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Ben Clemens FanGraphs Chat – 2/6/2020

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The Biggest Holes on Contending Teams, Part Two: Pitching

Earlier this week, I looked into contending teams with weaknesses in the infield. Today, let’s continue by looking at teams who could upgrade their pitching, plus teams involved in blockbuster trades sending MVP’s to the West Coast.

Los Angeles Angels

The Hole: The Angels had only a single pitcher throw more than 100 innings last year. That’s bad. What’s worse is that it was Trevor Cahill, who had a 5.98 ERA and still beat his FIP (6.13), good for a -0.8 WAR effort over 102.1 innings. He’s a free agent at the moment, and that was the pitcher the Angels used most.

It’s hard to disentangle this from Tyler Skaggs’ tragic death, and I don’t intend this to be an indictment of team building, or a dig at the franchise’s response. The team’s 2019 season was tragic, and those woes need not carry into 2020.

Despite a lot of churn, however, they aren’t exactly running out an inspiring rotation. Shohei Ohtani is back, and projects to be their best pitcher on a rate basis, but he’ll be on a strict innings limit. Dylan Bundy is somehow only 27, but it’s hard to see anything but an average pitcher with injury risk to the downside given his uneven career.

Julio Teheran is probably a FIP beater, but with Steamer projecting him for a 5.47 FIP, that isn’t enough. Andrew Heaney is basically Dylan Bundy, only a year older (somehow) — a guy you’d like as an innings-eater but with a checkered injury history.

If there’s upside in this rotation (aside from Ohtani), it’s Griffin Canning, whose fastball/slider combination has looked good in his short career. He’s also coming off of a season shortened by elbow inflammation, and he had a 4.58 ERA and 4.75 xFIP in 2019 — we’re not talking about an ace with a hurt elbow here. Overall, the team has a bunch of league average starters with downside risk.

The Fix: The team attempted defense in depth by acquiring Bundy and Teheran, but I’d prefer to see them try to go tall rather than wide. Paul Sporer suggested a trade for Mike Clevinger, and if the Indians would take Brandon Marsh plus a couple other notable names for Clevinger, the Angels could improve themselves by a lot quickly.

If you think the Indians plan on contending, however, there isn’t much to do when it comes to ace-upside pitchers. Noah Syndergaard rumors have died on the vine, and the teams at the bottom of the standings don’t have much to offer on the star pitching front. They could try to acquire Matthew Boyd to add to their quintet of average pitchers, but why? No, they’re mostly stuck with what they have — which might work out okay, but certainly feels risky for a team with Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon at the peak of their powers. Read the rest of this entry »

The Biggest Holes on Contending Teams, Part One: The Infield

The offseason is a time for dreaming, for picturing your team getting better. Anyone could sign Gerrit Cole or Anthony Rendon. Anyone could trade for Mookie Betts. The world is everyone’s oyster.

But it never lasts, naturally. The Yankees sign Cole, and the superposition of every team potentially having Cole at the front of the rotation collapses. The Angels sign Rendon and the Twins sign Josh Donaldson, and third base becomes a weakness instead of being one signature away from a strength.

With the free agency market now winding down (the top remaining free agent is probably Yasiel Puig), rosters feel pretty solidified. That doesn’t mean that Kris Bryant, Francisco Lindor, or Nolan Arenado can’t headline a trade tomorrow and alter some team’s fate. But it does mean that for the most part, what you see is what you get. Read the rest of this entry »

Joey Gallo Swung Less, Except When it Was Good to Swing More

Joey Gallo cracked the code in 2019. He recorded his highest major league wRC+ (by far), his highest WAR total (in only half a season!), his highest walk rate, and his highest isolated power. Before fracturing his wrist in July, he looked like a second-tier MVP candidate. It was a clear step forward for a player who was already an above-average major leaguer.

It wasn’t all cotton candy and lollipops. His strikeout rate ticked up, from a yikes-gross-cover-your-eyes 35.9% to a seek-shelter-this-is-not-a-drill 38.4%. Gallo struck out nearly as many times, in under 300 plate appearances, as Michael Brantley has in nearly 1200 PA over the last two years. But despite the eye-popping strikeout rate, the overall package made Gallo one of the most fearsome hitters in baseball.

What did Gallo change to turbo-boost his game? He started swinging less. That’s not all he did, but it’s a lot of it. And for someone like Gallo, that makes a ton of sense. He has what Eric and Kiley call a grooved swing — his swing rides a consistent path, which makes it hard to adjust to pitches away from his preferred target area, and given how much damage he does when he connects, pitchers are doing their utmost to avoid that target area.

To wit: in 2019, 39.9% of the pitches Gallo saw were in the strike zone, a rate that would have been 30th-lowest in baseball if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. In 2018, it was even more severe; his 38.1% zone rate was fifth-lowest in baseball. In 2017, his 36.1% zone rate was the lowest in the majors. Read the rest of this entry »

For Your Enjoyment, a Groundball Rate Refresher

Last week, in a bit of a horror story for pitchers, I demonstrated that they have little control when it comes to suppressing HR/FB rate. That’s quite depressing — if you face a big, strapping boy of a hitter, the fly balls aren’t likely to stay in the yard, no matter who you are. It’s enough to make you sad.

But rejoice! Baseball is more than just what percent of fly balls leave the yard. In fact, it’s a lot more than just that. For one, you could just strike people out. It’s hard to hit a home run if you don’t even hit the ball. Short of that, you could just induce a grounder. Unless the aerodynamics of the baseball and also the rules of baseball change markedly, no one’s hitting any home runs on the ground.

Intuitively, pitchers can do a lot more to control groundball rates than home run rates on fly balls. For one, name a pitcher who’s really good at suppressing home runs over a long career. I’m talking really good, not just kind of good. Did you come up with Adam Wainwright, Justin Verlander, and Clayton Kershaw? They’re the three best at it with enough innings pitched for the data to look meaningful, and even then they’re only a few percentage points better than league average.

On the other hand, it’s easy to name groundball pitchers. Zack Britton is the archetypal example, but Marcus Stroman, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, and plenty of others come to mind as well. Those guys may not do a great job of limiting home runs when opposing batters put the ball in the air, but they limit overall home runs all the same. Read the rest of this entry »

Fernando Tatis Jr., Defensive Conundrum

At times, Fernando Tatis Jr. is an absolutely incredible fielder. Try to imagine someone other than Tatis, Javier Báez, or Andrelton Simmons making this play:

The speed, presence of mind, and arm strength needed to turn that ball into an out are simply breathtaking.

If Tatis can do that, then why does every fielding metric dislike his defense? DRS rated him as two runs below average over 731.1 innings in the field last year, and it was the highest on him. UZR saw him 5.8 runs below average, and Statcast’s new infield OAA pegged him as 13 outs below average. What gives?

If you’re a suspicious type, your mind might immediately go to the fallibility of defensive metrics. After all, they’re far less precise than offensive statistics. They don’t always agree with each other, for one thing, and they take forever to stabilize. Whoever invented the saying “lies, damn lies, and statistics” clearly wasn’t up on modern baseball fielding, or they would have fit UZR and DRS in there somewhere. Read the rest of this entry »

2019 Had a Lot of Meaningless Baseball

Have you ever been to a September game between two teams out of playoff contention? I have, and while I like a nice afternoon in the sun as much as anyone, the lack of excitement in the stadium is contagious. Empty seats are demoralizing to fans who want to root for the team — there’s no one around to echo their cheers, so the cheers start to feel perfunctory. If you went to the game to get the thrill of baseball rather than for a pleasant afternoon, you’re often in for a disappointment.

Of course, that feeling isn’t exclusive to September. Last June 14th, for example, the Pirates took on the Marlins in a Friday night game. Per our playoff odds, the Pirates stood a 1.4% chance of reaching postseason play. The Marlins’ odds rounded to 0%, and we have a lot of decimal places to round to. It was only June, but the two teams were already playing out the string. The crowd of 8,340 filled the stadium to roughly one-quarter capacity.

When pundits talk about baseball’s competition problem, these games are the ones they mean. There are bound to be meaningless games throughout the course of the season: a 162-game schedule leaves plenty of time to separate the wheat from the chaff, and by September many teams are simply wrapping things up. Even then though, games don’t have to be completely meaningless; even if the home team is out of it, an exciting visiting team can provide some motivation to fans.

When the streaking Mets visited the Pirates on August 2, for example, PNC Park drew an above-average number of fans for the Friday night clash, even though our playoff odds gave them a scant 0.1% chance to make the playoffs. There was at least still a reason to attend the game — the Mets were interesting, and there’s some measure of joy to be gained from seeing your club take on a contender, and a vicarious thrill to beating them.

So if you want to get to the heart of what baseball’s competitive balance problem does for interest in the game, look to the games played with no stakes. What exactly no stakes means depends on your philosophical bent, and I’ll go into several variations, but first consider this definition: a game with no stakes is one where neither team falls in the 5%-95% playoff odds range at the start of the game.
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Ben Clemens FanGraphs Chat – 1/27/20

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For Your Enjoyment, a Home Run Rate Refresher

Here’s a question for you: does Mike Trout hit more home runs against bad pitchers? The answer is yes, of course, but we can parse the question a little differently to make it more interesting. How about this one: does Mike Trout hit more home runs per fly ball against pitchers who are home run-prone? That at least has some intrigue.

Here’s one way you might do this study. Take every pitcher in baseball and group them into quartiles based on their home run per fly ball rate. I’m using line drives and non-pop-up fly balls to make a slightly different rate, but the idea is the same. With the pitchers bucketed like so, simply observe Trout’s home run rate against each quartile:

Mike Trout Versus
Stat Quartile 1 Quartile 2 Quartile 3 Quartile 4
HR/Air% 13.33% 16.44% 26.76% 20.00%
Batted Balls 45 73 71 30

But before Tom Tango pulls his hair out, let me add something important: This is a bad way to do this study. There’s a big problem here. Trout’s home runs and the pitchers’ home run rate aren’t independent of each other. If Trout tags a guy for a few home runs, that pitcher’s home run rate goes up. If Trout doesn’t hit any out against a pitcher, that pitcher will tend towards the stingiest quartile. Even if Trout’s home runs were randomly distributed across pitchers, this data would tend towards shape. Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Have Fun With Non-Neutral Games Contexts

As I was browsing through Baseball Twitter a few days ago (terrible habit, I suggest you avoid it), I came across an interesting question:

My brain loves puzzles and answering questions, so I decided to vote. The obvious choice is Player C. He’s the best hitter, and I want my best hitter in the most important situations. The point of the exercise has to be to dunk on fans who think Player A is clutch, right?

Well, essentially yes. The players in this question are 2019 DJ LeMahieu, 2014 Giancarlo Stanton, and 2017 Aaron Judge. Yankees fans were really into LeMahieu in 2019, to the point of advocating for him as MVP, and while he was certainly a good hitter, he’s not Aaron Judge.

But don’t stop the analysis there, because something important is missing. Picking the best hitter is easy — as long as you define best correctly. For example, ISO shouldn’t enter into your decision at all. With the bases loaded and two outs, there’s not much difference between a single and a home run, and there’s definitely no difference between a double and a home run. Power stats aren’t relevant here. Read the rest of this entry »