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Detroit’s Playoff Push Was Fleeting, but Jeimer Candelario’s Breakout Is Real

Like nearly every team outside of Pittsburgh during this odd season, there were a couple of weeks in which it appeared the Detroit Tigers might actually be able to make a surprise run at the playoffs. After being given just 3.1% postseason odds by our projections even with the year shortened to 60 games and the field expanded from 10 teams to 16, the Tigers shot out to a 9-5 start, raising their playoff chances to a season-high 39.2% on August 10. Some struggles followed, but then another decent run got them back to 17-16 on September 1, with 31.1% odds at a playoff spot. Since then, there has been another rough patch that the team won’t have a chance to recover from. Detroit has lost 11 of its last 15, giving it a record of 21-27 that places their playoff chances at worse than a 1-in-50 shot. We can say with near-certainty that the Tigers’ surprise pursuit of the playoffs is behind them. One of the major engineers of that pursuit, however, is still worth paying attention to over the campaign’s final two weeks.

The 2019 season wasn’t an easy one for Jeimer Candelario. The Tigers demoted him not once, but three times to Triple-A Toledo amid struggles at the big league level, and he also missed time due to shoulder inflammation. He quickly hit well enough in the minors to get his job back in the majors, posting a .320/.416/.588 line over 39 Triple-A games. He could never make that stick when he got called up though, finishing with a .203/.306/.337 line in 94 games, good for a 72 wRC+. Once an impressive offensive prospect, those numbers didn’t match Candelario’s pedigree, and neither did the .225/.317/.393 line the season before.

This year it appears he has finally begun to put it all together. Candelario is hitting .333/.391/.572 with seven home runs in 174 plate appearances through Tuesday. His 158 wRC+ and 1.7 WAR both lead his team and rank him 18th and 26th in baseball, respectively. Those numbers have only gotten better as the season has gone on — after entering August 19 with a .242/.286/.424 line, he has hit .398/.462/.677 over his past 26 games, with a 207 wRC+ that ranks fourth-best in baseball over that time. After showing all peaks and valleys over his first few seasons, he’s only improved with each game in 2020. Read the rest of this entry »

Corbin Burnes and the Ways We Try To Make Sense of All of This

At the beginning of last season, my colleague Ben Clemens examined Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes in something of a study into what pitchers can control, and which skills can be demonstrated fastest. Burnes had made just one start at the time, striking out 12 batters against one walk in five innings, while also allowing six hits including three homers. More illustrative than those results, however, were Burnes’ elite spin rates. Spin doesn’t take several outings to stabilize, and it isn’t something a pitcher flukes in and out of. Like velocity or foot speed, it is something one either possesses or doesn’t. Burnes has it. Ben’s a smart guy, so he hypothesized that it was likely those spin rates would help keep Burnes’ strikeout numbers high in future appearances, while his home run rates should taper off. Because really, who has that kind of stuff and still gives up three homers a game?

Well, in Burnes’ next start after that piece ran, he gave up three home runs again. In the start after that, he gave up another three. And in the start after that, he gave up two more. Then he moved to the bullpen, where he was fine for a couple of weeks — until Atlanta hammered three dingers off of him in just two-thirds of an inning. Burnes finished the season with 12.86 strikeouts per nine, and 3.12 homers allowed per nine. When opponents hit fly balls against him, 38.6% left the yard — the highest single-season HR/FB rate on record for anyone with at least 40 innings pitched. When he kept the ball in play, he was also historically unlucky; his opponents’ .414 BABIP was the fourth-highest on record. Burnes can say more about himself with a single pitch than just about anyone else, and yet his entire 2019 season only served as an example of all that can happen that’s outside a pitcher’s control.

