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The Marlins Are Bad Enough to Have a Shot at History

Do you remember what you were doing last Saturday night, at about 7:45 pm Eastern? Perhaps it was a memorable occasion, a fancy dinner with your significant other. Maybe it was a round of drinks with your buddies to launch a raucous evening on the town, or just a lazy, relaxing weekend day that leaked into dusk. The Marlins surely remember where they were at that moment, because that was the last time they scored a run.

Indeed, it’s been a bleak week-plus for the Miami nine. They’ve lost seven games in a row, and so their theoretical highlight reel for the May 7-16 period would consist of a rainout and two off days. They scored a grand total of eight runs in that span, never more than two in a game in a stretch that includes back-to-back walk-off losses to the Cubs and back-to-back shutouts by the Rays. Did I mention that it’s been a full week since the last Marlins position player drove in a run, or 11 days since one of their players homered? Or that it’s the team’s only homer this month, hit by a 29-year-old rookie named Jon Berti? I kid you not.

Ladies and gentlemen, the 2019 Marlins are awful. On the heels of a 63-98 season, their first in a teardown carried out under the Bruce Sherman/Derek Jeter regime, we knew that they would be bad; our preseason forecast called for a 63-99 record. We did not envision them slipping below the Throneberry Line, the .250 winning percentage of the 1962 Mets, but at 10-31 (.244), that’s where the Marvelous Marlins are.

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Jay Jaffe FanGraphs Chat – 5/16/19

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Good afternoon and welcome to another edition of my (mostly) weekly FanGraphs chat. I’m going to take a couple minutes to let the queue fill up; in the meantime, here’s yesterday’s piece on Tommy La Stella, who made me look smart by homering again just hours after its publication…

Avatar Jay Jaffe: And here’s about 30 minutes of me discussing baseball on the Wharton Moneyball podcast…

Big Joe Mufferaw: Do you think Jeter gets 100% like Mo?

Avatar Jay Jaffe: It *should* happen; lousy fielding metrics aside, there’s no defensible reason why a professional who has done his homework would neglect to include a player who ranks among the all-time top 10 in hits while playing a pivotal role on five championship teams and seven pennant winners, that while completing the feat of spending 20 years in the Big Apple spotlight without getting involved in any notable scandal.

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Will it happen? it’s entirely possible some asshole out there holds a grudge, and let’s face it, Jeter isn’t winning any friends in his current gig running the Marlins. But if I had to bet, I’d bet yes, he gets 100%

Big Joe Mufferaw: Can you explain to me why writers treat Steroid offenders differently? Like voters will hate Palmeiro and Sosa, but chose to completely ignore Ortiz’s failed test for example. Is it because of how they like the guy? His Career? I don’t understand

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Tommy La Stella is Doing Mike Trout-like Things

Just as we all predicted in spring training, Tommy La Stella has taken over the Angels’ lead in home runs, surpassing Mike Trout. Wait, what?

You’re forgiven if you haven’t been paying much attention to the Angels, who are 20-22, haven’t been more than a game above .500 all season, and are now more than a month removed from their last time at that plateau. Trout was impossibly hot to start the season, but he cooled off, and Shohei Ohtani only made his 2019 debut last week, albeit without the novelty of double duty due to his Tommy John surgery. The Ohtani-less rotation has been dead-last dreadful, with practically everybody carrying ERAs and FIPs in the 5.00s, 6.00s, and 7.00s, or else on the injured list, and there’s been no heroic career turnaround for Matt Harvey, to say the least. Albert Pujols just passed the 2,000 RBI milestone, but he’s a shadow of his former self, and who cares about RBI, right?

Into this less-than-compelling spotlight has stepped La Stella, a 30-year-old lefty-swinging infielder who entered this season best known for his pinch-hitting prowess (.278/.397/.386 in 193 PA) and the Cubs’ gentle handling of his mid-2016 walkabout, the kind of thing that could have ended his career. The Angels acquired him last November 29 in exchange for a player to be named later (lefty reliever Conor Lillis-White) who has yet to throw a competitive inning in 2019, and are paying him all of $1.35 million. In our preseason Positional Power Rankings, we forecast La Stella to receive just 77 plate appearances as the Angels’ second baseman behind David Fletcher, with another 105 at third base behind Zack Cozart, and 14 at designated hitter. Given that he’d hit just 10 homers and produced a 96 wRC+ (.264/.345/.366) and 2.0 WAR in 947 career plate appearances — including just one homer and an 86 wRC+ in 192 PA last year — he wasn’t on anybody’s radar as a potential impact player.

