Author Archive

The Best Fastball of 2019

We are truly living in the age of blazing fastballs. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever, and measurements like spin rates are getting recognized as a crucial tool for effectiveness. At the same time, the fastball is also getting rarer than ever, but the pitch is still quite valuable and that will never change. Having the most valuable fastball in the league is something that will catch a lot of fans’, scouts’, and front office members’ attention.

It’s easy to think that the most effective fastball in 2019 would be that of a classic fireballer. One could guess names like Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, or Max Scherzer. While those three are all having good seasons, our metrics have so far crowned someone else as having the best fastball of 2019 so far. The current fastball champ is none other than Jake Odorizzi. Depending on how much you’ve been following the Twins, you may be surprised to hear that Odorizzi has a 2.24 ERA and a 3.00 FIP in 14 starts this year. He’s boasting a career-best 28.3% strikeout rate while limiting home runs (0.71 HR/9IP) despite being an extreme fly-ball pitcher (29.4% ground-ball rate). Prior to this year, Odorizzi’s been known as a decent, middle-to-back-end pitcher, but not quite a top-of-the-rotation caliber starter like he’s been this season.

Arsenal-wise, Odorizzi’s fastball has been his best pitch in his career. It has accumulated 59.6 in wFB while the only other pitch that netted a positive value is his slider at 2.9. His other pitches — a cutter (-10.3), curveball (-8.2), and changeup (-18.9), have not. He’s done that without significantly backing off fastball usage, having used it 55.4% of the time in his career. This year, that figure is that 60.7%, which is the highest after his debut 2012 season (71.1%) in which he made only seven starts. Read the rest of this entry »

Yankees Acquire Edwin, Continue to Stockpile Power

Edwin Encarnacion is 36 years old now, but age hasn’t stopped him from mashing baseballs. Among qualified American League hitters, he ranks 12th in wRC+ (139), leads the league in home runs (21), and is fourth in isolated power (.290). He’s accrued 1.7 WAR, which is pretty good at this point of the season, especially given his subpar defense. Of course, nobody is employing Encarnacion for his glove.

When Seattle acquired Encarnacion this past offseason, everybody knew he’d be traded sooner rather than later. The Mariners are in the midst of a rebuild and are reportedly “trying to trade everyone” before the July 31 deadline. Encarnacion, with his age and contract, was an obvious candidate to be moved.

It only took until the middle of June for the Mariners to find a suitor. The Yankees now employ Edwin Encarnacion.

Yankees Get:

  • 1B/3B/DH Edwin Encarnacion (though it’s likely he’ll primarily be a DH)

Mariners Get:

Let’s touch on the Mariners’ return first before talking about the big parrot in the room. Juan Then was actually a Mariners farmhand two years ago. The Yankees acquired Then (and minor league hurler JP Sears) during the 2017-18 offseason in exchange for Nick Rumbelow.

Then is only 19 years old and he’s still in rookie ball. Prior to this season, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel ranked Then as the No. 31 prospect in New York’s system, noting that he is “advanced for his age” but has “middling stuff and physical projection.” It’s worth noting that Then seems to have developed a better fastball in the Yankees system. But again, it’s awfully hard to project a 19-year-old who hasn’t reached full-season ball. We know he’s a young arm of some promise, but the delta in his potential outcomes is very wide.

As an interesting side note, reports suggest that the Mariners chose to deal Encarnacion to the Yankees because New York was willing to absorb more money than other interested clubs. By prioritizing salary flexibility, Seattle’s move is somewhat reminiscent of how the Marlins handled the Giancarlo Stanton trade, in which the Yankees gave up significantly less player value to bring in another slugger because they were able to take on big money. It’s not ideal for rebuilding teams to prioritize monetary value over player return on transactions, but it is what it is. Money is a big part of how organizations operate, and sometimes you’re going to see deals like that. Read the rest of this entry »

How One Man Changed Korean Baseball

Heo Koo-Yeon in his office

Heo Koo-Yeon is one of the biggest names in Korean baseball history. At this moment, you could say that he is the most influential figure in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). Heo was originally an athlete. As a star high school player, he partook in international competitions in the pre-KBO era of Korean baseball. Starting 1982, the inaugural KBO season, he has been a commentator (with a brief detour to a managing job for the Chungbo Pintos in 1986). Outside of the broadcasting job, Heo’s contributed in speaking for the better overall infrastructure and facilities around KBO. He influenced the building of many of the newer KBO venues, which were built closer to the modern style rather than the old high-school style that classic venues adhered to. Most recently, he advised on the construction of the new NC Dinos venue, Changwon NC Park, which is said to be “major league quality” by many. Outside of KBO, he’s also donated close to $100,000 to build Cambodia’s first baseball stadium and helped build a ballpark in Vietman as well. As a baseball lifer who saw the growth of the sport in Korea, he has his vision set on continuing to build baseball in unfamiliar areas.

