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Eugenio Suárez’s Step Back

Over the past few seasons, fans of the Cincinnati Reds have gotten used to watching third baseman Eugenio Suárez improve year after year. When he was acquired from the Detroit Tigers in December 2014 with former first-round pick Jonathon Crawford in exchange for Alfredo Simon, he was a glove-first shortstop who had a decent track record of hitting in the minors but lacked any loud offensive tools. After arriving in Cincinnati, he began to piece his game together one season at a time.

In 2015, he showed modest power but walked just 4.3% of the time and was a liability in the field. In 2016, he kept that power but improved his glove and doubled his walk rate, finishing with a 93 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR. In 2017, he boosted his power as well as his ability to walk while becoming a plus defensive third baseman, and he finished with a 116 wRC+ and 3.9 WAR. Last year, his power once again took a great step forward, and his wRC+ swelled to 135 while his WAR stayed at 3.9.

That kind of exponential growth was exciting to see out of Suárez, who signed a 7-year, $66-million extension before the 2018 season. He clocked in at No. 32 on our Trade Value rankings last year, and he appeared to be just a step away from the game’s elite third basemen. This season, however, the 28-year-old hasn’t provided quite the same value.

Eugenio Suárez 3B Offensive Ranks
Statistic 2018 2019
WAR 7th 14th
wRC+ 6th 12th
HR 4th 1st
BB% 7th 8th

At 33 homers, he’s one away from tying a career high with six weeks left on the schedule. But aside from another precipitous increase in power, his numbers elsewhere have deteriorated from where they stood last year. His wRC+ is down 16 points, and his typically consistent strikeout rate is up four points. Those aren’t concerning figures on their face — he’s still well above average in terms of cumulative offensive production thanks to a 10% walk rate in addition to his power — but it’s his underlying contact stats that tell an unpleasant tale. Read the rest of this entry »


Kevin Cash’s Cold Call

Ryan Yarbrough was in Maddux territory. He’d thrown just 89 pitches as he walked to the mound to begin the top of the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners on Sunday with his Tampa Bay Rays leading 1-0, having allowed just three hits and no walks against eight strikeouts. The 27-year-old southpaw had two lefties waiting to face him, neither of whom had reached base that afternoon.

The inning started about as well as it could have, as Yarbrough took just 10 pitches to induce weak ground balls out of Mallex Smith and J.P. Crawford. He was now at 99 pitches and one out away from just the 18th complete-game shutout thrown in the majors this season. But as soon as Yarbrough got the ball back from the infield after Crawford’s groundout, he turned to see Rays manager Kevin Cash exiting the dugout and walking toward him. He tried to sneak in a word of protest before Cash got to the mound, but it was no use. His day was over.

“Obviously, a little angry,” Yarbrough said to reporters after the game, according to MLB.com. “But I think [Cash] would want me to be. I think he would want me to want to finish it. I don’t think I have any ill-will about it or anything.”

In the moment, Yarbrough did little to conceal the way he felt about the decision. Here’s the moment he sees Cash walking his way:

And here he is walking off the mound:

From Cash’s perspective, the move was a well-reasoned one. Tampa Bay was ahead by just one run, and the hitter on deck at the time, Domingo Santana, is plenty capable of doing enough damage to a mistake to make that lead evaporate. With the Rays possessing just a 1 1/2 game lead in the second Wild Card playoff spot, there was little margin for error in the big picture, too. Read the rest of this entry »


Nelson Cruz Won’t Stop

The other day I wrote about Shin-Soo Choo and the way he’s hitting the ball really hard despite being a 37-year-old who has never garnered much of a reputation as a power hitter. In that piece, I included a chart that showed Choo was having the second-best season in terms of hard-hit percentage by a player 35 years of age or older since we started gathering such data in 2002. Choo was deserving of the digital ink used on him, but as impressed as I was with his placement on that chart, the most remarkable player listed was the one directly above him. The hard-hit rate that Choo had put together that ranked second on that list was 46.7%. No. 1 on that list was 2019 Nelson Cruz, whose hard contact rate currently rests at a whopping 55%. He’s 39 years old, and he’s hitting the ball hard more often than anyone else in baseball. He also just wrapped up one of the hottest two-week stretches you’ll ever see.

