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The Brewers Found Their Grandal Replacement

On Monday, no other team non-tendered more players than the Brewers. In addition to the 10 free agents lost from their roster, the five players let go earlier this week add to the mass exodus from Milwaukee. Those 15 players accounted for 14 WAR in 2019. More than a third of those wins were accumulated by Yasmani Grandal, their All-Star catcher. The Brewers failed to bring him back on a long-term deal after he signed a four-year pact with the White Sox worth $73 million.

With plenty of holes on their roster and division-rivals gearing up for next year, the Brewers entered this offseason with plenty of work to do. Trading for Luis Urías and Eric Lauer was the first step towards rebuilding their roster. Now they have their replacement for Grandal in hand. Early Thursday morning, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Mariners had struck an agreement to trade Omar Narváez to the Brewers. Greg Johns later reported the return from Milwaukee: RHP Adam Hill and the Brewers’ Competitive Balance draft pick (currently slotted in at 71 overall).

With the catching market rife with buyers and few quality catchers to be had, a number of teams moved quickly to secure a deal with a new backstop. Grandal, Travis d’Arnaud, Tyler Flowers, Yan Gomes, and Stephen Vogt all signed new deals or re-signed with their previous club in November, leaving the free agent market rather bare. With the Mariners basically telegraphing their intent to move Narváez this offseason, the only question was which contender would partner up. Read the rest of this entry »

Which Players Might Have Benefited from the Astros’ Sign-Stealing?

It’s been more than two weeks since the Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich’s bombshell report at The Athletic, which revealed a massive sign-stealing scandal implemented by the Houston Astros beginning in 2017. Since then, we’ve seen reports that the official investigation launched by Major League Baseball has confirmed the system as described by Mike Fiers in that original report; they are continuing to look into other ways the Astros may have cheated during the 2017 postseason and beyond. Whether the Astros were using a modified method on the road relying on “buzzers,” as some have speculated, has yet to be confirmed.

What we do know is that the Astros broke the rules by using technology to steal signs in real-time. Members of Houston’s front office and coaching staff could face significant penalties, and with Alex Cora and Carlos Beltrán implicated as sign-stealing ringleaders, there could be impacts felt in organizations beyond Houston. It remains to be seen just how severe the punishment will be — though our own Craig Edwards argued last week that they could be quite severe indeed — and if any players are caught up in the fallout.

Last week, I took an initial look at whether or not the on-field value of the Astros sign-stealing scheme could be parsed out in the data. Between the changing roster, the changing ball, and the at times non-linear effect of coaching and player development, there was a lot of noise in the data. At a broad level, it’s hard to make any conclusive statements about the specific effects of the Astros sign-stealing, though as I noted, the fact that the team persisted in the practice suggests they believed they derived an appreciable benefit from it. On Friday, two more attempts to answer that same question were made.

Over at The Ringer, Ben Lindbergh concluded:

“Knowing the next pitch just has to help, right? But no matter how we slice and dice the data, the statistical case is less compelling than it would be if sign-stealing made hitting as simple as it seems like it should. Great as the Astros were at the plate in 2017, the most fascinating aspect of their sign-stealing scandal is that it didn’t make them even better.”

Rob Arthur was a little more confident in his conclusions in a piece for Baseball Prospectus:

“We can tentatively conclude that their sign stealing probably had a major impact on the team’s plate discipline numbers. This was not innocent cheating that barely affected the game; according to the available data, it may have yielded an unprecedented improvement in the Astros’ ability to make contact and lay off outside pitches, helping to turn a talented lineup into one of the best-hitting teams of all time.”

In my previous piece, I landed somewhere in between these two positions: sign-stealing probably had an impact, but it was nearly impossible to determine the exact benefit at a team level due to all the noise. But what happens if we drill down to the per-pitch level, as I did with the run expectancy (RE288) data in my article last week, and this time focus on individual players? Read the rest of this entry »

How Much Did the Astros Really Benefit from Sign-Stealing?

With the offseason moving at it’s now customarily glacial pace, the story that’s dominated the baseball headlines for the past week has been the Astros sign-stealing scandal. Since the first story was published by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich at The Athletic last Tuesday, we’ve seen bits of evidence confirming the Astros strategy: a crude system of live monitors and a trash can to relay the incoming pitch type to the batter. On Friday, Rob Arthur of Baseball Prospectus provided audio evidence from the TV broadcasts, on which the whacking of the trash can can be identified and analyzed. Rosenthal and Drellich followed up their post with another revelation that the Astros were exploring different ways to electronically steal signs. And then there’s the video evidence pulled from the 2017 Astros World Series documentary showing a computer — sometimes a monitor, sometimes a laptop — in the tunnel leading to the dugout with a trash can nearby.

