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Fastballs Keep Pouring Into the Top of the Zone

What a month it has been for pitchers. We witnessed no-hitters by Joe Musgrove, Carlos Rodón and, just yesterday, John Means. Corbin Burnes threw a major-league record number of strikeouts without issuing a walk (49 punch outs and counting, though Burnes is currently sidelined). And Shane Bieber has pitched a multitude of double-digit strikeout games by. Oh, and Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole are just toying with hitters. On the flip side, it’s been a dismal start at the plate for most of the game’s hitters, though there are a few exceptions (here’s looking at you, Mike Trout and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.). Last week, Brendan Gawlowski covered April’s .232 league-wide batting average, an historic low. A combination of the highest strikeout rate on record and a below-average BABIP made the first month of the season one to forget for fans of offense and batted balls.

According to an anonymous GM recently quoted in The Athletic, the root of the league’s hitting woes is simple: “Pitching is too good.” The league-wide strikeout rate has been on the rise for several years now, but to see the rate jump like it has in the season’s first month is alarming and worth investigating. Are pitchers just getting better? Are hitters selling out for the long ball? It’s probably a combination of both. To dissect the strikeout problem, let’s look at how batters are striking out and what it reveals about how they are being pitched.

Not all strikeouts are created equal. To start, there are three ways a pitcher can earn a strike: a called strike, a swinging strike, and a foul ball (to keep it simple, I’m considering bunt attempts swings here). Going back to the 2015 season, a clear trend has set in.

Pitch Outcomes 2015-21
Season Balls Batted Ball Events Strikes Swinging Strikes
2021 36.5% 16.6% 46.7% 12.7%
2020 37.0% 16.7% 46.1% 12.3%
2019 36.3% 17.2% 46.3% 12.1%
2018 36.3% 17.5% 45.9% 11.6%
2017 36.4% 17.7% 45.5% 11.3%
2016 36.4% 18.0% 45.2% 10.9%
2015 36.0% 18.6% 45.0% 10.7%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
*2021 results using pitch data through games played on April 30.

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When Pitchers and Stealing Bases Collide

The Giants have been on a roll lately, winning their last three series thanks in large part to a surprisingly competent rotation, which Tony Wolfe detailed nicely earlier this week. Their latest victory, a 7–3 defeat of the Rockies on Wednesday, featured Alex Wood on the mound; he allowed just two runs and struck out nine over six innings en route to his third win in three starts. But his bold base running was what I want to focus on.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, looking to add to a 4–0 lead, Wood broke toward third before reliever Jordan Sheffield had started toward the plate. Sheffield stepped off the rubber and easily threw out Wood, who awkwardly tried to evade the tag by Josh Fuentes and somersaulted into the grass on the foul side of the bag. There’s something about the way Wood tumbled over the base while wearing his oversized coat that takes this past funny and into something special.

This steal attempt was a bizarre looking play. For starters, that big coat doesn’t seem very aerodynamic. But it’s rare in general for a pitcher to attempt to steal a base; I can’t remember the last time I’ve witnessed it. Sure enough, Wood’s scamper on Wednesday night has been the only stolen base attempt by a pitcher so far this season.

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The Struggle Is Real for Keston Hiura

Heading into the season, the Milwaukee Brewers were a popular pick to win the NL Central, with half of the writers here at FanGraphs expecting them to emerge victorious. The strength of the team is its pitching, with a rotation spearheaded by Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes as well as an excellent bullpen anchored by Josh Hader and 2020 NL Rookie of the Year Devin Williams. But there was a good deal of uncertainty about where the offense would come from and how much run support the strong pitching would receive. The shortened season saw Lorenzo Cain opt out and underwhelming performances from perennial MVP candidate Christian Yelich and infielder Keston Hiura. ZiPS (along with many other models) projected bounce-back campaigns for both Yelich and Hiura. These two sluggers’ ability to produce is critical to the Brewers’ success this season.