On the morning of July 22nd, Cruz was in the middle of yet another strong season at the plate. His slash line was .270/.364/.543 with 19 homers in 71 games. Even as a designated hitter, that’ll play on just about any team. Then all hell broke loose.

Offensive totals, July 22 — Aug. 6
Player BA OBP SLG HR RBI wOBA wRC+ WAR
Nelson Cruz 0.460 0.526 1.300 13 27 0.699 352 1.9
Next-closest player 0.429 0.500 0.816 7 20 0.516 229 1.2

Look, it is usually best not to fuss too much over a hot streak that is over a sample size this small. The baseball season is long, and because of that, there will be many, many players who throw together a torrid two-week stretch or two. In that table, the next-best players in those categories ranged from Anthony Rendon to Andrew Benintendi to Mike Tauchman. Those players should all feel very happy and proud of the way they’ve been playing baseball, but unless your name is Mike Trout, there is a very good chance that an amazing two-week stretch of baseball will not be followed with another two-week stretch that is just as amazing. This is just the way the game works, and there’s no use in getting too excited over what is only around 50 plate appearances, about 1/12th of your season or less. Read the rest of this entry »


Shin-Soo Choo Is Turning Back the Clock

After the 2017 season, Shin-Soo Choo’s contract looked like one of the worst in baseball. He’d just wrapped up the fourth season in his seven-year, $130 million deal with Texas, and had failed to top 1.0 WAR for the third time. He was well into his mid-30s, had no business playing the outfield, and was constantly battling through injuries. His bat needed to thrive in order for him to be playable in Texas’ lineup, and too often, it was merely average. With three years and $62 million still owed to him, the Rangers needed Choo needed to take a dramatic step forward at the plate. What were the odds of that?

Higher than you might have thought. In 2018, Choo’s wRC+ rose from 104 to 118. This year, at 37 years old, it’s up to 124. That may be just a small improvement from last season, but it doesn’t convey how much he has changed as a hitter. He’s raised his ISO and slugging percentage 40 and 56 points respectively. Choo has sacrificed a bit of his famously high walk rate to get there, but he’s still drawing a free pass more than 10% of the time. What stands out to me, however, is how hard he’s hitting the ball.

Before last year, Choo had never finished a full season with a hard-hit percentage of at least 40%, according to our own data. Then, in 2018, he got that mark up to 42%. This year, it’s up to 46.7%. That kind of gain would be encouraging for a player of any age, but for a player as old as Choo, it’s a significant shift. His hard-hit rate ranks 18th in baseball this season, and that’s only if you go by our metrics. Statcast has his hard-hit percentage at 50.7%, which places him seventh among hitters with at least 100 batted balls. Here’s the full top 10, with ages attached:

Statcast Hard-Hit% leaders, 2019
Name Hard-hit% Age
Aaron Judge 59.8 27
Miguel Sano 55.3 26
Nelson Cruz 53.5 39
Joey Gallo 52.3 25
Matt Olson 51.2 25
Marcell Ozuna 51.1 28
Shin-Soo Choo 50.7 37
Josh Donaldson 50.7 33
Kyle Schwarber 50.4 28
Christian Walker 50.4 26

Read the rest of this entry »


D-Backs Land Mike Leake from Seattle

Just moments before trading away Zack Greinke in the blockbuster move of deadline day, the Arizona Diamondbacks made an addition to their rotation, acquiring Mike Leake from the Seattle Mariners. It is the second time Leake has been traded since he signed a five-year, $80-million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals before the 2016 season, and the third time overall that he has been traded in-season. According to arizonasports.com’s John Gambadoro, the D-Backs will be responsible for just $6 million of the roughly $20 million still owed to Leake on his contract. The Mariners received 22-year-old infielder Jose Caballero in the deal.

Leake, 31, has been good for about league-average production and a lot of innings eaten throughout his career, and the same remains true for his 2019 season. With a 4.40 ERA in 22 starts, his ERA- sits at 101, which just so happens to line up perfectly with his career mark. His FIP, however, has jumped to 4.74, thanks to a career-worst HR/9 mark of 1.71.

