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Reviewing the KBO Offseason: Part 2

This is Part 2 of my recap of what happened this winter in the KBO, a league that saw a flurry of signings that changed the outlooks of several teams heading into the 2022 season. Part 1 can be found here, featuring analysis of the KT Wiz, Samsung Lions, LG Twins, Doosan Bears, and Kiwoom Heroes. Part 2 will cover the remaining five teams: Landers, Dinos, Giants, Tigers, and Eagles.

Team Notes

SSG Landers
Shin-Soo Choo 추신수 signed a highly publicized one-year deal with the Landers last season and proceeded to do what he does best: get on base. His .409 on-base percentage last season ranked sixth among qualified KBO hitters, and he took advantage of all those trips to first base by swiping 25 bags, which also ranked sixth. Choo didn’t generate the monstrous home run totals some Korean fans expected of him, but power was never his strongest suit. Instead, he’ll be an excellent leadoff hitter for the Landers for an additional year.

Also returning is Wilmer Font 폰트, a righty with mesmerizing stuff but a lack of consistency. He’ll fan nine or ten batters with ease when he’s on but will otherwise rack up pitch counts with substandard command, often failing to go beyond the fifth inning. He has the potential to dominate the KBO, though, which is why the Landers are committed to him once more. Count me in as well. I’m hoping Font gains trust in his stuff and starts locating more in the zone — even down the pipe. Few would have a chance. Lastly, because KBO players can now sign multi-year contracts in non–free-agent years, right-handers Jong-hun Park 박종훈 and Seung-won Moon 문승원, and outfielder Yoo-seom Han 한유섬 all agreed to five-year extensions.

As for newcomers, Kevin Cron is arriving to replace Jamie Romak 로맥, who served as the Landers’ (and formerly Wyverns’) first baseman for five seasons. Cron enters Korea with an eye-popping resume, including a .329/.446/.777 Triple-A line in 2019, but it’s worth noting he played in the Pacific Coast League, where offense skyrockets due to the hitter-friendly parks and the introduction of those bouncy, bouncy balls back in 2019. His NPB stint was lackluster (.239/.296/.433 in 95 games), which raises further concerns. But Cron is still 28, and the upside is enormous; 30-or-so home runs seem reasonable to expect from his rookie KBO season.

If asked to guess before this offseason which pitcher the Landers would sign, I legitimately think it would have taken 50 attempts for Iván Nova’s name to pop up. It’s just rare for a pitcher his age with his pedigree to consider baseball in Korea. But why even pursue him, anyways? Well, his average fastball velocity in 2020 was still a robust 92.7 mph, and he’s a groundball machine with decent walk rates that might be effective in the KBO. Nova is also 35, however, so there are clear pros and cons. All in all, he has enough positive qualities that he should end up a reliable contributor to the Landers, who barely missed the playoffs last season.
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Reviewing the KBO Offseason: Part 1

While MLB’s lockout means baseball in the United States has descended to the is-Jon-Lester-a-Hall-of-Famer level of purgatory, the KBO has been going swimmingly. As of this writing, all available free agents have signed, and only one team, the Doosan Bears, is without a third foreign player on its roster. And with the chances of a blockbuster trade extremely slim, I thought now would be a good time to recap what happened in the KBO this winter.

I’m doing this in order of the regular season standings, so Part 1 will discuss 2021’s top five teams, while Part 2 will deal with the remaining five. Without further ado, here’s the latest news on baseball in Korea:

Team Notes

KT Wiz
As defending champions, the Wiz only needed to maintain a certain amount of talent on their roster to have another shot at contending – and that’s exactly what they’ve accomplished. William Cuevas 쿠에바스 and Odrisamer Despaigne 데스파이네 both agreed to return on one-year deals, which is great news for the Wiz: Their rotation last season ranked first in ERA and innings pitched by a wide margin. Notably, Despaigne has tossed 396.1 innings since joining the Wiz in 2020, meaning even if he’s a bit rustier in 2022, he’ll still anchor what projects to be a deep staff.

Replacing Jared Hoying 호잉 in the outfield is Henry Ramos, who most recently appeared in 18 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks, hitting for a paltry 48 wRC+ before getting outrighted from the 40-man roster in October. But he absolutely raked in Triple-A (.371/.439/.582), and if there’s anything we’ve learned from his predecessors, it’s that minor league stats can be a reliable predictor of KBO success. Read the rest of this entry »

The Platoon Split You May Have Never Heard Of

Writing about baseball isn’t the most predictable task. I often don’t know what my topic will be until the dust settles, hours after rummaging through a pile of numbers that, at first glance, makes little sense. For example, this article started off as an inquiry into Darin Ruf. Of all the journeymen to stop by the KBO, experience a resurgence, and return stateside, he’s by far enjoying the greatest success – who would have guessed?

