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Yuli Gurriel May Be Trying to Do a Little Too Much

Because his name is right there in the title of the piece, I won’t ask you to play that little game where I give you two anonymized batting lines and ask you to guess who they are, only to reveal that one is Yuli Gurriel and the other is the re-animated corpse of Ike Van Zandt or something like that. I’ll just give you two batting lines, both from Gurriel, and ask you to note the difference in quality between the two:

Yuli Gurriel’s Curious Slump
Seasons PA BB% K% wOBA
2016-18 1,274 3.9% 10.8% .329
2019 254 4.7% 10.2% .282

That 47-point drop in wOBA doesn’t really give you a sense of relative performance, so let me put this another way: Gurriel’s wOBA from 2016-18 fell into the 38th percentile among players with as many plate appearances over that span. Fine but hardly exceptional. His wOBA this year — again only among those players with as many trips to the plate — falls into the third percentile. Only José Ramírez (with a .262 wOBA) and Starlin Castro (.249) have done worse.

Curiously, though, Gurriel’s walk rate and strikeout rate have both improved — albeit modestly — even as his overall performance has suffered. Little else about his plate discipline numbers seems much different this year than last, either. Gurriel’s swing rate last year was 50.3%, and this year it’s 49.1%. Last year, he made contact 85.9% of the time. This year, he’s improved to 87.1%. The numbers don’t change much when you look inside or outside of the strike zone, either, and where they do change it’s often for the better. So what’s going on? I think a clue is in the kinds of strikeouts he’s getting. Here’s a chart that shows Gurriel’s swing rates on all the pitches he saw with two strikes from 2016-2018:

And here is that same chart, but from this season:

I’ll save you the effort of adding up the swing rates on all the pitches inside the strike zone and tell you that from 2016-18, Gurriel saw 348 pitches in the zone with two strikes and swung at almost all of them: 330, or 95%. Most of those were fastballs. Some of the time, he struck out. Other times, he made hard contact. This year, by contrast, Gurriel has swung at 63 of 71 such pitches, or 89%. That six-point drop might not seem like a huge deal, but it’s meant that a whopping 39% of Gurriel’s strikeouts this year have been looking, which is by far the highest figure of his four-year career (his career mark is 23.2%, and last year’s 29% figure was by 11 points a career high). It’s also meant that Gurriel has made less contact when behind in the count this year than ever before.

I’m not sure what to ascribe these changes to. One possibility could be a general discomfort at being called upon to play around the diamond more often due to injuries to George Springer, Carlos Correa, and José Altuve. On its face, that argument doesn’t make much sense: Gurriel played 46 games away from first base even last season, and put up perfectly acceptable offensive numbers, and he’s moved around the infield since his Cuban playing days. Perhaps, though, this season’s situation is different. This year, Gurriel is fielding different positions not because it’s the best matchup given the Astros’ opponents but because A.J. Hinch has to play him there due to injury. That could mean Gurriel is being put into game situations in which he’s not comfortable and to which he hasn’t been exposed before. And he’s perhaps thinking just a little bit too hard about what he has to produce there while his talented teammates recover from injury.

If that’s true, it could explain other changes to Gurriel’s game as well. Prior to 2019, Gurriels’ average launch angle sat right around 10 degrees, but that average masked a distribution that showed that about a quarter of his hits went straight forward on a line (a zero degree launch angle) while another quarter left the bat at about 20 degrees — just enough to get over the heads of the infielders and drop in for hits. This year, his average launch angle has increased — to 15.4 degrees — while the range of angles at which he hits the ball has narrowed. Almost gone are the balls hit straight on a line, and significantly diminished are the 20 degree knocks. More and more of Gurriel’s hits, as a percentage, are coming in that dangerous middle zone where balls in play are somewhat more likely to turn into outs. As a consequence, Gurriel’s .264 BABIP this season is the lowest of his career, even as his hard-hit and contact rates have stayed level.

Whatever the cause, things can really only go up from here: Gurriel’s -0.4 WAR is among the 10 worst in the league among qualified players. And there are, despite the poor results, a lot of things going right for Gurriel. His hard-hit rate, contact rate, strikeout rate, and walk rate suggest that his eye at the plate and his ability to do damage to the ball when he makes contact are all working just fine. Perhaps he is trying to lift the ball a little more than is necessary to do damage at the plate, and perhaps that approach — combined with a newfound passivity possibly born of a little bit of overthinking — has turned Gurriel’s performance this year on its head. If that’s the case, it can be remedied: Gurriel’s wOBA has been as low as this before and still rebounded:

With a little perseverance, then — and perhaps a few more swings on strikes in the zone — he could be back to normal for the stretch run. And if this run of poor performance is the result of Gurriel trying to do a little too much at the plate? Well, maybe it’s all right to relax a little bit. All the evidence suggests that he and the Astros are going to be just fine.

