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In One Day, Giants Bring Back Two Key Starting Pitchers

Even coming off of a 107-win season and the NL West title, the Giants found themselves in a rather difficult position entering this offseason. A starting rotation worth a combined 16.5 WAR last season — good for fifth highest in the majors — found itself at risk of losing four mainstays who combined for 610.2 of the 831.1 innings that it logged last season: Kevin Gausman (192 IP), Anthony DeSclafani (167.2), Alex Wood (138.2), and Johnny Cueto (114.2). On Monday, the team brought two of those hurlers back into the fold, striking a three-year, $36 million agreement with DeScalafani and a two-year contract worth more than $10 million annually with Wood. Within one hour, the Giants brought back 40% of their 2021 starting rotation and solidified a potential weak point.

As with most of their teammates, DeSclafani and Wood had near-career years in black and orange last season, and they cashed in with nice new contracts before the calendar hit December. The former came in at No. 36 on our top 50 free agents list, with Ben Clemens projecting a two-year, $20 million contract and the median FanGraphs reader estimating two years and $19.5 million. Clearly, the Giants had to go an extra year to get that done. Wood, meanwhile, was unranked on our list, though Ben noted that he had considered slotting him at No. 50, and that the crowdsourced projection had him earning a three-year, $33 million deal. Read the rest of this entry »

With Manny Piña Signed, the Thin Catching Market Withers Further

On Monday, the Braves announced the signing of a backup backstop, adding catcher Manny Piña on two-year, $8 million contact. Also included in the agreement is a club option for 2024 valued at $4 million that comes without a buyout. Piña will slide in behind Travis d’Arnaud — who is also signed through 2023 — on Atlanta’s depth chart.

On the surface, the move is a relatively minor one. Piña, the Brewers’ longest-tenured player at the time of his departure, appeared in 75 games last season, making just 52 starts behind the dish as the backup to Omar Narváez. In that time, he was relatively productive, slashing .189/.293/.439 in 208 plate appearances, good for a 95 wRC+. He was also quite solid behind the plate, throwing out 30% of attempted base stealers, notably above the league-average of 25%. This is not a new trait, either: Piña has boasted an above-average ability to control the running game throughout his career, with a 35% caught-stealing rate. He’s also a solid framer, with his numbers really taking a step forward in recent seasons. Since 2019, Piña has been worth +11.6 framing runs above-average, ranking ninth in baseball despite not even catching 1,000 innings in that time. (Tyler Flowers is the only other catcher in the top 10 with fewer than 1,000 innings caught.) Read the rest of this entry »

Dodgers Hunt for Upside With Signing of Andrew Heaney

In the first notable signing of the offseason, the Dodgers and left-handed starting pitcher Andrew Heaney reportedly agreed to terms on one-year, $8.5 million contact. Though Heaney was not listed on our top 50 free agent rankings, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported on Sunday that he had quickly generated a hot market. Multiple teams were interested in the southpaw; in Sherman’s words, they were hoping to find the “next Robbie Ray.”

There are some similarities. Like Heaney, Ray signed quickly last winter, inking a one-year, $8 million pact with the Blue Jays on November 7. In Toronto, he found the strike zone for the first time in his career and turned in a Cy Young-caliber season (he’s one of the AL’s three finalists) with a 2.84 ERA, 3.69 FIP and 3.9 WAR in 193.1 innings pitched. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal also likened the contract to Ray’s deal from last offseason, if only because the general premise (an attempt at fixing a broken pitcher) and terms (Heaney signed for just $500,000 more than Ray) are quite similar.

That’s where the similarities between the two hurlers end. Heaney had a rough 2021 season, but the issues facing the two pitchers could not be more different. Ray struggled to harness his excellent stuff; Heaney, on the other hand, posted a 7.3% walk rate in 2021, a tick above his career-average into this past year (6.5%). While both pitchers flashed the potential for much more upside than their results had shown, how the Blue Jays fixed Ray and how the Dodgers will have to fix Heaney will deviate significantly. Read the rest of this entry »

Martín Maldonado Crowds the Plate

“Doing the little things right” is an overused cliché in baseball. In its yearning for sacrifice bunts, productive outs, and pitching to contact, it’s one that doesn’t typically go well with the analytical thinking common to this website. But there’s still no better characterization for what Martín Maldonado did in the fifth inning of Game 5 than that very cliché. He did the little things right; in fact, what he did was rather ingenious.

