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Sliding Headfirst: Jaime Barría and the First-Pitch Slider

Jaime Barria
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Since early in our history, FanGraphs has been tracking pitch type linear weights, or pitch values organized by pitch type, based on both Baseball Info Solutions and PITCHf/x pitch type data. While metrics like wRAA and wRC+ look at run generation through the outcomes of plate appearances, the idea behind pitch values is to take a more granular look. The outcome of each pitch changes the run expectancy of any plate appearance, and pitch value is a method for quantifying the overall impact of all of a player’s pitches, not just the pitches that end plate appearances, as most metrics do. In the form of pitch-type linear weights, we use these pitch values to evaluate the performance of pitchers’ specific pitch types — or hitters’ ability to hit them — either on an absolute basis with stats like wFB (runs above average on all fastballs) or on a per-pitch basis with stats like wFB/C (runs above average per 100 fastballs).

Pitch values can also be a useful way to evaluate how pitchers (or hitters, for that matter) have fared in specific counts. Executing pitches in particular situations to get ahead in counts is a crucial part of a pitcher’s approach, and at times, it feels like we narratively underestimate the impact that the outcome of an early-count pitch can have on the rest of a plate appearance. In 2022, firing a first-pitch strike was enough to drop an opposing hitters’ wRC+ from the normalized average of 100 to 68; missing on the first pitch gave hitters enough of an advantage to lead to a mark of 130, just about in line with recent years. That’s roughly the difference between Kyles Tucker and Isbel.

2022 MLB wRC+ Through Each Count
Count 0 Strikes 1 Strike 2 Strikes
0 Balls 100 68 22
1 Ball 130 90 38
2 Balls 179 130 68
3 Balls 265 212 144

My colleague Ben Clemens has written on the strange historical practice of pitchers grooving fastballs right down the middle to start plate appearances and the perhaps even stranger practice of hitters letting them get away with that. But those practices are fading away, Ben writes, and in an analytical era in which teams are looking for every advantage, the first pitch is being recognized for what it is: a frontier of pitch value opportunity, a first chance to lower the expected scoring outcome of the plate appearance.

In 2022, the strongest performer overall on first pitches was none other than Angels reliever Jaime Barría, who finished with a summed run value of -10.1 on the opening offering, nearly two runs better than any other pitcher despite facing just 316 hitters. On a per-pitch basis, Barría’s performance was even more exceptional: his -.032 runs per first pitch were nearly twice that of any other pitcher with as many as 300 batters faced. It’s worth mentioning that there are limits to what we can glean from this data; around 300 pitches is a relatively modest sample size, and Piper Slowinski warns us that pitch value is more effective as a descriptive stat than a predictive one. Barría is a true outlier here, but as we indulge in taking a look at what was new in his approach, we should do so without assuming he’ll be able to reproduce these numbers in the future. Read the rest of this entry »

Rays See Shadow: Four More Years of Springs

Jeffrey Springs
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays front office has more than earned the benefit of the doubt in terms of talent evaluation, particularly when it comes to pitching. At this point, they have a long history of player development and evaluation success, from homegrown prospects to reclamation projects to the trade market. With that reputation preceding them, Wednesday’s agreement with reliever-turned-starter Jeffrey Springs to a four-year, $31 million contract extension feels more like an assertion of his future than a bet on it.

Still, to negotiate an extension with a 30-year-old player who had yet to reach 50 innings in a major league season entering 2022, the Rays have to feel pretty good that his season was a sign of more good things to come. The agreement has some uncertainty built in; while the Rays guaranteed him $31 million over four years, it includes a $15 million club option for a fifth year and a series of incentives tied to innings and Cy Young Award voting placement that could more than double the deal’s total value by the end of its course. For the Rays, it’s a relatively modest investment on the low end; on the other end, having to dole out the full $65.75 million would in all likelihood be a good problem to have. For Springs, it’s nothing short of hard to believe. Read the rest of this entry »

