Author Archive

Adam Ottavino’s Wild Day at the Office

Adam Ottavino had three wild pitches this year before Sunday’s game.

That’s one of those opening sentences that doesn’t bode well for what happened next. You can’t reduce your wild-pitch total, and it’s generally not newsworthy when someone throws just one wild pitch, regardless of how devastating the ramifications of that errant throw are. For this sort of thing to be newsworthy, Ottavino would have had to commit a particularly nasty act of self-immolation.

Well, he did. Ottavino threw four wild pitches, and runs scored on all four of them. The Rockies scored six runs. Because of the wild pitches, though, they lost. It’s not what you want if you’re a Rockies fan.

A Tommy John survivor, Ottavino’s had a much rougher time putting the ball where he wants it to go this season. He carried a 14% walk rate into Sunday, the ninth-worst mark among qualified relievers. Then he walked three of the nine batters he faced. A walk rate that high is never all that great, but it helps that Ottavino can also strike guys out. He boasts a mid-90s fastball and a slider so notorious that it has its own Twitter account. When it’s on, it’s disgusting, and that’s the state it’s usually in. When it’s not, things can get hairy. The slider wasn’t the issue yesterday. His fastball is what got him in trouble.

Tony Wolters wants the fastball away from Yasmani Grandal’s bat with the bases loaded. The fastball didn’t go away. It went in, and bored a hole to the backstop. Ottavino’s release point is all out of whack, so he’s throwing across his body far more than usual. By the time he releases the ball, it’s got nowhere left to go. Justin Turner jogs home, and it’s a one-run game.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Demystification of the Dinger

We live in an era of home runs. You know that. It’s been discussed ad nauseam on your favorite team’s broadcast, on your Twitter feed, and by your favorite baseball writers. We’re going to talk about it some more now.

The cause for this spike is manifold. Players are swinging up and for the fences, as you may have heard. They’re better-conditioned and better-fed. We understand the science and kinetics of hitting better than ever. The ball is quite possibly juiced. It’s a perfect storm of dingeritis that’s led to a fascinating new world where it’s not just guys like Aaron Judge and Paul Goldschmidt who are in scoring position the very second they step into the box. Well over 100 batters have hit at least 10 home runs, and we’re not out of June yet. The list grows to more than 240 batters if you include those who have hit at least 5, which means they’ve got a fair shot of getting to double digits before the season is out.

So yeah, we’re going coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs here. Which leads to an interesting question: if this continues, if the ball really is juiced and if players are going to keep chasing fly balls when they’re in the box, if anyone can hit the ball out, doesn’t that make a home run less special? Doesn’t that make a home run less valuable? Doesn’t it alter projections for amateurs and prospects?

There’s two important lines of thought there, so we’ll tackle the inside-baseball stuff first. If you’re running a baseball team, you’re probably no longer getting worked up over a free agent with 20-homer power because of his power alone. Why dish out a two- or three-year deal for a veteran when there are kids in your minor-league system who can replicate that kind of power on the cheap? Power was one of the last remaining calling cards of free agents. Defense and speed can decrease with time, but veterans could get paid for their bats. Rookies and journeymen like Yonder Alonso are suddenly tapping into previously unrecognized reservoirs of power with wild success. Not everyone has a Cody Bellinger sitting around at Triple-A, but given the way the ball is flying around and the way hitters are structuring their swings, you may be able to scrounge up 15 bombs for a league-minimum salary.

We already saw some of this over the winter when players like Chris Carter had a hard time finding work. Power is coming even easier now. It’s becoming less of a defining tool. If everyone can hit 15-20 bombs, it then becomes a question of what else a player can do for you, and for how much. Can you field well? Can you play multiple positions? Do you walk a lot? Can you do all that for cheap?

