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Corey Seager Is Locked In

Between Randy Arozarena’s remarkable postseason and Mookie Bettstour-de-force, there have been plenty of standout performances this October. But what Corey Seager has done in the playoffs is just as impressive. He earned the NLCS MVP award after completely demolishing the Braves pitching staff with nine hits, including five home runs and two doubles. His homer in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the World Series marked his seventh dinger of the postseason, the most hit by any shortstop in a single playoff year.

For Seager, this October has been the culmination of a year in which he’s returned to form. After injuring his elbow in early 2018, which led to Tommy John surgery, he struggled to regain his previous level of production the following season. From 2015 through April of 2018, he posted a 133 wRC+, winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2016 and earning All-Star honors in both ’16 and ’17. Last year, his offensive production fell to just 13% above league average, and he missed about a month of the season with a hamstring injury. But the late start to the 2020 campaign was a blessing in disguise for Seager, as the additional time off allowed him to heal and strengthen himself. Here’s how he described the state of his body to Pedro Moura of The Athletic:

“Last year especially, I just wasn’t physically as strong as I’d have liked to have been. Your body kind of changes. You get tired, things start changing positions on you. Just being strong again and being healthy again has definitely helped that.”

In 2019, Seager’s hard hit rate was just 38.2% and his average exit velocity was just 88.8 mph, both career lows. Both of those marks rebounded to career highs in 2020: a 55.9% hard hit rate and a 93.2 mph average exit velocity. That’s a stark illustration of his rebuilt strength. Read the rest of this entry »

Will Smith Defeats Will Smith as Dodgers Force Game 6

In a matchup that spawned 1,000 memes, Will Smith — the Braves left-handed reliever — finally faced off against Will Smith — the Dodgers catcher — in Game 5 of the NLCS. With two men on, two outs, and down by a run, the only thing out of place in this Hollywood script was the inning — it was the bottom of the sixth inning rather than the ninth. But destiny would not be denied. Smith the Pitcher had been brought in to face Max Muncy in the previous at-bat. In a fantastic display of discipline, Muncy worked a walk, ensuring the showdown between the two Wills Smith. That moment would prove to be the turning point in the game.

Up to that point, Braves pitching had stymied the Dodgers’ hitters. A.J. Minter had been selected as the starter for Brian Snitker’s club in what promised to be a bullpen game. A reliever for his entire professional career, he was the first pitcher to ever make his first career start in the postseason. He wound up going three innings — his longest professional appearance — and struck out seven. The only blemish against him was a two-out double in the first inning. The red hot Corey Seager snuck a solo home run just over the center field wall to lead off the fourth but Tyler Matzek and Shane Greene stood firm and got the team through the fifth inning with a 2-1 lead.

Greene was sent back out to start the sixth and allowed Mookie Betts to reach on a leadoff infield single. A harmless fly out from Seager followed, forcing Betts to get aggressive on the basepaths to try to get a rally started. He stole second but was erased on a fielder’s choice off Justin Turner’s bat. Some heads up baserunning got Turner to second during Betts’ rundown, leaving first base open for Muncy. Smith the Pitcher started Muncy off with five straight sliders. The first three were off the plate away; the next two were called strikes over the plate. Muncy spat on all five. The sixth pitch of the at-bat was a fastball just off the outer edge of the plate; Muncy refused to move his bat. It was a bold take to cap off a fantastic exercise in discipline. Read the rest of this entry »

NL Championship Series Preview: Atlanta Braves vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

Update: The Dodgers announced their NLCS roster this morning, adding Alex Wood and Edwin Ríos and dropping Gavin Lux and Terrance Gore. This gives Los Angeles 15 pitchers for this round. Ríos is still recovering from his groin injury and could be limited to pinch-hitting duties to start the series. The Braves did not make any changes to their roster.

The Atlanta Braves have cruised through the 2020 postseason, sweeping the Reds and the Marlins in the Wild Card and Division Series, respectively. Their pitching staff has pitched four shutouts and allowed a total of just five runs to score in five playoff games. But their two early round opponents were beneficiaries of the expanded playoff format and might not have reflected the normal strength of the playoff teams from years past. In the National League Championship Series, they’ll finally meet their match against a powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers team built to win a World Series.