At 68 years old, Heo is still going strong as a commentator for the MBC while serving as an adviser to the commissioner for the KBO. I sat down in his office to talk about his relationship with MLB, the road to the advent of first Korean major leaguer, and the status of Korean amateur players wanting to sign with a major league club.

Beginning of the MLB – KBO relationship:

As a baseball lifer, Heo, like many others in Korea, was influenced by the Japanese idea of baseball from the time he was an athlete.

“Starting in 1968, as a high school player representing Korea, I’ve been back and forth to Japan a lot,” he recalled. “We knew that our baseball system, at the time, was quite Japan-based. Our leaders and managers were educated during the Japanese occupation era (1910-45).” In 1984, Heo had a chance to go to the United States, thanks to Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley.

“O’Malley emphasized the globalization of baseball and invited me.” Heo got to go to Vero Beach and Dodgertown for their spring training camp. It was the first time Heo got to see the major league players with his own eyes.

“That, in the big picture, changed and influenced my life,” Heo says. “It also influenced Korean baseball a lot. I would say it was the turning point of our nation’s baseball.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Other Catcher Who’s Killing The Ball

Let’s play a little game. Here is a Statcast leaderboard of the Barrels per plate appearances leaders (minimum 50 batted ball events). Without looking it up, try to figure out who’s behind Gary Sanchez:

Barrels/PA% Leaders
Player Maximum Exit Velocity Average Exit Velocity Barrels/PA%
Gary Sanchez 118.3 93.3 15.6
Mystery Player 110.5 92.2 14.1
Matt Olson 110.6 89.9 12.8
Jose Abreu 113.7 92.1 12.6
Joey Gallo 113.7 96.3 12.6
Pete Alonso 118.3 90.6 12.1
Anthony Rendon 107.7 92.6 11.8
Freddie Freeman 112.0 91.0 11.6
George Springer 114.2 91.9 11.6
SOURCE: Statcast

I’ll give you a hint: he’s a catcher. Another hint: he’s on the Minnesota Twins. And no, it’s not Willians Astudillo, as much as we wish it were him. The answer is Jason Castro. Granted, Castro only has 92 plate appearances to his name this season. He also has accumulated 2,839 plate appearances over his career and, as far as Statcast has detected since 2015, he’s never hit the ball this hard. His career-high in average exit velocity was 88.6 mph back in 2015. He’s coming off a 2018 season during which he hit for an average exit velocity of 86.8 mph, his lowest in the Statcast era. In 2019? 92.6 mph. Here’s the difference between 2019 Jason Castro and his 2015-2018 self:

Jason Castro Statcast Data
Season Barrel% Exit Velocity Launch Angle xSLG xOBA Hard Hit%
2015 6.2 88.6 15.6 0.351 0.284 31.1
2016 9.7 88.5 10.8 0.399 0.301 40.1
2017 6.8 86.9 12.8 0.407 0.315 32.0
2018 5.3 86.8 8.2 0.273 0.231 31.3
2019 23.0 92.2 16.0 0.662 0.408 50.8
SOURCE: Statcast

Read the rest of this entry »

John Means’ Changeup Means Business

Fine, I’ll say it: The Baltimore Orioles aren’t fun to watch. The team just lost its 38th game and is on pace for a 113-loss season. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing fun about them. John Means can be fun. A lot of the fun comes from the fact that he’s not someone you would have expected to lead a starting rotation in ERA and WAR coming into the year, but he is (albeit tied with Andrew Cashner at 0.6).

Prior to the start of the 2019 season, Means only had one major league appearance and five seasons of minor league ball to his name (while spending almost two seasons in Double-A). An 11th-round pick in 2014 out of the University of West Virginia, Means was never considered to be a top prospect. He went unmentioned in our Orioles top prospects list coming into this season, for instance. Because there weren’t meany extensive reports on Means available on the internet, I asked Luke Siler of Orioles Hangout for his assessment of the left-hander as a minor leaguer.

Before the improvements, Means was that typical Triple-A depth player who performed well enough to keep fans intrigued but not well enough to merit an MLB role. The profile was a fastball topping at 92, but sitting more 89~91 mph, a loopy below average curveball, a fringe average slider and an average changeup with average command… nothing was exciting but he mixes pitches well and can land them all for strikes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Koji Uehara Hangs It Up

A World Series champion in 2013, Koji Uehara has called it quits.
Photo by Keith Allison.

