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Red Sox and Padres Each Get a Piece of Selling Nationals

It’s been leading up to this all week. The endless rumors, speculation, and fake Twitter accounts paved the way for two earth-shattering transactions. I’m talking, of course, about the Red Sox sending Aldo Ramirez to the Nationals in exchange for Kyle Schwarber, and San Diego shipping Mason Thompson and Jordy Barley to Washington in exchange for Daniel Hudson.

I kid, but we can’t let the Dodgers hog the spotlight, can we? Besides, as far as trades go, these are as straightforward and sensible as they can get. Up first are the Red Sox, who will try to make the most out of two months with Kyle Schwarber. The 28-year-old slugger went on an absolute tear a month ago but has missed time since with a hamstring injury. That means the team will have to wait before it can use his services, but that’s a small sacrifice when considering the potential benefits.

Immediately, Schwarber provides the Red Sox with a left-handed, middle-of-the-order bat. Our Depth Charts have him pegged at left field and first base – the former option establishes some stability in a scrambled outfield, while the latter offers a temporary respite from the clutches of Bobby Dalbec, whom Jay Jaffe highlighted as a replacement-level killer in his recent series.

In theory, the skewed dimensions of Fenway both aid and hinder Schwarber. Using our site’s Park Factors, we see that the park has consistently suppressed home runs from lefties while enabling doubles. But it won’t dramatically alter Schwarber’s value, and while he does strike out a fair amount, it’s not because he’s swinging at bad pitches. As Eno Sarris pointed out, Schwarber is one of the few hitters with elite barrel and chase rates. Here’s that visualized, with him as the point in red:

I also wonder if the Red Sox are willing to modify Schwarber’s approach. His swing rate in early counts (0-and-0, 0-and-1, 1-and-0) is below the league average; by contrast, the Red Sox have a penchant for attacking early – not against all pitches, but rather would-be strikes. It’s a method of selective aggression that’s powered the team thus far. Schwarber already doesn’t chase often, so maybe more swings at early strikes would boost his offensive output and prevent him from falling behind in the count.

Given the nature of Schwarber’s contract, headed to the Nationals is a single prospect: Aldo Ramirez, a right-handed pitcher ranked 14th on Eric Longenhagen’s preseason Red Sox Prospects List. Ramirez is currently on the IL with elbow tendinitis. Eric informed me that prior to his injury, Ramirez had been performing well after a velocity spike during the fall. Other details to note are an arm slot and hand position conducive to pitching up in the zone, a “fairly advanced arm-side changeup feel,” and a command grade that’s currently at 35 but that has been assigned a FV of 60. It’ll be crucial to monitor whether the gains in velocity are still present when Ramirez recovers. He slots in at eighth in the Nationals system.

Moving over to the West Coast, we have the Padres’ acquisition of Daniel Hudson. I know, it’s hardly a consolation after missing out on Scherzer – someone I follow on Twitter described the fallout as ordering a filet mignon and getting a salad instead – but Hudson has been quietly awesome. In terms of numbers, his 2.20 ERA, 2.45 FIP, and strikeout rate of 37.8% place him among this season’s very best relievers.

To say this is unexpected might be an understatement – at age 33, Hudson’s strikeout rate soared from 23.4% in 2019 to 30.4% in ’20. The secret involved adding a few inches of ride to his fastball, abandoning his sinker and changeup, and throwing more sliders. In short, he transformed himself into a modern reliever. But when it came to actual results, Hudson’s home run and walk rates spiraled out of control in 2020 and contributed to career-low marks. I do think most of that can be blamed on the variance within a 20-inning sample, but I also did notice a particular quirk. Here’s Hudson’s whiff rate on his slider when he fell behind in the count since 2015:

You can easily spot the great crash of 2020. For some inexplicable reason, batters became resistant to Hudson’s slider that season, forcing him to rely on his fastball. I’m not sure if this was a contributing factor, but it did inspire Hudson to revise his slider. Unlike previous iterations, the pitch is now released at an 180-degree axis (i.e. as vertically as possible). That’s led to a loss in vertical drop but also an uptick in velocity, which perhaps interacts better with his fastball. Though I’m a bit skeptical about Hudson’s suppressed walk rate, it seems like his resurgence is no fluke. Note: Hudson is currently on the COVID Injured List, so it will be at least a couple of days before he is activated.

