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The Least Competitive Game in Recent Memory

In Steph Curry’s junior season, his Davidson Wildcats played a non-conference game against Loyola Maryland. Curry led the nation in scoring at the time, and as expected, Davidson rolled that night. But Curry himself didn’t score a point. Loyola’s coach, Jimmy Patsos, instructed his players to double-team Curry up and down the court. So, Curry stood in the corner with two Greyhounds next to him as his teammates played 4-on-3 and won by 30.

After the game, Patsos more or less copped to the farce. Defending his tactics, he asked: “Anybody else ever hold him scoreless? I’m a history major. [Are people] going to remember that we held him scoreless or we lost by 30?”

Whether all that makes Patsos infamous, cynical, or pathetic is up to your interpretation. Regardless, he’s right about one thing: you can generate attention in defeat, even humiliating defeat, so long as you lose in notable fashion.

It’s a lesson the Seattle Mariners reinforced over the weekend. On the surface, Sunday’s matchup between Seattle and Houston looked as lopsided on paper as a major league game can. The Astros are perhaps baseball’s best team; the Mariners may lose 100 games. Cy Young contender Gerrit Cole was on the mound for Houston, opposed by former Cy Young winner but current-6.00-ERA-holder Félix Hernández. The Astros had already defeated Seattle 15 times in 16 tries. Vegas handicappers set one of the highest lines I can ever remember seeing for a major league contest.

This being baseball, anything can happen on any given day, and as it turned out, 35,000 Houstonians saw a pretty spectacular version of “anything:” the most lopsided ballgame in recent memory. Read the rest of this entry »


Tim Anderson is Quietly Having a Wild Year

Tim Anderson isn’t exactly toiling in obscurity. Playing in the nation’s third-largest city, he made headlines earlier this year after one of his trademark bat flips drew a retaliatory plunking from Brad Keller. That sparked a benches-clearing brawl and placed Anderson at the center of the sport’s ongoing discussion about the proper way to play the game. In the aftermath, Anderson appropriately defended his right to play with emotion, and the episode helped reinforce the sentiment that he’s the kind of player a healthier league would market aggressively.

And yet, you could be forgiven for not knowing that Anderson has been quite good this season. He missed more than a month with a high ankle sprain, but when healthy, he’s hit .328 while posting a 124 wRC+. He’s posted nearly 3 WAR even with all that time on the shelf, more than a four-win pace over 162 games. (All stats are through the start of Thursday’s action.)

What’s less clear is how encouraged we should be by Anderson’s 2019 campaign. Prior to this season, he had established himself as a reliable big leaguer, albeit one with a mediocre stick. A cursory look at his year-to-year numbers suggests that, big BABIP spike aside, not too much has changed:

Same As The Old Guy?
Year SO% BB% ISO GB% BABIP
2016 27.1 3.0 .149 54.3 0.375
2017 26.7 2.1 .145 52.7 0.328
2018 24.6 5.0 .166 46.6 0.289
2019 20.8 2.5 .170 49.7 0.390

Other than the .390 BABIP, there isn’t much in his profile that suggests he’s a new man. The modest reduction in strikeouts is mostly cancelled out by a lower walk rate, and his ISO relative to the league has actually dropped in 2019. His average launch angle is also two degrees lower, for whatever that’s worth.

Read the rest of this entry »


Aaron Civale and the Competitive Advantage

In modern baseball, it’s hard to win if you can’t develop talent, particularly as the sport’s best teams get even better at turning raw ingredients into functional ballplayers. The best example these days is Houston’s pattern of acquiring pitchers with high-spin fastballs or curveballs and polishing them into All-Stars. As has been detailed at length here and elsewhere, Houston’s success with that breed has powered the club to the top of baseball’s hierarchy. They’ve worked wonders with Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and Ryan Pressly. They may run it back again with Aaron Sanchez and Joe Biagini.

