When the Angels designated Albert Pujols for assignment in early May, it seemed as if the decorated slugger had reached the end of the line, especially given the rumors that circulated in February that the 2021 season could be his last. And at the time of the announcement, he was slashing just .198/.250/.372 in 92 plate appearances and amid his fifth-consecutive below-replacement level season. But after clearing waivers, Pujols drew interest from three to four different teams, with the Dodgers coming out of nowhere to sign him to a major league deal at the minimum salary for the rest of the season.
Jay Jaffe wrote about the Dodgers’ acquisition of Pujols at the time and how he could be most effectively used: as a starter at first base, specifically against left-handed pitching. Still, Jay didn’t think the Pujols experiment would endure, especially as Los Angeles’ lineup regained its health, and predicted that the future Hall of Famer would end up taking his final cuts with the Cardinals in September. And though that might still be the case, Pujols has actually produced reasonably well for the Dodgers, providing a good-enough bat to warrant penciling him in the lineup, especially against southpaws.
A .266/.298/.476 slash line isn’t world-beating by any means, but even putting up above-average production is a huge success given where Pujols’ offensive numbers have resided in recent seasons. In fact, he just completed a 30-game stretch from May 29 to July 16 in which he posted a 147 wRC+ on the back of a .313/.341/.588 slash line. It was the best output Pujols has seen in years, even in a sample as small as 30 games:
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Major League Baseball’s sticky stuff crackdown is working. Since the June 3 warning that increased enforcement of the foreign substance rule was coming, spin rates have fallen league-wide. The league-average spin-to-velocity ratio on four-seam fastballs, which sat comfortably above 24.5 rpm/mph for the entirety of the 2020 season and the beginning of the ’21 season, has fallen to under 24 rpm/mph for the first time since the beginning of ’19. This is what that enormous drop looks like visually:
The crackdown has had plenty of consequences, all of which have theoretically had a significant impact on the game. I touched a little bit on one of these outcomes — whether it was fair to ask pitchers to alter their stuff dramatically in the middle of a season — in a July 2 article on Garrett Richards, who claimed that he needed to try “to figure out how to pitch again” post-enforcement. But there has been one outstanding question all along: How will this impact offense? In a year that started with some of the lowest batting averages in baseball history and with run scoring heavily concentrated in home runs, that was of the utmost importance in the minds of baseball-followers, including those who work for the league and for teams. Cubs president Jed Hoyer, for example, called the impact of the sticky substance enforcement “a huge variable” in determining which players Chicago could target at the July 30 trade deadline.
In an article leading up to the changes in enforcement, I covered the potential impact the crackdown would have on offense with a focus on the effect of spin rates on batter performance. The trend was clear: Batters hit much better on four-seam fastballs with less velocity-adjusted spin, and in a world in which fewer pitches are thrown with elite spin, they should have an easier time at the plate. One executive even told Stephanie Apstein and Alex Prewitt of Sports Illustrated that he thought better enforcement of Rule 6.02(c) could actually have an outsized impact on reviving offense around the league, potentially lessening the pressure on baseball to institute rule changes to create more balls in play, higher batting averages, and more non-homer scoring overall. “I think people would be absolutely shocked if they actually enforced this, how much you’ll start to normalize things without rule changes,” they said. Read the rest of this entry »
Baseball just wrapped up All-Star week, or better put, baseball just wrapped up Shohei Ohtani week. What more can be said? He hit six 500-foot home runs in the Home Run Derby on Monday night, then served as both the American League’s starting pitcher and leadoff hitter in the All-Star Game on Tuesday. On the mound, he threw an even 100 mph and earned the win after his one spotless inning of work.
All that put Ohtani front and center, as it should have. He is baseball’s home run leader, with 33. He’s slugged nearly .700, and among qualified hitters, his 180 wRC+ is beat only by Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 189. He has also made 13 starts on the mound, pitching to a 3.49 ERA; his 30.7% strikeout rate ranks seventh in the AL among those with at least 50 innings. We are so lucky to have borne witness to a first half that has been uniquely and historically great.
