For much of the 2021 season, the story of the Milwaukee Brewers has been the dominant pitching they’ve gotten from their three aces, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta. Those three all have ERAs under 3.00 and have combined for 14.6 WAR. Since July 1, the Brewers have been on an absolute tear, going 41-23; the once competitive NL Central has turned into a blowout. The roll they’ve been on hasn’t come entirely from who you might expect, though. Look at their starting pitching since July 1:
Please attempt to ignore the nonsense that Burnes has been up to and check out how good Eric Lauer has been. Yes, Adrian Houser has been great, too, but I want to focus on Lauer. His 3.10 ERA is nearly a run and a half better than his previous best and even with him outperforming his peripherals (3.94 FIP, 4.22 xFIP, 4.05 xERA), those marks remain career bests as well. So how has he done it? Read the rest of this entry »
In the years after being drafted by the Los Angeles Angels 10th overall in 2017, Jo Adell was one of the most exciting prospects in baseball. He spent the next few season flying up prospect lists around the industry; at FanGraphs, Adell ranked 66th overall in 2018, 11th in 2019, and fourth going into 2020. Last year, he made his much-hyped debut but it went about as poorly as 38 games and 132 plate appearances can go. He struck out a shocking 41.7% of the time, with an abysmal 29 wRC+. When combined with his surprisingly poor defense, he ended up being the least valuable player in baseball last season.
Adell spent his offseason retooling his swing and sharpening his defense. The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya had this to say about Adell’s changes:
“One day in the cage, he started to cut things down. He held his hands higher, reducing their movement before the pitch. He focused on putting his body in a position to consistently be on time and athletic, rotating through his hips to generate power instead of attempting to force it. He ditched his leg kick, opting for a toe tap that gave him more of a window to stay on time and on plane with a flatter overall approach.”
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It’s already September, and maybe you’re still processing that fact. I’ll do you one better by pointing out that the Dodgers and Giants are about to play each other for the final time in the regular season. This is the earliest in the year that these rivals’ last series has occurred since way back in 1968, when Willie Mays and Don Drysdale were fixtures of the rivalry.
With Los Angeles and San Francisco tied atop the division and both teams on pace for 100 wins for the first time since 1962, I thought it prudent to break down what we might expect in this big weekend series.
The Dodgers and Giants have split their 16 games so far (with San Francisco winning five of the last seven), featuring stellar pitching, unlikely heroes, home run robberies and blown saves. A four-game series in mid-July was full of drama, including Tyler Rogers giving up a walk-off homer to Will Smith, his second three-run outing against the Dodgers this season.
The very next night — actually the next two nights — it was Kenley Jansen who was handed a ninth-inning lead but walked off to a booing home crowd both times after giving up seven combined runs.
That’s just how this series has gone; no lead is safe from a disaster.
Josh Bell has long been stuck in a quagmire. He possesses the rare quality of hitting the ball extremely hard (92nd percentile HardHit%) while not striking out much (66th percentile K%); only Juan Soto, Manny Machado, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. have a better hard hit rate and better strikeout rate. We’ve seen stretches where this elite combination led to tremendous results, like his two-month tear in 2019 when he put up a 178 wRC+, but for the most part, Bell has settled in as a hitter who falls far short of those lofty heights. And since that breakout 2019, his production has fallen below even his stats before that season, with a 94 wRC+ over his last 634 plate appearances.
One characteristic of Bell’s career is that he is a swing tinkerer. It’s hard to analyze a player when every week you might be looking at a different stance or a new load. If you remember Ben Clemens’ article on Bell from 2019, you may be familiar with some of the tinkering that he has done. That year, he mostly settled into a quieter setup and consistent pre-swing routine, which may have led to his career-low ground-ball rate of 44% and career-high 37 home runs. Fast-forward to this last off-season, when Tony Wolfe wrote up his trade to the Nationals and pointed out that, in 2020, he was back to tinkering with his swing constantly. That is the Josh Bell quagmire: Is he struggling because he’s constantly changing something, or is he constantly changing something because he’s struggling?