But the Astros aren’t the only team with a competitive advantage on the mound. Before Morton and Cole exploded, Cleveland was widely considered the gold standard at developing pitching talent. They earned that reputation: former and current rotation stalwarts like Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber all became significant contributors in just the last several years. Of those, only Bauer and Carrasco had major prospect hype, and even those two took their lumps in other organizations before straightening things out in Ohio. Indeed, Cleveland’s ability to turn wayward arms into productive contributors sparked their mini-dynasty in the AL Central, and may again prove decisive in this year’s playoff push.

Cleveland’s player development staff has worked its magic on a variety of pitchers; Salazar and Kluber, to name two, are very different hurlers. One commonality, though, is that they end up with a lot of right-handed pitchers who are really good at tunneling on the glove-side corner. Kluber is perhaps the best at this: The late action on his slider and two-seam fastball make the pitches perfect for starting near the corner and forcing hitters to guess which direction it’s going to move.

Increasingly, it appears that this is a replicable strategy. The latest guy to carry the mail? Aaron Civale, a 24-year-old righty who barely snuck onto Cleveland’s top prospect list earlier this spring and has flourished in three big league starts this summer. Through 18 innings, he’s allowed just two runs and has whiffed a batter per frame while walking only four. Read the rest of this entry »


When Every Park Is a Bandbox: How Teams Are Adapting to the New Ball

Baseballs are flying in the major leagues this season. Due to a few irregularities on the outer surface of the ball, everything hit in the air is carrying much farther, all else being equal, than at any point in the game’s history. Home runs are up 15% from 2018 and hitters are on pace to shatter the league’s record for dingers in a season.

As many of you also know, Triple-A teams are playing with the same ball. Previously, all minor league teams used a different, less expensive model, one with a flight pattern that more closely resembles the pre-2015 major league pelota. This year, while all other levels still play with the cheaper model, Triple-A teams are using the big league ball. As you’d expect, the home run rates from Double-A on down look very similar to how they did last year. As you’d also expect, the Triple-A home run rate has exploded:

HR/9 By League
League 2018 2019
Pacific Coast League 1.0 1.5
International League 0.8 1.3
Texas League 0.9 0.9
Southern League 0.8 0.7
Eastern League 0.8 0.7
California League 0.9 0.8
Carolina League 0.7 0.6
Florida State League 0.6 0.6
Midwest League 0.6 0.6
South Atlantic League 0.7 0.7

Much has been written about the ball this year: why it’s different, how different it is, how it’s playing in Triple-A, how the league is addressing the controversy, whether or not this is any good for the sport. There seems to be a gap in there though: How are teams themselves responding to the upheaval generated by the ball?

In some sense, the response has been relatively muted. As the year has gone on, we’ve seen individual players like Justin Verlander and retired pitcher Brandon McCarthy express frustration. Other pitchers have clearly noticed, and some of them have been snarky on Twitter, but hurlers have by and large gritted their teeth and kept their heads down.

Similarly, if any teams have expressed concern to the league, they’ve done so very quietly. There’s no outward evidence of any support or derision toward the ball, and front offices have appeared mostly to have noticed and tried to adjust on the fly. In one early-season conversation with a baseball operations analyst, I asked if he or anyone with the team was doing any testing on the ball; he said no, and that he was just waiting for the next Rob Arthur article like everybody else.

In part, that may be because the ball hasn’t redirected the game’s trajectory much. Generally speaking, the trends exacerbated by the 2019 ball — more homers, fewer stolen base attempts, and so on — are just an extension of where the game was already heading. While this year’s ball is extreme, we’ve seen several alterations to the ball’s drag since 2015, most of which have boosted home run totals. Additionally, teams have been trying to get their personnel to hit more balls in the air for years now. The new ball may reward that approach more now than in previous seasons, but it hasn’t significantly altered how hitters go about their work.

More interesting is how teams are coping at the Triple-A level, where we’re seeing a much more dramatic change in gameplay. Jeff Manto, Baltimore’s Coordinator of Minor League Hitting, has noticed that batters are responding to the obvious incentives right now: “The hitters know what’s going on. They all see the ball flying and they want to be part of it. The approach right now is to let it fly.”

That’s resulted in a lot of very similar looking swings. “It’s hard to get guys to be pure mechanical hitters right now,” says Manto. “It’s a high risk, high reward swing, and guys are going for it. There’s certainly no more two-strike swing anymore.” For Manto, his concern is not so much that hitters are trying to put the ball in the air more often. Rather, it’s that the swing equips hitters to only do one thing — and future ball adjustments may leave them unprepared for a more normal home run environment. “The ability to hit every type of pitch and pitcher, that’s what makes a great hitter. At some point the ball’s going to come back to normal.”

In one sense, the ball has actually been helpful for teams. One executive I spoke with said it’s now easier to project a player’s raw power. “You would see players get called up from the minors and show much more power in the major leagues,” he said. “Batting practice is (one) way to evaluate a player’s raw power and I would have to mentally add 10-15 feet to a ball’s distance prior to the switch to the major league ball.”

One surprise was that pushback on the ball was basically a partisan issue. “I’m a pitching coach so you can imagine how I feel about today’s baseball,” said one minor league coach who preferred not to elaborate from there. While most of those I spoke with guessed that the ball would eventually return to a more traditional flight pattern, the hitters didn’t seem to be in any hurry: “You know, as a hitter, I love seeing the ball fly out of the ballpark,” said Manto, who played nine years in the big leagues as an infielder.

Clubs are also responding by handling Triple-A a bit differently as a developmental level. Some organizations already make limited use of Triple-A as a proving ground, preferring to use that team as a taxi squad for the big league club and a home for quad-A type prospects. But a few teams seem to be leery of letting their struggling pitchers take too many lumps.

This is especially significant for teams with affiliates in the Pacific Coast League, where half the circuit either plays at altitude, in a bandbox, or both. The Mariners, for example, sent struggling starters Justus Sheffield and Nabil Crismatt back to Double-A instead of letting them get whacked around in Tacoma, and have promoted a couple of pitchers directly from Arkansas to the big league club this season. The Nationals also regularly shuttle arms from Double-A to the majors, though the logistical hurdles of having their Triple-A team 3,000 miles away in Fresno has influenced that pattern as well.

Still, you can expect this trend to accelerate in future seasons. A National League analyst said that he expects any major shifts in how teams use their Triple-A affiliates to become more apparent next season. “This year, guys got their assignments before we knew something was different with the ball,” he explained. “It’s hard to send a guy back to Double-A just for that, but next year, you might see more arms jump from Double-A to the majors.”

For this analyst, the ball has made it tougher to evaluate the level. “You get guys where there are no major changes in their peripherals, and they’re doubling their home run totals. How do you evaluate that?”

Others just wanted a bit more predictability. “The biggest thing I would prefer would be to avoid large fluctuations in changes to how the ball acts,” said an American League executive who preferred to speak off the record. He also wanted to see more transparency going forward: “If changes are going to be made, make the public aware of any changes of time. So if we go down the route of ‘deadening’ the ball at some point, give teams and the public knowledge of that well in advance.”

Of course, predictability doesn’t mean a return to the past. Asked about what kind of ball he’d like to see in play, the aforementioned executive was sanguine: “I don’t have a major preference. I don’t mind the three true outcomes type shift. I personally think strikeouts and homers are some of the most entertaining plays in baseball.”

Whatever everyone’s opinion on the new ball, a few things are clear: it’s a topic of discussion, and it is changing how analysts and executives operate. It’s also not a discussion that’s losing momentum. As I was wrapping up this article, I got a text from a source I had spoken with earlier in the day:

“We’re literally talking about the difficulties evaluating Triple-A hitters right now.”


Small Adjustments and Glenn Sparkman

This is an unusually sunny era in which to write about player development. Seemingly every other month, someone new finds their power stroke, optimizes their curveball, or writes a best-selling book about how players are embracing technology to improve. I don’t know if any one player embodies the face of the movement, if only because so many people have jump-started their careers with a swing change or weighted ball program.