Patience Is a Virtue for O’s Mountcastle

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last season was a fun one for the Baltimore Orioles. Coming off of five straight sub-.500 seasons and a particularly torturous 110-loss campaign, the Birds had a 24-35 record before starting to turn things around in late June. Just before the All-Star break, they went on an improbable 10-game winning streak to jump over .500, and after the break, they kept the momentum moving their way, even making a short-lived run at the third American League Wild Card spot (they ultimately fell just three games short). It started to look like the dawn of a new era in Baltimore, and much of the spark came from a revamped lineup. Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson made their highly anticipated big league debuts and did not disappoint – particularly the former, who turned in one of the finest rookie seasons by a catcher in recent memory. Cedric Mullins followed up his breakout 2021 with another solid season. Anthony Santander set a new career high with a team-leading 33 home runs. And then there was Ryan Mountcastle.

After leading the Orioles with 33 homers and 89 RBI in 2021 in his full-season debut, Mountcastle’s offensive production faded last season. He hit just 22 home runs, while his slugging dropped from .487 to .423, his wOBA from .335 to .316, and his wRC+ from 111 to 106. His defense improved enough to allow him to reach 1.6 WAR, a new career high, but for a player whose calling card is power, his waning surface-level thump was at least indicative of a sophomore slump and at most a cause for concern.

But Mountcastle’s Statcast profile and expected stats tell an entirely different story. In 2021, the slugger was in the middle of the pack, with an average exit velocity of 89.1 mph (45th percentile) and a 39.7% hard-hit rate (41st); his .245 xBA and .326 xwOBA placed him in the 36th and 47th percentiles, respectively. By these measures, his 2022 was one of the better year-over-year improvements in baseball. He added 2.2 mph to his average exit velocity, the seventh-largest increase among players who qualified in both years, and 6.6 percentage points to his hard-hit rate, the sixth-most in that group. Just four hitters added more to their xBAs than his .032 points, and the only hitters who managed to improve their xwOBAs more than his .036-point jump were Yordan Alvarez (.073), Christian Walker (.048), and Aaron Judge (.045). His was one of just 40 player-seasons in the Statcast era with 60-plus barrels. Read the rest of this entry »

Twins, Chris Paddack Renew Faith in Each Other

Chris Paddack
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Amid the frantic negotiations of this year’s arbitration deadline on Friday, the Twins and right-hander Chris Paddack agreed to avoid arbitration and then on the only multi-year deal of the day, a three-year, $12.5 million contract through the 2025 season. The deal, which came just hours after Paddack and the Twins settled at $2.4 million for 2023, buys out his final year of arbitration and his first year of free agency for $10.1 million and includes up to $2.5 million in bonuses.

It’s a reasonable arrangement for both sides. Paddack, who turned 27 just a few days prior, underwent his second Tommy John surgery in May and is aiming for an August 2023 return. Tacking on another year of team control in Minnesota gives him security in his effort to get healthy and still lets him reach free agency a couple of months before his 30th birthday. For the Twins, given Paddack’s injury and his struggles in recent seasons, they are buying low on a player with elite control and significant upside. It’s also a modest investment to help shore up a rotation that will feature three starters — Sonny Gray, Tyler Mahle, and Kenta Maeda — on contract years in 2023.

Before his surgery, when Paddack was dealt from San Diego to Minnesota on Opening Day 2022, it wasn’t entirely clear what type of pitcher the Twins were adding. He had excelled as a 23-year-old rookie in 2019, posting a 3.33 ERA, 3.95 FIP, and 4.05 xFIP over 26 starts, striking out 9.79 and walking just 1.98 per nine innings. Relying on a mid-90s fastball with a changeup and curveball as secondary offerings, he ranked in the 73rd percentile in average exit velocity, 81st in hard-hit percentage, and 88th in both walk rate and chase rate as a rookie. He benefited from the second-lowest BABIP among pitchers with 100 innings or more, but he was successfully limiting hard contact. Read the rest of this entry »

Eyeing a Ring, Nelson Cruz Joins Loaded Padres Lineup

Nelson Cruz
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Nelson Cruz wants his ring. Since watching a World Series slip right over the webbing of his glove in 2011, he has played 11 more seasons, well past his 40th birthday, in pursuit of that ultimate goal. On Wednesday, the 42-year-old agreed to sign on for his 19th major league season with his eighth team, heading to San Diego to join a fun Padres team looking to find its way even deeper into the playoffs after reaching its first NLCS of the 21st century last year. The deal, worth $1 million over one year, pending a physical, reunites Cruz with former Rangers assistant general manager A.J. Preller as well as former teammates and Dominican countrymen Manny Machado and Juan Soto, who he’ll suit up with first as general manager-player for the Dominican World Baseball Classic team in March.

Cruz could easily have called it a career by this point. After establishing himself as a big league bat in Texas, he has enjoyed a prosperous second act as somewhat of a slugging journeyman, representing four different teams in the All-Star Game since his age-32 season. Of his 459 career home runs, 382 have come since his 30th birthday, trailing only Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Rafael Palmeiro, and Hank Aaron. Prior to last year, hadn’t posted a wOBA under .340 or wRC+ under 123 in nearly a decade.

Most Home Runs in MLB History, Age 30+
Player HR From To
1 Barry Bonds 503 1995 2007
2 Babe Ruth 430 1925 1935
3 Rafael Palmeiro 414 1995 2005
4 Hank Aaron 413 1964 1976
5 Nelson Cruz 382 2011 2022
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

And then came 2022, the type of year that would chase most veterans into retirement. In 124 games as the primary DH for the 55-win Nationals, Cruz’s prodigious power disappeared; his slugging percentage went from .497 to .337, his ISO dipped from .232 to .103, and his wRC+ fell from 123 to 85. Aside from a 22-game stretch in late May and early June during which he looked like prime (or 38-year-old) Cruz, hitting .418/.483/.633 in 90 plate appearances, he wasn’t able to offer much value at the plate. He battled inflammation in his left eye that was obscuring his vision, which he said had been a worsening problem for about a year and a half. He was ultimately shut down in mid-September, but instead of calling it quits, he had his eye surgically repaired and got back to work, most recently alongside 2022 AL batting champ Luis Arraez. Read the rest of this entry »

Red Sox Add Corey Kluber to Rotation of Question Marks

Corey Kluber
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 ALCS feels like it happened far more than 15 months ago. After coming within two wins of their fifth World Series berth in the 21st century, the Red Sox dropped 14 wins off their 2021 total to finish in last place in ’22, albeit in the only division in baseball with four teams over .500. The offensive production was okay, the rotation and bullpen proved unreliable, the defense was at times humiliating, and injuries underscored a lack of sufficient depth in a number of areas. Come November, key contributors including Xander Bogaerts, Nathan Eovaldi, and J.D. Martinez hit free agency, leaving Boston with a handful of needs just to stay level in 2023. And though the organization insisted that a Bogaerts extension was its top priority of the offseason, Boston instead watched as the Padres swooped in and inked him to a jaw-dropping 11-year, $280 million deal, leaving the Red Sox with only a fourth-round compensation pick to show for their efforts.

The offseason hasn’t been a total loss. On Wednesday, Carlos Baerga (yes, really) broke the news that the club had signed Rafael Devers to the largest and longest contract in Red Sox history, extending the 26-year-old for $331 million over 11 years. The agreement is a big change of direction for a team that failed to retain either Mookie Betts or Bogaerts, and also a bit of a salvation for a winter that up until last night had seemed to bring more bad news than good.

