Usually, we expect players to follow a more or less expected curve of decline when they hit their 30s. Obviously everyone is different, but baseball is a young man’s game, and father time comes for us all. Research by Jeff Zimmerman in 2013 showed that hitters don’t even tend to peak nowadays: on average, they perform at a plateau upon reaching the majors, then they decline. Take the wRC+ aging curve for a few different time periods, for instance:
We often talk about a player being “in his prime,” but primes are probably younger than many (or most) people think. In this era, 26 is really the beginning of the average hitter’s offensive decline. Which brings us to Ian Kinsler, who will turn 34 in June: he’s currently posting what would be the highest wRC+ of his career, and Isolated Power marks in line with his best home run-hitting seasons of 2009/2011. That isn’t particularly huge news: plenty of veteran hitters have ~40 game stretches in which they match close to their prime production.
The real news is that Kinsler is currently going beyond that, showing a few underlying indicators that amount to him turning back the clock. He’s also altered his approach, and the combined forces are helping to drive what is currently shaping up to be his best offensive season since he posted a 123 wRC+ with 32 homers in 2011. Kinsler is probably never going to steal 30 bases again (or maybe even 20), but he’s picking up that slack in his production at the plate, especially power-wise.
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We have a number of great ERA estimators on this site. FIP, xFIP, SIERA: choose your favorite, because they all have a place in attempting to better describe outcomes closer to a pitcher’s true talent over a given timeframe. Maybe you’re lazy, or maybe you’re different, but it can also be nice to have a dead simple one — which is where K-BB% comes in. If a pitcher is striking guys out and limiting walks, that’s a fundamentally positive thing, and it turns out K-BB% is actually the best in-season predictor of future performance out of all the ERA estimators on the site (though it’s still not a great predictor, to be honest). Unless a pitcher possesses a signature batted-ball profile, K-BB% represents a nice, handy way of feeling a little better about a guy if his ERA hasn’t been quite up to expectations. Or, you know, feeling worse about a guy whose ERA has been lower than what his peripherals seem to say it should be.
Which brings us to the current K-BB% leaderboard. A casual perusal yields these top-five worst K-BB% rates among qualified starters in the major leagues:
Negative? Negative! These guys all have pretty middling strikeout rates, and the top few have some serious control problems. Just in case you were wondering, no one ran a negative K-BB% among qualified starters last season. It makes sense, given that it’s a hard thing to do while still being allowed to pitch a lot of meaningful innings in majo- league baseball games. But Ventura is currently doing it, and his ERA is “just” 4.62! And yet this next table, of Ventura’s current FIP and xFIP ranks among qualified starters, seems relevant, given his current standing with strikeouts and walks: Read the rest of this entry »
The Boston Red Sox played the first game of a series versus the Houston Astros last night, and they scored 11 runs, eight of which came against Houston starter Dallas Keuchel. The day before that, they played the Oakland A’s, and they scored 13 runs. The two days prior to that — also against the A’s — they scored 13 and 14 runs, respectively, with one of those games coming against Oakland starter Sonny Gray. In the span of four days, Boston torched last year’s Cy Young Award-winner and the third place runner-up for a combined 15 earned runs. Pitching in the major leagues tends to be a matter of razor-thin margins, and that margin is made even more razor-thin in the pitcher-unfriendly confines of Fenway Park; regardless of that fact, the Red Sox offense is currently in the equivalent of a brightly-colored baseball fever dream, going berserk on anything and everything in its path.
We’ve seen a couple articles about this offense in the past few days. The sheer number of offensive categories they currently lead in baseball is wildly impressive. We’re going to dig a little deeper today, however, and get a little historical perspective before trying to pin down the processes this offense has taken to cause such an incredible run of form.
First, let’s take a look at where this offense would rank if it finished the season with this type of production. Let’s compare the 2016 Red Sox to every team since the start of the live ball era (1920) by wRC+. wRC+ is adjusted for parks and leagues, so it allows us to easily compare offenses from different years to one another. Take a look at the top 10 teams of all time by wRC+ — with each point above 100 representing a percentage point above league average:
Nothing about Josh Donaldson being great is surprising anymore. There was the late-career breakout in 2012, and then confirmation that the breakout was real in 2013-14. And then, of course, he won the Most Valuable Player award in 2015. We love stories about unexpected rises to prominence more than anything else, and that’s true within baseball and outside of it. Once a player reaches the elite and stays there, the story of the rise fades away, and consistent excellence has a strange way of becoming almost routine — whether it deserves it or not. (Note: it does not.) The really fun part comes, however, when great players do things to try and make themselves more great, pushing themselves past the already absurdly high plateau. From what we’ve seen so far this season, Donaldson appears to be embarking on that hallowed and honorable mission.
