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Charlie Morton’s Best Season Yet

WAR isn’t everything, and it can certainly be more variable year to year for pitchers than it is for hitters. Still, Charlie Morton — who has pitched in parts of 12 major league seasons and never before accumulated more than 3.1 WAR in a single year — has posted 4.7 WAR through 25 starts in 2019, and we’re not even all the way to the middle of August. Here’s how he compares to the league leaders in that category:

2019 MLB Leaders, WAR (Pitchers)
Player IP K% BB% ERA- FIP- WAR
Max Scherzer 134.1 35.3% 4.7% 54 47 5.6
Lance Lynn 155.0 27.7% 5.9% 73 61 5.5
Charlie Morton 149.0 30.5% 7.1% 65 62 4.7
Jacob deGrom 143.0 31.5% 6.1% 67 66 4.6
Gerrit Cole 156.2 36.8% 6.4% 65 68 4.5
Through games played on Saturday, August 10th.

Morton, who signed as a free agent with the Rays this offseason after stints in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Houston, has been a few different pitchers over the years. With Pittsburgh, where he established himself as a credible big league starter after a spotty minor league track record for the Braves, Morton threw two-seam fastballs nearly two thirds of the time and earned a reputation as a groundball machine, ranking 11th in the majors in GB% over the course of his seven seasons with the Pirates. In Philadelphia in 2016, and then even more markedly in Houston, where he won a world title in 2017, Morton raised his velocity by about two miles per hour across the board and added a cut fastball to complement his elite curveball.

This year for Tampa, Morton is throwing that curveball more frequently than he ever has before — 36.5% of the time, against a previous career high of 29.3% last year — and has found previously unknown levels of success in pairing that pitch with that cut fastball he first developed in Philadelphia and has been refining ever since. That pitch, in particular, has allowed Morton to make significant strides against lefties, who previously burned him to the tune of a career .344 wOBA against, but who are posting a substantially worsened .288 against him this year. Read the rest of this entry »

Gennett Scoots to San Francisco

The Reds’ ongoing quest to trade away every player whose rights they do not control past 2019 continued Wednesday as Cincinnati sent Scooter Gennett, 29, to the Giants for cash considerations. The Giants, for their part, get a second baseman who has lost most of 2019 to a groin injury but has been one of the better second basemen in the National League since 2017, at least while healthy.

The immediate causus tradeus here is the nexus between Joe Panik’s poor performance for the Giants to date (his .231/.305/.312 triple-slash gives him a -0.3 WAR that’s better only than Starlin Castro among NL qualifiers at any position) and San Francisco’s aspirations for the future. The division is lost to the Dodgers, of course, but San Francisco clearly thinks they still have a shot at the Wild Card (we agree, giving them a 5.4% chance). Acquiring Gennett nods towards that chance while still not putting any real money or commitment on the line.

That’s because Gennett has been quite simply terrible when on the field in 2019. His contact rate is down five points, his strikeout rate is up nearly 10, and he has yet to hit a home run in 2019 after slugging 50 between the previous two seasons. That underperformance is almost entirely ascribable to the groin injury, to be sure, and that’s probably nothing that an offseason of rest and relaxation couldn’t fix, but the fact is the Giants have acquired Gennett for 2019 and he has been extremely bad so far this year. For San Francisco, then, there might still be time for Panik. Read the rest of this entry »

Tanner Roark Heads to Oakland

The A’s, who have about a 25% chance of pulling down a Wild Card spot and still haven’t won a World Series title for Billy Beane, continued their efforts to shore up a beleaguered rotation by acquiring Tanner Roark from the Reds Wednesday afternoon in exchange for High-A outfielder Jameson Hannah. Roark, 32, will join Homer Bailey as a newcomer to the Oakland rotation and will work to build on what has been a solid if uninspiring season for Cincinnati thus far.

Luckily for Roark, solid but uninspiring will work just fine for the A’s. Oakland’s bullpen has been top-five in the game by FIP (4.03), and its offense top 10 by wRC+ (102), but the rotation — missing Sean Manea, Marco Estrada, and Frankie Montas to injury or suspension — has stumbled to a 4.60 FIP that ranks 14th league-wide. 12 pitchers have made starts for the A’s this year, and seven of them have season FIPs above that 4.60 average. Roark’s 4.20 will, presumably, help.

So too will his durability. Roark has made at least 30 starts in each of the last three years and in four of the last five. Since 2016, only six starters have taken the mound more often, and only nine have thrown more innings. There could be no neater fit than the one between the team that needs reliable innings and a starter who can provide those innings at a modest price. Roark will be a free agent at season’s end, meaning that his acquisition changes Oakland’s future plans not one iota, and as Susan Slusser reports that the Reds will pick up $2.1 million of the remaining $3 million or so of Roark’s salary, the financial downside here is minimal to the point of absence. Read the rest of this entry »

Joey Gallo’s Best Season Gets Shorter

The Rangers announced Thursday that Joey Gallo will miss 4-6 weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a fractured hamate bone in his right wrist. That’s bad news for Rangers fans, who’ll see somewhat fewer moonshots and scalded line drives than they would have otherwise, middling news for the Rangers themselves, who were never really in the playoff race they’re now decidedly out of, and worst news of all for Gallo, who’d been in the middle of his best season yet.