As a right-handed hitter, Ruf’s primary asset is a knack for mashing lefty pitchers. He can hold his own against righty pitchers, too, posting a 126 wRC+ against them last season. But detractors might point to a .386 BABIP that buoyed much of that production. In other words, one could expect Ruf to become a bit more… rough in the future (sorry). A quick search reveals that he had a higher groundball rate against righties compared to lefties, which doesn’t bode well for future success, and not much else. The critics win this round.

Here’s the thing, though – he wasn’t alone. It turns out that in 2021, right-handed hitters had a higher groundball rate against right-handed pitchers; conversely, they had a lower groundball rate against left-handed pitchers. You can see for yourself:

GB% by Handedness Split, 2021
P Throws vs. RHH vs. LHH
Right 43.4% 41.4%
Left 41.1% 47.5%

This is also true of left-handed hitters. Facing same-handed pitchers led to more groundballs, while opposite-handed pitchers led to, well, the opposite. The gap in groundball rate by pitcher handedness is greater for lefty hitters, though that may be influenced by the relatively few instances of lefty-versus-lefty matchups. Still, the difference, which appears on a league-wide scale, is significant enough to warrant an investigation. Read the rest of this entry »

What Are We Missing About Ian Anderson?

How is everyone dealing with the, uh, complete stoppage of major league baseball activity? Each person has a different method, I assume. As for me, I’m consuming both less and more baseball, strange as that might sound. The lockout has led me to invest energy into other hobbies, but baseball-related articles, podcasts, and videos have also been my lifeline in these trying times.

One podcast I owe much thanks to is Rates and Barrels, hosted by Eno Sarris and Derek Van Riper over at The Athletic. They’ve provided inspiration in the past, and I’m about to piggyback off of them again. In a recent episode about pitchers with bounce-back potential, Eno mentioned a quirk about Braves starter Ian Anderson that piqued my interest:

“The most interesting thing about Ian Anderson is he might be doing something with his changeup that my model can’t capture… it’s getting to the point where he’s demonstrated results on his changeup that far outweigh the grades these pitching models put on it.”

The model he’s referring to is Stuff+, which was developed in tandem with Max Bay and uses several variables to evaluate the quality of a certain pitch, or, in the aggregate, a pitcher’s entire arsenal. On the top of the Stuff+ leaderboards are names one would expect: Jacob deGrom’s four-seam fastball is otherworldly, Corbin Burnes’ cutter is unmatched, and Tyler Glasnow’s curve is as beautiful as his luscious hair. Read the rest of this entry »

How Alex Cobb Became a Giant

The Giants won 107 games last season, and their rotation deserves a ton of credit; only the Brewers and Dodgers, two teams expected to thrive off starting pitching, managed to record lower FIPs. But San Francisco took everyone by surprise, winnings games with the likes of Alex Wood, Anthony DeSclafani, and postseason hero Logan Webb. Looking to retain some of last season’s magic, the Giants recently inked new deals with Wood and DeSclafani. Yet Kevin Gausman, their ace, eluded them, ultimately signing a five-year contract with the Blue Jays and leaving an unmistakable hole in their rotation. But while a pitcher like Gausman is irreplaceable, the Giants could find the next big sleeper — another under-the-radar signing just like he was.

And so they’ve arrived at Alex Cobb, signing him to a two-year deal worth $20 million, which includes a club option for 2024. If the Giants are satisfied with his performance, that option will grant him $10 million, and if not, they have the option to buy him out for $2 million.

In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that they decided to pursue Cobb. He’s the exact type of pitcher I think that they have a liking toward, and I wanted to explain why.

Cobb pitched for the Angels in 2021, but the spotlight there was on two-way phenomenon Shohei Ohtani. Still, what he achieved in 93.1 innings is nothing to sneeze at, with career bests in FIP, fastball velocity, and strikeout rate, which might have been masked by a not-as-flattering 3.76 ERA. That surge in strikeout rate is particularly notable; before the 2021 season, Cobb last had one above 20% in 2014 — a whopping seven years ago. You just don’t fluke into something like that.

