A trade deadline that Padres fans won’t soon forget came to a close with a smaller yet still impactful move, with Brandon Drury heading to San Diego from Cincinnati in return for prospect Victor Acosta. Drury, a free agent after the season, may not be Juan Soto, who was acquired mere hours earlier, but his 132 wRC+ this season turned him into one of the more sought-after bats available at the deadline.
It’s been a long road for the 29-year-old Drury up to this point in his career, with the Padres representing his sixth franchise in eight seasons. After years of below-average hitting, he surprisingly put up a 114 wRC+ mostly off the bench for the Mets in 2021. That came in only 88 plate appearances, but it was enough to earn him a deal with the Reds in late March after the team’s post-lockout fire sale. He settled in as the team’s regular two-hole hitter and third baseman after injuries put Mike Moustakas on the shelf and stayed in the lineup thanks to a power surge that’s seen him cross the 20-homer threshold for the first time in his career. Playing in Cincinnati, the best home run park in baseball for righties, certainly played a factor in that development; his new home in San Diego, the more spacious Petco Park, is middle of the road in terms of righty power, so it remains to be seen how many of those homers will travel with him to California.
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Shane Bieber has been one of the best pitchers in baseball in recent years. From 2019-21, he used pristine command and nasty breaking balls to rack up elite levels of strikeouts while posting an ERA- of 64 (tied for second-best in baseball over that span); he even won the AL Cy Young Award in 2020. That elite level of performance lasted until a 2021 shoulder strain cost him over three months of the season; he returned just in time to make a couple of late September starts before officially shutting it down. Coming into the 2022 campaign, Bieber said he was “100%.” Yet through his first eight starts of the season, there are warning signs all over his underlying metrics:
Bieber has still been an effective pitcher. He has an above-average ERA and an even better FIP and SwStr%, but these numbers still represent a drop in performance. For a pitcher who is just shy of 27 years old, it’s certainly notable, but we might chalk it up to a wonky eight-start rough patch were it not for the dip in velocity and the injury last season. But Bieber has lost three ticks on his heater from his Cy Young peak, when he averaged 94.3 mph. I wonder if we might be seeing the lingering effects of his shoulder injury. Just prior to the injury, Bieber’s velocity dipped to 92 mph and during his late September cameo, it was down to 91.4 mph. Throughout the season’s early going, Bieber has been asked repeatedly about his velocity dip and insisted that he feels fine and expects his velo to trend up as the season goes on. As we reach the end of May, however, no such increase has occurred:
Regardless of the cause, it isn’t a good development. And beyond just the lost velocity, there are some interesting mechanical changes that are worth taking a closer look at. We’ll start with an establishing shot of Bieber’s mechanics in 2020 and then this season. You may be able to pick up on some changes, like how this year’s windup is quite a bit faster:
Next we’ll look at his arm path. The following clip is synced to when his front foot lands, giving us a better look at his hand position at that pivotal point in a delivery. To me, it looks like his entire upper body is more closed off, giving Bieber a more circuitous hand path from his glove separation all the way through to the release of the ball. The result is an arm that needs to play catch-up as his foot lands:
These mechanical changes could mean a number of things. It’s possible this is an intentional change to try and add velocity, or to mitigate a recurrence of his shoulder issue. Or these could be subconscious changes as Bieber’s body tries to find a pain-free path to delivering a pitch. If you want to assume that this change is part of the loss in velocity and that it’s helping him stay healthy, then it could be a worthwhile tradeoff. However, if this is a less intentional tweak and it’s the result of his body subconsciously favoring his shoulder, it could lead to added stress on other areas that are currently healthy.
Given that we’re about a quarter of the way into the season, we have a pretty good sample by which to gauge how Bieber is trying to pitch through his velocity decline. It might seem like the obvious solution to a diminished fastball would be for Bieber to lean in to his two good breaking balls. Look no further than the success of Clayton Kershaw in recent years for a blueprint to mimic. Kershaw has evolved from throwing 94 mph fastballs 60% of the time to throwing a 91 mph fastball only 36% of the time. He is now a slider-first pitcher and it has allowed him to have a tremendously successful decline phase – if you can even call his 72 ERA- over the last five seasons a decline. A Kershaw-like evolution from Bieber may not be so straightforward, however, as he’s never relied on his fastball nearly as much as Kershaw did and has always heavily featured his breaking stuff. In fact, it may come as a surprise to see that Bieber hasn’t decreased his fastball usage at all; at 38.3%, it’s pretty much right in line with his 2020 season:
Bieber’s continued use of his declining fastball has come at a cost. While his wOBA allowed on his fastball is only .364 so far this season, his xwOBA has risen somewhat ominously up to .435, compared to .320 last season and .290 in 2020. Instead of throwing fewer fastballs, Bieber has opted to change his breaking ball usage, throwing more sliders in lieu of his curveball. The problem is that his slider hasn’t been that effective for him this season (.300 wOBA, 18.8% SwStr%) after being one of the best sliders in baseball last year (.207 wOBA, 24.8 SwStr%). More than just its increased usage, the movement profile of the pitch has undergone a change as well:
Bieber is getting significantly less depth on his slider while gaining a small amount of horizontal movement. These changes come from him putting more back-spin on the pitch than in years past; previously, the spin he imparted on the ball was much closer to that of his curveball. As a result, his slider has more cutter-like qualities and he’s lost about 200 rpm from last year, leading to a pitch that is generating fewer whiffs and fewer swings outside the zone than at any other time in his career. If you look closely, you can see the subtle change in his fingers, which are pushing a bit more behind the ball, giving the pitch a touch more backspin than before:
These changes to his slider have given him a bigger movement and velocity difference between his slider and curveball, which is helping to diversify his arsenal after years of having a slider and curveball that were eerily similar. But it’s hard to say whether this is a good change, especially considering that it is now his most used pitch. His curveball, on the other hand, has been his best pitch (.201 wOBA, 16.8% SwStr%) and may be benefitting from these changes to his slider.
This new movement profile coupled with the mechanical changes highlighted earlier may be creating some issues when it comes to his typically great command of the pitch. Bieber is currently leaving double the number of sliders up in the zone compared to 2020. Check out his slider heat map and you’ll get a better sense of the frequency of his mistakes this season:
There’s been a lot of doom and gloom in this piece so far, and I would like to leave things on a more optimistic note. For that, I’ll mention Bieber’s most recent start against Detroit last Sunday afternoon. Things were a bit rocky in the beginning, with Miguel Cabrera ripping a hanging slider for an RBI double, but Bieber eventually settled in to what turned out to be a dominant performance. It was the best his slider has looked since before his injury. He found success with the pitch by consistently commanding it to the low-and-away corner, earning whiffs all afternoon — he generated 11 whiffs on 39 such pitches thrown (28.2% SwStr%) with an 84.9 mph average exit velocity. On the day, he notched a season-high 10 strikeouts over seven innings.
Of course, it’s only one start and it came against the Tigers and their league-trailing offense. Bieber’s fastball velocity didn’t tick up any, and even though his slider was great, none of the underlying metrics suggest it was all that different from what it has been in previous starts this season, still lacking the spin rate and vertical bite of years past. But that doesn’t have to mean that this start is an aberration. Bieber could be finding better ways to use his slider, and his command of the pitch could be improving as he gets more used to its new movement profile. Bieber really needs his breaking pitches to carry the weight if he’s going to remain successful with below average fastball velocity, and this outing serves as a proof of concept for how he can still dominate a lineup even if his Cy Young stuff stays firmly in the rear view mirror.
Brandon Woodruff has been good for years now, but he’s always flown a bit under the radar. In some ways, he can thank his rotation-mates for that: Corbin Burnes has overshadowed him with his ascension to ace status, and Eric Lauer and Freddy Peralta have taken big steps forward of their own. The lack of attention directed Woodruff’s way might also have something to do with him being a little boring. He’s been a polished pitcher with a diverse arsenal since his major league debut in 2017, and nothing has really changed about him since he broke out as a full-time starter in ’19; his performance, velocity, mechanics, and arsenal have all remained consistent. And while having the seventh-best ERA- and fifth-best FIP- in baseball since 2019 unequivocally makes him a great pitcher, he doesn’t seem to have been as big a part of the “best pitcher in baseball” conversations that happen around hypothetical water coolers as those numbers might suggest.
His start to 2022 isn’t helping him much in that regard, with a 5.18 ERA through five outings, though there’s some small-sample funkiness behind that number. Woodruff’s BABIP is 25 points higher than his career average, his LOB rate is an unsustainably low 60%, and his ERA estimators are all around where they typically have been (2.83 FIP/3.25 xFIP/3.07 xERA). I’m not worried about his long-term performance, and regardless, that’s not what this article is about. Instead, I want to focus on Woodruff’s changeup, a pitch that has been anything but boring this season and that was on full display in his most recent start against the Reds:
Most of the talk surrounding Woodruff focuses on his pair of elite, high-velocity, whiff-inducing fastballs, which he throws over 60% of the time. Otherwise, he mixes in a curve and a slider that have both served him well, even if they’ve never quite reached the level of his heaters. Woodruff’s changeup, though, has started to become a serious weapon:
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On Sunday afternoon, Byron Buxton demolished a fastball from one of the game’s best pitchers, sending it where balls rarely go at Minneapolis’ Target Field. See for yourself:
That was the longest walk-off homer in the Statcast era, at 469 feet, and the ninth-longest home run in the history of Target Field. Impressive as that swing was, it didn’t come in isolation. It’s worth taking a closer look at the 10th inning to get a better idea of how Buxton ended up turning around a 96-mph fastball, and how this result has been happening more often for the burgeoning superstar. Read the rest of this entry »
Last week may have been highlighted by the start of the 2022 regular season, but it also featured a spate of contract extensions. Today I’m going to take a closer look at two such extensions, both involving glove-first outfielders entering their age-27 seasons.
We’ll begin with Myles Straw, the center fielder for the Cleveland Guardians, who signed a five-year, $25 million extension, according to Zack Meisel of The Athletic. The extension includes club options for the 2027 and ’28 seasons that would bring the total to $41.5 million over the next seven years. Remarkably, this is the Guardians’ third extension this month with the potential to keep a player in Cleveland through the 2028 season — the team also inked deals with star third baseman José Ramírez and closer Emmanuel Clase.
2021 was Straw’s first full season as an everyday player. He came over to Cleveland from the Astros at the trade deadline in exchange for Phil Maton and Yainer Diaz. After the trade, he continued to build on his breakout campaign. He ended the having posted stellar defense (11 OAA), great baserunning (30 steals in 36 attempts), and about league-average offense (98 wRC+). That well-rounded production quietly placed him among the best center fielders in baseball last season, finishing sixth in WAR at the position with 3.7:
That chart does a good job of showing how unusual Straw’s profile is compared to his peers’, as he’s the only center fielder on the list without a clearly above-average bat. These offensive limitations mostly come from a lack of power, and it is a serious lack of power at that, with Straw posting an ISO, Barrel% and HardHit% all below the fifth percentile. His max exit velocity is actually above average, which could be a sign that more consistently hard contact is hidden away somewhere, but there’s just not a lot to suggest that he’ll be putting up double-digit home run totals anytime soon. Read the rest of this entry »
Spring training games may be underway but the abbreviated post-lockout free agency period means we’re still seeing a number of players find new homes for the upcoming season. This weekend, the Cubs and the Twins added some much-needed pitching depth. Let’s take a look at what they can expect from their new hurlers.