I’ve decided to wade into this muck because I never tire of seeing Bell hit home runs, and I simply want there to be more of them. Take the following one, for example:
Notice how he is off-balance. That swing was all arms, and it didn’t matter.
Sure, you’ve seen prodigious power before. You’ve retweeted a Joey Gallo “pop-up” that left the yard or ogled at Franmil Reyes hitting an opposite-field line drive that just never stops going, but those guys strike out over 30% of the time. Bell does weird stuff like that while running a strikeout rate under 20%. Read the rest of this entry »
Whit Merrifield has long been one of the best base stealers in the game, but he has seemingly reached a new level of thievery this season, with 33 steals on only 35 attempts. That 94% success rate is the highest of his career and leads the majors among players with at least 20 attempts (Bo Bichette is an impressive 17 for 17). Our base running metric pegs him as the most valuable runner in the game, and he’s on pace to set a new career high in steals (he swiped 45 in 2018) with a chance to become the first player to reach 50 steals since 2017 — and all at the age of 32.
What’s particularly interesting is that, despite a 90th percentile Sprint Speed of 28.7 feet per second, which is about a half a foot per second off of his peak, Merrifield is far from elite when it comes to his short distance split times, which is a good way to gauge a player’s acceleration. His 90-foot split has gone from a peak of 3.89 seconds in 2018 to 3.97 this season, or from the 79th percentile to the 68th. Other elite thieves like Trea Turner, Byron Buxton and Tim Locastro have splits in the 99th percentile. Even Starling Marte, a fellow high success-rate stealer in his early 30s, is in the 81st percentile.
Base stealing is much more than a runner going top speed, though; it’s a mental and physical duel between the base runner and the pitcher. (That’s not to make light of the catcher’s role, but they are often left holding a baton, and the blame, for a race long lost.) What makes Merrifield the best base stealer in the game at a time when he’s far from the fastest player in the game is that he’s a master of this duel.
In late June, Chicago White Sox rookie and 2019 third overall pick Andrew Vaughn had a 13-game stretch where he struck out 31% of the time with a 15.1% swinging strike rate. This slump brought his season-long wRC+ down to 91 and his K-rate up to 27.2%. It was a disappointing start to the career of a prospect who was seen as having a great hit tool and had always had below-average strikeout rates in the minors. That stretch culminated in a three-game series against the Mariners that saw Vaughn strike out four times in eight plate appearances and wave through 20% of the pitches he saw:
The White Sox had a day off the next day and by the time their next series against the Twins started on June 29, Vaughn had snapped out of his funk. In fact, he didn’t whiff a single time in the series against Minnesota. When watching his swing in that series, you could notice an adjustment beginning to take shape. Focus on his hands, compared to the swings you saw above:
Vaughn’s ability to make contact has continued and since June 29, his swinging strike rate is an elite of 6.3% — that’s Juan Soto territory. Now that we are into August, Vaughn’s new hand load has solidified further, making it easier to see the difference compared to his early season swings. Here’s a better look at the adjustment:
For much of the San Francisco Giants’ wildly improbable 2021 season, the story of their pitching success (they have the third-best ERA and fourth-best FIP in baseball) has centered on a group of revitalized veterans, namely Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani, Johnny Cueto and Alex Wood, who have pitched better than ever, or at least better than they have in years. The shine on that group has begun to fade in recent weeks, however: the staff ace, Gausman, had a rough July and DeSclafani has struggled recently and now finds himself on the Injured List. Enter Logan Webb, a pitcher much their junior, who couldn’t have picked a better time to get his first taste of big league success.
A fourth round pick back in 2014, Webb moved methodically through a Giants farm system that was struggling to develop starting pitching. Even with the blockades of a 2016 Tommy John Surgery and a 2019 PED suspension, Webb still made his debut in 2019 at 22 years old, making him the youngest Giants starter to debut since Madison Bumgarner did so at age 20 in 2009.