Despite plenty of recent success, this will be Atlanta’s first appearance in the NLCS since 2001 when they lost to the eventual World Series champion Diamondbacks; they’ve made the playoffs 10 times since. For the Dodgers, this will be their fourth appearance in the NLCS in the last five seasons and their seventh since 2001. Agonizingly, they don’t have a championship to show for all their success in reaching the semi-finals; their last World Series win was in 1988.

Like the Braves, the Dodgers blew through the first two rounds of the playoffs, sweeping both the Brewers and Padres. San Diego was a much stronger opponent for Los Angeles than Miami was for Atlanta. Still, we shouldn’t hold the quality of the past opponents against either team. This series pits the number one seed in the NL against the number two seed. Both of these teams earned their chance to claim the league championship with excellent play all season long.

Braves vs Dodgers Team Overview
Category Braves Dodgers Edge
Batting (wRC+) 121 (3rd in NL) 122 (1st in NL) Dodgers
Fielding (DRS) -8 (11th) 29 (2nd) Dodgers
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 113 (12th) 94 (6th) Dodgers
Bullpen (FIP-) 89 (3rd) 79 (1st) Dodgers

Both clubs possess a dynamic offense. The Dodgers 122 wRC+ was tied for the best in baseball this year, while the Braves’ 121 was third. They were neck-and-neck as far as runs scored, too, with Los Angeles leading baseball with 349 runs and Atlanta a single run behind them. They were the top two teams in baseball in home runs, slugging, Barrel%, and Hard Hit%. But while both teams can score runs at will, their lineups are built a little differently. Both squads have a handful of stars anchoring their offense, but the Dodgers’ lineup is longer and deeper. There will be no respite for Braves pitchers when facing the seven, eight, and nine hitters. Read the rest of this entry »

AL Division Series Preview: Houston Astros vs. Oakland A’s

All four Division Series matchups pit division rivals against each other, but none have the same kind of recent history as the one between the Athletics and the Astros, their first ever meeting in the playoffs. These two teams have battled for the AL West crown the last three seasons, with Houston coming out on top in the two seasons prior before stumbling in this year’s shorter slate. That kind of familiarity and competition is a breeding ground for animosity. Tempers flared in early August when, after being hit by a pitch for the second time and a subsequent shouting match with Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron, Ramón Laureano charged the Astros dugout. On the other side, former Astro and current A’s starter Mike Fiers, the whistleblower who revealed the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing scheme during the offseason, has become a popular villain in Houston. There’s no love lost between these two clubs.

Houston dominated this matchup in 2018 and 2019, going a combined 23-15 against Oakland during those two seasons, the A’s worst record against an American League opponent during that period. They just couldn’t compete with the Astros’ high powered offense and elite pitching staff. But the A’s took advantage of Houston’s recent struggles to score and slew of diminished and injured arms to win seven of the 10 games these two teams played this year:

Astros vs A’s Team Overview
Category Astros Athletics Edge
Batting (wRC+) 99 (10th in AL) 101 (8th in AL) Athletics
Fielding (DRS) 13 (6th) -19 (13th) Astros
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 97 (4th) 98 (6th) Astros
Bullpen (FIP-) 101 (10th) 84 (2nd) Athletics

The Astros haven’t done much to put the concerns about their ability to score runs in the playoffs to rest. They scored just 3.8 runs per game in September and only pushed seven runs across against the Twins in their two game sweep in the Wild Card round; three of those runs came in the ninth inning of Game 1 after an inning ending ground out was botched on a bad throw to second by Jorge Polanco. Read the rest of this entry »

Twins’ Postseason Woes Continue as Astros Sweep

The Minnesota Twins’ postseason losing streak reached 18 games Wednesday afternoon after a 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Houston Astros. They haven’t won a postseason game since 2004 and haven’t won a postseason series since 2002. Yesterday, it was poor defense that led to their loss; today it was a total lack of punch from their bats. Four Astros pitchers — Jose Urquidy, Brooks Raley, Cristian Javier, and Ryan Pressly — combined to hold Minnesota to just three hits and a single run.

For the Astros, their two-game sweep is a little bit of vindication after entering the playoffs with the worst regular season record amongst the American League field — not to mention the lingering skepticism from their sign-stealing scandal. Houston’s bats didn’t carry the load; rather, it was the injury-wracked pitching staff that got them through this short series. A day after Zack Greinke and Framber Valdez shut down the Twins offense, Urquidy and three relievers were just as strong in the series clinching game.