There’s more to this than team-building and the squeezing out of veterans, too. There’s a fan’s side to this too, and it’s probably more important. We’re now witnessing home runs more often than ever. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa aren’t running around out there anymore. The word “anabolic” isn’t in the papers all that often anymore. This is more dramatic than the steroid era. Maybe we’ll one day call this the “uppercut era,” the “juiced-ball era,” or the “three-true-outcomes era.” But this is clearly a different animal. Balls that have never really gone out before are going out. Is there a saturation point?

Read the rest of this entry »

A World Without Mike Trout

It was just last week that we were extolling the virtues of Mike Trout. How quickly things can change. How quickly the hammer of fate can smite those who dare tempt it. How quickly things can go so very wrong.

When Trout stole second base in the fifth inning on Sunday, he came up wagging his hand and in pain. He eventually left the game, and we now know that he tore a ligament in his thumb when he accidentally jammed his hand into the bag while sliding. Trout’s elected to have surgery to repair the ligament and has a six- to eight-week timetable to return.

Read the rest of this entry »

Mike Leake Was Leading the National League in ERA

Let us consider, for a moment, the matter of Mike Leake.

The mental image you have of Leake is probably that of a serviceable mid-to-back-end starter. Leake doesn’t strike many guys out, and he’s perhaps walked a few too many men for comfort considering his lack of punchouts. Leake does not make your team a contender, but he makes it viable. He’s a good bowl of potato leek soup if you’ll pardon the unwitting pun: not your first choice on the menu, but one that’s hearty and comforting when done right. Teams need good bowls of soup. They’re not much if they only have superstars and super-scrubs. They need something in the middle. They need arms to throw decent innings. Mike Leake has been that man for years.

Until now, perhaps. Before Clayton Kershaw took the mound last night and threw nine innings of one-run ball, Leake had the lowest ERA in the National League at 2.03. Kershaw has now assumed his rightful place at the head of the pack with a 2.01. That would seem like a return to normalcy — that is, if Leake’s 2.03 ERA itself weren’t so abnormal.

As you might suspect, the underlying metrics don’t think Leake is pitching exactly this well. His 3.18 FIP is still quite good, while his 3.73 DRA is less enthusiastic. His ground-ball rate is identical to last year’s, while he’s allowing fewer line drives and more fly balls. Opposing batters are putting just .244 when they put the ball in play against him, which is interesting considering that the Cardinals haven’t been all that great on defense this year. He’s not creating especially soft or hard contact, either. He’s near the middle of the league in average exit velocity.

So what exactly is going on here? How does a soul-warming bowl of soup turn into a delicacy?

Let us consider, for a moment, the St. Louis rotation.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Preposterous Mike Trout

It’s that time again, when we provide your somewhat regularly scheduled update on the exploits of Mike Trout. When we last saw our protagonist, he was rocking a 210 wRC+ on April 24th. That was good enough for sixth best in baseball, but given that it was April 24th, we were sure to see some regression. Right?

Now it’s May 24th, and Mike Trout has a 220 wRC+. That’s the best in baseball. It means he’s been 120% better on offense than the league average. He’s twice the average offensive player and then some. Since he’s often considered to be a reincarnation of Mickey Mantle, it should be noted that Mantle never had a single season wRC+ that high, his best mark being a 217 in 1957. He was worth 11.4 WAR in 144 games.

Speaking of WAR, Trout’s accumulated a 3.3 mark so far this year. That naturally also leads the league by a fair margin and has taken Trout over the 50-win mark for his career. In doing so, he’s passed a number of all-time greats in total career value. Those players include Luis Aparicio, Orlando Cepeda, Fred Lynn, David Ortiz, and Jimmy Rollins. He’s very close to passing George Sisler and Enos Slaughter. He’s still got a few months until he turns 26.

Of course, it’s not surprising to see Trout playing this well. It’s not surprising that this past Monday’s game was only the seventh 0-for he’s taken over the first 42 games he’s played this year. (He still managed to walk twice.) It’s not shocking to see Trout playing out of his mind like this, or to know that the above homer from yesterday tied him for the big league lead in homers with Aaron Judge.

