Author Archive

Yuli Gurriel, Ageless Wonder

The Astros are good. Whatever you might’ve thought of their depth after losing George Springer, there was still such an overabundance of talent in their lineup as to patch up whatever variance you could imagine with any individual player. Alex Bregman is the only non-catching starter to be trailing his projected wRC+ by 10 or more points, and he’s still holding a 119 wRC+ this year. Maybe as expected, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve lead the team in WAR, but coming in third is ageless Yuli Gurriel. In his age-37 season, Gurriel is running a career-best 147 wRC+ and is one of only four qualified batters to have more walks than strikeouts (all stats for the rest of the piece are through June 29). It’s such an aesthetically pleasing statistical line, especially in this strikeout era, and is a step forward even for someone like Gurriel who has seldom struck out.

Yuli Gurriel Plate Discipline (2016-21)
Season BB% K% SwStr%
2016 3.6% 8.8% 8.7%
2017 3.9% 11.0% 8.1%
2018 4.0% 11.0% 7.0%
2019 6.0% 10.6% 6.8%
2020 5.2% 11.7% 6.7%
2021 11.2% 8.9% 4.8%

Gains in plate discipline are happening under the hood as well, which is surprising given both the type of hitter Gurriel has been and the fact that this is coming from a 37-year-old. Gurriel has never been one to strikeout or walk too much, so shifts in his plate discipline can certainly fly under the radar, or they had at least to me. But in his sixth year in the majors, we can see rather clear evolutions in his plate discipline that feel more purposeful than pure happenstance. Read the rest of this entry »

What Hard-Hit Foul Balls Might Tell Us

We’re now five years into the Statcast era, and with that has come a good base of knowledge and an understanding of what small sample events are significant or beyond noise. Alex Chamberlain recently provided a wonderful example of this type of analysis; I encourage you to read that to get a feel for what I’m going to be talking about. But where Alex and Connor Kurcon covered the values of hard-hit balls at extreme launch angles and extreme exit velocity at given pitch speeds, I want to cover foul balls and what we can — or maybe can’t — learn at the extremes.

Any quick look at the Statcast leaderboard will show you that Yermín Mercedes has a max exit velocity of 116.8 mph, good for ninth best in baseball this year. That’s an incredible feat for any player, but what criteria do we want to set when determining a max? We’re ultimately seeking to measure raw power output, so maybe we should be more inclusive to all batted ball events. If we include foul balls, Mercedes would suddenly have the sixth-highest max exit velocity in baseball at 117.7 mph.

I encourage you to listen to that clip with sound, because the play-by-play commentary is all we have as to where the ball landed.

That 0.9-mph jump might not mean much, but there’s more to it once you consider both the rarity of the batted ball and the fact that we have a number on it in the first place. There’s a wide acceptance of all stats derived solely from launch angle and exit velocity, but you should consider the importance of spray angle. In the same way that both Alex and Connor talked about abnormal exit velocities in the context of a pitch speed or launch angle, something similar should be noted when thinking about the spray of the ball.

To understand this relationship, it’s important to see the spray angle at which each player generates their max EV:

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On Max Scherzer and Saving Velocity

With the continual increases in league-wide fastball velocity each year, we’re beginning to understand that pitcher aging curves are going to change dramatically. As Jeff Zimmerman’s work makes clear, older pitchers are holding onto more of their fastball velocity and shedding usage at the same time. There’s a survivor’s bias in studying the pitchers who have accrued the most innings, but there’s something to be learned about the limits of maintaining velocity from pitchers who exemplify the modern game.

Max Scherzer is an archetype of the modern pitcher: someone who has been all gas and punchouts. But as he ages, he appears to be entering into a slow decline. He’s boosted his K-BB% rate from 23.4% last season to 30.9%, but his fastball has lost 0.6 mph (94.9 to 94.3 mph) off its average and 0.8 mph (97.9 to 97.1 mph) off its max. And while we can argue about averages, what might be most important for measuring arm health is max velocity.

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Checking in on the Hitter’s Count

There is a lot to dissect when it comes to understanding the increase in strikeouts in baseball. Pitchers at the plate are striking out at a higher clip than ever, but even when filtering out their plate appearances, we’re still seeing yearly increases in strikeout rate. A continued increase in velocity and an improved ability to spot fastballs up in the zone was always going to boost strikeouts, but we are also coming to shifts in pitching approach that are directly attacking long-standing hitter’s comforts, making even hitter’s counts unpredictable.