Somehow, Burnes is having that kind of season again in 2020 — just in the opposite direction. Last year, he allowed 70 hits and 17 home runs in 49 innings. This year, he’s thrown 45.1 innings, and has allowed 22 hits and one home run. His 2.9% HR/FB rate is the second-lowest of any qualified starter, and his .233 BABIP is seventh-lowest. In a single year, he has transformed from, statistically speaking, possibly the unluckiest pitcher we’ve ever seen into the one of the luckiest of this season. What does that mean for Burnes, and for the way we talk about luck in baseball? Read the rest of this entry »

The Nationals Probably Can’t Repeat Last Year’s Dramatic Turnaround

When telling the story of the 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals, their lackluster start to the campaign played just as big of a role in the season’s narrative as their playoff woes of yesteryear, Howie Kendrick‘s homer off the foul pole, or Juan Soto’s trademark shuffle. Last season’s Nationals were underdogs not only because they entered October as a Wild Card team, but also because of the 19-31 record they owned in May, a mark that had them sunk to fourth place in the division, 10 games out of first. In 2019, however, 50 games represented just over 30% of the season; over the remaining 112 contests, Washington methodically improved until it had re-established itself as one of baseball’s best teams over that stretch, something it was quick to prove in the postseason.

A year later, the Nationals have struggled out of the gates once again. This time, however, they don’t have the benefit of four months to turn things around. After 40 games — two-thirds of their season — the Nationals are 15-25, dead last in the NL East. Just two NL teams own worse records than the defending champs. While the expanded playoff field extends some help to everyone, and it remains possible for Washington to erase the five-game gap between itself and a Wild Card spot, time is quickly running out for the team to make another turnaround effort.

When the 2019 Nationals slumped out of the gates, the situation was considered dire enough that manager Dave Martinez’s job security was being openly speculated upon. But there were signs of hope, even at 19-31. The team had a number of players miss time with injuries, most of which were minor enough that players were still expected to remain active for most of the year. On the day of the team’s 31st loss, the Nationals also had the largest gap in the majors between their collective ERA (4.94) and FIP (4.23). In fact, their starters were leading the majors in WAR at that time despite ranking just ninth in ERA. The bullpen had a litany of issues (it held highest ERA in baseball by nearly a full run), but as a whole, the pitching staff seemed better than it appeared. A surge back into contention was far from inevitable, but the Nationals were still a team that had promise, even when they were at their worst. Read the rest of this entry »

Tim Anderson’s Second, Quieter Breakout

Winning a batting title on its own doesn’t quite win you the household name status that it once did. Ask the casual fan the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the name Tim Anderson, and there’s a good chance it’s the time he pimped the living daylights out of a homer off Brad Keller in 2019 and was subsequently plunked for it. Only after a repeat visit to his highlight reel and another exhausting discussion about baseball’s unwritten rules would they get around to saying he was last season’s American League batting champion, with his .335 average leading all major league hitters.

For a guy who previously held a career batting average of .258, that was a surprising development, but it wasn’t as though he’d suddenly turned into an MVP candidate. Anderson virtually never walked, and hit for only average power, meaning a near-.400 BABIP could still only get him to a 3.5 WAR season. That’s nothing to sneeze at — it put him in the 78th percentile of all batters who made at least 300 plate appearances last season. But there was good reason to believe that was probably his ceiling.

That brings us to another surprising development — Anderson has gotten even better. He’s once again in the batting title discussion, with a .333 average that trails only that of Cleveland’s Franmil Reyes (.336) in the American League. But he’s also running an on-base percentage of .372 and a whopping .579 slugging percentage, helping him to 1.5 WAR that ranks 19th in baseball. Of the 18 players ahead of Anderson, Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rendon are the only ones not to have logged at least seven more games than him. Read the rest of this entry »

Reds Land Archie Bradley, Brian Goodwin Just Ahead of Deadline Buzzer

A .441 winning percentage and fourth place in one’s division on the day of the trade deadline aren’t typical characteristics of a buying team, but 2020 is anything but a typical season. Even after a disappointing 15-19 start, the Cincinnati Reds are just 1 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. Considering the number of moves the team had already made in an effort to make this a contending season, that’s a gap the organization thought was worth trying to close with a pair of deals completed just ahead of Monday’s 4:00 pm deadline.