In return, the Nationals will receive two mid-level prospects: Mason Thompson and Jordy Barley. A shortstop signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2016, Barley possesses loud tools but has fallen behind in development due to his on-field mishaps. He’s an interesting prospect, though it will take a while to gauge whether he ends up benefiting the Nationals.

Meanwhile, right-handed pitcher Mason Thompson is someone who’s been on my radar since his Padres debut. Of the 43 pitches he’s thrown so far at the major league level, 41 have been sinkers; the other two are a stray four-seam fastball and changeup. That’s because he can absolutely afford to. In addition to hovering around 96-99 mph, his monstrous sinker generates around 60 degrees of axis shift as it reaches home plate. But as Eric Longenhagen noted in his write-up of the Padres’ system, command is still an issue for Thompson. Whether he can harness the sinker in tandem with a secondary pitch will be key in deciding his future value. Thompson ranks 21st in his new system, while Barley checks in at 26.

Contenders benefit from a team willing to sell. It’s a simple outcome, but one that the uncertainty surrounding this year’s deadline threatened to distort. In the end, though, a blockbuster was released, and two additional buyers came out on top. The Red Sox snagged a power lefty bat who could mend a hole at first. The Padres brought in a veteran reliever with two electric pitches and postseason experience. On the selling end, the Nationals netted three prospects with intriguing upside, bolstering a farm system that ranked towards the bottom of most publications’ lists. Everyone should be satisfied here.


Reds and Yankees Agree to Unexpected But Necessary Exchange

It was a hectic day on the trade market. First, news broke that the Pirates had traded Tyler Anderson to the Phillies. Shortly after, the Mariners provided extra heat to the stove by sending relievers Kendall Graveman and Rafael Montero to the Astros in exchange for Abraham Toro and Joe Smith. They didn’t stop there, swooping in to nab Anderson and taking advantage of an issue that surfaced with one of the two Phillies prospects originally headed to Pittsburgh.

The number of tweets dwindled as the night rolled in, signaling an end to the frenzy. We would have to wait until tomorrow for more deadline shenanigans, but I suppose a bonus transaction couldn’t hurt, because out of the blue, the Yankees’ Twitter account dropped this bit of news:

A trade announcement at 12:35 AM Eastern Time? Sure, why not. Let’s break this one down.

Read the rest of this entry »


The One Optimization Germán Márquez Can Make

We at FanGraphs haven’t checked in on the Rockies in a while. To put it nicely, that’s because they are performing as expected – a 43-55 record has banished them to fourth in the NL West, a place the team will probably call home for the remainder of the season. As a whole, the Rockies have a league-trailing 75 wRC+. It is not a good sign when C.J. Cron is the best hitter on your team by a wide margin.

But the pitching? After adjusting for the wackiness of Coors, the Rockies’ pitching staff has an ERA- of 100. It also has a FIP- of 101. I suppose one could do better than that, but one could also do worse, and being an average arm in Denver is an accomplishment of its own.

A major reason for this is the resurgence of Germán Márquez. After a rocky April and May, it’s safe to say the Rockies’ most reliable pitcher has settled in. What do we know about Márquez? There are his two breaking pitches, a curveball and a slider, each one a plus offering that hitters whiff at over 40% of the time. But what’s not talked about as often is his four-seam fastball. That in itself isn’t surprising, since the fastball has long been Márquez’s worst pitch. What is surprising, though, is how good it’s been in recent months. Consider the plot below:

Márquez is the point in yellow. Since June 1 (and through last Thursday’s action), his four-seamer has averaged the lowest launch angle among the 97 shown. It has averaged the lowest wOBA, too, a result of the first fact. The pitch has always induced groundballs at a healthy rate, but that quality seems to have been kicked into overdrive during this two-month stretch. Read the rest of this entry »


What (New) Statcast Data Tell Us About Pitcher BABIP

For the past few days, I’d been searching for a baseball topic to write about. It usually takes less time, but we’re in that calm (if not monotonous) period between the All-Star break and the trade deadline. Ideas are scarcer. Maybe I’d settle on an article with a simple premise?