Daniel Vogelbach Is Hitting Right (We’ll See About Left)

On May 8, Kyle Seager hurt his left hand. This was bad news for Seager and for the Mariners, but good news for Daniel Vogelbach. With Seager out, Ryon Healy moved from first to third base, covering for Seager; Edwin Encarnación, in turn, moved into the first base slot vacated by Healy, and Vogelbach — who had not previously had a path to much playing time — became the Mariners’ primary designated hitter. Since then, and despite a mixed May that dropped his wOBA from a terrific .481 through April 30 to a diminished but still distinguished .385 after the weekend’s action, Vogelbach has shown all the power that his brawn has always promised and the plate discipline that has always been his calling card to boot. His .313 ISO is now ninth in the game, and behind only Joey Gallo and George Springer in the American League.

Let’s start with the power, both because there aren’t too many people who can do the damage Vogelbach does when he really connects with a baseball, and because it provides a clue to what’s changed this year. When Vogelbach connects, as he did on May 27 at the expense of José Leclerc, the camera tends to pan so far up that it’s clear the operator, like everyone else in the ballpark, has no idea where the baseball is or where it’s going to land. All that is clear, for the few long seconds the ball is airborne, is that it’s gone an awfully long way. After this bomb (only the third in the history of the park to hit the third deck, and the first since Carlos Delgado did it way back in 2001), the Mariners put up a traffic cone and taped over the seat. That’s just fun to watch. Read the rest of this entry »

Marcus Semien Is Getting Better at This

Here’s the chart that got me interested in what Marcus Semien is up to:

Marcus Semien’s Year of Discipline
Season(s) PA wOBA BB% K%
2012-2018 1,934 0.311 7.9 23.2
2019 198 0.335 13.1 15.2

It’s the last two columns that should grab your attention. Semien is walking nearly two-thirds more often this year than he’s ever walked before, and striking out less, too. Those are good things for hitters to do, and they’ve resulted in a 24-point increase in Semien’s wOBA (.335) compared to what had been his career mark (.311). If that figure holds, it will be the best of Semien’s career by 20 points.

Semien has experienced stretches of similar success before. For a brief period at the beginning of the 2017 season, before being put out of commission by a wrist injury, Semien was walking nearly 17% of the time — but also striking out in something like 27% of his plate appearances. He brought that number down beginning in early 2018, to something like its current levels, but saw his walk rate drop back down below 5% as he did so. Not until the early part of this 2019 season have we seen a Semien who is both walking a lot and not striking out that much:

Read the rest of this entry »

It’s Still Not Clear What Kind of Year the Braves Intend to Have

The 2018 Atlanta Braves finished their season 90-72, in first place in an NL East that saw just one other team — the Nationals, at 82-80 — finish above .500. That Braves team featured three hitters under the age of 25 with wOBAs above .320, a strong farm system, and middling pitching that could surely be remedied with an arm-heavy offseason haul. After a winter during which the Braves didn’t add those arms, we gave them a 38% pre-season chance to make the playoffs — not an exceptional mark in a competitive division in which we gave three other teams better than that chance, but substantially improved from 2018’s pre-season 3.2% shot. After 2018, expectations were raised for this season’s summer in Atlanta.

One-quarter of the way through that 2019 season, sitting at 21-20 and three games behind the Phillies, it’s not yet clear what kind of season the Braves now intend to have.

The offense, at least, has been there — for the most part. Off-season acquisitions Josh Donaldson and  Brian McCann, along with holdovers Nick Markakis, Freddie Freeman, and Ronald Acuña Jr., are all hitting well (the lowest wOBA among the group is Markakis’s .362). Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson are hitting passably, which for Swanson is a major victory and for Albies is about par for the course (his .334 wOBA on the season to date is almost exactly in line with his .331 career mark). Johan Camargo and Ender Inciarte have fallen off a cliff.

