Author Archive

Not All Steep Swings Are Created Equal

Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

There is no baseball topic that gets me more excited than swing diversity. A player’s swing is like a fingerprint: No two are the same. But even similar swings can yield extremely different results. There are many ways to compare swings, but because Vertical Bat Angle (VBA), the angle of the bat at contact relative to the ground, is the most accessible (thanks, SwingGraphs), it’s been my go-to proxy for the last year or so. Of course, you can always use your eyes to visually analyze swings, but having the data to confirm it helps inform the evaluation.

Lately, my video evaluations have focused on hitters with steep VBAs, and even among this group there is a ton of swing diversity. Some take golf-like swings to get to their steep planes and others employ one of my favorite styles: the chicken-wing swing.

Intuitively, it makes sense that hitters with steeps paths are more prone to whiffs than those who have flatter swings. Even so, some of the game’s best contact hitters have swings as steep as some of those who are the most whiff prone. Luis Arraez, for example, has a swing that is just as steep as J.D. Martinez’s, at least according to VBA. Without the data to confirm, it’s hard to know if the same holds true for Attack Angle (AA), the angle of the bat’s path at impact.

To show you exactly what I mean, I’ll compare pairs of hitters with nearly identical average VBAs, but different offensive profiles. A few weeks ago, Davy Andrews wrote about Edouard Julien and the bizarre nature of his platoon splits (and a tune to go along with it). His entire offensive profile drastically changes depending on if he’s facing a lefty or righty. It’s fascinating. After I read the piece, I was immediately curious as to how those trends might relate to Julien’s swing path. At 40 degrees, Julien has one of the steepest VBAs in the majors. It’s almost a perfect diagonal. Here are a few slow motion swings that showcase that:

No matter how high or low the pitch is, Julien manages to get his bat on a diagonal, which last year helped him run an xwOBACON of .443, well above average. His diagonal angle also allows him to crush fastballs. He had a .408 wOBA against heaters but struggled mightily (.287 wOBA) vs. breaking balls. Production against different pitch types is where you tend to see some deviation between hitters with similar VBAs. Like Julien, Freddie Freeman is also a lefty batter with a steep VBA (41.7 degrees), yet despite their similar angles, Julien ran a 44.3% whiff rate against breaking pitches, while Freeman’s whiff rate vs. breaking balls was 27.7%. There are swing components other than VBA that contribute to how such divergence can happen. But before getting to that, let’s check out some of Freeman’s swings from 2023:

Man, Freeman is smooth. Because both he and Julien set up with high hands, they can create a steep path at different pitch heights. This setup allows them to drop their barrel easily and rely on changing posture to adjust to locations. How they do it, though, is where their swings differ. Julien uses more aggressive movements to get to different pitch heights, while Freeman shifts his shoulder plane and avoids more drastic body adjustments. His chicken-wing style is a bit more handsy and less reliant on changing his eye level, and as a result, he has excellent plate coverage. His contact rates on pitches at the top, bottom, and outer thirds of the zone outpace Julien by about eight percentage points in each location.

Two other factors, which are not publicly available, also likely contribute to Freeman’s superior plate coverage: Horizontal Bat Angle (HBA), the horizontal angle of the bat at impact, and bat speed. Freeman, who we’ve already established has a steep VBA on average, appears to be better at altering his swing speeds when necessary, which lets him manipulate his bat angle to cover pitches throughout the zone. You can see this in the third video above, on the changeup breaking down and away from him.

Freeman’s approach also helps him produce against lefties (career 120 wRC+), which is something he has improved upon as he has gotten older (139 wRC+ over the last three seasons). Meanwhile, Julien’s daddy-hack approach sometimes limits his ability to alter his swing speeds and angles, which can often lead to poorly timed swings or mishits and explains why he is prone to hitting groundballs (50.2% last year) despite his steep swing. These issues are more apparent when he faces lefties (22 wRC+, 80% groundball rate), though as Davy pointed out in his Julien piece, he has made only 48 plate appearances against lefties in the big leagues — an incredibly small sample size.

That brings us to the next hitter, Tim Anderson. Even with his steep 39.5-degree VBA, Anderson had a groundball rate above 60% last year. A batter’s contact point has to be extremely deep to pull that off. Here are some swings from him to illustrate that:

Most hitters would struggle to put the ball in play after letting it travel this deep, but TA’s steep barrel and feel for contact in the zone allowed him to pound the ball into the ground over and over and over again last season. The sweeping breaking ball from Rich Hill is the exact type of pitch Anderson would have elevated in years past. Typically, having a steep bat path against an opposite-handed breaking ball is a perfect recipe for an ideal launch angle distribution, but if you’re making deep contact, this is all you can get out of the swing.

Chas McCormick was the anti-Anderson last season, when he mostly refused to hit the ball on the ground against opposite-handed pitching. He can do this because of how he marries his steep, 38.2-degree VBA with ideal contact points. In 2023, he had a 25.6 GB% against left-handed pitchers. That was the third lowest in baseball behind Jorge Soler and Mookie Betts. Unsurprisingly, by wRC+, they were three of the six most productive right-handed hitters against lefties last year. Here are a few swings from McCormick vs. lefties that show his ability to elevate no matter the zone or pitch:

Even on the well-executed curveball from MacKenzie Gore, McCormick’s barrel was on an upward slope at contact because he connected with the pitch out in front of the zone. This is the type of pitch that Anderson would have pounded into the ground despite the similar steepness at contact, because he would’ve let the pitch get deeper before swinging.

