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How Mike Foltynewicz Got Himself NLDS-ready

It is some kind of fall to go from earning a top-10 finish in Cy Young voting to being demoted to the minors in just an 11-game span, but that is exactly what happened to Atlanta right-hander Mike Foltynewicz this summer. A 2.85 ERA, 3.37 FIP, and 3.8 WAR in 183 innings in 2018 led to an eighth-place Cy Young finish and set him up to become the ace that would guide this next generation of great Braves teams. Then this season got started, and Foltynewicz looked like a disaster.

He missed the first four weeks of the season due to a bone spur in his pitching elbow, and when he returned, he allowed a 6.37 ERA over his first 11 starts. Twice he allowed eight earned runs in fewer than five innings. He had two other starts in which he allowed five earned runs, and two others in which he allowed four. When Dallas Keuchel joined the rotation near the end of June, the choice for who would be the odd man out to make room for him was clear: Foltynewicz had to go.

That was just three months ago, but just as quickly as he lost all direction, Foltynewicz has re-established himself as a formidable starter. Since returning from the minors, he’s held opponents to a 2.65 ERA in 57.2 innings. Take away his first two starts, and he’s been even better: A 1.94 ERA since August 17 that ranks sixth-best in the majors. Even in a Braves rotation that looked very strong for much of the season, Foltynewicz has pitched well enough to just about lock himself in to start one of the first two games of the NLDS against the Cardinals. Without a doubt, it’s been an impressively quick return to form, but there are still a few questions surrounding how he stacks up against the rest of the Braves’ pitching staff as a playoff starter. Read the rest of this entry »

Díaz, Rays Slug Their Way to AL Wild Card Win Over A’s

In a postseason field dominated by the league’s foremost home run-hitting teams, the Tampa Bay Rays are one of a couple outliers. With 217 homers during the regular season, they ranked ninth out of the 10 playoff teams, and just 21st across all of baseball, one of just three playoff teams not to rank in baseball’s top eight in dinger-mashing prowess. But on Wednesday, they proved to be as capable as anyone of leaving the yard.

Yandy Díaz smashed a pair of solo homers, while Avisaíl García launched a two-run shot and Tommy Pham added a third, solo bomb as Tampa Bay silenced Oakland 5-1 in the American League Wild Card game at Oakland Coliseum. The Rays will face the World Series favorite Houston Astros in the ALDS beginning on Friday.

The home run heroics got started before many fans in Oakland were probably able to find their seats. Leading off the game, Díaz worked a 3-1 count against A’s starting pitcher Sean Manaea before getting a fastball high and outside, and hammered the pitch over the opposite field fence in right to push the Rays in front. Manaea settled in to strike out the next three hitters, but he wasn’t able to hold off further damage for long. He surrendered a leadoff single to Matt Duffy to start the second, and after falling behind García 2-1, attempted to even the count once more with another fastball out and over the plate. García punished it.

With an exit velocity of 115 mph, Garcia’s homer was the hardest-hit ball by a Rays player ever recorded by Statcast. And they were just getting started. Díaz made his second plate appearance of the game leading off the third inning, and made it look exactly like the first one. Read the rest of this entry »

This Isn’t the Same Eduardo Rodriguez

It’s tempting to look at Eduardo Rodriguez’s 3.94 FIP in 2019, nearly identical the 3.97 FIP he has for his career, and think that nothing has substantively changed. His strikeout, walk, and homer numbers are all similarly in line with his career rates too, while his BABIP allowed and HR/FB rates are actually up a tick or two from what you’d typically expect from him. Pick a surface stat, any surface stat, and you’ll say, “yep, that sure is an Eduardo Rodriguez season, alright.” And yet, it’s not a typical Eduardo Rodriguez season. It’s something better.