The Cubs, who appear to be on the outer fringes of contention, signed starting pitcher Drew Smyly to a one-year, $5.25 million deal with $2.5 million in incentives and a mutual option for 2023. At 32, the left-handed Smyly has had an up and down career thanks in part to health issues that include missing the entirety of the 2017 and ’18 seasons due to Tommy John surgery. He spent 2019 knocking the rust off with the Rangers and Phillies, and he didn’t quite look fully recovered until a resurgent stretch with the Giants in ’20, where he showed off a 2.5 mph boost on his fastball and a career-high 14.9% swinging strike rate. That performance secured him a $11 million deal with the Braves before last season, but his performance suffered; his ERA (4.48) and FIP (5.11) tumbled below league-average and he found himself left off of Atlanta’s playoff rotation. Smyly now looks to bounce back in a return to the Cubs, where he spent the 2018 season rehabbing.
The first thing to note about Smyly is that he’s still throwing a tick harder than earlier in his career, even if he has lost about half of his velocity gains from the 2020 season. This puts his 92.1 mph fastball right around league average for lefty starters. Performance-wise, his heater took a big hit, though, with hitters putting up a .415 wOBA as he surrendered 14 home runs. The likely culprit is the shape of the pitch, as both its drop and run became more average — not the direction you want your movement to go, especially with merely average velocity. Read the rest of this entry »
On Tuesday, the Pirates finally got in on the post-lockout frenzy, signing a pair of lower-cost free agents who both have interesting bits of upside. First baseman and designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach signed a one-year, $1 million deal that comes with the possibility for $400,000 more in performance incentives and a $1.5 million option for 2023. In the bullpen, the Pirates inked Heath Hembree to a one-year, $2.125 million deal. These might not be big-money moves, and Pittsburgh’s payroll still sits at a shockingly low $44 million, but it’s worth taking a closer look at Vogelbach and Hembree to see what inspired the team to finally open its wallet. We’ll start with Vogelbach.
After a few fits and starts, Vogelbach burst onto the scene in 2019 for the Mariners, slugging prolific home runs on his way to a 30 homer season and a 112 wRC+. Late in the season, though, he fell on hard times that carried over into 2020. The Mariners decided they’d seen enough and shipped him to the Blue Jays, who themselves cut him after just five plate appearances; Milwaukee became his third uniform of 2020. He ended the season strongly enough to be brought back in a platoon role in 2021, putting up near league average offensive numbers (101 wRC+ in 258 PA), while also losing two months in the middle of the season to a pretty bad hamstring injury. The Brewers chose to non-tender him this offseason.
Given his distinctive physique (6-foot-0, 270 pounds) and success in high-leverage spots (137 wRC+), he’s become something of a fan favorite everywhere he’s been. Take this walk-off grand slam he hit last September:
Vogelbach possesses a lot of the skills that modern front offices like, namely, a patient approach and great bat-to-ball skills. Calling him patient is underselling it a bit, as only Yasmani Grandal swung less often than Vogelbach last year (32.9% swing rate). He’s perfectly comfortable falling behind in the count and hunting for a mistake up in the zone. As you can imagine, this approach leads to plenty of walks and strikeouts but Vogelbach actually has the bat-to-ball skills to maintain a roughly league average strikeout rate. Take a closer look at how his plate discipline stacks up to both league average and Juan Soto – the gold standard of plate discipline:
It’s a very impressive skill set and that’s before you even get to the part where he hits the ball quite hard. Vogelbach had an 88th percentile exit velocity last year and his HardHit% was good for the 89th percentile. Interestingly, though, having those skills has only led to a 103 wRC+ and 1.2 career WAR in 1,098 plate appearances, and that’s because there are some pretty big holes in his game.
