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The Drop in Yoenis Cespedes’ Launch Angle

Yoenis Cespedes has had a roller-coaster year. Hamstring, quad, hip, and heel injuries have cut weeks off his season. On the field, his overall performance isn’t inspiring; his walk rate is down, his exit velocity is diminished, and his wRC+ has dropped by 16 points. The outfielder’s hitting has fluctuated between dominant and poor, with his worst month coming in July: in 89 plate appearances, Cespedes launched just a single home run and recorded an isolated-power figure that was 43 points below league average.

Small windows of playing time can bring big performance swings, but Cespedes’ power drought wasn’t a product just of bad luck in a limited sample. Consider the chart below, which uses the LOESS method to smooth through Cespedes’ launch angle over the course of the season. Batted balls are ordered from the first (his first BIP on Opening Day) through the most recent (his last BIP yesterday). Horizontal bars are included to show his average launch angle in each of the four calendar months that make up the slugger’s season.

Cespedes’ average launch angle of 24.6 degrees in April was among the steepest in baseball. After sitting out May to recover from injuries, Cespedes returned for the next month and averaged a similarly high angle. He ended June with a .929 OPS, so his overall production didn’t signal anything out of the ordinary. But the real story is told by the smoothing curve, which shows how Cespedes was changing as a hitter. In June, his launch angle began a drop that accelerated into a plunge. By the latter part of July, he bottomed out at 12 degrees, a mark more fitting for a line-drive hitter than a slugger. His angle has climbed a bit higher in August, but it remains far below April’s range.

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The Workloads of UCLA Pitchers

There was a time when Griffin Canning looked like a sure-fire first-round pick in this year’s draft. The UCLA ace had a dominant 2017 season, ranking sixth in the nation in total strikeouts while exhibiting promising stuff, good command, and smooth mechanics. He seemed like the type of pitcher who could fly through a farm system and quickly make a big-league impact. Three days before the draft, Baseball America predicted that Canning would be selected by the Yankees with the 16th-overall pick.

Yet when draft day came on June 12, dozens of picks passed by without his selection. Every team in the first round passed on him, as did every team in the competitive-balance round. In the latter stages of MLB Network’s draft telecast, Canning was chosen by the Angels with the 47th-overall pick. On June 9, he appeared destined for a $3,458,600 bonus — that is, the value MLB had assigned to the 16th pick. Instead, he took the $1,459,200 earmarked for the 47th selection. In a matter of days, Canning watched his expected price tag get slashed by 58%.

The cause of Canning’s draft-stock plummet was an ominous MRI that revealed a vulnerable pitching elbow and shoulder. These injury concerns are not a surprise; last month, I examined the workloads of the draft’s top college pitchers and found that the star UCLA Bruin was used very heavily. His alarming usage rates and murky MRI warrant a deeper investigation of how longtime UCLA head coach John Savage manages his pitchers. Is Canning’s case emblematic of a culture of overuse in the program? Let’s check.

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The Workloads of 2017’s Top Draft Prospects

Hundreds of college pitchers will be selected in the MLB draft over the next three days. They’ll vary widely in talent and readiness, ranging from raw power arms to pitchability-types lacking premium stuff. Many will be tied together by one commonality: heavy usage in college. Last year, I found that deep starts and meager rest stints are all-too-frequent occurrences for collegiate pitchers. Do the same standards apply to the cream of this year’s draft crop?

Let’s focus on the most coveted collegiate pitchers: the projected 2017 first-round draftees. First rounders capture fan attention, pepper prospect lists, and generally have the best shot at becoming solid MLB contributors. Big leaguers will be found in the later rounds, of course, but it’s the first rounders who are paid the most money and carry the highest expectations. So let’s look at the ten NCAA pitchers — starters all — projected by Baseball America to be selected in the first round this evening.

NCAA Pitchers in Baseball America’s Mock First Round
Pick Pitcher School
1 Kyle Wright Vanderbilt
4 Brendan McKay Louisville
8 J.B. Bukauskas North Carolina
10 Alex Faedo Florida
16 Griffin Canning UCLA
24 David Peterson Oregon
25 Seth Romero Houston*
26 Tanner Houck Missouri
30 Clarke Schmidt South Carolina
33 Alex Lange LSU
Player names and selection numbers are from BA’s June 9 mock draft.
*Formerly; Romero was kicked off the team in May.

I pulled game logs from the NCAA’s statistics pages for each of the pitchers, capturing all of their pitch counts and batters-faced totals from their college careers (up through yesterday’s games). Where the NCAA was missing pitch counts, I recorded the data from game logs on team websites. For the few instances in which this secondary effort bore no fruit, I estimated pitch counts by taking the pitcher’s batters faced total in that game, and multiplying it times the average pitches per batters faced for that pitcher-season.

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Robert Gsellman’s Ominous Velocity and Spin Trends

Last year, Robert Gsellman came up to the big leagues and helped stabilize an injury-plagued Mets rotation. With a power sinker that had added velocity, the unheralded Gsellman missed bats and generated grounders at an elite level. And after another Steven Matz injury put the lefty’s dependability into question this past spring training, Gsellman was given a prime opportunity to grab a 2017 rotation spot and run with it. To date, however, he hasn’t returned to top form.

For one thing, the results have been ugly. By RA9-WAR, Gsellman has been one of MLB’s worst starters. That once-great sinker whiff rate has been halved. But beyond outcome-level stats, his pitch data indicates worsened stuff. Overall, Gsellman’s sinker is down 0.71 mph, and especially striking are his in-game velocity declines.