Now, I’ll confess, my timing for this story is a little off. Rodriguez’s most recent game line is an ugly one, as he allowed the Rangers to score seven runs on 11 hits against him on Tuesday. The seven runs allowed were his most since giving up seven runs to the Orioles on June 1, 2017, and the 11 hits allowed were a career high. That’s a bad outing by any measure, but it was severely exacerbated by some goofy BABIP luck. In five innings, Rodriguez struck out six and walked three while allowing one homer — not great, but not necessarily numbers that would make you think he was about to give up seven runs. Opponents hit .556 on balls in play, however, which is how he ultimately ended up with a line as bad as this.

Why am I bothering to try and meekly defend an unarguably terrible outing in a game played by two teams out of the playoff race in the final week of the season? Because I need you to believe me when I tell you that before Tuesday’s debacle, Rodgriguez had been very, very good over this final quarter of the season. In his previous seven starts, he had allowed a mere five earned runs in 45 innings, striking out 54 while walking 14 and allowing just one home run. His 1.00 ERA in that stretch led all of MLB, while his 2.24 FIP ranked fourth. After Tuesday, his ERA dropped to the 11th best in baseball since August 17, but his FIP remains seventh. Read the rest of this entry »

The Brewers Have Defied The Odds

All season, the Milwaukee Brewers were a band propped up by a stud lead guitarist. The drummer was often off-beat, the singer was pitchy, the rhythm guitarist was clearly only in the band because he was the singer’s kid brother, and the bass player was … well actually, the bass player was pretty sweet, too. But man, could that lead guitar shred. He was the reason the band could book any gig in town, the standout performer every night. His name was Christian Yelich, and on September 10, he fell off the stage — or rather, he fouled a pitch off his kneecap, and suffered a season-ending fracture. As Jay Jaffe wrote at the time, the injury dampened what were already somewhat long playoff odds for the Brewers. But the band pressed on, undeterred by the loss of their star. And lo and behold, they’ve sounded incredible.

On September 5, our playoff odds put Milwaukee’s chances of reaching the postseason at just 5.6%. Those were worse odds than in-division rivals St. Louis and Chicago, and also put them at lower Wild Card odds than New York and Arizona. They won five straight games before losing Yelich, but that still only raised their chances to 25%. Yelich had already accumulated 7.8 WAR, and was in excellent position to win a second-straight MVP award, and he fell out of the picture. Without him, the Brewers had just one other 4 WAR player, and just six 2 WAR players. That lack of starter-quality depth placed them in the back half of all the teams in baseball.

Every team with fewer 2 WAR players than the Brewers has been firmly out of the playoff race for weeks, and a number of teams in front of them — including Boston, Pittsburgh and San Diego — have been out of the race for a while as well. No contender was more poorly equipped to lose a star player for final month of the season than Milwaukee. At least, that was the way it appeared.

That five-game win streak the Brewers were riding when Yelich hit the IL? It ultimately turned into seven games. They finally lost in St. Louis, but rattled off four more wins after that. Then came another loss, this time at San Diego, followed by four more victories. Overall, the Brewers are 15-2 since September 6. In that time, they’ve raised their playoff odds from 5.6% to 97.1%. It’s one of the best runs any team has put together this season, and given the circumstances, it’s come from one of the last teams one would expect.

A portion of the Brewers’ success can certainly be credited to the competition they’ve faced over this stretch. Of their last 17 games, 11 have come against the Marlins, Padres and Pirates. September is a very fortunate time to run into two last place teams and a third non-contender, but to be fair, the Brewers pushed them around exactly the way they should have. They won 10 of those 11 matchups, outscoring their hapless opponents by a jaw-dropping 60-23 margin. Playoff teams are supposed to look dominant against inferior competition, and that’s exactly what Milwaukee was. Their recent hot streak also included three wins in a row over the Cubs and two victories in three games over the Cardinals, the two most direct obstacles to their postseason hopes. Read the rest of this entry »

The Nationals’ Secret Weapon

In a way, it’s a surprise Howie Kendrick is still playing in the majors. Last year, at 35 years old, he ruptured his Achilles tendon in a May 19 game against the Dodgers, ending his season after just 40 games. It was the second straight season in which Kendrick failed to play 100 games and the third straight year in which he came up short of 2 WAR. The Washington Nationals, meanwhile, had a fairly deep group of position players and had their eyes set on yet another postseason appearance. It would have made sense for both parties to agree to part ways. I’m not sure either foresaw a bounce-back season like the one Kendrick has put together in 2019.