Part of the reason Ohtani has been such a marvel this season is his sheer volume of play. When he first entered the majors in 2018, the Angels sat him on the days both before and after his pitching appearances. This season, though, things are different, as he appeared in 87 of the team’s 89 first-half games. What’s more, he has also taken at-bats in 10 of his 13 starts on the mound. The Angels said during spring training that they wanted to maximize Ohtani’s usage this season, and they certainly have. That’s just one of the many ways in which he has impressed; he’s a two-way player who’s playing just about every single day. Read the rest of this entry »
On Sunday, the Red Sox announced that they had extended righty reliever Matt Barnes on a two-year contract. The deal, which starts next season, will pay him a $1.75 million signing bonus along with salaries of $7.25 million in 2022 and $7.5 million in ’23. It also includes a club option for the 2024 season, valued at $8 million with a $2.25 million buyout. All told, Barnes is guaranteed $18.75 million over the term of the contract, but could earn as much as $24 million if he hits all the escalators and Boston exercises the option.
In short summary of his career, Barnes has been an effective arm since his 2014 debut. Since ’14 and through last season, Barnes was solid though not otherworldly, pitching to a 4.08 ERA, 29.9% strikeout rate, and 10.9% walk rate over 337.1 innings pitched. As with most relievers, he had his personal volatility. His best season was in 2018, when he posted a 2.71 FIP in 61.2 frames, as well as a 1.04 ERA in 10 postseason appearances en route to the Red Sox’s World Series title. On the flip side of that coin, Barnes had a comparatively tough year in 2020. He still posted good strikeout numbers but faced a bit of unluckiness with the longball, as his 1.57 HR/9 and 23.5% home run-per-fly ball rate were both career-worsts, making last season was the first time since 2015 that Barnes found himself on the wrong side of replacement level. Read the rest of this entry »
In late June and in just his fourth major league start, Marlins right-hander Zach Thompson accomplished something that has only been done nine times in the last decade. Facing the Nationals, he went six innings, allowed just two runs (one earned), and struck out 11. In the process, he became the 10th pitcher in the last 10 seasons to strike out 11 or more batters in his first four career appearances — certainly a qualifier-heavy fact, but it still yields quite an impressive list of names:
As the table shows, it’s rare to break into the major leagues with the level of dominance that Thompson displayed, but his path here has been even more fascinating.
In perhaps the most innocuous of moves, the Marlins signed Thompson last November as a minor league free agent to serve as additional bullpen depth. Even still, he was one of the team’s top targets on the minor league free-agent market, Marlins director of pro scouting Hadi Raad told Christina De Nicola of MLB.com, in what he said was based on a blend of scouting and analytics. As Marlins manager Don Mattingly told De Nicola after Thompson’s start against the Nationals, “It’s like, ‘How does this guy get away from teams?’ I liked his stuff, but you never know where that goes, too, after spring training. Sometimes those guys go to Triple-A and you never see them again. Zach, I think, started a little slow, and then kind of got it going. He’s been impressive, so hopefully this just keeps going.” Read the rest of this entry »
It’s pretty evident that Major League Baseball’s crackdown on foreign substances will have wide-ranging effects on the sport. Offense is almost certainly due to increase; that that has yet to happen (at least beyond normal temperature-related effects) may only be a question of time. But with spin rates plummeting and pitchers telling the media that they are “trying to figure out how to pitch again” as a result of the new policies, it seems that we’re bound to see broad changes sooner rather than later.
The hurler who supplied the quote above is none other than right-hander Garrett Richards, an 11-year major league veteran currently pitching for the Red Sox. Boston signed Richards this past February to a one-year, $10 million contract that included a club option for 2022, a deal meant to shore up depth for a rotation that was a weak spot for the team as it entered the 2021 season. And though he has dealt with a collection of arm injuries throughout his career — including a 2018 Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss almost all of 2019 — Richards posted solid peripherals with the Padres last season and was heralded for his league-leading spin rates.
Through Richards’ first 11 starts this season, it seemed like Boston’s gamble had paid off. He wasn’t putting up elite numbers, but a 3.75 ERA, 20.2 K%, 11.6 BB%, and a 4.06 FIP is certainly serviceable. Through his start on June 1, Richards was worth 0.9 WAR, putting him in a virtual tie with Martín Pérez and Eduardo Rodriguez in terms of value. As for Boston’s starting staff as a whole, their combined 6.4 WAR through June 1 ranked fifth in the majors, which represented quite the pleasant surprise given that their rotation ranked 16th in our preseason power rankings. Read the rest of this entry »
After hitting 62 home runs over his first two seasons in the big leagues — his age-21 and age-22 seasons, no less — Gleyber Torres was hailed as baseball’s next superstar. Even in lineups featuring Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gary Sánchez, no Yankees player hit more homers over the 2018 and ’19 seasons than Torres. And while subpar defense limited his overall ceiling, his 5.6 WAR over that stretch still represented an impressive output for a player that young.
In 2020, however, the power that defined Torres’ offensive production all but disappeared. Torres, who posted a .235 ISO in 1,088 plate appearances over his first two seasons, slashed just .243/.356/.368 last season, good for a .125 ISO. He homered just three times in 160 plate appearances, but improved plate discipline — his walk rate jumped 5.5 points compared to his career averages, while his strikeout rate fell 5.6 — drove what remained above-average offensive output. Torres still posted a 106 wRC+, but he couldn’t outhit his defense like he had the two years prior and posted just 0.2 WAR.
What if I told you that there is a pitcher who throws 92 mph but is actually throwing 95? That’s just Bailey Falter’s niche. Despite only throwing nine major league innings in his career to date, Falter has already shot to the top of some important leaderboards: release extension and average velocity added.
Here are the top-10 fastballs in June, sorted not by average velocity, but instead by average added velocity, which is the result of simple subtraction: effective velocity minus release speed. Effective velocity estimates the “actual” pitch speed the hitter faces based on where the pitcher releases the baseball and how much time the hitter has to react. If a pitcher releases the ball closer to home plate, the batter has less time to react, effectively (there’s that word again) making the pitch come in faster. This is music to Falter’s ears:
In no world is Juan Soto is having a bad year. Through games played on Saturday, he has more walks than strikeouts, a 128 wRC+, and a .272/.404/.426 triple slash in 240 plate appearances. He’s been worth 1.6 WAR in 58 games, thanks at least in part due to improved defense; ZiPS projects him to add another 3.5 wins the rest of the way, which would result in a career-high 5.1 WAR. Even at his current pace of 4.5 WAR, Soto would end the season as one of the more valuable players in baseball.
By his standards, however, Soto is actually having a bit of a down year. That 128 wRC+ I mentioned? That is just above his worst mark in any 58-game stretch (127) of his entire career. It still represents great production in a vacuum, and the fact that his worst wRC+ still is 127 is just another way to underscore his greatness. But at the same time, it still leaves us with a lot of questions, none more important than this: Why has Soto seen such a notable decrease in performance?
The answer might seem somewhat simple: He’s hitting far too many groundballs. Soto currently has a 55.3% groundball rate, seventh-highest in the majors. The fact that he’s still posting a 128 wRC+ in spite of that is borderline absurd; of the 30 qualified hitters with at least a 48% groundball rate, he has the highest wRC+, a testament to his phenomenal plate discipline and frequency of hard contact.
As a result of all of these grounders, Soto is embarking on Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 2020 journey. But while Vlad Jr. is currently elevating and celebrating this year, Soto is grounding and outing. Bad attempt at a rhyme aside, his groundballs mostly turn into outs. The ones that aren’t outs? They are singles, and they the reason why he has experienced a personal power outage. In his last 50 games, he has a .137 ISO, another career low for a sample that large.
Jacob deGrom is on another planet right now. You don’t need me to tell you this, but it’s fun to just marvel at his stats. Through 10 starts, deGrom has a 0.56 ERA, a 46% strikeout rate, and a 4% walk rate. He’s produced 3.7 WAR, which is nearly a half-win better than the next-best pitcher, Corbin Burnes, who has “merely” put up 3.3.
deGrom is quite possibly in the midst of one of the best pitching seasons in baseball history, particularly on a per-inning basis. Pedro Martinez’s 1999 campaign currently holds the single-season pitching WAR record at 11.6, and though deGrom almost certainly won’t hit that mark, he’d blow it away if he pitched the same number of innings at his current rate. Give deGrom Martinez’s 213.1 innings, and at this pace, he’d put up 12.3 WAR. Say what you will about injuries and starting pitching workloads in this era, but that’s just a primer on the level of dominance deGrom has reached so far in 2021.
So if you’re a hitter stepping in against deGrom, how in the world do you get a hit off this guy? Batters are slashing just .121/.152/.220 against him, good for a .163 wOBA allowed. That’s the best mark among the 294 pitchers with at least 100 batters faced this season, and deGrom has more than doubled that threshold (223 TBF). If you’re hitting against deGrom, you’re lucky if you just put the ball in play, let alone get on base.
Is there an alternative strategy that works here? deGrom is raking up all of these strikeouts — without allowing virtually any walks — while boasting the seventh-lowest Zone% in baseball. Hitters are flailing against pitches that aren’t even strikes anyway: 60.5% of the time, deGrom is throwing the hitter a ball. If you’re in a two-strike count, he’ll throw you a ball 64.5% of the time, putting him in the 91st percentile in O-Zone%. Read the rest of this entry »