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Just How Hot Has Cody Bellinger Been?

By now, most baseball fans are probably aware of Cody Bellinger’s start to the 2019 season. Through 31 games and 132 plate appearances, Bellinger has put up an almost-immortal .431/.508/.890 slash line, with a 256 wRC+, swatting 14 home runs, drawing 19 walks and striking out just 15 times.

He’s leading baseball in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, wOBA, wRC+, home runs, RBI, and runs scored. (He’s even stolen five bases so far this year, good for 15th.) As the calendar has now officially turned, Bellinger has tied the record for most home runs before May 1, and has set the record for most RBI before May 1.

Now, this season, baseball’s March 28 Opening Day was the earliest that it has been in history, giving Bellinger (and, Christian Yelich, who also tied the home run record) a few more games than their historical counterparts to set these marks. And, as we know, more games equals more opportunities to pad one’s numbers, especially counting stats like home runs and RBIs.

(Warning: I’m about to talk some about RBI. I also know that RBI isn’t an especially illuminating stat. I am writing about this for historical sake, so just bear with me.)

Consider this: Bellinger set his RBI record on April 29, his 30th game of the season. Mark McGwire and Juan Gonzalez — who previously shared the RBI-prior-to-May-1 record with 36, each doing so in 1998 — had only played 25 and 24 games, respectively, upon reaching that pinnacle. Read the rest of this entry »

The Atlantic League Utilizes the No-Shift Rule for the First Time

One of the most popular idioms in the English language is “guinea pig.” It’s simple — we’ve probably all used it — and yet it means so much. To be a “guinea pig” is to be the subject of something new or different. It can be as simple as being the first to try a new toothbrush, and range to something as weighty as testing a new drug.

In baseball terms, the Atlantic League is serving as Major League Baseball’s guinea pig this season. In a deal struck in early-March, the two organizations agreed to change certain rules for the Atlantic League’s 2019 championship season as a way to test said modifications before MLB considers implementing them itself.

One of the more contentious rule changes was the prohibition of the infield shift. The rule itself, as explained in the press release, was simply the requirement of “two infielders to be on each side of second base when a pitch is released.” If the rule is broken, “the ball is dead and the umpire shall call a ball.”

Well, last Thursday, the Atlantic League’s Opening Day, the anti-shift rule was utilized in a game between the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs and the Sugar Land Skeeters. Former big leaguer James Loney (remember him?) was at the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning. On the first pitch from Blue Crabs righty Daryl Thompson, Loney hit a soft ground ball to second baseman Angelys Nina, who easily threw him out at first to begin the inning. Read the rest of this entry »

The Hit-By-Pitch Continues to Reach New Heights

The hit-by-pitch, as we know it today, predates the American League itself. It was in 1887, a good 14 years before the founding of baseball’s Junior Circuit, that the rules of this sport were amended to award a runner first base when hit by a pitcher’s usually-errant toss to home plate. (Interestingly enough, though, the statistic of a “hit-by-pitch” has been kept since 1884.)

Today, the hit-by-pitch generally flies under-the-radar. Of course there is the notable exception, the retaliatory hit-by-pitch, which does rear its ugly head around every few weeks. And we do often find ourselves talking about a hit-by-pitch when it unfortunately injuries one of our favorite players. But, other than that, it’s an event that just happens. There’s not much else to it.

Or so I initially thought. As the years have gone by, hit-by-pitches have been slowly increasing, and it really hasn’t gathered much attention from the greater baseball community. The 2018 season saw an all-time high in hit batsmen with 1,922. And in 2019, we are on pace to break the 2,000 mark for the first time in baseball’s history. Read the rest of this entry »

Zack Greinke Is Hitting Like Barry Bonds

Marcell Ozuna has had a solid start to his 2019 season. Through 89 plate appearances, Ozuna has hit .256/.348/.615 (150 wRC+) with eight home runs, producing 0.6 WAR. Ozuna’s WAR total puts him in the 67th percentile among qualified hitters to begin the year; that’s not elite, though it’s certainly not bad, either.

But what if I told you that there is a pitcher who has produced as much position player value as Marcell Ozuna, as Nelson Cruz, as Jean Segura, Whit Merrifield, Byron Buxton, Jay Bruce, Mike Moustakas, and a host of other solid hitters? Would you believe me? Could you guess who it is?

One of the (few) fun things about small sample baseball season is the ridiculous numbers that come from it. Jay Jaffe already covered some of these blips from both the pitcher and hitter perspective, but there’s one overlapping case that, at least to me, was worth discussing in its own separate piece, the answer to the above questions, perhaps obvious given this piece’s title: Zack Greinke.

This whole idea came about when I was glancing over the Statcast leaderboards at Baseball Savant a few days ago. At the time, the default setting on the hitter numbers was just 10 batted ball events, allowing for some smaller samples to sneak their way into prominent positions on the board. But there’s no position more prominent than No. 1, and seeing Greinke leading all major league hitters in barrels per plate appearance made me chuckle. It also made me take a second look at his season stats this year.

