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Starling Marte and Home Runs in the Era of PED Testing

This is Joe Sheehan’s’s third piece as part of his April residency at FanGraphs. A founding member of Baseball Prospectus, Joe currently publishes an eponymous Baseball Newsletter. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read all our residency posts here.

Starling Marte has been suspended 80 games for a first violation of the Joint Drug Agreement. Per MLB, Marte tested positive for Nandrolone. He accepted the suspension, calling his actions “a mistake” without denying responsibility for the positive test. Marte will be eligible to return on July 18, when the Pirates play their 94th game of the season at home against the Brewers. Per the latest changes to the JDA, Marte will also be ineligible for the 2017 postseason.

This is a blow for a Pirates team that needed everything to go right to challenge for a playoff berth. Already playing without infielder Jung Ho Kang, whose DUI violations have left him unable to secure a visa, the loss of Marte for 80 games projects to something like a two-win hit for a team that didn’t have two wins to spare. The Pirates have moved Andrew McCutchen back to center field to cover for Marte, and Marte’s playing time will fall mostly to Adam Frazier, off to a .295/.354/.455 start while playing five positions. Jose Osuna and John Jaso should get some extra PAs in Marte’s stead as well.

On the horizon is Austin Meadows, the No. 5 prospect in baseball according to Eric Longenhagen and No. 7 prospect according to Meadows, though, is off to a .146/.217/.244 start at Triple-A, running his line at that level across two seasons and 191 PA to .198/.277/.407. Meadows’s prospect status is intact; it’s just not likely that he’ll be ready for the majors before Marte can return.

Since the penalties for failing tests were increased in 2015, in the wake of the not-shady-at-all Biogenesis “investigation,” 14 players have been suspended 16 times under the MLB regime. (Jenrry Mejia, the Mets relief pitcher, was dinged three times in 10 months and is serving a lifetime ban.) Half of those are pitchers, and the other half have combined for 270 home runs in more than 10,000 plate appearances, 159 of those homers by Marlon Byrd. I mention this because it’s important to remember that Starling Marte’s suspension is result of home runs. Every single suspended player over the last 13 years owes his punishment to home runs: home runs none of them hit, home runs that were misunderstood in the moment and remain poorly understood today, home runs that were nevertheless used as a pretense for an elaborate campaign that assumes all players cheat and forces them to prove otherwise.

MLB expanded by two teams in 1993, adding the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies. Offense jumped, as it always does in expansion years, from 4.1 runs per team-game to 4.6, helped by 81 games in the thin air of Denver. The strike years of 1994-95 saw an average of 4.9 runs per team-game, then 5.0 in 1996 before a dip to 4.8 in 1997. At that moment, it seemed as if the expansion effect was washing out of the player pool.

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The Pace-of-Play Problem Began in 1884

This is Joe Sheehan’s’s second piece as part of his April residency at FanGraphs. A founding member of Baseball Prospectus, Joe currently publishes an eponymous Baseball Newsletter. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read all our residency posts here.

Two pieces ran at FanGraphs earlier this week that addressed critical issues facing Major League Baseball. Dave Cameron pointed out that, with walk rates ticking back up in the season’s early days, that the Three True Outcomes (walks, strikeouts, home runs) accounted for over a third of all plate appearances. Jeff Sullivan then wrote that early-season games were averaging a snappy 3:11, with lag time between pitches jumping by more than a second.

Scores of smart people have taken aim at both issues raised by the Wonder Twins of FanGraphs. Pace of play has replaced PEDs as Baseball’s Big Issue. What I’m not sure we’ve discussed sufficiently is how those two things — TTO baseball and lag time between pitches — are correlated, and how the style of baseball being played in 2017 directly affects the pace at which baseball is being played in 2017.

Let’s back up. Baseball, as evolved from various stick-and-ball games in the 19th century, was originally a contest in which the pitcher’s role was similar to that of a slow-pitch softball hurler. His job was to kick things off by offering up a ball that the batter could whack into the field of play, where the real business of playing baseball happened: running and throwing and fielding and even throwing the ball at a baserunner to record an out. The pitcher was the least important player on the field in the game’s early days. There were, in fact, no mechanisms to force the pitcher to give the batter hittable pitches; it was just considered his job to do so. Batters were even able to request high or low pitches, the better to fit their swing.

As the game became professionalized and more competitive at the highest levels, pitchers started trying to exercise more control over their deliveries so as to keep the batter from making solid, or even any, contact. This led to the creation of the strike zone and, subsequently, walks. Pitchers pushed the rules that mandated underhand deliveries, so as to generate more speed on the ball, and pushed them some more, until the game gave up and let pitchers throw overhand in 1884. This was a key moment in the evolution of baseball, the moment the game stopped being a battle between the batter and the defense, and became a battle between the pitcher and the batter. It also gave us this graph:

It’s not a perfectly clean line, as the deadball era saw a jump in whiffs that disappeared during World War I, but the long-term trend is clear: strikeout rates have risen throughout baseball history, and you can trace it all back to 1884, when baseball turned pitchers into the most important players in the game. So now, 133 years later, in a 7-1 game in the ninth, you have to watch some 27-year-old failed starter huff and puff for 23 seconds, catching his breath while deciding between his fastball and his fastball, all because Pud Galvin and his ilk cheated so effectively that the game gave up trying to stop them.

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When Statheads Age

This is Joe Sheehan’s first piece as part of his April residency at FanGraphs. A founding member of Baseball Prospectus, Joe currently publishes an eponymous Baseball Newsletter. You can find him on Twitter, as well.

Like a lot of fans, I watched Sunday’s and Monday’s games fascinated by the number of pitchers who seemed to be throwing harder than they did last season. So it was a relief to see Dave Cameron’s note here Tuesday about why readings were higher. It will take some mental gymnastics to compare velo figures from 2017 to previous years, but I’m sure it will be second nature aft…

… wait, what?

This is what it’s like being a baseball fan in 2017. The issues you face are ones of reconciling changes in how the velocity of every single pitch thrown in MLB is tracked. It’s not about getting that data, but rather, about sussing out the difference between measurement points of the pitch on the way from the pitcher’s hand to home plate.

We had a different set of problems when we were putting together the first Baseball Prospectus annual, back in the winter of 1995-96. The challenges we faced weren’t discerning which measure of velocity to use, but rather, when we would get access to minor-league statistics, and how soon lefty/righty splits would be in our hands, and would anyone at all talk to us about prospects we only knew by their stat lines.

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