Author Archive

Sandy Alcantara Sinks His Way to Success

There hasn’t been much to celebrate this year in Miami, but the Marlins starting rotation has been a source of a few positive developments. Caleb Smith and Pablo López started off the season strong but faded in the second half. Zac Gallen and Jordan Yamamoto both made their major league debuts, and while Gallen was shipped out at the trade deadline, Yamamoto has shown some promise as a 23-year-old rookie. But the most exciting progress has come from Sandy Alcantara.

On the surface, Alcantara’s stat line doesn’t look that impressive. His park and league adjusted FIP sits just seven percent above league average but that’s more due to some luck in keeping the ball in the ballpark. His 18% strikeout rate is one of the worst in the majors among qualified starters despite a fastball that sits in the mid-90s. The biggest question mark attached to him as a prospect was his command of his repertoire. In his 42 major league innings prior to this year, he ran a walk rate above 15%. He’s managed to drop that down to 10.7% this year, but that’s still one of the worst walk rates in the majors.

The fourth ranked prospect in the Marlins organization and 127th overall at the start of the season, there were plenty of doubts that Alcantara could stick in a major league rotation as he developed. He’s likely going to make 30 starts this year, which has to be seen as a success for the Marlins player development group, shoddy peripherals be damned. But since the start of August, Alcantara has shown flashes of brilliance, giving Marlins fans another starting pitcher to dream on for next season.

In his seven starts since the end of July, Alcantara has posted a park and league adjusted FIP 19% better than league average. More importantly, his strikeout rate has jumped up to 22.3%, a nearly six point improvement from where it sat after the first four months of the season. The highlight of this stretch came in his last start at home against the Royals. He threw a complete game, holding Kansas City scoreless while allowing just six base runners and striking out eight. That was actually the second complete game shutout he’s thrown this year, his first coming back in May against the Mets. Read the rest of this entry »

The Blows Just Keep Coming for the Twins

Despite being a near lock to make the playoffs, the Twins are facing plenty of challenges on their way to October. Over the weekend, Michael Pineda was hit with a 60-game suspension for violating the MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. That seriously hurts the Twins starting rotation considering he’s been their best starter since June. But that’s not the only problem the Twins are facing now. Yesterday, news broke that center fielder Byron Buxton had labrum surgery, knocking him out for the rest of the season.

Buxton had been on the injured list since early August, but before that, he was putting together the best season of his career. In addition to his elite defense in center field, his bat had finally risen to meet the high expectations his prospect pedigree placed on him. He had cut his strikeout rate to 23.1% and pushed his isolated power up to .251, helping him post a 111 wRC+ in just under 300 plate appearances. If given a full year on the field, he was on pace to post a five-win season.

Buxton had been making progress rehabbing his shoulder with the hope of a late-September activation with an eye towards helping the team in the postseason. His return was never guaranteed, but now that he’s entirely out of the picture, it pushes the Twins outfield depth to its limit. Three other outfielders on the Twins roster have battled nagging injuries recently, leaving them critically short-handed despite the expanded rosters in September. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Center Field Cody Bellinger’s Best Position?

Cody Bellinger is in the midst of an MVP-caliber season. His 7.3 WAR is second in the majors, his 166 wRC+ ranks third, and he’s among the league leaders in almost every offensive category. Barring a major surprise (from, say, Anthony Rendon), the NL MVP should come down to him and Christian Yelich. In addition to his incredible production at the plate, Bellinger has improved by leaps and bounds in the field. He’s putting up elite defensive numbers in right field for the Dodgers, and now they’re planning on moving him to center field full-time for the rest of the season.

The inconsistent play of A.J. Pollock in center provoked this move. An elite center fielder in his time with the Diamondbacks, Pollock’s defense has slipped terribly this year (-8 DRS, -5.8 UZR); meanwhile, Bellinger’s defense has improved dramatically this year (19 DRS, 9.8 UZR). The Dodgers are hoping this shuffle will give them the optimal alignment in the outfield in their quest for a championship.

At this point in his career, it’s more accurate to call Bellinger an outfielder than a first baseman. A few weeks ago, his major league time spent on the grass surpassed his time spent on the dirt. When he was drafted out of high school, Bellinger’s defensive scouting reports often mentioned that he had the athleticism to play in the outfield, but only in a corner. Here’s how Bernie Pleskoff described his defensive potential in his scouting profile: “If needed, he could be a successful outfielder. I don’t think he has the speed to play center, but I think he could succeed in right.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Kolten Wong is Carrying the Cardinals

Heading into the All-Star break, the Cardinals were sitting in third place in the NL Central with an even record of 44-44. Even though they were just two games behind the division-leading Cubs, their playoff odds were sitting at just 21.2%, the seventh-best mark in the National League. Since then, they’ve posted the best record in the NL, winning 33 of their 49 games since the midseason break. One of the biggest reasons for their surprising turnaround has been the excellent play of Kolten Wong.

Wong has accumulated 2.2 WAR in the second half of the season alone, by far the most wins by a position player on the Cardinals in that time. His 165 wRC+ ranks 14th in the majors since the break and he’s continued to flash the leather at second base. He’s setting career highs across all three slash components, and is on pace to hit more home runs and steal more bases than ever before. Wong’s excellence and Jack Flaherty’s masterful pitching since the All-Star break have carried the Cardinals into the division lead and boosted their playoff odds to 91.0%.

I should quickly point out that Wong is running a BABIP of .434 during his hot streak. He’s not really hitting for any additional power and his walk-to-strikeout ratio hasn’t budged. He’s simply benefitted from a ton of his batted balls falling in for hits over the last couple of months. But it’s not just blind luck driving his hot streak. He’s made some real changes to his plate approach that have helped him earn some of those extra hits. Read the rest of this entry »

Masahiro Tanaka Rediscovered His Splitter

On July 25, Masahiro Tanaka allowed a career-high 12 runs in just three and a third innings. It was a sobering outing in a marquee matchup against the Red Sox, but it was also a catalyst for him to make a major change to one of his pitches. His splitter has been his signature pitch for almost his entire career, both in Japan and in the States, but it hasn’t been nearly as effective this season. The ineffectiveness of his splitter has been a big reason why he’s leaned so heavily on his fastball and slider, and it’s been a constant source of frustration for him.

The source of his problems with the splitter is somewhat unexpected. Instead of a mechanical issue, it’s been the ball itself that’s caused his consternation. Tanaka discussed the issues he’s had with his splitter with both James Wagner of the New York Times in an article dated August 5, and Lindsay Adler of The Athletic in an piece posted yesterday. Here’s how he explained it to Wagner: “You grip the ball, and it feels a little bit different. And then when you’re throwing with that difference in hand, obviously the movement of the ball becomes a little bit different, too.”

The effect of the dragless ball on the explosion of offense seen in the major leagues and Triple-A has been widely studied. The baseball used in the majors was introduced in Triple-A for the first time this season and home run rates are skyrocketing. In a study published by The Athletic, Dr. Meredith Wills determined the biggest physical changes to the ball were lowered seams and leather smoothness, both contributing to there being less drag on the ball in flight. But the effects of the new ball on how pitchers grip and throw the ball hasn’t been examined as closely. In Tanaka, we have a specific case study on one of the other unforeseen effects of the new ball. Read the rest of this entry »

The Twins’ Latest Hitting Machine

Once upon a time, it was not uncommon to see a batter’s walk rate sitting higher than his strikeout rate. In the early 90s, more than a quarter of qualified batters had a walk rate higher than their strikeout rate. That number has slowly dwindled as strikeout rates have skyrocketed. This season, just two qualified batters have taken a stroll to first more often than a stroll back to the dugout: Alex Bregman and Carlos Santana. If we lower the plate appearance threshold, another batter joins this interesting group of players: Luis Arraez.

Arráez doesn’t hit for power like Bregman and Santana, he simply makes a ton of contact. His 91.9% contact rate leads the majors, just ahead of contact maestro David Fletcher. There’s nothing inherently more valuable about running a walk rate higher than your strikeout rate — there are plenty of players who thrive with a walk-to-strikeout ratio much lower than one — but Arráez’s batting style is a rare sight in today’s era of three true outcomes. His ability to draw a walk does make him stand out against some of the other batters with an aggressive, high-contact approach like Fletcher or Willians Astudillo. The combination of elite bat control with a discerning eye has helped him post the fifth-highest OBP among all batters with at least 200 plate appearances.

Arráez was signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old international free agent back in 2013. His ability to consistently put wood on the ball helped him rise quickly through the Twins organization. He peaked as the No. 12 prospect in their system this past offseason, but his lack of power limited his potential ceiling. Still, that didn’t hold him back from posting a minor league slash line of .331/.385/.414. His hit tool is equal parts natural ability and dedication to his craft. Back in June, he spoke with Mariana Guzman of Twins Daily about his pre-game routine: Read the rest of this entry »

The Twins’ Two-Headed Catching Monster

It’s a rough time to be a catcher. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen catcher offensive production drop to extreme lows. Last year, major league backstops compiled 49.9 WAR, the lowest total since 2004, and their collective wRC+ was just 84, the lowest mark since 2002. In this day and age, it’s not uncommon to see teams select their starting backstops based on their defensive prowess and ability to handle a pitching staff rather than their ability to contribute offensively. That’s the only explanation for why Jeff Mathis continues to receive plate appearances despite a running a wRC+ that’s in the single digits.

For most teams, the backup catcher is an afterthought on the roster, selected for his ability to competently go about his duties without hurting the team too much. Most backup catchers see the field once or twice a week, three times if they’re lucky, so their effect on the overall production of the lineup is rather minimal. But there are a few squads this year who have been blessed with an abundance of catching riches.

Five teams have received more than three wins from their catching corps in 2019:

Team Catching, 2019
Brewers 113 29.35% 17.6 4.6
Phillies 97 40.48% 6.5 4.2
Diamondbacks 109 40.38% 9.4 3.8
Twins 116 21.54% 3.7 3.8
Red Sox 84 31.88% 14.4 3.1

Read the rest of this entry »

Gio Urshela Powers Up

On Thursday, Jay Jaffe examined the terrible injury luck the Yankees have suffered through this season. Twenty-five players have been sent to the injured list—with 17 active stints—for a combined 1,748 days lost to injuries. Still, despite being so banged up, the Yankees are a virtual lock to make the playoffs as the American League East champion. A big reason why they’ve posted the best record in baseball is the unexpected contributions from their replacement players. The most impressive breakout has been from Gio Urshela. The 2.4 WAR he’s accumulated this year is the third highest mark on the Yankees. For a player who was seen as a glove-first utility man at one point, it’s been a remarkable transformation.

Yesterday, Urshela launched two home runs against the Blue Jays, his fourth and fifth in his last three games. That gives him nine home runs since the All-Star break, almost tripling his season total. Since the midseason break, few hitters have been as hot as Urshela. He’s posted a .380/.402/.848 slash line in the month since the All-Star game, a 221 wRC+ that ranks second in the majors. This current hot streak surpasses the good run he had to start the year.

Through the end of May, Urshela had posted a .338/.390/.482 slash line and a 131 wRC+, both excellent marks. But he accumulated just 14 extra-base hits in 154 plate appearances during that early season bender. Since the All-Star break, he has 19 extra-base hits in a little more than half the plate appearances. His isolated power has ballooned to a ridiculous .468! In the minors, the highest ISO he had ever posted was .267 in fewer than 100 plate appearances in Double-A back in 2014. He had never hit for much power until this season — and only just recently. Read the rest of this entry »

The Astros May Have Salvaged Another Pitcher’s Career

You knew it was coming. When Houston acquired Aaron Sanchez from the Blue Jays, changes to his repertoire were bound to follow. By now, the pitching preferences of the Astros organization are well known: throw your best pitch more often and ditch your worst. It’s not as simple as telling pitchers to throw more breaking balls or throw fewer fastballs, though. It’s an individualized pitching strategy based on the strengths and weaknesses of the particular pitcher. Erstwhile FanGraphs author Travis Sawchik describes how these individualized development plans are presented to new Astros in his new book, The MVP Machine, co-authored with Ben Lindbergh:

We may have expected some tweaks, but I’m not sure anyone could have expected the adjustments to have such an immediate impact for Sanchez. With the Blue Jays, he had posted a league worst 6.07 ERA with a 5.03 FIP across 23 starts. In his first start with his new team, he held the Mariners hitless over six innings, allowing just three base runners and striking out six. Will Harris, Joe Biagini (who came over from the Blue Jays in the same trade), and Chris Devenski completed the combined no-hitter after Sanchez was lifted after the sixth.

Read the rest of this entry »

Josh Donaldson Has Finally Settled In

After a surprise first-place finish in the National League East last year, the Atlanta Braves entered this offseason searching for an offensive threat to bolster their lineup. After being shutout twice in their Division Series matchup against the Dodgers, they probably had good reason to be on the lookout for a new bat to add to their roster. They quickly struck a one-year deal with Josh Donaldson worth $23 million in the hopes that he would rekindle some of the magic that made him the second-most valuable player in baseball from 2013-2017.

Through the first two months of the season, it seemed like a worst-case scenario was playing out for the Braves’ biggest offseason acquisition. Through May 31, Donaldson had posted a 118 wRC+ and 1.2 WAR in 217 plate appearances. Above average, yes, but a far cry from his 148 wRC+ he averaged annually in the five years prior to 2018. With a lengthy injury history since at least 2016, you had to wonder if all that wear and tear had caught up with his 33-year-old body.

A shoulder injury sapped him of his power last year, so it was a little worrisome that his ISO was just .186 through the first two months of the season. That would have been his lowest power output since 2012, the year before he broke out with the Athletics. But more concerning was the 28.1% strikeout rate, higher than any other season in his career except for the brief cup of coffee he received way back in 2010. In his prime, he had always been able to combine reasonable strikeout rates with his massive power.

Since June 1, however, Donaldson has put together a vintage performance. He’s matched his previous offensive output exactly, posting a 148 wRC+ and 1.8 WAR across 198 plate appearances. He’s tied for the National League lead in home runs during this period with 16. That puts him on pace to launch more than 30 home runs for the fourth time in five years. So what happened to his power early this season and why has it come on so strong recently? Read the rest of this entry »