The resultant 104 team wRC+ is ninth league-wide and an improvement on last year’s 97 figure (15th). But Atlanta’s top-third ordinal position betrays the fact that the Braves’ overall offensive performance is as close to the 19th-ranked A’s (94) than to the fourth-ranked Mariners (114), and is certainly not the kind of overwhelming force that can cover for poor pitching. And the Braves’ pitching, while not abysmal, is also not good. More damningly for a front office that didn’t add any major arms this offseason, it’s not better than last year’s crew.

As Ben Clemens noted last week, starters league-wide are improving relative to relievers. In Atlanta, where the Braves’ starting depth chart ran at least seven men long to start the season before being shortened by injury, and where Sean Newcomb has recently come into a relief role after a disastrous turn as a starter, the pattern holds. Last year, Braves starters posted a 3.99 ERA and Atlanta relievers a 3.99. This year, both outfits are worse — by a fair margin — but the relief crew’s regression has been particularly noticeable: their 4.87 FIP is the seventh-worst in the game, and a third of a run worse than the starters’ 4.41 mark to date (18th).

If you’re willing to be charitable to a front office (and, presumably, ownership group) that made “financial flexibility” the guiding star of their offseason, you might say that the Braves’ decision not to sign Craig Kimbrel (or any other major relief arms) this winter was a savvy move in a world where all that good young pitching the team spent a half-decade stockpiling was on the cusp of reaching Cobb County. Some of it has worked out. Mike Soroka and Max Fried have been excellent, and Newcomb and (to a much lesser extent) Touki Toussaint have been effective relievers once put into that role. There were certainly enough good pitchers on the Braves’ roster this offseason to squint and see a quality staff emerging from it.

But that hasn’t really happened. Despite Luke Jackson’s emergence as a strong option in the ninth, and Toussaint and Newcomb’s mostly effective efforts to shore up the innings leading into it, the rest of the bullpen’s performance has ranged from acceptable (Jacob Webb’s 3.54 FIP) to ghastly (Shane Carle’s 9.85). And it’s not just outliers bringing the overall numbers down: Chad Sobotka, who has a 6.52 FIP, is among the team’s leaders in relief innings pitched. Josh Tomlin, who has a 4.56 FIP and hasn’t been effective since 2017, leads the team in that category.

The rotation, meanwhile, despite the best efforts of Soroka and Fried, has seen Kevin Gausman, Julio Teheran, and especially Mike Foltynewicz struggle with bouts of inconsistency or injury and consequent ineffectiveness. Foltynewicz’s case is particularly worrying (a 6.88 FIP over three starts, in which he’s allowed 15 runs), both because it stands in contrast to strong performances earlier in his career and because it comes along with a nearly 2 mph drop in fastball velocity, and equivalent (though mostly smaller) velocity drops on pitches across the board. That drop has sapped his ability to strike hitters out, even as it does not appear to have materially affected his walk rate:

It’s not a pretty chart, and exposes the degree to which Foltynewicz’s recent success was built on top of his top-10 fastball velocity. Without that velocity, which began to slump in early August last season and has plummeted in the early going this year after an elbow injury limited him to just a few bullpen sessions and a substantially limited spring training, Foltynewicz simply can’t generate the separation between his fastball and his off-speed pitches that he needs to be successful. So far in 2019, his stuff just isn’t powerful enough to fool anybody. Gausman, too, was brought along slowly during spring training due to a shoulder injury, and Gausman, too, has been slowed by injury this season, leading to similar (if somewhat less dramatic) poor results.

So if a wait-and-see-what we have approach to pitching might have been justifiable coming into spring training — and even that is debatable — it’s no longer nearly as justifiable today. Injuries have killed the depth that underlaid the Braves’ inaction. What the Braves have now, in reality rather than in expectation, is a solid if not overwhelmingly consistent offense, inconsistent starting and relief pitching around a few bright spots, and only a three-game deficit in the division despite starting the first 41 games of the season just barely over .500. They also have that prized payroll flexibility so carefully hoarded in the offseason. If this isn’t the time to go out and buy pitching, it’s not really clear to me when is. Craig Kimbrel is still available. So is Dallas Keuchel, though he may admittedly carry a higher price than would be sensible for the Braves to pay.