So I committed myself to tackling pitcher BABIP. (Good going, Justin!)

The notion that pitchers have no control over what happens to a ball in play ushered in a golden age of baseball research, and findings from back then still influence how we view the game today. But over time, we realized that exceptions do exist; for example, Clayton Kershaw consistently allows a below-average BABIP, most likely because he’s a phenomenal pitcher. In addition, certain pitchers have a knack for inducing weak contact in the form of pop-ups or grounders. Exactly how those batted balls impacted BABIP remained a mystery, but you could no longer brush off the metric as total noise.

Years later, Statcast data became available for public use. Even so, research on pitcher BABIP remained far and few between; it’s a daunting subject! I did use two articles as inspiration, however. The first is from FanGraphs user rplunkett97 on our community research page. Dating back to 2017, it mainly discusses a linear model with several variables (BB/9, GB%, Team UZR, and more) used to produce an expected BABIP for each pitcher. The second is courtesy of Alex Chamberlain, also from the same year, who used a mixture of Hard-hit and Barrel rate to create his own version of xBABIP.

Read the rest of this entry »


Adam Frazier Has Been Interesting So Far

Adam Frazier is a Pittsburgh Pirate. He’s also been good, which means contending teams will look to acquire him at the trade deadline. What organization wouldn’t want an above-average defender who’s also hitting .330/.397/.463? To give that another spin, his 137 wRC+ is third-best among second basemen with 300 or more plate appearances, right behind Max Muncy and Jose Altuve.

But you might have visited his FanGraphs page, scrolled to the numbers, and seen a red flag – that Frazier’s .366 BABIP is abnormal, considering his career before this season. That’s not all: There are significant differences between his actual stats and Baseball Savant’s expected stats, such as slugging percentage and batting average. He’s hit just four barrels so far, none of them surpassing the 110 mph mark.

So yes, it does seem like Frazier is biting off more than he can chew. But I think we can do better than the boy who cried regression because, well, what if he’s doing something new that’s contributing to his higher BABIP? The second baseman has always been one to make consistent contact while minimizing whiffs, so it’s plausible he’s unlocked a new gear. Back in May, I broke down Freddie Freeman’s uncharacteristically low BABIP by batted ball type, so let’s do the same for Frazier. Where is he getting his money’s worth? And compared to the league average, where is he falling behind?

BABIP by Batted Ball Type, 2021
Batted Ball Type Frazier BABIP League BABIP Diff.
Groundball .304 .231 .073
Line Drive .637 .678 -.041
Fly Ball .173 .113 .060

These numbers are from our Splits Leaderboards, and they tell an intriguing story. Frazier is worse than average when it comes to line drives, which might be because of his middling power – a weak liner is usually an automatic out. Despite this, he’s making up for lost production via grounders and… fly balls? That’s odd. Somehow, Frazier’s fly balls aren’t leaving the ballpark or being caught by outfielders. Instead, they’re landing for hits. Read the rest of this entry »


Javier and Valdez, High and Low

If you’re a baseball nerd like me, you’ve likely seen this graph (or a variation of it) before:

Yep, it’s an illustration of how launch angle affects wOBA. And Tango’s iteration, like many others, is told through the hitter’s perspective. That makes sense – we seldom think about launch angle with respect to pitchers, since it’s trickier for them to control the contact they allow. We do know in a broad sense that there are groundball pitchers and fly ball ones, hence why metrics like xFIP and SIERA remain relevant.

But specific launch angles can also be useful in assessing pitchers. About a week ago, I shared this graph with my Twitter followers:

Here, I should clarify that what’s being measured is the year-to-year correlation of the percentage of batted balls within select launch angle ranges. What can we take away from this? It turns out that pitchers are much better at controlling the amount of extreme contact they allow. Going down the list, line drives are a capricious bunch. What we regard as standard groundballs and fly balls are a bit more manageable. When it comes to slap hits or pop-ups, though, pitchers surprisingly account for about half the variance. Go pitchers! Read the rest of this entry »


Keeping Up With the KBO: June Edition

This is the June edition of my monthly column, in which I recap what’s been going on in the Korean Baseball Organization on both a league- and team-wide scale. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments or reach out to me via Twitter. Also, don’t forget to check out our expanded KBO stats offering. Without further ado, let’s talk some KBO.

