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The New and Exciting Rays Slugger

If you’re talented enough to make it to the majors, you often have had to make a series of adjustments to maximize your potential and survive in the league. If you are really talented, knowing yourself and being open to changes can really put your name on the map. Yandy Diaz is really talented. We’ve raved about his tools and uber-muscular physique. The Rays are giving him a starting opportunity pretty much every day, which is exciting; they have to be excited by the return as well.

So far in 2019 (all statistics are as of April 9), Diaz has turned in a .308/.386/.615 line with a 183 wRC+ and three home runs. The Rays have gotten what they have hoped to get from him in the first 10 games. Diaz’s underlying numbers — not only this year, but also from the years prior — testify to his strength. In 2017 and 2018 with Cleveland, Diaz hit for average exit velocities of 91.5 and 92.1 mph, respectively, which was well above the league average of 87.4 mph. He also was an extreme ground-ball hitter. In 2018, his launch angle was 4.4 degrees, much lower than the league average of 10.9. As a result, 53.3% of his batted balls last year were grounders, which, if he had had a qualified number of at-bats, would have ranked in the top 10 in the entire league.

Because Diaz has such a low launch angle, all he has to do is swing up, elevate, and celebrate, right? It’s not exactly that simple. In midst of baseball’s fly-ball revolution, we have seen instances of players actually trying to swing more “level.” Last year, Jeff Sullivan noted Joc Pederson and Kyle Schwarber’s adjustments. Kris Bryant also saw strides in his production after adjusting his swing to spend more time in the zone. We have many other success stories in which hitters benefited from, well, learning to lift the ball. The point is that the equation isn’t so simple. If it were, every hitter would be enjoying success by altering their swings in the same way. It is a league-wide trend, for sure, but there are things that work for some and don’t for others.

Diaz is a special case though. Because he is such an extreme groundball hitter who can also hit the ball hard, it could be worth it for him to experiment with different approaches to become his best self in the majors. It might not work out, of course. But because of his above-average exit velocity, it could pay off quite handsomely. Look at his home run versus Gerrit Cole from earlier this season.

Readers, that was smoked. It traveled for a 112.2 mph exit velo with a distance of 420 feet. It’s been documented that Diaz can hit for average (he had a .311/.413/.414 career line in the minors and hit .312/.375/.422 with Cleveland last year), but what raised my eyebrows were his 2019 power numbers. Increased power production is usually a product of some sort of change. Think Jose Bautista with his leg kick and Justin Turner with Doug Latta. Read the rest of this entry »

Korean Submarine Pitcher Park Jong-Hoon Has Big League Ambitions

Park Jong-Hoon is unique. If you need a quick introduction, look no further:

He is as true a submarine pitcher as one could be, which is quite rare in the current baseball landscape. Not only is he fun to watch, but he is also one of the top Korean-born pitchers in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). In 2018, he had his finest season yet, going 14-8, with a 4.18 ERA (125.8 ERA+) in 30 starts, striking out 133 in 159.1 IP. He also made the Korean national team for the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games and played a part in the Wyverns’ 2018 Korean Series championship. All in all, it was a big year. However, it seems that he has set his sights on an even bigger future.

This week, I sat down with Jong-Hoon at the Munhak Baseball Stadium, the Incheon home of the SK Wyverns, to talk about his development, his delivery, his pitches, and his desire to go to the major leagues. Originally, I intended to focus on his development as a submariner, but once he mentioned his big league ambitions, our conversation changed a bit.

On his development:

No one really starts out as a submarine pitcher. Neither did Park. When he was attending Gunsan Middle, his school’s baseball team needed a sidearm pitcher. The team’s manager asked his players to find the most flexible student they knew who was willing to throw a baseball. They recommended Park to him. “The team only had pitchers who threw with overhand or three-quarter slots,” Park said.

Once he got into the team, one of the drills he had to do required him to play catch while wearing a car tire on his back. “The training method in Korean amateur baseball is a bit old-school,” Park said. “At first, it was a small tire, but as the time went on, they gradually switched to bigger ones.” Because the tires got too heavy for his original posture, he lowered his posture while doing the drill. At some point, something clicked. “As I kept lowering my body, I felt that the arm slot started to fit me better,” he said. “We didn’t really have a pitching coach in our team, so I had to figure that all by myself.”

Unlike most other pitchers in the league, Park rose through the amateur system without any guidance of a pitching coach, which stunted his development until he went pro. In the second part of the KBO draft in 2009, Park was the ninth overall pick by the SK Wyverns. Despite his high draft slot, Park was far from feeling confident that he belonged there. “Once I got to the Wyverns, I felt that there were a lot of things I lacked,” Park said, “I soon learned that there were flaws here and there. In high school, I didn’t get to learn stuff like how to use my back leg, position my pelvis, consistently slot my arm, approach hitters mentally, etc.”

“I keep saying this over and over,” Park reiterates, “but it took so long for me to get to where I am. I wish I could get all that time back so I could have developed faster.”

Park’s rawness showed immediately. From 2011 to 2012, he appeared in just 15 games and gave up 17 walks, four hit by pitches, and 18 runs in 24.2 IP. After the 2012 season, Park opted to serve his mandatory military service and was admitted to play for the army baseball team. He returned to the Wyverns in September 2014 and started to see more action in 2015. That season, by the way, happened to be current Diamondbacks right-handed pitcher Merrill Kelly’s first year with the Wyverns. Kelly pitched for the Wyverns from 2015 to 2018, and earned a two-year major league contract with Arizona this past offseason. Park is appreciative of the four seasons he spent as Kelly’s teammate.

“I’m thankful for Kelly,” Park said, “he’s the reason why I came to appreciate and learn baseball deeper.” Through Kelly, Park learned new throwing routines, weightlifting methods, and mental approaches to hitters. He was also introduced to American baseball coaching books, which he read and studied by translating.