For now, the Braves seem content to tinker around the edges of their roster and try to see if anything shakes loose. Last Friday, staring down the barrel of a four-game losing streak after a 10-inning walk-off loss in Arizona dropped Atlanta to 18-20 on the season, Snitker changed things up, moving Acuña Jr. from the cleanup spot to leadoff, Donaldson from second into the vacated fourth slot, and the struggling Swanson from purgatory somewhere near the bottom of the lineup into the two-hole. Acuña Jr. hit a 462-foot home run, and the Braves haven’t lost since.

That’s a nice story, but the offense isn’t really the problem in Atlanta. Their pitching — particularly in relief — is what’s holding them back, and it’s teetering on the edge just as the Braves enter a stretch in which they’re going to play the Cardinals, Brewers, and Nationals 11 times in 15 games. If the Braves’ pen didn’t play all that well in going 9-5 against the Marlins (who the Braves have played six times so far), the Rockies (five), and the Reds (three), I’m not sure it’ll play out so well against the better teams to come. In short, the first quarter of Atlanta’s season has given no indication that the pitching will work out on its own, even as there are a number of good arms to build around in-house already. Few other teams, at this point in the season, have so little of the story of their 2019 campaign down in ink. The Braves’ front office still has a chance to determine the way their season will go. They should take it.

Kyle Hendricks Threw the Least 2019 Game of the Year

Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, a week after lasting just five innings (and giving up seven runs) against the Diamondbacks in Arizona, Kyle Hendricks threw perhaps the finest game of his six-year career. Nine innings. No runs. Four hits. Eighty-one pitches, not one of them flying faster than 90 miles per hour and only 18 of them landing, unchallenged, outside of the strike zone. If Noah Syndergaard’s complete-game, 10-K, no-run performance against the Reds on Thursday — during which he hit the home run that won the game 1-0 — was the logical end of 2019’s high-strikeout, high-velocity environment, then Hendricks’ was its precise opposite: the least 2019 game of the year. That these two starts could come on consecutive days is why we love baseball; it’s a beautiful game.

If you are willing to accept a contextual definition of “struggled,” then Hendricks probably struggled most in the first inning (the other candidate is the fourth, about which I’ll say more later). He went 2-1 on the always-dangerous Matt Carpenter to lead off the game, then retired the Cardinal star on the fifth pitch of the sequence with a sinking fastball right down the middle. Nobody knew it at the time, but Hendricks had already thrown more than six percent of the pitches he’d throw in the entire game. It took him just five more pitches to close out the first inning — four to Paul Goldschmidt and one to Paul DeJong — and Hendricks was on his way.

The DeJong plate appearance was perhaps the most critical of the entire game for what it told Hendricks and catcher Willson Contreras about how the Cardinals would approach him on Friday. When Hendricks has struggled this year, it’s been when he’s forced into the strike zone late in counts when hitters know he’s got to be there. Eight-eight miles an hour, in that situation, is often just too easy for big-league hitters to hit. Against DeJong, though, Hendricks saw what would become a trend for the Cardinals throughout the game: A willingness to be aggressive early in the count. Hendricks was perfectly willing to play into it. After starting the first two hitters with at least two balls before first getting into the zone, Hendricks started 21 of the next 27 with a pitch in the zone. Read the rest of this entry »

Texas’ Pitching Lags Behind Its Bats

The Rangers beat the Mariners 15-1 on Saturday, and then — as if afraid it wouldn’t stick — 14-1 on Sunday. On the season, Texas has scored 162 runs, which is more than any club except those hapless Mariners and the powerhouse Dodgers, and their .342 wOBA is also among the 10 best in the game. The problem in Texas has not been the bats. The problem that has kept the Rangers just barely above .500 and battling the As for third place in the AL West has been the pitching.

Nineteen pitchers have taken the mound for the Texas Rangers in 2019, and as a group they have performed substantially less effectively than reasonable observers might have hoped for coming into the season. Our preseason depth charts had the Texas rotation pegged for a 4.82 FIP (23rd overall) and the bullpen for a 4.40 mark (12th). Texas’s actual performance to date has been among the poorest in the game. So far in 2019, Rangers starters have a better FIP (5.50) than only the Orioles, Angels, and Cardinals, and the bullpen’s identical mark is better only than Baltimore. Something, clearly, is going wrong. But what?