On May 20, Koji Uehara announced his retirement from professional baseball. The news was significant for several reasons. First, it was announced during the season. Uehara admitted that he “already decided that I would quit this year, and in my mind I felt three months would be make or break.” He also cited that his fastball just doesn’t have enough to compete in NPB anymore and remarked that him being in the organization would reduce chances for other youngsters. It sounds like, all-around, Uehara has resigned to his fate of being a very old man by baseball standards. It’s sad to hear, but that’s just reality.

Second, it simply feels like an end of an era. The man pitched professionally since 1999. Sure, most major league fans weren’t familiar with him until he signed with the Baltimore Orioles in 2009, but even then, he was 33 years old. Personally, I became familiar with Uehara from his dominance in Japan and his exceptional 2006 World Baseball Classic performance (which is never to be forgotten by Korean baseball junkies like myself).

To understand Uehara’s career, it’s essential to look at his time in Japan. His interest in going to the big leagues goes all the way back to his amateur days. As an ace of the Osaka University of Health and Sports Sciences, Uehara was courted by the then-Anaheim Angels. It was said that the Angels prepared an amount of 300 million yen (just below $3 million in current currency rate) for the righty. Uehara was intrigued by it, but the Yomiuri Giants, who had coveted him for a long time, managed to convince him to stay in Japan, selecting him in the 1998 NPB Draft. Among the notable names selected in the event were other future big leaguers Kosuke Fukudome, Kyuji Fujikawa, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

In 1999, his first professional season, Uehara set NPB ablaze with ridiculous numbers. As a 23-year old fresh out of college, the righty went 20-4 with a 2.09 ERA and 179 strikeouts versus 24 walks in 197.2 innings. He also threw a whopping 12 complete games (!) in 25 starts. He had the most wins and strikeouts and the best winning percentage and ERA, making him the quadruple-crown winner among all pitchers. He, of course, won the 1999 NPB Rookie of the Year, a Golden Glove, Sawamura Award (the NPB’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award), was named to the Best Nine, etc. Basically, Uehara had an entrance of the ages. Here’s a peek at his dominance from that season:

As a starting pitcher, he didn’t reach the same kind of brilliance he showed as a rookie, but he was still great. In 2002 for instance, he won another Sawamura Award by going 17-5 with a 2.60 ERA and 182 strikeouts versus 23 walks in 204 innings. He also garnered some stateside attention in fall 2002. In the first game of the MLB-NPB exhibition series, Uehara struck out reigning NL MVP Barry Bonds thrice. His pitching prowess also impressed former AL MVP Jason Giambi. “He had a great forkball,” he said. “He threw it hard enough that you couldn’t sit on it, and he made quality pitches all night.” Read the rest of this entry »

James Paxton’s New Toy, Same As the Old Toy

We’ve written a lot about James Paxton here at FanGraphs, and deservingly so. The obvious reasoning is that Paxton is a very good pitcher. The intrigue builds once you consider that he throws hard, is a lefty, has thrown a no-hitter, and flaunts a lot of tools that just have the look of being very electric. In 2019, he also plays for the Yankees, which, whether you like it or not, means that he will be in the general media spotlight more.

In the past, Jeff Sullivan wrote several articles on Paxton’s explosive fastball and how he gets swinging strikes with it in the top of the zone. In terms of fastball usage, not a lot has changed. Paxton still throws pretty hard, and he uses his heat pretty frequently and gets whiffs with it. However, there’s always a room for improvement, even for pitcher who’s as good as Paxton is.

Paxton has struck batters out a lot this season. That is not a news. He’s always been a strikeout pitcher in his big league career. But after striking out 32.3% of the hitters he faced last year, his 2019 numbers are up to 36.2%. There was a concern over how Paxton, a fly ball pitcher, would adjust to the home run-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium, but we haven’t seen any problem yet; he’s posted a 0.78 HR/9 IP and 9.1% HR/FB rate so far. And he’s been one of the most valuable pitchers in all of the majors. As of May 2, his 1.5 WAR ranks third among all starters behind Max Scherzer and Matthew Boyd. All in all, he’s having a pretty good season. So what has led to the improvement?

Looking at his pitch usage, we don’t see a huge overhaul, but there is a notable change. Read the rest of this entry »

Domingo German Is Finding Consistency

The Yankees haven’t been able to catch many breaks to start the season. They have an insalubrious number of starters on the injured list with everything from a small labrum tear, to a strained oblique, to a left biceps strain, to a left ankle injury, to a grade 2 lat strain. Despite all that, the team itself, at least when it comes to the standings, isn’t doing badly. They just won nine out of their previous 10 games and are one and a half games back from the Tampa Bay Rays. As of April 29, the Yankees are currently tied with the Astros for the fifth-best winning percentage in the majors (.607).

