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Kolten Wong, Unheralded Master of Plate Discipline

If you know one thing about Kolten Wong, you probably know that he’s a great defender. Honestly, great defender might be underselling it. Since 2014, his first full year in the bigs, he’s third in Defensive Runs Saved at second base. Maybe UZR is more your speed? Wong is third there, too. This isn’t some trick of innings played, either — he’s fourth in UZR/150 among qualifiers. He hasn’t won a Gold Glove yet, but it’s not because he doesn’t deserve it.

If you know Kolten Wong for a second thing, you probably know him for the endless flashes of potential, the bumpy road he’s followed throughout his major league career. In 2013, when he’d barely had a cup of coffee in the regular season, he got picked off of first base to end a World Series game. After two average-ish seasons in the majors, he found himself playing the outfield (?!) so that the team could squeeze more at-bats out of… um… Matt Adams? Brandon Moss? Greg Garcia? Mike Matheny-run teams had some interesting substitution patterns, let me tell you.

In any case, whatever you know about Kolten Wong, elite plate discipline probably isn’t on your list. After all, Wong is on the field for defense. Take a look at his yearly wRC+ numbers, starting with his first full year: 90, 96, 85, 107, 98. Those numbers are totally acceptable for a premium defender (Wong’s career wRC+ bests Andrelton Simmons’), but they also lead to batting at the bottom of the lineup more often than not.

Here’s the thing, though: Wong is certifiably great at controlling walks and strikeouts. It’s not just a 2019 thing, though it’s certainly been the case so far in 2019. Take a look at the list of qualified batters with more walks than strikeouts this year:
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Trevor Bauer and the Math of Pitching Backwards

When I was a kid, my dad taught me about baseball whenever he got a chance. A lot of these lessons were just meaningless baseball truisms: always hit to the right side of second base when there’s a runner on, the best count to steal on is 2-0, catchers are never lefties. Most of these sayings stuck in my brain without ever registering on a conscious level, but one of them fascinated me the moment I heard it. “Throw fastballs when the batter is ahead in the count and breaking balls when he’s behind.” It is known. I’ve pondered the reasoning and factuality of that rule of thumb ever since.

At the most basic level, I totally understand the thinking going on. Fastballs are easier to locate for a strike, and when you’re behind in the count you can ill afford to throw a pitch for a ball. It’s not just that, either. When a batter is down in the count, they need to be much more proactive about swinging at any pitch in the strike zone. If you throw a 1-2 breaking ball that starts out looking like a strike, the batter needs to swing. Throw the same pitch on 2-0, however, and even if it looks like a strike at the start, the batter might not swing — they could be looking for a specific location rather than defending the entire plate.

Go one level higher, however, and things get a lot more confusing. Pitchers throw fastballs when behind in the count, and batters know that pitchers throw fastballs in hitters’ counts. If a hitter knows you’re going to throw a certain type of pitch, that makes their job a lot easier. One of the hardest parts of being a major league batter is that you have to determine how a pitch is going to break after leaving a pitcher’s hand almost instantaneously. Curveballs and fastballs might start at the same place, but they end up in different areas entirely. Take this deception out of the equation, and hitting gets quite a bit easier.

That’s only one level up, though. We can go further. Pitchers know that hitters know that pitchers throw fastballs when behind in the count. If you’re getting a Princess Bride vibe here, you’re not alone. This is a complex issue. What batters expect pitchers to do plays a role in what pitchers should do, and vice versa. There’s an entire field of economics, game theory, devoted to solving this problem. Maybe you saw the movie about it, where Russell Crowe inexplicably writes on every glass surface he can find.

Let’s leave that all aside for now, though. Whatever the theoretical equilibrium is, pitchers do indeed lean away from breaking balls when behind in the count. In 2018, for example, pitchers threw sliders and curveballs 18.8% of the time when behind in the count, versus 27.5% of the time when they were ahead. That’s major league baseball as a whole, though. Collin McHugh has gone to a breaking ball 58% of the time when down in the count. Gerrit Cole is above 40%, and Robbie Ray isn’t far behind him.

