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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 »

Postseason Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Washington Nationals

In one of the most thrilling finishes to a Wild Card game, the Washington Nationals defeated the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday night. That victory finally exorcised the nightmare that elimination games have been for the Nats over the last decade. Now their sights are set on the best team in the National League, the Dodgers.

At a Glance:

  • Game 1: Thursday, October 3, 8:37 PM EST in Los Angeles
  • Game 2: Friday, October 4, 9:37 PM EST in Los Angeles
  • Game 3: Sunday, October 6, time TBD in Washington
  • Game 4 (if necessary): Monday, October 7, time TBD in Washington
  • Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, October 9, time TBD in Los Angeles

Dodgers-Nationals Team Overview
Overview Dodgers Nationals Edge
Batting (wRC+) 111 (1st in NL) 103 (3rd in NL) Dodgers
Fielding (DRS) 136 (1st) -2 (12th) Dodgers
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 81 (1st) 82 (2nd) Dodgers
Bullpen (FIP-) 93 (3rd) 109 (14th) Dodgers

This five-game series sets up a clash between the top two starting rotations in the senior circuit. The Dodgers starters posted a park- and league-adjusted FIP 19% better than league average, and the Nationals were just a point right behind them. But in a short series, the quality of the top of the rotation is paramount, and these two teams are very top-heavy. Read the rest of this entry »

How Félix Hernández Redefined the Modern Changeup

Félix Hernández didn’t always throw his signature changeup. When he was a teenager coming up through the Mariners organization, his best pitches were his electric fastball and a nasty curveball. That breaking ball has stuck with him in some form or fashion throughout his career, but his changeup was an afterthought until around 2009, the year before he won the Cy Young award. Since then, his cambio has become almost synonymous with his approach as a pitcher.

The changeup has existed in the game as long as pitchers have been trying to disrupt the timing of the opposing batter. But Félix’s changeup was unlike any that had come before. “There is no one in baseball that throws a Félix Hernández changeup — no one,” Brandon Moss told Sports Illustrated back in 2014. What made it so unique was it’s combination of high velocity and elite vertical movement. He threw it around 90 mph when almost no one else in baseball was throwing a changeup that hard. Conventional wisdom assumed that the velocity differential was the most important aspect of a good changeup. Afterall, what better way to disrupt the timing of a batter than to throw two pitches with a significant gap in speed even though they look the same out of the hand.

Based on Harry Pavlidis’s research into effective changeups, we know that a large velocity differential is beneficial for inducing swings and misses. But he also found that changeups with good separation from the fastball by movement can also be effective. Félix’s cambio had the high velocity of a fastball — and the resulting small differential — but it dropped off the table like a splitter. Read the rest of this entry »

Jordan Lyles Thrives in Milwaukee, Again

No team in baseball has been hotter in September than the Brewers. They’ve lost just four games this month and that hot streak has them on the verge of clinching a playoff berth. That they’ve continued to win so many games without their superstar, MVP candidate Christian Yelich, makes their success all the more impressive. But while their offense has managed to find ways to score enough runs without Yelich in the lineup, their pitching staff has been simply dominant.

The Brewers have allowed just 66 runs to score this month, an average of three per game. That’s the fewest runs allowed in the majors and includes a 10-0 drubbing by the Cardinals on September 13. Their team ERA has easily been the best in baseball during this stretch. By park- and league-adjusted FIP, they’ve only been the fourth-best team in the majors, but still the best in the National League.

Surprisingly, their starting rotation has been led by Jordan Lyles. In four September starts, he’s allowed a total of six runs — four of them earned — giving him the lowest ERA of the Brewers regular starters (Brandon Woodruff hasn’t allowed a run in his two starts where he acted as the opener). This string of strong outings stretches back to late July when he joined the Brewers in a trade from Pittsburgh. Since being acquired, he’s been their most reliable starter, allowing two or fewer runs in eight of his 10 starts. Read the rest of this entry »