Author Archive

Anthony Rendon Isn’t Underrated Anymore

In 2017, The Ringer called Anthony Rendon baseball’s “unknown superstar.” A year later, at the conclusion of the 2018 season, Beyond the Box Score described Rendon as “constantly overlooked.” I’m pretty sure there’s a law somewhere that says that when you write about Rendon, you have to describe him using the word “underrated” or one like it. But rules were made to be broken, and this one has run its course. Rendon is too good to be underrated any more. He has a strong case as being the best third baseman in baseball — which is an incredibly deep field — and an even better case as one of the top 10 players in the game overall.

Let’s start with the top-line figures and then get into the mechanics. Here are baseball’s WAR leaders since 2013, when Rendon made his debut for the Nationals:

WAR Leaders, 2013-2019
Player wOBA PA WAR/100 PA WAR
Mike Trout .424 4,499 1.39 62.6
Josh Donaldson .382 4,148 0.98 40.6
Mookie Betts .377 3,629 1.03 37.2
Buster Posey .348 3,898 0.95 36.9
Paul Goldschmidt .391 4,626 0.77 35.8
Christian Yelich .374 4,043 0.83 33.6
José Altuve .363 4,594 0.72 32.9
Anthony Rendon .366 3,927 0.83 32.7
Freddie Freeman .386 4,424 0.73 32.5
Manny Machado .349 4,533 0.71 32.0

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Rays Exploit Astros’ Unrest, Force Game 5

In the fourth inning of Tuesday night’s Game 4, with José Altuve on first base, one out, and the Rays already up by three, Yordan Álvarez hit a deep fly ball to right-center field. You’d have been forgiven, in this home run-happy era, for thinking at first that the ball had left the park. You’d similarly have lost not one whit of credibility had you assumed that Kevin Kiermaier, one of the best center fielders of his era, might catch the ball on the run. But neither of those two things happened; the ball instead bounced beautifully off the right-center field wall and hung, for just a moment, in the air above Kiermaier’s head. That was the moment — when the ball hung briefly in stark contrast against dark blue — in which Gary Pettis, the Astros’ third-base coach since 2014, had to decide whether to send Altuve home.

As Ben Clemens pointed out in the game chat, our WPA Inquirer suggests that at the time Pettis made his decision, the Astros would have had about a 28.1% chance of winning the game had Altuve stopped at third, a 17.7% chance of winning the game if he went and was thrown out (which is what happened), and a 29.8% chance of winning the game had he run and scored. That distribution suggests, all other things being equal, that Pettis had to believe Altuve was likely to score at least 86% of the time in order to justify sending him (29.8 – 17.7 = 12.1; 12.1 * 0.86 + 17.7 = 28.1). Given that math, I find it hard to fault Pettis for his choice to run Altuve. It took two essentially perfect throws, from Keirmaier and Willy Adames in turn, plus a terrific tag from Travis d’Arnaud, to get Altuve at the plate by a hair. I know it won’t make the Astros feel better given the result, but it was fun to watch. Read the rest of this entry »

Corbin’s Labor in Vain as Nationals’ Exit Looms

Dave Martinez didn’t exactly shower Aníbal Sánchez with praise when he penciled the 35-year-old into the starter’s spot and his postseason series early Sunday morning in Washington (35 doesn’t seem that old until you realize that 2001, the year in which Martinez made his last major-league plate appearance, was the same year in which Sánchez signed as an international free agent with the Red Sox). When pressed on the choice — between Sánchez, who hadn’t pitched in 10 days, and Wild Card starter Max Scherzer on two days rest (he threw in relief in Game 2 Friday) — Martinez was brief. “I’ve asked a lot of guys to hold off on their bullpens,” he said.

But Sánchez, the part of this game that wasn’t supposed to go well for the Nationals, acquitted himself admirably over five innings and 87 pitches of work. The first inning was dicey, with two walks and a single sandwiched around a foulout to right by Max Muncy and a swinging strikeout by Cody Bellinger. But Sánchez found control of his soft changeup late in the Bellinger sequence, and used it to great effect against Pollock with the bases loaded. 71 mph up and in with the bases juiced, just like they drew it up. Pollock struck out, and so did the next four Dodgers hitters.

