Author Archive

Fire Up the Machine: How Teams Are Teaching Hitting in a Pitcher’s World

We often hear about how pitchers are overmatching hitters these days, and with good reason. In the last 10 years, teams have discovered how to develop velocity at scale. After generations of going by feel and repetition, pitchers now lean on sophisticated tools and technology to burnish their arsenals and optimize their spin profile. Catchers have chipped in too, turning subtle positional and glovework adjustments into an avalanche of additional strikes on balls near the edges of the plate.

Hitters, meanwhile, spent the decade trying to play catch up. Strikeouts have climbed 5% in the past 10 years. Alongside, the league batting average has plummeted from .251 down into the .230s over that span. An industry-wide emphasis on steeper swing planes did fuel a surge in home runs, but even these gains are somewhat superficial, buoyed as they are by the juiced ball. Even with the recent crackdown on sticky substances, pitchers remain dominant.

Nobody ever stays ahead for too long in baseball though, and if you turn toward the farm, there are signs of life on the offensive side of the game. They’re not necessarily reflected in the numbers — most minor league circuits have more strikeouts and fewer dingers than the majors — but league stats bely real differences in how teams and hitters are preparing for battle against a modern pitcher’s arsenal. These gains are not spread equally across the league. Rather, the clubs that have most successfully invested time and resources into combatting high-spin fastballs at the top of the zone and a steady diet of breaking balls everywhere else have pulled ahead from the pack.

It starts in practice. The days of a coach lobbing BP from 40 feet away two hours before a game aren’t gone exactly, but progressive teams are increasingly finding better ways to develop hitters than a traditional batting practice session. The pitching machine, long out of favor among hitters at all levels of baseball, has become a vital part of a modern training regimen. Read the rest of this entry »

Daily Prospect Notes: 7/22/21

These are notes on prospects from Brendan Gawlowski. Read previous installments of the DPN here.

Across the country and around the world, it’s the Daily Prospect Notes.

Graham Ashcraft, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
Level & Affiliate: Double-A Chattanooga Age: 23 Org Rank: 22 FV: 40

A threat to walk everyone in the ballpark in college, Ashcraft seemed like a surefire reliever after the Reds drafted him in the sixth round of the 2019 draft. But a weird thing happened between then and now: He found a way to throw strikes, started going deeper in games, and did both while still missing bats. Read the rest of this entry »

Daily Prospect Notes: 7/16/21

These are notes on prospects from Brendan Gawlowski, who will be chipping in on Daily Prospect Notes once a week. Read previous installments of the DPN here.

Today, we have a few notes from a series between Tri-Cities and Everett, the High-A affiliates of the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners, respectively.

Jordyn Adams, CF, Los Angeles Angels
Level & Affiliate: High-A Tri-Cities Age: 22 Org Rank: 2 FV: 50
Line: 2-5, two infield singles, 3 SO

Adams is having a bad season. After a lower-leg injury sidelined for more than a month, the 22-year-old has been ice cold since returning to the lineup. Now more than 100 PAs into his season, he’s hitting .174/.260/.261 with a 35% strikeout rate, good for a 49 wRC+.

At the plate, he looks lost. He’s struggling to identify breaking pitches out of the hand, taking strikes on balls that bend into the zone and flailing early on pitches spinning down and away from him. He also swung and missed at several low-90s fastballs in the zone. When he does make contact, everything’s on the ground, much of it hit weakly the other way. Mechanically, he’s inconsistent as well, alternately lunging at low breaking balls or pulling off the plate on swings against the heat.

He’s also raw in the field: Two nights ago, he fielded a short fly with runners on first and second and despite no intent from the lead runner to advance, Adams came up firing and launched the ball well over the third baseman’s head. His 80-grade speed is also playing down at the moment. At the plate, he’s not quick out of the box, and on one occasion he posted a 4.3 DTL on a grounder to short. There’s more speed in the tank than that, and it’s possible that the leg injury is still bugging him, but at present he’s not consistently impacting the game with his wheels. Read the rest of this entry »

Cleveland “No-Hit” Again, Continues Circling Drain

We have speed limits for a reason. Excessive speed is a factor in more than a quarter of automobile fatalities and is particularly deadly when combined with other dangerous behaviors behind the wheel. And yet, the idea that we can drive 5-10 mph over the limit without repercussion is so entrenched in our collective psyche — and so effectively decriminalized in most American cities — that most people hardly think twice about driving 35 in a 30. Behind this normalization lies an unexamined, exceptionalist belief: “This speed limit may be a good idea, but I have the ability to exceed it safely.”