In 13 plate appearances, Greinke has slashed .500/.545/1.300 (361 wRC+). He has hit two home runs, two doubles, and a single, all while drawing a walk without registering a single strikeout. That’s better than Barry Bonds‘ slash line after 13 plate appearances (.400/.538/.900) in 2004, when he went on to post a ridiculous 1.422 full-season OPS. Let’s marvel at that for a second while we watch Greinke’s two home runs. Read the rest of this entry »

The Angels Refuse To Strike Out

As you probably already know, strikeouts are on an upward trend. Since 2005, baseball’s strikeout rate has increased every single year, and here in the first few weeks of 2019, it is up yet again. Hitters are striking out at a 23.3% rate, already representing a percentage point increase over their 2018 mark.

There is one team, though, that appears to be bucking the strikeout trend in a big way. Through 776 plate appearances, the Angels have struck out just 16.0% of the time, the lowest rate of any team in the major leagues. In the same breath, Los Angeles’ hitters are walking at the 14th-highest rate, 9.7%. This excellent combination of limiting strikeouts and drawing walks has resulted in a team-wide 0.60 BB/K ratio, which unsurprisingly leads the league.

Of course, a lot of this might have to do with Mike Trout. In 77 plate appearances, Trout has 18 walks to just nine strikeouts. But even if you were to remove Trout from the Angels’ team-wide stats, their strikeout rate would only “jump” to 16.5%. This would still be 1.9 percentage points better than the next closest team, the Athletics (18.4%).

This unique characteristic that Angels hitters are demonstrating clearly goes beyond Trout. In fact, among the 10 Angels hitters with at least 50 plate appearances, four have more walks than strikeouts. Across the rest of the league, there are only seven non-Angels hitters who have 50 plate appearances and can say the same, and no other team has more than two. Read the rest of this entry »

How Mariners’ Rule 5 Pick Brandon Brennan Is Like Max Scherzer

Rule 5 picks aren’t known to be guaranteed successes. Of course, there are the obvious exceptions, like Odubel Herrera, Marwin Gonzalez or Hector Rondon, but for every success, there’s a Tyler Goeddel, a Jabari Blash, a Taylor Featherston. Generally speaking, the Rule 5 Draft is a good way to ensure players aren’t buried on a roster, but in terms of long-term contributors, not much often comes of it.

With that said, let me introduce to you right-handed reliever Brandon Brennan. He was the 13th overall selection in the 2018 Rule 5 Draft by the Seattle Mariners, who were so interested in bringing him aboard that they made the pick even after missing out on signing him as a minor league free agent.

When the decision to draft Brennan was made, Mariners Vice President of Scouting Tom Allison expressed his enthusiasm to Greg Johns of “Opportunity is probably what he needs the most, and we have that to give him,” Allison said.

What I love most about this quote is how accurate it is four months later. Brennan not only made the Mariners’ Opening Day roster, but he’s been superb so far here in the early going, making the most of the opportunity that Allison said Seattle had to give. Granted, he’s made just nine appearances and pitched just 12.1 innings, but the results have been there. Brennan has pitched to a 0.73 ERA (one earned run allowed) and 2.57 FIP, with 13 strikeouts (29.6 K%) to just two walks (4.6 BB%) across the 44 batters he’s faced. Hitters are hitting just .143 (6-for-42) against him. Anecdotally, he’s been called “the Mariners’ best reliever this season.” Read the rest of this entry »

Examining Alex Gordon’s Hot Start

In Kansas City, Alex Gordon is more than just a Royals outfielder. He is the Royal of the 2010s, the face of the franchise during their two seasons of triumph, during their incredible run of back-to-back American League pennants and the 2015 World Series title. Gordon is arguably the most important Royals player since George Brett. And, fittingly, since the franchise was founded in 1969, Brett (84.6 WAR), Amos Otis (42.0), and Willie Wilson (35.2) are the only three Royals position players to produce more WAR than Gordon’s 32.0. It’s an indisputable fact that Gordon is one of the best players in franchise history, and his legacy has already been cemented as a true Kansas City Royal.

Unfortunately, Gordon’s best days are long behind him. In a four year stretch from 2011 to 2014, Gordon was the fourth-most valuable outfielder in baseball, consistently producing solid seasons on both sides of the ball. Alongside his excellent .283/.356/.453 triple slash line over 2,754 plate appearances, Gordon put up a total of 23.9 defensive runs above-average, good for the sixth-best defensive outfielder over that stretch.

Since 2016, the aging curve has come to bite Gordon, resulting in a couple of subpar seasons (0.6 WAR in 2016, -0.1 WAR in 2017) before creating some decent value in 2018 (1.7 WAR), mainly due to his defensive contributions.