In the meantime Juan Soto, in his first at-bat in the nation’s capital since that liner to right last Tuesday that will sit uneasily in the memories of Wisconsinites, took a Hyun-Jin Ryu fastball that caught altogether too much of the plate out of the ballpark to center. That put the Nats up 2-0, and caused me to contemplate for the first time what it might mean to a generation of fans to have the Nationals advance beyond the Division Series for the first time in their history.

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A Better Hendriks Suits Up In Oakland

A year ago tomorrow — Wednesday, October 3, 2018 — Liam Hendriks started the American League Wild Card game for the Oakland A’s. Twenty-five pitches and one Aaron Judge home run later, Hendriks hit the showers with his team down 2-0. Three hours after that, the rest of his teammates joined him there. Tonight, the A’s will play in a one-game playoff for the third time in six seasons, and though Hendriks won’t be starting, he’s a big reason his team has a chance to prove an old saying true tonight.

“He’s really been one of our MVPs,” said Scott Emerson, the A’s pitching coach. “Last year, it was Blake [Treinen], and this year it’s been Liam. Last year when he got sent out [to Triple-A in early April], he really transformed his body and got into the long-toss program. That transformation came with a change in mindset and in approach. It didn’t hurt that the velo spiked, and the breaking ball got a whole lot better, too.”

The results have been spectacular. Hendriks was an All-Star in July for the first time in a nine-year career, bringing a 1.22 ERA and 2.06 FIP into that game, and his numbers since the break were, if anything, even better: a 1.60 FIP and a 45.7% strikeout rate. More to the point, he’s found success in the second half without also carrying the 89% strand rate and 0.17 HR/9 mark that led doubters to write off his first half as a run of good luck for an otherwise average pitcher. After the break, Hendriks stranded just 78% of baserunners and allowed 1.08 HR/9 — both much more in line with his career numbers of 70% and 1.04, respectively. Read the rest of this entry »

Marcus Semien’s Defense Is a Team Effort

Let’s start with the obvious: Defense hasn’t been the big surprise of Marcus Semien’s 2019. That story was written a few years ago. The big surprise of Semien’s 2019 has been that in consequence of a .373 wOBA and 7.5 WAR, he has precisely doubled the value he produced last year in the second-best season of his seven-year career. I wrote about Semien’s offensive breakout in May, noting his much-improved plate discipline, and suggesting that its probable cause — a change in approach at the top of the strike zone — augured continued success. Dan Szymborski picked up the thread in July, finding much the same, and also discussing Semien’s defense at some length. Dan concluded:

[D]efensive numbers are volatile, so having a second year of improved defensive numbers significantly betters the chances that Semien’s reinvention with the glove is for real. That the improvement is largely driven by error rate is an even more promising development because though errors themselves aren’t a great measure of defense, error runs tend to be more predictive on a year-to-year basis than range runs. This isn’t surprising given that range numbers necessarily have to jump into evaluating theoretical plays that never happened. In error runs, Semien’s +4.6 ties with Paul DeJong for the best in baseball at any position in 2019. If he continues on this pace, he will have added roughly 20 runs compared to the 2015 season, simply from avoiding errors.

Going into the final day of the season, Semien was +6.9 ErrR, which put him 19.5 runs ahead of 2015’s abysmal mark, and contributed no small amount to his overall WAR figure (which, incidentally, Dan optimistically projected for six runs in July, and which Semien blew past in August). In this piece, I want to pick up on something a commenter on Dan’s piece pointed out: that the major improvement in Semien’s defensive numbers came not right after his much-ballyhooed 2015 heart-to-heart sessions with Ron Washington, but over the course of 2017 — right when Matt Chapman became the A’s everyday third baseman.