Gallo has been part of our national baseball consciousness for many years now as a walking indicator of the game’s direction, possessed as he was of exceptional raw power, an abysmal contact rate, and horrific-even-for-the-late-2010’s strikeout numbers. In 2017, he hit 41 home runs and posted a 14% walk rate but got on base only a third of the time in part due to shifts that limited him to a .250 BABIP. 2018 was more of the same; his 110 wRC+ that year was good, but 75 big league players posted better.

This year had been different. Through June 1, when a strained oblique muscle cost him three weeks, Gallo was among the major league leaders in a number of offensive categories, including a few he’s never come close to ranking in before:

No Ordinary Year for Gallo
Through June 1 Through June 1 Rank Previous Best Rank
wRC+ 167 7th 2017, 45th
WAR 3 4th 2018, 66th
wOBA .431 6th 2017, 36th
BB% 19.6% 2nd 2017, 9th
HR 17 5th 2017 & 2018, 3rd
ISO 0376 3rd 2018, 5th

Read the rest of this entry »

The Changing Landscape for Flat Ground Throwing

Spend any time in a big-league ballpark in the hours before first pitch, and you’ll likely see a pitcher standing in short right or left field, throwing a flat ground. He’ll start his delivery just inside the foul line, feet planted on green grass. His catcher will be around 45 or 50 feet away, half-crouched in the shallow part of the outfield usually reserved for soft line drives. The pitcher will wind and deliver eight or nine times, usually at something like 80% effort, before huddling with his catcher and perhaps a coach or two. Then, gloves loose in their hands, the men will walk back to the dugout to continue their pregame routines.

That scene plays out hundreds of times a day in ballparks across the country. But the practice of throwing flat grounds has come under scrutiny recently, as coaches and front office personnel increasingly worry about the risk of an injury. Over the last few months, I asked a dozen or so players, coaches, and executives about flat grounds and how they’re used. After those conversations, I’m confident in two things: One, most teams who’ve thought hard about the practice have concluded that it has a neutral effect at best and could potentially be harmful. And two, that flat grounds probably aren’t going away anytime soon.

First, the case for flat grounds. For the most part, pitchers I asked told me that they just want to get a better sense of how individual pitches feel coming out of their hands. For that, they insisted, it doesn’t matter whether you’re throwing off a mound or on the field, and faced with the choice between schlepping out to a bullpen mound or simply stepping from the dugout into short right or left field, they prefer the latter. Many discounted immediately my theory that the lack of a drop-down from the mound interrupts upper-half timing based on the moment the front foot hits the ground. “I’ve been throwing flat grounds all my life,” said Marco Gonzales, “and I’ve never noticed a difference.”

But a number of coaches I spoke to expressed variations of the same concern: That practicing pitches on flat ground when they will eventually need to be thrown off a mound gives players bad information about what their repertoire will actually look like in-game.

“We’ve found that the feel guys get for the plate isn’t accurate [while throwing flat grounds],” said the Mariners’ Brian DeLunas. “For sliders and split-fingers especially, you’re just not going to get the same break. I have guys out there who’ll try to throw those pitches, and they’ll be like, damn, this pitch isn’t working! But if your slider isn’t breaking on a 50-foot throw, that’s actually good, because it really should be breaking in the last 15 or so feet.”

There are also elements of standard pitching deliveries that have in-game consequences but simply can’t be practiced on flat ground. “With a flat ground,” said Carl Willis, the Indians’ pitching coach, “the risk is that because you’re not able to get as much extension [on the front half], the consistency of work can suffer. Sometimes you’ll see a guy lose his posture as he comes down the slope, and you want to be able to maintain that posture throughout games. The only way you can really know it, and feel it, is to practice it on the mound.”

But the argument for flat grounds has never been that they replicate an in-game environment. The case is that they’re convenient, and require substantially less effort — and therefore presumably create less wear-and-tear for tired arms — than throwing full-speed off a mound. But is that last claim actually true?

In 2017, Driveline Baseball released a study (building off of a 2014 article in the American Journal of Sports Medicine) that suggested that, holding velocity constant, flat ground pitching generates about 6% more stress on elbows and shoulders than throwing off the mound. Critically, the study also found that stress does not decrease linearly with reduced effort, which means that if pitchers are throwing at 80-90% velocity on flat ground, the stress on their arms is likely about the same as it would be throwing full speed off the mound. Internal studies reaching similar conclusions have led the Mariners, at least, to try eliminating the practice altogether throughout their system (though with limited effect). Other teams have not gone quite as far, despite acknowledging the public evidence.