Trevor Bauer, on the other hand, seems to have listened to my dad’s advice. Bauer has thrown 139 pitches while behind in the count this year. He’s gone to a breaking ball exactly twice. He’s on pace to set a career low for breaking balls while down in the count, and it’s not even particularly close. In 2016, Bauer fired only 43 breaking balls out of 878 pitches he threw while behind in the count. That was a preposterously low 4.9%, and still triple the rate he’s put up this year so far. Read the rest of this entry »

Who Framed Victor Caratini?

It’s still April, so it may be premature to talk about the year’s most extreme events. If a home run was hit on a high pitch, there will likely be a higher pitch that gets hit for a home run later on. Think an umpire called a perfect pitch a ball? We’ve got plenty more time for an even better pitch to be missed. However, I think we may have already seen the best pitch frame of the year.

I don’t mean the pitch furthest outside the strike zone that gets called a strike — there’s still plenty of time for that to change. I’m talking about full dedication to the craft of pitch framing. Francisco Cervelli sold a pitch against the Cubs not just with his glove and his positioning, but with his whole being. You’ll probably see worse pitches sold for strikes this year. Heck, you might see Cervelli get more egregious calls than this. You won’t see better framing, though — I can pretty much guarantee it. Read the rest of this entry »

Pitching Is Winning Baseball’s Latest Tug of War

If you want to paint with an extremely broad brush, you can think of the last twenty years of analytical advances in baseball as waves, alternately benefiting hitters and pitchers. First came the Moneyball years, when sabermetric advances brought offense into the game. It wasn’t just that teams started playing more beefy guys who could hit for power and take a walk. They also encouraged their existing players to be more patient — that’s how you got the iconic four-hour Yankees-Red Sox games of the mid-2000s, in which both teams seemed to make a personal challenge out of who could take more pitches. This coincided with the beginning of the end of the sacrifice bunt, yet another boost to offense.

If it first seemed like every analytical advance increased offense, however, the tables quickly turned. First the Rays realized that newly offense-minded front offices were undervaluing defense. Then they turned to infield shifts. Before long, the Pirates were using data to optimize pitch selection and every team was hunting high and low for pitch framing. If the early 2000s were all about using math to find better ways to hit, 2008 to 2014 was about using data to strangle offense from every angle.

Things have started moving more quickly since then. Batters reacted by trying to lift the ball more, helped out by a livelier baseball. Pitchers tried throwing higher in the zone to counter that, and at the same time teams started working with pitchers to tailor arsenals to their innate spin rates and pitch shapes. It’s not stopping here — batters are going to work to counter pitchers’ new arsenals, and defenses are going to work to find new and better shifts.

For all this back and forth though, I think that the long game favors pitching. The reason is that, to my mind, batting is a game of picking on weaknesses. Teams don’t get their offense against the aces and the tough part of the bullpen, or in lefty-lefty matchups. They pick on tiring pitchers, righties pitching to lefties, or relievers pitching their third game in three days. It’s always been this way — offense spikes in expansion years when the pitching pool gets diluted, and the times-through-the-order penalty has always existed.

If that’s where offense has always been generated, however, then batters are in trouble. Pitching staffs across baseball are shoring up weak points like never before, and there’s not much offenses can do about it aside from just hit better. It’s still April, but it’s almost a guarantee that two pitching trends are going to reach all-time extremes this year. You’ve probably heard of the first one: starters will face batting orders for a third or fourth time less than ever before. The second one is more subtle, but it’s affecting offense just the same. So far in 2019, batters have faced opposite-handed pitching only 51% of the time, a record low.

Let’s handle the times through the order trend first. The effect isn’t novel — I learned about it from The Book, but the general concept has existed much longer than that. Ted Williams talked about it in The Science of Hitting, and it’s not some deep secret. The more looks a batter gets at a pitcher, the better he sees the pitches. It’s not clear whether pitcher fatigue adds to the penalty, but either way it’s not a small effect. In 2018, starting pitchers allowed a .304 wOBA the first time through the order and a .336 wOBA the third time through. That 32-point wOBA swing is about the same as the difference between the 2018 Yankees offense and the 2018 Royals offense. It’s a big deal, in other words. Read the rest of this entry »

The Tigers Found a Diamond in the Rough

Being a fan of a rebuilding team is a tricky line to walk. You want the players to do well, obviously — you’re watching them every day, after all, and it’s only human to root for what you’re watching. At the same time, if they do too well, they’re probably getting traded — how much mental energy should you invest in a player who won’t be on your team in two months? Did that reliever you like find another gear? Cool, enjoy the two lower-level prospects the team will get back for him in a month. Rooting for a past-their-prime star? Well, if they have a good stretch, the team might ship the one face you remember from the good old days out for some salary relief.