Marcus in the Field
Year ErrR DRS UZR/150
2015 -12.6 5 -12.2
2016 -3.5 -6 -5.5
2017 0.5 -9 -6.2
2018 0.0 9 6.4
2019 6.9 3 5.0

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Eloy Jiménez Wraps Up Year One

Two years ago, 22-year-old Yoán Moncada, the White Sox’s much-heralded return for Chris Sale, put up a 105 wRC+ and 1.1 WAR in his debut season in Chicago. Eloy Jiménez, this year’s 22-year-old Southside rookie, has about a month left on the first year of his six year, $43 million contract. But his first year has looked familiar: His .259/.309/.489 line with 27 home runs translates to a 108 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR. Recurring hip injuries have limited his production, but it’s still been a mostly successful debut. A key part of Chicago’s future, Jiménez has played particularly well over the last month, and he just captured the AL Player of the Week award.

Long-time Jiménez watchers will recall that, as a prospect, he combined tremendous natural strength with unusually high contact rates, particularly during his years in the Cubs system. This year, he’s hit for plenty of power but his contact rate is just 70%, which is in the league’s 10th percentile among players with more than 450 plate appearances. It’s certainly possible to succeed with a low contact rate — Bryce Harper and Nelson Cruz each make less contact and have a wRC+ above 120 — but you either to need to walk a lot or hit for big power to pull it off; Harper walks 15% of the time, while Cruz has an ISO of .323. Jiménez, meanwhile has a .231 ISO and a 6.1% walk rate. He’s still a good hitter, if not yet a great one.

Fortunately, with his size and natural pop, he doesn’t have to sell out for power. Instead, he can focus on keeping his hands behind the ball and try to hit line drives. This more compact approach is an adjustment from his time in the Cubs’ minor-league system, where he used to hold his hands at helmet height and then need to torque his body violently around his upper half in order to reach pitches low away; typically, he’d either miss entirely or foul the ball off. Since coming to the South Side, Jiménez says he’s lowered his hands in an effort to make better contact on inside fastballs, and to get to pitches down and away from lefties. Read the rest of this entry »

Luis Castillo’s Increasingly Lethal Changeup

Two weeks ago, Jay Jaffe ranked Luis Castillo fifth on his list of this season’s most improved pitchers, noting in the process Castillo’s ability to carry high strikeout rates (28.9%; eighth among NL starters) and groundball rates (55.3%; second) at the same time, thereby avoiding to some degree the harshest consequences of the major leagues’ home run boom. In this, Castillo’s third major league season, the 26-year-old Dominican has posted career-best marks in innings pitched (178 2/3), FIP (3.63), HR/9 (1.01) and the aforementioned strikeout rate. Last week, I caught up with him about the pitch he thinks has been key to his success: the changeup.

When Castillo made his debut for Cincinnati back in 2017, he threw his changeup 87-88 mph with modest break down and away to lefties and middle-in to righties. Eric Longenhagen, in ranking Castillo 10th in the Reds’ system coming into the 2017 season, rated the pitch a “below average” 40/45 but noted that it could improve with repetition, given Castillo’s arm speed and underlying talent. Each year since then has seen Castillo use the pitch more often than the season before:

Castillo & Change
Year CH% wCH/100
2017 22.7% 3.04
2018 26.4% 1.23
2019 32.5% 2.91

Apparently the repetition has helped. In its present form, Castillo’s changeup — now with an inch more bite on each axis, thanks to mechanical changes between 2017 and 2018, while still sitting at 87-88 mph — ranks behind only Brad Keller’s as the most valuable pitch of its kind in the game (as measured by linear weights). And it’s gone a long way towards correcting one of Castillo’s obvious weaknesses coming into the season: an inability to put away left-handed hitters with anything near the same effectiveness he’s always displayed when dispatching righties (lefties put up a .373 wOBA against him last year, compared to a .256 from righties). Read the rest of this entry »

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Accelerates to the Finish

Guillermo Martínez is 34 years old, last played pro ball eight years ago for the independent Grand Prairie (now Texas) AirHogs, and never made it above High-A in affiliated ball. He is also the rookie major league hitting coach for the Toronto Blue Jays. There’s a long history of men who never achieved much in their playing careers becoming outstanding in second acts as coaches, and in his responsibility for the offensive success of Toronto’s much-vaunted youth movement (the average age of their hitters, 26.2, is the youngest in the American League), Martínez has more than enough raw material to make his mark in his first season in the role.