He has also tweaked his delivery over the years – it’s still a work in progress. When he got to the pros, he became aware of Chad Bradford and noticed a lot of similarities between them. Just like Bradford, Park threw from a very low arm angle, but Park also had a fast delivery tempo, again just like Bradford. In 2017, however, when the SK Wyverns had the former Arkansas Razorbacks coach Dave Jorn as their pitching coach, Park got a new homework assignment from him. “He told me to hold the motion momentarily before I go out to stride,” Park recalled, “once I made the adjustment, I was able to throw more accurately towards the target.” Park also mentioned that he still strives to make tweaks “here and there.”

However, Park credits something else for his improved command and overall performance. “What’s been more important is the mental side of pitching,” he said, “I’ve been really practicing my mentality: listening to good things, reading good things, if there’s a mental coaching lesson, I go out of my way to take it and I sometimes call sports psychologists for consultations. I’ve gradually improved after taking these steps.”

His efforts have shown. Here is how Park’s number progressed in the previous three years:

Park Jong-Hoon, 2016-2018
2016 16.0% 14.0% 2.0% 1.09 5.66/92.3 60.8%
2017 16.1% 9.2% 6.9% 0.95 4.10/122.7 56.1%
2018 18.9% 7.7% 11.3% 0.90 4.18/125.8 52.4%
SOURCE: Statiz

His strikeout and walk numbers have noticeably improved. One could say that he traded some of his groundball tendencies for being able to throw strikes. Even so, Park has managed to keep the batted balls in the yard- his 0.90 HR/9 IP rate is the ninth best among all KBO starting pitchers last year, which is no easy feat in the league and especially at the Munhak Baseball Stadium. Munhak is known to be an extreme hitter’s ballpark with 311.7/393.7/ 311.7 foot outfield dimensions, meaning the left and right field fences are closer to home plate than the Yankee Stadium short porch. It will be interesting to see how his numbers trend in the 2019 season, but the recent history is promising.

On being a rarity:

Park has, indeed, thought about how things would’ve been had he thrown with a conventional overhand or three-quarter slot. “I think my development would have been easier if I were one. I’m confident that I would survive among other KBO pitchers with traditional deliveries – right now I can throw around 90, 91 mph with an overhand delivery,” he said, “but I still would have had to go through the same process.” He adds that being a submarine pitcher helped pave his way more easily than others. “I’ve been more about finding my own uniqueness instead of going with the cookie-cutter approach.”

Back when Park was learning to pitch, there wasn’t as much baseball content readily available online. He turned to watching a copious amount of television to find inspirations. Through that, he discovered other submariners around the world, like Bradford and Shunsuke Watanabe. “But to be honest, when I tried to research on more, they were all pitchers from a long, long time ago,” Park noted, “I learned a bit from them for sure, but I used to worry whether my style of pitching would work in modern baseball.”

As for the role model, he doesn’t necessarily have one, but seeing how Bradford and Watanabe had turned in nice careers in their own respective leagues, Park gained confidence. “It was like ‘Ah, they can survive in that high-level of a league,'” he said, “That was the point where I gained more confidence and dreamed bigger in succeeding in professional baseball.”

On his wunder curve:

Park’s main strength is his curveball. According to Statiz, a KBO sabermetrics website, his curveball led the entire league in its pitch value for both 2017 and 2018 (18.8 and 12.6 runs saved, respectively). Some may see it as a slider, but Park says that it’s a curveball. Here’s the grip:

Here’s how he releases it:

Here’s how he simulates the release and spin:

And here are the results:

Park said he practiced the curveball release by throwing it as far as possible on an open field. “I did it to make it ‘float,’” he said, “I’ve been practicing it since I was younger. I think a lot of it was about having a pride in being different than everyone else. So I just kept going like ‘Let me try again, again, again, again…’ and it has ended up how it looks now.”

Park also says that he makes it move differently for different-handed hitters. “I have better stats against left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters,” he notes, and he’s not really wrong. In 2018, he allowed a .714 OPS against lefties as opposed to .723 OPS against righties. From 2015 to 2019, he’s allowed .724 OPS against LHH and .775 OPS against RHH.

“I think a lot has to do with my curveball trajectory. Against the lefties, I like to float the ball straight up [think reverse 12-6 curveball] and against the righties, I throw with a tilt [reverse 11-5] tilt to it. I’m really curious how it would work out in different leagues, like the majors.”

Here’s a Park curve against a lefty:

…and a righty (admittedly, this looks similar to how he’d throw against a lefty):

Not only he can locate it high to induce whiffs, but also he can locate the pitch low. It can be effective because the pitch, which seems like it would end up lower than the zone, “rises” towards the end to nick the edge. Here’s one from this past postseason:

And here’s a three-pitch strikeout in which he used the curveball in similar locations to get a called strike, a weak foulball, and a swinging strike.

In 2018, he used the curveball 42.6% of the time, which is a significant amount. The pitch averaged at 119.1 kmph (74.0 mph). Park also has a fastball (41.1% usage), which averaged 131.6 kmph (81.8 mph), a two-seam fastball (12.2%) that averaged 128.5 kmph (79.9 mph) and a changeup that he used very sparingly (3.7%) that averaged 123.8 kmph (76.9 mph).

On his major league dreama:

Park doesn’t keep his desire to play in the majors a secret. He has been eager to prove that his style of pitching will work at the highest level of baseball. “I don’t know when it will happen,” Park said, “but if I do go to the majors, I want people to think ‘There’s a pitcher like this and he can really pitch in the majors.’ I hope I can help bring more attention to sidearm and submarine pitchers.”

Park says he also wants to join other Korean big leaguers. “If you’re a baseball player, MLB is the final frontier,” he said, “I’d love to join Korean guys like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ji-Man Choi and Shin-Soo Choo. And I want my name, Park Jong-Hoon, to be known to the major league fans.”