McCormick’s closed stride puts him in a great position to elevate any pitch in the middle of the plate, even if it makes it more difficult for him to square up inside pitches in the top half of the zone. That said, as you can see in the video of his swing against Cole Ragans, he can still get to up-and-in pitches when he holds his posture. The main takeaway is that no matter the zone, his barrel is working on an upward slope through contact, which allows him to do more damage.

Although their swings are similarly steep, these four hitters have different swing types that generate different results. VBA is a great tool to use, but it only tells one part of the story.

Fernando Tatis Jr. Needs to Get His Legs Back in Check

Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

It is not easy to skip a whole year of something and come back with the same level of performance or skill. Baseball is no different, even for the best of ballplayers. Fernando Tatis Jr. missed the entire 2022 season because of wrist injuries and a suspension for using performance enhancing drugs. While he was serving his suspension, he underwent labrum surgery to repair a recurring issue that hampered his ability to consistently stay on the field. He was fully healthy upon his return in 2023, and he remained that way for the entire season.

Yet, despite avoiding injury for the first full season of his career, in 2023 Tatis had his least productive year at the plate. His 113 wRC+ was 41 points below the mark he had recorded over his first three big league seasons. He also set career lows in average (.257), on-base percentage (.322), slugging (.449), ISO (.191) and wOBA (.332). From a data perspective, his quality of contact took a significant hit, though that isn’t all that surprising. Even after athletes return to the field, it takes time for them to regain their explosiveness following serious injuries and surgeries. Ronald Acuña Jr. is a perfect example of that. He tore his ACL in July 2021, underwent season-ending surgery, and missed Atlanta’s first 19 games of 2022. Like Tatis last year, Acuña was mostly healthy for the rest of the season but did not perform up to his standards. Then, of course, last year he won the NL MVP and became the first player ever to hit 40 home runs and steal 70 bases in a season.

Tatis will look to take a similar path, but in order to do so, he’ll have to figure out and address the root causes (mechanics, swing decisions, etc.) of this big drop off. Back in September, Ben Clemens investigated how spray angle on fly balls impacts some of the hardest hitters in the game, Tatis being one of them. One of the key conclusions of Ben’s research is that hitters who pull their fly balls at an extreme rate, such as Isaac Paredes, don’t do more with those batted balls; they just hit them much more frequently, which allows them to outproduce others on fly balls, despite not having the eye-popping power that we’d assume would be the main causal variable.

This is notable for Tatis because, over his first three seasons, he hit the ball with enough power to do damage on fly balls no matter the spray angle. That was not the case last year.

Tatis Fly Ball Performance
Years Fly Ball% Fly Balls wOBA xwOBA wOBA-xwOBA
2019-2021 27.4 197 .847 .834 .013
2023 25.1 110 .456 .626 -.170
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

From 2019 through 2021, Tatis’ wOBA on fly balls slightly outpaced his xwOBA, while last year, he greatly underperformed his expected numbers. Much of that can be explained by his pull rate dropping from 30.5% over his first three seasons to 21.8% in 2023. However, that’s not the only variable at play here, because even when he hit straightaway fly balls in those first three years, he had a .764 wOBA. That’s well below his .894 xwOBA, but it was still the third-highest mark among all batters from 2019–21 (min. 150 fly balls). Last season, though, Tatis finished with a .291 wOBA on straightaway fly balls, significantly lower than his .653 xwOBA. Crushing balls to the deepest parts of the park was once a Tatis superpower; in 2023, it was his kryptonite.

To better understand how this happened, let’s look at how Tatis fared in different areas of the strike zone. By breaking down his performance in different zones, we’ll get a better idea of any holes that may have developed in his swing. For all his woes last year, Tatis continued to rake against left-handed pitching (152 wRC+), so I’m going to focus on his splits vs. righties, against whom he had a career low 101 wRC+. The table below shows how Tatis performed against pitches from righties in each third of the zone, first in 2021 and then in 2023.

Zone wOBA/xwOBA vs. RHP
Year Inner Third Middle Third Outer Third
2021 .423/.450 .464/.533 .500/.473
2023 .307/.332 .427/.466 .252/.352

There are drops across the board here, but my goodness, what the heck happened on the outer third? In 2021, Tatis ranked second in right-on-right wOBA on outer third pitches. This year, if you were a righty who could locate on the outer third, Tatis would do the work for you.

What’s the deal? Making contact wasn’t the problem, because he actually whiffed less often against the outer third last year than he did in 2021. The real issue was his quality of contact. On his 67 batted balls against pitches from righties on the outer third in 2021, his xwOBACON was .634. In 2023, it was .305. Ooof.

A change in swing path is typically to blame when a player goes from destroying the outer third to hardly covering it at all. Let’s look at the video to figure out what mechanical flaws altered his swing path. Here are some swings from 2021 against outer third pitches from righties.

