Author Archive

With Game 4 Rout of White Sox, Astros Cruise to Fifth Straight ALCS

For the fifth consecutive year, the Astros are headed to the American League Championship Series to face an opponent from the AL East. With a 10–1 win over the White Sox in Tuesday’s ALDS Game 4, they eliminated the Central winners and clinched a date with the Red Sox, who knocked out the Rays on Monday. Up for grabs for Houston: the franchise’s third pennant and World Series trip in that span.

Over the first two innings of Game 4, it looked as if the White Sox were going to send the series back to Houston. Starter Carlos Rodón lit up the radar gun in the opening frame, touching as high as 99.4 mph with his fastball on his 10th pitch of the afternoon. Though he had a stellar regular season overall, he struggled with diminished velocity and shoulder soreness down the stretch; starting him seemed like a gamble for the Sox, especially considering the extra day of rest afforded to them by Monday’s rainout. Even Astros skipper Dusty Baker acknowledged that the lefty’s health would play a huge role, telling reporters that Game 4 “all depends on which Rodón we’re facing.” Read the rest of this entry »

Rockies Ignite Hot Stove Early, Sign Senzatela and Cron to New Deals

A few hours before Tuesday’s Red Sox-Yankees Wild Card tilt, the Colorado Rockies announced that they had agreed to two new contracts, getting baseball’s offseason started just a little bit early. First, the club and right-handed starter Antonio Senzatela came to terms on a five-year contract extension, one that guarantees him $50.5 million and includes a $14 million club option for 2027. The team also agreed to bring back first baseman C.J. Cron on a two-year, $14.5 million deal.

Though both contracts were announced on the same day, they accomplish different goals. Senzatela, for one, was not a free agent until after the 2023 season; the new contract buys out his two remaining arbitration years at $7.25 million apiece, while valuing the three free agent seasons that would have come after at $12 million each. Cron’s contract, on the other hand, can be considered an extension in name only (since players are under contract until five days following the World Series), as he was set to hit the open market in just a few weeks. Interestingly — though it’s almost certainly just a coincidence — Cron’s contract will also pay him exactly $7.25 million in each of the next two seasons.

Also notably, the two deals represent the first moves made by the team’s new permanent general manager, Bill Schmidt, who officially shed the interim title on Saturday. He had been serving in the role since May 3, following Jeff Bridich’s late-April resignation. Prior to assuming the interim role, Schmidt had led the Rockies’ scouting department, a position he had held since 1999. Read the rest of this entry »

There Were Fewer Homers This Year, but the Long Ball Still Reigns Supreme

MLB’s plan to de-juice the baseball this year seems to have worked. Home runs were down in 2021 compared to the last couple of seasons, though not by so much as to warrant a complete shift in the game’s current offensive paradigm. Instead, run scoring — which remains heavily concentrated around home runs — decreased overall. Non-pitchers hit just .247/.321/.418 this year, representing the second-lowest batting average in the live ball era (1920-present and excluding 2020) but the fourth-highest isolated power.

In slightly de-juicing the baseball, MLB erased some home runs. But as we can see in the sudden drop in batting average, which is down nine points for non-pitchers compared to 2019, shaving off homers didn’t result in other types of hits. As I wrote in my second of two pieces analyzing early 2021 home run trends, these lost homers mostly just became outs. That explains the significant reduction in overall offense, even as the league-wide home run total remained quite high in the context of baseball history.

With the season now officially complete, it’s time to revisit some of those early trends to get a final estimation of the effect of MLB’s de-juicing. Of course, there is a significant, potentially confounding, variable that makes 2021 different from other full seasons and complicates our analysis: the midseason enforcement against the use of sticky stuff. I will try to account for that here, though it probably deserves its own standalone examination. Read the rest of this entry »

The Giants Capitalize on the First Pitch

With just under a week to go in the regular season, the Giants are still in prime position to capture the National League West. Hitting the century win-total mark on Friday, San Francisco’s meteoric rise from unlikely postseason contender to best team in the sport has been well-documented across baseball’s corner of the internet. The combination of the unlikely resurgence of seemingly past-their-prime franchise mainstays, near-100th-percentile outcomes from additions like Darin Ruf and LaMonte Wade Jr., and some successful tinkering with players’ tendencies to help them maximize their potential has all added up to one of the more remarkable surprise contender stories in recent memory.

Improve your player development, play the percentages better, enjoy some good fortune — the Giants have done it all. And as we march towards October, they deserve praise for it. But there’s one other thing that has piqued my interest, and though its relative importance may seem small, it’s a strategic decision that has added significant value at the margins: Giants pitchers are throwing a ton of first-pitch strikes. Just as Justin Choi praised the Blue Jays’ offense earlier this season for swinging in early counts, the Giants’ pitching staff deserves kudos for throwing pitches in the zone on the first pitch. They’ve done so more than any other team in baseball, though the other leaders here may surprise you: Read the rest of this entry »

Sandy Alcantara Is Becoming One of Baseball’s Best Pitchers

Sandy Alcantara has taken the next step. Already one of baseball’s better groundball-inducers, Alcantara has added the strikeout to his game in the second half of this season. In the process, he’s transformed from an above-average starter into one who is knocking on the door of ace status.

Over the last three years, Alcantara has been worth 7.2 WAR, a figure that ranks 27th among starting pitchers in that time. It has been volume-heavy value: his 3.94 FIP since 2019 grades out as just slightly above-average (93 FIP-), while his 434 innings pitched ranks ninth among all pitchers. His 21% strikeout rate and 8% walk rate scream nothing special, though his near-49% groundball rate kept the homers off the board.

Up until this season — and really up until its second half — that was Alcantara’s story. He was a very good pitcher, but there was still tantalizing potential he was seemingly leaving on the table. Even from 2019-20, when he struck out less than 19% of the hitters he faced, Alcantara’s average fastball velocity ranked near the top of the majors. Throwing both a four-seamer and a sinker, he averaged 95.7 mph with his fastballs, an 88th percentile mark. He also featured a slider and a changeup that both offered above-average called-strike-plus-whiff rates, suggesting Alcantara could better optimize those pitches for more strikeouts. If he could just strike out more hitters while maintaining his groundball rate, he had the potential to become an elite starter. And over his 12 starts since the All-Star break, that is exactly what has happened:

In the second half, Alcantara has struck out 28% of the batters he’s faced and walked fewer than 5%, all while keeping more than 50% of his batted balls on the ground. He has a 3.12 FIP over 78 innings, making him the 14th-most valuable pitcher in the game since the break. He’s been even better since August 1: with a 2.61 ERA and 2.80 FIP over 69 innings, Alcantara moves all the way up to eighth on the WAR leaderboard in that span. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Bobby Dalbec’s Improved Plate Discipline Sustainable?

Given his rise from dark horse to odds-on NL MVP favorite, it’s not a huge surprise that Bryce Harper has been the best hitter in baseball since August 1. Through Sunday’s action, he slashed.346/.464/.795 in 198 plate appearances, good for a 216 wRC+. That performance has catapulted him to the very top of the race, moving ahead of Fernando Tatis Jr. in betting markets as of Monday. A lot thus has been said about Harper, but much less has been written about the second-best hitter over this stretch (among the 251 players to amass at least 100 plate appearances). That hitter, as you could probably guess from this piece’s title, is Red Sox infielder Bobby Dalbec, whose .316/.409/.737 line nearly matches Harper’s, though it has come without the associated fanfare.

That’s understandable given Dalbec’s start to the season. Unlike Harper, who posted very good numbers before his recent stretch of sheer fire, Dalbec nearly found himself without a spot on Boston’s roster following the team’s trade for Kyle Schwarber. Through July 31, Dalbec was slashing just .216/.260/.399, with a 4.4% walk rate, a 37.5% strikeout rate, and 11 homers in 296 trips to the dish. That, coupled with less-than-stellar defense (it’s still rated as a negative), gave the Red Sox every reason to option him to Triple-A. Indeed, as Peter Abraham at The Boston Globe wrote on September 12, “That Schwarber was on the injured list at the time may have been what kept Dalbec on the roster.”