Vogelbach has really struggled against lefties, with a 46 wRC+ for his career (versus 117 against righties); last season, he put up a wRC+ of one against southpaws, albeit in just 34 plate appearances. His performance against lefties has prevented him from securing everyday playing time, and it can be hard to dig your way out of a platoon role once you stop getting regular exposure. Another big weakness has been Vogelbach’s production against breaking balls: He has a .196 wOBA on curveballs and sliders in his career compared to a robust .374 wOBA against fastballs. Interestingly, he actually sees a league average number of fastballs; I think his extreme patience has allowed him to force pitchers to come into the zone more than what their game plan may suggest. Finally, Vogelbach has proven to be a poor defender at first base, putting up -15 Defensive Runs Saved in a little less than a full season’s worth of opportunities.
Vogelbach’s lack of defensive skill is the easiest problem for the Pirates to mitigate. The Pirates’ current first baseman, Yoshi Tsutsugo, has shown a better feel for the position (-1 DRS / +1 OAA), albeit in an even smaller sample than Vogelbach. Tsutsugo also doesn’t have notable platoon splits, so all signs seem to point to him starting nearly every day at first while Vogelbach has the inside track on the DH role. Perhaps the Pirates will even give him some run against lefties to see if there is any improvement to be had with his splits, but it’s likely that he’ll be ceding at-bats to someone like a Michael Chavis. The good news for Vogelbach and the Pirates is that the NL Central lacks standout left-handed starters, with only Wade Miley, Eric Lauer, and Steven Matz looking like locks for a rotation spot in the division.
On to the bullpen, and the signing of Heath Hembree. The 33-year-old right-hander spent parts of seven seasons with Boston as a reliable workhorse reliever who never quite ascended to being a go-to high-leverage option. He started bouncing around in 2020; the Pirates will be his fifth big league team, after stints with the Phillies, Mets and Reds in the last couple of years. That bouncing around is due to a stark drop in performance from his early days in Boston, as he put up the two worst run prevention seasons of his career with a 9.00 ERA in 2020 and a 5.59 ERA in ’21. Looking forward, though, there’s some reason to believe he has more left in the tank than his last two years might suggest.
The most eye-popping change for Hembree last season was the increased zip on his fastball, which gained more than a tick from the previous year. Thanks to his 92nd percentile spin rate, his fastball drops very little and he also gets above average run, helping to turn it into a popup machine (37.0% popup rate). It’s worth noting that he was dealing with a recurring elbow issue in 2019 and ’20 that required three separate IL stints, so good health could be enough to explain the velocity increase.
To go along with more velocity, Hembree pretty drastically altered his breaking ball in 2021 and the results were promising. Where once his arsenal contained a distinct slider and curveball, he now throws one breaking ball, and while it’s officially logged as a slider, it’s quite different from the version he used to throw. Velocity-wise it comes in around 86 mph, nearly in the middle of his old slider (89 mph) and his old curveball (81 mph), though calling it a slurve doesn’t feel quite right as its movement is very horizontal. This new breaker allowed only a .283 wOBA and he started working it in quite a bit, even lowering his fastball usage to accommodate throwing it more.
That new slider doesn’t keep the ball on the ground and neither does his high-spin fastball, so cavernous PNC Park will be a welcome site for Hembree and his 53.7% fly ball rate. Hembree brings plenty of experience to a young and largely underwhelming Pittsburgh bullpen that finished 26th in ERA- and 24th in K-BB% last season. David Bednar and his 2.23 ERA is the standout performer in the ‘pen; Hembree will likely be getting plenty of high-leverage innings setting him up this season, alongside workhorse reliever Chris Stratton. This move gives the Pirates a pretty talented top three in their bullpen, especially if Hembree can carry forward some of those interesting developments from last season.
As expected, the first weekend after the end of the lockout gave us a flurry of moves. Relievers in particular were a hot commodity, with teams trying to bolster their bullpens as the pool of quality pitchers continues to shrink. Let’s take a closer look at a few of these moves from over the weekend.