But even that career-high strikeout rate was still just 24.9%, as Cobb isn’t exactly a bat-missing machine. Actually, none of the Giants’ headlining starters are, either; the only guy in the ’21 rotation with a K/9 above 10 was Gausman. But there’s another appealing aspect of Cobb’s game — a skill the Giants highly covet.
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Jon Gray Aids a Feeble Rangers Rotation

Usually, it’s the other way around. The Rockies take a chance on a pitcher, who’s then whisked away to a cold, harsh biome that warps the movement on his pitches. There’s speculation about whether he can adapt and maintain a standard of excellence set at a more friendly elevation. The season unfolds, producing success stories like Austin Gomber, or more unfortunate ones like Wade Davis.

But it’s rarer for a pitcher to survive Coors Field, reach free agency, and head to a new team. Jon Gray, a Coors veteran, is this offseason’s exception. He wasn’t spectacular during his time in Colorado, but he put up a solid 4.54 ERA and 3.92 FIP across six full seasons (including 2020) that consisted of 788.2 innings. All in all, adjusting for his home environment, Gray has been a slightly above-average (108 ERA+) pitcher. That’s harder than one might think, a fact the Rangers perhaps appreciated. Part of a huge splash that also includes Marcus Semien and Corey Seager, the Rangers signed Gray to a four-year contract worth $56 million, as reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

Looking at our Depth Charts, the Rangers were in desperate need of a durable starting pitcher. Before landing Gray, Dane Dunning was pegged as the team’s de facto ace; the remainder of the rotation consisted of rookie pitchers, none of whom are particularly notable. Of those expected to join the Rangers’ rotation in 2022, Gray is projected to have the highest number of innings as well as the highest strikeout rate. By signing him, the Rangers gain a starter who can at the very least provide innings and also comes with intriguing upside. Read the rest of this entry »

Elias Díaz Settles in Colorado

Though this year’s market for catchers is pretty barren, so much so that Pedro Severino was a solid pickup for the Brewers, the 2023 free agent class is much more fertile. Several notable catchers will be available for teams to vie for, including Max Stassi, Willson Contreras, and Mike Zunino. Rather than wait the extra year, however, the Colorado Rockies seem content with their in-house options, last week handing veteran backstop Elias Díaz a three-year extension worth $14.5 million. The contract covers his remaining year of arbitration and two seasons of free agency.

In so doing, the Rockies have effectively announced their intent to stick with Díaz rather than search for a new everyday catcher; Dom Nuñez will likely occupy a backup role, while Drew Romo, the team’s No. 3 prospect according to our 2021 rankings, is still a couple of years away from his big-league arrival. All things considered, Díaz had himself a solid season. His 1.6 WAR ranked 15th among 30 catchers with at least 300 plate appearances, making him just about a smack-dab average backstop. Assuming Díaz can keep up this level of production, an AAV slightly under $5 million is a green light, more so because of the relative scarcity of reliable alternatives.

But of course, it’s more complicated than that. In 2019, his previous full season, Díaz was one of the worst catchers in the league, with a 61 wRC+ and a negative value in just about every defensive metric; he was non-tendered by the Pirates that offseason. His track record before that isn’t impressive, either – though Díaz accrued 1.8 WAR in 82 games in 2018, his ’17 campaign was disastrous, good (?) for -1.2 WAR. The Rockies are betting that this back-and-forth parkour will stop, and that the Díaz of the present will be who Díaz remains in the future. It’s a bit risky, though. Which version of Díaz is more likely to appear next season, and can we make an educated guess using the numbers? Read the rest of this entry »

The Righty Shift Has Petered Out

There’s this episode of SpongeBob Squarepants that I love, in which Mr. Krabs’ snowballing desire for jellyfish jelly causes SpongeBob to catch more and more jellyfish until none remain. I bring this up because I like to imagine front offices as Mr. Krabs: Over the past few years, they’ve been shifting against more and more hitters, with seemingly no end in sight.

It turns out, however, we might have already reached the peak of infield shifting, at least in terms of volume. Comprehensive shift data dates back to 2016. Since then, here’s the rate of shifts against left- and right-handed batters each season:

This season, we’ve reached a point of stagnation. Teams haven’t budged from the mark they set against lefty hitters in 2020. Moreover, after a steady year-to-year increase, the rate of shifts against righty hitters has actually dropped. What I find more interesting — and ultimately want to dissect — is the latter trend. That teams aren’t looking for new lefties to shift against makes sense, since there’s presumably a limited pool. But righties demonstrate pull-side tendencies, too. If we assume teams are shifting mainly based on pull rates, we’d also expect the number of shifts against righties to keep climbing.