Standings

KBO Standings, 7/8/2021
Team W-L-T Pct. GB
KT Wiz 44-28-0 .611 0.0
LG Twins 43-32-0 .573 2.5
Samsung Lions 43-32-1 .573 2.5
SSG Landers 40-34-2 .541 5.0
Kiwoom Heroes 41-38-0 .519 6.5
NC Dinos 37-35-2 .514 7.0
Doosan Bears 36-38-0 .486 9.0
Lotte Giants 31-42-1 .425 13.5
Kia Tigers 29-43-0 .403 15.0
Hanwha Eagles 27-49-0 .355 19.0
SOURCE: Naver Sports

Read the rest of this entry »


The Slapdick Hitting of the Rays

“We gave Pham up for Renfroe and a damn slapdick prospect?” Blake Snell bemoaned live on Twitch. He was reacting to a trade between the Rays and the Padres that took place during the 2019-20 offseason. Snell’s annoyance caused a bit of controversy – he ended up reaching out to said prospect, Xavier Edwards, to smooth things over – but it also popularized the term, to the point that it’s now part of our baseball lexicon.

What does it mean exactly, though? Urban Dictionary informs us that a “slapdick” is more or less an incompetent person (to put it nicely), but that doesn’t feel quite right in a baseball context. For me and presumably others, a slapdick hitter is someone who doesn’t hit for power and earns his keep by spraying the ball around – someone like Nick Madrigal. Although the Rays currently do not roster Madrigal, they do have this: As of this writing, their hitters collectively have the highest BABIP (.264) and wRC+ (57) on groundballs. A slapdick hitting team.

If your sabermetric senses are tingling, I understand. Due to the fickle nature of BABIP, continued success on grounders is a tenuous endeavor. It’s entirely possible the Rays have gotten lucky over the past few months. But in the spirit of FanGraphs, I began to wonder if there’s an extra dimension to this. The numbers, in fact, do posit an interesting idea – that the Rays have set themselves up for success on grounders, more so than most teams this season. Read the rest of this entry »


There’s a New Old Book on Christian Yelich

By now, I’m sure you’re aware of Yasmani Grandal’s odd season. We’re approaching the All-Star Game, yet the veteran catcher still has an unbelievably low batting average (.177) to go along with a stellar wRC+ (131). The juxtaposition encapsulates everything useful or wrong about modern baseball, depending on whom you ask.

Regardless, it works because while Grandal does strike out a fair amount, he also walks just as often – at a league-leading rate, in fact. But enough about Grandal. This is all a set up, because really, I want to talk about Christian Yelich. Why is he relevant? Yelich is one of two hitters (min. 150 PA) this season to have both a strikeout and walk rate above 20% – you can guess who the other is. Grandal’s season is, indeed, weird. But under the radar, Yelich is showcasing the same skills necessary for one, albeit without the hideous BABIP.

Focusing on the more positive rate first, it appears that Yelich’s monstrous walk rate is thanks to an ability to lay off unattractive pitches; his chase rate this season ranks in the 98th percentile per Baseball Savant. But here’s what piqued my curiosity. The other day, I stumbled across an article in Reviewing the Brew that suggested Yelich is seeing fewer pitches in the zone since last season. While true in the aggregate, looking at 2020-21 as one chunk prevents us from unearthing a notable truth. Let’s get to the bottom of it. Below is a rolling average graph showing Yelich’s zone rate over time, beginning a couple of years ago:

Consider the roller coaster ride. Before his transformation into a destroyer of baseballs, Yelich saw an above-average rate of strikes. That rate remained stable into his 2018 MVP campaign, perhaps because pitchers were caught off-guard by his late-season tear. The following year, though, they got the memo. In response to Yelich’s newfound might, the graph illustrates how pitchers began to shy away from the zone.