Since I’ll be going through league-wide pitching trends, it’s useful to take a quick glance at pitch usage for the year.

Pitch Usage in the Statcast Era
Season FB% SL% CT% CB% CH% SF% KN% XX%
2015 57.7% 14.7% 5.6% 9.1% 10.8% 1.4% 0.6% 0.5%
2016 56.7% 15.2% 5.7% 10.2% 10.3% 1.4% 0.6% 0.5%
2017 55.6% 16.3% 5.5% 10.6% 10.3% 1.3% 0.4% 0.5%
2018 54.9% 16.9% 5.6% 10.5% 10.7% 1.3% 0.1% 0.5%
2019 52.5% 18.3% 5.9% 10.6% 11.1% 1.4% 0.0% 0.4%
2020 50.5% 18.8% 6.6% 10.6% 11.9% 1.6% 0.0% 0.3%
2021 50.9% 19.8% 6.4% 9.9% 11.7% 1.4% 0.0% 0.4%

Fastball usage is holding steady from last year at just over 50%. In addition, the increase in slider usage continues, taking a chunk out of curveball usage. Still, the takeaway is that we’re approaching true 50/50 fastball/non-fastball usage splits over all counts, and it’s probably here to stay. Read the rest of this entry »

Shohei Ohtani’s New Cutter(s)

We are reaching peak levels of Shohei Ohtani early in the 2021 season. The true two-way play we were teased with in 2018 is now on full display, with both hitting and pitching in the same game. But as incredible as the hitting has been, there are still questions about Ohtani’s performance as a pitcher: In 18.2 innings, he has somehow pitched to a 2.41 ERA and 3.96 FIP despite a 22% walk rate that is third worst in the league among pitchers with 10 innings or more. Yet in the midst of massive control issues and everything he’s doing at the plate, Ohtani is continuing to develop as a pitcher, adding a multi-faceted cutter to the pitch mix.

There’s a Jekyll and Hyde nature that comes about even within Ohtani’s starts. Take a look at his April 26 outing in Texas to see what I’m talking about.

Something obviously clicked after the first, and all was well again. But looking at his pitch usage that night tells a story itself about where Ohtani is in his development as a pitcher.

It’s an overly simple bit of visualization, and it should be pretty clear what’s going on: Ohtani is largely only comfortable with the fastball and splitter. You can see that the slider, curveball and cutter barely feature, with the latter two popping up in the first inning but not after and the slider appearing only in the fifth and sixth. That’s in line with his career (70 innings) to date: fastball (52% usage), splitter (21%), slider (12%), curve (6%), and cutter (7%). Not that there isn’t precedent for a pitcher who can live primarily off of a four-seam/splitter mix (cf. Kevin Gausman), but it’s a dangerous line for a starter to walk, especially with Ohtani’s command as is.

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Aaron Judge Might Have Already Taken the Next Step

This is Owen’s first piece as a FanGraphs contributor. Owen is a recent college graduate who is passionate about all things baseball, data, and baseball data. As a native of Northern California, he has been a firsthand witness to historic baseball events such as Sean Doolittle, hitting prospect; Aaron Judge, football player; and Cliff Pennington. Among other things, he hopes to provide insight into machine learning and advanced analytics.

Aaron Judge has always been a fascinating case study; anyone with such an extreme profile helps to build our understanding of both what is possible and what is relevant to our understanding of which players are good. We know that even in the face of a high strikeout rate and below-average contact rates, Judge is an elite player, due in no small part to his 99th percentile power; he owns a career wRC+ of 151 despite having a 31% strikeout rate. But for many, there is a nagging sense of “what if.” What kind of hitter could he be if his plate discipline were better?

Those “what ifs” are the result of the improvement we saw Judge make after a 2017 swing change. We’re now years removed from that campaign. Judge’s 1,000-plus plate appearances since then make it likely that his plate discipline skills are what they are at this point. He was a model of consistency from 2017-19: an O-Swing% in the range of 24.6% to 25.9%, a Swing% that ranged from 40.3% to 42.7%, a CSW% that ranged from 28.6% to 31.5%, and a Contact% that ranged from 65.1% to 67.6%. Our coarse understanding of hitters’ plate discipline skills is that they’re largely immutable. After all, if they were more malleable, we’d probably see a lot more players cut their strikeout rates and boost their walk rates. Sometimes a change in how much a hitter is swinging outside the zone will stick out, but it’s often accompanied by a shift in how much they’re swinging overall, suggesting a change in their approach rather than a leap forward in their underlying ball and strike recognition. Read the rest of this entry »