Kendrick is hitting .343/.393/.577 with 16 homers in 113 games, good for a wRC+ of 146. His 2.8 WAR is the highest total he’s posted in any season since leaving the Angels after 2014. Nearly every other category is either a career-best or very close to it.

Howie Kendrick 2019 vs. career
Statistic 2019 Value Career Average
AVG .343 .294
OBP .393 .337
SLG .577 .430
HR 16 8.3
ISO .234 .137
BB% 7.2% 5.4%
K% 13.3% 17.2%
wRC+ 146 109

That’s only the beginning of the story of how good Kendrick has been. Statcast places him in the 94th percentile in baseball in exit velocity, the 100th percentile in xBA, and the 98th percentile in hard hit percentage, xwOBA, and xSLG. He is the only player in the majors with at least 50 batted ball events who ranks in the top 10 in xBA, xSLG, xwOBA, and hard hit percentage. By those metrics, Kendrick has actually underperformed his expected outcomes this season, with his .604 xSLG soundly outpacing his .577 SLG and his .422 xwOBA well in front of his actual wOBA of .406. Read the rest of this entry »

Another Pirates Rookie Sneaks into Batting Title Race

If the batting title race is the one you’re paying attention to in the National League over the next couple of weeks, you’re probably cheating yourself. The NL Central division race and wild card races are both still compelling, and Anthony Rendon has turned the MVP conversation into a legitimate three-man competition, emerging as a worthy challenger to Cody Bellinger while Christian Yelich’s season has prematurely ended. Additionally, the idea of crowning someone “batting champion” for finishing first in just one offensive category is a little bit silly. But if you are zeroing in on this sort of thing in September, chances are you’ve gotten a glimpse of something the average baseball fan very likely hasn’t: that Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Kevin Newman has absolutely caught fire over this final stretch.

Newman, a 25-year-old rookie, has spent the last three weeks doing nothing but terrorize opponents. In his last 90 plate appearances, he’s hitting .420/.478/.654 with six doubles, two triples, and three homers. His 196 wRC+ in that time trails only Eugenio Suarez, Rendon, and Ketel Marte in the National League, and it’s brought his season batting line up to .317/.363/.451 and his season WAR to 2.4. He’s now sixth in the NL in batting average, 15 points behind league-leader Rendon. Is that gap surmountable with just 11 games left to play in the Pirates’ season? Almost certainly not. But it’s still gives us a good excuse to talk about Newman’s quietly productive year.

Newman made his MLB debut in 2018 but did not produce encouraging results. He hit .209/.247/.231 over 97 plate appearances, good (?) for a wRC+ of just 28. Over the last offseason, Eric and Kiley ranked him just the 13th-best prospect in the Pirates system — partially because of his age (he ranked as highly as fifth just two years before), partially because of his lackluster debut, and partially because he just wasn’t seen as having that high of a ceiling. He had good contact rates and was serviceable in the field, but he had no power to speak of and didn’t have any other outstanding tools to make up for that. Read the rest of this entry »

It Sure Seems Like Dallas Keuchel Was Worth The Investment

Dallas Keuchel wasn’t supposed to still be on the market when the Winter Meetings commenced in December. He certainly wasn’t supposed to still be there as the calendar turned to 2019, and it was completely unthinkable that he would still be available at the start of Spring Training. It is only through the dark alchemy of a ghoulish lack of shame and self-awareness on the part of team owners mixing with Keuchel’s demands that he was still available after the conclusion of the Amateur Player Draft, but there he was, still waiting for a phone call from his agent, telling him a professional baseball franchise had made him a reasonable contract offer. That call finally came on June 7, when the Atlanta Braves signed Keuchel to a one-year, $13-million deal, which by that point was more of a three-and-a-half-month deal. At the very start of the free agency period, Kiley McDaniel predicted Keuchel would receive four years and $84 million on the open market. Instead, he couldn’t even secure a multi-year commitment.