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Injury Has Interrupted the Rare Jose Altuve Slump

A rough stretch for Jose Altuve has hit a new bump. The Astros’ second baseman, who has been scuffling considerably for the past three weeks, left Friday night’s game during the first inning shortly after legging out an infield hit. While manager A.J. Hinch called the injury a “slight strain of his hamstring,” the team has opted to play it safe by placing the 29-year-old former MVP on the injured list for just the second time in his career, thus forestalling the end of his current slump.

Via’s Brian McTaggart, “Altuve said he felt his muscle tighten when he was running to first base and then became worried when the hamstring continued to bother him while he was getting his secondary lead off first base.” Rather than sit Altuve for a few days, the Astros opted to replace him on the active roster. Said Hinch:

“When you have these three-, five-, seven-day injuries, they always last longer than you think. We’ve gone through this with [Altuve] before. We’ve gone through this with Alex [Bregman]. We went through this with George [Springer]. These quads and hammies and calves, as soon as you think it’s four or five days, you probably should err on the side of caution and put them on the injured list and play with a full team.”

With a 27-15 record and a 6.5-game lead in the AL West through Monday, the Astros can afford to be cautious, particularly if the break provides Altuve a chance to reset his season. A six-time All-Star and a career .314/.364/.454 hitter, he’s batting a meager .169/.289/.299 over his past 90 plate appearances, dating back to April 17. Propped up by nine homers — compared to 13 all last season — his overall batting line (.243/.329/.472 in 164 plate appearances) is still respectable; his 119 wRC+ is tied for sixth among all second basemen, just seven points below his career mark and 16 points below last year. The likes of Brian Dozier (.197/.301/.331, 72 wRC+) or Robinson Cano (.261/.315/.399, 97 wRC+) would gladly swap stats, though in the context of Altuve’s career, the shape of his current production is somewhat unsettling. Read the rest of this entry »

Hyun-Jin Ryu Has Stepped Up His Game

The Dodgers have an injury-prone lefty who’s been dominating hitters lately, and it’s not Clayton Kershaw. Nor is it Rich Hill — it’s Hyun-Jin Ryu. The 32-year-old South Korea-born southpaw has yet to allow more than two runs in any of his eight starts (one of which, admittedly, was curtailed by a groin strain), and lately, he’s been utterly stifling. On May 1, he threw eight innings of four-hit one-run ball against the Giants. On May 7, he threw a four-hit shutout of the Braves. On Sunday in Los Angeles, he no-hit the Nationals for 7.1 innings before Gerardo Parra — who on Saturday night hit a game-winning grand slam — clubbed a ground-rule double that proved to be the Nationals’ only hit of the day.

Here’s some good company:

Though Ryu wasn’t as efficient as in his previous turn, where his 93-pitch outing gave him the season’s second Maddux, after Kyle Hendricks‘ 81-pitch job on May 3, he had allowed only one baserunner to the point of Parra’s hit, via a fourth-inning walk issued to former teammate Brian Dozier. He had served up just two hard-hit balls, a 99.1 lineout off the bat of Kurt Suzuki in the second inning, and a 95.5 mph fly ball from Anthony Rendon in the fourth, and had been the beneficiary of every no-hit bid’s seemingly obligatory defensive gem. In the sixth inning, Stephen Strasburg appeared to have singled to right field… only to be thrown out at first base by right fielder Cody Bellinger (it’s just after the one-minute mark here):

Alas, the lefty-hitting Parra, who earlier this month drew his release by the Giants and entered the day hitting an anemic .194/.276/.290, sliced a 98.0 mph drive to the warning track in left centerfield, where it bounced over the wall for the Nationals’ first and only hit of the day. That was Ryu’s 105th pitch of the afternoon; he completed the frame having thrown 116 pitches, the highest total of his MLB career.

Completing the no-hitter had seemed like an unlikely proposition; Ryu had finished the seventh inning at 98 pitches. Given the 24 pitches he burned in the fourth (including eight on Adam Eaton’s leadoff groundout), he appeared hellbent on testing the length of manager Dave Roberts‘ leash. Since taking the reins of the Dodgers for the 2016 season, Roberts has been at the forefront of a growing trend of pulling pitchers with no-hitters in progress (forget the openers, we’re talking those of at least five innings). His total of three in that span is tied with the Marlins’ Don Mattingly for the MLB high. Roberts famously gave the hook to Ross Stripling after 7.1 no-hit innings on April 8, 2016, then removed Hill after seven perfect innings on September 10 of that season, and told Walker Buehler to hit the showers on May 4 of last season; three relievers helped the rookie finish the job.