It’s easy to forget that these kind of career-altering breakthroughs are still somewhat uncommon. Ballplayers are constantly tinkering — a new grip or arm slot here, a different stance or hand position there — and the vast majority of those developments will never break a projection system. Sometimes, they’re just meant to get a struggling player back on track. In many other cases, guys make changes that give them an edge, albeit a fleeting one. These adjustments generally don’t make headlines, but under the microscope, they offer a fascinating window into the game.

Consider the case of Glenn Sparkman. Sparkman, a 27-year-old clinging to a job in Kansas City’s rotation, is the kind of guy who constantly needs to be at the top of his game to succeed. He’s a righty with slightly above average arm strength; his secondaries are competent but unremarkable. His stats are as bland as the previous sentence:

Glenn Sparkman’s Career Numbers
Year Games Innings SO/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% ERA- FIP-
2018 15 38.1 6.34 3.52 0.7 47% 103 97
2019 19 79 4.9 2.28 1.82 38.50% 100 125

Read the rest of this entry »


Jimmie Sherfy and a Fair Chance

Bucky Jacobsen represents one of the rarest flavors of big leaguer: the rookie who succeeded and yet never got a second chance. An old 28 when he debuted in 2004, Jacobsen hit .275/.335/.500 in 42 games. His beefy build, bald head, and big bat made him a hero in Seattle; to this day you’ll occasionally see “Jacobsen” jerseys around the ballpark.

But those 42 games constituted the entirety of his career. A knee injury ended his season prematurely and recovery from surgery sidelined him for most of 2005. The Mariners released him that summer and he was out of the game completely two years later.

Such a quick rise and fall was naturally disorienting. In a recent Corey Brock profile at The Athletic, Jacobsen described the nagging feeling that he’d unjustly lost something: “To have success in the big leagues and then not be allowed to continue that? That felt unfair.”

We all know what it’s like to fall just short of our dreams; the Triple-A veteran who plateaus at the highest level is an easy guy to empathize with. But there’s something just as sad about the guys who get their chance, succeed, and fade away, like the dream itself never mattered.

***

When you’re on the fringes of a big league roster, you develop a few peculiar rooting interests. You certainly want to play — you need to play, need to show why you deserve your spot on the team. But, if you’re a reliever of a certain stripe, some outings are more dangerous than others. You can call it the Goldilocks Theory of a big league audition.

If you’re the last man in the bullpen, you don’t really want to see the starter struggle. If the starter struggles, then the team needs someone to soak up innings. That person will be you, and in 2019, the inning sponge tends to get wrung out in Triple-A. Read the rest of this entry »


The Marlins Were Awful. Now They’re Kinda Interesting?

Six weeks ago, the Miami Marlins looked dead in the water. They were 10-31 at the time, and given their tough schedule ahead, they had a small yet tangible shot at eclipsing the 1962 Mets’ record for the most losses since integration. Jay Jaffe covered Miami’s putrid start, and the details were very grim indeed:

They’ve lost seven games in a row… They scored a grand total of eight runs in that span, never more than two in a game… Did I mention that it’s been a full week since the last Marlins position player drove in a run, or 11 days since one of their players homered? Or that it’s the team’s only homer this month, hit by a 29-year-old rookie named Jon Berti?

Miami’s ineptitude at the plate explained most of the trouble; the Fish were scoring barely 2.5 runs per game. They were also on pace to hit fewer than 100 home runs, an astonishingly feeble output in today’s dinger-happy game.

But in baseball, yesterday’s trends are tomorrow’s distant memory. Miami commenced a six-game winning streak the day Jaffe’s post went live, and they’ve gone 20-17 since publication — an 88-win pace. Obviously, they’re not that good: even terrible squads can string together a .500 stretch over 40 games. Still, the club’s recent surge has given them a better record than four other teams in the majors. Even stranger, the Marlins are… gulp… surprisingly entertaining! Read the rest of this entry »


Mike Foltynewicz’s Slow Start

After years of inconsistent production, Mike Foltynewicz finally harnessed his elite fastball and emerged as an All-Star in 2018. Across 183 innings, Foltynewicz struck out 202 hitters while notching a 2.85 ERA and a 3.37 FIP. All of those marks were easily career bests and, perhaps most impressively, he managed to miss tons of bats while also increasing his ground-ball rate. One year doesn’t make an ace, but Foltynewicz’s stock surged as much as anybody’s in baseball last season.

But Foltynewicz hasn’t built off his breakout campaign in 2019. The right-hander started the season on the disabled list, didn’t look quite right when he rejoined the rotation, and has yet to resemble his 2018 form in anything more than short bursts.

Across 10 starts this year, he’s posted a 5.53 ERA and a FIP north of 6.00. After striking out nearly 10 hitters per nine innings last season, he’s now whiffing fewer than eight. Even worse, Foltynewicz’s home run rate has tripled in 2019, and his 2.44 HR/9 ratio is the fifth-worst in the league among pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings.

There are a few factors that explain Foltynewicz’s plummeting numbers. As always, velocity is the first thing to check when a pitcher suddenly starts getting hit around, and sure enough, Foltynewicz is down a bit relative to last season. Read the rest of this entry »


Edwin Jackson and the Abyss

Editor’s note: Brendan has previously written at Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, and Lookout Landing. He’ll be contributing to FanGraphs a few times a week, and we’re excited to welcome him.

Edwin Jackson is not pitching well. He’s running an 11.90 ERA, with a FIP north of eight and a DRA above 12. Toronto, deep into their rebuild, has no long-term attachment to Jackson, who at 35 years old was never going to be more than a placeholder. Despite everything, Jackson is still scheduled to start today against the Orioles. When asked why, Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo quipped “we don’t have anybody else.”

Obviously, that’s not the nicest thing a manager has ever said about his player. It’s more resemblant of Leo Durocher lamenting that his “center fielder can’t catch a f–king ball” than the polished schtick contemporary skippers feed to the local media. It does, however, convey how ineffectively Jackson has pitched in Toronto this year.

The famously nomadic right-hander is on his 14th big-league team. Rachael McDaniel covered some of the more romantic parts of that journey after his first start, a perfectly cromulent five-inning, three-run outing. Since then though, the wheels have fallen off:

Jackson’s Last Four Starts
Opposition IP Runs Strikeouts Walks Home Runs
Boston 5 6 4 1 1
San Diego 4 7 2 1 3
Colorado 2.1 10 4 3 1
New York 3.1 6 3 2 2

Clearly, his opponents have been strong; few pitchers would get through that gauntlet without fluffing up their ERA at least a little bit. One of those starts was in Coors. But even accounting for a small sample size and tough competition, Jackson’s numbers are ghastly. If anything, the stats at the top of the page undersell just how freely hitters are teeing off. Collectively, they’re batting a Bondsian .383/.442/.787. Opponents are hitting .394 on balls in play, which is amazing because they’re not exactly limiting their hard contact to singles and doubles. Among pitchers who have thrown more than 15 innings, Jackson’s 3.66 HR/9 ratio is the second worst in the league.

What makes his collapse so spectacular is not the raw numbers, but the baseline it stems from. Jackson pitched just fine last season: his 3.33 ERA looks a bit rosy relative to his peripherals, but a 4.65 FIP across 92 innings isn’t nothing, particularly for a guy Oakland signed off the scrap heap.

At a glance, not much looks different this year. He’s still averaging a little more than 93 mph on his fastball, as he has for the last two seasons. He’s neither added nor subtracted a pitch, and his mix looks just about the same as it did in 2018. He’s still generating the same number of groundballs as ever.

But baseball is a hard game and there’s a very fine line between adequacy and the abyss. While there could be an infinite number of factors plaguing Jackson this season, two small ones stand out.