There’s one great joy in watching a team that’s in the middle of a rebuild. Whether by accident or design, teams don’t end up trying to retool if they have a ton of solid major league players, which means there’s a playing time void that gets filled by whoever’s available. Minor league free agents and past-their-prime vets? Step right up. Lifetime minor leaguers looking for their first real chance? Someone needs to play third base, so grab a glove. When one of those lottery tickets hits, that feeling makes up for a lot of the bad parts of rebuilding. Here’s a player who has always wanted a chance, and your team gave it to him. If he’s young, he might even be around when the team’s good again, and you, the fan, were there at the beginning. All of this is a roundabout way of saying: Niko Goodrum might be awesome, and the Tigers gave him a chance.

If you haven’t heard of Niko Goodrum before, I can’t blame you. He got a cup of coffee with the Twins in 2017 before signing with the Tigers after the Twins released him, and he delivered a solid if uninspiring 2018 (103 wRC+ in 492 PA, 1.1 WAR) while playing across the diamond. He’s been excellent to start this year, putting up a 132 wRC+ with nearly as many walks as strikeouts while batting cleanup and playing both centerfield and first base. Now you, the sophisticated FanGraphs reader, are no dummy. You know that a 132 wRC+ a few weeks into the season isn’t all that outrageous. It’s above average, sure, but no one’s going to lose their mind over it. What makes me so sure Niko Goodrum is amazing all of the sudden? Read the rest of this entry »

Pete Alonso Crushes the Ball

Pete Alonso, it should first be said, really isn’t a great defender. The Mets were quick to let everyone know this throughout 2018, when they didn’t call him up early in the year, when he won Defensive Player of the Month for the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate in July, and when they didn’t make him a September call-up in a completely lost season for the big league club. Seventeen games into his major league career, however, I can say one thing with certainty: I don’t care that he’s supposedly bad at defense. Alonso’s plate appearances are turning into appointment viewing, because he flat-out crushes the ball. I’m not talking garden-variety “boy, that large man can hit,” either. Alonso might not have the best strike-zone recognition, or the best general plate discipline, but when he makes contact, he’s doing damage like almost no one else in baseball.

If you want to understand how truly incredible Alonso’s start has been, you need to look past the WAR leaderboards. Heck, you need to look past the wRC+ leaderboards — like I said, his plate discipline is a work in progress. Alonso has a near-200 wRC+ with a 31% strikeout rate — the three players at the top of the wRC+ leaderboard check in at 11.5%, 8.6%, and 15.0%, respectively. No, the magic really starts when Alonso puts the ball in play, and I do mean magic. Take a look at the top 10 players in baseball in terms of barrels (a Statcast designation that basically means a ball that is tremendously likely to be an extra-base hit) per batted ball:

Barrels/Batted Ball (min. 25 BB)
Player Barrels/Batted Ball
Pete Alonso 31.6%
Gary Sanchez 31.3%
Joey Gallo 29.6%
Mike Trout 29.0%
Christian Walker 25.0%
J.D. Davis 23.3%
Franmil Reyes 23.1%
Anthony Rendon 22.9%
Willson Contreras 21.4%
Jay Bruce 21.1%

Think of it this way: about a third of the time that Alonso puts the ball in play, he’s hitting an absolute rocket. Just being on this list, let alone at the top of it, tells us something. This isn’t a list of guys who have lucked into some game power. It’s not a list you can get on just by taking some walks, like a wRC+ leaderboard — Alex Bregman might have had a nice 2018 at the plate, but it’s hard to fake hitting the ball this hard and this optimally (Bregman ended 76th in barrels per batted ball last year). This isn’t just home run power, either, though it’s certainly that — Alonso has six homers already, including a 118.3-mph, 454-foot missile off of Jonny Venters that had SunTrust Park looking like a water hazard at the Masters:

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Fastballs Are Faster (and Rarer) Than Ever

The bottom of the eighth inning of last Wednesday’s Brewers-Angels game was, at first glance, fairly uneventful. Down 4-2, the Brewers called on converted starter Junior Guerra to keep the game in reach. He delivered — two strikeouts sandwiched a groundout, and the team went to the ninth down only two. Guerra is the fourth or fifth option out of the Brewers bullpen; he’s also a perfect embodiment of modern pitching. He threw 16 pitches in the inning, and less than half were heaters — six fastballs, four breaking balls, and six splitters. When he did throw fastballs, though, he put some mustard on them — two hit 96 on the gun, and he’s averaging about 95 mph so far this year.

These two trends — fewer and faster fastballs — are spreading like wildfire across the game. Sometimes it happens in jumps, like the Twins hiring a progressive pitching coach this offseason. Sometimes it happens organically, like Junior Guerra leaning on his splitter and slider a little more out of the bullpen. It’s a game-wide trend, though, and it seems likely to continue. This year, starters and relievers are both throwing their lowest share of fastballs since we’ve had pitch-level data. When they do throw fastballs, though, both groups are throwing them harder than ever before.

Without looking at a single piece of data, you could have convinced me that those two trends were likely true, but I wanted to look into the numbers to know for certain. First things first — we’ll need a consistent sample across years. Taking this year’s stats and comparing them to previous full-year averages won’t work, because pitchers consistently throw at lower velocities in March and April than they do in the year as a whole. In 2018, for example, March and April four-seamers were .2 mph slower than the year as a whole. Thus, we’re going to use data only through April 10th for every season to properly account for this systematic bias. Let’s take a look at that data, shall we? A quick methodological note: I’m excluding cut fastballs, as classification systems have real trouble differentiating them from sliders:

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Nick Anderson Is Improbably Excellent

“In the future,” Andy Warhol said, “everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” Warhol wasn’t really a baseball fan (Pete Rose baseball-card prints aside), but it seems likely that major league baseball consulted with him, or at least took some inspiration. How else can you explain the phenomenon of the pop-up relief pitching ace? Nick Anderson has the lowest FIP (and xFIP) and the highest strikeout rate in baseball this year, and if you aren’t related to him, I bet you had to go look up what team he pitches for.

Anderson’s route to the spotlight (such as it is) has been incredibly circuitous. Early legal troubles, including an assault he contends was him coming to the defense of a friend, led to his starting in the independent leagues instead of affiliated ball. Anderson spent a year remodeling homes and playing amateur ball. When he returned, he pitched excellently for the Cedar Rapids Kernels and the Frontier Greys in 2015 (sub-1 ERAs and 9-plus K/9s in both stops). The hometown Twins scooped him up, and you have to think other teams weren’t far behind given the numbers, but still — he was out of baseball, fully out, just five years ago.

How crazy is it that we never saw Nick Anderson coming? Well, if you go by his minor league stats, it’s pretty crazy. In three-plus years of pitching (admittedly often at levels he was old for), he compiled a 2.25 ERA (2.35 FIP, 2.37 xFIP) with sterling peripherals — a 32.5% strikeout rate and a measly 6.2% walk rate. Still though, he enjoyed very little prospect shine — he was a reliever at best, and one without much pedigree. Aside from brief mentions as “Others of Note,” he pretty much flew under the radar.