To start 2019, though, Gordon has come out firing on all cylinders. Through his first 57 plate appearances, he’s put up an excellent .356/.456/.667 line with three home runs, seven walks and just five strikeouts. His 1.0 WAR is the fourth-most in baseball, as is his 198 wRC+. Even in a small, 13-game sample, Gordon is at a level that he hasn’t reached since August 2016. Read the rest of this entry »

Getting Mike Trout to a 15-WAR Season

The baseball world suffered a brief moment of shock on Tuesday night. Mike Trout, who needs no introduction within this interrupting clause to emphasize his greatness, was replaced by Peter Bourjos in the fourth inning of the Angels-Brewers game. Afterwards, Trout was diagnosed with a mild groin strain, and baseball collectively breathed a large sigh of relief. It appears that he plans to miss just a single game with the injury.

Before Trout exited on Tuesday, however, he had already gone 2-for-2 at the plate, adding yet another game to his hot start; in 49 plate appearances this season, Trout is slashing .406/.592/.938. Even in a brief outing, his WAR total still managed to increase, moving from 1.2 to 1.3. As of Wednesday, he is tied with Cody Bellinger for the major league lead in WAR rounded to one decimal place.

As we all know, Trout is the WAR king. He’s already put up 66.2 WAR in his career, making him the most valuable player in baseball since 2006, even though his career didn’t even start until 2011 and his first full season didn’t even come until 2012. I could go on and on about how great Mike Trout is at producing WAR, but a lot of those articles have already been written here and at other places.

One article that did catch my attention, however, was this 2015 piece from August Fagerstrom titled “Getting Mike Trout to 168.4 WAR.” In this piece, Fagerstrom outlined a potential career curve for Trout to hit 168.4 total WAR, a mark that would tie him with Babe Ruth for the most WAR produced by a single player in baseball history.

In this piece, I plan to do something similar but different. As in Fagerstrom’s piece, I want Trout to tie Ruth, but on a different WAR leaderboard: the all-time single-season mark. Read the rest of this entry »

With Wes Johnson, Twins Pitching Appears to Be Embracing Change

One of the beautiful things about baseball is that history is always being made. During every season, every game, every pitch, we may witness something that has never happened in the long history of this sport.

This offseason, the Twins made baseball history in a different way than I think you were expecting. They hired Wes Johnson, then the University of Arkansas’ pitching coach, to join their big league staff, serving in the same role. According to this story from La Velle E. Neal III in the Star Tribune, Johnson became the first pitching coach in baseball history to move directly from college to the majors. And, at the time, he was believed to be the first coach or manager of any kind to make this transition since Dick Howser left Florida State to manage the Yankees in 1980. That’s some legitimate baseball history there.

What was even more interesting about the Twins’ hire was Johnson’s pedigree as a pitching coach. From Neal’s story:

[Johnson] studies biomechanics. He uses analytics. He is into the gadgets teams invest in to help train pitchers. He earned a reputation in college as a velocity expert, someone who can help pitchers throw harder — although he says it’s difficult to do once a pitcher is no longer in his teens.

Perhaps the story of the Twins hiring a pitching coach who “uses analytics” might not sound all that exciting to you; you likely assume big league coaches use analytics at this point. But the change represented a real organizational philosophy shift. Read the rest of this entry »

J.D. Davis’ Changed Approach Could Turn Him Into a Big-Time Slugger

Through the Mets’ first nine games this season, J.D. Davis has 28 plate appearances. Jeff McNeil has 27. This, despite our playing time projections; we expected Davis to make just 67 trips to the plate all season. McNeil, on the other hand, was pegged for 509.

Davis, to say the least, has made the most of his early boon in playing time. He’s slashed .280/.357/.600, with two homers, three walks, and six strikeouts. He has also hit the ball incredibly hard. And, when I say incredibly hard, I really do mean it. Of Davis’ 17 batted balls, two have already left the bat at 108+ mph. Why is 108 mph a significant figure? Because, as Rob Arthur wrote in The Athletic in April 2018, “For every mile per hour above 108, a hitter is projected to gain about 6 points of OPS relative to their predicted number.” (Arthur looked at this correlation using a hitter’s projected OPS from PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’ player projection system.)

On Saturday, Davis hit this home run off of Patrick Corbin at a whopping 114.7 mph off the bat, the hardest hit ball he has hit all season:

Going off of Arthur’s findings, this would mean Davis could gain up to 40 points of OPS off of his projected value, which our Depth Chart projections have as .718. By no means would 40 “bonus” points take Davis into elite territory — it only ups his projected OPS to .758 — but having a max exit velocity of 114.7 mph this early in the season is clearly not a bad sign. In fact, it’s the third-highest max exit velocity of any hitter in the big leagues (minimum 10 batted ball events), behind only Aaron Judge (118.1 mph!) and Joey Gallo (115.4 mph). That is some pretty good company to be in. And perhaps it means that Davis could be tapping into new potential. Read the rest of this entry »