The hot start to Dalbec’s career last season — a 152 wRC+ and eight homers in just 92 plate appearances — seemed unsustainable given the small sample size, 42% strikeout rate, and .394 BABIP. As a result, ZiPS projected him for a 91 wRC+ this season, though Steamer was more bullish at 103. The poor start and the hot stretch since have resulted in season stats — a .245/.306/.497 slashline and 111 wRC+ — roughly in line with what I’d peg as his true talent level. Read the rest of this entry »

A Suggestion for Vince Velasquez

On April 14, 2016, Vince Velasquez took the mound for his second start as a member of the Phillies, having come over in an offseason trade with the Astros that sent Ken Giles to Houston. In an afternoon matchup against the Padres, he twirled one of the best-pitched games of the last decade, striking out 16 and walking none in a complete game shutout, allowing just three hits to boot. In the last 10 years, just 11 pitchers have struck out 16 or more in a game, and in these 13 performances (Max Scherzer has done it thrice), just five were complete game shutouts. He started his Phillies career on the highest of notes.

Fast forward more than five years, and Velasquez has now signed with those very Padres on a minor league deal in name only. As San Diego desperately tries to find pitching depth to stay afloat in the NL Wild Card race, Velasquez will start on Friday night in a pivotal series against the Cardinals, though he will not be eligible for postseason play if the Padres do secure a spot in October since he signed after the start of September.

The fact that a starting-caliber arm became available in free agency in the middle of the last month of the season tells you two things, both obvious. For the Padres, it shows just how dire their need for pitching is. But I want to focus on the second obvious reality: To get released at this point in the year is proof that Velasquez hasn’t been particularly good. Indeed, in 81.2 innings, he’s posted a 5.95 ERA and 5.59 FIP, production that has been exactly replacement-level.

Velasquez has shown flashes of productivity, but his time with the Phillies ran thin after continually falling short of expectations. In May, Matt Gelb of The Athletic covered what he referred to as the righty’s last stand in Philadelphia and how he hoped to reinvent himself to increase his effectiveness. One thing stood out: He came into this season wanting to mix his pitches more effectively, reflecting on that April 2016 start to explain his change in mindset for 2021.

“Cool, I had 16 strikeouts,” Velasquez said. “But I fucking threw all fastballs. OK, that’s unique. But it’s not part of pitching. It’s not pitching. It’s not sustainable at all.”

As the Padres look to tinker with Velasquez, it is interesting to consider where they may start. Was his plan of throwing fewer fastballs working? Might he have just been choosing the wrong pitches to put in the four-seamer’s place? What is the way forward here? Read the rest of this entry »

Are Hitters Who Swing At More Strikes and Fewer Balls Actually Better?

If you’ve read any of my articles of late, you would know that I am currently fixated on plate discipline. My piece on Jarred Kelenic sparked an article on take value and hitter approach. After that, a discovery that Darin Ruf is succeeding with one of the lowest swing rates in baseball despite not having phenomenal plate discipline on the surface inspired research into zone-swing differential and what it may tell us about a hitter.

Under the plate discipline section of player pages and on our leaderboards, we list both O-Swing% and Z-Swing%. On a handful of occasions, though, writers here have used zone-swing differential. Chet Gutwein defined this stat as D-Swing% in his piece about the NL West, and Justin Choi wrote about it in an article on the Blue Jays’ aggressiveness in early counts. In my most recent piece on Ruf, I cited zone-swing differential to conclude that while his overall swing rate is low, his discipline might not actually be that good, as he’s still swinging at a fair amount of pitches outside the zone, which you can see when you look at his below-average D-Swing rate.

The idea behind D-Swing% is simple: Hitters should be better when they swing at strikes and take balls. This isn’t the only way to succeed at the plate, but you would think that better hitters would have higher D-Swing rates on average. There were a couple comments about D-Swing rate on my Ruf piece, and that inspired me to look into it further. Is this a stat that tells us more about hitters than what we already have with the standalone O-Swing% and Z-Swing% stats?

This exact question was actually explored on the FanGraphs community blog back in 2017, where user Dominikk85 broke hitters into top- and bottom-30 groups by wRC+, ISO, OBP, and BABIP to see if O-Swing%, Z-Swing%, or what they referred to as Z-O-Swing% had the biggest impact in explaining the difference between the groups. They found that being more aggressive in the strike zone “helps the power but seems to slightly hurt the OBP,” but overall, they saw an advantage in using D-Swing% over the individual components.