“If you’re talking about these guys throwing high-effort, it’s a proven fact that flat grounds can be more harmful at the same rate of speed than on the mound,” said Oakland’s pitching coach Scott Emerson. “But if you slow it down, it’s ok. They mostly just use it for target practice. And I’m just using it to see how the pitches look coming out of their hands. Nothing more than that.”

“In my experience, the flat ground can take a little bit of stress off of the arm for guys who are trying to recover,” said Willis. “That’s simply because they’re not working down the slope. That foot plant [which comes 4-6 inches above where it would off the mound] does hinder some extension a little bit, but if you can maintain that delivery, sometimes it tends to help with the recovery, coming back to make your next start.”

To my ear, the persistence of the practice league-wide in the face of reasonably sound evidence that its main theoretical benefit (the lower effort required) isn’t actually a benefit at all seems less about arm stress than convenience.

Most big-league teams carry 12-13 pitchers, and most big-league parks are equipped with just five outdoor mounds: two in the bullpen for each team, and one in the center of the diamond. If teams insisted that their pitchers throw exclusively off of mounds, they’d still only have two mounds to use (the mound on the field being, of course, in use for batting practice, and the remaining four divided between two teams). That would add an element of coordination to a pre-game period already rife with competing priorities for players’ time. “Besides,” one coach told me, “most of our players just aren’t going to walk their asses the 150 yards from the dugout to the bullpen to do their work.”

There’s also a degree of inertia: flat grounds persist because they’re something players have always done. This starts in amateur leagues, where the imbalance between mounds available and players using them is even more stark than in the pros, and where there is even less knowledge of the potentially harmful effects. Gonzales’s response to my question, quoted above, was typical of player responses for this story. Most reacted to my questions about flat grounds as if I had asked them if they put their pants on one leg at a time in the morning, or why they eat breakfast before lunch; they just do, and don’t think much about it. “I’d love it if we had six or seven mounds so we could do all our work there,” said Emerson. “But we don’t. For a lot of our guys this is just a part of their daily routines.”

But as conservative as baseball can be about its traditions and routines, the last two decades of constant self-evaluation and reinvention by coaches and front offices demonstrates that even long-held practices can change when they’re no longer deemed useful. “I don’t think that clubs have really thought hard enough about the risks to flat grounds,” said Bobby Evans, the former Giants’ general manager. “I think the assumption is that it’s just a warmup, when it might really be something that can put players at risk of injury. I want to know more.”

I do, too. There’s a benefit to allowing players to continue long-established routines, to be sure, and it’s probably one I underrate as an external observer of the game. But the evidence for flat grounds as a practice seems flimsy, and I’m not sure I’d be all that invested in it even if the evidence were good. At the very least, I’d welcome the opportunity to learn more about its biomechanical effects. For now, I’m with DeLunas: “Can you imagine a golfer going to the range and spending their afternoon hitting the ball with the back of the club over and over? They would never, ever do that. So why do we?”

The wonderful David Laurila contributed reporting by interviewing Cleveland’s Carl Willis.

You May Wish to Reconsider Nick Pivetta

In 2018, Nick Pivetta struck out 27.1% of the 694 batters he faced. That’s not as impressive a figure as it would have been 10 years ago, but it was still the 14th-best such figure in the game last year, and caused me to write a piece last November called “You May Wish to Consider Nick Pivetta” in which I implored you, the FanGraphs reader, to consider Nick Pivetta. It’s been eight months since that piece was published, and Pivetta has faced 295 more batters. It’s time to re-consider Nick Pivetta, and see whether his performance has rewarded your close scrutiny.

The reason I’m writing about this now is not because the answer to that question is yes — it is, in fact, emphatically no, in the sense that Pivetta’s performance this season has mostly been bad and has occasionally been awful — but because Pivetta strikes me as representative of a type. In particular, Pivetta strikes me as representative of a player who shows us just enough to dream on, just enough to see signs of a breakout, that we read into those signs and give them more credit than they perhaps deserve. Nick Pivetta strikes me as representative of our optimism as observers.