There are a number of behaviors that fit into this category of exceptionalism: I’m the one who can get away with not flossing, I can spend hours on social media without consequence, I can stay cool into my 40s. Narcissism lies at the end of this road, but most of us don’t make it nearly that far. In doses, it’s entirely normal to think that general principles don’t apply to you personally. The contradiction at play is just part of the human experience, and it’s not always unhealthy: from this wellspring comes hope and ambition, among other traits and emotions.

As far as baseball is concerned, a no-hitter is perhaps the most wholesome embodiment of this form of individual exceptionalism. In the modern game, chasing a no-no is a retrograde “screw you,” not only to the opponent, but to the conventions of our time. “Take your third time through the order penalty and shove it,” and all that. Understandably, there was a bit of no-hitter fatigue swirling through the audience earlier this season. For me though, even with the increased frequency, the no-hitter remains a rebellion, and it’s as badass as ever. Read the rest of this entry »

Daily Prospect Notes: 7/2/21

These are notes on prospects from Brendan Gawlowski, who will be chipping on Daily Prospect Notes once a week. Read previous installments of the DPN here.

Today, we’ll review some live looks, watch at a little video, and head off the beaten path for a bit. It should be fun, and apologies in advance for highlighting a few performances from earlier in the week. Onward!

CJ Van Eyk, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Level & Affiliate: High-A Vancouver Age: 22 Org Rank: 10 FV: 40+
Line: ⅔ IP, 4 H, 7R, 1 SO, 3 BB

It was a night he’d like to forget. The line probably oversells how rough he looked — a couple of gork singles extended the inning — but Van Eyk’s primary developmental goal this season is to pound the zone, and only 17 of his 33 pitches were strikes on Tuesday night. He often missed badly to his arm side with his fastball and curve, and a lack of competitive pitches limited him to just one true swing and miss.

Mechanically, Van Eyk has a loose arm, clean arm swing, and still head, all of which should help him throw strikes. His landing spot is very inconsistent though, and that seems to affect his ability to throw strikes. Sometimes he lands in a clean fielding position; on other occasions his left foot lands so awkwardly that he practically falls off the mound toward the first base dugout (you can see footage of that in action in Tess Taruskin’s notes from a few weeks back). Up to 94 with a curve that flashes plus, there’s good stuff here if he can find a delivery that facilitates more strikes. Read the rest of this entry »

Stick(y) in the Mud: Assessing Impact of MLB’s Ban Will Be Difficult

On Monday, MLB umpires began (re-)enforcing Rule 3.02, the clause that bans pitchers from applying foreign substances to the baseball. While we didn’t have any ejections, umpires conducted plenty of searches and managed to do so without needlessly delaying games. Much digital ink has been spilled on this topic since MLB announced the crackdown; just last week, Ben, Jay, and I all weighed in, and comments from the players themselves have run the gamut from measured and reasonable to wildly implausible.

As we enter this new period, the obvious and immediate impulse is to try to measure the impact the rule change is having on the game. We know the teams will: Clubs have paid good coin for elite spin in recent years, and you can bet they’ll be paying close attention to who does and doesn’t lose RPMs as trade season approaches. Fans and writers will surely do the same. Whether assessing league statistics or individual performances, the temptation to compare spin rates against performance will be very powerful in the coming days.

Read the rest of this entry »

Baseball’s Latest Sticky Situation

Last week, MLB announced that it would begin enforcing one of its rules. Following last week’s owner’s meetings, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that the league instructed umpires to begin checking pitchers and their equipment for foreign substances. While pitchers have long lathered up the ball with pine tar or sunscreen, the concoctions applied to baseballs have become more sophisticated recently, and they appear to have had a role in dampening offense league wide.

Cracking down on foreign substances is a defensible choice on the league’s part. In 2021, we’ve seen record-breaking strikeout totals and record-low batting averages, a continuation of trends that had already spawned discussions on how to get the ball in play more often. There’s no shortage of ideas on how to best do that and controlling the substances pitchers can use to doctor the baseball has a couple of advantages.

The first is that it’s likely to yield at least a modest result. In recent years, we’ve learned how different substances can affect a ball’s spin rate, and thus it’s trajectory. We’ve also seen how increased spin rates lead to nastier pitches and thus more strikeouts. With the right recipe, a pitcher can enhance his spin rate significantly, and certain spin-gainers have been rewarded handsomely for doing so. While nobody is arguing that a few hundred extra revolutions per minute is the difference between the All-Star game and the scrap heap, the consensus within the league is that the extra spin has given pitchers a leg up against the hitters. Removing that advantage could help restore balance to the sport.

