Author Archive

Trying on Some Fits for Michael A. Taylor

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

I’m biased when it comes to Michael A. Taylor. I know that. I’ve watched him hit too many big homers and unleash too many rockets from deep center not to root for him. For a long time, that meant rooting for him to figure it out at the plate. A Taylor who could just lay off a few more balls, who could just whiff a bit less – OK, a lot less — would have been an incredible weapon. But Taylor is entering his age 33 season, and those dreams died long ago, one flailing strikeout at a time. These days, rooting for Taylor doesn’t mean wishing for him to develop new skills; it means hoping that he finds a nice comfortable place to demonstrate the ones he actually has.

In 2021, Taylor took home a Gold Glove and rated as the best defender in all of baseball according to multiple defensive metrics. Over the past two seasons, he still rated as a plus defender (except according to DRP, which rated him as a net negative defensively 2023). Taylor is also coming off the second-best offensive season of his career; he put up a 96 wRC+, balancing out a strikeout rate that jumped all the way to a calamitous 33.5% by launching 21 homers in just 388 plate appearances. There’s no telling whether this approach will stick, but it certainly makes sense for Taylor. Who better to sell out for power than someone who’s not going to make enough contact no matter what he tries? Taylor boasts one other important skill: health. According to Baseball Prospectus, when Taylor missed 15 days with a hamstring strain last season, it marked the longest absence of his entire big league career.

In all, Taylor has spent 10 years in the big leagues, and despite his 82 wRC+, he’s averaged 1.6 WAR per 150 games. If you want to be generous, you could discount the -0.1 WAR Taylor totaled in his 2014 cup of coffee and 2015 rookie season, leaving you with 1.9 per 150 games. Over the past three seasons, that number is nearly 2.0 on the dot. Surely, there’s a team out there that could use no. 34 on our Top 50 Free Agents list, a league-average center fielder who doesn’t get on base but has a great glove and some pop. Read the rest of this entry »

How To Say You’re Rebuilding Without Saying You’re Rebuilding: A Guide for General Managers

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

I’m so glad you’re here. If you’re reading this, you’re a general manager who has finally accepted the simple truth: Your team is a mess, and it’s time to rebuild. That’s a hard pill for anyone to swallow. It’s much easier to live in denial and hurl insults at Dan Szymborski when the ZiPS projections come out. I’m proud of you. An exciting but tenuous path lies before you. Ownership won’t be spending any more money to prop open the contention window. Now that you’ve come to terms with that reality, it’s time to get your fans on board too, and you must do so without making them so angry that they demand a new GM. Fans are a tricky species. They care very much, which is often inconvenient.

The first rule of rebuilding: Never use the word “rebuilding.” People can’t handle it. They’ll gnash their teeth. They’ll rend their garments. They’ll buy every convenience store in the state out of poster board and Sharpies, and spend weeks coming up with devastatingly clever ways to say that you don’t deserve to be gainfully employed. “Rebuilding” is what you do after a tornado destroys your entire town. Nobody wants to think of their beloved baseball team as a patch of land that used to be a house but is now just one wall and a bathtub.

Let’s practice. What’s the word that you’re never, ever allowed to utter? Say it with me…

Okay, see, you immediately failed the test. You should not have said it with me. Rebuilding is what Batman does after Ra’s al Ghul burns his mansion to the ground. It’s painstaking, brick-by-brick work. Sure, you might end up with a Batcave, but there’s all that manual labor that comes first. Read the rest of this entry »

What Is a Foul Ball Anyway?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

I imagine that everybody here at FanGraphs generates ideas for articles in different ways. Looking at leaderboards is certainly a common method. You click around, sorting by different stats until someone looks out of place. “How did you get all the way up here?” is what the start of a FanGraphs article sounds like. Sometimes ideas take longer to germinate, and sometimes there are twists and turns along the way.