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Examining the Padres’ Fastball Woes

The other day, I was listening to an episode of Rates and Barrels, an always informative baseball podcast on The Athletic hosted by Eno Sarris and Derek Van Ripper, and learned something new. The two went over each team’s ‘Location+,’ a metric developed by Max Bay that quantifies pitcher command, with teams like the Brewers, Giants, and Rays recording the highest marks. That’s no surprise; what did surprise me is that the Padres stood out as being uniformly bland, receiving average grades for every pitch type except cutters.

San Diego’s’ pitching staff is underperforming, injured, and recently experienced a change in leadership. But I figured it’s still one of the league’s better ones. Since Location+ is proprietary, I can’t consult the exact numbers, though it did inspire me to look at where Padres pitchers had been locating their pitches. And in doing so, I came to a realization: They might have a four-seam fastball problem.

Pitchers perform differently depending on the count; they’re great when they’re ahead, about average when even, and terrible when behind. Unless a microscopic sample size is involved, this principle applies to pretty much everyone. So when looking at how Padres pitchers have performed by count, these results shouldn’t seem out of the ordinary:

Padres Pitchers wOBA by Count Type
Count wOBA League wOBA
Ahead .193 .217
Even .309 .304
Behind .430 .425

Consider, though, how they compare against the league averages. The Padres are comfortably better than the average pitcher when ahead in the count, but the same can’t be said for other instances. In disadvantageous situations, they seem mediocre at best, and the whole picture is underwhelming. You might have guessed where I’m going with this, but basically, the idea is that four-seam fastballs are to blame. Here are the wOBAs against them by count, along with where the Padres rank league-wide. I’ve also included xwOBA to isolate the effects of batted ball luck:

Padres Fastball wOBA & xwOBA
Count wOBA wOBA Rank xwOBA xwOBA Rank
Ahead .193 3rd .212 7th
Even .378 30th .339 20th
Behind .500 30th .486 28th

As the kids say, this ain’t it. A .193 wOBA against four-seamers once ahead in the count is great. But a whopping .500 wOBA after falling behind is… not so great. The gap does narrow with xwOBA as the metric of choice; after all, part of the Padres’ recent struggles are due to good players underperforming, which is naturally fixable. But there’s a significant gap nonetheless, and it does seem tied to how they are locating their fastballs. For the sake of time and sample size, I focused on the team’s starters with 50 or more innings pitched. If we examine where their fastballs have ended up, perhaps we can also analyze why they have been hit hard.

Alright, enough talk. You’re here for the meat and potatoes. First up is Blake Snell, whose fastball locations I categorized by count type and batter handedness, presented from the pitcher’s point of view:

You can see that he likes to live higher up when ahead in the count, which is ideal, since batters are more likely to chase. Otherwise, however, Snell’s fastballs are heading straight down the pipe. Even his higher fastballs are still squarely in the strike zone; with the amount of ride he generates, he can afford to climb the ladder more often, a feat he accomplished in previous seasons. He’s also all over the place, which the wide contours illustrate. The command isn’t quite there, and it shows.

Next is Yu Darvish, the Padres’ other ace. Unlike Snell, his four-seamer isn’t his primary pitch, but it still accounts for around 20% of his repertoire. Another detail to note is the wOBA against his four-seamer by month:

  • April: .328
  • May: .178
  • June: .066
  • July: .398
  • August: .513

After appearing invincible in June, the four-seamer has spiraled out of control in recent months. Because the downward trend coincides with the crackdown on sticky stuff, though, it’s easy to think Darvish’s heater has become worse. That’s true, but not markedly so. An average spin rate of 2,577 rpm before the June 15 ultimatum is now down to 2,473, and it only cost Darvish about an inch of ride, which isn’t all that significant.

There hasn’t been a change to how he’s locating his heater, either. But maybe there should, because Darvish seems like another pitcher who isn’t capitalizing on the vertical movement he generates:

When ahead in the count, Darvish is hitting the outside corner against lefties and righties alike, but besides that, there’s not much else in terms of location. And like Snell before, the high fastballs aren’t really all that high. The contours are also wide and scattered across the strike zone, which might suggest a lack of strategy. I could be reading too much into it, but even at a glance, those heat maps aren’t very appealing.

Joe Musgrove is similar to Darvish, in that the four-seamer acts as a secondary pitch but is nonetheless an integral part of his arsenal. Without it, his fantastic breaking pitches probably aren’t as attractive. So how does he locate the heater? Here’s a look:

That’s better! Those ahead in the count fastballs, they’re up (sort of), but at least they aren’t centered around the heart of the zone. I also appreciate how Musgrove is seemingly exploring the bottom third of the zone when behind, as a way to sneak in a called strike or two.