The obvious answer is that the Rangers are walking far too many hitters (11.3% of batters faced, which is the second-worst mark in the league) and not striking out all that many opponents, either (19%; also second-worst, this time to a different team). No team has a K/BB worse than the Rangers’ 1.68. No team, in fact, even comes all that close. The Rangers have been bad at striking hitters out and have also been bad at not putting them on base via the free pass. Those are bad things to be bad at. But this is a little bit like saying that a house is on fire because it’s burning. We know — but what started the fire? Read the rest of this entry »

Contract Extension Fever Isn’t Just About Economics

You may have noticed that a number of baseball players have signed extensions this spring. By my count, since Aaron Hicks re-upped with the Yankees on February 25th, 22 players have signed contracts that guarantee them a combined $1.82 billion in new money, and have collectively given 68 years of free agency to the only teams with which they could negotiate. Here are some numbers:

The Spring 2019 Extension Class
Name 2019 Age Term # FA Years Guaranteed New Guarantee (TCV) New Guarantee (AAV) Service Time Prior Gurantee
Mike Trout 27 2021 – 2030 10 $360.0 $36.0 7.1 $115.2
Alex Bregman 25 2020 – 2024 2 $100.0 $20.0 2.1 $1.8
Aaron Hicks 25 2020 – 2026 7 $62.0 $8.9 5 $12.0
Nolan Arenado 28 2020 – 2026 7 $234.0 $33.4 5.2 $61.5
Ozzie Albies 22 2020 – 2025 2 $34.4 $5.7 1.0 $1.1
Xander Bogaerts 26 2020 – 2025 6 $120.0 $20.0 5 $25.3
Matt Carpenter 33 2020 – 2021 2 $39.0 $19.5 7 $50.7
Paul Goldschmidt 31 2020 – 2024 5 $130.0 $26.0 7.1 $45.5
Chris Sale 30 2020 – 2024 5 $145.0 $29.0 8.1 $59.9
Eloy Jiménez 22 2019 – 2024 0 $43.0 $7.2 0 $0.0
Miles Mikolas 30 2020 – 2023 4 $68.0 $17.0 2 $15.5
Ryan Pressly 30 2020 – 2021 2 $17.5 $8.8 5 $6.7
Brandon Lowe 24 2019 – 2024 0 $24.0 $4.0 0 $0.0
José Leclerc 25 2019 – 2022 0 $15.5 $3.9 2 $2.0
Ronald Acuña 21 2019 – 2027 3 $100.0 $11.1 0.2 $1.1
Randal Grichuk 27 2019 – 2023 3 $47.0 $9.4 4 $9.2
Blake Snell 26 2019 – 2023 1 $50.0 $10.0 2.1 $1.2
Kyle Hendricks 29 2020 – 2023 3 $55.5 $13.9 4.1 $13.4
Jacob deGrom 31 2020 – 2023 3 $52.5 $13.1 4.1 $21.6
Justin Verlander 36 2020 – 2021 2 $66.0 $33.0 13 $226.5
Germán Márquez 24 2019 – 2023 1 $43.0 $8.6 2 $1.7
David Bote 26 2020 – 2024 0 $15.0 $3.0 0.1 $0.6

A few notes on this table: I’m only interested in new money for the purposes of this article, so Trout’s deal is recorded as starting in 2021, leaving his 2019 and 2020 salaries entirely alone; he would have gotten those anyway. I’ve also excluded any team and vesting options in the “New Guarantee” column because, well, they’re not guaranteed (I have included any buyout in the contract value columns, because that money is guaranteed). I’ve also included players’ age and service time at the beginning of the 2019 season, as well as the earnings they had received or were guaranteed prior to signing extensions, because I think all three factors are relevant to understanding why these particular players might have been open to extensions.

The table is sortable, so you can play around with it as you would like, but I’ll admit that I find it difficult to draw any general conclusions by examining each deal in its particulars. It does seem to be true, broadly speaking, that the deals involving several free agent seasons have been signed mostly by established players (Trout, Arenado,  Hicks, Bogaerts, and Goldschmidt) while those deals locking in cost certainty for years already under team control are mostly the province of younger, less-experienced players (Bote, Jiménez, Acuña, Albies, etc.). The young stars who already got paid during the draft, meanwhile (think Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa) are largely absent (Bregman excepted). They, for the most part, don’t need what’s being sold right now.

It is possible to look at each individual extension signed in the past six weeks and find nothing there of great concern — to find, in fact, a number of personal circumstances that militate in favor of one deal or another, from the perspective of a particular player and his idiosyncratic preferences. It is only when the deals are viewed in the collective, when we choose to view owners and players as classes attempting to exercise power upon each other, that the degree to which the modern labor environment has narrowed choices for players becomes visible.