Yelich has not gotten off to a great start and has already missed 12 games due to back issues, which he’s dealt with previously in his career. But it’s Hiura that I want to put the spotlight on. In his rookie season, Hiura took the National League by storm, slashing .303/.368/.570 while hitting 19 home runs; he was second on the team to Yelich with 140 wRC+. Hiura entered the 2020 season expected to hold down the keystone and contribute as a key power bat in the lineup. Yet as was the case for so many hitters in the pandemic-shortened season, Hiura took a step backwards from his prior year’s performance. He managed a disappointing but still respectable 87 wRC+ and 13 home runs, but he struck out more. He walked less. His hard hit rate plummeted from 47.1% to 39.6%.

Nearly a month into the 2021 season, Hiura’s offensive performance has fallen short of even last season’s paltry marks. Through last weekend’s action, he is slashing .145/.264/.242 with a wOBA of .240 and 50 wRC+. One area that is a complete disaster for Hiura is his contact rate. To truly capture the magnitude of his issues, one must look beyond his strikeout rate (34.7%, which is really bad) to Z-Contact%, which is the percentage of balls a hitter makes contact with when he swings at pitches in the strike zone. So far in the early going, Hiura has the worst Z-Contact% in baseball, lagging behind Javier Báez by about 2.5%. Recently, Brewers hitting instructor Andy Haines mentioned Hiura’s timing is off but that he’s “getting closer every day.” While his coaches may express some optimism, any progress has yet to find its way onto the field. Here’s a sample of some swings and misses against the Cubs’ Kyle Ryan. Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Check In on Bullpen Usage

Last weekend’s series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres did not disappoint. It had all the energy and elements of a postseason series in April. Fernando Tatis Jr. returned from the IL to launch a home run off of Walker Buehler. Mookie Betts ended the second game in dramatic fashion with an incredible diving catch. Tempers flared in the opening game when Jorge Mateo was hit by a Dennis Santana pitch in the 10th inning. There was a little bit of everything. In so many ways, it was like a playoff series. Players and coaches on both sides held nothing back.

In the series finale, with the game tied and the Dodgers going for the sweep, something odd happened. Santana took the mound in a high-leverage situation even though Corey Knebel and Kenley Jansen were both available and had not pitched the day before. With the score tied at two, one runner aboard, and just one out, he was responsible for keeping the Padres off the board. Santana, an inexperienced middle reliever who barely made the roster, could not live up to the pressure of the moment. The Padres would go on to score three runs in the inning and win the game 5-2. The point here is not to tear down Santana. It’s that despite the intensity of a series between two teams battling for the division, sound early-season bullpen management overruled using the most proven late-inning relief options.

After the game, Dave Roberts was asked why he had Santana in the game in a high leverage situation. He responded saying, “obviously every game’s important but the health of our relievers is more important.” Injuries to pitchers are common throughout the season and the risk of injury is even greater in the first month, so Roberts’ concern is warranted and well-informed. Over the course of the three-game series between the Dodgers and Padres, a total of 19 relief pitchers were used (yes, I’m including Jake Cronenworth) accounting for 27 total appearances. Considering the caliber of starting pitching included the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Bauer, Yu Darvish, and Blake Snell, it’s a bit surprising that so much help was needed to finish off these games. (Okay, maybe not when it comes to Snell.) Read the rest of this entry »

Cedric Mullins Goes Lefty Full-Time

Scan the WAR leaderboard, and you’ll find some expected names: Ronald Acuña Jr. atop the list with 1.5; Mike Trout comfortably in the top three; Vladimir Guerrero Jr. bashing his way into the top five. Yet nestled in at No. 9 with 0.8 WAR, wedged between a pair of Dodgers, is one of the bigger surprises of the season so far: Orioles centerfielder Cedric Mullins. Thursday’s pair of 0-fers in a doubleheader against the Mariners snapped an 11-game hitting streak to start the year, but his 19 hits are tied for third in the majors with Guerrero and Justin Turner (and one behind fellow sudden star Yermín Mercedes). Through 55 plate appearances, he’s slashing .388/.455/.571 with two steals, a .446 wOBA, and a 190 wRC+ — that last figure better than that of, among others, Aaron Judge, Corey Seager, and Nolan Arenado.