What’s more, Ryu had never thrown more than 114 pitches in a stateside start, and had been above 105 only twice in the past three seasons: 108 pitches against the Padres on August 12, 2017, and 107 pitches in the aforementioned May 1 start. “I’m not sure there’s a pitcher/manager combo alive less likely to push him through 9 just to try for a no hitter,” tweeted’s Mike Petriello. Roberts suggested that he would have been more flexible…

…which was easy to say in hindsight, but anyway, enough about the manager. The pitcher struck out nine to go with his one walk and one hit, generating 14 swings and misses, including seven via his changeup and four via his cutter. In doing so, he lowered his ERA to 1.72, second in the NL; he’s tied for third in FIP (2.71), and ranks fifth in WAR (1.5). Most impressive within his stat line is his 54-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 52.1 innings. That’s a 28.6% strikeout rate (eighth in the NL) and a league-low 1.6% walk rate; his 27.0% K-BB% is third.

Combine that stingy walk rate with a .230 BABIP (second in the league, thanks in large part to the Dodgers’ stellar defense thus far) and you’ve got a pitcher who rarely has anybody on base. I haven’t played fantasy baseball in nearly a decade, so I seldom look at stats like WHIP or strand rate for even casual purposes, but dig: his 0.726 WHIP is second in the majors behind only Chris Paddack (0.689), while his 94.6% strand rate is in a virtual tie with Justin Verlander for the highest mark of the post-strike era. Blake Snell (88.0% last year) and Kershaw (87.8% in 2017) own the highest marks among full-season ERA qualifiers, while Pedro Martinez (86.0% in 2000) and Zack Greinke (86.5% in 2015) are tops among those who reached 200 innings.

Putting this in more analytical terms, albeit with the usual sample size caveats, here’s a scatter plot of pitcher performance (wOBA allowed) with the bases empty versus when men are on base:

Ryu is the red dot, Paddack the yellow one (the Padres righty is one of the reasons I had to lower the threshold of batters faced with men on base).

This is actually the second season in a row that Ryu has ranked among the majors’ stingiest pitchers. Last year, in 15 starts, he posted a 1.97 ERA and 3.00 FIP, with a 27.5 % strikeout rate and 4.6% walk rate. He missed 3.5 months due to a left groin strain so severe its description included the cringe-inducing phrase “tore muscle off the bone,” but he did not require surgery. That was just the latest in a string of injuries that has dogged the burly lefty since coming over from Korea, most notably a torn labrum that cost him all of 2015 and the first half of ’16, then elbow woes that culminated in debridement surgery after he made just one start in the latter season. Only in his 2013 rookie season did he make 30 starts or qualify for the ERA title, yet he owns a career 3.11 ERA and 3.36 FIP. Among the 112 pitchers with at least 600 innings in that span, his 82 ERA- ranks 17th, his 85 FIP- 18th, but because of his less-than-perfect attendance, he’s a modest 47th in WAR (11.9).

Ryu doesn’t have exceptional velocity; per Statcast, his four-seamer’s 90.4 mph average velo ranks in the 11th percentile as does his fastball spin. He’s in the middle of the pack as far as exit velocity (87.7 mph) and hard hit rate (38.8%) are concerned too. His 11.7% swinging strike rate is in the 66th percentile, though his 34.5% chase rate is in the 81st percentile. As The Athletic’s Eno Sarris pointed out last week, he’s the rare pitcher who has above-average command of five different pitches according to Stats LLC’s new Command+ metric, along with Marco Gonzales, Merrill Kelly, Mike Leake (who has six such pitches), Max Scherzer, and Noah Syndergaard; for Ryu, that would be his four-seamer, sinker, cutter, changeup, and curve. Obviously, that group includes a couple of impressive names, but it’s nonetheless a mixed bag, and only tells us so much.

The exceptional results Ryu has been getting owe a considerable debt to his changeup and cutter. The former, which he throws 22.0% of the time, averages just 79.1 mph according to Pitch Info, giving him more than 10 mph of separation from the, uh, heater. It falls out of the zone more often than not, batters can’t resist chasing it, and when they make contact, they tend to hit it on the ground. His results are more or less on par with the two young changeup artists I covered last week, Luis Castillo and Chris Paddack; he allows fewer baserunners with the pitch thanks to the low walk rate, but gets hit a little harder:

Some Damn Good Changeups
Pitcher PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA xwOBA EV GB% O-Swing% Zone% SwStr%
Ryu 2018 65 .177 .203 .274 .194 .229 79.9 37.2% 49.3% 34.8% 23.0%
Ryu 2019 60 .121 .133 .207 .146 .251 83.1 55.8% 56.4% 39.5% 20.4%
Castillo 85 .110 .190 .121 .152 .141 80.8 68.6% 54.2% 24.4% 31.1%
Paddack 63 .138 .206 .155 .172 .219 83.5 66.7% 51.2% 36.6% 21.3%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant
wOBA, xwOBA and EV via Baseball Savant, all other stats via Pitch Info.