Here is a standard heater away with a pretty neutral body angle (sorry Keegan Thompson):

This one is a low and away breaking ball with a pretty aggressive body adjustment to get the barrel under the ball:

And lastly, here is a high heater that needed an upright body adjustment:

Each of these three swings shows how Tatis adjusted his body in different ways to get to his barrel to outer third pitches. The swings are reciprocal, athletic, and vicious. His stability with the ground is consistent no matter the posture of his upper body. Now let’s look at three swings on similar pitches from 2023, starting with another standard middle-away heater:

Here is a swing on a low breaking ball with a body adjustment where Tatis couldn’t quite create the same angle as he did in 2021:

Then here is a can of corn fly ball to center on an up and away heater where Tatis caught it off the end of the barrel:

OK, now for some comparison. Off the rip, it’s clear that Tatis’ stride is working in a different direction. It’s more neutral now than it used to be. Instead of working from a neutral stance into a closed stride, he’s working from an open stance into a neutral stride. The starkest comparison is looking at how he handled Thompson’s heater in 2021 versus the 2023 one we saw from Cristian Javier. Against Javier, it was the exact kind of pitch you’d expect Tatis to drill into the opposite field gap, but his legs didn’t create enough space for him to get his barrel moving in the optimal direction. Instead of a laser opposite field homer, it was a measly liner to left for an easy out.

In 2021, Tatis had a more stable base, which allowed him to create a more drastic angle with his upper body against the low breaking ball. That made the difference between his line drive in the gap from 2021 and last year’s line drive to the shortstop. On both of the high pitches, he had the tall posture he needed to get on plane, but in 2023, he couldn’t get his bat on the proper horizontal angle to make flush contact, causing him to hit the ball off the end of the bat instead of the barrel.

As I always say, we’re looking for reciprocal movements. If he’s still kicking back aggressively but doesn’t have the movement beforehand to make the kick back smooth, then he’s creating asymmetrical movements. The closed stride and smooth kick back was his recipe for success in 2021. The logic here is that when he strides closed, he has a more stable connection to the ground, leading to better positions to get his barrel on plane.

He did not do that last year, and as a result, he created less space for his upper body to cover the outer third effectively, which sapped his production on fly balls. Because he was coming back from surgery, it’s possible that he wasn’t comfortable making the same movements he had in the past, though it’s hard to believe that would be the only reason for losing his mechanics. After all, his surgery was on his shoulder, and this is a lower body problem. That said, even if he knew what was wrong, his shoulder could have limited the amount of extra swings he could take to fix it during the season.

Now that he is healthy, he should be able to do the drills and cage work necessary to correct his mechanics and return to his previous rotational patterns.

MLB Hitters Get Stuck On Their Backside Too

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of my thoughts on hitting are rooted in my own experiences playing, for better or for worse. When I was in school playing ball, I was constantly working through a particular mechanical issue. Traditionally, it is called “getting stuck on the back side,” but I always said I got stuck on a pedestal. When I got to the highest point of my leg kick (which was moderately high), I sometimes transferred too much of my weight over my back foot – it was a swing path killer. Because of my extensive experience with it, I’ve always been keen on identifying hitters who have a similar issue.

Rotational movements like hitting and pitching have linear components, but hitters need to do more than just move on the coronal plane (from left to right or right to left) in order to have a deep entry into the hitting zone. A hitter has to rotate with his hips and/or spine while moving along that linear plane to create rotational power and an ideal bat path. In the case of pedestal hitters, they reach their peak leg lift while sometimes neglecting those other aspects of movement.

Take Will Smith, for example. He uses a high leg kick to create space in his swing and fell into the pedestal hitting habit during the second half of last season:

October 9th

September 22nd

September 7th

A few hittable pitches in the heart of the zone with no barrels to show for it. On the middle-middle heaters, his path was cut off and he only skimmed the bottom of the ball, rather than hitting it flush. That led to can-of-corn fly balls to right field instead of barreled line drives. This was a persistent issue for Smith throughout 2023 – the worst offensive season of his five-year career and the first with an ISO below .200.

When you transfer too much weight over your back foot, you either get stuck and create a path which leads to lazy fly balls to the opposite field or you fall too heavy on your front side and hit grounders like Smith did against Manaea. You lose depth in your bat path and can’t cover as much of the zone with your barrel. For Smith, that negatively impacted his wOBA on outer third pitches. For the bulk of his career, he has been able to cover those pitches, so this should be something he can fix. To do that, he’ll have to get back to his early 2023 swings where he was balanced and creating space for his bat to work through the zone.

April 30th

Smith is a good enough hitter that he still posted a 119 wRC+ last year despite his mechanical flaw. Not everyone has that much room for error, though. Enrique Hernández has had a wRC+ below 75 in consecutive seasons after running a 109 mark in 2021. Like Smith, he typically relies on a big leg kick to create space, rhythm, and timing in his swing. And while the size of his leg kick fluctuates more than Smith’s, it’s still a key driver in his process. Here are a few swings from 2023 before he was traded to the Dodgers:

April 11th

June 25th

July 2nd

Even if you want to cut Hernández some slack on the high quality changeup from Shane McClanahan, that swing is still a good example of how his lack of balance causes him to land heavily on his lead leg. The heavy landing is even more obvious in his swing against Jesse Scholtens in the second clip. With that swing in particular, his leg kick works straight up and down, which causes him to force a lead hip external rotation.