Kelly comes to Chicago on a two-year, $17 million deal with a club option for a third year. At 33, the veteran is coming off of a great season with the Dodgers, probably his best as a reliever. Underneath his 2.86 ERA, he posted a career-best swinging-strike rate (11.6%) and exit velocity (85.5 mph), as well as his lowest walk rate (8.2%) ever. Even with all the success, a pair of injuries raise questions about his durability moving forward. Kelly got a late start in 2021 because of an offseason surgery to clean up his shoulder, and his year ended with him walking off the mound in the playoffs after suffering a forearm injury. Luckily, he avoided the worst case scenario; all reports have him ready for the upcoming season.
Kelly’s successful 2021 came on the back of a dominant low-spin sinker. In each of the previous five seasons, his four-seam fastball was his most used heater, but after years of middling results with the pitch, he all but shelved it in 2021. A new sinker-heavy pitch mix helped increase his groundball rate over the years; his three primary pitches — sinker, curveball, and changeup — all generate grounders more than 55% of the time. Read the rest of this entry »
There’s a lot of power in Alec Bohm’s swing. He’s capable of getting completely twisted up, arms fully bent, on a pitch he has no business swinging at, and yet he can still get the barrel on the ball with enough power to blast it off the centerfield wall. Here, see for yourself:
It takes quick hands and great bat-to-ball skills to square up 93 mph that far in on your hands. It should be no surprise that the man behind that swing produced an 89th-percentile average exit velocity and 90th-percentile hard-hit rate in 2021. Yet good results rarely followed suit for Bohm, as the highly anticipated follow-up to his 138 wRC+ in his rookie campaign landed with a dud. The 6’5” third baseman proved unable to tap into his power, with only seven homers and a lowly .095 ISO — 15th percentile in the majors, well off the league average of .165 (though even during his stellar rookie season, he only got up to .145). His elite hard-hit rate wasn’t enough to keep his offense from cratering; he finished with a 75 wRC+ and was even demoted late in the season.
Bohm clearly has power potential, but after just 11 homers in his first 597 plate appearances, why hasn’t it surfaced? At first glance, it looks like a simple diagnosis: he hits the ball on the ground too often, and his ability to hit the ball hard is being diminished by a poor launch angle. That is certainly a good place to start given his 52.7% groundball rate last season, which ranked in the eighth percentile league-wide. Thriving with a groundball rate that high is not unheard of, but in order to do so, you really have to damage the fly balls you hit. It’s the Juan Soto model for success; he has an identical 52.7% grounder rate, but 24.4% of his fly balls leave the yard because he simply crushes them (average exit velocity: 96.2 mph). Bohm’s fly balls, meanwhile, are only leaving the park 11.3% of the time. Read the rest of this entry »
Connor Joe has had a turbulent couple of years. In the spring of 2019, he made his big league debut as the Opening Day left fielder for the Giants. Just a week prior, San Francisco had acquired him in a trade with the Reds, who had selected him in the Rule 5 draft just three months before that. His time with the Giants would also prove short-lived: after 11 days and a 1-for-15 start to the season, he was designated for assignment. As a Rule 5 pick, he was returned to his original team, the Dodgers, and spent the rest of the 2019 season in Triple-A, where he posted a 132 wRC+ and a 16.1% walk rate but never got the call to return to the big leagues.
The following year, Joe was expected to compete for a roster spot with the Dodgers, but just as spring training was getting underway, team doctors found a tumor that was later diagnosed as testicular cancer. He underwent chemotherapy treatments and was declared cancer-free later in the summer, but the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic kept him away from baseball for the whole season. He elected free agency in November 2020 and signed a minor league deal with the Rockies later that month.
The 2021 season finally gave Joe an opportunity to shine at the big league level, but it was not without its ups and downs. He started the season in the minors thanks to his lost 2020 and ended the season on the injured list due to a hamstring injury he suffered in early September. Between those endpoints, he struggled enough to get sent down, got hot enough to become the everyday leadoff hitter, and even celebrated his anniversary of being cancer-free by smashing his first career home run. All told, he had 211 plate appearances with a .285/.379/.469 triple slash, eight homers and a 116 wRC+. Read the rest of this entry »