For a while now, I’ve been noticing that Freddie Freeman always seems to pop up near the top of Baseball Savant’s foul ball leaderboard. He finished second to Ozzie Albies in 2023 and second to Bo Bichette in 2022. In 2021, he finished third behind both Bichette and Albies. He finished third again in 2020 and first in 2019, 2018, and 2016. Freeman is one of the best hitters in the game, and since 2016, he has 4,225 foul balls, over 400 more than Francisco Lindor in second place. The names below them are good too: José Abreu, José Ramírez, Marcus Semien, Paul Goldschmidt. You get the picture. That brought me to my first question:

Are foul balls the mark of a good hitter?

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Jorge Soler Brings His Giant Bat to San Francisco

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Jorge Soler is getting nearly as far away from Miami as he possibly can. The 6’4” power hitter has agreed to a three-year, $42 million deal with the San Francisco Giants. Susan Slusser broke the news of the deal, and Mike Rodriguez reported the terms.

Soler, who debuted with the Cubs in 2014 and also played for the Royals, Braves, and Marlins, opted out of the third and final year of the deal he signed with Miami, capitalizing on the second-best season of his 11-year career both in terms of health and overall production. Soler ranked 19th on our Top 50 Free Agents list, and his deal is just $1 million per year below the three years and $45 million that both Ben Clemens and MLB Trade Rumors predicted for him. The deal also nets Soler $1 million more than this year than the $13 million he would have made had he stayed with the Marlins.

There’s plenty of risk here. Soler was an All-Star in 2023, the World Series MVP in 2021, and the American League home run champ in 2019. He obliterates four-seam fastballs, and he’s the kind of player who can go on a tear and put a team on his back. He’s also about to turn 32, and he missed half the 2022 season due to back and pelvis injuries. The 1.9 WAR he put up in 2023 was not only the second-best mark of his career, but just the second time he even surpassed 0.7, the total he recorded as a 22-year-old rookie in 2014. Soler has appeared in 100 games only four times in his 11 years in the big leagues. It’s encouraging that three of those four seasons came over the past five years, but players (and humans in general) don’t usually see their health improve as they transition into their mid-30s.

Moreover, Soler doesn’t contribute on the bases or with the glove, and he’s best suited for a DH role. Soler spent just 42 games in the outfield in 2023. That might not sound like much to you, but the defensive metrics agreed that it was way, way too much. Over the course of Soler’s 11 seasons, the four major defensive metrics — DRS, DRP, OAA, and UZR — have been unanimous in their contempt for his glove. Combined, those four systems have evaluated Soler’s defense 42 times (11 seasons tracked by DRS, DRP, and UZR, plus nine by OAA). Of those 42 ratings, 38 were negative, three gave Soler a rating of exactly 0, and just one was positive — when DRP credited Soler with 0.8 runs prevented in 2019.

Despite Soler’s dreadful defense, San Francisco will use him at times in the outfield, likely as a way to spell Michael Conforto and Mike Yastrzemski against left-handed pitching. Under former manager Gabe Kapler, the Giants mixed and matched out of necessity, but also by design; even with a new skipper, Bob Melvin, that trend is likely to continue to some degree considering the personnel on their roster. Over the past three seasons, San Francisco has had just six players qualify for the batting title and eight total qualified player-seasons. (Yastrzemski and Thairo Estrada each have qualified twice in the last three years.) Only three teams have had fewer qualified seasons, and half of the major league clubs have had at least 12 in that span. But no matter how frequently Melvin makes him wear a glove, Soler will slot into the lineup nicely by providing real production from the right side of the plate, something the team sorely lacked last year.

For now, though, let’s set our reservations aside for a minute and admire the stylistic fit. It’s hard to think of a team that needs power more than the San Francisco Giants, and it’s hard to look at Jorge Soler and think of anything other than power. If you peruse other articles about this signing, you’ll come across multiple variations of the word slug. Depending on your outlet of choice, the Giants have variously signed up for three years of “slugger Jorge Soler,” “veteran slugger Jorge Soler,” “Free-Agent Slugger Jorge Soler,” “former Miami Marlins slugger Jorge Soler,” “slugging outfielder Jorge Soler,” and even “slugger and former World Series MVP.” All of these descriptions are apt. He’s not up there to hit Soler flares. Soler slugs.