And that’s because he’s Mike Trout, the guy who’s already punched his ticket as one of the best players to ever play the game. He’s the guy who’s finished first or second in MVP voting in every full season he’s played, and arguably should have won every time. He’s been the most consistently great player in the game since the second he was called up in 2012. He’s among that extremely small percentage of players who shouldn’t be discounted from being able to carry a 200 (or larger) wRC+ for a whole season, because he’s simply that talented. And by typical player aging curves, Trout hasn’t even hit his prime yet.

Trout, as good as he’s been, has never finished a season having outpaced the league by this much. It’s important to note that it is, indeed, just May 24th, but Trout’s hitting profile looks pretty similar to what he’s produced in the past. He’s just simply hitting the ball with even more power. His walk and strikeout rates are generally the same as last year, and he’s basically taken just two percentage points of ground-ball rate and put them into fly-ball rate. The only marked difference is that his soft contact rate is somehow up to 20% from 12%.

Ben Lindbergh recently noted in an excellent piece of work at The Ringer that Trout is swinging more than ever, and that he’s swinging more often at meatballs in the middle. Swinging more often can sometimes be dangerous, but Trout is pulling it off with aplomb, as Ben noted.

In his first, brief exposure to the big leagues, Trout’s selective aggression ranked in the first percentile compared with qualifying hitters. He swung at fewer than half of the pitches he saw in the strike zone and almost a third of likely balls, showing relatively little ability to differentiate between pitches he could punish and pitches even he would have a hard time driving. His ratio improved in 2012 and again in 2013 and 2014 before regressing in 2015, when he was probably playing through a wrist issue. Last year and this year, his strike zone judgment has made further strides, to the point that he’s now in the 94th percentile — one of the game’s smartest swingers

Having a strong feel for the strike zone isn’t the only ingredient of offensive success: Plenty of hitters have the ability to distinguish balls from strikes but lack the coordination and power to make the most of that skill. But when a hitter with Trout’s physical gifts adds elite discipline to the mix, pitchers can’t counter. Thus far, they’ve thrown fewer pitches in the strike zone to Trout than ever before, but he’s not biting on bad pitches. Over the course of his career, Trout has produced a .465 weighted on-base average when swinging at pitches inside the strike zone and a .250 wOBA when swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. It makes perfect sense that he’d be even more potent now that he’s swinging at the former pitches more often and the latter less often.

Ben also pointed out that Trout is pouncing on first-pitch curves more than ever, which counters a previously popular method of attack against him. Trout is plugging the few tiny holes in his game, and it’s resulting in some dazzling production.

There’s probably going to be a bit of regression from the phenomenal offensive high he’s currently riding, but there isn’t reason to expect a ton of it. We’ve always wondered about the hypothetical of whether or not Trout has peaked yet, of whether or not there’s still room between his current state and the upper limit of his possible performance. That may be what we’re looking at right now. If Trout is reaching his physical peak, maybe that explains his .411 ISO, which is well above that even of the behemoth Judge.

Nothing should be surprising with Trout, except if perhaps if he took the mound and started striking people out. As I noted over the winter, he’s basically already a Hall of Famer. He’s just gotten even better now. Trout could very well come back down to his heightened version of reality at some point in the near or distant future, because it’s extremely hard to hit this well for an entire season. There have only been 32 instances of a qualified batter carrying a wRC+ of 200 or greater for a season. Many of those campaigns were had by men named Ruth, Bonds, and Williams. That’s how good Trout has been, and what kind of company he would have to keep to do this from now until October.

We shouldn’t put it past him. We shouldn’t expect him to do it, either, but we shouldn’t immediately discount it. Trout is a special player, and possibly the greatest to ever play the game. He’s the one thing keeping the Angels from being basement-dwellers.

