Author Archive

Catching Hyeon-Jong Yang’s First Start and a Delightfully Entertaining Twins-Rangers Game

On Wednesday evening, Texas’ Hyeon-Jong Yang made his first career start. While a low pitch count and a fourth-inning jam limited him to 3.1 innings, the southpaw still managed to impress: He struck out eight and walked only one while missing 15 bats on 37 swings. This was just a spot start in place of injured Kohei Arihara, but it was almost certainly good enough to warrant another look sooner rather than later.

Yang didn’t arrive with the same fanfare as fellow KBO transplant Ha-seong Kim. The 33-year-old had to settle for a minor league deal; he didn’t even make the Rangers’ Opening Day roster. Still, he’s a legend back home in South Korea. With two KBO Series titles, an MVP trophy on the mantle, and numerous international accolades there was little left for him to prove in Gwangju, and he understandably wanted to test his mettle at the highest level while he’s still near the peak of his powers.

I watched several of Yang’s starts last season. His overall numbers weren’t particularly impressive, but he looked much better once he shook off some early-season rust and got his best fastball back. As a command-reliant starter with a low-90s heater, above-average fading change, and functional slider, he seemed like a big leaguer, if not an impact one.

Across his first three games in Texas, Yang’s results have been pretty good. In 12 innings, he’s struck out 13 hitters while allowing only two walks and 10 hits. But while his start against the Twins was mostly encouraging, it also revealed some limitations in his skillset and highlighted the difference in competition between the KBO and the major leagues. Read the rest of this entry »


(I Can’t Get No) Batting Average

Yesterday Jon Sciambi shared a tweet with a few, seemingly impossible stats:

Yikes indeed. While all of those numbers are concerning on their own, it’s actually the batting average figure that most struck me. If a .232 league batting average sounds absurdly low to you, you’re not wrong. In fact, it’s the lowest since at least the turn of the twentieth century. The .232 mark is five points worse than the league hit in 1968, when Bob Gibson spun a 1.12 ERA, only one American Leaguer managed to hit .300, and nearly a quarter of the season’s games ended in a shutout. It’s also seven points lower than the worst collective batting average of the Dead Ball Era, a year the league slugged .305. And it’s far, far lower than anything in recent memory:

Lowest BA Since 1973
Year Batting Average
2021 .232
2020 .245
2018 .248
2014 .251
2019 .252
2013 .253
1989 .254
1988 .254
2015 .254

Say what you will about Three True Outcomes baseball, a batting average this low is a bit of a problem. And while the magnitude of the problem may come as a bit of a shock, the “why” is pretty easy to explain.

Much of it can be attributed to strikeouts, of course. Pitchers are fanning their opponents 24.6% of the time, up from 23.4% in last year’s shortened season. Strikeout rates seemingly only go up each year, but it’s worth noting that this is a pretty dramatic uptick even by that standard, easily the largest year-over-year we’ve seen this century. (Hat tip to Marc Webster for noticing.) Read the rest of this entry »


Jay Bruce Decides to Retire; Hangs Out for Three More Games

When Jay Bruce debuted with the Reds, he was the top prospect in baseball. Our very own Kevin Goldstein projected him as a perennial All-Star, writing that he could be a “true superstar in the mold of Larry Walker.” He debuted as a 21-year-old and went 3-3 with two walks in his first game. Three days later, he had four hits and scored the winning run. He topped that off with a walk-off homer, his first dinger in the big leagues, the following night. Over the next two days he went 4-7 with two more homers, lowering his batting average to .577. As Bruce’s heroics mounted and his legend grew, you had to wonder how anyone could possibly live up to this kind of start.

Bruce didn’t, of course. His bat cooled considerably over the summer and he ended the year with 0.8 WAR and a fifth-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting, a few slots behind Joey Votto. But while Bruce’s numbers fell a bit short of his prospect league billing, he still blossomed into a very good major-league player. Over 14 seasons, Bruce hit 319 homers, won two Silver Sluggers, made three All-Star appearances, and accrued exactly 20 WAR. Read the rest of this entry »


Checking In on a Few Post-Hype Arms

We’re now about 10 days into the season, which means it’s time for a round of “Who’s looking good out of the gate?” Today, I want to focus on three post-hype starters who piqued my interest in the last week: Carlos Rodón, Jeff Hoffman, and Justin Dunn. Obviously, these three have teased before, and given their track records, there’s good reason to be skeptical of them going forward. All three have good arms though, and I’m a sucker for a spring breakout. With that in mind, I’ve donned my yellow zigzagged shirt, taken a running start, and am ready to blast this metaphorical football.

