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Brandon Woodruff Rebuilt Himself as a Starter

Brandon Woodruff did everything he could for the Brewers in 2017 and 2018. When the rotation needed reinforcements at the end of 2017, he started eight games. When the team needed relief arms in 2018, he filled whatever innings they needed — 10 of his 15 relief appearances went more than an inning, and he contributed four spot starts when the Brewers needed an occasional extra starter. This year, the team needs a starter again, and Woodruff has outdone himself. In 16 starts, he’s gone from solid bullpen arm to the best starter on a playoff team. If the team needs a pitcher to start an elimination game, Woodruff is probably the man for the job.

If I had been asked to make a prediction about Woodruff before the season, I think I would have landed somewhere near our Depth Charts projections — 23 starts, a 4.30 ERA and FIP, and peripherals that looked worse than his 2018 relief turn, when he struck out 26.7% of batters he faced and walked 8%. Pitchers who switch from relieving to starting tend to have worse rate stats across the board, and nothing about Woodruff screamed exception. Instead, he’s improved in essentially every category. He’s striking out 29.6% of the batters he faces, and walking only 6.5%. His FIP is 0.23 lower than it was last year. Heck, he’s gained fastball velocity, something you’re not supposed to do when throwing more pitches per game.

Luckily for the purposes of our analysis, however, he’s also made some changes in approach that we can pore over. If all there was to Woodruff’s improvement was a tick on his fastball, there wouldn’t be much to say. But that’s not how Brandon Woodruff’s season has gone. He has overhauled his arsenal and approach in ways that look well thought-out and sustainable to me. Read the rest of this entry »

Do Hard Throwers Allow Fewer Home Runs per Fly Ball?

When the Cardinals played the Marlins on Wednesday night, two of the hardest throwers in baseball made appearances. Jordan Hicks was flawless, getting two strikeouts and four grounders in two perfect innings. Tayron Guerrero pitched a 1-2-3 inning, but with a tad more excitement than Hicks produced. He allowed a fly ball to medium-deep center field, and fly balls are always adventures given the current state of home runs. As I listened to the game, however, the announcers were quick to mention that Guerrero wasn’t in great peril with that fly ball, because it’s hard to hit home runs off of someone who throws so hard.

My statistical curiosity was piqued by that comment. It’s something I’ve heard from time to time, and it seems logical — I’ve watched a fair amount of Hicks appearances in the past two years, and batters seem tremendously uncomfortable when facing him. On the other hand, there are plenty of things I’ve heard about baseball that seem logical but aren’t true. I grew up knowing when the right time to bunt was and how some batters were just better at hitting in the clutch, and those have since been proven false. What’s to say that “throwing harder suppresses home runs” isn’t just another in a list of untruths?

To a certain extent, every time you use xFIP to describe a pitcher’s skill level, you’re ignoring this pearl of broadcaster wisdom. After all, if you’re regressing everyone’s home runs back to a league-wide average, that implies that no one has special skills to suppress home runs when the ball is hit in the air. No one would say that xFIP is a perfect and foolproof predictor, but it does do fairly well when it comes to ERA estimators — it beats FIP and ERA, for example.

As a general believer that skill is over-ascribed in baseball (not every 2.5 ERA or 150 wRC+ is hiding a great process — sometimes it’s just a hot stretch), I’m naturally inclined to go with xFIP’s explanation of how fly balls become home runs. That’s not to say that throwing hard doesn’t have advantages, obviously — baseball’s ever-creeping velocity increase is proof of that. It helps with swinging strike rate, of course, and therefore directly helps increase strikeouts, the most valuable thing a pitcher can do. When the ball is struck, however, the hitter has, necessarily, not swung and missed. In fact, you’ve probably heard people say that when a hard thrower allows contact, it’s usually harder than normal because the ball was coming in so fast. Wouldn’t this increase home runs per fly ball? Sounds like something worth looking at. Read the rest of this entry »

Anthony Rendon Keeps Getting Better

The first round of All-Star voting comes to a close on June 26th, which means we’re just over a week away from an annual tradition unlike any other: Anthony Rendon not getting the respect he deserves. He’s sitting fifth among NL third basemen in the vote, below the top-3 cutoff for this year’s final-day runoff. He’s also sixth in the majors among all batters in fWAR, which likely means he’ll make his All-Star debut this year. Yes, you read that right — Anthony Rendon has never been an All-Star.