The Reds acquired outfielder Brian Goodwin from the Angels and closer Archie Bradley from the Diamondbacks within just a few minutes of each other on Monday, with the list of total exits and entrances appearing as follows:

We’ll start with Bradley, as he’s likely to have the biggest impact considering Cincinnati’s relief woes. The Reds’ bullpen has been a far cry from their stellar starting rotation this season, allowing the fourth-worst ERA and fifth-worst FIP in the majors. The unit hasn’t had any trouble striking out batters, leading the majors with 11.9 strikeouts per nine, but it has allowed opponents to rack up walks and homers with similar frequency — only four teams have a higher walk rate in their bullpens than Cincinnati’s, and only the Phillies have a higher home run rate. Read the rest of this entry »

Toronto Adds To Stockpile of Arms, Acquires Ray From D-Backs

Robbie Ray had often been mentioned in hot stove rumors. As the Diamondbacks have toed the line between buying and selling, adding and subtracting, Ray was someone whose name you’d hear in connection to possible trades to contending teams looking for rotation help. He always stayed put though, even as his service clock ticked away and his electric arm never quite broke out the way he or his team hoped.

With just hours to spare before Monday’s trade deadline, Ray was finally traded. The Toronto Blue Jays made him the second starting pitcher they’d acquired in as many days, sending Travis Bergen to Arizona to complete the deal. To put it mildly, the circumstances of Ray’s exit from the Diamondbacks are not what the team hoped for. Though it was always unlikely Arizona would challenge the Dodgers for the division, they had still hoped to contend for a wild card spot. Instead, they entered Monday holding a record of 14-21, last place in the NL West. Ray, meanwhile, no longer offers multiple years of team control, as he’s set to enter free agency after this season. Even if he were pitching like a top-of-the-rotation arm, the days of him netting an impact prospect are over.

Alas, Ray is not pitching like a top-of-the-rotation arm. Over seven starts this season, he has thrown 31 innings and allowed 27 runs (7.84 ERA), has struck out 43, and has walked an MLB-leading 31 batters. Ray has never been what you would call a control wizard. Out of 146 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 innings since he debuted in 2014, only two have walked a greater percentage of hitters than Ray (10.9%). He’d always been able to make that work, however, because he’s struck out the seventh-highest percentage of hitters (28.7%) in that span. That exorbitant strikeout rate has been steady, too — if his current rate holds, this would be his fourth-straight season striking out at least 12 batters per nine innings. Read the rest of this entry »

Luke Voit Is Having a Moment

To look at the New York Yankees roster, as is typically the case, is to gaze upon a dizzying number of potential star hitters. But as the last couple of seasons have shown us, the roster of players in the Yankees organization doesn’t often match up with the guys they actually have available to take the field. In 2019, the team had a large chunk of its starting rotation and lineup on the IL by the second week of the regular season, and the problem never got much better. Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius and others all missed substantial time during the season.

The injury bug has continued to bite them in 2020, with Stanton back on the IL alongside Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu while Judge only recently returned from missing time himself. In spite of all of this, the team has remained extremely competitive thanks to the contributions of role players who have consistently stepped into the spotlight. Last year it was Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman leading the charge in keeping the Yankees afloat. This year, the man stealing the spotlight is Luke Voit.

After appearing in 118 games for the Yankees last season, Voit has secured the job as the team’s starting first baseman in 2020. The longer he plays, the harder it is for the Yankees to justify handing his spot in the lineup over to someone else. Voit has seemed to get hotter each week he’s been on the field — over the Yankees’ first 14 games, he carried an OPS of .816. Over their next seven, he had an OPS of .945. Last week, he began to go berserk, going 8-for-20 over his last six games with six homers, three walks and three strikeouts.

He started his most recent tear by clubbing two homers in a game against the Red Sox last Monday: Read the rest of this entry »

It Is Time for Mike Trout To Be Less Patient

Folks, it brings me no pleasure to report that Mike Trout is broken.