The Giants could use some of that. Famously, no Giant has had a 30-homer season since a 39-year-old Barry Bonds hit 45 in 2004 (unless you’re counting Jeff Samardzija and Madison Bumgarner, who allowed 30 homers in 2017 and 2019, respectively). In fact, over that same time frame, Soler has the same number of seasons with 27 or more home runs as the Giants do: three. The difference is that only four times has Soler been healthy enough to accrue 400 plate appearances in a season, whereas the Giants have had 109 different player-seasons reach that threshold over the past 24 years.

In 2023, the Giants ranked 19th in home runs, 23rd in ISO and exit velocity, and 27th in slugging. Some of that has to do with Oracle Park, which, according to Statcast’s park factors, ranks as the 27th-worst park for home runs for both left-handed and right-handed batters. But that’s why you go get someone as powerful as Soler (or, for that matter, Arson Judge), who hits moonshots that would be no-doubters anywhere. According to Statcast, if he’d played all of his games in San Francisco last year, Oracle Park would have cost Soler just four of his 36 home runs. Moreover, after spending two years at loanDepot park — one of the three stadiums that make it even harder for righties to leave the yard than Oracle — there’s little chance that he’ll be intimidated and a much better chance that he’ll be the first player to launch a ball into that giant baseball mitt above the left field bleachers. Or maybe Soler, who has hit six opposite-field home runs with an estimated distance of at least 400 feet, will become the first right-handed player to send a ball into McCovey Cove.

Still, Soler alone is not going to solve San Francisco’s problems on offense. According to ZiPS, Soler’s projected SLG of .441 ranks 101st in the majors, and the second Giant doesn’t come until Wilmer Flores checks in at 170th, with a mark of .423. The lack of slug is a problem, of course, but it isn’t as much of an issue as the team’s overall lack of offensive production, and Soler can’t fix that on his own, either.

ZiPS projects newcomer Jung Hoo Lee as San Francisco’s best hitter, with a 112 wRC+, one spot above LaMonte Wade Jr. That ranks them 84th and 85th overall, and they’re the team’s only players in the top 120. The only teams with less representation in the top 120 are the A’s and the Rockies. ZiPS projects a 106 wRC+ for Soler, which is understandable when you consider that before last year, when he posted a 126 wRC+, he had not recorded a single-season mark above 107 since 2019, when his wRC+ was 136. Even if Soler exceeds his projections, San Francisco’s lineup could still use some help, and there aren’t that many bats left out there.

Which Ballparks Make It Easiest to See the Pitch?

Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

For a while now, I’ve been having fun analyzing how accurate umpires are when calling balls and strikes according to the Statcast strike zone. Honestly, I might be having too much fun. It’s just that there are so many variables that might affect the way the umpire sees a pitch. Today we’re looking into the most literal one: the ballpark. Every stadium is different, and that can affect how easy it is to track the baseball. This is a well-established issue, which is why every ballpark has a batter’s eye, a dark background that’s supposed to ensure that the batter is able to see the ball out of the pitcher’s hand. Those backdrops vary quite a bit, from evergreen trees and ivy in Colorado, to a painted wall in Texas, to tinted glass in the Bronx.

When Drew Smyly nearly threw a perfect game last April, it helped that it was a day game at Wrigley Field, and his left-handed release point was so wide that the ball appeared to be coming not from the batters eye, but from the bleachers in right-center. Last September, in response to multiple public complaints from players, the Astros effectively extended Minute Maid Park’s batter’s eye several feet farther into right field, awkwardly repainting part of a formerly red section of brick and signage green. “It’s like night and day,” one player told The Athletic after the paint job:

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Has Anyone Ever Hit the Target Field Target?

When Carl Pavano threw the first official pitch at the brand new Target Field on April 12, 2010, there was no Target logo on the mound. Mind you, there were Target logos aplenty all around the ballpark — on the wall behind home plate, just below the press box, up above the bleachers in right and center field, on the signs the fans brought and the hats they wore, and on the video boards on the façade of the upper deck, which often displayed rows of alternating baseballs and Target logos, hundreds of them wrapping around the entire stadium — just not on the pitcher’s mound. Later that year, the interlocking T and C of the Twins logo began appearing in the dirt behind the rubber; the Target logo didn’t start gracing the mound until 2016.