First, a little background to what we’re talking about. Donaldson based his breakout on better patience, all-fields power, and a few aggressive mechanical changes. Those mechanical changes were based on the leg kick and bat tipping of Jose Bautista, so it was a nice coincidence when the two were united on the Blue Jays last season. Here’s a couple GIFs that visually explain some of those changes, from a 2014 interview with Jerry Brewer:
The latter swing is more of the hitter we know today — the guy who consistently murderizes baseballs — and we can see the quite obvious visual similarities to Bautista’s swing. It’s also the swing that, along with his great defense, vaulted him into the top of the WAR leaderboards over the past few years. Since he joined the Jays, however, Donaldson’s batted-ball tendencies have trended more toward his other power-laden teammate, Edwin Encarnacion. There’s certainly potentially something to gain from him moving more toward Encarnacion’s approach, as it has mimicked the sort of trajectory a number of players follow during single-season power surges. Here, allow us to consider how.
A quick check of the pitching leaderboards for qualified starters reveals an unsettling fact for the Red Sox: David Price has the second-worst ERA in baseball. Cue the alarm bells! The Sox paid for an ace, and instead, they’ve gotten the exact opposite of an ace — as far as outcomes are concerned, at least. Seven starts into the season, some element of worry has to be merited, right? The answer is yes, of course, because an ERA of almost seven for a No. 1 starter after over a month of games has to be worrying. Price has been terrible, and if you’re worrying about him or would like to, that’s probably merited. The reason why we’re here is to look into whether his performance thus far is grounds to for worry in the future, as well: though Price can’t get any of his clunkers back from the past seven starts, we can certainly look into whether those clunkers might presage future clunkers.
First, let’s start with the bad news, because it’s always better to end with good news. The bad news has been right there in front of us in every single one of Price’s starts this season, flashed up on a board in the stadium or on our TV screens during every pitch: his velocity is down. Way down. Lowest it’s ever been. That’s worrisome not only because velocity loss leads to a smaller margin of error, but also because velocity loss is the most visible indicator of injury. The drop captured in the red box in the chart below — depicting Price’s velocity by month from 2011 to 2016 — ought usually to inspire some concern (chart courtesy of Brooks Baseball):
We’re here every year, it feels like. May rolls around, we notice that Brandon Belt has been doing new things in the early part of the season, and then we forget about it until the next season rolls around when we start all over again. Maybe it’s because he’s been the victim of a few impact injuries that have caused him to miss time in the second half of the past two seasons. Maybe it’s because he plays in the hardest park at which to hit home runs as a left-handed hitter for 81 games a year. Either way, it seems like Belt doesn’t really get his due. By all accounts, he should: by WAR, he was a top-five first baseman in 2013, and he was top-seven in 2015. Last season, he produced more offense by wRC+ than Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Abreu, or Eric Hosmer. What’s most impressive about Belt, however, is that he has always been evolving, and once again he’s showing some pretty significant adjustments so far this season.
We can trace a long line of Belt’s many evolutions. There was his breakout toward the end of 2012 and into 2013. There were his aggressive swing%/pull% adjustments in 2014. And finally, there was his plate coverage/opposite field power increase in 2015. Belt has obviously always been looking to improve on the craft of hitting, even if the overall results haven’t followed the perfect trajectory: removing an injury-marred 2014 that saw him play only 61 games, Belt has recorded wRC+ marks of 119, 140, and 135 in 2012, 2013, and 2015, respectively. Early adjustments brought him to a very high level, but subsequent ones haven’t quite vaulted him into the elite.
There’s not much that can compare to his wholesale improvements this year, however. I considered holding off on this article until the point at which we could get stabilization on a few more of his stats — ISO, in particular — but the changes are simply too glaring to ignore for another month or so. They’re exciting. We couldn’t wait. Let’s start with these few key offensive statistics:
There’s a vestigial anchor from my baseball past that I drag around — it’s called Red Sox fandom, and it’s attached to a barely seaworthy vessel whose form is an email group of mainly older Boston fans. Most of the debates that happen on the email chain are really just individual manifestations of the argument surrounding process vs. outcome. Like a lot of traditionally-minded baseball fans, most of the members of the group are outcomes people, as baseball fans have been taught to be for the past 100-plus years — focusing on ERA, batting average, etc. I tend to find myself more on the process end of the spectrum, and lately I’ve been thinking about this debate as it relates to pitching — and especially as it relates to Noah Syndergaard.
You could argue that no one’s process is better than Syndergaard’s right now — and, most recently, Jeff Sullivan actually has argued that. If the goal of pitching is to limit base-runners — and thus limit runs — the right-hander is about as good as it gets. I like quick ERA estimators like strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%) partly because I’m lazy and partly because I think they’re nifty, and currently Syndergaard is second in K-BB%, which is the best quick ERA estimator we have. Strikeouts? Elite. Walks? Elite. Velocity? Arsenal? Unparalleled. The processes he’s taking to influence positive outcomes are second really only to Clayton Kershaw this season, and for the most part, he’s been rewarded for them. But there is one glaring issue he still has — laid bare in his past two starts — which we’ll get a lot of chances to see below.
All of that said, the main question we’re going to be answering today is: how does a team score runs off of Syndergaard? Every pitcher has to give up runs at some point, no matter how impressive their talent. Today, we engage in a fun exercise to examine those runs. So let’s go through a month’s worth of starts!