The Leake deal was one of several the Diamondbacks made on Wednesday, though it was the only one that involved the organization actually taking on an established big leaguer. Greinke — along with $24 million of the $77 million owed to him on his contract — was sent to Houston in exchange for a mighty haul of prospects just before 4 p.m. On a much smaller scale, Arizona also traded backup catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Atlanta Braves, and in a rare flip of notable prospects, sent shortstop Jazz Chisholmranked the D-backs’ No. 1 prospect by Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel — to the Miami Marlins for right-handed pitching prospect Zac Gallen. Arizona was heavily rumored to be shopping left-handed starter Robbie Ray throughout the week, but no deal ever came to fruition. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunny Days Have Returned for Sonny Gray

Early in the season, Luis Castillo was the pitcher drawing eyeballs in the Cincinnati Reds rotation. After showing flashes of elite potential in his first two seasons in the big leagues, the right-hander had reached new heights with his ridiculous change-up, and the numbers he posted over the first six weeks of the season had him getting serious attention as a Cy Young favorite. After years of abysmal pitching staffs, the Reds finally looked like they had an ace on their hands.

A couple of months later, however, Castillo’s been surpassed in WAR by a teammate who once garnered ace buzz at a similar age. In 21 starts, Sonny Gray has been worth 2.7 WAR, thanks to a solid 3.51 FIP to go with a 3.47 xFIP. Castillo has had trouble with walks as the season has progressed, but overall, his numbers remain fairly strong, and optimism surrounding him is deservedly high. Quietly, though, Gray has been every bit as good.

Castillo vs. Gray, 2019
Player ERA FIP K% BB% GB% xwOBA WAR
Luis Castillo 2.71 3.87 29% 12% 56% .282 2.3
Sonny Gray 3.45 3.51 28% 8% 54% .277 2.7

While Castillo entered the 2019 season with the expectation that his best years were ahead of him, Gray faced the question of what he had left to offer. He picked up 7.4 WAR from 2014-15 with the Oakland A’s, finishing third in Cy Young voting in the second of those seasons. His ERA ballooned to 5.69 in 2016, but he returned to approach another 3 WAR season between Oakland and New York the following year. That paved the way for a truly head-scratching 2018 season in which his home-road splits reached absurd levels, and he failed to stick in the rotation, allowing a 5.26 ERA in 23 starts. Viewing him as a lost cause, the Yankees were determined to trade him last offseason, and found a match with Cincinnati in January. Read the rest of this entry »


The Most Important Rookie Hitter in the Pennant Chase

Even before it began, the 2019 season seemed poised to become the year of the rookie hitter. That seems true every year nowadays, but it seemed especially so this year. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. had a ton of anticipation surrounding their debuts, but there were other big names ready to introduce themselves as well. Eloy Jimenez was about to unleash his prodigious power upon the big leagues for the first time, Victor Robles was embarking on his first full season of showing off his game-changing speed in the majors, and Nick Senzel was going to finally try to put his injury problems behind him and show why he was the second overall draft choice in 2017. National prospect lists consistently laid out the excitement surrounding the next generation of great hitters, with our own Top 100 list featuring nine hitters in the top 10 prospects, and 17 in the top 20 (along with one two-way player).

Nearly two-thirds of the way through the season, many of those rookie hitters have shown the potential to carry the weight of a franchise on their shoulders. Unfortunately, most play for teams that won’t be challenging for postseason spots this season, so they will have to wait their turn to show off their talents in important fall baseball games. Others are playing on teams that will certainly be around in October, but they play at a spot that their organization was already doing quite well with. This piece isn’t about one of those guys, though. We’re here to talk about someone I think means more to his team’s postseason hopes than any other rookie in baseball. Read the rest of this entry »


What Should We Make of Shane Greene?

In 2017, Shane Greene appeared to have turned a corner. He was coming off his first season as a near-full time reliever, one he’d finished with an ugly ERA (5.82) but a pretty nifty FIP (3.13). The latter mark, as is typically the case, proved to be the more predictive number, as he finished the 2017 season with a 2.66 ERA, though it came with a slightly higher 3.84 FIP. The following season, the wheels came off again, as he posted a 5.12 ERA and a 4.61 FIP. All told, Greene entered 2019 with a career 4.89 ERA and 4.14 FIP in five seasons split between the Yankees and the Tigers. What’s he up to now? Pretty much what you’d guess: leading all major league pitchers with an ERA of 1.06 in 34 innings.

