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2021 Offered Us Towering Popups Galore

On the surface, popups may seem a bit mundane. Typically, the ball isn’t even visible on the broadcast and they are nearly always converted into outs. Nearly always isn’t always, though, and dropped popups are a treat to behold. And even if you aren’t lucky enough to see one actually drop, plenty of weird things can happen on plays that start off routine:

Since it’s the middle of the offseason, I thought it would be a good time to take a closer look at the popups of 2021. I don’t want just any old popups, though. I want the best of the best — the popups that cause players to lose their feet, the ones that make the crowd “ooh” and “aww” as the ball simply refuses to come down.

The easiest way to find these sky-scraping popups is to base our search off of exit velocity, as balls hit harder will go higher. An exit velocity of at least 97 mph seemed like a good cutoff point. Any lower, and the popups would start to feel less impressive; any higher, and the sample wouldn’t be large enough to satiate my desire to watch this sort of play. That cutoff left me with 126 popups representing the hardest 1.5% of popups hit this season (if you’d like to follow along, you can find the whole batch here on Baseball Savant). Read the rest of this entry »

The Twins Place a Small Bet on a Potentially Resurgent Jharel Cotton

Coming off of a disappointing last-place finish in the AL Central, the Twins made it clear that they were looking to compete in 2022. That would seemingly require them to rebuild their starting rotation after trading away José Berríos last season, losing Kenta Maeda to Tommy John surgery, and the departure of Michael Pineda via free agency. But as the rest of the baseball world was gobbling up free agents with a fervor that can only happen when Thanksgiving and an impending lockout collide, they were seldom heard from and hardly involved on some of the top arms. Maybe this should’ve been expected given their lack of history spending on pitchers, but their inaction has understandably drawn some criticism. But while they may not have made a big splash so far this offseason, they did make one smaller move that I find quite intriguing: adding right-handed pitcher Jharel Cotton.

Cotton found his way to the Twins after a series a setbacks that have, up to this point, derailed a once promising career. A former top 100 prospect with the Dodgers, he made 29 starts for the A’s in 2016 and ’17 before requiring Tommy John surgery during spring training in ’18. Hamstring surgery came next, just as he was working his way back in 2019. He spent the shortened pandemic season with the Cubs, but with a thick layer of rust needing to be knocked off and no minor league season to assist, he didn’t last long in Chicago. Finally, after three and a half long years, he returned to the big leagues late last season for the Rangers and more than looked the part of a quality pitcher with a 3.52 ERA and 3.72 FIP in 30.2 innings, albeit mostly in mop-up outings and entirely out of the bullpen.

The Rangers, afraid of his upcoming arbitration cost, cut him loose, and the Twins were able to work out a deal for only $700,000, barely above the league minimum. Luckily for Cotton, he’s now on a team that desperately needs quality arms; Minnesota’s rotation, as currently constructed, is shockingly thin and inexperienced.

Twins Starting Pitching Depth
Age Career Innings Projected ’22 ERA (ZiPS)
Dylan Bundy* 29 770.2 4.55
Bailey Ober 26 92.1 4.22
Joe Ryan 26 26.2 4.11
Randy Dobnak 27 125.2 4.36
Lewis Thorpe 26 59.1 5.04
Jharel Cotton* 30 189 4.52
Jake Faria* 28 203 5.20
Griffin Jax 27 82 5.53
Jordan Balazovic 23 0 (AA) 4.49
Jhoan Duran 24 0 (AAA) 4.53
Simeon Woods Richardson 21 0 (AA) 4.88
* New Acquisition

Cotton may lack the shine of some of the younger arms like Ober and Ryan, but I think he represents a nice bit of upside, and when you take a look at some of the skills he displayed in his return last season, he starts to look like a guy that could pitch some valuable innings.
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A Closer Look at Luis Robert’s Post-Injury Breakout

Luis Robert debuted in 2020 as our No. 7 prospect in baseball and put up up a strong rookie season with league average offensive numbers (100 wRC+), and stellar center field defense (8 Defensive Runs Saved), helping the White Sox return to the playoffs. Under the hood, though, there were some red flags. He had the worst SwStr% in baseball at 22.1%, as well as a 32.2% strikeout rate. His O-Swing rate of 43.1% was fourth worst in baseball, and even when he did make contact, he had a below-average exit velocity of only 87.9 mph. The 2021 season started off with a similar level of production until Robert suffered a torn hip flexor in early May that would end up costing him the middle three months of the season.

