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Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Accelerates to the Finish

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

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

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

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

Billy Hamilton’s Legs Still Work Just Fine

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

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

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

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We’ve Never Had This Many Multi-Homer Games

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

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

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

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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

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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:

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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 »