According to a person familiar to the situation, several major league scouts have periodically come to Munhak Baseball Stadium to watch his starts. If the Wyverns were to post him as soon as he is eligible, the timing could be tricky. Depends on how long he is on the active roster and avoids injuries, he would be eligible as soon as after the 2020 season. If he is not as lucky with how his service time stacks up, it would be after 2021. Because Park will turn 30 in August 2021, one would assume that he wants to head stateside as soon as possible.

At this moment, it is a bit early to speculate on his major league chances. What helps Park is that he may not have completed developing due to his unusual amateur background, which could project well by the time he’s eligible to be posted. He also has brings the benefit of giving a very, very different look to hitters, not to mention that his approach has worked well in the offense-friendly environment of the KBO. There are, of course, many question marks. Heck, there are question marks for players who are deemed to be top-notch major league prospects. His command is still work in progress, we don’t know how well his stuff would translate in the majors, and we don’t know yet how interested the teams are. 

Park wanted to be different, he learned to use his uniqueness in the KBO, and he became one of the best Korean-born starting pitchers in the league. That in itself is pretty significant.

*All KBO stats from Statiz unless specified.

Let’s Take a Look at Yusei Kikuchi’s First Two Major League Starts

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for Yusei Kikuchi. Not only did he see his first action as a major leaguer, a well-documented dream of his since his high school days, but his father passed away after a long battle against cancer. He is staying in the United States in accordance with his father’s wish that he concentrate on baseball. It is quite hard to imagine what the young pitcher must be feeling, and we wish for the best for him and his family in this difficult time.

Kikuchi has made two starts for the Mariners. While some data exists from his days in the NPB, MLB presents a new challenge. We can’t reach any grand conclusions about him as a major leaguer yet, but we can make observations and possibly, some extrapolations. At this moment, here are the basic numbers: 10.2 innings pitched, five hits, three earned runs, two home runs, eight strikeouts, and one walk. Kikuchi currently has a 2.53 ERA and a 4.25 FIP. It’s too early to make any calls, but Seattle has got to be pleased with the return so far.

Our analysis of this limited sample becomes trickier because we only have Statcast data for one of his starts. His Tokyo start – you know, the one where Ichiro announced his retirement mid-game – is not registered there because the Tokyo Dome isn’t equipped with Trackman or PITCHf/x cameras. So, we have his 91-pitch start against the Red Sox on March 29, which is quite a small sample to work with. Kikuchi’s tendencies could change as he pitches in the majors and adjusts to either his strengths or hitters’ weaknesses (or both). With those the caveats understood, his early efforts still merit examination.

Let’s start with the obvious here: the fastball. Since he was an acclaimed prospect at the Hanamaki Higashi High, Kikuchi has been known in Japan for his fastball velocity. In 2017, he set what was then an NPB record for the fastest pitch recorded by a left-handed pitcher with a 158 kmph (roughly 98 mph), though it should be noted that his average fastball velocity was 148.6 kmph (around 92.3 mph). In 2018, his velocity slipped a bit. According to Delta, an NPB sabermetrics site, it went down to 147.3 kmph (around 91.5 mph) last year. He suffered shoulder tightness that was later diagnosed as decreased functionality of shoulder last year, so that seems to have played a part in the decline in velocity. Of all his pitches, the fastball is the only one that Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel did not describe as above average in their write up of Kikuchi for in this year’s top 100.

Against the Red Sox, Kikuchi averaged at 93.1 mph. Statcast had him as high as 95.4 mph. It is not Ohtani-esque big velocity, but it is a range that should work in the majors, especially if he can maintain it through starts consistently locate it like this:

By average velocity, he’s comparable to the likes of David Price and Sean Newcomb. Maybe he’ll gain a tick or two as the season goes on or maybe he’ll get worn down. I don’t know. But as far as the velocity goes, Kikuchi can say he belongs in the majors. One thing of note is that his fastball only induced a whiff once out of the 43 times he threw the pitch. Statcast measured the pitch’s average spin rate at 2,173 rpm. According to Travis Sawchik, an average fastball around 93-94 mph measures out to 2,240 to 2,300 rpm. At least for that one start, his fastball was not seen to be a swing-and-miss weapon, as his velocity would indicate. Obviously, Kikuchi has arm strength, but not all 93 mph fastballs are created equally. Luckily for him, he has another tool in his toolbox that drew many more swings-and-misses: his slider.

Kikuchi’s slider features a nasty 10-5 tilt. He used it as a swing-and-miss pitch in Japan, and he’s used it as one in his early going in the majors as well. Against Boston, he generated seven whiffs from 22 sliders used, which is pretty good! Here’s one to Xander Bogaerts that I feel is representative of how he likes to use the pitch.

And here’s one to Sam Travis that had a particularly vicious bite.

Looking at Kikuchi’s slider heatmap from that game, we see a lot of low and inside pitches to the right-handed heavy Sox lineup. Being aware of his pitch tendencies from the NPB, I’d assume he meant to locate them that way as well. It’s hard to draw a conclusion at this moment, but Kikuchi’s slider has been rated above-average, as noted by Eric and Kiley. Future value grades don’t always come to fruition, but I would say that Kikuchi’s slider could forecast well in the majors.

As for the bad, Kikuchi did not necessarily avoid the meat of the zone. Here is his pitch heatmap:

The good here is that Kikuchi located well to the inside edge versus right-handed hitters, and away versus left-handed hitters. However, there’s that big dark and red circle towards the middle-up part of the strike zone that indicates that he was also prone to leaving pitches “up there.” FanGraphs rated his command as a 45-grade, which is just below major league average. As of this moment, Kikuchi has thrown 64% of his pitches for strikes and allowed only one walk in 10.2 innings pitched. Those are good control numbers. Command is a different thing. The Red Sox hitters were much less than forgiving on Kikuchi’s mistake pitches.

Here’s J.D. Martinez going yard on a fastball right down the middle. The catcher had his glove up and in, but the ball missed the spot and Martinez drove it over the center field fence.

Here’s another home run allowed, this time against Xander Bogaerts. The explanation is simple – the catcher appears to have wanted it down and away but the fastball went right down the middle, which is likely to be punished by many major league hitters.

Pitching is extremely hard. You must stand a mark and locate each pitch into a glove size smaller than a pie tin from 60 feet 6 inches away. But it’s also the nature of the business – if you miss even so slightly, major league-caliber hitters can hit it a long way. It is worth noting that every pitcher makes mistakes. It’s the matter of minimizing the amount of them. There will be days when Kikuchi will makes fewer mistakes, and there will probably be days he makes more.

What’s curious for now is that Kikuchi has noticeably bumped up his curveball usage. Here’s the chart of his March 29 start versus his 2018 pitch data with the Seibu Lions, thanks to the NPB sabermetric website Delta.

Yusei Kikuchi Pitch Usage
Fastball % Slider % Curve % Splitter %
2018 48.6% 34.7% 11.1% 5.3%
March 29, 2019 49.2% 26.0% 22.6% 2.3%
SOURCE: FanGraphs and Delta

It’s an interesting bump. He never threw his curve more than 11.1% in a season with the Seibu Lions. He was known for his fastball/slider mix in Japan. The curveball, according to multiple scouting reports, was a third pitch that he would use to give different looks. And it’s not just his start against the Red Sox either. Over at Lookout Landing, Jake Mailhot recorded Kikuchi’s pitch data by hand during the Athletics game in the Tokyo Dome. The chart below indicates that Kikuchi has shown very similar pitch mix for his first two starts as a big leaguer.

Yusei Kikuchi Pitch Usage
Fastball % Slider % Curve %
March 21, 2019 47.3% 27.5% 25.3%
SOURCE: Jake Mailhot of Lookout Landing

One theory on why Kikuchi increased his curveball usage lies in data. Last June, Jim Allen of Kyodo News wrote on how Kikuchi relies on data to make adjustments to things like his release point and extension. I’m not sure how much attention he puts on his pitch metrics, but his curveball does grade out well on Statcast. Take a look at his pitch data from Baseball Savant:

Yusei Kikuchi Pitch Metrics
Velocity Exit Velocity Spin rate
Fastball 93.0 mph 94.2 mph 2,173 rpm
Slider 86.5 mph 80.6 mph 2,370 rpm
Curveball 75.3 mph 74.9 mph 2,593 rpm
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Not only does an effective curveball give hitters another thing to worry about, but the velocity difference can also make his heater stand out more. Here’s a curveball that he threw to the reigning AL MVP Mookie Betts. Betts reacted like he was not expecting this pitch. He held up a for a microsecond and got his bat head out, but made weak contact that ended up being a groundout.

He didn’t generate any whiff with the pitch, but it induced two bits of weak contact for an overall .124 xBA. He also used it to get ahead in counts. Out of 18 curves thrown, nine of them were called strikes. Here’s one of them to Betts.

Kikuchi has had two decent starts and the pitch has worked well, so I don’t anticipate him making drastic changes anytime soon. It will be something to monitor, though. History has shown that many successful pitchers – Tanaka, for instance – have demonstrated the ability to modify their approach to survive in the majors. As time goes on, major league teams will have a book on how to approach Kikuchi. Once they know better what to expect, I don’t know how successful they’ll hit against him, but surviving in the majors involves series of adjustments. If Kikuchi runs into a harder time getting hitters out, I would expect him to take a different approach.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that Kikuchi seemed to struggle when facing the order the third time around. In a very small sample, Kikuchi faced five batters a third time through the order between the A’s and Red Sox games, and allowed two hits, including that aforementioned JD Martinez home run. Again, it is hard to draw conclusions out of five-batter sample, but the concern is not unfounded. The lack of a big fastball could become a problem late in games in instances where he struggles to give hitters different looks. As Bill Petti has written for FanGraphs about how pitchers with a big fastball — who can maintain that velocity late in games — are more likely to pitch deeper.

There will be so much more Kikuchi to watch. Personally, I’ve waited for awhile for him to arrive to the majors, as I’ve written about the lefty a couple of times in the past. Two starts in, Kikuchi gave his team a real chance to win on both occasions. For a starting pitcher, there’s not a lot more you can ask for.

Brandon Nimmo Reminds Me of Someone

Earlier this spring training, everyone cringed a bit when it was reported that Brandon Nimmo became sick after eating under-cooked chicken (his own recipe, naturally). I think most people had the same thought about it: what the heck? It turns out that his illness was a result of a virus instead of food poisoning, so now Nimmo is free to eat as many under-cooked chickens as he wants, but the (subjective) fact remains that it is quite gross.

Anyway, this isn’t about Nimmo’s illness or his ill-advised recipe. This is about baseball. Nimmo had one of the biggest breakouts of 2018. Because the Mets were not great last year, I don’t think a lot of people appreciated how well he performed. Nimmo put up a 4.5 WAR, which was 29th-highest among all positional players, coming in his age-25 season. Among all 25-year-old position-player seasons from 2010 to 2018, Nimmo’s campaign ranks 24th. There are some nice names on the list as well — Christian Yelich, Trea Turner, and Nolan Arenado, for instance.

FanGraphs’ own Eric Longenhagen told me that there’s an untapped potential in Nimmo that could be uncovered as he plays more. “There’s always a chance that he grows and changes into a different player as he ages, and that might be especially true here because his amateur background is so bizarre compared to most pro baseball players.” Nimmo is from Wyoming and did not get to play regular high school baseball. He had to drive anywhere between 45 minutes to 10 hours to play American Legion ball to get exposure. Nimmo has a cool story that could get cooler as he gets more playing time in the majors. This invites the question that applies to every young player: who can Nimmo be? Is there a particular role model?

ZiPS expects him to hit .240/.359/.402 (116 wRC+) with a 2.3 WAR, with his No. 1 comparison being Andy Van Slyke. That feels conservative, but that’s the nature of projection systems — Nimmo doesn’t have a long history of being an excellent major league player, and he did put up 89 and 118 wRC+ marks in the previous two seasons.

I became curious and decided to search for someone whose numbers resembled Nimmo’s walk and power tendencies from the 2018 season. Why those two? For one, Nimmo boasted a high walk rate of 15%, which engineered a .404 OBP. The only players who were ahead of him in on-base percentage last year were Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. Nimmo was ahead of known superstars such as Bryce Harper, Alex Bregman, and Yelich, which is significant, especially for a youngster playing in his first full major league season. Nimmo also put up a .219 isolated power mark, which is above average and contributed to his 4.5 WAR. It’s not a top-notch number yet, but because of Nimmo’s youth, one might expect it to rise in coming years. I looked up seasons from 2000 to 2018 to find players whose walk and power numbers profiled similarly to Nimmo’s, and one name in particular stood out.

First off, let’s compare Nimmo and the mystery player’s ages 23 to 25 seasons:

Mystery Player vs. Brandon Nimmo (Ages 23-25)
Mystery Player 14.6% 20.1% 0.188 136
Brandon Nimmo 14.3% 26.5% 0.186 135
SOURCE: FanGraphs

The walk and power numbers aren’t the only similarities. Their batted ball profiles also share a resemblance. We actually don’t have the mystery player’s ages 23-to-25 data for that, so we’ll use his career numbers from 2002 to 2014.

Mystery Player vs. Brandon Nimmo
Mystery Player (2002-2014) 23.3% 44.1% 32.6%
Brandon Nimmo (career) 22.2% 46.3% 31.5%
SOURCE: FanGraphs

Lastly, here’s an excerpt of one of the mystery player’s scouting reports from 1995:

Physical description: Athletic actions, frame has chance to carry more strength.

Strong points: Outstanding approach to hitting, sweet short compact stroke w/outstanding balance, knowledge of K-zone, good 2-strike hitter, spray ball to all fields. Gap to gap guy, run well especially 1st to 3rd, arm avg to above w/ good carry and rot (rotation?), 4.16 speed to 1B, can play LF-RF fairly well occasionally gets good jumps.

Summation: Young good looking hitter. Mark Grace type and when strength comes he should be able to linedrive some HRs. Defense skills are a little short and experience will help improvement. 3 tool guy now with a high ceiling.

And here’s an excerpt of Brandon Nimmo’s scouting report from Baseball America (subscription required) after the 2015 season:

 On-base ability always has been the bedrock of Nimmo’s game, for he excels at working counts and lining the ball to left field if pitchers work him away. He shows pull-side power in batting practice but prefers to work the entire field in games with a handsy, lefthanded swing geared more for line drives than home runs. Nimmo tracks the ball well in center field and grades as at least an average defender with ordinary running speed. He’s graceful and reliable in the outfield, though his average arm would be stretched in right field, if he has to move. Nimmo hasn’t attempted many stolen bases as a pro, and that probably won’t change.

The scouts’ eyes saw similarities as well. They both point out line-drive power that could develop into more home runs in the future (which it did for the mystery player). The scout from 1995 noted the mystery player’s “outstanding approach to hitting” and “good knowledge of K-zone” while the BA praised Nimmo for his plate discipline.

If you haven’t identified the mystery player yet, the answer is Bobby Abreu. The thing is, there are also quite a lot of differences between these two. As you saw from the first table, Nimmo struck out way more than Abreu did. In 2018, Nimmo’s strikeout rate was 26.2%, which is much higher than Abreu’s career average (18.3%), and his career high in a full season (22.6%). Nimmo could improve there, of course. Young hitters tend to lower their strikeout rate until their peak age. According to research from Jeff Zimmerman, Nimmo is at the age where his strikeout rate might be as low as it will get, but we can give him the benefit of the doubt due to his weird amateur background and relative newness to the majors. When I looked up Nimmo’s walk rate and strikeout rate compared to hitters’ seasons from 2000 to 2018, he profiled closer to Adam Dunn and Jim Thome — two sluggers that had way more power than Nimmo is projected to have. Due to Nimmo’s scouting profile, particularly his walk and power tendencies, I felt Abreu would be a better fit.

It is worth noting that hitters strike out much more now than they did during Abreu’s time. One can assume that Abreu would have struck out more if he were to play today than in the early 2000s. As for Nimmo, there have been instances where players drastically improve their strikeout rate, but it’s not really something to count on. You can expect improvements, but as far as the pure numbers go, Nimmo is likely to stay a bigger strikeout hitter than Abreu was.

I mentioned the batted ball profile before. There’s also a stark difference between those two on that score.

More Batted Ball Numbers
IFFB% Pull% Cent% Oppo%
Bobby Abreu 3.0% 35.6% 34.7% 29.8%
Brandon Nimmo 9.3% 39.9% 33.5% 26.6%
SOURCE: FanGraphs

Something that jumps out here is the infield fly ball rate. Also, Nimmo seems to have a more pull-happy approach, which became more apparent in 2018, when he pulled 44.7% of his batted balls. Travis Sawchik examined this back in June, noting that his new pull approach may have helped his overall power numbers. Perhaps it’s not something Nimmo would like to give up for now — it did help his power breakout last year, after all.

Writing this, I was originally thinking along the lines of “how Nimmo can become Abreu,” because becoming a two-time All-Star who enjoyed a fruitful 18-year career is a heck of a thing. But after realizing that a major difference between those two — Nimmo’s pull tendency — actually helped the youngster’s ascendance to being an exciting major league regular, I’m not so sure anymore. Would he change his swing for a different approach? Longenhagen doubts it.

“I think that kind of thing is harder to change. I’d expect him to be pull-heavy for the duration of his career,” he said.

There are numbers that indicate that he could be the newer-age Abreu while not completely being an Abreu. I’m not guaranteeing that Nimmo will end up a player who will get Hall of Fame consideration, but there are stats that indicate similarities with a player who will certainly be on next year’s HOF ballot. Some things are nice to dream on.

Inside “The Ballyard” with Doug Latta

In the past few years, we’ve seen instances of hitters improving their production and changing their fortunes by learning new swing mechanics that were once deemed unconventional but that are now fueling change. If you have followed this trend, you may have heard of Doug Latta, a hitting instructor who works out of his facility, “The Ballyard,” in the Los Angeles area. FanGraphs has written about Latta’s work in the past (as have many other publications), and how he defines efficient swing movements (setup, balanced move to the pitch, longer swing path in the zone) and their desired results (increased exit velocity, better launch angle).

Latta’s name first surfaced on the professional baseball mainstream’s radar back in 2013. Beginning in July of the 2012 season, Latta worked with outfielder Marlon Byrd on revamping his swing while Byrd was serving a 50-game suspension for testing positive for Tamoxifen. Byrd was coming off a season in which he had posted a paltry 26 wRC+ in 48 games with the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox. After working with Latta, he burst back onto the scene with a .291/.336/.511 line, 25 home runs, and a 137 wRC+ in 147 games in 2013. (His performance after declined, and following another PED suspension for 162 games in June of 2016, Byrd retired.) Not long after Byrd’s swing started to see success, Latta helped engineered another notable career breakout in Justin Turner.

This part of the story is well-documented. Turner, originally a 2006 seventh-round pick by the Reds out of Cal State Fullerton, made it to the major leagues with the Baltimore Orioles in 2009. But after a .111/.226/.111 slash line in 17 games for Baltimore, he was designated for assignment in 2010. He was then claimed off of waivers by the Mets. He would spend the next three seasons in Queens, hitting .265/.326/.370 with only eight home runs in 301 games. Following the 2013 season, he was non-tendered by the Mets, making him a free agent. During that offseason, Byrd, who was teammates with Turner in 2013, shared how the swing overhaul from Latta was doing wonders for his career. The pair worked together at the Ballyard that winter, and the result showed right away.

In February 2014, Turner signed a minor league deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers and earned a spot for the Opening Day roster by hitting .389/.477/.528 in 19 Cactus League games. He proved the performance was no fluke, hitting .340/.404/.493 with 7 home runs (158 wRC+) in 107 games. And Turner has continued to hit. As a Dodger, he has posted a .305/.383/.505 line with 85 home runs in 619 contests. He also earned a four-year, $64-million contract after the 2016 season and was named an All-Star in 2017, a stark and positive contrast to his position just a few years prior.

Turner and Latta still keep in close contact and work together, Latta says. “We talk or text often, and we’ll hit together as needed at my facility or at Dodger stadium.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Yankees Sign Gio Gonzalez for Minimal Risk, Money

Back in 2011, the Yankees had a lot of fun after signing two aging starters to minor league contracts, when they brought on Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. Colon was deemed to be done by many. He went so far as to get a stem cell injection in his shoulder to give it another go. Garcia had a so-so season in 2010 and was working with significantly diminished stuff from his prime, but the two combined for 4.8 WAR, helping the Yankees on the way to a division title. Eight years later, New York has signed Gio Gonzalez to a minor league deal. He will earn $3 million if he reaches the big leagues, with incentives based on games started. He has the ability to opt-out on April 20 should he not receive a major league assignment. The circumstances that led to signing Gonzalez now, and Colon and Garcia then, are different, but the best-case scenario might be the same: big bang for the buck from a veteran arm.

Normally, there are five starting pitchers in a set rotation; two of the Yankees’ are injured this spring. Luis Severino, the staff ace, has an inflamed rotator cuff and is expected to be out until May. CC Sabathia is recovering from angioplasty and right knee surgery, and is projected to return sometime in April. That leaves two spots open beyond the cast of James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ.

The Yankees already have depth arms with major league starting experience in Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Luis Cessa. German and Cessa in particular are having pretty good springs, but we all know that spring training can be a bit of a mirage. Those three combined for 1.8 WAR last year, which isn’t inspiring. But they are young and have shown flashes of promise, so it is possible that they could break out this year. For now, they are talented question marks. And even if the Yankees decide to carry two of the three, they would still face issues when it comes to rotation depth. As we’ve seen from the 2016 Dodgers, anything could happen to human beings who throw baseballs for living. Read the rest of this entry »

Ahn Woo-Jin Is Ready to Take on the KBO

Ahn Woo-Jin (photo by Sung Min Kim)

Some would say that Ahn Woo-Jin of the Kiwoom Heroes is the most high-profile pitching prospect in all of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). He has been a highly-touted arm since pitching for the Whimoon High School in the Daechi-dong area of Seoul, topping out at 156 kmph (around 97 mph) and showing solid feel for his secondary pitches. He also has the look of a hurler. He’s got the height (around 6-foot-3), a frame that could fill out as he grows, and long limbs. Ahn was drafted by the Heroes in the first round of the 2017 KBO Draft, and signed with a franchise-record six billion won (around $530,000) bonus.

The 19-year-old rookie’s 2018 regular season numbers weren’t pretty. He went 2-4, 7.19 ERA (5.74 FIP) with 46 strikeouts, 28 walks, and six home runs allowed in 41.1 IP. Besides the strikeouts, the numbers indicated a clear rawness from a kid who was the age equivalent of a college freshman. However, after a series of adjustments, he became a formidable force out of the pen in the 2018 postseason. In 15.2 IP, Ahn struck out 18 and walked only one, while allowing just two earned runs and a home run. A 15.2 IP sample size isn’t as big as 41.1 IP, but it seemed clear that the tweaks made a difference.

One of the masterminds of Ahn’s mechanical changes was his pitching coach, Brandon Knight. Knight is a man of ample pitching experience. The right-hander had a cup of coffee with the Yankees in 2001 and 2002, and with the Mets in 2008. He also pitched in Japan, Venezuela, and South Korea, and had a couple of independent league stints. In the KBO, Knight pitched for the Samsung Lions in 2009 and 2010, and the then-Nexen Heroes from 2011 to 2014. He made a solid impression pitching in Korea for the last few years of his pro career, going 48-38, with a 3.84 ERA in six seasons in the KBO. The Heroes hired Knight in late 2015 to be their pitching coordinator for the Futures League team and promoted him to pitching coach for the big league team in the middle of 2017 season. Read the rest of this entry »

An American Knuckleballer in Korea

This is Sung Min Kim’s fourth piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. (He gets a couple extra days because of the month’s brevity.) Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

Knuckleballers are rare. Lefty knuckleballers, even more so. Consider: Wikipedia’s list of knuckleball pitchers features 29 names. Only four of them are left-handers.

Knuckleballers are even more rare in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). In the 36-year history of the league, there’s only been one ever. This one happens to be a lefty, though.

Some MLB fans will recognize the name: LHP Ryan Feierabend. Selected in the third round by the Mariners out of an Ohio high school back in 2003, Feierabend made it to the majors as a 20-year-old in 2006 but had only 25 major-league appearances with Seattle in three seasons. From 2010 to 2013, he was a journeyman, making the rounds through the Mariners, Phillies, Reds, and Rangers systems, as well as the Atlantic League. In 2014, Feierabend resurfaced back in MLB for six appearances with Texas, but after that season, he signed a deal with Nexen Heroes of the KBO.

Feierabend told me that the Nexen Heroes showed interest in him about a year before the signing. “The time was summer 2013. I was in Triple-A Round Rock and was having a pretty good season,” Feierabend recalled. (He produced a 6-5 record and 3.66 ERA in 120.1 IP.) “As the season went on, more and more teams from Korea became intrigued with me. About four different scouts gave me their business cards, but only one of them — from Nexen Heroes — stayed in touch.” Later, in November 2015, the Heroes finally made an offer and told him that he had 72 hours to make a decision.

“Well, here I am four years later, so I definitely signed,” Feierabend said.

Read the rest of this entry »

How Korean Baseball Briefly Shortened Time of Game

This is Sung Min Kim’s third piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. (He gets a couple extra days because of the month’s brevity.) Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

Pace of play has, without a doubt, become a hot-potato subject in MLB and for commissioner Rob Manfred. The league, of course, recently made some rule changes in order to quicken game flow, alterations that mostly concern things like mound visits, commercial breaks, instant replay, and the timing of pitching changes. We even had a league executive make some, uh, interesting propositions about the ninth inning.

While many of MLB’s proposals this offseason have focused on improving pace of play, other possible rule changes have sought to more explicitly shorten games. One such idea is to increase the size of the strike zone. The idea here is straightforward: more strikes means quicker at-bats, and quicker at-bats means quicker games.

With the new pace-of-play measures already announced, we won’t be seeing a bigger strike zone yet. However, another league already put that measure in practice in 2017. Last year, before the season’s start, the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization) announced that they were going to adopt a wider strike zone.

The KBO made the decision for different reasons than MLB would. First, it seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to Team Korea’s poor showing in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. South Korea, the host of Group A in the first round of the tournament, was eliminated after the first two games, losing to Israel and the Kingdom of Netherlands (though they did beat Taiwan in their third and final contest). That early exit served as a wake-up call, inspiring league officials to think critically about the game.

But there was another reason for the change. KBO has been a high-offense environment for the past few seasons. From 2014 to 2016, the league enjoyed an average OPS of .807, .787, and .801 respectively. It was not always this way, though. As recently as 2012, KBO skewed more pitcher-friendly, believe it or not. That season, the league had a .698 OPS. Since then, hitter OPS has increased by about 100 points in just seasons, which is significant.

I could write a whole article on why that is. But for now, we’ll stick to the strike zone. After the offensive environment of the last few years, officials felt that the balance needed to shift back towards pitching after three consecutive years of inflated run-scoring. By increasing the strike-zone width and calling more strikes, pitchers would gain some advantage.

When announcing the change, the head KBO umpire official Kim Poong-Gi explained that the league would not explicitly re-define the strike zone. Rather, the intent was to maximize the size within the regulated measure. That meant, hypothetically, the pitch that touches any portion of zone boundary would be considered a strike.

And the new zone did inspire change.

Two pitches don’t conclusively prove the point, but as examples, here is Kim Gyeong-Un of the Hanwha Eagles, taking a pitch for a ball on May 18, 2016.

And here is Min Byung-Hun of the Doosan Bears taking a called strike three on a pitch in a very similar location on August 31, 2017.

The new mandate not only affected ball and strike calls but also average game length. In 2016, the average KBO game lasted 3 hours and 23 minutes. In 2017? Just 3 hours and 17 minutes. It is perhaps noteworthy, as well, that for the first month of the season, the average game length was 3 hours and 12 minutes, a whole 11 minutes shaved off the previous mark. That seems even more significant! So, hypothetically, the strike-zone change could be a practical short-term solution to quicken games.

There is a nagging question, though — namely, what happened after that first month? If we compare April to the rest of the season, we do see differences in strikeout rate and called-strike rate

2017 KBO Ball-Strike Numbers
Month K% BB% Pitches/PA Strike% Called-Strike% Swinging-Strike%
April 18.5% 7.8% 3.83 64.2% 28.3% 14.4%
After 17.4% 8.0% 3.86 63.5% 27.3% 14.5%

The five-minute jump between April and everything after that seems significant enough to demand an explanation. Two theories are often invoked. The first is that hitters got acclimated to the change, decided to adapt a more aggressive approach, and produced. The second is that the umpires gradually went back to the previous strike zone.

The first theory is going to take some numbers to support. The wider strike zone bumped up the strikeout rate and reduced the walk rate throughout the league. As you see below, there were definitely more called strikes. As a result, hitters became a bit more aggressive.

Strike-Ball Numbers, KBO
Year K% BB% Pitch/PA Strike% Swing% Swing Ks Look Ks
2016 16.9% 9.3% 3.89 61.9% 45.3% 7427 2316
2017 17.6% 8.0% 3.86 63.7% 46.1% 7389 2620

Given the changes, more strikeouts, fewer walks, and more swings are to be expected. Hitters hit .272/.339/.400 in April and .289/.357/.447 from May till the end of the season. And most importantly, for the league’s purposes, here are the overall league slash lines:

2016: .290/.364/.437
2017: .286/.353/.438

The new strike-zone measure, while initially helping with the pace of play, did little to address the run-scoring environment. You could argue that the new strike zone encouraged hitters to be more aggressive and resulted in more balls put in play. The league 2017 BABIP of .327 is not much of a change from .326 and .331 from the previous two seasons. As the slugging percentage would indicate, the power did not die down either. In fact, the home-run total increased from 1,483 to 1,547. All in all, after a blip in the first month, the hitters simply continued to rake, and the game length regressed back to the norm.

The second point however, is partially confirmed. As the new rule was implemented, it became clear that pitches that did not touch the strike zone boundaries were often called strikes. In a mid-July interview, Kim Poong-Gi admitted that they “tweaked” the strike zone to make it smaller than it was in April. “Because the strike zone was overly wide in April, we adjusted it a bit smaller,” Kim said, “but we are still enforcing the wider strike zone width.” If that is true, then the numbers may back up the correlation. In April, the league ERA was at 4.46. It increased to 4.63 in May and saw a dramatic rise in June to 5.64.

That brought attention to a new problem: consistency. It can be hard enough to enforce a new measure. It gets harder when every umpire has a different zone.

The wide-strike-zone experiment, for now, is still an experiment in the KBO. Kim Poong-Gi announced in December that the league will continue to use wider strike zone in 2018. It’s very doubtful that it will solve the run-scoring issue in 2018 with the current pool of hitting and pitching talent in the KBO. Regarding pace of play, it would be easier to conclude something meaningful if there wasn’t such a disparity between the first month of game and the rest of the season’s. Other factors might account for some of the change in game length. Given the fluctuating game length trend and the overall inconsistencies, one could say that the strike-zone change created more problems that it solved. Does that mean that MLB should ditch the idea completely? Not necessarily. If the umpires can enforce a consistently sized zone throughout the season and give the players a good idea what to expect, then it could be executed decently.

Of course, another thing to note is that, throughout the baseball history, the strike-zone rules have changed multiple times. The regulation was not passed on a stone tablet like the Ten Commandments. It has been a product of adjustments according to the environment. For instance, in 1968, The Year of the Pitcher, MLB experienced an all-time pitcher-friendly season during which hitters slashed a mere .237/.299/.340 overall, with pitchers thriving to the tune of a 2.98 ERA. In 1969, the league responded by reducing the strike-zone size. In 1987, the league saw a then-record 4,458 home runs in a season. MLB adjusted the strike zone before the 1988 season by increasing the size. So it goes. The odds are that we will see another strike-zone change in future. Whether it will be for the pace of play remains to be seen.

All stats from Statiz unless otherwise specified.

Asia Is No Longer a Last Stop for Major Leaguers

This is Sung Min Kim’s second piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

For the first post of my residency, I examined the biggest names in Asia who could soon come over to U.S. Because of the massive amount of attention MLB gets from local media and fans, people keep their eyes peeled on potential Asia-to-MLB transactions.

What does not get as much attention, however, is the reverse. Teams in Asia (for the purposes of this article, I’m specifically referring to teams in Japan and South Korea) diligently scout players Stateside, mainly scouring the Pacific Coast League, the International League, and sometimes even Mexico or independent ball to fill out their foreign-player roster. The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), a 10-team league, has a cap of three foreign players per team, while the Nippon Professional League (NPB), a 12-team league, has a cap of four foreign players on its major-league rosters, and no cap on its minor-league rosters.

Sure, it may not be as newsworthy as an MLB team signing an exciting talent from Asia (remember the buzz Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani generated this offseason?), but there are reasons to keep track of players crossing the Pacific to the Far East. In recent years, the players traveling to Asia are likely quite familiar to everyday baseball fans in the U.S. That hasn’t always been the case. For some time, playing baseball in Asia was seen more as a destination of last resort for players who could not find their way in the majors or were past their prime. Rather than signing ex-big leaguers looking to “collect their last paychecks,” however, Asian clubs are now signing younger players on the fringes of the big leagues — the so-called “Quad-A” player — and even, in some instances, players who are on a major-league 40-man roster.

Players are also now realizing that their careers don’t “go to die” in Asia. Rather, it is sometimes an opportunity for them to play well, get better, and return to Major League Baseball. With MLB teams having increased their scouting presence in the NPB and KBO, we have seen notable recent cases of American players thriving there and securing a guaranteed MLB contract.

One such player is, of course, Milwaukee 1B/OF Eric Thames. After recording a .799 OPS in the Orioles’ and Mariners’ minor-league systems in 2013, Thames signed with the NC Dinos of the KBO, where he proceeded to record video-game numbers, slashing .349/.451/.721 with 124 home runs and a 188 wRC+ from 2014 to 2016. Following the third of those season, the Brewers signed Thames to a $16-million contract with a $7.5 million club option for 2020. In his first season back in the MLB, Thames produced a 124 wRC+ with a 2.1 WAR while hitting 31 home runs for the Brewers. Not bad.

Read the rest of this entry »