About eight years ago, Tanner Roark was pitching in the independent Frontier League after his college team released him. He had an ERA greater than 20.00 in three games. Then the Rangers drafted him, traded him to the Nationals, and he switched to throwing only two-seamers as his main fastball. A few years later, he put up a three-win, 198-inning season, and now — after largely unsuccessful work out of the bullpen in 2015 — he’s a few days removed from a 15-strikeout game. The career arc was pretty tumultuous and incredible before Saturday’s game, and now it’s the sort of thing about which someone writes a book a decade afterwards.
Let’s start with a table to reinforce this day of strangeness. Below is a list of all of the 15-plus strikeout games in the past five years. There are 21 of them, from Jered Weaver’s (!) 15-K game in April of 2011 all the way up to Roark’s gem this past Saturday. Average fastball velocity displayed is for that particular 15-plus strikeout game:
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We’ve gotten to see many sides of Nolan Arenado over the past two years. The maker of ridiculous defensive plays. The hitter of a multitude of home runs. The effusive trotter of the base paths. With regard to his plate discipline, however, Arenado hasn’t changed much since he got to the majors. To call him a “free swinger” doesn’t really do him justice: between 2014 and -15, Arenado ranked 10th in overall swing percentage (53.5%) and eighth in swing percentage at pitches outside of the strike zone (38.7%). As a result, he hasn’t walked much since he was called up in 2014 — at just over half the league average the past two years — which, hey, is something you might do too if you had the talent and skill to hit 40-plus home runs in the major leagues. In 2015, he saw the 17th-fewest pitches per plate appearance out of qualified hitters. Arenado hasn’t really waited around, is the point. He’s been aggressive in and out of the zone, and the trade-off has been fewer free passes. The reward was ten first-pitch home runs last season.
Swinging as much as Arenado has in the past two years tends to require other skills to offset/complement that tendency, like above-average contact rates, great power, or speed on the base paths. An illustration: of the ten leaders in overall swing percentage from 2015, five had below-average contact rates:
We’re left to wonder how players who have established careers in international leagues will fare when they first reach the major leagues: some never find the same level of production they had overseas, others endure a tough adjustment period, and a precious few immediately take to their new surroundings. From what we’ve seen of Kenta Maeda so far, he appears as if he could be a member of that final group: with only one earned run conceded in 19.0 innings over his first three starts of 2016, Maeda has been every bit of the solid #2/#3 starter the Dodgers envisioned slotting behind Clayton Kershaw. Maeda is also quietly echoing the success of another rookie Dodger starter who came before him, one whose consecutive string of successes to start the season led to the receipt both of the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards in the same season — and caused a sea change in Dodgers’ fandom while doing it.
There are a few interesting trends that have been driving Maeda’s success in this young season. While he’s posting a slightly depressed BABIP (.250) compared to league average, his batted-ball profile so far suggests that might not be a fluke: his line-drive rate is in the top 25 of starters with at least 10 innings pitched, and he’s posted above-average ground-ball and infield-fly rates. The 100% strand rate won’t stick, and the 5.9% HR/FB rate likely won’t either, but there’s at least some encouraging signal in this noise. We already had an idea that Maeda’s walk rate was going to be better than average, and he hasn’t disappointed in that respect, issuing free passes to just 5.5% of batters faced.
It’s Maeda’s unique approach that warrants the most attention, however. Last December, our own Eno Sarris tried to find a comp for Maeda, and he included this snippet in his breakdown:
Maeda’s best secondary is a slider, and his next-best is probably also his slider (he varies the velocity and shape). Against righties this year , Maeda was almost 95% fastball/slider according to some observers.
In 2016, Maeda has lived up to that billing. He’s thrown his slider almost 30% of the time overall, and against righties, the mark is 41.2%. He can alternate between a 79 mph offering with increased vertical movement, like this:
Inevitably, after just a week and change’s worth of games, we find players on teams that have gotten off to slow starts saying things about how it’s just April, and win-loss records don’t matter too much. Outward optimism is sort of a prerequisite if you’re a professional athlete — whether you truly feel it or not — but there’s no doubt the majority of players who make these comments most likely believe them. It is early, and there’s plenty of time left in the season. But, as Jeff pointed out this week, the games matter! Playoff odds have changed. For the Braves, they never really had a shot to begin with, so starting 0-8 doesn’t change too much. But for the Minnesota Twins, their longshot campaign to make the playoffs this season has taken a faceplant.
Let’s talk about the Twins first, as they’re the big story here, and the American League Central is likely to be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball this season. Though our projections liked (and still like) Cleveland’s team this season, the Royals have declared war on those projections, and the Tigers and White Sox have built interesting teams with upside. That is true to some extent for the Twins as well: they’re building for the future, sure, but they also have some intriguing breakout candidates who could theoretically propel them into contention in a division that doesn’t have a clear-cut top dog. Those are the makings of a potentially great four- or five-way division battle throughout the season! Or else, that was the idea until now, eight games into the season, when the Twins find themselves 0-8. Here’s what that has done to their potential playoff odds (click on the image for a larger version):
I would be remiss if I wrote an article about a young player showing ridiculous power in the first week of the season and failed to mention Trevor Story. Consider him mentioned! Hand him the MVP and Rookie of the Year already, stop pitching to him, all that. He’s been great. But here’s someone who’s also been great: a 24-year-old shortstop-turned-third baseman for the rebuilding Cincinnati Reds by the name of Eugenio Suarez. He’s quietly hit four home runs in the first six games of the season. That’s a pretty good return, even if we already knew Suarez had the ability to hit for some power based on last year’s 13 homers in 97 games. However, there are some other things that Suarez has done in the early going — and in some cases, not done — that warrant attention from us.
First, a little background. Let’s look at some examples. Suarez first came up for the Tigers in 2014, playing 85 games at shortstop while showing an average walk rate and bad strikeout rate. He hit for a .097 isolated-power mark, which was below his average minor-league ISO but not exactly outside the realm of belief for a guy just making the jump. After watching a lot of examples, this is about a fair approximation of his 2014 swing, from a game against the Royals in late September of 2014:
A bit of an open stance (he seemed to vacillate between a more open stance and an almost square stance during 2014), a short stride and toe tap, and a nice clean single to left field.
Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what to say. Trying to encapsulate the true feelings of a fan base can leave us searching for words, grasping at the disparate ends of an often tattered, communal cloth. Those words might not be too hard to find for the Padres fan base right now, however. After being swept by the Dodgers this week while scoring zero runs in their opening series, it probably consists of a long string of expletives. Maybe a few sudden sobs. The meat of this article might not make you feel better about the past three games, Padres fans. But something brought me back to this series — not just its historic futility on the part of one of the teams, but the nature of that futility.
First, the history. The 2016 Padres are the first team in baseball history to score zero runs in their first three games of the season. That’s been well publicized. There’s more, though. There always is, but in this case, the more is really just more of less. Take a look at where the 2016 Padres stand among the worst-starting teams in baseball history in terms of a few chosen statistics, found through Baseball Reference’s Play Index (all ranks are through the first three games of respective seasons):
The wrong kind of historic across the board, these are the sort of numbers we see when the team that was projected to score the fewest runs in the majors goes up against a Dodgers rotation featuring Clayton Kershaw, Scott Kazmir, and Kenta Maeda. And, looking at these numbers, a lot of readers are probably going to think the Padres deserved this sort of start from the way their team is constructed and the way they played. But what actually goes into a historically bad start like this? Was it truly the Padres’ futility, or did the baseball gods have a part to play in this series? The answer almost certainly lies somewhere in between, but the finding out is the fun part. So here we go!
Did you, like many others, come into this season wondering what to expect out of Robinson Cano? Did you believe that reports of his demise might be greatly exaggerated? Well, if three games are any indication, wonder no longer. He’s hit four home runs in 14 plate appearances! I don’t really need to dive too deep into his wRC+ (it’s 340), or many other stats at this point in the season, because they’ll simply reinforce for you that he’s been pretty impossibly good in 27 innings of baseball. The “I don’t need to hit the ball in the field of play” second baseman has a BABIP of .000. The point of this piece, then, is to tell you how and why Cano has been good, and the specific parts of his plate approach that are assuaging some of the fears people had about him last season.
Cano’s 2015 featured, at root, two halves. Every season of every player’s career features two halves, but Cano’s were relevant in that his production was starkly divided between the two of them. There was pre-July 1st Cano, he of the .105 ISO and 71 wRC+. And then there was post-July 1st Cano, he of the .209 ISO and 157 wRC+. Second-half Cano was literally 100% better than first-half Cano when compared to league average.
If you’re reading this, you probably know that everyone was trying to figure out what was wrong in that first half. Here’s Jeff mainly talking about him hitting too many ground balls. Here’s Dan going in-depth on how his hitting mechanics were a little messed-up. Here’s an interview in which Cano says a stomach parasite sapped his strength. There was obviously a lot going on, and his first-half performance was probably all of those negative forces coming together in the form of terrible baseballing.
The second half of 2015 was a complete turnaround, however. He started to hit more line drives and fly balls. He went to the opposite field at something closer to his career rates. His home run/fly ball rate and BABIP regressed toward (and surpassed) his career norms. His first half probably wasn’t as bad as it looked, but his second half was a pretty effective inversion of that. Players in their early 30s who play poorly for extended periods while on massive contracts tend to be placed under a microscope, however, so questions about Cano’s partial 2015 failures followed him into 2016.
He’s answered those questions pretty effectively in the early going. And, while we shouldn’t take anything away from what Cano’s done so far, we also need to ask some questions of how the Rangers approached him in their just-concluded opening series. Sure, we should remind ourselves that it’s just three games, but the very obvious way Texas pitched to him could act as a bit of a warning for those teams about to face him. So how did the Rangers approach him? The answer was, unequivocally, “witin the zone.” Take a look at Cano’s in-zone rate and rate of first-pitch strikes from 2013 to 2015 as compared to the series against the Rangers:
Meaningful baseball! The world is right again. Full stadiums, actual numbers in the win-loss columns, Curt Schilling in the booth, all of it. Except, as we saw yesterday in our three games during “Soft Opening Day,” the first few games of the season can feel a bit like an extension of spring training — at least performance-wise. Sure, there was Chris Archer and Marcus Stroman dueling in Tampa (even though Archer might not have had the trademark control of his slider at times), and the Royals doing many Royals things, but there were also things like this, in the first game of the day:
A few weeks ago, I ventured into the topic of whether the 2016 Cleveland Indians’ starting rotation had a chance at breaking the league-adjusted team strikeout rate record held by the 1990 Mets. Those Mets (comprising a front four of Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Frank Viola, and Sid Fernandez) struck out 47% more batters than a 1990 league-average rotation. That was ridiculously good in 1990, and today, it’d be even more incredible were a team able to do it, given the increase in strikeouts league-wide and the expectation that there probably is a ceiling to the strikeout trend. (Because there has to be, right?)
The reason we focused on Cleveland was simple: they almost reached the level of those Mets for a few months in the beginning of the 2015 season. In April and May, they were striking out around 27% of the batters they faced, a mark which nearly approximated the sort of video-game numbers required to match the league-adjusted total of the 1990 Mets. Though they finished first in baseball by striking out 24.2% of batters (which was also the highest strikeout rate for a starting rotation in baseball history), they finished only 41st-best in terms of yearly league-adjusted K rate. Ho-hum. The conclusion of that previous article was, unsurprisingly, that Cleveland would have to outperform their expectations by a sizeable amount to have a chance at the 1990 Mets.
But one of you astute, noble readers was not entirely satisfied with that rational answer. Instead, phoenix2042 challenged us by putting forth a question: what would a starting rotation that could beat that record look like in the modern game? Which 2016 personnel would a team require in order to best a strikeout rate that’s 47% better than the league average? Well, phoenix2042 — and the rest of you wondering readers — this piece aims to answer that question. We will build rotations worthy of a video game, and they will best the 1990 Mets.
First, as before, let’s look at what rotation-wide strikeout rates would be required to break the record in this coming season. I’ve taken the average yearly increase in rotation strikeout rate for each league: over the past 30 years, strikeout rates for starting rotations have increased by about 0.2% per year, on average, and at a slightly higher rate in the past 10 years. Averaging this trend, I calculated the so-called “holy grail” strikeout rate of just over the 1990 Mets (i.e. >47% above league average):
Some really good teams on that graph. Some not-so-good teams on that graph. We turn our attention to the not-so-good ones, who, even though they may have vastly improved (hey, Rockies!), still find themselves performing the metaphorical mop-up duties of the 2016 bullpen power rankings.
Onto the relievers!
What a difference a year makes! Last March, we had this bullpen projected for 0.5 WAR and 28th place. This year, they’ve made it up to 3.0 and 16th. Team sports represent one of the few arenas in which an entity could make so drastic a transformation in one calendar year, and the process, dear readers, was quite simple: fire most everyone and hire new people! It seems primed to work, at least on paper, and before anything has actually happened. That is confidence.
As with anything that happens in relation to pitching half of a season’s games at Coors Field, however, the outcomes of this bullpen could be quite volatile. With a completely revamped back end of Jake McGee, Jason Motte, and Chad Qualls, the Rockies would appear to have three very solid end-of-game options. But that papers over the fact that only one of these pitchers (Qualls) is a solid ground-ball pitcher, and even he has always had his share of home-run issues (career 13.1% HR/FB rate). Even if the batted-ball outcomes might appear slightly scary on the surface in relation to homer-happy Coors Field, the Rockies should at least have a solid bullpen this coming season, and a vastly improved one from 2015.
None of this mentions the hopeful return of Adam Ottavino, one of the darlings of the first month of the 2015 season. Should he return to full health sometime around the All-Star break (he’s just started a throwing program on his way back from Tommy John surgery), he could provide a serious shot in the arm that could elevate the overall production of this bullpen.