When the Twins had a 40-man roster crunch after the 2018 season, they sent Anderson to the Marlins. I can forgive you if you don’t remember the transaction — Nick Anderson for Brian Schales was hardly the biggest transaction of November. Heck, it wasn’t even the Twins move with the most fanfare — that would be grabbing C.J. Cron off of waivers, a move that likely had something to do with trading Anderson. With little fanfare, Anderson made the Marlins bullpen out of Spring Training (eight innings pitched, 10 strikeouts, no walks), and just like that, baseball’s best current reliever (by the numbers) had arrived in the majors. Read the rest of this entry »

Jacob deGrom is Picking Up Where He Left Off

Jacob deGrom’s 2018 will go down in history as one of the best pitching seasons of all time. There’s almost no way it couldn’t — pitchers don’t put up sub-two ERAs very often, and they record sub-2 FIPs even less frequently. By those stats alone, deGrom had the seventh-best ERA and eighth-best FIP since integration. Adjust for the run-scoring environment, and he falls all the way to ninth. Simply put, deGrom was sublime in 2018.

After a season of such historic magnitude, we’d be crazy to not expect regression. Everything broke so well for deGrom in 2018 that he could pitch every bit as well in 2019 and end up with meaningfully worse results. Indeed, ZiPS and Steamer both projected deGrom’s ERA to increase by essentially a run this season. Despite that, both projected him to put up the second-best ERA and FIP among starters, behind only Chris Sale. When you’re as far ahead of the pack as deGrom, you can significantly regress and still be one of the best.

It isn’t just projection systems that peg deGrom to come back to earth — the broad sweep of history suggests it as well. No matter how you slice it, pitchers who record a season like deGrom’s decline the next year. Want to focus on ERA? There have been 26 times since 1947 when a pitcher qualified for the ERA title and had an ERA below two. Excluding 2018 deGrom and 1966 Sandy Koufax (he retired after 1966 and so didn’t have a next season), these pitchers averaged a 1.77 ERA. The next year, they recorded a 2.78 ERA. Read the rest of this entry »

Corbin Burnes Spins to Win

The first week of baseball is a wondrous time to be a baseball fan. It’s also a weird time to be a baseball writer. On one hand, baseball is happening, and that’s a relief after the long dark night of the offseason. On the other hand, not that much baseball has happened, and most of the seemingly noteworthy stories are small-sample noise. Give me an early-season take (Tim Beckham is great! Sandy Alcantara is a top-10 pitcher!), and I’ll likely dismiss it as a fluke. One performance this week, however, made me sit up and take notice. Corbin Burnes struck out 12 batters on Sunday, and the way he did it should have Brewers fans, and baseball fans in general, salivating.

At first glance, Burnes’ start against the Cardinals is a textbook case of not reading too much into a single start. He struck out 12 batters and walked only one, which is obviously incredible. On the other hand, he gave up three home runs and only lasted five innings, producing a what’s-going-on split of a 6.53 FIP and 0.00 xFIP. If I were a betting man, though, I’d wager that the strikeouts are more predictive than the home runs. Why? Corbin Burnes’ fastball was absolutely ludicrous, and in a way that you can’t fake.

Most of the things that happen in a baseball game are contextual. Did a pitcher strike a lot of hitters out? Well, consider who was batting. If it’s a bunch of high schoolers or the 2019 Giants outfield, that’s an extenuating circumstance. Did he give up a lot of home runs? A ton of factors go into that. One thing that isn’t contextual is a pitch’s spin rate. The batter doesn’t influence it. Pitch selection doesn’t influence it. It doesn’t take long to stabilize. It’s basically as clean as it gets in baseball statistics — you throw the ball, and you get your results.

When Burnes threw the ball on Sunday, the results were off the charts. Burnes fired 61 four-seam fastballs on Sunday. His velocity was down a tick or so from last year, when he worked out of the bullpen — nothing unusual about that. His spin, on the other hand, was wholly new. Burnes averaged 2912 rpm, and it’s hard to explain how crazy that is. It was nearly 150 rpm higher than last year’s league leader in average spin rate, Luke Bard. The fastball that Burnes spun most slowly, at 2660 rpm, would have been good for the second-highest fastball spin rate in baseball last year.

Burnes has always been a high-spin pitcher (11th in baseball among pitchers who threw at least 100 fastballs in 2018), but this is an entirely different level. Spin rates vary from start to start, but not like this. In fact, Burnes made thirty appearances last year, and the gap between the highest spin rate he recorded and the lowest was 270 rpm. Sunday’s start was 200 rpm faster than last year’s highest rate. Graphically, that looks pretty absurd, like so:

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