Free agency — the crowning and bitterly contested victory of the first generation of MLBPA members and leaders — is now perceived by many of those who won it as an exercise in humiliation. “Craig Kimbrel is one of the best closers in the history of the game,” one player grumbled to me last week, “and he still doesn’t have a deal [in the middle of April]. It’s ridiculous. Why would I want to put myself and my family through that when the time comes?” Manny Machado and Bryce Harper got paid this offseason, yes, but only after most of the league’s franchises had convincingly demonstrated that they were unwilling to compete for the two men’s services. Players got the message loud and clear.

One interpretation of this set of facts might be to suggest that our present position — in which powers collectively won are only being effectively exercised by highly specific tranches of the player population — is the consequence of the market “sorting itself out,” literally assigning to different groups of players different prerogatives and different rewards that result from one choice or another. But baseball is not a free market. Baseball is a group of 30 owners in constant, though only occasionally explicit, contention with the union labor that is its raison d’etre. That means that insights from economics, with its neat lines of preference and consequence, can tell us only so much about the state of the game today. We must turn as well to political science, which is the study of power and how it’s used.

A labor environment that is the product of power relations between two parties naturally in contest with one another does not have a state of equilibrium from which we have somehow fallen and to which we can soon return with one technical adjustment or another. It only has two camps competing with one another over a given pool of resources, and being more or less effective in their exercise of power over the other in order to enable that competition. That makes it a normative, and not exclusively a positive (read: objective) exercise.

Baseball’s owners have of late been remarkably effective in their exercise of power over the players with whom they are in contest, to the point that it is possible to point to a hundred individual deals made in those years and find few wanting in isolation and yet a union full of players who are convinced, and not without reason, that they are in the process of being hosed. Individual choices made among an array of options limited by an exercise of power against those individuals as a group are not particularly meaningful choices at all. The last year has brought with it an awakening of player consciousness to the narrowing of choices they face, a realization that something must be done, and an increasing willingness to do it. The question, of course, is what.

Here, I think, there is room for optimism. There is no particular reason that players and owners should have to tear each other down in public quite so often as they have, even as they will always remain inevitably in conflict. There are ways that the two camps can collaborate to grow the game such that it generates more money for everyone, as we saw clearly after the agreement reached after 1994 strike set the table for an unprecedented period of revenue growth for baseball. Ads like “Let The Kids Play” are important because they build power for players and the league alike, and grow reserves of good will that can later be turned into money, which can thereafter be used to expand the circle of players receiving the lion’s share of dividends from the game’s windfalls, to players in their first six years of big-league time, perhaps, or even to those in the minor leagues. Whether or not the players are actually being hung out to dry right now, many of them think they are, and that perception may well lead to a period of labor unrest that shrinks the scope of the game’s cultural meaning in a way that we haven’t seen since ’94.

I hope that doesn’t happen. And in the meantime, I hope that fans will continue to grow in their understanding that deals which look good, or at least reasonable, in isolation can begin to smell poorly in combination, and that just because a given deal is understandable does not make it justifiable, or something we should necessarily be happy about. In other, simpler, words: Can does not necessarily mean should. Thinking about the recent deals as a result of a competition of power, rather than the inevitable result of some market-clearing activity, opens the door to expressions of opinion on the balance of the power that results.

We as fans of the game have the means, through our voices and our wallets, to express our opinions on the balance of power in major league baseball, and I can think of no particular reason we should want to shore up the position of owners as a class having considered that balance. Major league baseball — as opposed to baseball as an amateur game we play only for ourselves, or our friends — exists because of the cultural meaning we fans assign to it, and the money and attention we pay to effectuate that meaning. That makes us shared stakeholders in its future, perhaps not as entitled to a voice in its direction as the players who play it and the league that facilitates it, but entitled enough to an opinion nonetheless. What we say matters, and how we choose to react to the choices teams have made this offseason can and should affect the way the game moves forward.

Mariners Hitters Are Walking the Line

Through their first 701 plate appearances of the 2019 season, the Seattle Mariners hit 38 home runs and posted a wRC+ of 145. Both marks were the best in the game by a fair margin, though you probably knew or could have guessed that already, because Jay Jaffe wrote about the team’s strong offensive start on this site last week. What you might not know is that if you ask Seattle’s hitters about the source of their success, they’ll tell you — after getting through the usual platitudes of “just playing as a team” and “taking it one game at a time” — that this year’s daily hitters’ meetings, led by first-year hitting coach Tim Laker, have been good. Really good.