Still, in the early years of 2016 and 2017, the mound was often completely targetless. Even today, there are games where there’s no logo whatsoever — and not just nationally televised games, when the advertising rights can change. Sometimes it’s just the pitcher all alone up there (aside from the rubber, the cleat cleaner, and a couple rosin bags):

I don’t have any good guesses that explain the logo’s occasional absence, but I have so, so many bad guesses. Maybe the grounds crew is hiding the target somewhere else on the field and we’re supposed to be looking for it. Maybe Target leases the space on a per-game basis, and sometimes whoever is in charge of delivering that day’s check gets lost during the half-mile walk from Target Plaza Commons headquarters to Target Field. Maybe — and hear me out on this one — maybe the grounds crew just gets busy sometimes. I don’t know why it’s not always there, but if it’s supposed to be there every game, I hope this paragraph doesn’t get anybody in trouble. Read the rest of this entry »

Jakob Junis Joins the Brewers as a Starter

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday night, just four days after the Brewers traded perennial Cy Young candidate Corbin Burnes to the Orioles for a package of promising young players and a competitive balance draft pick, Milwaukee signed a pitcher with an even better FIP to take his spot at the front of their rotation.

Sorry, that was misleading. Let’s try this again: After spending five years in Kansas City and two years in San Francisco, right-handed pitcher Jakob Junis has agreed to a one-year, $7 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers. Kiley McDaniel reported the signing, which according to Ken Rosenthal includes a $4 million salary in 2024 along with a $3 million buyout on a mutual option for the 2025 season. While the Giants moved Junis to the bullpen in 2023, the 31-year-old is expected to join Milwaukee’s starting rotation. After the team non-tendered the injured Brandon Woodruff and traded Burnes, the rotation was looking particularly threadbare, relying on Freddy Peralta and a series of other pitchers with question marks surrounding their health, stuff, age, or some combination of the three.

Peralta, who was worth 3.0 WAR over 30 starts and 165.2 innings in 2023, had excellent stretches last season, including taking home NL Pitcher of the Month honors in August. Still, his 3.86 ERA, 3.85 FIP, and 1.41 HR/9 were all the worst marks he’d put up since the shortened 2020 season. Wade Miley, back on a one-year deal, has been fantastic over the last three seasons, but the Brewers will need him to continue his contact suppression sorcery at age 37. Colin Rea put up 0.8 WAR in 2023; the Brewers are hoping he can post back-to-back seasons with a sub-5.00 ERA for the first time since 2015 and 2016. DL Hall, who came over in the Burnes trade, is a truly exciting young pitcher, but he’s also dealt with injuries over the last two years and ended up in Baltimore’s bullpen in 2023. After a shoulder injury, Aaron Ashby pitched just seven minor league innings last year, while Joe Ross, coming off his second Tommy John surgery, threw 14 minor league innings and hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2021. Read the rest of this entry »

Byron Buxton Deserves a Chance

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

In a more just world — in a world without injury — Byron Buxton would need a lot more shelf space in his home. A five-tool player with a name that sounds like it should belong to a superhero, Buxton was drafted second overall in 2012, spent some time as our number one prospect, debuted at age 21, and went on to average nearly 4.6 WAR per 162 games. By all rights, he should have spent his 20s challenging Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani to a game of hot potato with the American League MVP trophy. He should be on magazine covers. He should be a worldwide megastar nicknamed Lord Byron.

Instead, Buxton is a one-time All-Star who owns a Gold Glove, a Platinum Glove, and a Wilson Overall Defensive Player of the Year, all three awarded in 2017. He’s never finished better than 16th in the MVP race. You know the reason for this as well as I do. Buxton has never put up 4.6 WAR in a season because he’s never come close to playing in 162 games in one. He’s surpassed 92 games just once and he’s qualified for the batting title just once: in 2017, the year of the glove-shaped trophies. Over the nine seasons of his career, Buxton has played in roughly 4.5 seasons worth of games. The injury section of his Baseball Prospectus player page borders on some sort of macabre literary pretension, listing a blazon of injuries to his head, face, shoulder, back, ribs, wrist, hand, thumb, finger, hip, groin, hamstring, knee, shin, foot, and toe. There are fractures, hairline fractures, concussions, contusions, lacerations, dislocations, strains, sprains, soreness, inflammation, and tendinitis.

