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Postseason Preview: Dodgers and Braves Reprise Last Year’s NLCS Matchup

When the postseason began, a rematch of the 2020 National League Championship Series only had about a 21% chance of happening, according to our Playoff Odds. But after some particularly unlikely occurrences — not just the lower seeds advancing in the Division Series — here we are. Freddie Freeman became the first lefty to hit a homer off Josh Hader in nearly 13 months, and the first to do so on a slider in more than two years, while lifting the Braves past the Brewers in Game 4. The Dodgers won the Wild Card game via a walkoff home run by a slumping Chris Taylor and then eked out a narrow victory over the 107-win Giants in similarly heart-stopping fashion, with the winning hit in Thursday night’s Game 5 delivered by Cody Bellinger on the heels of a nightmare season. That’s baseball, Suzyn.

Unlike last year, this time around the Braves will have home-field advantage despite winning 18 fewer regular season games than the Dodgers, because the current playoff format deals a stiff penalty to teams sneaking into the postseason via the Wild Card door. Atlanta’s advantage could be significant at some point in the series, particularly if it goes past five games, but it’s worth noting the Braves went just 42-38 at home, tying the Marlins for the NL’s 10th-highest win total in that split; meanwhile, their 46-35 road record ranked fourth in the NL. The Dodgers had the best home record (58-23) and third-best road record (48-33), and just won an elimination game (and two of their three Division Series games) in enemy territory. The talent gap between the two teams probably matters more than the venue in which they meet, though in a short series… you know the rest. Read the rest of this entry »

No Stranger to October Heroics, Kiké Hernández is Now Central to the Red Sox

Joc Pederson isn’t the only ex-Dodger thriving in October (excuse me, Joctober). Kiké Hernández is going to have to find a catchy nickname for the month as well (Kiktober? ‘Riqtober? I’m still workshopping that one), as he keeps adding to his considerable portfolio of postseason heroics after turning in the best season of his career with the Red Sox.

On Monday night, Hernández hit the walk-off sacrifice fly that sent the 92-win Red Sox past the 100-win Rays in the Division Series. Earlier in the series, he had a 5-for-6 performance with three doubles, a game-tying homer, and three RBI in Boston’s 14–6 comeback victory in Game 2, followed by a 3-for-6 performance with a solo homer and a game-tying RBI single in Game 3. Within those two games, he set a Division Series record with hits in seven straight at-bats (not plate appearances), one short of a postseason record shared by Reggie Jackson (1977–78 Yankees), Billy Hatcher (1990 Reds), and Miguel Cairo (2001–02 Cardinals).

Hernández also went 1-for-3 with a run scored and a walk in the Wild Card Game against the Yankees, highlighted by an assist on the pivotal play where Aaron Judge was thrown out at the plate. It all makes for quite a highlight reel.

Hernández is no stranger to the postseason, having made annual trips from 2015 to ’20 with the Dodgers. His list of greatest hits starts with his three-homer, seven-RBI performance against the Cubs at Wrigley Field in Game 5 of the 2017 NLCS, which did nothing less than help the Dodgers clinch their first pennant in 29 years; he added a game-tying RBI single off Ken Giles in the 10th inning of Game 2 of that year’s World Series against the Astros, though Los Angeles lost that contest. He also contributed a two-run, pinch-hit double in Game 3 of the 2019 Division Series against the Nationals and a pair of game-tying solo homers in last year’s NLCS against the Braves, one against Max Fried in Game 1 (the Dodgers’ only run) and the other in Game 7, followed an inning later by Cody Bellinger’s decisive solo shot.

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Carlos Rodón’s Big Comeback

Regardless of where he and the White Sox go from here — at this writing, they’re on the brink of elimination against the Astros, down two games to one in the Division Series — the 2021 season has already been the best of Carlos Rodón’s major league career. On April 14, the 28-year-old lefty threw the season’s second no-hitter (nearly a perfect game). In July, he made his first All-Star team, and he finished the season having set career bests in ERA (2.37), FIP (2.65) and WAR (4.9), numbers that all led the staff of the AL Central champions. Under normal circumstances, the availability of such a pitcher to start such an important game would be a godsend, but the combination of Rodón’s late-season bout of fatigue and Monday’s postponement due to rain gave manager Tony La Russa the option to reverse his previous decision and bring back Game 1 starter Lance Lynn on regular rest, a choice that Dan Szymborski tackled elsewhere on the site.

It’s been quite a comeback for Rodón, who just over a year ago appeared as though he might have reached the end of his run with the organization that drafted him with the number three overall pick out of North Carolina State in 2014. To one degree or another, he’s been beset by arm problems for nearly all of his major league career, to such a point that only once has he thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.

Rodón reached the majors less than a year after being drafted, but spent his first four seasons with performances that were right around league average in terms of ERA and FIP; he posted a 97 ERA- and 101 FIP- for the period and only once made more than 23 starts, topping out at 28 in 2016, a season in which he missed three weeks due to a left wrist sprain. The arm troubles showed up in 2017, when biceps tendinitis and bursitis in his shoulder limited him to 12 starts; recurring bursitis led to surgery that cost him the first two and a half months of 2018. Five weeks into the 2019 season, he wound up needing Tommy John surgery, and while he was ready to go to start the long-delayed, pandemic-shortened ’20 season, he made just two starts before being felled by shoulder soreness, then pitched just two innings in late September upon returning. The White Sox included him on their postseason roster, but in his lone appearance in Game 3 of the Wild Card Series against the A’s, he failed to retire any of the three Athletics he faced when summoned to protect a 3-2 lead with two outs in the fourth inning; the A’s took the lead, and while the White Sox came back to tie the game, they were ultimately eliminated. Read the rest of this entry »

The Dodgers’ AJ Pollock Is Picking up the Slack

When AJ Pollock went down with a Grade 2 right hamstring strain in early September, it wasn’t entirely clear that he would be available to the Dodgers for the postseason, let alone remain as productive as he’d been. Fortunately for Los Angeles, the 33-year-old left fielder made a quick return, hit reassuringly well over the season’s final days — .300/.389/.867 (214 wRC+) in 36 plate appearances post-injury — and is well-positioned to help pick up the slack for the injured Max Muncy, who dislocated his left elbow on the final day of the regular season. In Game 2 of the Division Series against the Giants on Saturday night, the Dodgers’ left fielder played a key role in all three of their rallies.

Pollock, who had taken a pair of 0-for-3s in the NL Wild Card game and the Division Series opener, first made an impact upon Game 2 as part of a move that backfired on the Giants. With two outs and Chris Taylor on second base in the second inning, he got ahead of Kevin Gausman 2-0 by laying off a 95-mph fastball just below the strike zone and then an 85-mph splitter low and away. Rather than challenge him in the zone and risk a big hit, the Giants elected to intentionally walk Pollock, who was batting eighth, to bring up pitcher Julio Urías, a decent hitter who made the Giants pay by driving in the Dodgers’ first run of the series with an RBI single. Pollock took third and then scored on Mookie Betts‘ single.

In the sixth, Cody Bellinger’s bases-loaded, two-run double off reliever Dominic Leone — who taken over for Gausman and made an inauspicious entry by walking Taylor — extended the Dodgers’ lead to 4-1. On Leone’s very next pitch, a slider right on the outside corner, Pollock reached out and lashed it to left field for another two-run double:

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Kyle Tucker in the Right Place at the Right Time in Astros’ Game 2 Win

Kyle Tucker enjoyed a breakout season this year, bashing 30 homers and leading the Astros with a 147 wRC+. Yet he’s been hitting as low as seventh in Houston’s order in an attempt to maximize the number of runners on base ahead of him in one of the game’s deepest lineups, a strategy that Owen McGrattan examined late last month. In Game 2 of the Division Series against the White Sox on Friday, that strategy paid off handsomely, with the 24-year-old slugger driving in three runs that bookended the Astros’ scoring, as well as making a key defensive play, in a 9–4 victory that will send the Astros to Chicago with a chance to sweep.

Thursday’s series opener featured Houston quickly getting ahead and Lance McCullers Jr. holding Chicago scoreless on one hit over the first six innings en route to a 6-1 victory. By contrast, Friday’s game was a wild back-and-forth affair, featuring four lead changes in the first seven innings. The Astros broke it open with a five-run seventh that was keyed by a couple of managerial moves that backfired and capped by Tucker’s two-run shot into Minute Maid Field’s Crawford Boxes.

Starters Framber Valdez and Lucas Giolito both dealt with considerable traffic as they worked through the opposing lineups the first two times, but things quickly unraveled as each attempted a third pass. While both bullpens allowed inherited runners to score, the Astros kept the White Sox scoreless the rest of the way as their offense went to town for those five runs.

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The Yankees Need a Remake, But Their Flexibility Is Limited

After finishing first or second in in the American League in scoring in each of the past four seasons, the 2021 Yankees were supposed to be yet another iteration of the Bronx Bombers. Yet this time around, they scored just 4.39 runs per game, good only for 10th in the league. When they lined up for their do-or-die appearance in the Wild Card Game behind Gerrit Cole, they did so with a lineup featuring just four hitters with a wRC+ of 100 or better, two of whom didn’t join the organization until the trade deadline. After an abrupt exit from the playoffs at the hands of the Red Sox, the question of where the Yankees go from here looms particularly large, but for all the “if the Boss were alive” shrieking from some quarters — fans and media hot-take artistes alike — a radical overhaul of the roster this winter doesn’t appear likely.

For years, the Yankees have relied upon a model of power and patience for their offense, accepting the high strikeout rates that come with it as the cost of doing business. The model worked well enough when juiced baseballs were flying out of parks at record rates; they set single-season team home run records in both 2017 and ’18 and blew past those marks in ’19 even as the Twins edged them by a single dinger.

The Decline of the Yankees’ Offense
Season R/G Rk HR Rk K% Rk AVG Rk OBP Rk SLG Rk wRC+ Rk WAR Rk
2017 5.30 2 241 1 21.8% 10 .262 3 .339 2 .447 3 109 2 29.2 2
2018 5.25 2 267 1 22.7% 11 .249 8 .329 4 .451 2 112 1 31.4 3
2019 5.82 1 306 2 23.0% 7 .267 4 .339 3 .490 3 117 2 32.8 2
2020 5.25 1 94 2 21.7% 3 .247 6 .342 1 .447 2 117 1 9.9 2
2021 4.39 10 222 3 24.5% 12 .237 13 .322 5 .407 7 101 7 18.2 7
Rk = American League rank

Amid the backdrop of the de-juiced ball, the Yankees still placed third in the league in homers, but their overall offense was far less potent. Where the major league rate of home runs per plate appearance declined by about 5.5% relative to 2020, theirs dipped by 12%, and that’s with a reasonably full season from Giancarlo Stanton, who clubbed 35 homers in 139 games after being limited to 23 games in 2020. Even with that rebound, injuries deprived the team of some big bats and led to inferior replacements.

Yankees Primary Position Players 2020 vs. 2021
Player PA 20 AVG/OBP/SLG 20 wRC+ 20 PA 21 AVG/OBP/SLG 21 wRC+ 21 wRC+ Dif
Gary Sánchez 178 .147/.253/.365 69 440 .204/.307/.423 99 30
Tyler Wade 105 .170/.288/.307 69 145 .268/.354/.323 92 23
Miguel Andújar 65 .242/.277/.355 71 162 .253/.284/.383 81 10
Aaron Judge 114 .257/.336/.554 140 633 .287/.373/.544 148 8
Giancarlo Stanton 94 .250/.387/.500 143 579 .273/.354/.516 137 -6
Gleyber Torres 160 .243/.356/.368 106 516 .259/.331/.366 94 -12
Brett Gardner 158 .223/.354/.392 111 461 .222/.327/.362 93 -18
Kyle Higashioka 48 .250/.250/.521 102 211 .181/.246/.389 71 -31
Gio Urshela 174 .298/.368/.490 133 442 .267/.301/.419 96 -37
Luke Voit 234 .277/.338/.61 153 241 .239/.328/.437 111 -42
Aaron Hicks 211 .225/.379/.414 124 126 .194/.294/.333 76 -48
Clint Frazier 160 .267/.394/.511 149 218 .186/.317/.317 82 -67
DJ LeMahieu 216 .364/.421/.590 177 679 .268/.349/.362 100 -77
Rougned Odor 361 .202/.286/.379 83 n/a
Joey Gallo 228 .160/.303/.404 95 n/a
Anthony Rizzo 200 .249/.34/.428 113 n/a

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Gerrit Cole’s Wild Card Dud Was the End of a Longer Slide

When the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole to a nine-year, $324 million deal in December 2019, they envisioned him contending for Cy Young awards and pitching do-or-die games in October. They likely didn’t imagine those would be Wild Card games, however, nor did they foresee the ace right-hander taking an early exit before things really got out of hand, but that’s just what happened on Tuesday night in Fenway Park. On the heels of a strong but uneven season that may yet garner him a Cy Young award, Cole fizzled, surrendering a pair of homers and retiring just six of the 12 Red Sox he faced before departing with a 3-0 deficit. The Yankees’ offense was kept at bay by opposite number Nathan Eovaldi and the four relievers that followed, and the Red Sox advanced with a 6-2 victory.

Cole pitched about as well as any American League starter this year, posting the highest strikeout rate (33.5%) and strikeout-to-walk differential (27.8%) among ERA qualifiers, and finishing second in both flavors of WAR, trailing only Eovaldi in FanGraphs’ version, 5.6 to 5.3, and the Blue Jays’ Robby Ray in Baseball Reference’s version, 6.7 to 5.6. His 2.92 FIP ranked second behind Eovaldi’s 2.79, while his 3.23 ERA placed third behind Ray’s 2.84 and Lance McCullers‘ 3.16. Cole also had the lowest xERA of any AL qualifier (3.15).

Even so, the 31-year-old righty entered Tuesday night with at least some cause for concern. He left his September 7 start after 3.2 innings due to tightness in his left hamstring, and while he was solid enough in his return a week later — five innings, seven strikeouts, and one run on 108 pitches against the Orioles — he was cuffed for five homers and 15 runs in 17.2 innings over his final three starts. One of those was actually solid enough; he threw five shutout innings against the Red Sox in Fenway Park on September 24 as the Yankees built a 7-0 lead, then allowed a three-run homer to Rafael Devers in his final inning of work.

The late-season funk was deep enough to generate questions about which version of Cole would show up on Tuesday night, but unfortunately for the Yankees, the question was settled early. Kyle Schwarber sent a 103-mph rocket to center field on Cole’s fifth pitch, a 98.2-mph four-seam fastball that was more or less in the middle of the plate. Brett Gardner caught it for an out, but the missed location and the quality of contact didn’t bode well for the pitcher. After getting Enrique Hernández to pop out, Cole avoided the strike zone altogether against Devers, and walked him on six pitches. He then fell behind Xander Bogaerts, 2-1, before leaving a changeup in the middle of the zone; the slugging shortstop hammered the ball 427 feet to dead center for a two-run homer:

Per Baseball Savant, it was just the third time in his career that Cole served up a home run to a right-handed hitter on a changeup, and the first time in over four years. His first two came while pitching for the Pirates, first on May 5, 2014 against the Nationals’ Ian Desmond, and then on September 17, 2017 against the Reds’ Eugenio Suárez.

Pitch choice and location aside, it was an all-too-familiar spot for Cole to wind up in. During the first inning of his starts this year, batters hit .265/.317/.521 for a .354 wOBA against him, accounting for seven of the 24 homers he served up. His ERA in the first inning was 4.80, compared to 2.91 in all other frames. Tuesday was a bad time to hold form in that regard.

In the second inning, Cole had to work around a one-out double by Kevin Plawecki, who hit a 105-mph rocket off the center field wall on a 98.5 mph fastball that again caught too much of the zone. Cole recovered to strike out both Bobby Dalbec and Christian Arroyo, the former looking at a 3-2 slider that was actually off the outside corner, and the latter swinging at high cheese. To start the third, he got ahead of Schwarber 0-2, but after missing way outside with a changeup, he came back with a 97.4 mph four-seamer above the zone. The Boston slugger went and got the cheese, schwarbing it to right field at a 110.3-mph clip for a solo homer.

After a soft infield hit to the third base side by Hernández, and then a six-pitch walk to Devers, Cole’s night was done; manager Aaron Boone pulled the plug before the Yankees’ inconsistent offense, which managed just six runs during the team’s final three games of the regular season as it squandered home-field advantage for this game, had to dig out of a bigger hole. Clay Holmes extricated the Yankees from the jam with a strikeout of Bogaerts and a double play ball off the bat of Alex Verdugo. The Yankees made a game of it, trimming the lead to 3-1 in the sixth, but a bad send by third base coach Phil Nevin and a great throw by Bogaerts left Aaron Judge hung out to dry at home plate on the second of Giancarlo Stanton’s two long singles off the Green Monster. The Red Sox never let them get any closer.

It wasn’t that Cole lacked his typical velocity; his 97.8 mph average four-seamer was a whisker ahead of his season average. His 18% swinging strike rate and 34% CSW rate were both above his season averages as well. Yet his command was lacking; he threw far too many noncompetitive pitches, particularly fastballs:

Worse, when Cole got to two strikes, he couldn’t close the deal:

Ouch. Three of the four batted balls of 100 mph or higher that he allowed came with two strikes.

Afterwards, Cole refused to blame his hamstring or his bout of COVID-19 for his late-season woes, telling reporters, “At the end of the season, we are all going through and wearing whatever we’ve had to overcome to get to this point. You know, the other team is dealing with the same kind of situation.” He noted that it wasn’t so much that his fastball command was unreliable, as he generated three popups with it; that Schwarber had to expand his zone to reach the homer; and that his changeup got hit hard. “When it’s all said and done, there wasn’t one pitch that was good enough because we didn’t get the job done,” he said.

Asked whether he could put his finger on what happened over the last month, Cole didn’t offer a blanket explanation, saying “Evaluate each game individually… It just wasn’t the same answer every time.”

In terms of batters faced, Cole’s start was the sixth-shortest in Wild Card game history:

Shortest Wild Card Game Starts by Batters Faced
Pitcher Tm Opp Year IP H R BB SO HR BF
Liam Hendriks OAK NYY 2018 1.0 1 2 1 1 1 5
Luis Severino NYY MIN 2017 0.1 4 3 1 0 2 6
Sean Manaea OAK TBR 2019 2.0 4 4 0 5 3 10
Jon Gray COL ARI 2017 1.1 7 4 0 2 1 11
Ervin Santana MIN NYY 2017 2.0 3 4 2 0 2 11
Gerrit Cole NYY BOS 2021 2.0 4 3 2 3 2 12
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Four of those six starts involved the Yankees, who have made too much a habit of traveling this route into October by playing in four of the last six AL Wild Card games. Two of the above starts came in the same game in 2017; after the Twins chased Severino, the Yankees chased Santana and rallied to win while the bullpen held Minnesota to a single run over 8.2 innings.

That list is no place to be, and a start like Cole’s will be a tough one to live down given that it occurred within one of the game’s most heated rivalries, and against the backdrop of the Yankees’ relative lack of postseason success in recent years. They’ve exited before the ALCS in seven of the past nine seasons, and haven’t won the World Series since 2009, an eternity by the franchise’s standards.

Cole’s start will be cited as evidence of his fall from grace after a strong first two months to 2021, though the reality is a bit more complicated. Undoubtedly, his season was a clear step down from 2019, when he delivered a 2.50 ERA, 2.64 FIP, 39.9% strikeout rate, and 7.5 WAR for an Astros team that came within one win of a championship. But judged by everything except his 2.84 ERA, Cole’s 2021 season was a step up from last year’s shortened campaign; driven by a home run rate that ballooned to 1.73 per nine between seasons of 1.2 per nine on either side, his FIP rose to 3.89 in 2020 while his strikeout rate dipped to 32.6%, still good for third in the AL.

Cole’s 2021 season had two obvious points of inflection that conveniently segment his body of work into thirds, more or less: the crackdown on pitchers’ use of foreign substances, which was first reported on June 3, though enforcement didn’t begin until a few weeks later, and the pitcher’s positive test for COVID-19, a breakthrough infection that was reported on August 3 and that sidelined him for over two weeks.

Here’s how his season looks by the basics:

Gerrit Cole’s 2021 Season in Segments
Thru June 2 11 70.2 36.9% 3.4% 0.64 .298 1.78 1.77
June 3-July 29 10 59.2 31.7% 7.6% 1.81 .281 4.68 4.09
August 16 on 9 51.0 31.3% 6.1% 1.24 .341 3.53 3.15
After June 2 19 110.2 31.5% 6.9% 1.55 .309 4.15 3.31

One could argue that the hamstring issue marked another point of inflection, but I’m not sure how useful breaking the last part into segments of four and five starts — the first of which featured a lights-out 0.73 ERA and 1.02 FIP between his return from illness and his early exit — is in the grand scheme.

All of Cole’s numbers declined after the specter of sticky stuff enforcement reared its head, but as you can see, his ERA was half a run worse than his peripherals suggested, owing something to a lousy defense that ranked 27th in the majors in DRS (-63) and 25th in OAA runs prevented (-13); by the latter, Cole’s -3 runs placed him in just the 16th percentile among all pitchers.

Getting back to the leaderboard comparisons, Cole’s 31.5% strikeout rate and 24.6% strikeout-walk differential form June 3 onward both would have ranked third in the AL, his 3.66 FIP seventh, 16 percent better than league average, his 2.2 WAR tied for eighth. Relative rankings of that order would have registered as something of a disappointment had they been maintained over the course of a season, as the Yankees aren’t paying Cole to be merely a top-10 AL pitcher — and the team would have finished outside the playoff picture.

And now, a closer look at his Statcast numbers:

Gerrit Cole’s 2021 Season in Segments, Statcast Version
Date FFv Spin EV LA Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
Through June 2 97.2 2560 90.3 13.8 7.1% 41.7% .238 .195 .366 .347 .275 .252
June 3-July 29 98.1 2368 88.7 12.7 11.3% 37.7% .194 .239 .366 .425 .267 .316
August 16 on 97.8 2422 86.9 10.7 11.3% 36.1% .242 .229 .463 .472 .308 .313
After June 2 98.0 2393 87.9 11.8 11.3% 37.0% .218 .234 .415 .448 .287 .314
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

There’s no getting around the fact that Cole’s four-seam fastball spin rate dropped conspicuously after news of the crackdown emerged; his spin-to-velocity ratio (SVR) dropped from 26.3 to 24.4 in that same span. Even before the league began enforcing the ban on foreign substances via the umpire checks, he made headlines first for his awkward answer when asked directly whether he used Spider Tack on June 8, and then for his complaints about the difficulty of gripping the ball on June 16. Cole, who serves on the executive subcommittee of the Players Association and has spoken up about various labor matters such as service time manipulation and competitive balance, was hardly alone in discussing grip issues, or in calling for the league to incorporate player input into the new rules; among frontline hurlers, the likes of Tyler Glasnow, Max Scherzer, and (ugh) Trevor Bauer spoke up as well.

Among pitchers with at least 150 four-seam fastballs thrown before June 3 and 300 after that date, Cole had the 16th-largest spin rate drop, putting him in the 89th percentile of that group:

Fastball Velocity and Spin Rate, Before and After Crackdown
Pitcher Spin1 Spin2 Dif Velo1 Velo2 Dif SVR1 SVR2 Dif
Burch Smith 2521 2143 -378 93.2 93.6 0.4 27.0 22.9 -4.1
Madison Bumgarner 2494 2136 -358 91.1 89.7 -1.4 27.4 23.8 -3.6
James Karinchak 2452 2190 -262 95.9 95.9 0.0 25.6 22.8 -2.8
Walker Buehler 2630 2374 -256 95.3 95.4 0.1 27.6 24.9 -2.7
J.P. Feyereisen 2631 2405 -226 93.6 92.8 -0.8 28.1 25.9 -2.2
Richard Rodríguez 2583 2358 -225 92.9 93.2 0.3 27.8 25.3 -2.5
Garrett Richards 2586 2368 -218 94.1 94.4 0.3 27.5 25.1 -2.4
Shohei Ohtani 2345 2147 -198 95.6 95.6 0.0 24.5 22.5 -2.0
Tyler Anderson 2416 2222 -194 90.1 90.9 0.8 26.8 24.4 -2.4
Jake McGee 2261 2070 -191 94.4 95.1 0.7 24.0 21.8 -2.2
Tyler Mahle 2468 2278 -190 94.3 93.9 -0.4 26.2 24.3 -1.9
Spencer Howard 2279 2094 -185 94.7 94 -0.7 24.1 22.3 -1.8
Casey Mize 2257 2083 -174 94.4 93.5 -0.9 23.9 22.3 -1.6
Brad Boxberger 2506 2335 -171 93.7 93.4 -0.3 26.7 25.0 -1.7
Drew Smyly 2180 2012 -168 92.5 91.7 -0.8 23.6 21.9 -1.7
Gerrit Cole 2560 2393 -167 97.2 98 0.8 26.3 24.4 -1.9
James Kaprielian 2166 2005 -161 92.7 93.1 0.4 23.4 21.5 -1.9
Jordan Romano 2503 2346 -157 97 97.8 0.8 25.8 24.0 -1.8
Josh Sborz 2435 2282 -153 96.4 96.9 0.5 25.3 23.6 -1.7
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 150 four-seam fastballs thrown before June 3 (set 1), and 300 thrown after that dat (set 2). SVR = spin-to-velocity ratio.

Cole’s drop in four-seam spin rate from June 3 onward was about 2.5 times the major league average of 68 rpm (from 2,319 rpm to 2,251). Similarly, his drop in SVR was about 2.6 times the major league average of 0.7 (from 24.7 to 24.0). Cole isn’t the only awards candidate on that leaderboard, as the names of Buehler and Ohtani stand out. As you can see, the changes affected pitchers with more fastball spin than Cole (who ranks in the 91st percentile in that category) and with much less. In terms of SVR — a category in which Cole placed in the 82nd percentile among qualifiers during the first part of the season — his drop was the 10th largest (93rd percentile).

Results-wise, the numbers in the table prior to that one show that Cole’s velocity actually increased beyond the first leg of his season, and his spin rate rebounded somewhat. Both his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate fell relative to that first leg, though his barrel rate did rise substantially. What’s more, where his actual batting average and slugging percentage were higher than his expected numbers during the first leg, they were lower during the other two legs save for a slightly higher batting average than expected in the third leg. Taken as a whole, his gaps between actual and expected stats were very small and right in line with his career norms, suggesting that at least some of the fluctuations had less to do with any particular changes than to sample size and randomness:

Gerrit Cole Actual vs. Expected Batting
Year AVG xBA dif SLG xSLG dif wOBA xwOBA dif
2015 .239 .239 .000 .336 .367 -.031 .274 .291 -.017
2016 .289 .263 .026 .410 .371 .039 .326 .304 .022
2017 .254 .254 .000 .434 .423 .011 .315 .314 .001
2018 .198 .197 .001 .332 .335 -.003 .265 .270 -.005
2019 .186 .180 .006 .343 .315 .028 .246 .237 .009
2020 .197 .196 .001 .405 .377 .028 .279 .271 .008
2021 .223 .207 .016 .372 .363 .009 .276 .272 .004
Total .226 .220 .006 .371 .363 .008 .281 .280 .001
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Crackdown-wise, this is not meant to be an indictment of Cole given the number of pitchers who were apparently using foreign substances, or who experienced spin drop-offs from the first third of the season to the remainder, whether with regards to their fastballs or other pitches. He had points in his season following the ban where he pitched brilliantly, and he was hardly facing a cupcake schedule; by Baseball Reference’s RA9Opp calculations, which measure the park-adjusted scoring rates of the teams a pitcher faces in the service of that version of WAR, his opponents’ 4.96 runs per game was the highest among AL ERA qualifiers.

Still the performance numbers are what they are, and taken together with the disappointing end to Cole’s season, we — and he and the Yankees, more to the point — are left with more questions than answers as to what happened, both on Tuesday night and in the bigger picture, and where his performance goes from here. Like Clayton Kershaw, the only pitcher with four losses in potential elimination games (Cole is tied for second with three alongside eight other pitchers including CC Sabathia, Max Scherzer, and Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson), he may have to endure the weight of the can’t-win-the-big-one tag until he wins one.

In a league where the last five Cy Young winners either didn’t pitch enough innings or were entirely out of the league, and where no one pitcher dominated enough categories to make a clear-cut case, Cole may yet bring home the award that eluded him in 2019, when teammate Justin Verlander narrowly beat him out. Such hardware could be cold comfort in the aftermath of the Yankees’ elimination. He’s hardly alone in terms of blame for the team’s precarious entry to the playoffs or its swift exit, but of all the players in pinstripes, Cole’s upcoming winter might feel the longest.

Postseason Preview: The 2021 NL Wild Card Game

Editor’s Note: You can find the Dodgers and Cardinals Wild Card rosters and announced lineups here and here.

While it’s not the blood rivalry Yankees-Red Sox pairing of the AL Wild Card Game, the NL Wild Card matchup does not lack for story lines. The Dodgers are the reigning World Series winners, and despite tying the franchise record for wins (106), finishing with the majors’ best run differential (+269) and outperforming last year’s 43–17 juggernaut over their final 60 (45–15), they finished second to the upstart Giants by a single game, ending their eight-year run of NL West titles. They’re just the third 100-win team to wind up as a Wild Card, after the 2002 A’s (102 wins), who didn’t have to play a do-or-die game, and the 2018 Yankees (100 wins), who won theirs. That their season comes down to a single game despite their dominance over the long haul is either evidence that the current playoff format needs overhaul or that it’s perfect as is; you’re guaranteed to hear both points of view somewhere in the run-up to the game, and probably during and after as well.

The Cardinals (90-72) are the upstart comeback kids. Beset by injuries to an already-thin rotation, they were just 51–51 at the July 30 trade deadline, and their acquisitions of the well-shellacked Jon Lester and J.A. Happ drew more snickers than raves. They were below .500 as late as August 8 (55–56), at which point their Playoff Odds were a season-low 1.3%. Thanks in significant part to the league’s strongest defense and a suddenly-lively offense, they went 35–16 the rest of the way, better than all but the Giants (36–14) and Dodgers (39–11). While they were still just 69–68 as late as September 7, they embarked upon a 17-game winning streak, the longest in franchise history and in the NL since the 1935 Cubs won 21. The streak turned what looked to be a hectic five-team race for the second Wild Card spot into a laugher; St. Louis won going away, clinching on September 28 and outdoing the next-closest team, the Reds, by seven games. The 2.8% odds the Cardinals had on September 7 now stand as the lowest September mark of any team that has rallied to make the playoffs since 2014.

Beyond all of that and a marquee pitching matchup between Max Scherzer and Adam Wainwright, there’s the inevitable discussion of these two teams crossing paths in the postseason, where the Cardinals have gotten the upper hand four out of five times, leaving Dodgers fans smarting in the 1985 NLCS (Ozzie Smith, Jack Clark, Tom Niedenfuer) and the 2013 NLCS and ’14 NLDS (Clayton Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Carpenter, and so on). That Kershaw wouldn’t have been the choice to start this one — he’s on the sidelines for October due to yet another bout of forearm discomfort — might only partially quell the anxiety of Dodgers fans given the continued presence of Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Oh, and Albert Pujols is here, too, albeit on the other side of the equation.

For as rich as those storylines may be, they’re not the same as actual analysis. There’s only so much one can do for a single game, but it’s worth touching on a few points. Read the rest of this entry »

Team Entropy 2021: Six Ways to Sunday

This is the sixth installment of this year’s Team Entropy series, my recurring look not only at the races for the remaining playoff spots but the potential for end-of-season chaos in the form of down-to-the-wire suspense and even tiebreakers. Ideally, we want more ties than the men’s department at Macy’s. If you’re new to this, please read the introduction here.

As noted in the boilerplate introduction above, it is the primary goal of the Team Entropy project to root for extra baseball beyond the 162-game regular season. While the complicated scenarios involving more than a single isolated head-to-head tiebreaker game may be farfetched, appreciating the sense of possibility for greater things as events unfold is part of the package. This is as much about the journey as it is the destination, which so often remains abstract. There have been just three winner-take-all tiebreaker games played since I began this project in 2011.

The secondary goal of the Team Entropy project, and part of appreciating that sense of possibility, is to have at least some portion of the playoff picture at stake on the final day of the season. On that note, we have already achieved some level of success, as we enter the final day of the 2021 season with four teams still battling for the two AL Wild Card berths — one of which is attempting to make its first postseason in 20 years — and with the NL West title still in doubt as teams with 106 and 105 wins attempt to avoid a do-or-die Wild Card game. Read the rest of this entry »

Jay Jaffe FanGraphs Chat – 10/1/21

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Good afternoon, folks, and welcome to the first Joctober edition of my chat

Avatar Jay Jaffe: It was a busy week for me here! Today I’ve got a Team Entropy update with a focus on the Mariners’ Pythagenpat-defying clutch goodness

Avatar Jay Jaffe: And also a podcast spot with Fred C. Harris, co-author of one of my longtime favorite baseball books, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubblegum Book…

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Yesterday I looked at Devin Williams’ ill-timed, wrong-handed punch of a wall…

Avatar Jay Jaffe: and on Wednesday, I dug into the NL MVP race…

Dan: Any suggestions on steps to learn R/Python with an end goal of executing baseball queries? I’ve started with a YouTube course, but wanted to see your opinion. Thank you!

Read the rest of this entry »