“Those hitter meetings,” says fellow first-year Mariner Tom Murphy, “have been fantastic. It’s been one of the things that’s stood out to me this year. From the analytic staff to the hitting staff to the players speaking out about what they’re seeing, it’s been a triple-headed effort. Not only are we getting the statistics on what guys are throwing, their locations and pitch tunnels and stuff, we’re also getting real-world advice from players and hitting coaches together. That communication has been spot-on, and I really think it’s contributed to our success.”

Laker, 49, came up as a coach in the Diamondbacks’ system after spending parts of 11 seasons as a big-league catcher, mostly for Montreal. In Arizona, under the guidance of  instructors Craig Wallenbrock and Robert Van Scoyoc, he developed an approach to hitting and communication that focuses on finding the intersection between a hitter’s natural strengths and a pitcher’s natural weaknesses, then communicating an approach based on the center of that Venn diagram that’s simple enough for hitters to take to the plate without needing a cue-card.

“Pitchers have ranges, philosophy-wise, in which they throw their pitches,” Murphy says. “And our hitting team has put that into a simple system, which says, for example, that if a guy has low-ride [meaning a pitcher’s pitches do not deviate substantially up or down from their apparent path upon release] then he’s a ‘zero-ride’ and if he’s high, you’ll go up to three. Nice and easy. And then from there you can visualize the center of the strike zone, and know that a fastball right down the middle that’s a three-ride would play up at the top of the zone even if visually it starts out right in the middle. And if a guy has a lot of sink, anything that starts down in the zone is not going to be a strike, regardless of whether my eyes are telling me it’s a strike out of his hand. You have to find ways to prepare in advance for the tricks your eyes are going to play on you.”

Put that way, the system sounds almost too simple — bucketing continuous data into three or four tranches is not, after all, rocket science. But in the psychological world of hitting, simplicity is a virtue in its own right, and finding ways to communicate complicated data simply and actionably is where teams are currently looking to find any edge they can. In the Mariners’ case, the particular challenge they’re working to tackle this year is finding ways to get their players attacking each night’s particular starting pitcher while not getting too far out of their own comfort zone. That’s a tall order for hitters who have often been raised spend their days thinking of ways to keep their approaches consistent, not tailor them to each night’s starter. But Laker things he’s found an approach that works: translating the message into a specific external cue or physical action.

“For example,” says Murphy, “if we’re facing a big sinker-ball guy, then maybe a good external cue for most guys is to try to hit a popup or a ball way up in the air, so we get underneath that ball path and our swing plane plays better to that guy. Whereas against a guy with a lot of rise on his fastball, like a Verlander, we’re going to try to hit a lot of line drives or almost ground balls to manipulate ourselves without thinking too mechanically to get the desired bat path to that ball. That’s what we do well as players, is move physically, and Laker has been great about taking the statistics and giving us a plan to take into the game that’s more externally focused; that’s still us, but tailored to the pitcher.”

“I think what we’re looking for is guys that have swings that can cover more than one spot,” Laker told me. “I think our guys are good enough that if we adjust the slices they’re swinging in just a little bit on a monthly basis, that they’re good enough to hit in different zones and not just get pigeonholed into one specific spot where they are kind of at the mercy of the pitcher, just hoping that he’s going to make a mistake in the one spot that they’re looking at.”

Perhaps to Laker’s surprise, that approach has found resonance even with Seattle’s veterans, like Jay Bruce. “I think you have to try and walk the line a little bit,” he told me. “Because at the end of the day, they have to throw the ball over the plate. They’re going to miss, and they’re going to make mistakes. And on the one hand if you go chasing what they do you get yourself in trouble, but also I think being cognizant of their approach and their plan and what makes them have success against you is important, too. Finding that balance has been good this year.”

For a relatively young team, hearing that message from all angles — coaches, analytics staff, and veterans — is critical. “That’s when those meetings become really powerful,” says Laker, “When our younger guys can listen to Jay or Edwin, guys who’ve faced other starters a number of times, and hear them say, ‘Here’s what he’s done to me, here’s what his pitch looks like to me, here’s how it moves, here’s what he’s trying to do.’ I think that carries a lot of weight. I think the more we can get hitters involved in what we’re trying to do, and have a collaboration in an open forum, that’s good.”