What do I mean by that? If you’re trying to explode your lead leg open, you would create the counter movement (internal hip rotation) first. That way, you’re creating a reciprocal pattern that leads to smooth external rotation. Staying neutral at the beginning of the swing creates an imbalance, causing the hitter to stand on the pedestal instead of rotating into and then out of it as he swings. Hernández has hyper mobile external rotation, which is seen by his tendency to stride open. To control it, he needs to create sufficient counter rotation with his hips. Unsurprisingly, when he went to Los Angeles, he made a clear change in his leg lift that allowed him to stack his center of mass over his midpoint instead of his back leg. Pay attention to the direction he works his leg kick:

August 19th

September 9th

His leg lift started working on an angle towards his back leg, which allowed him to have a controlled explosion and balanced swing. With the Dodgers, he had a 96 wRC+ – much more in line with his career 94 mark. Yes, it was over a sample of 185 plate appearances, but the movement quality improvement is undeniable.

The last example I’ll use to portray pedestal hitters is Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan. His case is a bit more complicated. In his rookie season, he splashed onto the scene with a 126 wRC+. However, his peripherals suggested there would likely be a regression – his .341 wOBA was considerably higher than his .312 xwOBA. In 2023, those numbers almost completely converged. He had a .313 wOBA and .318 xwOBA. From a mechanical point of view, this wasn’t completely surprising.

His big leg kick is a crucial component of his swing. It keeps him stable, which plays a key role in his great plate discipline. However, the movement also makes him heavily reliant on his hands to do most of the work to get on plane. Given his elite bat-to-ball skills, he can successfully do that more than other players, but he doesn’t have much room for error. If he gets stuck on his back side, his hands can only do so much. If he identifies a pitch too late, even just slightly, then he puts himself in a tough position to make flush contact. Here are a few swings showing that:

July 9th

August 30th

September 22nd

Each of these fastballs were thrown between 96 and 97 mph, but were right down the middle. Kwan couldn’t get his hands on plane despite the hittable locations. This was a trend for him all year. In 2023, he saw 190 four-seamers with a velocity of at least 96 mph and had a .155 wOBA against them. This is another example of why rotational hitters like Kwan, Hernández and Smith need to be on top of their mechanics at all times. Pedestal hitting gives batters even less margin for error than other hitters against high velocity.

Every hitter has his weakness, and for this trio of players, theirs is directly related to how they load with their leg kick. As I watch each of them in 2024, I’ll be looking for any potential adjustments they might have made over the offseason, or might make as the season progresses.

Blake Snell Has Better Command Than You Think

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Two-time Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell is still a free agent toward the end of the third week of January, and there reportedly remains a large gap between his asking price and what his potential suitors are willing to pay him. Snell’s upside is undeniable, but there are some concerns about his long-term value. He has not been a model of durability or consistency throughout his eight-year career, and perhaps most concerning is that even at his best, he allows a lot walks.

Last year, despite his overall excellence, Snell led the majors with 99 walks, 16 more than the next two guys, Charlie Morton and Johan Oviedo. In terms of BB%, his 13.3% rate beats out Morton’s by 1.7 percentage points. Spending north of $200 million on a pitcher who gives up so many free passes, even one of Snell’s caliber, is a tough sell. However, Snell isn’t your typical wild thing who doesn’t know where the ball is going after he releases it. Rather, there appears to an intentionality to where he misses. His misses are frequently in locations where the worst outcome is a wasted pitch out of the zone, rather than over the middle of the plate where batters can do more damage. Such an approach can be incredibly unpleasing to watch, but it has proven to be effective for him, nonetheless.

That he has a propensity for giving up walks and preventing runs forces us to consider that walks alone might not be the best encapsulation of his command. His ability to live around the edges and leave his misses in low risk locations is a skill. To defend that notion, I’ll present some data outlining where Snell throws his pitches, and how that compares to his peers. Let’s start with fastball command. Below is a table of last year’s top 20 pitchers in fastball shadow zone percentage, out of the 119 pitchers who threw at least 1,000 heaters:

Fastball Shadow Zone%
Name Total Fastballs Shadow Zone%
Bailey Ober 1062 51.2
Ranger Suárez 1254 49.9
Joe Ryan 1526 49.0
Wade Miley 1280 48.5
Patrick Corbin 1711 48.4
Matt Strahm 1018 48.3
Kyle Freeland 1127 48.0
Luke Weaver 1230 47.7
Kyle Hendricks 1167 47.6
Sean Manaea 1186 47.6
Alex Cobb 1001 47.6
Aaron Nola 1720 47.5
George Kirby 1723 47.4
Reid Detmers 1123 47.3
Hunter Greene 1135 47.3
Blake Snell 1541 47.2
Pablo López 1363 47.2
Sonny Gray 1578 47.0
Trevor Williams 1516 47.0
Merrill Kelly 1692 47.0