I trust that a small sample warning isn’t really necessary here. We all know that we’re working with extremely limited data at this point in the year, and that the following content comes with an extra-large SSS warning label. I trust you to recognize the intent of this article, which is simply to highlight interesting starts from a few talented but oft-frustrating arms. I’m not declaring that they’re suddenly budding All-Stars; I’m not even arguing they belong on your fantasy team. If someone reads this and comments “Uh, it was one start,” I will, well, I won’t do anything, but someone else will down-vote you in the comments, and that will be embarrassing. Don’t do that.

With that out of the way:

Carlos Rodón

Rodón’s run of bad luck in recent years is well-documented. He missed a couple of months in 2018 with a shoulder injury, then had to go under the knife for Tommy John early the following year. He returned to the mound last season, but only for a handful of innings, and he was unceremoniously non-tendered this past winter. Chicago invited him to camp anyway, and while he had a strong spring and won a job in the rotation, he didn’t have a ton of buzz heading into the season. Read the rest of this entry »


Presenting a 2021 KBO Preview

The Korean Baseball Organization is an entertaining league that stands on its own merits. The talent level is high, the games competitive, the playoffs spectacular, and the crowds unlike anything seen in an American ballpark. The league’s very existence offers a pleasant alternative for those who have grown weary of tanking MLB teams and the league’s clunky stewardship of the game. Even better, the action on the field is a refreshing reminder that the Three True Outcomes don’t have to be the Three Primary Objectives. Watch a little, and you’ll enjoy a few bat flips. Watch a lot, and you can get hooked.

For those new to the league, I want to start with a brief rundown of the KBO and how it operates.

The KBO is a 10-team league. Each club is named after the corporation that owns it (hi Samsung!), not the city where the team plays. Each team plays 144 games, facing the other nine teams 16 times apiece. Games are declared ties after 12 innings (15 in the postseason), and those contests have no bearing on a team’s winning percentage. Five teams make the playoffs, where the league uses a step-ladder format: The fifth- and fourth-placed teams battle in a Wild Card round, the winner faces the three seed, and so on. It’s way better this way. Read the rest of this entry »


2021 Positional Power Rankings: Center Field

This morning, Kevin Goldstein kicked off the outfield rankings in left. Now we shift our attention to center field, home to the game’s best player.

What a fun time for center fielders. We still have Trout, but there are only a couple of genuine stars after him. Instead, a changing of the guard is afoot. Luis Robert, Ramón Laureano, Trent Grisham, Kyle Lewis, Cristian Pache. All of those players could conceivably headline our list in future years, and we get to spend 2021 learning who will take the jump. At the same time, a handful of veterans have remained productive into their 30s, headlined by Aaron Hicks, Starling Marte, and Lorenzo Cain. There are a ton of plausible All-Stars here and quite a few players who probably won’t be back for next year’s edition.

As you might expect, our rankings get very jumbled in the middle. Marte and Lewis rank 16th and 17th, for instance, and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash if they were 10 spots higher. These are not anyone’s personal rankings, but rather a projection based on ZiPS, Steamer, and our playing time estimates. Go ahead and disagree with the list; you won’t be alone. Read the rest of this entry »


To Add Insult To Injury

It’s performance review week at my day job, which means I get to find out how many WAR my manager thinks I accrued last year. Based on that, she’ll assign me into one of four buckets: poor, developing, strong, and top. It’s one of those systems where the top and bottom levers are rarely exercised but the road to a “strong” is traversable ground.

At my workplace, annual compensation adjustments are directly tied to which category an employee falls into. In the lowest bucket — I’m sure someone’s fallen into it but I’ve yet to see or hear about it — you won’t receive anything, but after that it’s smooth sailing. The next rung up gets a cost of living bump or a little more, and the raises only increase from there.

It’s not a perfect system, of course. A couple of the performance inputs feel a little BABIP-ey, subject to the whims of Google’s search algorithms and the ability of our teammates. Speaking of teammates, clubhouse chemistry undoubtedly matters here: The camaraderie of your team and your relationship with management are like park factors, invisible mechanisms adding or subtracting a thousand bucks from what our $/WAR suggests we should earn. Still, the criteria is reasonably clear and the process about as transparent as I could ask for.

***

Poor: Performance often falls below the expectations of the role despite support, follow-up and feedback. Read the rest of this entry »


Yanks Re-Sign Gardner

On Friday, the Yankees and Brett Gardner came to a one-year, $4 million agreement. The deal includes a player option for 2022 and a team option if Gardner declines it. The contract solidifies the outfielder’s plan to spend his entire career in New York. Nominally, his return had been up in the air: The Yankees declined to exercise his $10 million option last fall and announced that Clint Frazier would be the club’s starting left fielder in 2021. But Gardner wanted to stay in New York, and he was willing to sign on for part-time duty in lieu of other options.

Had Gardner wanted a starting gig, he probably could have found it, as he seems to have plenty left in the tank. Prior to 2020, he had accrued 2.5 WAR or better every year since 2012. Last season, he posted a 110 wRC+ and 0.6 WAR in 49 games, numbers that probably undersell his ability. He got off to a dreadful start, batting just .165/.293/.299 through his first 36 games. In most years, that’s a bad April, but in 2020 that was his batting line when he woke up on September 10. He hit nearly .400 the rest of the way though, and then mashed in October to alleviate concerns that age had eaten into his offensive ability.

On the contrary, Gardner has aged spectacularly well. Just about the only thing that seems to have changed in his 13 years in the majors is the size of his neck, and even that’s been pretty subtle. Last year, Gardner posted a career-best walk rate, and also his highest average exit velocity since Statcast started tracking that metric. He did strike out and whiff more often than normal, but also raised his launch angle; sometimes there’s a bit of a tradeoff there. Perhaps most encouragingly, the Yankees still saw fit to use him in center field several times, and while his wheels may not spin quite as fast these days, he’s still a plus runner. ZiPS projects 1.8 WAR for him in 118 games, which would make him a 2-3 win player in an everyday role. For Aaron Boone, that’s a hell of an option to have on the bench. Read the rest of this entry »


Travis Shaw Could Be a Smart Flier for Milwaukee

Earlier this week, Travis Shaw signed a non-guaranteed deal with the Brewers that will pay him $1.5 million if he makes the big league roster, with another $1.5 million available in incentives. (Our Jay Jaffe has the particulars in a piece from Thursday on Milwaukee signing him and Brett Anderson.) There’s also an opt-out date in mid-March, one he’ll presumably exercise if he isn’t tracking to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster. He’ll have to beat out some combination of Luis Urías and Daniel Vogelbach for at-bats, and while that may not sound likely, I think he’s a reasonable bounce-back candidate.

I’ve long been fascinated by Shaw’s career path and the way his production has bounced around with his launch angle. One notable aspect of the launch angle revolution is how frequently swing adjustments seem to pay off. Perhaps we can attribute some of that to a juicy baseball; we’ll see how well all the new flyball hitters hold up with a deader pill this year. Most players who steepened their launch angle, though, have benefited from doing so — but not everyone.

Logically, we can intuit that too steep of a launch angle leads to popups, flyouts, and more swings and misses. Anything above a 45-degree launch angle, for instance, is almost always an out (unless you’re a freak like Pete Alonso). And while nobody has an average launch angle anywhere near 45 degrees, it makes sense that someone with a comparatively high figure may be reaching for too much of a good thing.

That brings us back to Shaw. After posting consecutive 3.5-WAR seasons for the Brewers in 2017 and ’18, he slumped horribly the following year. In baseball’s most homerific season to date, Shaw went from 32 round-trippers to seven. Unsurprisingly, he lost his job, got demoted to Triple-A twice, and was non-tendered after the season. A quick look at this contact profile highlights the problem:

What Goes Up…
Year Launch Angle Contact Rate wRC+
2016 16.1 77.6% 88
2017 14.9 80.1% 119
2018 16.9 81.4% 120
2019 24.9 70.8% 48
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

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A’s Improve, Dodgers Bolster Farm in Four-Player Swap

Last Friday, the Dodgers traded reliever Adam Kolarek and right-fielder Cody Thomas to Oakland in exchange for third baseman Sheldon Neuse and right-hander Gus Varland. While it’s unusual to see a division favorite flip a major leaguer for prospects with another contender, the move makes sense for both parties. The A’s get a little better in the here and now, while the Dodgers can dream on Neuse as another breakout candidate for the club’s stellar player development staff to work with.

Kolarek is the lone established big leaguer in this swap. The sidearming southpaw has been a stable part of the Dodgers’ bullpen since his acquisition from Tampa Bay 18 months ago, running an 0.88 ERA over 30 innings of work in Los Angeles — a fun bit of trivia that shouldn’t distract from otherwise normal peripherals. He primarily works with a high-80s, low-90s sinker out of a funky slot and has generated a 62% ground-ball rate over his career. Between that, a supposedly deadened ball this year, and a cavernous new home park, he may never allow a homer again.

He joins a very good bullpen in Oakland. The Athletics’ relief corps had the league’s best ERA and third-best FIP in 2020, and that group was pretty good the previous two seasons as well. Still, Kolarek fills a hole, as the ‘pen otherwise leaned heavily toward right-handers; Jake Diekman is the only other lefty likely to crack the Opening Day roster. With the A’s set to contend again this year, Kolarek adds depth to a strong unit that should see plenty of work in relief of Oakland’s young starters.

Read the rest of this entry »