He’s absolutely, incredibly, ridiculously great. We’re lucky to be able to watch him perform.

What You Can Reasonably Say About Chris Taylor Right Now

My first memory of Chris Taylor is of him serving as the third part of the illustrious Nick FranklinBrad Miller – Taylor line in Seattle. He was the third to come up and the third to stumble. There were some who were of a mind that Franklin and Miller would turn into long-term assets for the Mariners, and that Taylor could be the sort of everyday regular who doesn’t make headlines but steadfastly contributes.

Now, a few years later, none of them play for Seattle. Franklin is struggling for the Brewers, and Miller is on the DL after an unexpected 30-homer campaign in Tampa. Taylor is a Dodger following a midseason trade last year.

He’s amassed 1.4 WAR in 29 games so far this year, and he’s slugging .583. Just as precisely nobody expected.

Some of the old reports on Taylor said that he would be a decent enough hitter, but that he’d make his money with his glove. Nobody ever looked at Taylor and saw a serious power threat, or a player who would prove to offer real value on both sides of the ball like this year. It’s just 29 games, and indeed, just 101 plate appearances. And when you go to his stats page, that .411 BABIP stands out like a sore thumb that just suffered a paper cut and was doused in lemon juice. But there’s so much more than dumb luck going on here.

Read the rest of this entry »

A Joey Votto Rarity

People love experiencing rarities. We flock to see Halley’s Comet when it comes around every 75 years, and to botanical gardens to see the blossoming of a flower that smells like death. There’s a thrill to seeing — or in the case of the flower, smelling — something that few others have. It’s not a unique experience, but it’s close. We likely experience many of little moments like this every day without realizing it. We only register the major events, like comets or death flowers, or Joey Votto pop ups.

Since he first entered the big leagues in 2007, Joey Votto boasts the lowest infield-fly-ball rate among all qualified batters at 1.3%. That figure was slightly lower before yesterday’s game against the Cubs, when he did this.

That’s the first batted ball that Votto has popped up to an infielder in fair territory since September 16th, 2016 — and that previous pop up was caught on the outfield grass, what Play Index describes as being in the “Deep SS-3B hole.” In fact, every pop up to an infielder by Votto in 2016 was described as deep in the hole. To find Votto’s last pop up that was caught by an infielder in fair territory that was actually in the infield, you’d have to go all the way back to May 24th of 2015, when Trevor Bauer got him to pop up to second base.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Coming Red Sox-Orioles Bidding War

The Orioles and Red Sox have provided some of the season’s juiciest narrative thus far. Everyone (well, almost everyone) loves a good bit of drama, even when it’s remarkably dumb drama. And even though our postseason odds favor Boston by a considerable margin in the AL East, Baltimore has made a habit in recent years of outperforming their projections. The two teams are going to be going for the jugular against each other for the rest of the season, and it’s going to make for some great baseball.

They may find themselves directly competing off the field, as well. Both teams have dire needs on the left side of the infield. The Red Sox haven’t had a strong third-base presence in some time, and the Orioles are hurting badly at shortstop with J.J. Hardy firmly in his decline phase and contributing just a 38 wRC+ thus far. Boston’s third-base woes are particularly bad this year, given that the cast of characters who have taken the position this year have combined for -0.5 WAR. These two problems don’t initially seem to be all that related. The teams will theoretically be scouring two different trade markets, no?

Maybe, maybe not. The simplest solution for Baltimore would be to just go get a shortstop like Zack Cozart, who’s hitting well and playing for a Reds team that probably isn’t as talented as they’ve looked thus far. However, Cozart is currently the only truly attractive shortstop option on a still-evolving trade market and there are other teams who will likely prefer Cozart over someone like Freddy Galvis. The Orioles also don’t have very much prospect capital with which to work, and could easily be outbid. Therefore a more elegant solution presents itself: moving Manny Machado to short and pursuing someone to play third. Machado is one of the best all-around defenders in the game, and is a natural shortstop. He could do it in a heartbeat.