All-Star results aren’t everything, of course. They matter for arbitration payouts, as Tommy Pham will tell you, but they’re not always (or even often) accurate reflections of who has provided the most value on the field. Still, it’s remarkable that Rendon has never been an All-Star. Since he debuted in 2013, he’s been the 12th-most valuable hitter in baseball, second only to Josh Donaldson among third basemen. If Rendon makes the team this year as a reserve, it will be fitting, because he’s never been more deserving than he is right now; he’s taken his offensive game to new heights from an already impressive baseline. He’s been outright Trout-ian at the plate this year, fixing weaknesses while sticking with strengths.

When I looked into Rendon’s 2018 this offseason, I focused on his newfound aggression. He increased his swing rate more than almost every other player in baseball last year, particularly on the first pitch of a plate appearance. Looking back a few more years, this seems like a change Rendon has been leaning into over time. He was passive to start at-bats at the start of his career, and he has been ramping it up over time, though he’s dialed it back marginally this year:

First-pitch swing rate is a blunt tool. Imagine a batter who is universally feared. Pitchers rarely attempt to challenge him. They throw him strikes on only 10% of first pitches. He’s wildly aggressive, swinging at 80% of strikes and 10% of balls. Still, that’s only an 17% swing rate, which sounds quite passive. Imagine another hitter, this one a patient sort with no pop whatsoever. Pitchers absolutely pound the zone against him — we’re talking a 90% zone rate, completely unheard of. He’s one of the most patient hitters in baseball, only swinging at 20% of strikes, and no balls whatsoever. This gets him to an 18% first-pitch swing rate. Clearly, we need to consider how pitchers attack Rendon to say anything definitive about his swing rates. Read the rest of this entry »

The Sinker Paradox

Two things are very much true in modern baseball, and they’re in seemingly direct contradiction with one another. The first hardly requires any introduction: fly balls are leaving parks like never before. There’s almost no point in linking to a story about it, because there’s no way you haven’t heard if you are reading this website, but what the heck, here’s Ken Rosenthal talking about it. Baseball in 2019 is a game of home runs — allow fly balls at your own risk.

At the same time, the two-seam, sinking fastball is going extinct. The trend started a while ago, and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping anytime soon. Cutting sinkers has worked, kind of, and progressive teams like the Astros and Rays are leaning into it. Heck, overhand arm slots and high-spin four-seam fastballs are the hallmarks of modern pitching. Teams are looking for them in draft picks and getting young pitchers to throw more of them.

Think about those two things for a second. Fly balls are more dangerous than ever, but the pitch that is best at avoiding fly balls is on the decline. It’s a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes, and today I’m throwing on my deerstalker hat. The first thing we need to do is confirm that fly balls really are worth more than ever. This might seem trivial, but it’s worth doing, if only to figure out just how much more fly balls are worth these days. Read the rest of this entry »

Major Leaguers Behaving Like Children

Before the season, the San Francisco Giants were expected to be bad, and the Milwaukee Brewers were expected to compete for a playoff spot. So far this year, the Giants are 30-39 with a -82 run differential, last in the NL West. The Brewers are 40-31 and first in the NL Central. Both teams have been more or less what we thought they were. With that in mind, you probably didn’t have much reason to watch Friday night’s Brewers-Giants clash. If you did watch it, however, you caught a singularly bizarre series of plays that highlighted the absurdity and joy of baseball.

In the bottom of the seventh with one runner aboard, the Brewers called on Alex Claudio to keep the Giants off the board. Down 3-2, Milwaukee couldn’t afford to let the Giants pad their lead any further, and the lineup set up perfectly for Claudio, a side-arming lefty with extreme career platoon splits. With Kevin Pillar standing on first, the Giants had four lefties in a row due up, and Claudio is on the Brewers more or less solely to get lefties out.

With Alex Claudio on the mound, there’s a certain minimum amount of weirdness involved in every pitch. His pre-pitch routine is hypnotizing — a few torso-and-arm shakes, an uncontrollable toe tap, and finally a corkscrewing, impossibly angled sidearm release. He looks like a kid impatiently sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room, right up until he explodes into a tremendously athletic delivery. Here, watch him throw an 84-mph sinker past Steven Duggar for the first out:

As much fun as it is to watch Claudio pitch, it would be hard to call this inning fun if he did his job and set down the three lefties in order. The Duggar at-bat made it look like that was a possibility. Even if 84-mph sinkers that strike out major league batters are fun, there’s a limit to how much fun an inning can be to watch if nothing happens. Fortunately, things were about to get weird. Read the rest of this entry »

The Most Predictable Man in Baseball

The Tampa Bay Rays are having a tremendous year so far, better than anyone could have expected. They’re a half game out of first in the perennially difficult AL East, and that might be underselling how good they’ve been this year — their BaseRuns record is the best in baseball. How have they done it? Their pitching staff has been the best in baseball by a huge margin, posting a 3.02 ERA and a 3.34 FIP, both of which are miles better than second place. The hitting has been good, but pitching has the Rays playing like a championship contender.