The game started off much like yesterday’s did. The Twins loaded the bases in the first inning but couldn’t push a run across. After throwing 26 pitches in the first, Urquidy settled in and cruised through the next three innings. He allowed just three hard hit batted balls, all of which came in the fourth inning but amounted to a harmless single. He relied heavily on his fastball, throwing it 64% of the time on Wednesday, 10 points higher than his season average. It was a little surprising to see so many heaters from him since his changeup is so good and the Twins had six left-handed batters in their lineup. But the game plan seemed to be focused on fastballs up in the zone and it was extremely effective: He generated six whiffs and seven fly ball outs with his four-seamer.

The Astros scored their first run of the game in the fourth on a seeing-eye single off the bat of Kyle Tucker. Twins starter José Berríos had looked like he was in complete control through three innings but walked two straight batters with two outs and paid for that lapse in command with a run. Read the rest of this entry »

AL Wild Card Series Preview: Houston Astros vs. Minnesota Twins

For the first time since the 2006 postseason, the Minnesota Twins will face a first-round opponent that isn’t the New York Yankees. Their previous four playoff appearances have resulted in futility in the Bronx, getting swept in three Division Series and one Wild Card game. It must be a relief to see another opponent across the diamond.

The Astros enter the 2020 postseason on their back foot. After dominating the American League West for the last three years, winning a World Series championship in 2017, and losing in the World Series last year, the Astros limped their way into the playoffs in this abbreviated season. Despite being the sixth seed, they had the worst regular season record among the AL playoff field:

Twins vs Astros Team Overview
Category Twins Astros Edge
Batting (wRC+) 101 (9th in AL) 99 (10th in AL) Twins
Fielding (DRS) 21 (4th) 13 (6th) Twins
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 84 (2nd) 97 (4th) Twins
Bullpen (FIP-) 86 (4th) 101 (10th) Twins

This three-game series is a matchup between two opponents with plenty to prove. Both teams’ offenses have taken a step back from what they accomplished last year. The Bomba Squad has seen its home run output drop a bit this season. After smashing the major league single-season home run record in 2019, the Twins launched the sixth most home runs in the majors in 2020. While the power was still mostly intact, their overall offensive production fell to just above league average. Diminished seasons from a few key players is the likely culprit. Miguel Sanó, Jorge Polanco, and Mitch Garver each saw their wRC+ drop by at least 38 points, with Garver’s dropping by an incredible 114 points. Read the rest of this entry »

Jared Walsh Has Simplified Things

When you pull up the MLB position player leaderboards for September, you’ll find some familiar names. Freddie Freeman has launched himself into the middle of the National League MVP race with his incredible form this month. José Ramírez is challenging Mike Trout and José Abreu in the battle for the American League MVP. But nestled among these stars is one surprising name: Jared Walsh. He’s put up a 222 wRC+ in September, notching hits in all but one game this month. Eight of his 24 knocks have left the park — including a mammoth grand slam yesterday afternoon — giving him an impressive .390 ISO this year. He has truly been one of the few bright spots for the floundering Angels.

Best known for being developed as a two-way player, Walsh has finally tapped into the power that he’s displayed throughout his minor league career. A 39th-round pick back in 2015, Walsh quickly moved through the Angels organization, powering his way through each minor league stop. He posted a .237 ISO during his minor league career, though all that power came with plenty of strikeouts. He made his major league debut last September, struggling through 87 plate appearances and five appearances out of the bullpen. A strikeout rate over 40% really hampered all of his efforts at the plate, and those relief appearances all came in mop-up duty where his 26.1% walk rate could do little harm.

With such a disappointing audition in 2019 and the Angels seemingly focused on a playoff run, Walsh was likely relegated to a mere depth piece on their depth chart entering this season. But nothing in 2020 has gone according to plan, and the Angels quickly found themselves looking up from the bottom of the standings. When they traded away a couple of players at the trade deadline, it opened up an opportunity for Walsh, and he has run with it. Read the rest of this entry »

Zach Davies Continues To Change Things Up

When the Padres added Mike Clevinger to their starting rotation, they were bolstering what was already a team strength. San Diego’s rotation had cumulatively put up the fourth-best FIP in baseball through the end of August, and that mark has improved from 3.92 to 3.64 in just a few weeks’ time. Their rotation is now the second-best in baseball by FIP and fourth-best by ERA. Dinelson Lamet has led the way with his 2.12 ERA and 2.70 FIP, but their second-best starter might not be who you expect. It’s not last year’s phenom Chris Paddack (4.74 ERA/4.66 FIP) nor is it the finally healthy Garrett Richards (4.27/4.28). It is Zach Davies and his 2.69 ERA and 3.68 FIP.