This morose lede is just a preamble though, because Buxton is back. Earlier this week at TwinsFest, he told everyone just that: “Oh yeah. I’m back.” After undergoing offseason surgery to excise a plica from his right knee, he is ready to play center field for the first time since 2022. “What makes me so sure? My body tells me that,” Buxton said. This is wonderful news. Anyone who loves baseball is rooting for him to get a shot at a full, fully healthy season. Anyone who loves baseball is excited to watch him roam center field once again, a human being so perfectly suited to that environment and the task before him that you can’t help but feel for just a moment like maybe the whole world makes sense after all.

Anyone who loves baseball is also tempering their expectations. Buxton is 30 and coming off a second straight season that ended with knee surgery. His offseason routine right now is equal parts physical therapy and baseball activities. The Twins have been honest about the fact that “back” might not mean exactly what we might want it to mean. They’re hoping that Buxton will be able to play 80 games in center field. For his part, Buxton chose not to put a number on it. “My body will tell me that,” he said.

Bodies are the worst. What the hell are you supposed to do with your hands? The same body that gives you the coordination and grace to play the game in such a way that it transcends the realm of sport and becomes art can then decide to break down frequently — so frequently that the fleeting chance to perform on that plane of existence serves as nothing more than a wistful reminder of what could have been.

How much health is a person entitled to? Everyone on earth has had their life limited to some degree by their health, and everyone knows people who have had it much worse. Injuries are a part of sports and a part of life. No one deserves to be injured, or to feel sick. In a more merciful world, we would all live healthy lives, achieving our potential (or not achieving it for all the other reasons that we don’t achieve our potential), and then one day the grim reaper would give us a friendly tap on the pristine shoulder and ask us to follow him, please.

It gets weirder when you’re a talent like Buxton. It’s his life, and he must be acutely aware of how differently things could have gone, of how much more he had to offer over the last nine years. But the rest of the baseball world feels robbed too, both on his behalf and on our own. We want to see his greatness for ourselves and for baseball as a whole.

How much health is a ballplayer entitled to? With the exception of Cal Ripken Jr., every baseball player alive could argue that they would have had a lot more to offer the game if only their body would have cooperated.

Buxton, though, is a different, more extreme case. Keep in mind that his 19.0 WAR during his nine major league seasons rank 60th among all position players. Keep in mind that every single one of the 59 players ahead of him has played in more games than his 670 in that span. (Ronald Acuña Jr. has the next fewest games played in the group, at 673, but he debuted three years after Buxton and has recorded 545 more plate appearances.) Keep in mind that 39 of those 59 players have made at least 1,000 more plate appearances than Buxton’s 2,487. Keep in mind that even when he has been on the field, Buxton hasn’t been at 100% all that often. Keep in mind that despite that fact, on a per-game basis, Buxton has been more valuable than 31 of those 59 players.

In 2023, battling through a rib injury, patella tendinitis, and a hamstring strain that combined to limit him to 85 games, Buxton ran a 98 wRC+. It was his worst offensive performance since 2018, when he played in just 28 games. Buxton was more aggressive on pitches in the zone and he made more contact, but that didn’t stop his strikeout rate from rising by a percentage point. His average exit velocity fell last year, and his EV50 (the average of the top 50% of his hardest hit balls, which Baseball Savant formerly referred to as best speed) has dropped in each of the past three seasons, from 104.7 mph to 103.8 to 102.5.

Even so, there were positive signs last season, too. His sprint speed was still a nearly elite 29.3 mph. He was still worth 4.8 runs on the bases, tied for 29th best in baseball among players with at least 300 plate appearances and his highest total since 2017. Although his power was down overall, Buxton was still capable of top-end exit velocity. He ripped three of the four hardest-hit balls of his career in 2023. That includes a career-high 116.9 mph double on Aug. 1, his last regular season game of the season.

