you can do. In his major league career so far, when Chisholm can’t get the ball in the air (which I defined as launch angles of five degrees or below), he’s hitting .252 with a .289 slugging percentage, good for a .237 wOBA. That’s awful – and that’s when he puts the ball in play. That’s when the good results are supposed to come.

When he gets above the five degree mark, good things start to happen. He’s hitting .421 with an .870 slugging percentage. If you’re a wOBA person, that works out to .531. That’s the good stuff – the kind of premium production on contact scouts expected out of Chisholm. This isn’t some “oh, he’s just on a hot streak in 2022 that’s the majority of his production” nonsense, either; cut 2022 out, and he’s hitting .412 with an .848 slugging percentage.

Think my five degree cutoff was arbitrary? It absolutely was! Let’s do it again at 10 degrees. Under 10 degrees, Jazz is hitting .327 with a .375 slug. At 10 or more, he’s batting .388 with an .881 slug. No matter how you slice it, when he can keep himself from hitting the ball into the ground, good things happen.

So why doesn’t he do it all the time? Because of pitching, basically. You don’t get to hit off a tee and launch moon shots (named after Wally Moon, thanks Effectively Wild!) all day. Pitchers want grounders or whiffs, and where they locate the ball has a lot to do with what happens after hitters connect.

The lower the pitch, the higher your chances of hitting a grounder, obviously. Even as he’s made strides at putting the ball in the air, Chisholm is hitting grounders on 41.7% of his batted balls when he makes contact in the lower third of the zone. That number stood at 55.3% last year.

Make contact in the middle third, and what kind of hitter you are does more to determine the outcomes. Last year, Chisholm stayed on the ground on exactly 50% of his batted balls that were in the middle third of the strike zone height-wise. This year, that’s down to 35.7%. By the time you get to the upper third, you almost can’t help but elevate. Chisholm hit grounders on 30.2% of his batted balls that originated from the upper third of the strike zone last year, right around league average for that area of the zone. This year, that’s down to 10%.

In other words, Jazz is finding a way to put everything in the air again, like he always has. The question, then, should be what happened last year. As it turns out, he had a few stretches of productive air contact, but spent a few months with some absurdly high groundball rates, torpedoing the whole operation:

I’ll be honest with you: I can’t completely explain this one. It’s not like he’s fixing it with approach, at least not entirely. Sure, he’s swinging more at pitches in the upper third of the zone, but he’s swinging more at pitches in the lower third as well. More of his contact has come in the lower third of the zone this year, in fact.

I can speculate, though. I watched a giant pile of at-bats from the peak of his grounder-heavy spell last year and tried to pick something out that could explain the change. This is extremely non-scientific, but here, watch him hit a grounder on August 31 last year on a fastball right down the pipe:

Now, for a baseline, here he is hitting a grounder on a fastball right down the pipe this April:

Is that difference in swing responsible for the huge change in groundball rate? I’m hesitant to pin it all on that. But he clearly looks less comfortable in the first clip; he’s bouncing around, his hands are meaningfully higher at pitch release, and his lower body looks to me like it’s slightly out of sync at the point of contact.

I’m absolutely not a hitting coach. I wouldn’t take what I’m saying here as gospel. But if you asked me which hitter was more likely to do damage, I’d take the one who stayed still, kept his hands lower, and looked more balanced on his follow-through.

He’s doing other things too, of course. He’s making far more contact over the heart of the plate (61% of his batted balls this year compared to 50% last year), and those are easier pitches to hit. He’s more aggressive over the heart of the plate in general – 78% swing rate this year against 70% last year – while chasing fewer breaking balls outside the strike zone. The more you do that, the more you get pitches to hit.

It’s not resulting in more walks, but that might change. Challenging Chisholm is a tricky proposition; he still swings and misses quite a bit in the zone, but he does a ton of damage when he connects. The equation was a lot easier last year, when he was putting the ball on the ground far too often. Now, you’re liable to watch a jog around the bases if you get too comfortable with throwing him pitches in the zone. Thus far, pitchers haven’t given in. They’re getting their strikeouts, but Chisholm is turning plenty of those in-zone pitches into souvenirs.

Of course, he can hit home runs outside the zone too. Just ask Mark Melancon, Chisholm’s latest victim:

I’d like to have a better answer for you. I’d like to give you one simple statistic that explains Chisholm’s new form. I don’t have one, though. I think it’s a confluence of many things. He’s swinging at better pitches. He looks more locked in at the plate. He’s returning to his old batted ball distribution – maybe this has basically been him the whole time. Whatever it is though, it boils down to this: when Chisholm is rolling, he’s got top-shelf power and the batted ball distribution to take advantage of it. Only time will tell if he can keep it up, but things look pretty rosy in Miami at the moment.

Reid Detmers’ No-Hitter Was the Second-Coolest Moment of the Game

Reid Detmers
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As offense dips down, it was bound to happen. Reid Detmers of the Angels threw the first solo no-hitter of the year last night, facing only 28 batters as he beguiled the Rays’ lineup for nine innings. But this no-hitter wasn’t filled with drama, or even short on offense. The Angels put up 12 runs, powered by a two-homer game from Mike Trout. One of baseball’s unique charms is that the two halves of the game are disconnected; you can have a tense chase of a no-hitter on one side and silly season on the other. Silly season? Well, let’s get right to it.

Top of the Early Innings

Detmers didn’t exactly roll out of bed dealing. After a first-pitch ball, he laid one in there, and Yandy Díaz tagged it for the hardest-hit ball that anyone on either team managed all game. Luckily, it was into the ground and straight at shortstop Andrew Velazquez. Wander Franco followed with another hard-hit grounder, and Harold Ramirez ended the inning with a sinking liner right at left fielder Brandon Marsh.
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Liam Hendriks Finally Faltered

Liam Hendriks
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Liam Hendriks got shelled last night. After it looked like the White Sox had put the game away — they led 8–2 after the bottom of the eighth inning — the Guardians made things interesting by stringing together hits, errors, and walks to trim the deficit to 8–4. With two outs, Tony La Russa called for Hendriks, who promptly surrendered a single and a grand slam to tie the game.

It was the the first blemish on what otherwise would have been a sterling week for Hendriks. From May 2 to May 7, he’d been an absolute workhorse, making five appearances in six days without allowing a run. We’ll probably never know whether Monday’s game — his sixth in eight days — was affected by fatigue; Hendriks wouldn’t likely admit that even if it were the case. But it’s reasonable to wonder whether something could have gone differently, somewhere in the sequence of events, that gave the White Sox a better chance of hanging on last night.

Six games in eight days is an effective cap on reliever usage these days. No reliever has thrown seven games in eight days in the past three years; six games in eight days has happened 23 times over that same stretch. Hendriks himself accounts for three of those, with the rest a hodgepodge mix of closers and low-leverage middle relievers and Raisel Iglesias as the only other pitcher with multiple entries.
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Ben Clemens FanGraphs Chat – 5/9/22

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