Mullins’ strong performance has been aided by a high BABIP (.500) that has to come down, but there’s more to it than that. His 10.9% walk rate is both a career high and three points above his career rate. His .184 ISO is over 100 points better than his last full-season mark (.063 in 2019). But most notably, Mullins, a switch-hitter throughout his career, is batting exclusively from the left side this season. So far, it’s paying off.

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A Look at Very Early 2021 Injury Trends

Just two months ago, Fernando Tatis Jr. signed a mammoth contract that will keep him in San Diego through 2034. He entered the 2021 season as arguably the most hyped player in the majors. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when, after exiting a spring training game with shoulder discomfort, Tatis was cleared to resume play just a day later. Sadly, though, one of the game’s biggest stars was sidelined last week with a partial shoulder dislocation after taking a hearty swing at the plate.

On the heels of last year’s shortened season, fans and teams braced themselves for what they worried might be a bad year for player injuries. The season is entering just its second full week of action, but several notable players have already hit the Injured List, and this doesn’t even count the spring training losses of Eloy Jiménez, Kirby Yates, or George Springer:

Early 2021 Notable Injuries
Name Team Pos Injury Date Injury
Ke’Bryan Hayes PIT 3B 04/03/21 Wrist inflammation
Elieser Hernandez MIA SP 04/03/21 Biceps tendon inflammation
Tim Anderson CHW SS 04/04/21 Strained hamstring
Fernando Tatis Jr. SDP SS 04/05/21 Shoulder subluxation
Kevin Kiermaier TBR OF 04/05/21 Strained quad
James Paxton SEA SP 04/06/21 Strained forearm
Mike Soroka ATL SP 04/06/21 Shoulder discomfort
Ketel Marte ARI INF/OF 04/07/21 Strained hamstring
Kolten Wong MIL 2B 04/08/21 Strained oblique
Chris Archer TBR SP 04/10/21 Forearm tightness
Anthony Rendon LAA 3B 04/10/21 Strained groin
SOURCE: RosterResource

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Trevor Williams Is Staging a Comeback

This is Chet’s first piece as a FanGraphs contributor. He believes data is the most compelling storyteller and loves using analytics to attempt to demystify the game of baseball. He previously covered the Colorado Rockies for Purple Row. A graduate of Georgia Tech, he had the opportunity to participate in Danny Hall’s walk-on tryout in 2003, though he apparently failed to blow the legendary coach away with his 76 mph fastball. Chet lives in Lakewood, Colorado with his wife and two children, all of whom tolerate way too much baseball talk at the dinner table.

Trevor Williams headed into spring training at a pivotal moment in his career. Following two solid seasons of work in the Pirates’ rotation, he experienced a somewhat delayed sophomore slump in 2019. His performance declined significantly. He finished the season with an ERA of 5.38 and a FIP of 5.12 both more than a run higher than the average from the previous two seasons. His campaign to bounce back in 2020 never took off and he ended up on the wrong side of the small sample coin flip, ending the year with a 6.30 FIP and -0.4 WAR, career lows. He was designated for assignment in November.

Fresh off trading their former ace, Yu Darvish, the Chicago Cubs scooped Williams up on a low-risk, one-year deal for $2.5 million. From the Cubs’ point of view, the upside is clear. While Williams has had an awful go of it recently, he is only 28 years old and was once a capable fixture in a major league rotation. Williams (in the parlance of our times) shoved throughout spring training and earned himself the position as No. 4 starter in the Cubs’ rotation, but the question remains as to whether or not he can perform as he once did in 2017 and ’18.

Let’s rewind the tape a bit. Williams had a brief cup of coffee (one start and 12.2 total innings) in 2016 before starting the ’17 season in Pittsburgh’s bullpen. In the season lead-up, our own Eric Longenhagen had this to say of Williams:

“A lead-armed sinkerballer who dominated the International League with a low-90s fastball/sinker combo that he’d run up to 94, Williams made too many mistakes in the zone with that fastball and below-average changeup in his few big-league innings. He has an above-average slider and that pitch, down and in, is his best weapon against lefties. The command is going to need to come here if Williams is going to be more than a fifth- or sixth-starter type of arm.”

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