When he returned to action in early August, he immediately looked like a different hitter, putting up a 173 wRC+ over the rest of the season and, perhaps most impressive of all, dropping his SwStr% all the way down to 14.5% — not quite league average, but nowhere near the outlier he had been prior to his injury. Check out the contrast in his career numbers before and after his injury:

Robert’s Career Splits
Pre-Injury Post-Injury
PA 330 193
AVG .259 .350
OBP .320 .389
SLG .444 .622
wOBA .327 .424
BB% 8.2% 3.6%
K% 30.6% 17.1%
SwStr% 21.5% 14.5%
Exit Velo 88.3 92.0
Barrel% 11.9% 13.5%

As you can see, his gaudy offensive performance is now being backed up by a huge improvement in his strikeout rate, as well as much better quality of contact. Read the rest of this entry »

Cubs and Pirates Snag Top Two Catchers in Ever-Shrinking Market

Within the span of a few hours on Tuesday, the last two free-agent catchers projected to produce over 1 WAR next season came off the market. The Cubs landed Yan Gomes, as reported by Craig Mish of SportsGrid, for two years and $13 million with a $6 million option for a third year and some games played incentives worth up to $1 million per year. The Pirates, on the other hand, quickly filled a hole of their own making after trading Jacob Stallings to the Marlins on Monday afternoon by landing Roberto Pérez, the former Guardians catcher, as reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan. The deal was later specified to be worth $5 million over one year by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey.

As discussed by Devan Fink a couple of weeks ago, the catcher market this offseason is particularly dire, and the signing of Pérez and Gomes means that there are essentially no more starting caliber options left at the position. Let’s take a closer look at each player and how they fit with their new team before seeing what further implication these moves might have around the league. Read the rest of this entry »

Red Sox Fill Out Rotation With Intriguing Michael Wacha Addition

The Red Sox have made their first free-agent signing of the offseason, bringing in Michael Wacha on a one-year, $7 million deal, as the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier reported. The 2022 season will see Wacha donning his fourth uniform in the last four years after he spent ’21 with the Rays, ’20 with the Mets, and everything up to that point with the Cardinals. That recent bouncing around comes as his performance has fallen on hard times, with three straight seasons with an ERA over 4.50. But while the 30-year-old righty may not be a splashy signing, teams have found ace-level performance in this price range in previous years, like the Giants signing Kevin Gausman to a $9 million deal in 2019, or the Blue Jays signing Robbie Ray for $8 million last offseason. And in Wacha’s case, there were some interesting things happening with him late in the year that make this deal worth diving into.

Wacha’s Career Performance
2013-2018 2019-2021
ERA 3.77 5.11
ERA- 96 123
FIP 3.68 5.07
FIP- 93 120
HR/FB 10.3% 19.9%
K-BB% 13.1% 13.6%

When Wacha is off, as has often been the case since 2019, he has a hard time keeping the ball in the yard. His HR/FB rate has nearly doubled from his prime years with the Cardinals and is the fourth worst in the majors since 2019. And that’s despite his velocity — 93.8 mph on his four-seamer on average last year — being nearly the same as it was when he was in St. Louis. Read the rest of this entry »

Graveman Takes Rejuvenated Career to Chicago’s South Side

It’s a good time to be a pitcher: The market for hurlers has been ablaze with rumors and signings, and we haven’t even reached Thanksgiving. The latest move comes from the White Sox, who have signed reliever Kendall Graveman to a three-year, $24 million deal, per MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. He is already the fifth pitcher to sign a multi-year deal so far this offseason, and the sixth pitcher to come off our Top 50 free agent list, where he was ranked at No. 45.