That pitching staff has been a many-headed monster this year, and Yonny Chirinos has been a key part of it. He’s bounced back and forth between starting and following an opener (headlining?) over 75 innings of work, compiling a 2.88 ERA and 4.05 FIP in his second major league season. He was above average last year as well — a matching 3.51 ERA and FIP over nearly 90 innings. He sports a 21.5% strikeout rate and a sterling 4.9% walk rate. In short, Chirinos looks like a mid-rotation major league starter for the foreseeable future. What’s truly amazing about him, however, is that he’s doing that while being the most predictable pitcher in all of baseball.

If you’re behind in the count against Yonny Chirinos, it’s going to be a long day for you. His splitter, which he only learned in 2017, is lights-out. It’s been the third-most-valuable splitter in baseball this year, behind relievers Hector Neris and Kirby Yates. It generates truly video game numbers: a 45% whiff rate, 2.5 ground balls for every fly ball, and a .155 wOBA on plate appearances that end with a splitter. When Chirinos has the advantage, he’s not shy about going to the split: he throws it 43% of the time, more than twice as often as his overall rate of splitters.

No, if you want to beat Chirinos, you need to avoid the splitter. If you end up in a two-strike count, you’ll probably wave at air before heading back to the bench. Get ahead in the count, however, and things change. Chirinos has an effective fastball, a 94-mph sinker with huge horizontal break that runs in on the hands of righties. Still, it’s a fastball, not a world-destroying offspeed pitch. There’s no question which offering you’d rather face. Read the rest of this entry »

Chris Paddack’s Strange Journey

At the start of the 2019 season, the Padres went against conventional baseball wisdom. Chris Paddack, their highest-rated pitching prospect, and Fernando Tatis Jr., their best prospect, both looked ready for the big leagues. Most teams would have left them down in the minor leagues to start the year. They’d have thrown around “working on their defense” or “learning to be a pitcher, not a thrower,” but the reason would be economics. Leave a prospect down for a few weeks, and there’s an extra year of control in it for you on the other side.

The Padres, though, weren’t in the mood for games. Their two highest-paid players lobbied the owner to have Tatis on the opening day roster. Paddack didn’t need a promotional campaign: he struck out 24 batters in 15.1 innings of spring work. His changeup looked dominant. He was ready, and the Padres saw it: he started the fourth game of the season. Skipping service time games and letting your best players play was a revelation, if an obvious one. Paddack started the season with a 1.93 ERA over nine games, Tatis was the team’s best hitter, and “your best players should play” looked like a new and exciting counter to the service-time doldrums.

On Wednesday, the Padres demoted Chris Paddack to the minors. It almost doesn’t matter which level he’s headed to (High-A Lake Elsinore), because he’s unlikely to throw many innings on the farm. The Padres have been cautious with Paddack’s workload this year, only his second season back from Tommy John surgery, and there’s no reason to put stress on his arm against Cal League batters. Indeed, manager Andy Green was quick to mention workload management when describing why Paddack was being optioned:

“Rest is part of the equation. We’ve talked all year long about understanding that Chris had some limitations when it came from pitching from the first day of the season to the last day of the season. We’re cognizant of that. This is a good time to get some work done and get some rest at the same time.”

Sending Paddack to the minors looks odd at first glance. He has a 3.15 ERA and a 3.71 FIP, and he’s probably the best starter on the Padres. Why send him down? Let’s consider a few possible explanations before jumping to any conclusions.
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Is Popup Rate a Skill?

When I wrote about Mike Soroka this week, I mentioned that he’s one of the best players in baseball at getting popups. Nearly 20% of the fly balls opponents have hit against him have ended up in an infielder’s glove, one of the best rates in baseball. It’s clear that this is a valuable skill for the Braves — a fifth of Soroka’s fly balls are automatic outs. But there’s a follow-up question there that’s just begging to be asked. Does Soroka have any control over this? Do pitchers in general have any control over how many popups they produce?

