You may have noticed, especially if you’re a Baltimore Orioles fan, that run-scoring has been trending up as the season has progressed. This isn’t new, or particularly surprising, as the coming of summer turns up the heat, enabling fly balls to carry farther.
The All-Star Game and its various related events are behind us, and the game has collectively taken a breath for a couple of days (except for the Cubs and White Sox, but I digress). The numbers for the first half are in the books, giving us an opportunity to reflect on what has already happened and what it might portend for the second half of the season.
In this space I will often analyze players by examining plate appearance frequency and contact quality (for hitters) and contact management (for pitchers) information for pitchers, using granular data to see how players “should be” performing to get a better handle on their true talent and performance levels. Today, let’s use some of this data in a slightly different manner, identifying players with common statistical markers that can tell us something very good or very bad about those player “families.”
From a team perspective, one of the big stories of the first half has been the utter dominance of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sure, most prognosticators thought they would be good, but this good? Their sheer dominance over the last couple months has been nothing short of historic, 1939 Yankees type stuff.
The identity of their lead dogs hasn’t been all that surprising. There’s Clayton Kershaw, the best of the best among starting pitchers — once again healthy and offering elite quality and quantity of contribution. Kenley Jansen is a human zero machine out of the bullpen. Occasionally, hitters even make contact against him. Corey Seager might still be a very young man, but his excellence has come to be expected. And while the immediacy and magnitude of Cody Bellinger’s production might be a bit surprising, he was almost unanimously considered an elite prospect.
We can talk (and have talked, just last week, about Kershaw) about those guys another time. Today, let’s turn toward three supporting players who have made surprisingly large contributions to the larger team effort. Third baseman Justin Turner is one of their core guys, but did you have him down for .377/.477/.583 at the break? Utilityman Chris Taylor is the least likely of the club’s six double-digit homer producers. And it’s Alex Wood, at 10-0 and with 1.67 ERA, who’s making a strong run at the Kershaw/Max Scherzer tandem for Cy Young honors.
How real are their first-half contributions? Let’s drill down into their plate-appearance-frequency and batted-ball-quality data to get a better feel.
In the two tables below, such data is provided for all three players.
|Name||UNADJ C||U-FLY-A||U-LD-A||U-GB-A||ADJ C||wRC+||PRJ PRD|
|Name||UNADJ C||U-FLY-A||U-LD-A||U-GB-A||ADJ C||ERA –||FIP –||TRU –|
The first table lists each players’ K and BB rates, as well as the breakdown of all of their BIP by category type. For this table, color-coding is used to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations higher than league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.
The second table includes each player’s Unadjusted Contact Score. This represents, on a scale where 100 equals league average, the actual production level recorded/allowed by each player on balls in play. Basically, it’s their actual performance with the Ks and BBs removed. Their Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores for each BIP category are then listed. Adjusted Contact Score represents the production level that each player “should have” recorded/allowed if every batted ball resulted in league-average production for its exit-speed/launch-angle “bucket.”
Finally, overall Adjusted Contact Score, and for hitters, actual wRC+ and Projected Production, and for pitchers, actual ERA-, FIP-, and “tru” ERA- are listed. Projected Production and “Tru” ERA add back the Ks and BBs to the Adjusted Contact Score data to give a better measure of each player’s true performance level.
Neither Chris Taylor nor Justin Turner was expected to become an offensive force at the major-league level. Each year, I compile my own list of minor-league position-player rankings, based on production and age relative to league and level. It basically serves as a follow list, a starting point from which traditional scouting takes place to tweak the order. Taylor qualified for this list four times, finishing progressively lower each season (Nos. 59, 71, 245, and 307 from 2013 to -16). Turner qualified twice, at No. 212 in 2007 and No. 253 in 2010. I was with the Mariners when we selected Taylor in the fifth round out of Virginia. We thought he was a big leaguer, for sure, but a big bat? Not quite.
The overriding theme of the 2017 season to date has been a wave of homers, many of them hit into the stratosphere courtesy of the sport’s new wave of sluggers, like Cody Bellinger, Miguel Sano, and, of course, Aaron Judge. Somewhat under the radar, the game’s three best starting pitchers, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and are doing what they always do — namely, dominate.
For many people, a good fireworks show is a welcome part of their extended 4th of July weekend. I mean, who doesn’t like one, except for some really good dogs out there? That said, if you attended a fireworks show every night of the entire summer, it’d probably get old pretty quick, right? Right.
Well, what I’d like to do here is consider a different sort of fireworks — one more relevant to our national pastime — and the possibility of them wearing out their welcome.
For the sake of the analogy, home runs will take the place of fireworks. Homers are occurring more than ever and, I submit, it’s going to get old pretty soon. Oh, we’ve been down this road before, in the so-called steroid era, which peaked right around the turn of the 21st century. Homers got pretty old then, too.
Well, we’re hitting way more homers now than we were hitting then. In the year 2000, major-league hitters combined for 1.17 homers per team per game, an all-time high. Or, I should say, an all-time high until now. Now we’re rolling along at 1.26 homers for the season, shattering the previous high.
As for the implications of the home-run spike, I’ll discuss that in a moment. First, a couple key notes for context. In 2000, teams struck out an average of 6.45 times per game. That average has been on a rocket ship upward over the last decade, up to 8.24 thus far this season. As for walks, they had been trending downward for a while, from 3.42 per team per game in 2009, down to 2.88 in 2014. Well, that has turned upward in a big way, up to 3.27 thus far in 2017. What we have here is the Russell Branyan-ization of baseball: the Era of the Three True Outcomes is upon us.
Aesthetically, the emergent style of play in “our game” isn’t very pleasing, I would submit. The three true outcomes have run amok; the Russell Branyan-ization of baseball is almost complete. That said, there have been some satisfying side effects of this trend, Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger among them.
In this, The Year of Higher Launch Angles and Homer and Strikeout Spikes, most of the game’s marquee offensive players have joined the party. Mike Trout was Mike Trout when healthy, Bryce Harper is back, while Cody Bellinger, Aaron Judge, Miguel Sano, and others are leading the youth brigade. In the meantime, though, has anyone seen Manny Machado?
Hitters are generating thunderous contact at a record clip, with pitchers in both leagues under siege. Last week, we examined the ERA-qualifying AL starting pitchers who have been the best at limiting damage, looking at their underlying batted-ball allowed data to see whether their performances are real. Today, we avert our gaze toward qualifying NL starting pitchers.
Last week, we took a look at the hitters who have been the most productive on balls in play in both leagues, and peeled back a layer or two of batted-ball data to see how much of it was real. This week and next, we’re going to do the same with pitchers. Today, the AL.
Earlier this week, we took a look at the AL hitters producing the most on balls put in play. Today, it’s the NL hitters’ turn. Bear in mind that this top-10 list is based on games played through Saturday, explaining the absence of the greatest hitter of all time, Scooter Gennett. (In all seriousness, nice job, Scoots.)