It may seem surprising, but Greene has been around for some time now. He’s already 30, has been both a starter and a reliever for extended periods of time, and has been given a prominent role on a few lost Tigers teams over the years. Yet because of the drastic swings in his performance from year to year, we seem to know very little about him. Even if we focus solely on this year, there is still conflicting information. His ERA is obviously fantastic, but it comes with a 3.65 FIP and a 4.04 xFIP. To put the last number in context, his xFIP during his forgettable 2018 season was 4.05. Considering his contract status (he’ll be a free agent after 2020) and his role as closer for a 29-61 team, Greene is going to be a popular name in trade conversations for the rest of the month. It seems pertinent to ask, then: What exactly do we make of him?

Let’s get a few underwhelming facts about him out of the way first. His opponents’ BABIP of .179 this season is well below his career average of .304, and his strand rate is 86.1%, well above his career average of 69%. Those stats depend a lot upon luck, and 34 innings is a minuscule sample size for luck-based metrics. The fact that Greene is performing so well in them — seventh in the majors in BABIP, 32nd in LOB%, among all pitchers with at least 20 IP — gives us good reason to be suspicious of Greene’s suddenly elite ERA.

It’s easy enough to look at those measures and declare Greene as the beneficiary of unsustainable luck, and a clear candidate for regression — in fact, it’s too easy. Because while he may appear lucky at first glance, there are reasons to believe Greene really is a notably better pitcher than he’s ever been. Read the rest of this entry »


A’s Make Homer Bailey an Unexpected Deadline Upgrade

Homer Bailey woke up Sunday morning expecting to start a game between two teams going nowhere, but instead discovered that he would be joining a playoff chase. Kansas City shipped the righty to the Oakland A’s in exchange for 23-year-old shortstop Kevin Merrell.

Bailey, 33, has been a cromulent arm for KC this season, with a 4.80 ERA and 4.47 FIP in 90 innings. His 1.1 WAR is his best figure since 2014, while his 8.10 K/9 is his best mark since 2013.

Merrell, the 33rd overall pick back in 2017, ranked 20th on Eric and Kiley’s list of Oakland’s top farmhands before the season. Speed is Merrell’s calling card, but his 80-grade wheels haven’t had much chance to shine this year in Double-A, as he’s sporting a meager .246/.292/.339 line in 82 games.

Oakland will be Bailey’s fourth organization in the last eight months. After a 12-year stint with the Reds, he was shipped to the Dodgers in a seven-player swap that sent Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood and Kyle Farmer to Cincinnati in return for prospects Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray. Bailey’s inclusion in the deal was motivated entirely by finances, however, as the $22.45 million he was owed in 2019 was a close match with the $21.75 million owed to Kemp; the structure of Bailey’s contract made it more luxury tax-friendly to the Dodgers. One day after the trade was completed, Bailey was released by Los Angeles, and in February, he signed a minor league contract with the Royals.

While he rarely lived up to his billing as a top prospect, Bailey was a pretty good starter early in the decade, when he accrued 6.3 WAR from 2012-13 while throwing more than 200 innings each year. The Reds rewarded Bailey, then 27, with a six-year, $105 million contract extension. Twenty-three starts into what appeared to be another good season in 2014, he was shut down with an arm injury. He underwent Tommy John surgery, made just a combined eight starts from 2015-16, and in parts of four seasons following his injury, held a 6.25 ERA and 5.13 FIP in 231.2 innings.

It isn’t difficult to see why two playoff aspirants didn’t have room for Bailey. Just seven months later, however, another win-now team was willing to part with a top-20 prospect to add him to their rotation. What changed?

Well, for one, it’s always been somewhat difficult to differentiate between Good Bailey and Bad Bailey. His average fastball velocity in 2012 was 93.2 mph. In 2018, it was 93.0 mph. His chase rate in 2013 was 34.5%. In 2018, it was 33.0%. His swinging strike rate, pitch usage, and ground ball rates were consistent as well. And yet he’d gone from a solid No. 2 starter to nearly unemployed.

Bailey’s numbers in many of those areas haven’t changed much this season, either. His average four-seamer is 92.8 mph. His chase rate is just a couple ticks lower than last season. His groundball rate is up three points, and his swinging strike rate has climbed modestly as well.