So far, so sensical. What’s interesting, however, is that the downward trend continued into 2020, despite Yelich battling through an extended slump that resulted in the worst season of his career by wRC+. At the very least, he seemed to take advantage of the increasing abundance of balls. As Tony Wolfe pointed out last year, Yelich effectively turned into Joey Gallo by cutting down his swing rate from 45.2% in 2019 to 34.6% in ’20. Unfortunately, his whiff rate – even against in-zone pitches – trended in the wrong direction, pushing up both walks and strikeouts.

Now it’s 2021. As I alluded to earlier, Yelich is still a patient hitter, and his 38.2% swing rate also suggests that he’s retained most of his 2020 self. The difference? His zone rate (48.0%) has skyrocketed this season, to the point where it’s similar to that of previous years (50.8% in 2018).

More strikes, but with the same passive approach – that seems like a recipe for disaster. But as of this writing, Yelich possesses the highest walk rate of his career. He’s managed to shave off a bit of his strikeout rate, too. That’s been possible because of how pitchers have allocated their extra strikes. Here’s a plot of Yelich’s yearly zone rate since 2017 by count type (ahead, even, or behind), from which we can gain some insight:

When Yelich is ahead in the count this season, his zone rate hasn’t seen a significant increase. Maybe pitchers are reluctant to challenge him – their escape is via a surefire strike, which Yelich has crushed multiple times in his career. It’s better to nibble around the edges, I suppose. Elsewhere, though, pitchers have caught on. The strikeout totals aren’t that hideous because Yelich’s contact rates have rebounded somewhat, but they’re still a few ticks below their pre-pandemic norms.

It’s a problem. More than ever, Yelich is having a difficult time defending himself against a barrage of strikes in unfavorable situations. Sean Doolittle, seemingly aware of this, threw a fastball down the middle against Yelich for… strike three.

Look at that smirk. He knows what he did!

But besides that example, how has Yelich responded overall? Compared to 2020, his swing rates are up across all counts. That’s good when he’s behind, and not as good when he’s ahead, though it could be that he’s targeting obvious strikes. Either way, Yelich is earning his walks. Looking at the numbers, however, I began to wonder – should Yelich become even more aggressive when behind? His swing rate in those instances is up, sure. But at 39.8%, it’s still lower than the 48.2% he posted in 2018, the year when he last saw a similar rate of strikes.

Let’s try and evaluate Yelich’s swing decisions using basic game theory. Consider a showdown between him and a pitcher with the count 0-and-1. What should each player strive to accomplish? For the pitcher, the best-case scenario is reaching 0-and-2. Since the start of the Statcast era, batters have recorded a .357 wOBA on 0-and-1; with an additional strike, that number drops precipitously to .166. Missing the zone en route to 1-and-1 isn’t as bad one might think, as batters pick up just 17 points of wOBA. It’s no wonder they’re considered behind.

On the other end, Yelich’s utmost goal is to avoid reaching 0-and-2. But to swing or to take, that is the question. Swinging seems like the most logical option, but there’s a good chance Yelich will end up whiffing or fouling off the pitch. Taking a strike isn’t the end of the world, but there are also obvious balls a hitter should never go after. And what about the borderline pitches that could go either way? Hitting is hard!

Amidst a hairy situation, here’s what I did. Based on Yelich’s contact, whiff, and foul rates this season, I calculated the average value of an in-zone swing in terms of wOBA, as well as an out-of-zone swing. The value of taking a strike or ball was based on the count-based wOBAs I described earlier. With these numbers, I was able to construct a two-by-two payoff matrix, with each cell containing the wOBA loss/gain of the pitcher (left of the comma) and the batter (right of the comma) that’s dependent on the actions taken:

Pitcher vs. Yelich in 2021, 0-1 counts
Pitcher/Hitter Swing Take
Strike -38, 38 191, -191
Ball 109, -109 -17, 17
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
wOBAs converted into whole numbers for ease of viewing

For example, swinging at a strike would net Yelich 38 points of wOBA and lose pitchers the same amount. The latter are offering Yelich a strike 39% of the time in 0-and-1 counts. But is this optimal? For our sake, let’s say optimization means pitchers throw strikes at a rate that makes Yelich indifferent to swinging or taking. In other words, equalizing the payoffs robs him of a preference. Do the math, and it turns out the equilibrium point for pitchers is 35.5% strikes – quite close to their actual rate.