Last week when the Blue Jays came to Seattle to take on the Mariners (dropping two out of three), I sat down with Martínez to talk about his first year of coaching in the majors, and in particular his first year of coaching another, much more famous, rookie: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

After making his debut for Toronto late in April at the precocious age of 20, Guerrero has had an up-and-down — or, more accurately, a down-and-then-up — season for a middling Toronto club that is nonetheless understandably optimistic about the cohort of young hitters of which Guerrero is a part. First, the down: Through the end of June, across 226 big-league plate appearances, Guerrero had posted a wOBA of just .317, and — even more worryingly — was striking out far more (19% of the time) and walking less often (9% of the time) than at any previous level.

Some regression was to be expected, of course, upon facing big-league pitching for the first time. But it wasn’t just that the results that were underwhelming. It was that they matched up with the story told by the eyes. Read the rest of this entry »

Billy Hamilton’s Legs Still Work Just Fine

Billy Hamilton has been a Brave for a little over a week — only since Atlanta picked him up off waivers from Kansas City on August 19 after losing Nick Markakis and Ender Inciarte to injury — and he’s already achieved that highest aspiration for any member of the Braves organization: He humiliated the New York Mets, and on their home turf at that. The play came with the score tied 5-5 in the eighth inning of Saturday’s second game of the weekend series, with Ronald Acuña Jr. at the plate, Rafael Ortega at second, and Hamilton at first. Acuña, who at that point was an uncharacteristic 0-for-4 on the night, wasted no time in taking a Brad Brach hanger on the outer third of the plate softly into left. Then, this happened:

J.D. Davis, the Met unfortunate enough to wind up holding the ball on this particular play, spoke to our own Jay Jaffe after the game:

I was going to make a play to third,” he said, in a clubhouse near-silent after a late loss to a division rival, “and then I saw that the runner [Hamilton] was already like three-quarters of the way … so I just held onto the ball, and I looked at first to see where that runner was. But then as I released it to throw it to ‘Rosie’, he was already rounding third and headed home … I should have just thrown it to ‘Rosie’ and got it in. [You feel kind of] helpless, with Hamilton and his speed … it was just perfect timing. It was a good, high-baseball IQ kind of play.

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We’ve Never Had This Many Multi-Homer Games

I think there are too many home runs. That’s an aesthetic preference, of course, and one you don’t necessarily need to share to continue with this article. I mention it only to help you understand why I became interested in how many multi-homer games the 2019 season has brought us so far, and whether that number was unusual. The reason is simple: I got sick of hearing about them. One of the first things I do each morning, at least with respect to baseball, is fire up At Bat and watch the first 10-15 highlights of the previous day’s games. I find it’s a good way of keeping up to date, if not with the broad trends shaping the game, then at least with the moments driving that day’s news. And almost every day, I’ll see something like this at or near the top of the highlights list:

Or, at least, I thought it was almost every day. It certainly seemed that way to me. But maybe I’d just developed a severe case of early-onset grumpy-old-man-itis. Maybe my aesthetic preference for fewer home runs was bleeding into my perception of the quantity of multi-home run games. When you hate something, everything about it annoys you, including how much it’s around. So I asked my colleague Sean Dolinar to run some numbers for me (all 2019 stats in this piece are through August 23) and set me straight. And it turns out that even though I absolutely do suffer from grumpy-old-man-itis, I’m not wrong about the number of multi-home run games this year. They’re up — by a lot:

Most Multi-HR Games, 1974-Present
Year Multi-HR Games
2017 396
1999 362
2019 355
2001 341
2000 338
2016 337
2004 321
2006 318
1996 317
1998 313

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