I’ve included Ryu’s 2018 numbers there to illustrate that the pitch is working even better for him than it did last year, when it worked pretty well. The big differences from then to now are last year’s lower groundball rate and tendency to work further off the plate against righties (and in to lefties):

Petriello has a good look at how the vertical gap between Ryu’s four-seamer and his changeup has widened this year, though that’s mostly due to his working higher with the heater. As for the cutter, it’s a pitch Ryu didn’t introduce into his arsenal until 2017. It’s about three clicks slower than the fastball, averaging 87.3 mph, and it now accounts for 21.2% of his pitches thrown; over that three-year timespan, he’s mothballed his slider and cut way back on the usage of his curve. The pitch didn’t work especially well for him last year:

Hyun-Jin Ryu’s Cutter
Year PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA xwOBA EV GB% O-Swing% Zone% SwStr%
2017 108 .232 .324 .326 .272 .282 83.3 58.1% 27.2% 48.7% 6.3%
2018 87 .274 .299 .452 .318 .322 88.1 52.4% 23.9% 55.1% 6.8%
2019 41 .150 .171 .275 .192 .248 91.8 56.0% 29.1% 47.7% 15.2%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant
wOBA, xwOBA and EV via Baseball Savant, all other stats via Pitch Info.

Look at that jump in swinging strike rate! I don’t see a great deal of year-to-year variation in his spin rate (2029 to 2063 rpm in that span) or movement to account for the jump, but location-wise, he’s not only throwing it in the zone less often (while getting significantly more chases), he’s keeping it out of the middle third:

Obviously, the caveat all over this is that of small sample size; we are talking about a body of work that covers a modest 134.2 innings over the past two seasons. Still, it’s been an impressive run, and if Ryu — who returned to the Dodgers upon completion of his six-year, $36 million deal by accepting a $17.9 million qualifying offer — can stay upright while fleshing out this body of work, he should be in line for some kind of multiyear payday this coming winter, though one with some complexity of structure likely — incentives, a vesting option or a club option. J.A. Happ’s two-year, $34 million deal with a $17 million vesting option for year three comes to mind.

While Ryu’s fragility makes him one more pitcher in a rotation full of less-than-durable ones, his early-season performance has provided a best-case scenario while helping the Dodgers weather the late arrivals of Kershaw and Hill, whose combined total of eight starts matches his own. His rise to the occasion is just one more reason why the Dodgers (27-16) are vying for the league’s best record and remain the favorites for a third straight NL pennant.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Team Defense So Far

Things haven’t been going the Mariners’ way lately. With Tuesday’s loss to the Yankees, they fell to 19-19, thereby setting a record for the fastest plunge to .500 for a team that started the season 13-2. In the third inning of Thursday night’s contest, second baseman Dee Gordon departed the game after being hit on the right wrist by a J.A. Happ fastball, and after manager Scott Servais pinch-hit for fill-in Dylan Moore in the top of the eighth, he resorted to calling upon first baseman Edwin Encarnacion to shift to second base, a position he’d never played before during his 20-year professional career. When the Yankees’ DJ Lemahieu led off the bottom of the eighth with a 100-mph grounder towards second, the 36-year-old Encarnacion gamely dove for the ball, not only coming up empty but rolling the wrist of his left (glove) hand.

Encarnacion was able to continue, but Gordon is still being evaluated. So much for one wag’s theory that the move would improve the Mariners’ defense, which has been downright dreadful, as I noted in passing during my look at the Nationals’ porous defense and disappointing start. Read the rest of this entry »

No Defense for Underperforming Nationals

Even after losing Bryce Harper to free agency, the Nationals were projected to win the NL East, but for the second year in a row, things are going awry. At 14-22, they’re actually five games worse than they were last year at this point; they currently own the worst record in the NL this side of the Marlins, who at least have the excuse of being bad by design (not that they haven’t been designed badly). With Wednesday’s sweep-culminating loss to Milwaukee, Washington has lost four games in a row, and 14 out of 19; they’ve dropped six straight series. They’re underperforming in virtually every phase of their game, and while injuries have been a part of the story, they’re hardly alone in that regard. Everybody hurts.

When the season began, the Nationals were projected for a .555 winning percentage, a 53.2% chance of winning the division, and a 25.9% chance at claiming a Wild Card spot, resulting in a 79.1% chance at a playoff spot overall. Through Wednesday, they’re down to 28.6% for the division, 16.8% for the Wild Card, and 45.4% for any playoff spot.

Those are still better odds than recent history suggests. While a sub-.500 start through 36 games isn’t fatal to a team’s playoff hopes, in the era of two Wild Card teams per league (since 2012), no team has dug itself out of a hole this deep at this particular point. Of the 70 playoff teams in that span, only seven were even below .500 at this point before recovering to claim a spot: the 2013 Dodgers (15-21); 2014 Pirates (16-20) and Royals (17-19); 2015 Rangers (15-21), Blue Jays (17-19), and Pirates (17-19); and 2018 Dodgers (16-20). It’s been 10 years since a playoff-bound team started 14-22, namely the 2009 Rockies.

Relative to our preseason projections as of March 21, the Nationals are the majors’ top underachievers by a wide margin: Read the rest of this entry »

Jay Jaffe FanGraphs Chat – 5/9/19

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Hi folks, welcome to another edition of my weekly chat. I ducked out last week to see Noah Syndergaard have himself a day, and just got a piece about the Nationals’ annual dumpster fire off my plate, hence my tardiness. Give me a couple minutes to order some lunch and we’ll light this candle.

Avatar Jay Jaffe: OK, I’m back.

Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe: Can’t wait to read your piece about the Nationals. Spoil something for me…is the entire article about how Davey Martinez is out of his league?!

Avatar Jay Jaffe: While I eventually turn my attention to the recent firing of the pitching coach and the vultures circling Martinez, the gist of what I wrote is that their problems have been driven by a dreadful defensive performance; they’re either last in the NL or last in the majors in several advanced defensive metrics. Injuries — particularly to Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon — have been part of that, but the bullpen has been a festering sore for years. I think Mike Rizzo and Tigers-era Dave Dombrowski might actually be the same person when it comes to skimping on bullpen budgeting.

lunch: why is it that every year all the pundits pick the nationals to win the east, and then every year they just kind of…….flail about? Is there some explanation for why they seem so much better on paper than their actual performance?

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Via our Steamer and ZiPS projections  — which in general are pretty good as those things go — the Nats have been projected to win the NL East in each of the past two seasons, but injuries, some of them completely unforeseeable (Victor Robles’ elbow, Trea Turner’s finger) have had a major impact, and have exposed their lack of depth. At the same time, the bullpen woes are a repeated and foreseeable problem, which, when combined with the revolving door at manager, points to Rizzo as the culprit.

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Chris Paddack’s Relentless Attack

As beef goes, the Chris PaddackPete Alonso back-and-forth wouldn’t make the grade for even the sketchiest ballpark hot dog; Monday night’s Petco Park matchup between Paddack and Jacob deGrom was of a choicer cut. In just his seventh big league start, the 23-year-old rookie dominated a flailing Mets lineup and out-dueled the reigning NL Cy Young winner, continuing a run that has produced some eye-opening numbers.

Paddack and deGrom matched zeroes until the bottom of the fifth inning, with the former, consistently attacking high in the zone, having struck out eight to that point while allowing just a pair of singles, and the latter punching out four while allowing just one single. In the bottom of the fifth, Hunter Renfroe — still basking in the glow of Sunday’s walk-off grand slam against the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen — hit a solo homer. The Mets put two on base in the top of the sixth to no avail, and the slim margin continued until the bottom of the seventh when the Padres scored again on an Eric Hosmer single, a Renfroe double, and a Ty France sacrifice fly. That was deGrom’s last inning, while Paddack continued until yielding a two-out single to Jeff McNeil in the eighth. He departed having struck out a career-high 11 while allowing just four hits and a walk; he went to a three-ball count just twice. The Padres cruised to a 4-0 win. Read the rest of this entry »

On Bees, Pandas, and Hit-by-Pitches

Aside from the cool 1911 denim throwback uniforms worn by the home team, Sunday’s Giants-Reds game was a relatively conventional affair. The Reds ran up a 4-0 first inning lead thanks in part to a three-pitch, three-homer sequence, Luis Castillo threw some devastating changeups but also gave up a game-tying three-run homer to Buster Posey, and the Giants won, 6-5. Zzzzz, right? Monday’s game, on the other hand, featured several different flavors of wild, all of them worth savoring. Twenty years from now, somebody will do an oral history of this game, and ESPN will air a 30 for 30 feature.

Let’s start with the bees. More bzzzz than zzzzz…

You thought I was kidding? A swarm of ’em delayed the start of the game by 18 minutes, perhaps a message from above about those weird wraparound series, where teams play Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday just to mess with peoples’ circadian rhythms. Or something.

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