MLB is still conducting its own investigation, but the evidence that’s been dug up publicly is pretty damning. Sign-stealing has always been part of the game, but the Astros crossed the line when they began using electronic means to relay information in real-time. And this isn’t the first time they’ve been accused of baseball skullduggery of some sort. There’s little doubt that some form of punishment will be handed down by the commissioner’s office once MLB wraps up its investigation. The only question is how harsh will the penalties be; will it be a slap on the wrist, or will the hammer come down hard to deter other teams who are likely exploring other ways to use technology to steal signs.

Gamesmanship and various forms of cheating are as much a part of the fabric of baseball as the unwritten rulebook, all in an effort to gain an upper hand against your opponent. But how much of a benefit does sign-stealing give to a batter? Knowing what type of pitch is incoming gives the batter a distinct advantage — more information is far better than just guessing — but they still need to translate that information into action, whether its a swing or a take. Since we have plenty of data to analyze, can we measure the effect of sign-stealing on the outcome of a pitch, play, or game? Read the rest of this entry »

Nick Solak Gives the Rangers Options

The Rangers entered this offseason in a unique position. While many teams appear to be content to wait patiently for the free agent market to get moving and a handful are actively trying to clear salary, the Rangers seem like one of the few clubs approaching the market aggressively. That stance isn’t necessarily reflective of their standing in the AL West — they finished a distant third behind the A’s and the Astros — but it’s partially an artificial urgency created by the opening of their new stadium in 2020.

General Manager Jon Daniels has made it clear that the team will be looking to improve its roster any way they can, including dipping into the top-tier free agent market. They’re reportedly “aggressively” pursuing Josh Donaldson and have been linked to a number of other big names. With their outfield more or less set, with Willie Calhoun, Joey Gallo, and Nomar Mazara manning the three spots from left to right, the infield is the likely target for an upgrade on the position player side of the roster.

Third base seems like the best place to pursue a high-end free agent simply because there are more of them on the market than any of the other infield positions. Plus, the Rangers have Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor’s unmovable contracts entrenched up-the-middle. The problem is the Rangers infielder with the best 2020 projection is currently penciled in as their everyday third baseman. Read the rest of this entry »

Cleveland Has One Piece of Their Outfield Figured Out

At this time last year, the Cleveland Indians were coming off a disappointing exit from the playoffs after getting swept by the Astros in the Division Series. Michael Brantley was on his way out the door as a free agent, soon to join the team that had ousted him from the playoffs in October. His departure left a gaping hole on Cleveland’s roster with no obvious internal replacements. Signing a free-agent outfielder seemed like an obvious need, but no significant move came. The Indians entered the season with the outfield trio of Jake Bauers, Leonys Martín, and the husk of Carlos González. Reinforcements arrived as the season wore on; Yasiel Puig came over in a trade with Cincinnati, and Cleveland’s 12th-ranked prospect Oscar Mercado made his major league debut.

Cleveland’s outfield is in nearly the same state now as it was in early November last year. Puig is a free agent and they have Bauers, Mercado, and Greg Allen penciled in as their starting outfield trio. Luckily, it looks like Mercado can be a long-term solution in center field.

Originally drafted by the Cardinals as a glove-first shortstop out of high school in the second round of the 2013 draft, Mercado struggled to hit during his first few years as a professional. Over his first four seasons in the minors spanning three different levels, he posted a combined 79 wRC+. The Cardinals shifted him to center field in 2017 and he enjoyed a breakout year at the plate, posting a 114 wRC+ in Double-A. Here’s how Eric Longenhagen described Mercado’s improved approach prior to the 2018 season:

Mercado has embraced his modest, but viable, pull-side pop and his approach is largely geared for contact in that direction. This narrow approach caused his strikeout rate (a career 13% entering the season) to spike, but Mercado is making loud contact for the first time in his career.

Mercado was traded to Cleveland at the deadline in 2018 and made his major league debut in May of this year. Through the ebbs and flows of his rookie campaign, he thrived when he stuck with the pull-heavy approach that got him to the majors.

Beyond his initial success in May and June, Mercado’s wOBA looked intimately tied to his pull rate through the rest of the season. He really struggled in August when his pull rate fell to 32.5%, and he rebounded in September when he started pulling the ball almost half the time. Just look at his splits based on batted ball direction:

Oscar Mercado’s Batted Ball Splits
Direction GB% FB% Hard% ISO Exit Velo Launch Angle wOBA
Pull 53.4% 21.6% 47.0% .318 89.4 6.9 .462
Center 35.5% 41.9% 41.1% .115 86.8 12.4 .299
Opposite 22.2% 64.2% 25.3% .179 81.7 25.4 .276

It isn’t surprising to see such a productive split when pulling the ball, but Mercado’s batted ball profile almost makes it too easy to understand why he is so successful when doing so. When hitting to the opposite field, his exit velocity plummets to 81 mph while his fly ball rate jumps up to 64%. The result is lazy fly balls to right field that are easily converted to outs. The same problem occurs when he hits the ball up the middle to a less-extreme degree. His bat just doesn’t have enough pop to support elevating the ball so often when he isn’t pulling it too.