Keuchel wasn’t the only player who endured this kind of unexpected wait. Former Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel signed just one day before Keuchel, inking a three-year deal with the Chicago Cubs. Kimbrel’s season has been a disaster so far, with the 31-year-old holding a 5.68 ERA and 6.63 FIP in 19 innings. Keuchel, on the other hand, hardly missed a beat. In 16 starts after getting a late start in Atlanta, Keuchel owns an ERA of 3.35, with a FIP of 4.39 and an xFIP of 3.87. He leads the majors with a 61.5% groundball rate (min. 90 IP), with second-place Dakota Hudson well behind him at 57.2%. Of those 16 starts, 13 have ended with Keuchel surrendering three earned runs or fewer. He was pretty reliable in his first few games of the season, but after a brief blow-up in Miami of all places, he’s been totally lights-out.

In a 3.2-inning appearance against the Marlins on August 8, Keuchel allowed eight runs on 10 hits, including three homers. His ERA jumped from 3.86 to 4.83 that evening, and at the time, it seemed like it might be a sign of real danger for the 31-year-old southpaw and the rest of the Braves’ pitching staff. While his ERA had been fairly solid coming into that appearance, his 4.74 FIP was still a distressing reminder of the kind of pitcher Keuchel was, and the risk he poses. He wasn’t missing a lot of bats, with his K/9 sitting at just 6.75. Meanwhile, he had a BB/9 above 3.0 for what would have been the first time since 2012, and he was allowing a career-high HR/FB rate of 24%. Keuchel has consistently overcome low strikeout totals throughout his career thanks to excellent command, but suddenly, he was throwing strikes much less often than he used to (32% zone rate in 2019 vs. 38.6% for his career), and he was much easier to leave the yard against, even if the juiced ball has made preventing homers more difficult for everybody. That night in Miami could have altered Keuchel’s entire season, and damaged his future earning potential even further.

But that isn’t what happened. Keuchel has bounced back from getting torched in Miami to post his most dominant six-game run in years. Read the rest of this entry »

Sean Doolittle’s High-Stakes Fight Against Pressure and Time

Sean Doolittle threw 10 pitches to Billy Hamilton on Saturday. Every one of them was a fastball, and all but one of them were in the upper third of the strike zone or higher. That’s what Doolittle does. No one in baseball throws a higher rate of fastballs than Doolittle’s 89.2%, and no one throws a higher rate of them in the upper third of the zone or higher than his 54.2%. He wears hitters out there, and that’s what he did to Hamilton. After a lengthy battle, the Braves’ new speedster didn’t have enough in the tank to get a piece of this last pitch.

That was a good outing for Doolittle. He retired all three hitters he faced, two of them on strikeouts. Even though Washington failed to rally in the top of the ninth, losing 5-4 to Atlanta, that kind of inning might have left a few Nationals fans feeling a bit more encouraged about their team’s overall outlook than they did before the game. That’s because recently, a dominant inning of work from Doolittle has no longer been the near-guarantee it used to be.