Acquired from the Brewers in November in the same trade that netted them Trent Grisham, a budding superstar in his own right, Davies has been a surprising source of quality innings for the Padres. A command artist armed with a diving changeup and an 88-mph sinker, he put together a solid-if-unspectacular career in Milwaukee over 600 innings. Despite well-below-average fastball velocity, he’s managed to succeed with a pitch-to-contact mentality by avoiding hard contact.

In late March, Davies discussed his pitch mix in an interview with David Laurila, titled, “Zach Davies Plans to Rely Less on Changeups.” Here’s how he explained it:

“I was getting guys out in any way possible. Going into last year, I was coming off injuries [rotator cuff inflammation and lower back tightness] and wasn’t guaranteed a starting spot. I wasn’t able to go into spring training and work on pitches, and the best way for me to get outs was fastball-changeup. That’s why the numbers were skewed. This year there will be a lot more of a mix.”

Davies threw his changeup 31.3% of the time last year, more than twice as often as he had in 2018 and good for the highest rate of his career. After struggling with his health the year before, he lost the feel for his curveball last year and leaned on his fastball-changeup combo to great effect. He posted the lowest ERA of his career, even though it was a little more than a full run lower than his FIP. Read the rest of this entry »

Devin Williams and the Unicorn Changeup

The inspiration for a new pitch design can strike at any moment. Usually, it’s a coach or a teammate sharing their well-earned wisdom or tricks-of-the-trade. Sometimes a new pitch is developed during bullpen sessions as a pitcher tinkers with a new grip or finger placement. More recently, pitch design has been outsourced to technologically advanced pitching labs like Driveline, where pitchers try to harness all the data at their disposal to create the most effective pitch possible. But for Devin Williams, the design for his changeup didn’t come from any of the normal avenues. Instead, it was developed on the neighborhood fields of his childhood.

In a recent media session, he described how he had thrown a version of what is now his changeup since he was growing up:

“I started throwing like that as a kid. Like, when I played catch with my friends, just to mess with people, trying to make them miss the ball when I threw it to them. That’s what turned into my changeup. I’ve had that since I was maybe 10 years old.”

Changeups come in a variety of types and styles. There’s the classic change that relies on a high velocity differential off the fastball to create deception. The circle change adds tumbling vertical movement to further differentiate the pitch from a heater. Felix Hernandez’s cambio redefined what a modern changeup could look like without the trademark velocity differential. Williams’ changeup is an entirely different beast, making it a changeup unique in baseball — the unicorn changeup. Read the rest of this entry »

Padres and Mariners Swap Backstops

The flurry of deals made by the San Diego Padres on Sunday culminated with a massive trade with the Seattle Mariners. The headlining player headed to Southern California is catcher Austin Nola, along with two relievers, Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla. Ben Clemens will address the newest additions to the Padres bullpen and Eric Longenhagen will have the analysis of the prospect/recently-prospect haul the Mariners received from the Padres — Taylor Trammell, Andres Muñoz, and Ty France — a little later this morning. The fourth player headed to the Northwest, Luis Torrens, is likely to take Nola’s place on the Mariners roster as their starting catcher.

With the Padres acquiring Jason Castro from the Angels earlier in the day, the addition of Nola completes an overhaul of the Padres catching corps. As a group, the Padres catchers had put up a collective .146/.228/.291 slash line, good for a 45 wRC+ and -0.3 WAR. They weren’t the worst hitting group of backstops in the majors this year, but it was a clear need for the Padres, who have their eyes on a deep postseason run.

Castro is a fine offensive upgrade in his own right but the easy answer to the Padres problem was to simply add the best hitting catcher in the majors in 2020. That’s exactly what they’ve done in adding Nola. His .380 wOBA ekes out J.T. Realmuto by just a single point, his 145 wRC+ is six points higher than the star Phillies backstop, and they’re tied with 1.2 WAR apiece. Read the rest of this entry »