In the middle of all that is Domingo German, who’s off to a stellar start. We at FanGraphs have noted his talent before, citing his arsenal, his ability to throw strikes, get whiffs, and more. We’re talking about a guy who can make hitters look like this:

Or like this:

But his 2018 left a lot of questions about his future. As a 26-year old, German put up a 5.57 ERA and a 4.39 FIP in 85.2 IP across 21 games (14 starts). True, there were some encouraging numbers — a 27.2% strikeout rate and 14.9% swinging strike rate, for instance — but the Yankees had to have hoped for more. Read the rest of this entry »

The KBO Appears to Be De-Juicing Its Baseballs

The 2019 KBO baseballs (Photo: Sung Min Kim)

Last year, Rob Arthur and Tim Dix of FiveThirtyEight helped to reveal to the masses that the core of the major league baseball had changed, reducing the air drag and resulting in the ball traveling farther in the air. Ever since then, the ball has been a recurring topic of conversation, including here at FanGraphs. The subject got a re-boot earlier this month when Arthur, writing for Baseball Prospectus, concluded that there’s less drag on the batted balls hit in the 2019 season, which has led to more speculation that the league has “juiced” the ball.

While it is fun to see more dingers and harder hit batted balls, there’s something to be said about how the league may or may not have deliberately manipulated the ball to make it happen. It’s fun to see players like Aaron Judge have a 50-homer season in his rookie campaign or to watch Giancarlo Stanton flirt with a 60-homer mark on the way to earning an MVP award, but fans may question how “authentic” those feats are compared to the pre-juiced ball days, though it’s worth noting that the liveliness of the ball has changed throughout baseball’s history.

Here in Korea, there’s been an opposite trend. Prior to the start of the 2019 season, it was reported that the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) would decrease the coefficient of restitution (COR) value in their baseball. To put it in layman’s terms, the higher the COR number is, the further the ball travels from the impact of the bat. Last year, the KBO allowed baseball COR values between .4134 and .4374. To put that in contrast, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in Japan allows it to be between .4034 and .4234; MLB allows between .3860 and .4005. The KBO decided to lower it to the NPB’s Mizuno baseball level of between .4034 and .4234. There’s a reason for such a change. If you’ve followed the KBO for awhile, you know that the league has been quite hitter-friendly for the past few years. Here’s how hitters fared in the three seasons prior to 2019:

2016-18 KBO Offensive Numbers
2016 .290 .364 .437 .801 .359 .331
2017 .286 .353 .438 .791 0.348 0.327
2018 .286 .353 .450 .803 .349 .329
SOURCE: Statiz

To give you an idea how hitter-friendly an environment it was, MLB hitters slashed .248/.318/.409 overall in 2018. The recent baseball change is not the first time the KBO has attempted to curb its high-offense environment. In 2017, they increased the length of the strike zone, which I wrote about during my residency last year. It had an effect, but not really a lasting one. The umpires struggled to maintain consistency with the zone and the hitters adjusted well enough to keep up the league’s high-offense reputation. Read the rest of this entry »

Here Are a Few Things About Matthew Boyd

Matthew Boyd has been around for a bit. He was drafted by the Blue Jays in the sixth round of the 2013 Draft out of Oregon State University. He made the majors with the team but was traded to the Tigers at the 2015 trade deadline along with Daniel Norris and Jairo Labourt in exchange for David Price. As a prospect, he wasn’t too highly regarded. While he was a regular on Carson Cistulli’s Fringe Five column, he wasn’t highly ranked. Baseball America, for instance, included him in their organizational rankings only once (he was the 29th prospect in the Jays system after the 2014 season); he received sporadic mention at Baseball Prospectus.

After splitting time between the majors and Triple-A in 2016 and 2017, 2018 showed some promise for Boyd. His strikeout rate went up and his walk rate went down. His home run rate also went up and while overall he took a step forward as a decent rotation guy for the Tigers, there was room to improve. As my friend Brandon Day over at Bless You Boys noted, Boyd showed an extreme home/road split, which is one pitfall of being a flyball pitcher whose tendencies can be masked by playing in the pitcher-friendly Comerica Park. Boyd himself wasn’t satisfied either. He spent his offseason basically finding every way he could to improve himself. He lost 15 pounds, maintained his muscle mass, and even did DNA-based testing to find out what works and doesn’t work for his body.

And so far in 2019, Boyd has been a strikeout machine. In three starts, Boyd has racked up 40.3% strikeout rate, the second highest rate the majors behind Blake Snell. Yes, there’s the obligatory small sample size warning here. Boyd will likely not keep that rate up for the rest of the season. But looking at the changes he’s made and how the hitters have responded to them, there are reasons to believe that he could be taking the next step as a pitcher. Read the rest of this entry »