The first is velocity. While Jackson is throwing his heater just as hard as in years past, he’s actually lost some juice on his secondary pitches:

Jackson’s Average Velocity
Year Fastball Cutter Slider Curve Change
2017 93.5 91.4 86.8 78.9 87.4
2018 93.2 91.1 86.3 78.9 87.1
2019 93.4 91.2 85.5 77.4 86.2
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

These aren’t seismic changes in velocity, the kind of drops that would suggest he’s pitching through an injury. But every tick on the radar gun is crucial; all else being equal, less velocity means less sharpness. It’s easier now for hitters to foul off a tough slider, lay off an average changeup, and thwack a bad curve than it was last season. Not surprisingly, batters are swinging and missing at his primary secondaries less often and hitting them harder when they do connect:

Batter Performance 2018 vs. 2019
Pitch Whiff Rate ‘18 Whiff Rate ‘19 BAA ‘18 BAA ‘19 SLG ‘18 SLG ‘19
Change 10.17% 6.25% .091 .250 .136 .500
Slider 19.37% 14.29% .240 .242 .400 .606
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

It’s not clear whether Jackson has lost arm strength or if he’s doing any of this consciously. Perhaps he’s trying to take something off the ball, or is otherwise experimenting with grips. Regardless, what he’s done thus far hasn’t worked.

The second issue concerns Jackson’s fastballs, which are getting battered as well. His cutter, a late-career addition and his go-to pitch last year, has been hit even harder than the slider or change. Even worse, the sinker that he’s relied on for so long is increasingly a tough pitch to succeed with in the modern game. Batters throughout the league are better at driving balls low in the strike zone than ever before, and this year Jackson’s sinker has both mediocre velocity and less sink than normal. Not surprisingly, batters are torching it: He’s thrown 50 of them, and hitters are hitting .556 with three homers.

Both of those factors are exacerbated by a few things beyond Jackson’s control. He’s no longer pitching in Oakland’s spacious Coliseum, with one of the game’s finest defenses at his back. Four of his five starts this year have been in launching pads, and the Jays are still working out the kinks in the field. Moreover, the rabbit ball seems particularly unkind to guys like Jackson, dinger-prone hurlers without an out-pitch to miss bats with.

You’d have to search hard to find a silver lining in all of this. Watch Jackson’s outings, and there’s no hint that he’s about to turn a corner. Statcast only provides further indignities, revealing that he’s in the very bottom percentiles in both average exit velocity and the percentage of balls that opponents hit hard.

Still, there’s something morbidly compelling about watching someone at the very end of his career. A veteran like Jackson has wowed us before: He’s pitched in All-Star games and the World Series, thrown a no-hitter, and toiled seemingly everywhere. Watching such a durable player fade away is a reminder of our own waning skills.

There’s more to it than that though. One of the decade’s most gut-wrenching moments was watching Ramon Ortiz, a baseball lifer if there ever was one, openly sob after injuring his elbow, seemingly certain that he was leaving a major league mound for the last time. Ortiz was easy to empathize with because his reaction gave such visceral proof to what we all suspect: that big league baseball is not an easy thing to let go of. Knowing that, it’s captivating to watch players claw for their place in the game. As fans, we want the players to care. When Jackson slaps his glove in frustration, or looks bewildered as yet another homer sails into the seats, it’s clear he does.

So long as that last point holds true, there’s no glory in rooting for carnage today; I certainly hope that this isn’t the end of Jackson’s line. If you’re looking for a glimmer of hope, his career demonstrates the folly in declaring that someone is washed up. Jackson sure seemed cooked two years into his tenure with the Cubs — all the way back in 2014 — but a move to the bullpen sparked a return to form. Just last year, he appeared lost to minor league obscurity before reviving his career in Oakland. A start against the Orioles could be just the tonic he needs to get back on track.

But whether Jackson has one start left or 100, everyone’s time is fleeting. Enjoy baseball’s vagabond while you still can.