I ran a similar study, but I wanted to control for more variables — zone rate and contact rate — to isolate the effect of D-Swing%, as many plate discipline metrics are interrelated. You may swing less at pitches in the strike zone if you are seeing more pitches outside, or you may choose to swing at pitches in the strike zone with which you can make contact (preferably hard), which may lower your Z-Swing% but raise your Z-Contact%. Without at least attempting to adjust for some of these variables, we may be missing out on conscious hitter tendencies that may be more the result of the pitches that they are seeing rather than their inherent swing choices. Read the rest of this entry »

Darin Ruf, the Best Hitter on a Playoff Team

I’ve always been a huge Darin Ruf fan, so getting to write about his 2021 success is a little bit more meaningful to me than it would be for almost any other player. Ruf is the last player I remember my grandfather singling out before he passed away, with the thought that Ruf, then a young prospect in the Phillies system, had the potential to be a productive big leaguer for our favorite team.

That was nine years ago. The Phillies promoted Ruf in late 2012 for his first cup of major league coffee, but he never amassed more than 297 plate appearances in any season for them. The bat was decent — Ruf posted a 105 wRC+ over 833 plate appearances, including a 125 wRC+ during his 2013 rookie season — but poor defensive numbers kept him barely above replacement-level in almost 300 games with Philadelphia. He was traded to the Dodgers in November of 2016, and even before he had an opportunity to make his organizational debut, Ruf’s contract was purchased by the Samsung Lions of the KBO. For three years, he raked in Asia, earning himself a minor league deal with the Giants for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. (I was pretty excited.) A year later, he’s now the best hitter on a playoff-bound team (Kris Bryant is a notable omission from this list — he has a 119 wRC+ in 128 plate appearances with the Giants so far):

2021 San Francisco Giants by wRC+, Min. 250 PA
Darin Ruf 274 .279 .401 .544 .401 155
Buster Posey 378 .304 .394 .511 .386 145
Brandon Belt 312 .250 .353 .537 .374 137
Brandon Crawford 462 .293 .364 .513 .369 134
LaMonte Wade Jr. 302 .257 .333 .519 .360 128
Steven Duggar 260 .275 .342 .466 .345 118
Wilmer Flores 389 .249 .319 .438 .326 106
Mike Yastrzemski 469 .222 .307 .455 .324 105
Donovan Solano 319 .275 .333 .394 .317 101
Alex Dickerson 304 .235 .303 .426 .314 98
Austin Slater 288 .227 .313 .395 .307 94

It’s no secret that the Giants have been receiving incredible production across their entire lineup. Their position players have posted a collective 113 wRC+ this season, a figure that ranks second in the majors among teams’ non-pitchers. But even in a lineup filled with players having above-average offensive seasons, Ruf stands out with his .279/.401/.544 slashline and 155 wRC+. That wRC+ ranks seventh in the majors among players with at least 250 plate appearances overall, sandwiched between Juan Soto (156) and Shohei Ohtani (154). That’s pretty phenomenal company, and it inspires two obvious questions. First, how did Ruf become one of the best hitters in baseball, at least this season? And, of course, how sustainable is this? Read the rest of this entry »

Using the Value of Taking Pitches to Describe Different Hitter Approaches

I will never not be fascinated by the fact that hitters actually produce negative value when swinging. In my most recent article outlining the struggles of Jarred Kelenic, I briefly discussed this idea. Even in a sea of hitters who are below-average when swinging, Kelenic stands out as being particularly bad when he takes a hack; he’s been worth roughly -6 runs per 100 swings so far this year. And as I noted, the hitters who do the best at limiting the damage on their swings tend to be baseball’s most productive hitters overall. From that research, I found an R-squared of 0.714 between a hitter’s run value when swinging and their seasonal wOBA.

That makes a ton of sense: Hitters who maximize their production on swings — that is, both limiting whiffs and making frequent loud contact — tend to be better hitters overall. But this also got me thinking about the reverse: How does taking pitches influence a hitter’s overall production? From the Kelenic research, I found only a moderate correlation between take value and seasonal wOBA, with an R of 0.422 and an R-squared of 0.178. That’s not to say that better “takers” aren’t better hitters; it just suggests that having extremely high-value takes doesn’t necessarily lend itself to having more success overall. For posterity’s sake, here’s the plot of 2021 hitters’ run value per 100 takes and their seasonal wOBAs. Players on both ends of the wOBA spectrum are highlighted just to demonstrate a few individual examples: Read the rest of this entry »