In terms of bringing on new players to help lift the team back to the playoffs in the immediate future, Boston’s biggest addition this offseason so far is Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida on a surprisingly lucrative five-year deal worth $105 million. Beyond him, the Red Sox made some smaller additions on short, low-cost deals for veterans. They aimed to revamp the bullpen with the additions of Kenley Jansen, Chris Martin, and Joely Rodríguez, and brought in Justin Turner as a right-handed corner infield bat and DH. Most recently, they added much-needed depth to the starting rotation by signing 36-year-old Corey Kluber on a one-year, $10 million contract with an $11 million club option for 2024. Read the rest of this entry »

Musical Catchers: Barnhart Gets Two Years With Cubs

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

This holiday season, everybody wants a new catcher. Between free agency and the trade market, over a third of the league’s teams have added to their catcher mix this offseason, with most of those moves coming in the last few weeks. Catchers are finding new homes so fast that yesterday, my colleague Leo Morgenstern covered the Mets signing Omar Narváez and dealing James McCann to Baltimore, and Austin Hedges inking a one-year deal with Pittsburgh – and then two more backstops signed that afternoon. In Cincinnati, the Reds announced an agreement with Curt Casali (as well as first baseman/outfielder Wil Myers), designating Mike Moustakas for assignment in the process. And elsewhere in the NL Central, former Red and Tiger Tucker Barnhart got set to continue his tour of the teams closest to his home city of Indianapolis, joining the Chicago Cubs on a two-year, $6.5 million contract with a player option after the coming season. The two-time Gold Glover will pair with Yan Gomes to form a catching platoon after the Cubs lost three-time All-Star Willson Contreras to the rival Cardinals in free agency.

Barnhart did well to secure himself a two-year guarantee with the player option – of the eight free agent catchers who have signed major league deals this offseason, Contreras (five years), Christian Vázquez (three), Narváez (two), and Barnhart have earned multi-year commitments. Those other three are much more significant adds, as is reflected in their significantly higher total contract values. But Barnhart may have had extra motivation to lock down a second year – with a couple of months over eight years of service, he heads into this contract within reach of the 10-year service threshold that the Players Association calls the “holy grail for players.” Of course, while the money is guaranteed, the service time isn’t, but if Barnhart can remain healthy and productive enough to reach 10 years of service, his MLB pension will fully vest and he will notch a coveted milestone. The option adds another layer of player friendliness – if Barnhart bounces back from a down year in 2022, he’ll have a shot to test free agency again next winter, when, to be fair, the catcher market may once again be busy. Read the rest of this entry »

Padres Add to Rotation, Sign Seth Lugo to Two-Year Deal

Seth Lugo
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Padres continued has been a productive offseason on Monday, closing a deal with veteran right-hander Seth Lugo for two years at just over $15 million, with a player option after the 2023 season, according to The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya. After 12 years with the Mets, the 33-year-old leaves the only club he’s ever known for an opportunity to start in San Diego after spending the bulk of the last five seasons out of the bullpen. The Padres, meanwhile, add another versatile arm in a winter during which, in addition to signing Xander Bogaerts, they’ve already agreed to new contracts with a pair of 2022 postseason standouts in swingman Nick Martinez and setup man Robert Suarez, who earned himself a five-year, $46 million commitment after an excellent rookie campaign. Lugo, who comes at a similar AAV but a shorter commitment, has an opportunity to slot into the back end of a starting rotation that lost Sean Manaea and Mike Clevinger after underwhelming short stints with the club.

For the Padres, the addition of Lugo also represents a victory over the rival Dodgers, who were reported to have been in the mix for the right-hander right up until A.J. Preller sealed the deal. San Diego, well on its way to owing more in luxury tax payments in 2023, seems intent on making a run for the division title after ousting the 111-win Dodgers from the postseason last year. Per our depth charts, Lugo’s projected 1.2 WAR improved the Padres’ starting staff — one led by Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, and Blake Snell — from a projected ranking of 14th in the majors to 12th, leapfrogging the Dodgers and the Verlander-less Astros, and drawing them just about even with the Giants. Read the rest of this entry »