Snell’s positioning between command artists like George Kirby and Aaron Nola above him, and Pablo López and Sonny Gray below him is unexpected. (Hunter Greene and Reid Detmers are less regarded for their command, but even their walk rates were, respectively, 3.7 and 4 percentage points lower than Snell’s 13.3%.) When looking a little further, Snell had the third lowest frequency of heart percentage on his heater last year. It’s one of the reasons why he was able to avoid the long ball so well. His 0.75 HR/9 ranked fourth among qualified pitchers. This is not a new trend for him, either. His fastball Shadow Zone% was even better in 2022. His 26.6% Heart% was 2.6 percentage points higher than it was last year, but it still ranked 17th among the 117 pitchers who threw at least 1,000 fastballs, and consequently, he allowed just 0.77 HR/9.

There is more to Snell than just his fastball, though. After all, he threw heaters less than half the time last year. To get a true sense of his command, we also need to evaluate his three other pitches: curveball, slider, changeup. Snell ranked second among all pitchers in breaking ball run value last year, so presumably he has a good handle on his curve and slider. For this table, I’ll use chase zone percentage:

Breaking Ball Chase Zone%
Player Total Breakers Chase Zone%
Corbin Burnes 791 31.2
Trevor Williams 659 30.3
Alex Lange 670 29.9
Patrick Corbin 1024 29.5
Framber Valdez 718 29.2
Brady Singer 1112 28.9
Kyle Gibson 816 28.6
Spencer Strider 1048 28.5
Zack Wheeler 748 28.5
Dane Dunning 757 28.4
Zac Gallen 849 28.2
Marcus Stroman 620 28.2
Braxton Garrett 849 28.0
Tylor Megill 652 27.8
Blake Snell 1043 27.7
Roansy Contreras 638 27.6
José Berríos 870 27.4
Julian Merryweather 634 27.4
Michael Grove 627 27.4
Bobby Miller 704 27.3

The data presented here combines all the breaking balls a pitcher throws. In my best effort to keep the denominators similar (this one has 106 pitchers), the minimum number of breaking balls is set at 600. Once again, Snell has good positioning. Most of this top 20 list features pitchers who throw a high volume of curveballs and place them well, like Corbin Burnes, Framber Valdez, and Zac Gallen. With his nasty slider, Spencer Strider is a bit of an outlier in this group, but other guys with high velocity sliders begin to pop up in the 20s. Point being, Snell is one of the best pitchers in baseball when it comes to landing breaking balls in competitive spots to get whiffs, even if they are out of the zone. This part was expected, given his elite whiff rates on both his slider and curveball.

This doesn’t tell the entire story about how Snell uses his breaking balls, though. Yes, we know he gets plenty of chases and whiffs, but he does it differently than any other pitcher in baseball. He doesn’t give hitters many opportunities to hit mistakes because, more often than not, he refuses to throw his breaking pitches anywhere in or around the strike zone. Of the 149 pitchers in baseball who threw at least 500 breaking balls in 2023, Snell had the lowest combined rate of pitches in the heart and shadow zones by nine percentage points. Nine! He is the only pitcher on that list who throws his breaking balls in these two zones less than half the time.

It becomes even more clear that his avoiding the zone is by design rather than an indication that he has poor command when looking at what happens when he doesn’t locate his breaking balls as well as he would like. Last year, he threw 29.5% of his breaking pitches in the waste zone, the highest rate in the majors. That’s 9.4 percentage points higher than the next guy, Shane Bieber.

His unwillingness to give in leads to a lot of noncompetitive pitches, but that’s the point. Batters can’t crush pitches if they don’t swing, and even when they do, the pitches are breaking far enough outside the zone that hitters can’t do much with them, anyway. Considering that last year he also mostly ditched his slider against right-handed hitters in favor of his changeup, there is good reason to believe he has a much better understanding of how to execute and optimize his arsenal.

Speaking of the changeup, the plus command trend holds up there as well. Last year, he landed the pitch in the shadow zone 50% of the time, the fifth highest rate among the 107 pitchers who threw at least 300 offspeed pitches.

Specifically looking at the shadow zone is important for this pitch, because it’s not the kind of changeup or forkball that has wicked drop and falls out of the zone. Instead, it’s a pitch that tunnels with his heater and is roughly 9 mph slower without big time movement. Its success hinges on landing it in the shadow zone with consistency. Snell had never done that until last year. After fading the pitch for most of his San Diego tenure, he bumped the usage back up over 20%.

Usually this is the point in an analysis where I’d lay out some video highlighting how this data looks in practice, but that doesn’t feel necessary here. For one, I’ve already told you how visually unpleasing watching Snell walk the house can be. If you’ve watched him navigate a game, you know the feeling. If you haven’t, then here are some games where he walks guys for nitpicking around the edges.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that because of all the walks, Snell has poor command, and therefore is a risky investment for teams looking to sign him. Yes, it is true that he allows an uncomfortable amount of walks, and for a lesser pitcher, this would not be ideal. Except, Snell is not a lesser pitcher, and his approach is not conventional. Despite the walks, maybe even because of them, Snell is adept at run prevention. He has a good feel for keeping his pitches in places where he won’t get burned too badly. After all, bases on balls are better than long balls, right?