With an aggressive, high-contact approach at the plate, he should be able to leverage his elite sprint speed into more hits. But putting that many balls in the air when hitting to the right side really limits his opportunities to utilize his best tools. His 97th percentile sprint speed and his good contact rate seem like a fit for an approach that uses all fields, but his swing is geared towards pulling the ball to left. Perhaps there’s some middle ground between these two, but it might require making some adjustments to his swing.

Defensively, the former shortstop has excelled in the outfield. DRS thought he was the sixth-best center fielder in 2019 with nine runs saved. UZR was a little less impressed with just 2.8 runs saved, and Statcast’s defensive metrics back this up. He was five outs above average and his elite reaction time was the sixth-highest among all outfielders. Additionally, his elite sprint speed definitely helped him cover up some less-than-ideal routes.

Cleveland hasn’t had a regular full-time center fielder since Michael Bourn from 2013-2015. Nine different players have accumulated more than 100 innings in center since 2016. Mercado’s 1.7 WAR was the best mark posted by a Cleveland center fielder since Tyler Naquin’s rookie year in 2016. The Indians have plenty of fringe candidates to fill their outfield, as Allen, Bauers, Jordan Luplow, and Franmil Reyes all profile better as corner outfielders or fourth outfielders. Meanwhile, Naquin and Bradley Zimmer have unanswered health questions that will likely prevent them from taking a full-time job in 2020. Mercado’s defensive chops in center should allow him to provide everyday value and his bat shows enough promise to help him stick long-term. That’s one outfield spot down and two more to fill.

The Twins Search for Gold on the Waiver Wire

While championship retrospectives are still being read and written, the rest of baseball is gearing up for the offseason. Immediately following the World Series, there’s always a flurry of activity as players come off the 60-day injured list, and teams get their 40-man rosters in order and begin the long process of building for next season. During these initial days of the offseason, the waiver wire is flooded with players who were removed from their team’s roster. With so many players shuffling around, these minor moves can get swept under the rug pretty quickly. After all, it’s unlikely a waiver claim in November will have much of an effect on a team’s fortunes next season. But sometimes the waiver wire holds a piece of true gold amidst all the pyrite.

Last year, the Rays claimed Oliver Drake from the Twins on November 1. It was the fourth time Drake had been claimed off waivers, with the Twins his seventh team in 2018. He was later designated for assignment three times that offseason, claimed by another team, and then traded back to the Rays in early January. That’s not exactly the ideal blueprint for how these waiver wire claims should go, but Drake’s performance during the 2019 season was as good as the Rays could have hoped for (3.87 FIP, 0.5 WAR).

The Twins are hoping to uncover their own piece of treasure in Matt Wisler. Claimed off waivers from the Mariners, Wisler certainly looks the part of roster chaff. A former top prospect, he was included in the first big Craig Kimbrel trade before he could make his debut with his original team, the Padres. He struggled in the Braves rotation for a couple of years before getting moved to the bullpen in 2017, and has bounced around the league the last two seasons, from Atlanta to Cincinnati in 2018, then back to San Diego in 2019, and finally to Seattle. Since making the transition to relief work, he’s posted an ugly 5.89 ERA and a 4.63 FIP across 123.2 innings, accumulating 0.4 WAR in three seasons.

Besides his long-forgotten prospect pedigree, Wisler looks exactly like the kind of depth that gets shuffled around in November before getting buried on the depth chart once the offseason begins in earnest. But digging below the surface reveals the potential for gold. Since 2017, Wisler has increased his strikeout rate at each stop in the majors, from 14.4% with the Braves to 30.5% with the Mariners. His ability to prevent runs hasn’t benefited from all those extra strikeouts, but it gives him an intriguing foundation that could be honed with a little development. Read the rest of this entry »

Houston, We Might Need a Fourth Starter

The great starting pitching of these two teams was the headlining feature heading into this edition of the World Series. The matchup of two historically good rotations promised a fiercely competitive series with runs at an even higher premium than they already are in the postseason. We are two games in and the Astros’ two best starters have allowed a combined nine runs while the bullpen has allowed an additional eight. It’s been an ugly start for the Houston pitching staff.

The Astros will hand the ball to Zack Greinke in Game 3 while the Nationals counter with Aníbal Sánchez. ZiPS gives the Astros an overwhelming 58.3% chance to claw their way back into the series in Game 3. After his relief appearance in Game 1, Patrick Corbin draws the start on Saturday in Game 4. While Sánchez doesn’t approach the level of the Nats’ top three starters, his presence on the roster gives them the flexibility to rest their best pitchers should the series stretch longer than five games. And to Sánchez’s credit, he held the Cardinals scoreless and nearly hitless in his Game 1 start in the NLCS.