Okay, I’m kidding. He’s still great at baseball. He owns a 138 wRC+ with 10 homers and a .309 ISO that is right in line with where he’s sat the last few seasons. Trout’s power output, specifically since the birth of his first child on July 30, has been the subject of many comments about his new “Dad Strength.” But when you hear people describe what it’s like to become a parent, you usually don’t encounter them saying they can suddenly knock the snot out of a baseball. They describe gaining other virtues, such as patience. In baseball, one can display patience by drawing walks. If we truly wished to go to the silly trouble of speculating on what a milestone in one’s personal life could do for their on-field abilities, the idea of a hitter being more relaxed in the batter’s box after he has been made wise and humble by fatherhood seems like a natural step to take. Read the rest of this entry »

Woeful Red Sox Help Phillies Patch League-Worst Bullpen

Nothing can deflate the excitement surrounding a hopeful contender like a leaky bullpen, but as is the case most years, several teams have encountered just that kind of luck in the opening weeks of the 2020 season. At various times, the relief corps of the Cubs, Reds, and Padres have all been a hurdle for those teams to overcome, rather than an asset assisting them in their playoff pursuits. As much as those units and others have struggled this season, however, no team’s group of relievers has made victories harder to achieve than that of the Phillies. Their bullpen ERA of 8.00 is the worst in baseball by more than two runs. Unsurprisingly, that has had a big impact on Philadelphia’s postseason hopes — at 10-14, the team is last in its division, and second-worst in the National League.

Instead of packing it in, however, the Phillies have dialed up some assistance from the last place team in the other league. Late Friday night, Philadelphia struck a deal to acquire right-handed relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for right-hander Nick Pivetta and minor league arm Connor Seabold. Boston also sent $815,000 in cash to complete the swap, assisting the Phillies in paying the $1.05 million owed to the two relievers for the rest of the season.

Of the pair heading to Philadelphia, Workman offers the most upside. A Tommy John survivor who was still spending significant time in the minors as recently as 2018, Workman broke out in 2019 with some truly elite numbers — a 1.88 ERA, 2.46 FIP, 2.1 WAR, and 13.06 K/9. When I examined him near the end of last season, I found he’d made a number of changes to his approach. He was suddenly throwing his curve nearly half of the time, and had found a way to to dramatically reduce the number of strikes he threw without suffering a noticeable drop in opponents’ swing rate. Read the rest of this entry »

James Karinchak Is Living Up To His Hype

It is uncommon for a player who has only pitched in relief to land within sniffing distance of a preseason top-100 prospect list. In his 2020 rankings, Eric Longenhagen identified a total of 43 pitchers, 42 of which have spent most if not all of their minor league careers as starters. Typically, just the threat that a pitcher could need to transition to the bullpen in the majors necessitates a substantial drop in his stock. Dodgers right-hander Brusdar Graterol, for example, dropped nearly 50 spots on Longenhagen’s list in the span of a year, partially due to the increased likelihood his big league career would be spent as a reliever.

All of which is to say that Cleveland’s James Karinchak is an anomaly. He was No. 115 on Longenhagen’s prospect list before the season started, two spots behind Graterol. Where he differs from Graterol — as well as others like Rays right-hander Shane Baz, who was ranked one spot behind Karinchak — is that there hasn’t been any real effort to have him start in some time. He appeared in 82 minor league games from 2017-19 and started just six, all of which came back in his first professional season. There is little precedent for someone inspiring such promise as a full-time reliever in the minors. Fittingly, there is also little precedent for the numbers Karinchak posted in his minor league career.

Karinchak made the Cleveland prospect list only in the “Other Prospects of Note” section before the 2019 season. At the time he was coming off a season in which he’d thrown 48.2 innings across three levels of the minors and allowed just nine runs while striking out 81 and walking 36. An injured hamstring delayed his first appearance last year, but when he finally got back on the mound, his numbers were something you couldn’t expect to replicate in a video game. Read the rest of this entry »