This is the kind of question where it’s important to know exactly what you’re asking. FanGraphs has a handy column in our batted ball stats, IFFB%, that looks like it cleanly answers what you’re looking for. Be careful, though! IFFB% refers to the percentage of fly balls that don’t leave the infield, not the percentage of overall balls in play. Let’s use Soroka as an illustration of this, because his extremely high groundball rate will make the example clear. Take a look at Soroka’s batted ball rates this year:

Mike Soroka’s Batted Ball Rates, 2019
2.97 22.0 58.4 19.7 17.6 2.9

Soroka allows 19.7% fly balls, of which 17.6% are infield fly balls. In other words, roughly 3.5% of balls put in play against Soroka this year have been popups. For me, that helps contextualize what we’re talking about. Lucas Giolito has the highest rate of popups per batted ball in the major leagues this year among qualified starters, a juicy 7.4% (in a lovely bit of symmetry, teammate and other half of the Adam Eaton trade package Reynaldo Lopez is second). Eduardo Rodriguez is last among qualified starters at 0.5%. There’s a spread in how many popups players allow, but it’s not enormous.
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How Does Mike Soroka Do It?

Baseball has changed a lot in the last five years, so much so that watching a game from 2014 already feels like a blast from the past. Offense was low, sinking fastballs were everywhere, and groundballs and defense were the order of the day. 2019 hardly feels like the same game — unless you’re watching Mike Soroka, that is. Though Soroka is only 21 years old, he pitches like he’s from a previous era. In a time of four-seam fastballs, Soroka pitches off of his sinker — he’s throwing only 16% four-seamers this year and 46.3% two-seam fastballs. In a world of exciting high-velocity young aces, Soroka sits around 93 mph. In a world of home runs, he has allowed only one all year. In short, Mike Soroka doesn’t fit in 2019. How does he do it?

As is almost always the case with pitching, Soroka isn’t doing one specific thing that makes him dominant. If it were that straightforward, that easy to reverse engineer, everyone would be doing it. Still, dominant is an apt description of Soroka’s 2019 season. He’s posted a 1.38 ERA over ten starts. His FIP is nearly as jaw-dropping — fifth in baseball at 2.70. Has he been a little lucky that only 2.9% of fly balls hit against him have become home runs this year? Certainly. Still, though, his 3.5 xFIP is no slouch, 20th-best among qualified starters.

Great pitching is always interesting, but the way Soroka is doing it is what makes him unique. His 21.9% strikeout rate is below league average, not the kind of thing you can say about most excellent pitchers. His 6.5% walk rate is better than average, but not absurdly so — it’s merely 38th-lowest among qualified starters. In short, Soroka is an evolutionary Mike Leake, or 2019’s Miles Mikolas. He’s effective in a way that resists categorization, that belies the easy tropes of analysis. Why is Mike Soroka good? He’s good because he gets every little edge he can.
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Xander Bogaerts is Selectively Aggressive

When Xander Bogaerts played in the 2013 World Series as a 20-year-old rookie, it was easy to see the start of a promising career: he was a glove-first shortstop (though he played mainly third base in 2013, ceding short to Stephen Drew) with enough pop and size to eventually be an impact bat. Over the next four years of his career, though, that promise of power remained tantalizingly out of reach. At the end of 2017, Bogaerts’ career line was nearly exactly average (101 wRC+), but the extra-base hits never quite developed as projected. His .127 ISO was in the 19th percentile of batters with at least 2000 PA over that time period, and his slugging was hardly better (.409, 28th percentile).

Now, a league average bat at shortstop is still tremendously valuable. Bogaerts was worth 12.9 WAR over those four-plus years, a 3 WAR/600 PA pace that would make him a starter on virtually every team. Still, you could look at the promise of a 20-year-old Bogaerts, a 6-foot-1 live wire getting important at-bats on the biggest stage, and wonder why he hadn’t tapped into more offense. It had been four years, after all. Surely if he was going to fill out and add power, it would have already happened.

Two years later, that 2017 endpoint looks awfully conveniently timed to fit a narrative. Since the start of the 2018 season, Bogaerts has found another gear. He’s batting a scintillating .291/.366/.526, good for a 134 wRC+, and the power has miraculously appeared, with his .235 ISO ranking in the 84th percentile among qualifying batters. Still only 26, Bogaerts now looks like one of the best players in the game, full stop. The player fans and scouts saw glimpses of in 2013 is finally here.

What did Bogaerts do to tap into his enormous potential? Well, given that his power numbers have spiked across the board while his strikeout and walk numbers have barely budged (18.5% strikeouts and 7.2% walks 2013-2017 versus 18.1% and 10.2% thereafter), it would be easy to say he just started hitting the ball harder. He always looked like he had the potential to do that. A few pounds of muscle here, a little physical maturation there, a smattering of juiced baseball, and warning track power becomes home run trots. Take a look at Bogaerts’ average exit velocity from 2015 (the first year of Statcast data) to now, on all batted balls and also balls he hit in the air: Read the rest of this entry »