After 15 Years, Michael Brantley Is Hanging Up His Spikes

Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

He may not have upper-echelon career totals, but boy was Michael Brantley an absolute baller. A five-time All-Star, Brantley also won a Silver Slugger and finished third in American League MVP voting in 2014, a year that saw him finish second in the AL in WAR behind only Mike Trout, the MVP winner. After a very successful 15-year career, the sweet swinging lefty outfielder has decided to hang up his cleats. It’s an unsurprising move for Brantley, who had battled shoulder injuries for much of the last three seasons and would have been entering his age-37 season.

Brantley was a unique player. Over the course of his career (2009-2023), the league-wide strikeout rate increased from 18.0% to 22.7%. But while the league was whiffing more and more, Brantley bucked the trend. During his 10-year tenure in Cleveland, he struck out 10.7% of the time; in the five years he spent in Houston, that mark was exactly the same. Indeed, his strikeout rate with the Astros was over 40% better than the league average rate (22.8%) during that period. Of the hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances from 2019 to 2023, 21 had a strikeout rate below 14%. Only two had a higher wRC+ than Brantley: Alex Bregman (137) and José Ramírez (132).

His skill set was timeless, headlined by his elite contact ability. His wRC+ was actually higher in his 30s (124) than it was in his 20s (112). And his future looked bright – ZiPS projected him for a .290/.354/.416 line and a 114 OPS+ in the upcoming season had he played. As Timothy Jackson of Baseball Prospectus put it, Brantley was “unique among players with outlier skills.” And so, with his time in the majors coming to a close, I wanted to look back at Brantley’s career progression. More specifically, I wanted to examine how his consistently elite contact skills allowed him to maintain his performance despite myriad injuries. Read the rest of this entry »

The Red Sox Raise Their Floor, Bring in Lucas Giolito on a Two-Year Deal

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

After running his highest FIP since his breakout season in 2019, Lucas Giolito has secured a modified prove-it deal. Over the holidays, the right-hander signed a two-year contract with the Boston Red Sox worth $38.5 million. He will make $18 million in the first season and $19 million in the second; he can opt out after 2024. If he elects not to opt out, a conditional option kicks in for the 2026 season that is dependent on whether he throws at least 140 innings in 2025. If he does, it becomes a mutual option worth $19 million; if he doesn’t, it becomes a $14 million club option.

Despite Giolito’s 4.88 ERA, 5.27 FIP, and 41 home runs allowed (second to only Lance Lynn) in 2023, he was still perceived as a mid-rotation option entering free agency. Much of that was due to his above-average performance from 2019-21, but he has also proven he can stay healthy and make his starts. Since 2021, he is 16th in the league in innings pitched. His 184.1 IP with the White Sox, Angels, and Guardians in 2023 only further cemented his reputation. With Boston ranking second-to-last in the American League in starter innings pitched behind only Oakland, this was a practical match that came at a reasonable cost.

Giolito’s $19.25 million AAV is fifth among starting pitchers who have signed free agent contracts this offseason (excluding Shohei Ohtani), placing him in between the top and middle tier. Given that he hasn’t reached his 30th birthday, it seems plausible that he can keep up his volume while potentially improving his results and returning to the starter he was for a three-year stretch in Chicago.

After his first start with the Guardians in September (he was famously scooped up off waivers from the Angels, who had acquired him from the White Sox just five weeks prior), Giolito spoke with David Laurila about his season and impending free agency. In that conversation, Giolito was candid about his lack of execution in 2023, and how he hadn’t been able to command the anchor of his arsenal, his fastball-changeup combination. Giolito expressed that he wants to consistently command his heater up in the zone; for the changeup, the goal is more competitive pitches in the zone. Like any fastball-changeup combo, helping one will inherently help the other. As a high-release, big-extension pitcher, this is a natural path for Giolito, especially considering that the blueprint has already worked. To better understand how his fastball has fluctuated in recent seasons, let’s look at some qualities of the pitch:

Giolito Four-Seamer Characteristics
Year Run Value Vert. Rel Hor. Rel Vert. Location Hor. Location
2019 15.3 6.56 -1.26 2.74 0.14
2020 5.8 6.49 -1.26 2.91 0.22
2021 -0.4 6.40 -1.5 2.81 0.02
2022 0.3 6.36 -1.39 2.85 0.10
2023 -7.7 6.33 -1.19 2.93 -0.07

His fastball plays best when it’s at the top of the zone. Interestingly, his fastball was located higher on average in 2023 than in any other season since 2019 but was by far the worst in terms of value, though I’m not sure that was the primary reason for his struggles. Instead, I’d look to his horizontal location, and the trend of him throwing his heater closer to righties and further away from lefties. Since his breakout in 2019, Giolito had always neutralized left-handed batters, with his fastball-changeup combo the reason. Lefties had never posted a wOBA above .283 against him; that mark jumped to .334 in 2023. By moving the pitch further to the edge (likely due to his release point change), his two-pitch combo lost some of its in-zone consistency, especially the changeup. The trend started in 2022, and even with a slight bounce back this year, the changeup still struggled:

Giolito Changeup Characteristics
Year Run Value Vert. Rel Hor. Rel Vert. Location Hor. Location
2019 10.9 6.52 -1.31 2.14 -0.10
2020 1.7 6.48 -1.33 1.88 -0.12
2021 10.8 6.36 -1.59 2.04 -0.19
2022 -7.0 6.35 -1.44 1.88 -0.16
2023 0.6 6.29 -1.31 1.88 -0.27

Similar to the heater, the pitch moved progressively further toward righties as its performance dipped. In the two seasons where Giolito threw the pitch at its highest height on average, it’s been the most effective. Given Giolito’s tendency to keep the fastball up, a higher tunnel with the changeup is logical. But going back to its in-zone utility, 2022 and 2023 saw him have in-zone rates below 50% (45.0% and 49.2%, respectively) after he ran the pitch in the zone between 51.3% and 59.1% from 2019 to 2023. The nature of the tunnel is most deceptive when he can keep the pitch in the strike zone. All of this to say, the story that Giolito told Laurila a few months ago tracks very well. The question now is what he and the Red Sox can do to flip things back to what they were during his very good three-year run in Chicago.

Without any making any mechanical changes, my first thought would be to shift Giolito to the first base side of the rubber to ensure his pitches are moving on the side of the plate where he had success. Seems foolproof, right? The thing is, he has been on this side of the rubber for years. He can’t go any further! Here is a screenshot from a late September start:

Next, we might look to something mechanical that has had a direct impact on where he is releasing the ball or the angle his arm is at when he releases it. That makes me think of what we know about Giolito in general and what he did to become the pitcher he was from 2019-21. The most obvious thing is his abbreviated arm action. A big piece of unlocking his performance was getting his arm swing timing in line with the rest of his body by shortening it. If he got out whack in the last two seasons, perhaps it’s related to this, even if it’s not as drastic as his early career form. To analyze that, let’s do a video comparison of Giolito in 2021 versus 2023. The first two clips are from 2021 and the next two are 2023:

His arm was late during his run in Cleveland. Visually, when his lead foot stabilized on the ground, his forearm was still below 45 degrees. Ben Brewster from Tread Athletics has stated that an “on time” arm is between 45 to 90 degrees at contact/stabilization, while slightly late is from 25-45, and late is less than 25. In both Cleveland clips, Gio’s arm is hardly getting to 25 degrees when his lead leg block contacts the ground. In Chicago, he is hovering somewhere around 60 degrees, give or take.

Basically, we know what Giolito’s arm looks like when it’s on time. When looking at where he was in Cleveland, it’s clear he was later than is ideal for him. In terms of release point and command, it makes sense that he has lost some feel. His arm is in a different position than when he was succeeding. Trying to execute the same game plan with this difference, even if it is slight, can be difficult. The good news is that this change hasn’t affected his health or ability to maintain volume. The bad news is that if his body isn’t as mobile in some areas as it was in his mid-20s, these positions might not be as attainable.

Even if Giolito doesn’t make a return to his peak form from a few years ago, he is still a positive addition for the Red Sox. As their rotation is currently constructed, it’s highly plausible that he will lead the team in innings, as no other pitcher on the roster has ever thrown more than 180 in their respective careers. Giolito is a good start to raising their floor, but they need a sure-thing, high-quality pitcher. And while Chris Sale isn’t that pitcher anymore, trading him to Atlanta only further increases their need. What they do from here on will depend on their willingness to open their pocket book or deal from their core of position player prospects.

Is Cody Bellinger’s Two-Strike Approach Sustainable?

Cody Bellinger
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Back in July, I dove into the pulled fly ball successes of Cody Bellinger and Isaac Paredes that led to them outperforming their Statcast expected statistics. Since then, I’ve paid particular attention to Bellinger. Much of that is due to his interesting free-agency case. His unique profile relative to previous free agents with this level of performance is fascinating. On the surface, 4.1 WAR and 134 wRC+ at age 27 from an athletic multi-positional player is typically deserving of a $150 million-plus contract. But Bellinger isn’t a typical player; the question of sustainability looms due to the nature of his performance, most notably highlighted by a 10th-percentile hard hit rate.

Doubting the stickiness of his performance is completely fair. Hitting the ball hard gives you more room for error; the further you are down the hard-hit-rate spectrum, the more reliant you are on other skills that are perhaps not as sticky. Spending nine figures on that kind of profile is scary! But the more I think about Bellinger’s profile, this question keeps popping back up in my head: if we hopped in a time machine and went to the year 2008, would we question for a second whether he deserves a big long-term deal? I know that’s a flawed thought, but it’s lurking in my brain because of the years of traditional coaching focused on the importance of putting the ball in play with two strikes and not worrying about what type of contact is made, or how hitting to contact and letting home runs happen by accident is the purest form of hitting.

But after thinking more, I reminded myself of how the data the public has access to now is useful for these exact reasons. We know better than we did 15 years ago about what variables have strong causal effects on performance and/or fluctuation — this can’t be ignored! We should want a hitter to make flush contact consistently, regardless of count. We should question and consider what makes Bellinger different or not.