Graveman spent his mid-20s as a starter for the A’s, posting elite ground-ball rates and minimal strikeouts — a recipe that never quite worked out, as by the time he had Tommy John surgery in 2018, he had a career ERA of 4.38, a FIP of 4.54, and a strikeout rate of only 15%. He returned to the big leagues in 2020 with the Mariners, which is where we first got a glimpse of his new form, with a 3.60 ERA and 3.09 FIP in a month of bullpen work to close out the season.

His successful transition to the ‘pen after struggling as a starter is hardly a new story, yet Graveman and his aversion to whiffs isn’t exactly the prototype you look for when trying to create a great reliever. One of the keys for him, as is often the case, came from tapping into unseen velocity when pitching shorter relief outings; what once was a 93-mph sinker now sat 96 and touched 99.

The velocity carried over into 2021, and with it, newfound run suppression, as he became a dominant closer for the surprising Mariners. By the time the trade deadline rolled around, Graveman had a 0.82 ERA, and while his peripherals (a 2.90 FIP and 3.13 xFIP) may have suggested he was closer to a good reliever than an elite one, it was still clear that the move to the bullpen had turned his career around. The Astros acquired him at the deadline to bolster their bullpen for the playoffs, and while still good, he regressed closer to what his peripherals had said all along, putting up a 3.13 ERA the rest of the way. Read the rest of this entry »

In One-Year Deal for Syndergaard, Angels Acquire Upside and Risk

The Angels made their first splash of the offseason on Tuesday by signing Noah Syndergaard to a one-year, $21 million deal, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan. He was no. 15 on our top 50 free agent rankings despite missing all of 2020 because of Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, and though he was expected back early in 2021, a large setback in his recovery cost him just almost the entirety of that season as well. Two innings out of the bullpen in late September is all we’ve seen out of him in the last two years.

Syndergaard’s Career Before Elbow Surgery (2015–19)
Stat Ranking Among Starters
ERA 3.31 20th
ERA- 84 28th
FIP 2.93 5th
FIP- 72 7th
WAR 18.7 10th
K% 26.3% 24th
BB% 5.7% 23rd
Fastball Velo 98.1 1st

A one-year deal this winter makes a lot of sense for Syndergaard, who can rebuild his value in hopes of getting a long-term contract next offseason. It’s less of a no-brainer for the Angels, as there is no opportunity to cash in on future years in case of a bounce-back, and it’s hard to imagine Syndergaard will be in top form in 2022, given the thick layer of rust that surely needs to be knocked off of him. Most teams probably viewed signing him as a two-year project. Look no further than his 2018 season, though, to see the outcome the Angels envision. Coming off a torn lat muscle that cost him most of his 2017 campaign, he proceeded to put up a 3.03 ERA/2.80 FIP over 154.1 innings despite diminished velocity.

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Urquidy Rebounds as Astros Tie Series with Game 2 Win

After a rough Game 1 loss to the Braves, Astros manager Dusty Baker spoke confidently about his team: “I’ve never seen these guys worry. They know they can play.” His confidence was reflected in his decision to stick to the script and start José Urquidy in Game 2 rather than go with a fully rested Luis Garcia, the star of Game 6 of the ALCS. Part of the logic of having Urquidy pitch Wednesday came down to his fly ball tendencies and the availability of the DH, which allowed the Astros to run out their best outfield defense (in Games 3, 4 and 5, the Astros will likely be somewhat compromised in the field by starting Yordan Alvarez in left). In Urquidy’s disastrous first postseason outing, he only managed to get five outs while allowing five earned runs, mostly due to command struggles that led to a grand slam by Kyle Schwarber. But when Urquidy is right, he throws endless strikes and gets weakly hit fly balls and pops ups with a plus fastball that he throws over 50% of the time.