The second benefit is that there’s historical precedent for something like this, and that’s a boon for a tradition-minded sport like baseball. In 1920, MLB banned the spitball for similar reasons. Nobody was talking about spin rates back then, but pitchers had figured out that a good hock of phlegm could make a ball dip unpredictably, and the corresponding decrease in spin was giving batters fits. As was the case 100 years ago, a mandate to keep the ball clean is an easy enough policy for all parties to understand: everyone should be on the same page about the league’s directive here. Read the rest of this entry »

The Shrinking Starting Pitcher Workload: Prospect Edition

Throughout baseball history, starters have thrown fewer pitches and innings than the generation of pitchers who preceded them. The trend dates to at least the early 20th century and has continued almost unabated ever since. Individual throwbacks will occasionally buck league trends — remember when James Shields tossed 11 complete games in 2011? — but history steadily marches on.

While the trend is clear, the curve isn’t linear. Throughout the game’s history, there have been a few accelerating events that have reduced workloads usage much faster than normal. The addition of the designated hitter and new definition of the save rule sent innings per start tumbling in the early 70s, for example.

It’s too early to tell definitively, but we may be on the precipice of another acceleration. We’re only two months into the major league season, and the pandemic and its related fallout are relevant and difficult variables to account for. But while major league starters are approximating the workloads they carried two years ago, minor league starters are not. On any given day in the minor leagues, someone might throw 100 pitches — but probably only one or two pitchers, and they almost certainly don’t reach 110. Remember when 100 pitches was a sort of threshold point for starters? This season, 85 is the new 100.

I went back and looked at every minor league game from May 19 to 24 (these days weren’t cherry picked; it, uh, took me a while to finish this article). In those five days, only four starters — all of whom were Triple-A vets — reached the 100 pitch mark. In that time, there were 12 entire organizations that didn’t have a single pitcher reach even 90 pitches. For the Astros, an organization that won’t let minor leaguers crest 30 pitches in an inning, the high-water mark was 79. For the Phillies, it was 67. In fact, Philadelphia has only had a minor leaguer top 80 pitches once all season.

The pandemic is to blame for some of what we’re seeing. At best, minor league hurlers had a jittery 2020, with intermittent bullpen work and perhaps a bit of summer ball at the alt site, but otherwise nothing between spring training and instructs. After such a weird season, teams are being understandably cautious with their personnel as they ramp back up. Read the rest of this entry »

Yermín Mercedes Homers, Annoys Own Manager

Heading into the ninth inning of a blowout loss Monday, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli waved the white flag and summoned Willians Astudillo from… wherever he was sitting at the time. La Tortuga already had a scoreless inning under his belt this year, titillating Twins fans and the Baseball Twitterverse with an eephus that limped over the plate at 49 mph. Astudillo’s slow-pitch softball routine was received warmly that first appearance, and in a year where very little has gone right for Minnesota, the locals seemed pleased to see him out there again.

Naturally, we couldn’t get through the outing without an unwritten rules controversy.

With two outs, Astudillo fell behind Yermín Mercedes 3-0. The catcher-turned-hurler boldly stuck with the pitch that he’d ridden to get the first two outs and lobbed another one, this time over the outer half of the plate.

Mercedes hit the tar out of it:

Read the rest of this entry »

Not a Moment Too Soon: Mariners Promote Kelenic, Gilbert

Earlier today, the Seattle Mariners promoted Logan Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic to their active roster; both are expected to start in tonight’s game against Cleveland. The joint moves are the latest and most decisive steps to date in Seattle’s rebuild, and mark the next phase in the Mariners’ quest to construct a contender around a nucleus of homegrown talent.

This is undoubtedly a big day for the Mariners and their fans. As you probably know, the team owns the longest playoff drought in major American sports, a streak now in its 20th year. In those two decades of fits and starts, aborted tear-downs and calamitous collapses, Seattle has teased fans with young and talented rosters before. But while there’s never any guarantee that bluechip farmhands will live up to their billing, this era has a different feel to it. The current regime’s player development staff already has a few wins under their belt, and Seattle’s farm system is deeper than in previous rebuilding cycles, particularly when it comes to premium position players: In Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez, the Mariners have a pair of prospects with legitimate star potential.

There’s not much I can tell you about Kelenic that Eric Longenhagen hasn’t covered already. We have him as the game’s fourth-best prospect right now, a player who projects as a plus bat and one who may have muscled his way into plus power as well. Mariners fans will find much to salivate over in Eric’s full remarks, but as a brief teaser: “Kelenic rakes. His feel for contact, strength, and mature approach combine to make him a lethal offensive threat… I expect him to come up in 2021 and be an immediate impact player.” We’ll talk more about all of the learning and developing and maturing he did in his six games down in Tacoma later. For now, suffice to say that his spring and Triple-A appearances did nothing to damage his stock. Read the rest of this entry »