Recently,’s Mike Petriello investigated some of the questions around Bellinger, most notably his hard-hit rate and two-strike approach. Two months before that, Baseball Prospectus’ Craig Goldstein highlighted the concerns around Bellinger’s 90th-percentile exit velocity and how DRC+ hadn’t bought into his performance, particularly the home run output, because of the lack of hard hit. By DRC+, he ended the season at 112, a far cry from his 134 wRC+. In short, there has been plenty of pondering about Bellinger’s 2023 profile and whether it can be repeated. This piece will do largely the same thing, just from a different angle. Read the rest of this entry »

Luis Severino Signs One-Year Prove-It Deal With the Mets

Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Mets began their offseason hunt for starting pitching by snatching up Luis Severino on a one-year, $13 million contract. After a rollercoaster season that led to -0.6 WAR, Severino had no choice but to take a prove-it deal and hope his performance in 2024 will be compelling enough to secure a multi-year contract next winter. For the Mets, this is likely the first in a series of moves to address a starting rotation that is significantly depleted after the trades of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander this summer.

The Mets have the coin to play at the top of the pitching market, and will likely do so, but this deal provides them with a short-term upside play to bolster a thin group of starters. With a rotation that is currently filled out by José Quintana, Tylor Megill, and Joey Lucchesi behind their ace, Kodai Senga, a low-cost, high-reward player was a practical move. If he performs and stays health, Severino becomes a trade option for them depending on the team’s performance. If they hold onto him, they can tag him with a qualifying offer or bring him back on a longer term deal. Either way, this move will not hurt them. Most importantly, it will not impact their ability to sign players such as Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who the Mets reportedly have interest in.

I’m sure Severino and the Mets hope that he can forget most of the summer of 2023 and instead build on the success he had in his final five starts. Among the 172 pitchers who threw at least 80 innings in 2023, Severino ranked 169th in WAR. His surface stats didn’t look any better. He set career worst marks in strikeout rate, HR/9, ERA, FIP, batting average allowed, hard-hit rate… the list goes on. As I said in his Top 50 Free Agent blurb, this wasn’t due to a concerning drop-off in rotational power. His four-seam fastball velocity (96.4 mph) was in the 88th percentile, and it even peaked as high as 97.7 mph in his second-to-last start of the season. This is a player who still has upper-90s gas in his back pocket. Read the rest of this entry »

In New York, Judge’s Roberto Clemente Award Win Carries Special Meaning

Aaron Judge
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

I’m sure it feels fantastic to win a Cy Young or Most Valuable Player award. It’s all your hard work and dedication to your craft being rewarded at the highest possible level. Aaron Judge has won an MVP award himself after swatting 62 home runs in 2022. But this year, he was honored with an even more prestigious award — one separate from the game, and one that is dedicated to one of the most altruistic professional athletes of any generation, Roberto Clemente.

Each year, one player from every team is nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award, and one is honored as the recipient. Here are the criteria, via “The Roberto Clemente Award is bestowed annually to the player who best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”

Winning this award is an incredible achievement for Judge, who started the ALL RISE Foundation in 2018 and has been a pioneer in supporting the Bronx, Fresno County, San Joaquin County, and his childhood home of Linden, California. The foundation facilitates several initiatives and programs including but not limited to student leadership development, youth character, health and well-being, and much more. Developing communities and providing the youth with the resources they need to become future leaders is at the crux of the foundation.

Judge is the first Yankees player to receive the award since Derek Jeter in 2009. Many baseball stars know the importance of using their resources to imbue the qualities of somebody like Clemente. But it is even more important for somebody like Jeter or Judge as public persons representing New York. Clemente is a hero, a legend — whatever word you want to use — to Puerto Ricans (and Latin America in general). And when I refer to Puerto Ricans, I’m talking about both those on the island and those who have migrated to the states, especially New York (Nuyoricans), of which there are many. Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Examine Swing Path Diversity in the 2023 Playoffs

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the cat and mouse game that is the postseason, every decision matters, regardless of how big or small. If a marginal competitive advantage can be exploited, odds are a team will take their chance. Last year, I investigated what I thought was a key reason for the Astros’ postseason success over the last decade. The piece explored swing path diversity and how Houston had more of it than any other team from 2021 to 2022. Constructing a balanced, dynamic lineup is one of the tools teams can use to keep pitchers and opposing managers honest. There are multiple ways to define balance in a lineup, including swing aggression, whiff tendencies, speed and athleticism, and handedness. But that piece focused on variance in Vertical Bat Angle (VBA) within lineups.

If you aren’t familiar with VBA, it’s the vertical orientation of the bat at contact, where 45 degrees is a diagonal bat. It is pitch height dependent – the number goes down as height increases (flatter bat) and goes up as height decreases (steeper bat), making it vary within a player’s own swing profile. There is also variance player to player. On average, Aaron Judge and Freddie Freeman have much steeper barrels at impact than flatter-swinging hitters like Juan Soto and Randy Arozarena. VBA is one of multiple important bat tracking metrics — horizontal bat angle, point of contact, bat speed, acceleration, and time to contact are a few others — but VBA is the most easily accessible due to the computer vision work done at SwingGraphs. Read the rest of this entry »