From 2017-18, Doolittle was incomprehensibly great. He threw 96.1 innings between Oakland and Washington and held a 2.24 ERA with a 2.27 FIP. He struck out 122 batters while walking 16. In terms of the game’s elite relievers, Doolittle was practically without equal. But this season, he hasn’t packed nearly the same punch. His ERA is 4.09, and his FIP is 4.23. His xFIP, which was a jaw-dropping 2.68 just last year, is now 5.05. He’s striking out two fewer batters per nine innings and issuing walks at his highest rate since 2015. After allowing just eight homers over the previous two seasons combined, he’s surrendered 10 this season. Read the rest of this entry »

A Moment of Appreciation for Wilson Ramos’ Hit Streak

On August 3, Wilson Ramos put the New York Mets on his back. They were facing the Pittsburgh Pirates one day after the Bucs snapped New York’s seven-game win streak, and they were on a mission to begin a new streak with a series-knotting victory. Ramos got the Mets off to a hot start with an RBI single in the first, but the Pirates answered with two runs in the bottom of the inning to take the lead. Pittsburgh maintained a one-run lead into the top of the eighth, until Ramos unleashed a two-run homer to put the Mets back in front. He got another big opportunity with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth, and again, he came up huge, sending a double to deep right field that scored all three runs. He finished the day 4-for-5 with a career-high six RBIs, and the Mets needed just about all of them, narrowly holding on to beat Pittsburgh, 7-5.

Indeed, that victory kicked off another long run of winning for the Mets, who won each of their next seven games after that performance, giving them 15 victories in 16 games overall. It also, however, began an even longer streak for Ramos. After that game, he hit safely in 26 straight games. That’s the longest hit streak since Whit Merrifield hit safely in 31 straight games from September 10, 2018, to April 10 of this year. In terms of single-season hit streaks, it’s the longest since Freddie Freeman’s 30-game streak near the end of the 2016 season. No one else who has begun a hitting streak in 2019 has maintained one for more than 19 games.

That hit streak came to an end on Wednesday, with Ramos going 0-for-4 against his former club, the Washington Nationals. He did draw a walk in his first plate appearance, which keeps his streak of reaching base alive at 27 games. That designation is less unique — including Ramos, there have been 17 instances in 2019 in which a player has reached base in at least 27 straight games. Jorge Polanco owns the longest such streak, reaching base in 37 straight games from May 13 to June 25. Mike Trout has two such streaks this season; one of 29 games, the other of 28. On-base streaks, however, are definitively easier to pull off than hit streaks. After all, reaching base can involve any of a hit, a walk, or a hit-by-pitch, while a hit streak specifically requires one of those to stay alive. Since 2009, there have been a total of 21 hit streaks of at least 25 games. There have been 21 on-base streaks of at least 25 games in 2019 alone. Read the rest of this entry »

Max Fried Has Raised His Ceiling

Last Thursday, Max Fried turned in six of the best innings of his young career. Sure, it was against the Chicago White Sox, who are decisively not good at hitting baseballs right now, but still, Fried was dominant. He sat down each of the first 13 hitters he faced, striking out eight of them. Then Eloy Jiménez reached on a softly hit infield single down the third-base line and scored two batters later on a double by Adam Engel. But Fried bounced right back with a scoreless sixth, striking out two more to bring his total for the day to 11. He waved four batters with a curveball, four with a slider, and three with a fastball. After one of them, he made this face.

Folks, I have never looked at anyone like that in my life. Mostly because I have never fired a 97 mph fastball past Tim Anderson, or accomplished anything else that would fill me with a similar rush of adrenaline and personal gratification. Maybe if I really think I did a great job writing this post, I’ll feel so good about it that I’ll slam my laptop shut, strut away from the couch, and make this face at my girlfriend. Probably not, but we’ll see how these next few hundred words go. Might be worth a try. Point is, Fried was feeling himself, and I don’t blame him.

Then it all went away. Jiménez singled again on the first pitch of the seventh inning, this time hitting a 105-mph line drive to right. Then Fried let a 1-2 breaker run in and hit James McCann, and then Yolmer Sanchez reached on an error at first base. After that, Fried was out of the game, and two batters later, he watched Braves reliever Luke Jackson surrender a three-run homer to Welington Castillo, scoring all of the runners he inherited. After allowing just one run on three hits and a walk in his first six innings, Fried allowed all three hitters he faced in the seventh reach, and each one subsequently scored, messing up what had been a very strong performance. Read the rest of this entry »