Buxton has also made it clear that he’ll be more comfortable when he’s playing on both sides of the ball again. “I’m 29, I’m DHing, and I know I’m not supposed to be DHing,” Buxton said at TwinsFest. “You’re not buying into DH.” There’s bias in these numbers, because Buxton was usually relegated to DH when he wasn’t healthy enough to play the field, but since 2019, he has a 111 wRC+ as a DH and a 136 wRC+ as a center fielder. “What excites me? I’m going back to center,” he said. “As simple as that. Nothing makes me happier than playing the outfield.” He’s not alone. The Twins have been encouraged by videos of Buxton’s progress, seeing him move better than he has in years, watching him get into his legs at the plate and make the thunderous contact that he’s capable of making.

One of the joys of sports is that we get to witness greatness. Somewhere out there, at every human pursuit, someone is the best. If you’re one of the greatest accountants in the world, that gift will probably allow you to carve out a nice life for yourself, maybe even a luxurious one. But your gift will likely go unrecognized to some degree. How exactly do you judge that someone is the best in the world at accountancy? In sports, greatness shows up in the numbers, but it’s often obvious. It knocks you over the head. It’s miraculous to behold. Sometimes you see Shohei Ohtani at the plate, looking completely fooled by a pitch yet still able to reach flick it over fence, and you can’t help but laugh, because no other reaction seems appropriate. Buxton, too, is that type of player when he is on the field.

It would be truly magical to see Buxton at his best, and best health, for a whole season. He certainly deserves the chance. The rest of us will be hoping he gets that chance, too. But at the same time, we should not confuse hope with expectation. The sanguine quotes may have gotten the headlines, but Buxton gave another that summed up the situation a little more completely. “It’s different, I can feel it. It feels good,” he said. “Things feel back to … as close to normal as it’s going to get. You take the positive and run with it.”

Strike Three?! Let’s Check in on Umpire Accuracy

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

About a year ago, I wrote about how umpires have improved at calling balls and strikes throughout the pitch tracking era. They have gotten a whole lot better, especially at identifying strikes. While everyone appreciates a more consistent and accurate zone, that has made things a bit harder for hitters overall. More importantly, their progress didn’t seem like it was showing any signs of slowing down. With the 2023 season in the books, it’s time to check in on whether that’s still the case. The methodology here is simple: check to see if Statcast agrees with the umpire’s decision for each called ball and strike. This isn’t a perfect method, as a pitch right over the heart of the plate is a much easier call than one right on the edge, but the enormous sample sizes (there were 376,635 takes in 2023) mean that things even out over time.

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Ground Control to the Pentagon: Assessing the Names of MLB’s Proprietary Databases

Erin Bormett/Argus Leader via Imagn Content Services, LLC

A couple of weeks ago, Alex Coffey of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a profile of Ani Kilambi, the assistant GM who heads up the Phillies’ R&D department. Reading it, one detail immediately jumped out at me: Coffey published the name of Philadelphia’s proprietary database. It’s called Rocky. That’s a fun name, and it follows the league-wide trend of clubs giving their databases names that are both adorable and specific to either their team or city. It was the first time I’d come across the name, even though the article indicated that it had been around for years.

Like many people, I first learned about team databases when it was reported that Chris Correa, then the Cardinals’ scouting director, had illegally accessed Houston’s database in 2015; Correa later pled guilty to five criminal charges related to his unauthorized access. Even before that, though, teams were understandably secretive about the information they used. Milwaukee’s sports science wing is known as The Lab, and the Brewers have made it very clear that they don’t want anyone coming near it. The photos below are from an article about The Lab in 2020.

One picture of a long hallway with a sign that says "NO MEDIA BEYOND THIS POINT", and one picture of a door labelled "Integrative Sports Performance." It has a large NO ENTRY sign on it.

That secrecy often extends to the name of the database. I imagine the thinking is that it’s harder to break into something if you don’t know what it’s called. Still, there was an inconsistency that bothered me. The names of these databases are a closely held secret, yet I already knew a handful of them. I wondered why that was, so I set off on a research marathon to find as many of the names as I possibly could. It took many, many hours, and my list is still not complete. Read the rest of this entry »