Now 24, Webb is sustaining a high-level of performance in the midst of a pennant race that has the Giants gripping tightly to first place in a stout NL West. He currently boasts an ERA (3.33) more than two runs better than his career mark prior to the season (5.36). He also has the best ERA and FIP in the rotation since July 1 and has given up two runs or fewer in his last eight starts — half of which came against the vaunted Dodgers (three times) and Astros:
If you’ve been able to keep pace with our trade deadline articles, you’ve probably noticed a lot of articles about the Braves. They’ve brought in an entirely new outfield just today: Jorge Soler from the Royals and Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall from Cleveland and Miami, respectively. That’s after acquiring Joc Pederson a few weeks ago when they lost Ronald Acuña Jr. to injury. It’s a flurry of moves for a team in a precarious playoff position: below .500 and with playoff odds under 10%. At the same time, Atlanta is only four games back of the Mets in the NL East.
With both the stretch run and a potential postseason stay in mind, the Braves decided to keep churning, acquiring reliever Richard Rodríguez from the Pirates for a pair of prospects: right-handers Bryse Wilson and Ricky DeVito. Rodríguez is no playoffs-or-bust rental, though; he has the most team control left of any of the players Atlanta added at the deadline, as he won’t reach free agency until after the 2023 season.
Rodríguez, 31, will go from being the Pirates’ closer to a high-leverage role with the Braves, perhaps even getting some save opportunities if manager Brian Snitker wants to platoon the righty with primary closer Will Smith, a lefty. Rodríguez’s 2.82 ERA and 2.58 FIP are excellent, but there are some red flags in his profile. His strikeout rate has dropped precipitously, going from 36.6% in 2020 to 22.8 this year — from the 96th percentile to the 40th. He’s also sporting an unsustainably low HR/FB rate of 3.3%.
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With the help of an endearing smile and wipeout slider, Sergio Romo has become a favorite of many a fanbase throughout his long and successful career. Currently with the Oakland A’s, Romo is in his 14th season. At age 38, you would expect any pitcher to be a shell of their former self, yet Romo continues to get hitters out in mostly the same way he always has: sliders, sliders and more sliders. He even has a new wrinkle that might be making his slider even better.
Of course, this season hasn’t gone exactly to plan. Romo got off to quite a rough start; through April he had a 9.35 ERA and 5.70 FIP. He wasn’t getting strikeouts at his usual level (13.3% K-rate) and his dominant slider was uncharacteristically hittable (.370 wOBA). Given his age and the way his 2020 ended (he had a 5.59 FIP in September), you had to wonder whether Romo’s time in the big leagues was drawing to a close. Come May however, he had righted the ship in a big way and since then he’s been the A’s most dominant reliever, posting a 1.88 ERA and 1.83 FIP. Most importantly for fans of his slider, the pitch is back to doing this:
That location off the plate is where Romo likes to live with his slider but he wasn’t able to execute there when he was struggling in April. Take a look at his slider heat maps to righties:
When you sit back and daydream about the perfect changeup, which one comes to mind? Do you think of Luis Castillo’s circle changeup, or maybe Gerrit Cole’s power change? Perhaps modern pitchers aren’t doing it for you and Trevor Hoffman has your favorite changeup. Regardless of what changeup takes shape in your imagination, there is always room for a new one to catch your fancy.
That’s Patrick Sandoval and his changeup is one of the nastiest pitches in baseball. I know that is quite the claim, but take a look at the best swinging strike rates for starting pitchers, broken down by individual pitch.
Being sandwiched between two of the most supremely talented players in the game is no easy feat, not to mention the number of Cy Young awards and All-Stars appearances that comprise the rest of the list. In fact, Sandoval sticks out like a sore thumb as he’s nearly unheard of compared to these other pitchers. Sandoval has the best whiff inducing changeup in baseball this season and it’s not particularly close. The next best among starting pitchers is Brandon Woodruff’s changeup with a 23.0% SwStr%, or Raisel Iglesias’ changeup at 27.7%, if you are interested in relievers as well. Read the rest of this entry »