So let’s talk about Pivetta — what made us dream, and what’s happened to that dream as this 2019 season has worn on. (All stats are through July 13.) Pivetta’s stand-out pitch is his curveball, a massive breaker that spins (2872 rpm, fifth in the majors this year), dips (7.2 inches of horizontal movement, 14th), and dives (-9.7 inches of vertical movement, ninth) with the very best of its kind. That’s the pitch that Pivetta learned to use differently against righties and lefties in 2018, much to his credit, taking an offering that had been predictably in the bottom left corner of the zone regardless of count or opponent and putting it in on right-handers’ hands (even when behind in the count), and down and in to lefties. Here’s what that looked like:

Read the rest of this entry »

The NL East Race Might Be Down to Two

Our Playoff Odds page has a nice little feature that lets you display, for any two dates, the difference between a team’s playoff odds on Date A and its odds on Date B. Around the end of each calendar month, I like to use that feature to check in on which teams most improved their odds over the month that was and which lost ground. It’s a long season, and it’s easy to miss things. Here are the largest changes in playoff odds from June 1 to June 30:

June Shook Up the NL East
Team % Change
Braves 37.9%
Phillies -28.8%
Nationals 25.8%
Mets -16.8%
Cardinals -13.0%

There’s a story there. Let me start it by saying that 17 of 30 big-league teams saw no change at all to their playoff odds in June, or saw a change of less than 2%. Another five saw a change greater than 2%, but less than 10%. Of the eight teams whose playoff odds swung by more than 10% in June, fully half — the four teams at the top of the table — came from the same division: the National League East. To some extent, that kind of clustering is to be expected — when one team rises, another in its division must fall — but the relative quiet of every other division gives us an opportunity to reflect for a moment on what happened in the NL East in June, and what lies ahead in July. Read the rest of this entry »

What Mike Trout Proved in May

Here’s the picture that got me interested in what Mike Trout had been up to between the end of April and the beginning of May, 2019:

I thought a big red circle would be gauche, so I’ll write this out: Starting on April 19, the rate at which Trout saw sliders (as a percentage of all pitches seen, and as measured by Pitch Info) rose from 8.7% over the 15 games preceding that date to an astonishing 30.9% over the 15 games preceding May 11. That’s the highest such number ever observed during Trout’s eight-season career. No other period even comes close. Over the course of his career, in fact, Trout has seen sliders less than half as often (15.0%) as he did over that 15-game stretch at the beginning of May.

To some extent, this is a consequence of the schedule. Slider use is up league-wide again this year, to 18.4% from last year’s 16.9%, and from 13.7% just five years ago. Thus, my first theory of the case — the case, here, being why Trout was suddenly seeing so many more sliders than he ever had before — was that Trout had just run into a series of teams that happened to be at the leading end of the league-wide rush away from fastballs and toward sliders. In other words, that this was just a bit of random chance. Could happen to anyone. And indeed, the seven teams Trout’s Angels faced during the period from April 19 to May 11 are throwing more sliders than the league as a whole this season:

Trout Faced Slider-Happy Teams in Late April
Team Slider% in 2019
Royals (1st) 26.5%
Tigers (2nd) 22.6%
Yankees (5th) 21.4%
Astros (7th) 21.0%
Orioles (9th) 20.8%
Mariners (14th) 19.0%
Blue Jays (16th) 18.5%
Teams Trout Faced 21.4%
Teams Trout Didn’t Face 17.3%
Note: “Teams Trout Didn’t Face” doesn’t include the Angels, although it’s true that he didn’t face them. Major-league rank in slider percentage in parentheses.

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The Mariners’ Tom Murphy Is Making The Most Of It

Less than a year ago, Tom Murphy was catching in Triple-A Albuquerque, batting eighth for the Isotopes and wrapping up a fourth consecutive season in which he failed to register 100 big-league plate appearances. Now platooning with Omar Narvaez in Seattle, Murphy’s .366 wOBA is sixth among big-league catchers with as many trips to the plate, and he has past the century mark on that count two weeks before the 4th of July. Since June 1, he’s hit five home runs for the Mariners, matching his career high for a single season in a month that’s not over yet.

To hear Murphy tell it, his sustained success in the major leagues this year — he’s always been a good Triple-A hitter — has been driven by three major adjustments, made meaningful by the opportunity he’s getting to play so often. The first is to the pitches he’s hunting. The second is to the way his upper body helps him get to those pitches in time to make contact. The final adjustment is to the physical foundation that lets him do damage when he makes contact.

During his first four seasons in the big leagues, Murphy swung at 74% of the fastballs he saw up in the zone (64 of 86), which was about the same rate at which he swung at fastballs in the middle and bottom thirds, too. (He swung at 70% of those pitches, or 116 of 165 he saw.) This year, by contrast, he’s swinging at pitches in the top third nearly 81% of the time (34 of 42 pitches), and pitches in the bottom two-thirds just 64% of the time (63 of 99). That’s the first adjustment.

But just swinging at different pitches won’t make much of a difference if you can’t hit those pitches when you try to. Murphy told me that this off-season, he switched from taking pitches off a tee to training off an Iron Mike pitching machine almost exclusively. The resultant change in training velocity — from literally zero to something more closely approximating game speed — exposed what, to Murphy, had become an unhelpful amount of “slack” in his upper body. Read the rest of this entry »

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.