We can also find an equilibrium point for the hitter, Yelich. This time, it’s a matter of making sure pitchers are indifferent to throwing a strike or a ball, and the math suggests Yelich needs to swing 58.6% of the time in pursuit of that goal. Sounds too high? It probably is: I sorted all 0-and-1 pitches into simple strikes or balls, but as mentioned earlier, the reality is that a fair number of balls are flat-out uncompetitive pitches. Disregard them, and Yelich’s ideal swing rate is deflated. Even if we conservatively estimate it as 50%, however, it’s still a far cry from Yelich’s actual swing rate of 39.3% in 0-and-1 counts. Small sample caveats apply – he’s seen 84 of them so far this season – but there’s potential evidence that Yelich is missing out by letting strikes pass by.

Here’s an easier way to think about this. After factoring in zone rate, Yelich is expected to lose 50 points of wOBA by swinging. Taking a pitch loses 66 points, also bad, but which one is the lesser of two evils? You certainly wouldn’t want to swing every time, but faced with these payoffs, swinging a majority of the time makes sense. The math bears out our intuition.

For fun, I repeated the process using Yelich’s ridiculous 2019 output. Ready? To neutralize Yelich, pitchers needed to throw strikes roughly 20% of the time! Nobody would have followed that advice, of course, but it goes to show how terrifying Yelich was. He crushed pitches in the zone. He crushed pitches outside the zone, too, even when behind in the count.

It’s the version of the slugger we lament the disappearance of. But all things considered, it’s been a rough two-or-so years for Yelich. His 2019 campaign came to a premature halt after a knee injury, which then segued into a truncated, strange 2020 season. Mere days into the current season, back issues sent Yelich to the Injured List, where he remained for a month. Expecting him to attack the ball with his former authority is a bit unreasonable. And arguably, Yelich’s reluctance to swing is a precaution against re-aggravating his back.

But as far as adjustments go, raising his aggression to match that of pitchers, who are adhering to both a new and old book on himself, is a simple one. As Yelich recuperates, the various components of his game are likely to come together. It’ll be interesting to observe how he and opposing pitchers adjust against each other over the course of an entire season, engaging in a dance of zero sums. How high will Yelich’s zone rate climb? At what point does he swing enough for pitchers to change course and offer more balls instead? This piece’s title suggests the book on him is fixed. In reality, it’s constantly being updated.


What’s Up With Nolan Arenado’s Defense?

Heading into 2021, the question that loomed over Nolan Arenado concerned his bat. Could he remain productive outside of Coors Field? Roughly 40% into the season, the answer seems to be yes. Although his on-base and slugging percentage are down, handy wRC+ tells us that Arenado’s offensive output relative to the environment he’s in has remained consistent. On this front, he has been the star the Cardinals had hoped for.

On the other hand, I’m willing to bet good money that nobody was worried about Arenado’s glove. Altitude doesn’t affect one’s footwork or agility. We expected him to continue his life as one of the league’s best third basemen. And all things considered, he still is one of the league’s best third basemen. What follows isn’t the sound of panic, but rather a fact to keep in mind. Consider Arenado’s defensive numbers this season:

Arenado’s Defensive Numbers, 2016-21
Year Innings DRS UZR OAA
2016 1377.1 13 3.3 14
2017 1343.1 17 6.7 9
2018 1328.1 12 5.8 11
2019 1319.2 24 10.3 21
2020 417.1 11 8.5 7
2021 600.0 3 1.0 0

They’re… okay. Huh. That being average elicits this sort of reaction is a paean to Areando’s talent. When the three big defensive metrics all agree that his defense has taken a step back, though, you have to wonder – what’s going on? He’s no pumpkin at the hot corner, but he’s also not the superstar we’ve become accustomed to. Prorate his 2021 DRS to his 2019 workload in terms of innings fielded, and you’d wind up with 7 DRS after rounding up. That would represent the lowest mark of his career. Defensive metrics are imperfect and noisy, sure, but confronted with these changes, there’s probably some signal worth analyzing.

For this article, I’ll be focusing on Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average. Our in-house metric is UZR, but it unfortunately doesn’t account for infield shifts, which will become relevant later on. Read the rest of this entry »