Urquidy looked sharp to start the game, pumping fastballs and working tremendously quickly. He has pretty strong reverse splits thanks to a nasty changeup that he features to lefties, and he got Atlanta’s hottest hitter, Eddie Rosario, to strikeout swinging on a changeup to lead off the first. It was a glimpse of things to come. His other key secondary offering is his slider, which is his main weapon against righties. After Ozzie Albies reached with two outs on a swinging bunt (55.8 mph exit velocity), the right-handed heart of the Atlanta’s lineup came up. It quickly became clear that Urquidy didn’t have his slider. Austin Riley drilled one into right field for a base hit, after which Urquidy hung a couple to Jorge Soler before getting him to strikeout on a fastball to end the threat.

Unlike the Astros, the Braves didn’t really have any questions about who they were running out for Game 2. Max Fried was their ace during the second half of the season and one of the best pitchers in baseball over that span. The injury to Charlie Morton in Game 1 put even more pressure on Fried to step up and deliver not one, but two strong outings in this series. A matchup with the Astros isn’t easy for any pitcher but it’s especially difficult for a lefty like Fried, as Houston posted a 117 wRC+ against southpaws this season, tops in baseball. Read the rest of this entry »

Yordan Alvarez Is Crushing the Ball

Yordan Alvarez is an imposing figure in the batter’s box. The lefty stands 6-foot-5, towering over home plate with his knees bent and bat coiled, simply daring the pitcher to throw him a pitch in the zone while having the patience to spit at pitches not to his liking. With his toothpick-gnawing manager, Dusty Baker, looking on from the dugout, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another hitter from Baker’s past who led him to his only other World Series appearance back in 2002. No other hitter is quite like Barry Bonds, but Alvarez has been a treat to watch with his impressive blend of patience (18.6% walk rate) and power (.353 ISO). He earned ALCS MVP honors after going 12-for-23 with five extra base hits, and he capped off the series with a massive 4-for-4 night in the decisive Game 6 to knock the Red Sox out of the playoffs and advance to the World Series:

Game 6 was a microcosm of his performance all postseason: roasting extra base hits from line to line, whether he’s seeing offspeed pitches at the knees or high-90s fastballs painted on the outside corner. Here’s how his performance has staked up against other hitters this October:

Top 2021 Playoff Performers
Yordan Alvarez 18.6 25.6 95.3 .353 .538 .500
Chris Taylor 11.6 20.9 85.6 .432 .485 .499
Eddie Rosario 7.3 12.2 90.8 .316 .545 .475
J.D. Martinez 13.2 26.3 96.0 .344 .473 .475
Rafael Devers 13.7 15.7 94.9 .341 .430 .441
Freddie Freeman 20.9 27.9 93.0 .324 .445 .428
Cody Bellinger 10.5 28.9 93.8 .118 .390 .400
Enrique Hernández 1.9 11.5 90.1 .429 .515 .395
Will Smith 12.0 16.0 89.8 .250 .359 .387
Kyle Schwarber 10.2 22.4 92.7 .227 .308 .376
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Min. 100 pitches seen

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Dodgers Pester Giants Relentlessly, Force a Decisive Game 5

One of Dodgers’ biggest moves in last night’s must-win Game 4 came long before the players took the field, when Dave Roberts announced that he would start Walker Buehler on short rest rather than turn to Tony Gonsolin. It was a gamble necessitated by losing an extremely tight Game 3 to fall behind 2-1 in the best-of-five NLDS. Gabe Kapler, for his part, opted to stick to the script of starting Anthony DeSclafani, leaving Game 1 hero Logan Webb waiting in the wings for a potential Game 5. Let’s examine how those decisions played out.

The Early Innings

From the jump, Buehler proved he was up to the task in his first career start on short rest, not looking anything like a diminished version of himself. His velocity was up a full tick, and he worked quickly while hitting his spots.

DeSclafani, on the other hand, was unable to hold serve. His slider-heavy evening (50% usage on the night after 36% during the season) had the Dodgers sitting on the pitch. Their aggressive approach paid off; they swung at four of the first five sliders they saw, which led to three line drives and a quick 1-0 lead. The damage was limited to just the one run, as DeSclafani moved off his slider to strike out Justin Turner and end the inning. Read the rest of this entry »