In the early portion of Sunday night’s back-and-forth affair, the Astros erased a four-run deficit but found themselves behind yet again after Freddie Freeman went yard in the bottom of the third. Just two innings later, though, they would take the lead for good. Their half of the fifth went like this: A single by Carlos Correa, a strikeout of Yordan Alvarez, a single by Yuli Gurriel, and then a groundout by Kyle Tucker. With two outs, that left runners on second and third for Alex Bregman, who had been moved down in the order as a result of recent struggles. A.J. Minter and the Braves wanted no part of him nonetheless, not with Maldonado on deck; he seemed like the best matchup by far.

Even in retrospect, the Braves would clearly make the same move again. Maldonado is a career .212/.290/.348 hitter, and over 426 plate appearances with the Astros this season, all three legs of the slash were even worse than that: .172/.272/.300. This postseason, he’s been invisible offensively: .114/.184/.114. Put simply, he is not a threat at the plate. But in the highest-leverage moment of a World Series elimination game, he came through. With the bases now loaded after the intentional free pass, Maldonado walked. Read the rest of this entry »

Airing It Out: A Look at This October’s Fastball Velocities

In Game 6 of the ALCS, en route to clinching the American League pennant for the third time in five years, the Astros received quite the start from Luis Garcia. As a team hampered by rotation issues, issues only accentuated by the injury to Lance McCullers Jr. in the ALDS, Houston needed someone other than Framber Valdez to step up and perform. Non-Valdez starters had recorded just 12 measly outs in Games 2 through 4; in retrospect, the Astros were probably lucky to have come away with even one of those games.

After a brilliant Valdez start to put Houston up three-games-to-two, it was once again Garcia’s turn to get the ball. The team’s No. 3 starter during the regular season, he had been productive all year but exited Game 2 of the ALCS with an injury; Garcia’s fastball velocity in his second inning of work was down almost 4 mph relative to his first inning mark. On Friday, though, the script was completely flipped: Garcia was airing it out. After only throwing one 97 mph pitch the entire regular season, he recorded eight against Boston. His 5 2/3 shutout innings, allowing just one hit and one walk, made him the most valuable Houston player of the evening, with a +.308 WPA. That type of performance is a necessity if the Astros want to triumph over the Braves and win the World Series.

In the midst of his excellent outing, there was a lot of oohing and aahing over Garcia’s velocity. As ESPN’s Jeff Passan tweeted during the game, Garcia’s stuff was “ticking way, way, way up.” For those counting at home, that’s three “way”s, and deservedly so. Garcia threw the five fastest pitches of his career in Game 6; he has thrown the eight fastest pitches of his career all in the postseason (seven in Game 6, one against the Rays last year). The righty averaged just 93.3 mph on his four-seamer during the regular season, but in Game 6, he averaged 96.0. That average fastball velocity was 1.4 mph faster than his highest average in any other outing this season (94.6 mph, April 12). He was amped up. Read the rest of this entry »

The Dodgers Have a Book on Freddie Freeman

Through two games of the NLCS, Freddie Freeman has been a complete non-factor for the Braves, making it that much more surprising that they’re just two wins away from the World Series. In eight trips to the plate, he has no hits and seven strikeouts; his 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in Game 1 made him Atlanta’s least-valuable hitter by win probability added, at -.148. At least in Game 2, with another 0-for-4 (this time with three punchouts), he was only Atlanta’s second-least valuable hitter by WPA at -.151.

The postseason forces us to look at tiny samples, but Freeman striking out in seven consecutive plate appearances tied his career high. Adding to the improbability of it all, he has struck out three or more times in one game in just 19 of the 639 he’s played with three or more plate appearances since the start of 2017. For context, Joey Gallo (21), Javier Báez (21), Randy Arozarena (21), and Matt Chapman (20) had more three-plus-strikeout games this season.

For what it’s worth, Freeman isn’t at the top of the league in avoiding the three-strikeout game, even if it is indeed rare for him. Among the 285 players with at least 250 three-plate appearance games since the beginning of 2017, his three-strikeout game rate of 3.0% ranks 101st. Two players, Jonathan Lucroy and Eduardo Núñez, did not have any three-strikeout games in this stretch, and another six had just one. While he’s above the median in this stat, Freeman isn’t a player who will avoid the strikeout entirely; after all, he has struck out in 17.4% of his plate appearances in the last five years, a figure that’s better than the league average but not among the lowest rates in the game.

But seven strikeouts in two games? This isn’t Gallo here; it’s still absurd for Freeman to strike out this much in such a short span. Only twice in his career has he struck out at least three times in back-to-back games, and he’s struck out in seven consecutive plate appearances just two times before as well. Let’s break down how Dodgers pitching has done it so far. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »