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New York and Cleveland Pay for Some of What They Need

Last Friday afternoon, Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reported that the Mets were in agreement with 31-year-old lefty Justin Wilson, lately of the Cubs, on a two-year deal later reported to be approximately $10 million over the life of the contract. A few minutes later, the Indians announced that they’d re-signed a lefty of their own — 37-year-old Óliver Pérez — to a one-year contract worth $2.5 million, with a 2020 option worth $2.75 million that will vest if he reaches 55 appearances in 2019. With Pérez and Wilson under contract for 2019, the lefty relief market is down to Jake Diekman and a handful of folks projected for zero WAR in 2019. Let’s talk about the two that signed this week, and what we can expect from them.

Wilson is probably the higher-upside of the two, though bouts of inconsistency mean he’s not a lock to repeat the .188/.301/.342 line he held lefties to in 2018. A strong start to the 2017 season, in which he threw 40 innings for the Tigers, striking out 55 and walking just 16, led to a mid-season trade to a Cubs team hunting for a second straight division title. They didn’t quite get what they were after: Wilson walked 19 in just under 18 innings of work, struck out just 25, and visibly lost manager Joe Maddon’s confidence down the stretch — after a three-run, two-walk, one-out appearance on September 2nd, Wilson appeared just once again for the next 10 days, and was entrusted with just 5.1 more innings the rest of the season. Wilson’s wild ways continued into the early part of 2018 but seemed to improve as the season wore on, and he finished the year with a 3.41 full-season ERA, even as his Cubs mark (5.09) fell well below his then-career 3.30.

Wilson has always been a pitcher the spin rate guys love — see his acquisition by Chicago in mid-2017, for example — and nothing in his recent performance suggests the raw stuff that’s so impressed scouts and spreadsheet-wranglers alike has gone anywhere. He has, if anything, become even more reliant on his four-seam fastball than ever (he threw it nearly three-quarters of the time in 2018, mostly at the expense of his sinker) and given its 82nd-percentile spin rate that seems as reasonable a strategy as any. Batters were slightly more successful against that pitch in 2018 than they were in previous years (familiarity breeds contempt, I suppose) but much less successful against Wilson’s breaking pitches than before, suggesting a successful ability to pick his spots and disrupt timing effectively.

In New York, Wilson will join new acquisition Edwin Díaz, a re-signed Jeurys Familia, and holdovers Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo, and Drew Smith for what should be a vastly improved Mets ‘pen. The Mets were fairly terrible in relief in 2018 — their 4.96 ERA was second only to the Marlins for worst in the National League, and their FIP was worst outright — and they were heavily right-handed, getting just 62.1 inning out of southpaws in 2018, 42.2 of which came from the departing Jerry Blevins. Whatever else can be said about Justin Wilson, I think we can fairly say he is a better relief pitcher than Jerry Blevins, and his addition will give Mickey Callaway a strong seventh-inning option before heading to Familia in the eighth and Díaz in the ninth.

Pérez, meanwhile, is back in business after it appeared, even just a year ago, that his big-league career might be over. He started 2018 on a minor-league deal with the Yankees, showed enough to sign on with Cleveland on a big-league deal after a June 1 release from Scranton, and promptly posted a 36% strikeout rate and 1.39 ERA over 32 innings for Terry Francona’s squad. Most impressively, after spending a career mostly more effective against lefties than against righties, Pérez absolutely dominated right-handed hitters in 2018, holding them to a minuscule .138 wOBA (lefties posted a .213 mark). It’s hard to say precisely what changed for Pérez, but my money would be on his increased use of a newly-improved slider (up to 49 percent usage after sitting in the low 40s for most of his career) and a move away from a fading fastball.

If Wilson is a sensible move in the middle of a somewhat puzzling offseason for the Mets, Pérez is a sensible move in the middle of a straightforward, if disappointingly stingy, offseason for Cleveland. The bullpen could certainly use some help — it was nearly as bad as the Mets’ last year — but Pérez will at best help the ‘pen stand pat in 2019 rather than move forward, and he is (somewhat incredibly) the first major-league free agent acquisition of the offseason for Mike Chernoff. Ideally, we’d see Cleveland pick up a few more relievers off the market — all they cost is money — and perhaps spin off some of the leftover pieces for replacements for the departing Michael Brantley and the traded Edwin Encarnación and Yan Gomes. The plan instead seems to be to reduce payroll while hoping the departures don’t weaken the team enough to fall behind the rest of the Central. That isn’t likely, but seize the moment this approach is not.

Still, Pérez is a good pitcher and Cleveland needs a few of those. He had a terrific season in 2018 and there is reason to believe, despite his 16 seasons in the major leagues, that he has more left in the tank. He’ll be best served if the front office goes out and gets more arms to take some of the strain off of, say, him and Brad Hand, but if he pitches like he did last year, he’ll be useful anyway. Wilson, too, will probably be in the best position to succeed if the Mets go out and find another lefty reliever to take some of the load off (Diekman is of course still available) but has enough of an ability to get righties out that he should be a contributor. In an offseason that has been remarkably bereft of teams going out and getting players they need by paying money for their services, Cleveland and New York have done just that, even if these signings would ideally be part of a larger plan to spend money on good players at positions of need.

Michael Fulmer May Need to Reinvent Himself

It was 84 degrees in Cleveland by the time Michael Fulmer, Detroit’s starter for a September 15 rumble with Cleveland, hit the showers without recording an out for the Tigers. Cleveland won that game 15-0, and Fulmer missed his last two scheduled starts of the season with a knee injury, apparently sustained in-game, that put him in surgery five days later. It was a fitting end to the 25-year-old’s 2018 campaign. Detroit had hoped, at the very least, that Fulmer would be effective enough to stabilize an aging rotation, one in which he and 27-year-old Matthew Boyd were the only starters under 30. At best, they’d reportedly hoped he’d be good enough to spin off to a contender at the trade deadline. He was neither, and instead posted the worst season of his three-year career.

Michael Fulmer Had a Bad Year
Season Age IP K% BB% ERA- FIP- WAR
2016 23 159.0 20.4% 6.5% 72 87 3.0
2017 24 164.2 16.9% 5.9% 87 83 3.5
2018 25 132.1 19.7% 8.2% 110 105 1.4

I’d like to focus on Fulmer’s disappointing 2018 campaign for a moment because its presumptive cause — injury — means that a resurgent Fulmer, if he indeed rebounds next year, will probably look quite different than the young man who won 2016’s AL Rookie of the Year award and was an All-Star in the next season. If baseball’s beauty lies in part in the opportunities it gives its players to reinvent themselves, then Michael Fulmer is a prime candidate for reinvention, and with his success or failure rides some portion of the future success or failure of the Tigers. Other pitchers have reinvented themselves after early-career injuries effectively, and I’m always curious to see how they choose to fight their way back. Read the rest of this entry »

To Not Fade Away

I last met Miguel Montero on April 29, 2017, when he was with the Chicago Cubs and I was with The Athletic. That was 12,348 days after Montero was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and 341 days before he’d take three plate appearances for the Washington Nationals on April 5, 2018, and thereafter leave the game, apparently for good. Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic reported recently that Montero is “pretty much” retired these days, and in this world of oh so very much uncertainty, “pretty much” is good enough for me. Eight months and a few days after he last took the field for a major league team, and forty years before he can reasonably expect his time to end, Miguel Montero the player is about to pass out of our present and into our memories, while Miguel Montero the man lives on.

It seems like a good time to remember the man.

When I last met Miguel Montero, he was in the process of being passed by. Kyle Schwarber had returned from a knee injury that had taken him away from all but the beginning and brilliant ending of the Cubs’ 2016 campaign; Willson Contreras was about to embark upon a sophomore season that seemed to confirm the highest aspirations of his debut. Montero, then 33 and already trailed by the whispers of self-interest which would crescendo into a shout and chase him out of the Chicago clubhouse two months later, was standing in the visitor’s clubhouse in Fenway Park, not all that far from the door, rocking from side to side on heels that weren’t yet ready to play the backup role assigned to them.

At the time, I had the impression of a man torn between what he knew he was and what he wanted to be. Miguel Montero wanted to be a leader, and for a time there in Chicago, he was. The Cubs wouldn’t have won the World Series in 2016 without his brittle, prideful energy — they wouldn’t have beaten the Dodgers 8-4 in Game 1 of the NLCS, they wouldn’t even have gotten to the NLCS that without Montero hard on their asses, chasing them on. The Cubs were led by their catchers in 2016, and Montero and David Ross were the catchers they had. Montero wasn’t the leader of his dreams in 2016, but he was a leader nonetheless, and by early 2017 in Boston he could feel the moment that had placed him there moving on.

For most of us, our daily acts of self-creation are private — contained in the moments in which we choose this, not that, to love this person, not that one, and to do this thing, and not the other. For major league baseball players, that is not so. They are created once the way all people are created, then again in private, over and over, just themselves and the people they love, and then a third time — this is the time that is different — in thousands of moments in the lives of other people. In our lives. Baseball players become the signifiers of other childhoods, and of childhood’s end; they become totems to mark the passage of time, to mark the bounds between one part of life and another that comes after it, and the men behind the totems become incidental to their meaning to us. That is what Miguel Montero became to me. That is what other Monteros have become to others.

I grew up a Cubs fan, but I’m not sure I am one anymore. The team has changed, of course, but far more consequentially to me, so have I. In the spring of 2015, I wrote my first word for Baseball Prospectus, in part about Miguel Montero. That fall, I sat in the press box at Wrigley Field covering the Cubs in the postseason. The next October, I watched them win the World Series. Miguel Montero was one of the last generation of Cubs who I could, ever-so-briefly, worship as larger than life. He was among the last who I first imagined into being when I could not reasonably imagine later standing before him in a cramped Boston clubhouse, watching the man and not the idea of him come to grips with a time passing him by. He was among the last who I did not expect to see swearing at his misfortune, standing awkwardly in his in-betweenness, checking his phone for the latest from his children, smiling and laughing in that ribald childish way of men in the company of men. He was among the last who was not fully real to me.

And now he is not real to any of us, in the way that most of the baseball players of our times are not real. Now he is Miguel Montero, C, 2006-2018. Now he is fixed in our memories as a point of light, whether for his five good seasons and three bad ones with the Diamondbacks, his two years and three months with the Cubs, or those last gasps of relevance with the Blue Jays and Nationals. Most ballplayers pass out of our consciousness this way. They can’t all be Chipper Jones or Mariano Rivera. They can’t all say farewell, and be enlarged permanently in their absence. Most of them are there with us, filling our summers and lengthening our falls, until one day we look up and find them gone. They remain then linked in our memories as signs of that time in our lives, even as the men whose human forms those signs took on continue to age and change before a diminished crowd of spectators. Miguel Montero will likely live many more years. He could become a grandfather, the patriarch of a strong and growing family. He will, apparently, be an agent to as many players as he can get his hands on. He might even pick up a mask and glove one of these days and catch a ball or two in his backyard. He will tell stories of his days in our memories. But he will not be real to most of us, anymore. He will remain fixed in time, as we last knew him. He will not fade away.

The Twins Have Cornered the DH Market

Nelson Cruz, a man seemingly determined to hit 30 home runs in every ballpark in America, has signed a one-year deal to hit 30 home runs for the Twins. Jon Heyman reported the contract is for $14.3 million for 2019, with a $12 million club option for 2020. That puts 2019’s value right around Kiley McDaniel’s AAV estimate from our Top 50 Free Agents list. That seems like a perfectly reasonable price to pay for the services of a man who, at age 38, is projected to produce about 2.7 WAR next year, though both Kiley and the crowd expected Cruz to secure a two-year deal, even with his market largely confined to the American League.

Cruz will likely spend much of his time in Minnesota as the Twins’ primary designated hitter, ably backed in that capacity by C.J. Cron, a fine power hitter in his own right and a recent waiver acquisition from Tampa. Cruz might also play a little right field from time to time, allowing Max Kepler to spell Byron Buxton in center; Cron will split time between DH and first base (sorry, Tyler Austin) though he could also, of course, be spun off in exchange for someone else, now that the Twins have reeled in Cruz. The winter certainly isn’t over yet, and the gap between the Twins and the Indians is still large enough that if the Twins mean to compete in 2019, we might expect another move or two from them before they’re done.

Here’s the reason for the deal in a nutshell:

The Twins Have Powered Up
Player PA HR wOBA wRC+ WAR
Nelson Cruz 630 35 0.367 132 2.7
C.J. Cron 495 24 0.343 115 1.3
Joe Mauer 543 6 0.319 98 1.0
Logan Morrison 359 15 0.283 74 -0.7
Mauer and Morrison stats are 2018 actuals. Cruz and Cron stats are 2019 Steamer projections.

You can quibble with the playing time projections a bit, because people are going to move around or out of town, but the overall message is clear: the Twins want to get better right now and are willing to pay real money to do so. In an AL Central division marked by rebuilding and a Cleveland roster that’s not getting any younger, that’s a refreshing change of pace. And there’s room to grow yet. The Twins’ payroll, even with Cruz in hand, is just slightly north of $100 million, and they don’t have a single guaranteed contract in place for 2020. Cruz stabilizes their lineup for 2019 without taking a single iota of flexibility away from the team in the future. That’s a deal you should do every time.

It’s true that you’d usually be concerned about a 38-year-old designated hitter falling off a production cliff, especially in a new ballpark. But Cruz has shown time and again that the usual rules don’t apply to him. That 132 wRC+ projection seems eminently sensible to me (it would be his lowest mark since 2013) and nothing about his 2018 performance at Safeco suggests the final, inevitable collapse is near at hand. Cruz may not be the hitter he was in 2018 next year, but even if he’s half that he’s a valuable addition for Minnesota. He will certainly be better than Logan Morrison.

And however you slice it, the Twins just added a lot more power in the short term; at least right now, they have three players (Cruz, Cron, and holdover Miguel Sano) who might reasonably be expected to hit 30 home runs, and two more (Eddie Rosario and Jonathan Schoop) who could match that figure with luck and a fair wind.

The Twins may not be so far away from contending. Pretty much everything went poorly for them in 2018, and they still won 78 games. If Sano’s titanium leg gets him back on the field with any consistency, if Buxton can bounce back from a wildly disappointing 2018, and, critically, if this Cruz signing is paired with other moves, you could squint and see how the Twins have the chance to be respectable in a division running low on respectability. The only thing standing between them and the postseason in the Central is a still-dangerous but weakened Cleveland squad (the Wild Card field, while theoretically an easier sell, is relatively crowded). The White Sox are still probably a year or two away from contention, and the Royals and Tigers are for the most part concerned with figuring out which way is up. If you’re the Twins and you still have money to spend, why not go for it?

Maybe Cruz will be bad in 2019. Maybe the Twins will be, too. But it isn’t a foregone conclusion coming into the season, and that’s more than can be said for a number of teams around the league today, including at least two in their own division. Nelson Cruz is a good baseball player and the Twins need a few more of those to be a good baseball team in 2019. They got him, and all they had to pay was money. This move won’t seal the division or the postseason for them, but it’ll get them much closer than they were last year. And if this is the beginning of a series of moves, it might be just enough to make the Indians think about spending money, which is a win in and of itself. This is a good signing for the Twins. On to the next.

The Least Consequential Pitch of 2018

You may have heard of a statistic called “championship win probability added” (cWPA), which measures the extent to which any given baseball play contributes to a team’s chances of winning a championship. It’s a neat little statistic that can be used to write articles like this one, which identified Hal Smith’s three-run home run for Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series as the biggest baseball play of all time. Joe Carter, Kirk Gibson, and Sid Bream also made it onto that list. cWPA is the type of statistic that conjures up, merely by its reference, vivid images of confetti-filled ballparks, raucous crowds, and men made high by glorious deeds. This article is about whatever the opposite of that is. Today, I’d like to take you on a journey to find the least consequential pitch of 2018.

How would someone even go about identifying the least consequential pitch of 2018? I’m sure there are a lot of answers to that question, some of which you will no doubt point out in the comments, but here’s mine: The least consequential pitch of 2018 is the pitch that least affected the outcome of the least important game of the season. A pitch that swung a late-season game between two eliminated clubs, however inconsequential that game might be to you, me, and Bobby McGee, cannot be the least consequential pitch of 2018 because, well, players on eliminated teams are players too, and a tree that falls amidst a Royals-Orioles game still falls for those players and for those fans. No, this pitch should be so inconsequential that even players with nothing left to play for decline to grasp at it for a taste of something once lost.

The first step is to find all the games played late in the season between teams that had by that point been eliminated from playoff contention. But this by itself is not enough of a standard, because teams like the Diamondbacks, while out of contention on the final day of the season, had as recently as September 1 had playoff odds of 37.4% (and higher before that). The sheen of consequence for Arizona was too bright to include the Diamondbacks. No, the game we are searching for should have been between teams that had been out of contention for a long time, ideally effectively since the beginning of the season. It should have been played between teams that had so long ago last tasted the sweet elixir of a playoff race that all the little things players do to keep themselves motivated during a long season had fallen aside. I present to you the playoff odds of the White Sox, Royals, Tigers, Marlins, Reds, and Padres, plotted over the course of the season, with the Red Sox’s odds thrown in there just for comparison’s sake:

I suspect some of you will note at this point that there’s a reasonable case to be made that a game between two teams who have locked up a playoff spot for most of the season (like, say, the Red Sox) deserves to be considered alongside games between bad ones as the least consequential game of 2018, as it is equally irrelevant to the outcome of the season. But any game between two contending teams is consequential insofar as it can be used to glean information about the nature of the playoffs to come, and brings with each pitch an injury risk to players who might determine the course of a seasons’ future. No game featuring the 2018 Red Sox could be considered the least consequential of 2018. The champions were playing. No, the game we want is one played, as late in the season as possible, between the six teams who never really sniffed contention at all in 2018.

Unfortunately for us, none of the final series of the 2018 campaign featured any of these six teams playing against each other. But the second-to-last series did. September 25-26 witnessed a two game set between the Reds (who entered 66-92) and Royals (54-102), in Cincinnati. The first game was a relatively taut affair won by the Royals 4-3 with a ninth-inning run; that game was too tense to work for our purposes. The second game, however, saw the Royals win 6-1. This game, I think, is a strong contender for the least consequential of 2018. You may disagree. But I’d argue that it was. All that was at stake — and it was a relatively low stake at that — was the Reds’ position in the 2019 draft order, and the 2018 Reds were not sufficiently bad that a win or a loss was the difference between the first, second, or third picks, where order really matters. I think, after some consideration, we have found our game:

But what of the least consequential pitch of that least consequential game? This one’s easier. The Royals scored in the first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh innings; the Reds scored in the first. That means the top of the ninth inning, in which the Royals had a chance to add on a seventh run before the Reds got one last chance at a comeback, was clearly the least consequential of the game. Winning by six isn’t that much different than winning by seven; I hope we can agree on that. So the pitch we’re looking for is in the top of the ninth. And the least consequential pitch of the top of the ninth inning was the one that ended it — a sinker from Jared Hughes to Adalberto Mondesi that changed the outcome of a meaningless game not at all; after all, with two outs, the chances of adding on a meaningless run in a meaningless inning in a meaningless game were very small, and even if such a run had been added, the chances of it then mattering later, when the Reds had said their piece, were smaller still. Here it is:

What I love about this pitch, and why I wanted to write about it today, is how much everyone involved seems to care about it. There is, of course, a good case to be made that it is the least consequential pitch of a season of tens of thousands of pitches. The pitch didn’t matter. The game didn’t matter. The season didn’t matter. And yet there was Adalberto Mondesi, sprinting down to first, trying just as hard as he could to make it to first base in time, and there was Joey Votto, stretching his legs out to beat him. The pitch didn’t matter, when you think about it. But when you don’t think too hard about it, it’s just another opportunity to do well however you can. And that’s something. Life, too, doesn’t really matter one little bit, when held up to even the slightest scrutiny. But of course, it still does.

A Day Michael Brantley Missed Twice

The reason called strikes exist is that, at a certain point, the game wants hitters to get on with it. If we didn’t have called strikes, hitters could, and almost certainly would, let pitch after pitch in the strike zone sail by, content to wait as long as might be necessary for precisely the right one to arrive. How many pitches would it take before you’d start shouting at the hitter to get the bat off his shoulder and just swing already? 10? 20? 100? No need to find out. Baseball doesn’t have a clock; called strikes serve just as well. You get three pitches in the zone. Three pitches you should be able to do something with. Three pitches, then you’re out, and someone else gets to take their turn.

But of course major league pitches in the zone are still extremely hard to hit. Major league hitters, who become major league hitters, at least in part, by demonstrating a consistent ability to make contact with pitches inside the zone, usually whiff on about one out of every six or seven strikes they swing at. Mike Trout missed about one in every 10 last year. So did 2004 Barry Bonds. Even the very best of the very best miss on pitches inside the zone all the time. Which makes it all the more amazing that Michael Brantley, who is admittedly neither Barry Bonds nor Mike Trout, made contact with 97.3% of the pitches he swung at inside the zone last year. Now, he didn’t swing at pitches in the zone all the time; he was discerning, swinging at 65.8% of those pitches, a number that takes a few pages of the leaderboard to click over to. And not all of the contact he made was necessarily good contact. But it was a lot of contact. Indeed, it was, by a fair margin, the best mark in baseball.

When I first learned this particular fact, which was just a few minutes before I started writing this article, I almost immediately asked myself a question about Michael Brantley that I’m afraid may be rather unfair to the man: What happened on the 2.7% of pitches on which he missed?

Let’s go back to September 1, 2018. That was the day the Cleveland Indians were playing the second game of a three game series against the Tampa Bay Rays in Cleveland, and it was a day — the last of only five such days this year  — on which Michael Brantley swung and missed at more than one strike in a single game. I’d like to focus on the two he missed that day because they emphasize, I think, the utter improbability of not missing that same kind of pitch far more often. Here’s the first one (with some bonus Francisco Lindor):

That’s a good pitch. Blake Snell has a good slider. But it’s not like that pitch was extraordinarily outside the bounds of what big league hitters have to face every day. What Brantley probably should have done is to lay off of it, because the best he was ever going to be able to do was ground the ball weakly to the left side, or maybe pop it over the third baseman’s head and into left field. But that’s easy to say and very hard to do. When the ball comes out of Snell’s hand, it looks like it might end up somewhere just south of Brantley’s left elbow. Instead it ends up just south of the catcher’s left knee. This is part of what makes baseball hard. This is why only mis-identifying a pitch like this 22 times in a given season is, to me, stunning and worth writing about. Here’s another of those 22 pitches–the second Brantley missed that day (this time with bonus Donaldson content):

Here, you can see Brantley sigh a little bit. I’m not sure, but I imagine that’s because this is the same pitch he missed earlier in the game, from the same pitcher. That sigh is him recognizing that he had a whole three innings to think about what Snell did to him last time and he still wasn’t able to prevent it from happening again. That sigh, probably, is him recognizing that Blake Snell is an excellent major league pitcher and life just happens that way sometimes. And it’s the sigh of a man who’s come rather close to perfection in one particular skill in one particular game and has been reminded, if only for a moment, that actual perfection is probably unattainable.

I like baseball for a lot of reasons, but one big one is that its challenges are presented in discrete form, pitch by pitch. Pitches lead to plate appearances, plate appearances lead to outs, outs lead to innings, and innings lead to games. We can break the whole thing down into thousands of tiny moments and consider each moment separately. And players have that many more discrete moments in which to fail or succeed. Michael Brantley failed at one particular thing less often, on a rate basis, than any other player in baseball last year. He approached perfection in something that demands unimaginable skill to do well even once. He missed two pitches on September 1st, 2018, and they were fine pitches to miss. That he saw so many others like them this year and did not miss those is something to be proud of.

Jesse Chavez Isn’t Done

If your perception of Jesse Chavez, who on Tuesday signed with the Texas Rangers for two years and $8 million, is anchored by his time with the A’s from 2012-2015 — or even, honestly, with the Blue Jays (2016), Dodgers (2016), Angels (2017) or Rangers (for the first half of 2018) — then I think it’s probably worth spending a little time familiarizing yourself with the following table:

Jesse Chavez Did Well in Chicago
2018, Chicago 39.0 29 58 8.40 97.0%
Career 838.0 110 106 2.80 72.6%

After July 21st, when he joined the Cubs in exchange for an A-ball reliever, Chavez wasn’t just the best reliever in Joe Maddon’s much-taxed bullpen, though he was that. He wasn’t even just the best reliever in the N.L. Central, though he was that, too. After July 21st, there’s a reasonable case to be made that Jesse Chavez was among the most valuable relievers in baseball. Just three — all Rays, for obvious reasons — threw more innings than Chavez’s 39; just four bested his .211 wOBA over the period. Nobody better than Jesse Chavez threw more innings after July 21st; nobody who threw more innings was better.

Here is, perhaps, one reason why:

Chavez first picked up his cutter during the 2013 season, and for a few years the pitch worked much as it did in 2018: when used more, his ERA went down; when used less, his ERA went up. In 2015, that changed, as a season-long velocity decline brought on by overuse in the rotation sapped the pitch of much of its zip. By the time Chavez got his arm strength back, he’d arrived in Los Angeles for the 2016 and 2017 seasons, where he was asked to pitch up in the zone more than he wanted to, further diminishing the value of a pitch that gets outs by generating balls on the ground. The pitch didn’t click until Chavez dropped his arm slot on Mother’s Day, 2018, a month before he arrived in Chicago. See if you can pick it out on the graph above.

There are reasons to think, in other words, that this particular version of Jesse Chavez is better than the one we’ve become used to seeing. If that’s the case, it’s good news for the Rangers, who had a middling ‘pen (their 4.23 FIP was 16th in the majors last year) and a downright bad rotation (their 5.18 FIP was 27th) in 2018. Chavez can start, if that’s the way the Rangers want to go, or pitch in long relief like he did last season, or even jump into a two-inning opener role. Whatever he takes on, Chavez seems poised to bring some stability to a Texas squad that’s likely to experience another rocky season in 2019, and if he performs anything like he did last year, he should be trade bait once again come July.

I think it’s probably unreasonable to expect a 1.15 ERA out of Chavez for a full season next year — that 97 percent strand rate will almost certainly come down, and Adrián Beltré won’t be around to convert quite as many ground balls hit to third base into outs — but even splitting the difference between his strong second half and his career numbers gets you a perfectly adequate pitcher, and that’s pretty much exactly what Steamer thinks he will be. I’d take the under on his 3.85 projected ERA, especially if he comes out of the ‘pen, and I suspect the Rangers would be perfectly happy to have him hit that number on the money out of the rotation.

In fact, the case for Texas signing Chavez is pretty clear: he’s a known quantity who comes relatively cheap, had a great second half, and can do a number of useful things in the rotation or in the ‘pen. What’s odd about that case is that it’s also the case for the Cubs signing Chavez, instead, which they didn’t do. And that’s very strange. Word is apparently getting around that the Cubs aren’t planning to “spend big” this offseason. But in what universe is signing Jesse Chavez “spending big”? And if the rumors are false, and the Cubs plan to blow past the luxury tax threshold and sign one or both of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, why not throw in an extra $8 million for Chavez?

It sure sounds like Chavez would have given Chicago a discount, if they’d tried for one: when the season ended, he was overheard telling teammates that “if I’m not wearing this [Cubs jersey] next year, I’m done.” Maybe he got a good night’s sleep and decided he’d been a little rash. Maybe the Cubs’ budget really is stretched. Maybe something else happened. We don’t really know, and in the end it doesn’t matter that much. Now Jesse Chavez is a Texas Ranger. And he’s far from done.

Brian McCann Wants Another Ring

Five years after leaving his hometown Braves for New York City, and two years after winning a title in Houston, Brian McCann returned to Atlanta Monday night on a one-year deal worth $2 million. This deal would have made sense even if the Braves hadn’t also signed Josh Donaldson Monday night; Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers shared catching duties for Atlanta in 2018, and Suzuki is now a Washington National. But with Donaldson also in the fold, the picture is crystal clear: The Braves expect to win the National League East for a second straight year, and Brian McCann, fresh off the high of two straight trips to the LCS, wants a piece of the action.

The upside for the Braves here is pretty obvious. McCann probably isn’t going to put up a wOBA above .350 ever again, as he did five times in his previous nine seasons for Atlanta, but he’s only one season removed from three consecutive years of wOBAs above .320, and Baseball Prospectus‘ catcher metrics still have him as a passable if not exceptional defensive receiver. Package that on-field skill-set with the kind of gruff, beardy clubhouse leadership that big-league executives always seem to think young teams need, and you’ve got a perfectly solid backup catcher at a reasonable price. In a catching market that saw Jeff Mathis get $3 million a year on a multi-year guarantee, the Braves could have done a lot worse. Steamer certainly thinks so: Read the rest of this entry »

You May Wish To Consider Nick Pivetta

I think most people know that Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta are members of the Philadelphia Phillies’ rotation. I’m guessing that a lot of you — even those not from or otherwise affectionate towards Philadelphia — could identify Vince Velasquez as a Philly starter, too. It may interest you to know, then, that none of these three men, all possessed of relative fame, led their club in strikeout percentage as a starter last year. The man who did so struck out fully 27.1% of the batters he faced, which was the 14th-best such mark in the league among starters with as many innings thrown. He also posted, at 1.01, the second-highest differential between his ERA (4.80) and FIP (3.79) in the game. His name is Nick Pivetta. Nick Pivetta is 25 years old. You may wish to consider Nick Pivetta.

When my colleague Jeff Sullivan last considered Nick Pivetta, back in April, he called him “the newest good Phillies starter,” and gave particular attention to Pivetta’s renewed confidence in his curveball. Nothing in Pivetta’s 2018 performance suggested Jeff was off the mark in this assessment, and indeed there may now be more reasons to be optimistic about the right-hander’s future than there were before the year.

Here’s one of them: a heat map of all the curveballs Pivetta threw this year (from the pitcher’s point of view):

And here’s that same chart, but for 2017:

In 2017, the curveballs Pivetta threw were basically in the same spot — down and away to righties; down and in to lefties — whether he was ahead or behind in the count. As a pitcher, it’s good not to do the same thing all the time. So it’s very encouraging that this year, Pivetta found two new places to throw his curveball: in on right-handers’ hands, even when behind in the count, and down and away to lefties.

Pivetta used to have one curveball, and now he has four. Because of the way his pitches interact — as Jeff noted, he uses his curveball mostly to set up his fastball — that means an even greater increase in the number of possible pitch sequences available to him.

And it’s not as if Pivetta spent the entire year reliant on that promising curve. Although he ended 2018 having thrown the pitch 21.7% of the time — more than six points above his 2017 mark — he wasn’t consistent in his use of the pitch throughout the season. In April, when Jeff wrote about it, Pivetta was going to the curve around 27% of the time. By the end of the year, with the Phillies solidly out of contention and (presumably) with a tiring arm, Pivetta went to the curve a little less than 19% of the time. The difference was, for the most part, made up by his increased use of a sinker, which generates an unusually high percentage of whiffs for a pitch of its kind (8.3% in 2018). That ability to adjust an otherwise successful approach as the season goes along augurs well for his future.

Which brings me to another promising thing about Pivetta’s 2018 — he didn’t really get worse as the season went along, despite setting a career high in innings pitched:

Nick Pivetta Didn’t Slow Down In 2018
1st Half 96.1 27.4% 7.3% 1.32 4.58 3.76 35.4% 34.0%
2nd Half 67.2 26.7% 7.5% 1.29 5.05 3.84 33.9% 28.8%

When it comes to pitching, the best predictor of success in the future is success in the past, and we now have evidence that Pivetta can put up a FIP- better than league average (92) over a full season. That isn’t evidence we had before the season (Pivetta was never especially highly regarded as a prospect), and it means that it’s now reasonable to expect something at least close to that level of performance in 2019.

Pivetta is never going to be a guy who blows you away with his stuff or his velocity — his spin rate is just about average, and his velocity is fast but not otherworldly in this supercharged environment — but he can be a guy fully in command of four serviceable big-league pitches, and that’s not nothing today or any day. For a fourth starter, it’s very good indeed.

What I’ll be paying attention to in 2019 is whether the large gap between Pivetta’s ERA and his FIP, which I noted at the beginning of this piece but have left unmentioned until now, persists for a third consecutive season. There are some players who just consistently under-perform their peripherals for one reason or another, and a third season with an ERA more than a full point above his FIP might be reasonable evidence that Pivetta is one of those guys. It might also just be evidence that Philadelphia’s defense is unusually terrible.

Batters hit over .300 on ground balls against Pivetta in 2018, which is unusual given that the league average usually sits in the .240s; he also allowed an unusually high slugging percentage on fly balls. Maybe some of those balls will find gloves in 2019. Maybe they won’t. Again, Philly’s defense was very bad in 2018. Either way, we’ll learn something. For now, Pivetta remains one of the better young starters in the game, and a key component of what could be — depending on how free agency plays out — a very solid Phillies team in 2019.

Miguel Andújar Is Another Good Young Yankee

Miguel Enrique Andújar was born in San Cristóbal, in the Dominican Republic, on March 2nd, 1995. That same day, 968 miles north and northwest of the newborn child, the space shuttle Endeavour launched itself into low-earth orbit, bearing five men and two women. It returned to eastern Florida 16 days later, flew 17 more missions over the next 16 years, and was finally decommissioned on the first day of June, 2011. Andújar, now 23 years old and a finalist for this year’s Rookie of the Year Award, remains in active service.

In 2018, Andújar took 606 plate appearances for the Yankees. In 239 of those appearances, he reached base by hit, walk, or hit-by-pitch. 15 of those hits came in a seven-game stretch in April during which Andújar recorded a 1.706 OPS and joined Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle as the only Yankees to record seven straight games with an extra-base hit before turning 25. Of his hits, 47 were doubles, which tied an American League rookie record set by Fred Lynn in 1975 and vaulted Andújar past DiMaggio, this time, into the Yankee record books. Andújar also hit 27 home runs in 2018, and his 128 wRC+ was third-best among AL hitters under 25, behind Francisco Lindor and Alex Bregman.

I don’t know if Andújar tipped his servers well in 2018, or brushed his teeth every night without fail, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. He did a lot of things right in 2018. And he was part of a powerful Yankees infield that included Didi Gregorius and Gleyber Torres.

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