In his case, though, the stuff is arguably a greater issue than command. Despite an elite raw spin rate, Musgrove doesn’t actually generate much vertical movement on his heater; in fact, it’s one of the league’s worst relative to his velocity. This is presumably why he has continued to shy away from it, gradually replacing his four-seamers with cutters and more breaking balls. Maybe right now demonstrates the best usage of it; I’m not entirely sure. But among Padres starting pitchers, his fastball woes are the least severe.

Then we move onto the youngsters, Chris Paddack and Ryan Weathers. To avoid beating the same drum for too long, I’ll sum up Paddack with words: He probably can and should live up in the zone more often, but there’s been a snag in his stuff. After a solid rookie campaign, his fastball lost a ton of vertical break in 2020, and as far I can tell, he’s still working toward returning to those 2019 levels. The ERA and dearth of strikeouts this season are concerning, but it’s doubtful he’s this ineffective of a starter moving forward. We’ll give him a pass.

On the other hand, Weathers sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s okay that this is his first season in the big leagues. It’s not okay that every pitch he has — fastball, slider, and changeup — ends up in a terrible spot. He’ll figure it out as he accumulates innings and experience, but for now, here’s a slice of reality for the Padres:

Those aren’t good areas to place a fastball even with superb movement, which unfortunately Weathers has lacked so far.

But let’s put everything we’ve explored into context. What’s an example of good fastball command, and how does that turn out when visualized? Originally, I’d planned a comparison between the Giants’ and Padres’ fastball locations, then scrapped it after realizing how daunting the task would be. There’s a useful remnant, though. Below is a heat map of Johnny Cueto’s four-seamers this season:

It’s the year 2021, and Cueto has a higher whiff rate and a better run value on his four-seamer than Snell. Yes, Cueto uses his less frequently, but consider where they’ve ended up. Ahead in the count, those fastballs are perched right on top of the strike zone, with a tendency to veer away from right-handed hitters. Naturally, they aren’t as high up when the count is even, but remember, that’s where Snell roamed after getting ahead, not even. And even when behind in the count, Cueto has done a solid job of avoiding the bottom third of the zone.

If you buy pitch location as a reason for the Padres’ pitching woes, their unexpected dismissal of Larry Rothschild makes a bit more sense. There’s not much a coach can do about a pitcher’s stuff; no decree will magically add three inches of movement to a slider. Location, however, is within his realm of control. To wit, Mets pitchers in 2018 went from generally avoiding the inner half to thriving there, which then-pitching coach Dave Eiland had emphasized. Over time, perhaps the Padres realized Rothschild’s own philosophy was doing more harm than good.

I’m not 100% sure if location, let alone fastball location, is the main culprit. Heat maps are hardly an exact science; they’re approximations of a pitcher’s command whose gaps are colored in by a model and charted. They also don’t factor in pitch sequencing, another element a pitching coach could influence. So maybe this is all wrong! But two facts remain true: (a) the Padres, in general, haven’t been able to avoid dangerous fastball locations; and (b) their fastballs are either getting smacked or taken for balls. If they do indeed need help, it needs to come fast.

The Surprising Intrigue of Phil Maton

See if this story is familiar. A pitcher’s fastball appears so-so using traditional metrics but is revealed to possess off-the-chart spin rates. The pitcher then succeeds by locating up in the zone, taking advantage of that trait. At first glance, Astros reliever Phil Maton fits the bill. Here’s what he usually does with his four-seamer:

Maton’s fastball velocity is in the 20th percentile, but that doesn’t matter too much, because its spin rate is in the 92nd percentile. It’s what makes him big league viable — well, at least that’s the popular narrative. What isn’t as commonly known is this: Maton might have the league’s zaniest fastball. Zaniest? Trust me, this is an appropriate use of that word.

The anatomy of a fastball is complex, but let’s start with movement. Using our site’s pitch type splits, we see that Maton’s fastball has averaged 6.5 inches of ride (vertical movement) and 0.5 inches of run (horizontal movement) in 2021. The lack of vertical movement is strange, but hardly outlandish; plenty of major league fastballs are similarly deficient. What stands out is the absence of arm-side run. Consider Gerrit Cole’s fastball, the gold standard for righties, which features around seven inches of run and 10 inches of ride. There’s ample movement in both directions with an emphasis on the upward, bat-missing variety. Maton’s fastball is different; it’s as straight as an arrow and sinks like a stone. What gives?

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