Read the rest of this entry »

Moving on from the Derek Jeter Era

As you may have heard, the Yankees are retiring Derek Jeter’s number on Sunday. ESPN’s coverage of the ceremony — and the subsequent game, of course — will begin at a surprisingly early 8:00 a.m. EST. The first pitch of the game between the Astros and Yankees, two of the powerhouse teams in the American League, is scheduled for 7:35 at night. Sunday Night Baseball usually kicks off at 8, but the Yankees got ESPN to agree to moving the game up to give the pre-game ceremonies (and theoretically the game itself) a larger audience and reach.

Of course, a player can’t have his number retired unless he himself is retired, and indeed, Jeter hasn’t suited up since 2014. His retirement was kind of a big deal, as you likely remember. It turned into a media bonanza that facilitated the sale of many tickets and even more merchandise. Jeter struggled that year to a -0.1 WAR and the Yankees just barely missed the playoffs. He started at shortstop in the All-Star Game. Even when he clearly had overstayed his welcome as a productive player, he still represented a massive source of revenue for the Yankees and for the sport.

MLB social media has spent the week doing a tournament of Jeter’s best moments under the #Jeets16 hashtag. Budweiser just put out an ad that uses the number retirement as its inspiration. The league, and a corporation as huge as Anheuser-Busch, wouldn’t be doing a Jeter-shaped media blitz if there wasn’t profit to be made here. And there is, of course, seeing as Jeter was the most recognizable figure in baseball, and one of the most recognizable people in all of sports, for nearly two decades.

There’s still something a little strange, though, about having this much hullabaloo about a retired player. The Sunday night game features two strong teams chock full of exciting young talent. Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and George Springer will all be taking part in this game.  There’s absolutely room to celebrate both Jeter’s past and those players’ present and future. Given the pre-game focus on Jeter, it will be interesting to see how much of the game broadcast is spent discussing him and not the game itself. It could go some way to revealing ESPN’s production interests.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Giants Are Stuck

Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan for the Giants. A year after winning the Wild Card game, they’ve got the worst record in baseball and, as of right now, a 7% chance of making the playoffs. They’ve lost their ace to a foolish dirt-bike accident, and their starters at shortstop and center field, as well as their closer, are on the DL. They’ve scored the second-fewest runs of any team, and their run differential of -69 makes that even worse. It’s May 10th and the Giants may already be dead.

Teams this far out of the playoff picture typically make the most of it by offloading pieces to contenders in exchange for prospects. It’s much too early in the year for theoretical contenders to be pushing their chips to the center of the table just yet, but it’s not too early for them to be surveying the shape of the market. Unfortunately for both buyers and San Francisco, the Giants may not have many pieces to pick over.

Players who get moved at midseason usually don’t have much time remaining on their contracts before they hit free agency. They’re guys who may not be around when the selling team is making its next playoff run — or whom the club can otherwise afford to replace. The Giants have pretty much their entire core under contract for next year. Only Hunter Pence and possibly Denard Span (depending on how the Giants decide to handle his option) will leave for free agency following 2018’s conclusion. They’ll have Bumgarner back at full strength next year, and in the unlikely event that Johnny Cueto doesn’t opt out, he’ll be there, too. If Cueto does opt out, this upcoming free-agent class doesn’t lack for premium starting pitching, on which the Giants have repeatedly shown themselves willing to spend.

That’s all a somewhat roundabout way of saying that the Giants don’t exactly have a ton of expendable trade chips at the moment. This season doesn’t look like the start of an irreparable decline as much as it looks like a rather large bump in the road. There’s no reason the Giants can’t be competitive next year, even if they do lose Cueto. But barring a massive resurgence and excellent play from their currently injured players, the Giants aren’t going anywhere this year, and they’re not really in a position to better prepare themselves for the future.

Read the rest of this entry »