After Greinke, the Astros’ plan is a little less clear. When Houston needed to call on a fourth starter in the ALCS, they instead leaned on their bullpen, using seven different pitchers in the deciding Game 6. At that point in the series, they held a 3-2 advantage over the Yankees and were coming off an off day in the schedule. If they had lost Game 6, they had a rested Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole available for Game 7. They don’t have that luxury in the World Series. Read the rest of this entry »

How to Neutralize a Rookie Sensation

Yordan Alvarez is the favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award. He completely demolished opposing pitching this year, first in Triple-A (170 wRC+), then in the majors (178 wRC+) after being called up in early June. Between the two levels, he launched 50 home runs while showing elite plate discipline. But this October, he’s been a non-factor for the Astros.

He showed some life against the Rays, going 6-for-19 with three doubles in that five game series. But against the Yankees, he’s been completely shut down. He collected his first hit of the Championship Series last night, a broken bat single off Chad Green. He’s reached base just three other times against Yankees pitching, drawing two walks and reaching on an error. Overall, he’s slashing just .206/.270/.294 in nine postseason games.

What’s even more concerning is his elevated strikeout rate. He struck out just over a quarter of the time he came to the plate during the regular season. That’s jumped up to 37.8% in the postseason. During the regular season, Alvarez never had a nine-game stretch as poor as this one.

There was a nine-game stretch ending on September 6 during which he posted a strikeout rate of 36.6%. But he also launched three home runs over that span, something he hasn’t been able to do during the postseason. Obviously small sample caveats apply here, but it appears as though both the Rays and the Yankees have found similar approaches to neutralizing the 22-year-old rookie. Read the rest of this entry »

How Did Eric Sogard Hit a Home Run Off Gerrit Cole?

Gerrit Cole simply dominated the Rays across his two starts in the ALDS. Across almost 16 innings, he allowed just one run and nine baserunners while striking out nearly half of the batters he faced. That lone run he allowed was a solo home run off the bat of Eric Sogard. Of all the players on the Rays’ playoff roster, no one would have guessed it would be Sogard to hit a dinger off one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. But was it really that unlikely?

For his part, Sogard put together a career year this season. He posted career highs in ISO, wRC+, and WAR while launching 13 home runs, two more than his career total across eight previous seasons. Long viewed as a light-hitting utility infielder, Sogard showed he was capable of hitting for power in a way that he had never been able to before. And yet, he only averaged an 84.7 mph exit velocity this year, and his hard hit rate sat in the third percentile in the majors. But by adding an extra 2.5 degrees to his average launch angle — and with some help from the dragless ball — 13 of those hard-ish hit fly balls snuck over the fence.

Cole did struggle a bit with the long ball this season, allowing 29 home runs and a career-high 16.9% home run per fly ball rate. That’s 10 more home runs than he allowed last year and just two fewer than the career high he allowed in his final season in Pittsburgh in 2017. But Cole’s home run troubles and Sogard’s newfound power only tell part of the story in broad generalizations. So let’s dig into the specific event to see if we can find anything more interesting. For starts, here’s the video of Sogard’s home run in case you missed it last night.

Sogard gets around on a 95-mph fastball on the inside corner and hits it solidly enough to reach four rows back in right field. The pitch itself was rather peculiar. Cole’s average fastball velocity this season was 97.1 mph. In the game last night, he averaged 97.3 mph. This fastball was the second slowest fastball he threw all night. When Cole’s fastball velocity has dipped that low, opposing batters have had a much easier time handling his heater. Here’s a table showing how batters have fared against his fastball at different velocities: Read the rest of this entry »

Adam Wainwright Adds to His Postseason Legend

In a postseason already filled with great pitching performances, Adam Wainwright’s gem on Sunday afternoon was likely one of the most unexpected. He held the Braves scoreless over seven and two-thirds innings, allowing just six baserunners while striking out eight. If Carlos Martínez had been able to hold onto the slim margin he was handed in the ninth, the headline would have certainly featured the 38-year-old’s gutsy outing. But this latest start was just one more milestone in a career filled with postseason heroics.

2006 feels like a lifetime ago. Wainwright had just turned 25 and was pitching out of the bullpen for the Cardinals in his first full season in the majors. That was where his October legend began, on the road to the Cardinals first World Series win since 1982. The enduring image from that championship season is the final pitch of Game 5 (a cutter) but Wainwright’s crucible was Game 7 of the NLCS. Facing a bases-loaded situation in the ninth, Wainwright struck out Carlos Beltrán on three pitches, the last of which was a nasty curveball that Beltrán could only stare at.

Read the rest of this entry »