Below are LOESS-smoothed curves plotting the difference between the given two-seam fastball velocity and its initial “baseline” in that game — represented, in this case, by the average velocity of the pitcher’s first five two-seamers. By restating velocities like this, each start becomes its own “universe” and we mitigate pitch-tracking biases on the game and park level.

Out of the gate of his 2017 starts, Gsellman’s velocity is dropping. By the 40-pitch mark, he has typically lost 1 mph from his starting speed. As he approaches 80 pitches, his two-seamers are nearly 1.75 mph slower. The orange curve does rebound near its end, but a widened 95% confidence interval reflects a smaller sample of pitches and less certainty that he’ll continue to gain velocity back. Regardless, Gsellman is ending his starts at 1.5 mph off his opening speed. Compared to the dark gray curve for the league — which indicates starts this April in which pitchers threw 20-plus two-seamers/sinkers and 90-plus total pitches — Gsellman’s velocity has tumbled much more steeply.

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Is Brian Dozier’s Power Repeatable?

When the offseason began, a Brian Dozier trade looked inevitable. The Twins’ second baseman was one of the majors’ most productive players last season, offering elite power, good baserunning, solid plate discipline and steady second-base defense. That all-around skill set would cost just $15 million over the next two years. So as spring training begins, why is Dozier still preparing to play for a rebuilding Twins club?

Both a steep asking price and an abundance of good second basemen hindered a deal. But these reasons may not fully explain why Dozier is still bound for Fort Myers this month. After all, negotiations often begin with high asking prices before parties find a middle ground. Plus, even though the keystone is now a good offensive position, many teams would net an upgrade by acquiring Dozier. Perhaps there was more at play — namely, doubt in the minds of club executives that the pull– and fly-ball-prone Dozier could repeat his first-rate power-hitting. Consider what Bill James said about Dozier on the second-base edition of MLB Network’s “Top 10 Right Now” series:

“You guys are too high on Dozier. A lot of those home runs are 360-footers that just skim over the wall. I don’t buy that.”

As data from ESPN’s Home Run Tracker affirms, Dozier’s home runs are often unimpressive.

Quality of Dozier’s 2016 Home Runs
Tracker Stat Dozier’s Average Percentile, Hitters 10+ HR Percentile, Hitters 30+ HR
True distance (feet) 396.7 33rd 10th
Exit velocity (mph) 103.5 43rd 16th
Spray angle 28° 20th 10th
All percentiles are based on 2015–16 player-seasons.
Spray angle is calculated as degrees away from the pull-side foul line for both RHB and LHB.

By true distance, exit velocity, and spray angle, Dozier’s dingers often traveled shorter and at a lower velocity than his peers’ blasts, all while keeping closer to the pull-side foul line. When compared only to his power-hitting brethren — those with 30-homer campaigns — Dozier slips under the 17th percentile mark in every stat. Do the pedestrian home-run metrics hint at a coming power outage?

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The Link Between Travis d’Arnaud’s Set-Up and Struggles

In 2015, Travis d’Arnaud was one of the league’s best power hitters. His .218 ISO placed him in the neighborhood of sluggers like Joey Votto and Kris Bryant. Following the season, Steamer projected that d’Arnaud’s ISO would be fourth best among catchers, and 24% better than 2015’s league average.

But that power was absent this past year, as d’Arnaud’s ISO fell by two thirds. At .076, it was one of MLB’s worst 10 marks, ranking the Mets catcher amid weak-hitting middle infielders like Dee Gordon, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Ketel Marte. d’Arnaud’s overall output took a huge hit, as his wRC+ sank to 74 this year after reaching 130 in 2015. That 56-point plummet is among the 1.1% worst year-to-year differentials of all time (minimum 250 PA). A decline this severe is unusual — and particularly surprising for a player who looked like a burgeoning star in 2015.

How did this downturn happen? In other cases, we might point to injuries or small sample sizes, but there’s reason to think that more was at play for d’Arnaud in 2016. That’s because he struggled with a longer swing in the 2016 season, generated by his bat wrap.

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Syndergaard’s Stolen-Base Problem and the Postseason

Noah Syndergaard has reached a point of excellence this season that finds him capable (to the extent that anyone is capable) of challenging Clayton Kershaw for the title of baseball’s most dominant starter. If compelled to pinpoint the most glaring difference between the two Cy Young candidates, however, it would be this: whereas Kershaw is historically masterful at stopping the running game, Syndergaard is historically poor. The Mets’ ace gave up a whopping 48 steals this year, one of the 10 worst seasons for steals allowed since 1974, when Retrosheet’s full records begin.

The reason for Syndergaard’s struggles is clear: the 6-foot-6 righty is really slow to the plate. This has been a problem all year, making it a popular talking point for the New York media. That included speculation from John Harper a couple of weeks ago, as the Daily News writer made the case that these struggles would make Syndergaard an unwise choice to start the wild card game.

That might even raise the question of who should start the wild-card game. As dominant as Noah Syndergaard can be, his problems in controlling the running game are a consideration in a win-or-go-home scenario, where a couple of stolen bases could prove crucial.

“That would be a factor for me,” an NL scout said Friday. “Everybody says stolen bases aren’t important anymore, but then you get to the playoffs, and they can be the difference in a ballgame.

This argument that the Mets should sit the exceptional Syndergaard is suspect. But the scout’s theory is worth testing. Maybe, given the magnitude of postseason games, runners attempt more steals when it counts, and contribute more towards team wins. Let’s check.

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