Another Change of Scenery for New Cub Brad Boxberger

Brad Boxberger
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs added to their bullpen on Thursday, signing veteran journeyman Brad Boxberger to a one-year deal with a mutual option for a total guaranteed value of $2.8 million. The 34-year-old right-hander is coming off an effective stint just up I-94 in Milwaukee, where he served as a reliable middle-innings complement to Devin Williams and Josh Hader for the bulk of two seasons after signing as a minor league free agent in spring training of 2021. In those two campaigns, he made 141 appearances, posting a 3.15 ERA, a 3.61 FIP, 10.56 K/9, and 1.5 WAR. Despite his effectiveness with the Brewers, Milwaukee declined to bring him back on a $3 million team option last month, and instead he’ll join a young Chicago bullpen that could use some help after ranking 28th out of 30 bullpens in 2022 in WAR, 25th in situational wins, and second in blown saves.

Thanks to the circumstances of his contracts, Boxberger will end up with a higher guarantee moving forward than he would have if the Brewers had picked up his extra year. According to president of baseball operations Matt Arnold, Boxberger was exposed to waivers and went unclaimed prior to Milwaukee’s decision, which told him that “the market did not value him at the level of the option value.” After they declined, Boxberger was issued a $750,000 buyout and signed for a guarantee of just $200,000 less than the option value, giving him an effective guarantee of over $3.5 million. The structure of his new deal fits the Cubs’ somewhat recent signature of a one-year deal with an unlikely mutual option, giving him a base salary of $2 million in 2023 with an $800,000 buyout on a $5 million dollar mutual option for 2024. Read the rest of this entry »

Cubs Bet on Cody Bellinger as Cody Bellinger Bets on Himself

Cody Bellinger
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

On a busy Tuesday at the Winter Meetings, the Cubs filled a hole in their outfield, signing centerfielder Cody Bellinger to a one-year deal with a mutual option for a second year, totaling $17.5 million in guaranteed money. The agreement gives the former MVP a change of scenery in his campaign to revive some version of the five-tool player who posted 7.7 WAR in his third full season at the age of 24 back in 2019 but has battled injuries and struggled mightily at the plate since then. For the Cubs, it’s a bet on a 27-year-old who they can reasonably expect, if healthy, to be no less than a solid defender in center field with a possibility to contribute a lot more value at the plate. It also means a chance to introduce some clarity into their 2023 outfield picture; barring further changes, Bellinger will join a pair of 28-year-olds in Ian Happ in left and Seiya Suzuki in right to form a capable starting unit for a team that was forced to employ a bit of a revolving door strategy in center in 2022.

2023 Cubs Starting OF Steamer Projections
Player Age PA HR SB BB% K% wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Cody Bellinger 27 499 18 10 9.0% 24.9% .307 97 0.6 -1 1 1.8
Seiya Suzuki 28 624 26 10 11.0% 21.9% .352 128 -0.8 19.7 -7.6 3.5
Ian Happ 28 651 23 9 10.5% 24.6% .331 114 0.1 10.6 -5.4 2.8

The $17.5 million guarantee comes split over the next two years, as Bellinger will earn $12 million in 2023 with a $5.5 million buyout on the mutual option for the second year of the contract. This structure has become somewhat of a signature for the Cubs, who have signed a number of one-year deals with mutual options in the last couple of offseasons, including with Mychal Givens, Drew Smyly, and Jonathan Villar in 2022 and Jake Arrieta, Jake Marisnick, Joc Pederson, and Andrew Chafin in ’21. Mutual options are exceedingly unlikely to be picked up; in all likelihood, either the player did well enough in year one of the contract to want to test free agency or poorly enough that the club is unwilling to pay its end of the option. But the structure allows the team to offer a higher guarantee on a short-term contract while limiting its annual commitments under the salary tax and effectively deferring some portion of the money. For Chicago, Bellinger represents the beginning of what team president Jed Hoyer has indicated will be a busy offseason; just a few hours later, the Cubs signed right-hander Jameson Taillon to a four-year, $68 million deal. Attracting talent like Bellinger while managing to keep a good chunk of guaranteed money off the 2023 books is a great way to keep other doors open across the market. Read the rest of this entry »