A primer for what we’re about to discuss: looking at Statcast data through Baseball Savant, Syndergaard has the lowest average exit velocity among pitchers with a minimum of 60 batted-ball events. Those events include both hits and outs, and it’s testament to the type of contact against him — and the frame for a lot of what we’ll be looking at today. Here’s a reminder of what exit velocity generally means for outcomes. Now let’s jump in, with the understanding that we’re going to skip over his first start of the season, as he didn’t give up any runs. Onward!
A casual stroll down the stacks of the FanGraphs hitting leaderboards for outfielders yields many interesting takeaways, but perhaps none more interesting than this: among the top 10 outfielders by wRC+, there’s a 23-year-old who played only 45 games above High-A before being called up to the majors last year. He came into this season with the expectation of being a left-handed platoon bat, and now he’s leading the majors in hard-hit rate and hitting third everyday in the sixth-best offensive lineup in baseball. A year can change a lot of things, and it has changed more for Michael Conforto than for just about anyone else in baseball.
Conforto had about as successful a short stint in the majors during 2015 as one could hope for out of a young player with little experience in the high minors — he posted a 134 wRC+ in 56 games, hit a few important home runs in the playoffs, and outperformed the established historical expectations for players in his position. Conforto was good for 2.1 WAR in those 56 games, and the Mets went from a .505 team without him — 3.0 games back in their division — to a .631 team with him, comfortable winners of the National League East. The August/September 2015 Mets weren’t just Conforto, of course, but the Mets needed an offensive jolt, and he provided it. Conforto’s introduction represented a tidy dividing line between mediocrity and wild success, and we’d be fools not to at least recognize the narrative convenience of that line.
That type of introduction to the major leagues is hard to live up to — and yet! Here we are, a month into the season, and Conforto has lived up to them. More than lived up to them, in fact. He’s probably created new expectations, and they’re even loftier, almost impossible ones. We know how easy it is to be wrong about April numbers. It’s folly to think that April assures us of what’s going to happen for the rest of the season. But, while we shouldn’t necessarily expect this current level of production out of him moving forward, he’s showing us a few real improvements so far this season that merit some attention. Conforto isn’t truly this good (no one is), but there’s a reason he’s currently this good.
Let’s start with who he was in 2015. Describing Conforto as a dead-pull hitter in 2015 wouldn’t be accurate, but he was close: he ranked 35th from bottom in terms of batted balls to the opposite field (out of 361 qualifying hitters, min. 190 PAs). Interestingly, he had a hole in his swing, and it was on the inside part of the plate — not really where you’d expect to find it for such a pull-happy hitter. Take a look at his isolated power per pitch location from 2015:
It’s always a little dicey writing negative articles. Pointing out deficiencies simply isn’t as fun as pointing out strengths, and there’s something that just feels, well, a little wrong about basing work on something a player is trying so hard to do well. That doesn’t feel like it pertains to this article about Joey Votto, however, mostly because he’s always been extremely good at baseball, and will almost certainly be extremely good at baseball in the near future. Votto has a great contract, an incredible career under his belt, and the prospect of many more wildly successful seasons. The dude is smart and awesome, and we’re simply not too worried about him. However — and the however is important — for really the first time in his career, Votto has been terrible at the plate for almost a full month. That’s at once unbelievable and utterly fascinating, and it’s the reason why we’re here.
So let’s start with a chart. Here’s a readout of Votto’s monthly wRC+ figures since he was called up to the majors in September of 2007. We could have gone with a rolling average, but the monthly delineation gives us a few clear reference points. Mouse over the chart for more information:
The White Sox beat the Blue Jays last night by a score of 10-1 (box). Comprehensive victory. Chris Sale won his fifth game, going a ho-hum 8 innings versus a lefty-destroying lineup in a hitter’s park. Southside hitters compiled 15 hits. They won on Monday in the first game of the series and five of the six games before that, too, and today they go for the sweep at the Rogers Centre — at which park the Blue Jays haven’t been swept since 2013. No one is saying that two games and the prospect of an early (and difficult) road sweep make a season, but the White Sox are one of two teams in baseball with 15 wins, and that merits some investigation. It would merit investigation no matter what team it was, but it especially merits investigation given where the White Sox were projected to finish this season.
At the beginning of the season, our projected American League Central standings looked like this:
There’s a lot of parity in the AL this season — not necessarily top-tier parity, but a solid, middle-of-the-road type where each of the division races could go down to the wire. The AL Central fits that mold, with the preseason projections telling us the Indians were clear favorites — though if the 2014-2015 Royals were any indication, we could expect the race to possibly be tighter. The Central was potentially seen as one of the more volatile divisions, with the possibility we could have a four-way race for the division. There was even the idea before the season started that even the Twins — with a little luck and a few breakouts — could be in the mix, but that seems less possible (to put it nicely) given their woeful start. Where do the playoff odds stack up for the Central now? Let’s take a look: