Author Archive

Austin Riley Has Rekindled His Debut Magic

In our preseason positional power rankings of the league’s third basemen, the Braves came in at No. 25, projecting for just 1.4 WAR at the position, with Jason Martinez writing not only about Austin Riley’s potential contributions, but also possible production from Jake Lamb. Roughly two-and-a-half months later, the picture looks entirely different: Lamb never took an at-bat in Atlanta (though he’s playing well for the White Sox), while Riley has put together a very solid offensive season. In 59 games and 231 plate appearances through June 9, he’s slashing .300/.381/.515 with 11 home runs and a 142 wRC+ and has accumulated nearly as much WAR by himself (1.3) as the team’s total positional projection. As a result, the Braves have gotten some of the best value in the majors at third base relative to those projections. (The Rangers mess with the table a touch, since they were projected for and have achieved negative value so far, but I digress.)

Best 3B Value Relative to Projections
Team Projected WAR Current WAR Difference
Rockies 0.4 2.0 1.6
Diamondbacks 1.4 1.9 0.5
Giants 1.4 1.6 0.2
Rangers -0.1 -0.1 0.0
Braves 1.4 1.1 -0.3
Rays 2.0 1.6 -0.4
White Sox 3.2 2.7 -0.5
Mets 2.2 1.4 -0.8
Cubs 2.9 1.8 -1.1
Mariners 2.6 1.4 -1.2
Through games played on June 9.

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More Spin, More Problems: Hitter Performance Against High-Spin Fastballs

Major League Baseball is preparing to crack down on pitchers’ use of foreign substances, which could have important ramifications for how the game is played not just the rest of this season, but for a long time to come. Such a remarkable midseason change in enforcement — one report from ESPN’s Buster Olney suggested that umpires might randomly check baseballs 8–10 times per game — could alter league-wide offense, perhaps to a rather large degree depending on the number of pitchers who doctor the baseball.

Two things seems fairly certain, though. First, foreign substances increase spin rates; second, spin rates significantly impact pitcher performance. An experiment run by Travis Sawchik at theScore demonstrated that certain substances, like Spider Tack, could add as much as 500 rpms to a fastball. One college pitcher, Spencer Curran from Seton Hall University, saw the baseline rpm on his fastball go from 2,096 without any substances to 2,516 with Spider Tack and without any velocity increase — a jump that likely cannot happen naturally.

“It’s probably pretty hard to change that [fastball spin] ratio for an individual,” University of Illinois physics professor Alan Nathan told Sawchik at FiveThirtyEight. “I can see that you could do it for a curveball because a curveball involves some technique, whereas a fastball is pure power. There is no finesse.”

In a comprehensive story published by Stephanie Apstein and Alex Prewitt at Sports Illustrated, one recently retired pitcher estimated that 80% to 90% of pitchers currently use some form of foreign substances. But even with pervasive use, not all sticky stuff has the same impact. As Sawchik showed in his experiment, some substances — like a sunscreen mix he used — may actually decrease spin rates. Some of it may depend on how much time each pitcher has had to experiment in front of a Rapsodo, trying different concoctions until something works to their liking.

In both articles, the authors highlighted some basic stats to show how spin rate impacts batter performance. Sawchik noted that batters are hitting .264 on four-seam fastballs that range from 2,250–2,350 rpms, but just .217 on those above 2,500. That’s a sizable gap, and numbers like that have definitely caught MLB’s attention. As one executive told SI, though MLB is considering many changes to increase offense, he believes that better enforcement of the foreign substances rule already on the books — Rule 6.02(c) — would go a long way.

“I think people would be absolutely shocked if they actually enforced this, how much you’ll start to normalize things without rule changes,” the executive said.

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Examining Home Run Rates by Ballpark

At the beginning of May, I wrote two articles about the slightly-deadened baseball’s effect on league-wide home run rates. The conclusion was pretty much exactly what you’d expect: A bouncier ball with more drag did reduce home runs, particularly among softer-hit balls at lower launch angles. In 2019, these events were the wall scrapers that barely went out of the yard. In 2021, these events are now doubles and outs, with the increase in fly outs likely contributing (at least somewhat) to baseball’s diminished run environment overall.

There were a handful of outstanding questions that I still had, one of which was the impact of the new baseball on a ballpark-by-ballpark basis. Though league-wide trends are certainly an interesting and informative way to see the effects of a new baseball on run scoring, it is also important to examine in which parks hitters are having a more difficult time getting the ball into the seats. That allows us to understand better how park effects may have been altered to different degrees as a result of MLB’s switch to the new baseball.

But it’s not just the baseball that is contributing here. MLB reportedly added humidors to five stadiums for the 2021 season, bringing the total league-wide to 10. The Rockies, Diamondbacks, Mariners, Mets, and Red Sox already had humidors in their stadiums pre-2021, but which five teams are new to that list has yet to be disclosed. We can only guess which parks now have them, but it is important to keep in mind that the ball is not the only difference.

Also important to remember when looking at ballpark-level data: The players on the home team make a huge difference in determining home run rates. It’s entirely possible that, between 2019 and ’21, a team added home run hitters to its lineup or acquired home run-adverse pitchers for its staff, or the opposite could also be true. To mitigate these effects, I only analyzed a specific slice of fly balls: those hit at an exit velocity at or above 95.0 mph, at an exit velocity below 110.0 mph, and at a launch angle below 30 degrees — the very fly balls most impacted by the new baseball in my prior analysis. I also only included fly balls hit in games on or before May 31 to control for weather effects. (That is why I am comparing 2019 to ’21.)

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Bryce Harper Was Clearly Playing Hurt

On Tuesday, the Phillies placed Bryce Harper on the 10-day injured list with a bruised left wrist after insisting for days that their star rightfielder was healthy. Last Sunday, when asked if Harper was out of the lineup due to any medical issues, manager Joe Girardi flatly told reporters, including Matt Gelb of The Athletic, “No. [It’s] just a day off. Just a day off.” When Harper missed a second consecutive game, Girardi again denied that anything was wrong, saying, “I went to bed last night, woke up this morning and said, ‘You know what? I’m going to give him another day.’ And that’s the reason.”

But once Harper was officially on the IL, Girardi finally admitted that he had been dishonest with the media, citing that he’d face a competitive disadvantage if he noted publicly that Harper’s wrist was causing him discomfort. “There is a distinct advantage to the other manager if I tell you a guy’s wrist is hurt,” he said. “And the idea here is to win games…. I understand you want to know. But there are distinct advantages that I can give another club if they know everything that’s going on over here. So I’m sorry that I had to do that. But we’re trying to win games, and he’s just not ready to go. I thought he’d be ready on Monday or Tuesday. He’s not.”

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What Should We Make of Jesse Winker?

Here is an understatement: Jesse Winker had a pretty solid weekend. On Friday, he collected four hits, including three home runs, and a walk. On Saturday, he only went 1-for-4, but added another homer. And on Sunday, he homered again, bringing his weekend total to five and his season total to 13. His wRC+, which entered the weekend at a cool 166, jumped 26 points to 192; by this metric, he’s now the third-best hitter in baseball. His .463 wOBA, meanwhile, ranks first.

To say that Winker has broken out this season would be inaccurate. He has always been a very good hitter, particularly against right-handed pitching. Plus, his numbers have seen a significant uptick over a fairly large sample. In short, it’s not just 2021: Over his last 162 games, dating back to May 22, 2019, he is hitting .306/.401/.563 with 31 homers. In that span, he has been the seventh-best hitter in the majors by wRC+, at 154.

He really put everything together during his 2020 season, with his once-extreme platoon splits (we’ll get to those in a moment) dissipating in the shortened campaign. His 146 wRC+ was a “seasonal” career-high, and his .289 ISO was eye-popping for a hitter who had posted sub-.200 marks for his career to that point. Winker, who had rarely been considered a power hitter — he graded as having 30 game power in his last prospect scouting report back in 2018 — posted the same 2020 ISO as Teoscar Hernández.

Winker’s 2020 season did turn heads, as did his hot start to 2021. But we’re admittedly still dealing with small-ish samples for this new slugging version of him. His ISO, which was only .181 going into 2020, is .320 so far this season. And we’re starting to see the projection systems more fully buy in. Here are the largest rest-of-season ZiPS ISO increases, compared to the pre-season projections:

Largest ZiPS ISO Increases
Name PROJ-ZiPS ISO ROS-ZiPS ISO Difference
Jesse Winker .180 .213 .033
Shohei Ohtani .218 .249 .031
Mike Zunino .198 .229 .031
Buster Posey .101 .131 .030
Yadier Molina .104 .132 .028
Brandon Crawford .133 .160 .027
Adolis García .190 .216 .026
Byron Buxton .240 .265 .025
Akil Baddoo .130 .153 .023
Mitch Haniger .211 .233 .022
Through games played on Saturday, May 22.

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Unpacking the Impact of Foul Balls on Strikeouts

In eight of the 12 different count-states, fouls and whiffs come with the same penalty: a strike. In a 1–1 count, for example, it really doesn’t matter whether you look silly swinging and missing at a curveball or just miss a home run by being a few inches wide of the foul pole. In either case, hitters have to come back for another swing, with the count now 1–2.

We all know this. Those are just the rules of the game. But it creates a very interesting hierarchy for hitters. When a hitter swings, only one of three things can happen: He can put the ball in play, foul it off, or whiff. And, as mentioned, for two-thirds of those outcomes — the foul and the whiff — no distinction is even made in eight of the 12 count-states. No wonder that the league-average hitter, by run value, is penalized when he swings.

But fouls have a unique property that makes them wholly different than whiffs: the ability to prolong at-bats. In the same way that you can’t lose on a serve in ping pong, you can’t strike out on a foul ball (bunts excluded). While they carry the same penalty as whiffs in all non–two-strike counts, foul balls manage to be the only safety net for hitters when their backs are against the wall, and to me, it makes for a pretty interesting dichotomy when you break it down that way.

Because foul balls provide this special safety net for hitters, it would make sense intuitively that hitters who foul off more pitches probably strike out less. If a hitter fouls off a lot of pitches, especially relative to the number of whiffs he creates, he is almost certainly going to avoid a K and eventually should get a pitch to put in play. Indeed, there is a pretty strong correlation between foul-to-whiff ratio and strikeout rate:

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Yasmani Grandal Has One of the Wonkiest Slash Lines You’ll Ever See

I love wonky early-season slash lines, the kinds of combinations that make you scratch your head and consider what exactly had to happen to get to this point. It’s pretty easy to put Yasmani Grandal’s start in that category: Through 22 games and 91 plate appearances, Grandal is hitting .113/.378/.242, slugging two homers and posting a… 102 wRC+?!?

Yes, you read that correctly. Through games on Sunday, Grandal has just seven hits and has the worst batting average among players with at least 80 trips to the plate. And yet he’s also managed to be an above-average hitter by wRC+. There’s truly some wild stuff going on here.

Of course, none of this is sustainable. Grandal has faced some pretty horrible BABIP luck, and as Dan Szymborski noted in his article yesterday, he is the fourth-largest underachiever in actual BABIP (.119) versus ZiPS-developed zBABIP (.261). Plug that figure into his balls-in-play total and you’d find that Grandal should have more than 13 hits this season, giving him a more-respectable-though-still-not-great .210 batting average.

But what is most interesting about Grandal’s start isn’t that he’s faced such poor BABIP luck; it’s that he has still managed to be a productive hitter in spite of it. Grandal has walked a whopping 27 times to start the season, a near-30% walk rate and a figure that leads baseball by a rather healthy margin. As of this writing, Max Muncy is the only other player who has amassed more than 50 plate appearances with a walk rate above 20%, and he’s still more than six points behind Grandal. Since 1901, Grandal’s 27 walks in his 22 games are tied for the 16th-most walks in any player’s first 22 to begin a season, but he’s one of just five players to do that while also batting under .150. Read the rest of this entry »

Rafael Devers Still Has Another Gear

So far, the Red Sox have been one of this season’s biggest surprises. Since Opening Day, the Sox have already increased their playoff odds by 23.6 percentage points up to 61.5%, the second-largest percentage point increase in baseball (Athletics, +25.7).

To reach the pinnacle of the AL East this quickly, Boston has been successful on both sides of the ball, but it’s the team’s offense that has found itself alone at the top of most major league leaderboards. Through games on Saturday, the Red Sox are slashing .269/.334/.445, with the batting average and slugging percentage each ranking tops among the 30 teams. Their .338 wOBA is seven points above the next-best team, the Dodgers, and their park-adjusted 115 wRC+ is three points above Los Angeles as well.

The entire lineup is hitting, but it’s their core five of J.D. Martinez (195 wRC+), Xander Bogaerts (176 wRC+), Rafael Devers (150 wRC+), Alex Verdugo (135 wRC+), and Christian Vázquez (100 wRC+) that have more or less led the way. And though this could easily be an article about any of those five players’ starts, I want to highlight Devers, whose .281/.371/.544 slash line through games on Saturday actually represents one of the biggest under-performances in baseball relative to his batted ball quality. Read the rest of this entry »

Where Did the Homers Go?

On Monday, I examined the new baseball’s impact on April home run totals. In sum, home runs were down in April 2021 compared to April 2019, with the home run per batted ball rate dropping by roughly 0.45 percentage points, a figure that would result in about an 8% decrease in home runs from ’19 to ’21, under the assumption that hitters receive roughly equal plate appearances in each season. (Due to seven-inning doubleheaders and the new extra inning rules, though, that won’t happen, but it’s still good to compare apples-to-apples to estimate the impact.)

After sharing the article on Twitter, I received an interesting question that I felt merited further discussion: How many of those now-non-homers turn into hits versus outs? That is a fascinating question because it potentially gets to the heart of why MLB dejuiced the baseballs in the first place. Baseball didn’t want to eliminate offense, per se; they just wanted to alter how it is generated, with more balls put into play rather than what they perceived as a recent over-reliance on the long ball. In short, if all of those newly-created non-homers are now other types of hits, then dejuicing the baseball might’ve actually had the impact MLB wanted. If they are now outs, then it’s just going to make life that much harder for batters.

Given the majors’ historically-low batting average this season — once again, I’ll point you to Brendan Gawlowski’s excellent piece on the matter — you can likely guess what happened: Outs are up. Read the rest of this entry »

Home Runs Were Down in April, but by How Much?

Seemingly in the blink of an eye, a month of baseball is behind us. With nearly 30,000 plate appearances taken and more than 18,000 batted balls put into play, a month of data is plenty to begin examining league-wide trends and to make some predictions for the rest of 2021.

One big question going into this season — and a topic already examined here by both Ben Clemens and Justin Choi — was what the impact of the new baseball would be on the overall offensive environment. As both Ben and Justin found and detailed, the new baseball is bouncier, yielding higher exit velocities than in years past, and also possesses more drag, as it is not traveling as far. I want to focus on that second point. If the ball isn’t traveling as far, we should be seeing fewer home runs hit in 2021 — and we are. But can we pinpoint just how many home runs will be hit this season? That takes a bit more guesswork, but before getting into that, let’s first see how April 2021 stacks up to prior seasons, as well as identify where exactly we lost those home runs.

Home Runs in April
2015 592 17559 3.37%
2016 740 18498 4.00%
2017 863 19301 4.47%
2018 912 21706 4.20%
2019 1144 22111 5.17%
2021 873 18509 4.72%
Includes data from all games played on or before April 30 in each year.

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