There is, however, one big difference in Bailey’s repertoire. His career fastball percentage sits around 60%. In years after his surgery, it was 55%. This year, it’s down to 49.3%. His slider percentage, 17% a year ago, is down more than four points. Those missing fastballs and sliders have turned into splitters:

Bailey’s thrown his splitter on 27.3% of his offerings in 2019, more than eight points higher than any other season of his career. It’s a great pitch for him to lean on: According to Statcast, opponents have just a .195 xBA .250 xSLG against the split, and their actual numbers aren’t exceeding those estimates by much. Of the five pitches Bailey has used in 2019, three of them have an xwOBA above .350. Finding a pitch as reliable as the splitter has been vital for him, and as he’s thrown it more, he’s been more effective. In his last five starts, he’s thrown 29 innings and posted a 2.48 ERA.

That was good enough for Oakland to add him to its starting rotation. The A’s have weathered Frankie Montas’ suspension well, but they still need rotation help. Montas had a 2.70 ERA and 2.9 WAR in 90 innings before receiving an 80-game suspension on June 21. Since then, Oakland starters have accumulated 1.7 WAR, good for seventh-best in baseball, though their 4.85 xFIP suggests they’ve been a bit fortunate.

Mike Fiers, Brett Anderson and Chris Bassitt have been serviceable starters, but all three are outperforming their FIPs by a wide gap. Tanner Anderson and Daniel Mengden are passable options, but the rotation is clearly Oakland’s weakest part of the roster. Critically, Oakland’s internal prospective reinforcements all have question marks. Jharel Cotton and Sean Manaea are on track to rejoin the team in August, but they’re both returning from serious injuries: Manaea hasn’t pitched this year and Cotton has been out since 2017. The two top pitching prospects in the organization in A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo, meanwhile, have thrown only a handful of innings this season, and probably aren’t realistic options to contribute down the stretch. The A’s need an arm or two, and they got a cheap one in Bailey.

Because the Dodgers are paying $22.45 million in salary owed to Bailey for the 2019 season, Oakland is on the hook for just the remaining $250,000. As far as prospect cost, a top-20 prospect isn’t nothing, but Merrell has a long road ahead of him. As Eric and Kiley wrote back in March, a move to the outfield is likely in his future, and there isn’t much power at all in his bat. His speed makes him interesting, but he’ll need to take a big step forward to profile as a regular.

That’s all that it cost to bring Bailey to Oakland, an organization that has done well with similarly beleaguered pitchers recently. Last June, they signed Edwin Jackson — a pitcher who hadn’t posted an ERA under 5.00 since 2015 — and watched him spin 92 innings of 3.33 ERA ball the rest of the year. They also coaxed 110 splendid innings out of Trevor Cahill’s oft-injured and sporadically-effective right arm. The A’s have been a good home for pitchers who once seemed over the hill, and perhaps Bailey will continue the pattern. Just seven months ago, he was a cast-off. But in Kansas City, he showed he wasn’t done. Now, in Oakland, he can show how much more he has left.


The D-Backs Are on the Brink of a New Stolen-Base Frontier

We do not live in an exciting time for record chases. Ichiro’s single-season hits record is perfectly safe, as is Barry Bonds‘ home run record. The records that are getting broken are of the team variety, and even those seem to be as much a sign of the times as they are reflective of a team’s historical excellence. The team home run record, for example, is about to fall for a second straight year, with the Minnesota Twins on pace to demolish the 2018 Yankees’ mark. The record for strikeouts recorded by a pitching staff has been broken in each of the last two seasons as well.

Still, there is at least one team record in jeopardy that’s worth a bit more discussion. In the first half of the season, the Arizona Diamondbacks stole 50 bases in 56 attempts, good for an 89.3% success rate. The all-time record, set by the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies, is 87.9%.

Is it the sexiest record in sports? It is not. Is that a jaw-dropping gap between the record pursuer and the current record holder? Nope! But I’m not here to talk about what it would mean if the D-backs edged the 2007 Phillies out by a decimal point or two at the end of the season. What I’d like to talk about instead is what it would mean if Arizona finished the year with a 90% success rate.

Before we talk about a 90% stolen-base success rate, let’s discuss an 80% success rate. Since the beginning of the live ball era, just 38 teams in major league history have finished a season with a stolen-base success rate of 80% or higher. Here are those 38 teams: Read the rest of this entry »