The Mariners probably aren’t going to have the best offense in baseball all year long. They might not even have the best offense in baseball all April long. But if you’re chalking up their early-season numbers to mere good luck, or running into a stretch of pitching that’s performing below its level, I’m not sure you’re correct. Pitching has under-performed against Seattle for much of this young season (the just-concluded Astros series perhaps excepted) because the Mariners have been highly intentional about finding ways to make it so, and about communicating with their players in such a way that tailoring an approach to each night’s pitcher doesn’t feel like telling hitters to do things they’re not used to. So far in 2019, it may just be working.

Tim Beckham Has Found What Works

After a strong 2017 campaign for Tampa and Baltimore led some observers to declare, perhaps prematurely, that the former No. 1 pick had finally figured out how to sustainably deliver on his sky-high potential, Tim Beckham’s 2018 performance was sufficiently awful (a 79 wRC+ over 402 plate appearances) that the Baltimore front office declined to tender him a contract and left him to sign a $1.75 million deal with the Mariners in early January. Well, for a guy who was probably only intended to hold the middle of the field warm until J.P. Crawford gets the call up to Seattle at some point later this summer, Beckham has had a remarkably good first week in the Queen City:

Tim Beckham’s Good Week
7 31 11 5 3 0.462 319 0.8

Usually, I wouldn’t note a first week like this except in passing — Preston Tucker was hitting .435 through his first seven games of 2018, after all — except for two things. First, Beckham was hurt — with a core muscle injury that required surgery — throughout much of 2018, which suggests that perhaps his poor performance over the full season was less a reflection of a regression from 2017’s breakout and more what you’d expect from a player toughing it out through a debilitating injury. Second, Beckham has actually had a pretty good five weeks, dating back to September 1st of 2018. Since that date, his wRC+ of 186 is eighth-best in the game.

Beckham has always had good power to all fields, but until 2017, that power was too often undercut by a tendency to end at-bats early by swinging at the first pitch he saw offered close to the zone. In 2017, he solved the mental hurdle that had pushed him to try to do too much and instead started taking a few pitches early in at-bats until he found the one he wanted. “These days,” he told me back then, “I want to see the ball in the zone where I can drive it, and if it’s not” — here, a pause — “I want to trust that it’s going to be a ball.” The core injury hindered his ability to execute on that mindset in 2018, yes, but since September of last year, he’s been able to put it into practice again. The results have been impressive. Read the rest of this entry »

Houston Rewards Pressly’s Liftoff with Two-Year Deal

It wasn’t the biggest extension announced yesterday — it wasn’t even the biggest Astros extension announced yesterday — but Ryan Pressly’s two-year, $17.5 million deal with Houston, which was first reported by Chandler Rome, was a big deal for Pressly, a big deal for Houston, and a big deal for relievers. The deal will pay Pressly $2.9 million in 2019, his final arbitration year, then $8.75 million in each of 2020 and 2021. There’s a vesting club option for 2021, as well. It’s believed to be the biggest extension ever signed by a reliever not expected to close games for his team (that’s still Roberto Osuna’s job, at least for the time being) and is a tremendous accomplishment for a player who had a 4.70 ERA (with a 4.36 FIP) as recently as 2017.

But of course that 2017 performance isn’t what the Astros are paying for. They’re paying for what he did in Houston last August and September (which is strike out 32 men and walk just three in 23.1 innings pitched) and what they think he can do for them going forward (which is presumably more of the same). Héctor Rondón, Joe Smith, Collin McHugh, and Will Harris are all expected to become free agents at the conclusion of the 2019 season, and locking Pressly up now means the Astros will have one less thing to worry about next winter. For Pressly, this deal gives him the job security that has absolutely never been a guarantee in the years since he signed with the Red Sox as an 11th-round pick back in 2007.

The conventional wisdom is that relievers are inherently volatile — with a few, Mariano Rivera-shaped exceptions — and so giving them multi-year contracts is the kind of thing you only do when you’re competing for their services on the open market. You certainly wouldn’t expect to see a forward-thinking team like the Astros locking up a reliever with such a short track record of success — during his time in Minnesota at the beginning of 2018, Pressly had a 3.40 ERA and a 2.95 FIP — for two additional years when they’re competing against nobody but themselves. Read the rest of this entry »